Category Archives: Books

A Graphic Handmaid’s Tale

I bought a new wallet and while cleaning out my old one discovered a bookstore gift card that hadn’t been used. I decided to splurge on the hardcover graphic novel version of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale with art by Renee Nault.

I’ve read the original The Handmaid’s Tale four or five times, seen the movie, have attended a Royal Winnipeg Ballet performance of the story, and have watched the first season of the television series based on the book. That makes it hard to assess whether the graphic novel would have given me a good understanding of the plot if I was reading it for the first time.  I certainly wouldn’t have enjoyed the graphic novel version nearly as much if I hadn’t recently taken a workshop with David Robertson where I learned about the kinds of details to look for and appreciate in a graphic novel. 

That being said, the graphic novel version of the book was for me a powerful retelling of a familiar story.  The scenes in the present are illustrated primarily in stark black, white, red and grey colors contrasted by soft full-color illustrations of the past. The most violent scenes in the novel are portrayed in full-page spreads without text, the individual panels in slanted frames juxtapositioned erratically and drawn in an edgy way that clearly makes you understand the fast and furious nature of the action. I was pleased that the text consisted of words drawn directly from the novel. Many scenes from the novel are enhanced and have added meaning because of the illustrations. One example is when the commander and Offred are playing Scrabble and you can see every word on the board, each rife with meaning. 

It was interesting to learn that the graphic novel was actually planned for release years ago, but an injury to artist Renee Nault’s hand slowed down the process. This probably worked in favor of the graphic novel’s success because The Handmaid’s Tale has exploded in popularity in the last while thanks to the scary rise of religious fundamentalism in the United States that resulted in the election of Donald Trump. It is exactly such a scenario that Margaret Atwood describes in her novel and is why the red dress and white bonnet the women in The Handmaid’s Tale wear has become an international symbol for the oppression of women. 

Margaret Atwood’s sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale is coming this fall. It is entitled The Testaments. Reading the graphic novel version was a good way to review the first book’s content in a new, popular and unique format as I  await the story’s next installment. 

Other posts…….

Thoughts on the Royal Winnipeg Ballet’s Performance of The Handmaid’s Tale

I Could Cry I’m So Happy To Be Canadian


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A Graphic Novel with A Powerful Story

 I was enthusiastically telling my sister about attending David Robertson’s workshop on the graphic novel. Turns out my sister had just been at a lecture on memoir writing given by Kathleen Venema.  Kathleen had suggested they read a memoir in the graphic novel form called Tangles.  So I bought it. What a powerful story!  Sarah Leavitt uses simple pictures and words to describe her family’s journey after her mother is diagnosed with early onset Alzheimers. Some of it isn’t easy to read or view. Sarah’s family was close but now she and her sister and her Dad are forced into an intimate closeness and care for their wife and mother that crosses boundaries they never wanted to cross.  Sarah tells us a great deal about growing up in a vibrant, protective, loving home filled with books. Her Mom was endlessly supportive of her and now she has to support her Mom.  It’s tough. 

Of course, there is conflict and drama and guilt but also beauty in Sarah’s story. There’s a marvelous page in Tangles where Sarah and her Mom Midge and her sister Hannah get caught in a thunderstorm and for just for a moment Alzheimer’s is a gift because their mother’s lack of inhibition and worry provides a freeing and joyful experience for the three of them. 

Sarah’s book takes us all the way to her mother’s death.  There are these incredibly moving scenes where Sarah wraps herself in a special shawl she gave her Mom. It is dark blue like the night sky and dotted with stars.  With the shawl over her head, Sarah says the Kaddish for her mother every day. It is a special Jewish prayer that acknowledges a person had good parents who instilled in them a faith so strong they will be able to overcome their grief. 

If you haven’t tried reading a graphic novel before I hope you won’t let that stop you from reading Tangles because Sarah uses the graphic novel form to good effect to tell a story that will resonate with many families.

Other posts……….

The Things We Keep

Feeding My Mother

A Listening Love


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Finding Father

Reading the personal essays in  Finding Father edited by Mary Ann Loewen was a bit like paging through a photograph album filled with intimate snapshots. Each of the thirteen Mennonite women who have written reflective memoirs for the book includes vivid and moving descriptions of small scenes from their relationship with their fathers that have left deep impressions.

Elsie Neufeld standing behind her father’s chair at dinner and playing with his hair, sliding the gray strands through her fingers and measuring their length.

Maggie Dyck’s father carefully going through each new issue of National Geographic and meticulously covering up any bare breasts in the photos with Band-Aids before his impressionable daughter looks at the magazine. 

Carrie Snyder watching the juice drip down her Dad’s arms while he eats peaches at the border because he is too stubborn to turn them over to the customs agent who won’t allow him to take Canadian fruit into the United States.

The moment Rebecca Plett finally pushes the words, “I’m gay” out of her mouth and her father who has always been reticent about physical contact rises from his chair and puts his arms around her.

Cari Penner watching her Dad get ready for work in the morning, patting his face with a bristle brush full of white shaving cream and then carefully scraping it clean with his razor.

Lynda Loewen crying as her often emotionally unavailable father lies on an ambulance stretcher after a fainting episode and then reaches up a thumb to gently wipe away her tears.

Magdelene Redekopp refers to these memorable scenes from her life with her Dad as beads on a string, each a different color.  I found myself creating a necklace of sorts as well while I read the book recalling scenes from my own life with my now 90-year-old Dad. 

I savored each story in Finding Father, especially since I know about half the women in the book in a variety of ways, and most of the writers are around my age.  It was fascinating to learn more about their childhoods and family life. Finding Father made me think about how interesting it would be to read the stories of Mennonite women my children’s age or even younger, raised in urban settings. How would their reflections on their fathers’ lives be different? 

I can highly recommend Finding Father. It affirmed something I’ve come to realize lately. The journey towards finding out who your father really is, or was, never ends.

Other posts…………. 

Sons and Mothers

Good-Bye Dad

90 Years


Filed under Books, Family

Top Ten Pieces of Writing Advice From David Robertson

David Robertson writes everything! I recently read an opinion piece he’d written for the CBC. Several weeks ago I attended a workshop where he explained how he writes his graphic novels.  David is the author of a biography of Helen Betty Osborne and in 2017 his children’s picture book When We Were Alone won a Governor General’s Literary Award.  The latest novel in his young adult trilogy The Reckoners just hit bookstands and in 2014 he released an adult novel called The Evolution of AliceListening to writer David Robertson talk about the projects he’s completed and the current projects he has in the works at the recent CANSCAIP Saskatchewan Horizons conference was a little overwhelming. How does he do it all?  And don’t forget he has five children. Then there are all the speaking engagements and school visits and ……… he still has a full-time job besides all of that.  And did I mention I recently started following Dave on social media where he has a prolific presence? 

Dave was part of the Vision and Voice panel at the CANSCAIP conference along with Arthur Slade and Miriam Korner

At the conference, we heard Dave speak three times.  He was part of a Vision and Voice panel, he was interviewed by children’s writer Alice Kuipers and he presented the keynote address.  

Dave gives his keynote address.

We learned a lot about Dave and his family, during those sessions but he also gave us some great advice to help us with our writing. I’ve pulled out things he said in his various presentations at the conference and compiled them into my own top ten list.  

1.  Serious writers work on their writing regularly.  It’s a  habit. They schedule a time to write into every day. They put it on their calendar like it’s an important meeting they must attend. 

2. Writing new stuff should take up about 20% of your time. Editing, revising, going through your works in progress line by line will take about 80% of your time. Your first draft is just a big blob of clay that you will constantly shape and reshape. You will never think you have edited and revised enough, but eventually, the book will have to go to publication.  

3. It can be helpful to establish a quota for yourself.  You might set a goal to write 1250 words a day on a new project and edit two chapters a day of a work in progress. 

4. Read widely. The more kinds of books you read the easier it will be for you to find your own voice. You can integrate the style of the writers you read into your own work. 

5.  When you are determining what you want to write ask yourself  …..What’s been done?  What hasn’t been done? What gaps are there in writing for children that I might fill? 

6. Write across the genres. Writing different kinds of children’s literature- picture books, graphic novels, middle-grade novels, early reader books, autobiographies, poetry- helps you develop all kinds of new skills as a writer.  It gets you out of your comfort zone.

7. Give thought to what you want to accomplish with your work. Always write from a place of passion. What is it you want to do to change the world? 

8.  Don’t forget to be good to yourself. Writing can be mentally and physically exhausting.

9. Although you may have to write in all kinds of places to get your work done, have a familiar home base for your writing. You might want to pick certain music to play, set the mood with a certain kind of lighting, or even wear certain clothes to write. 

10. Stories never die. They come to life as soon as they leave our mouths. The stories you write should encourage kids to tell their own stories. Stories are our life!

Dave is interviewed by Alice Kuipers

This is just my list- but hearing Dave tell the stories that illustrated each of the points he made was so engaging and interesting.  You can order a video that shows him doing that here. 

Other posts………

Writing that Heals

Timing and Luck

Vision and Voice

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Timing and Luck

Timing and Luck!  Those are two key elements in getting a children’s book published today according to editor Shelley Tanaka.  

Shelley knows what she’s talking about because timing and luck are how she got into the book editing business. After completing her Masters in Comparative Literature at the University of Toronto she applied to fifty publishers for a job and was given only one offer- to work as a secretary at Clarke Irwin an educational publisher. She had to fill in when the editor in chief position was left empty and so she learned the business and became a children’s book editor in her own right.

In her thirty-six years as an editor at Groundwood Books, she has worked with some of Canada’s finest children’s writers. Shelley is also an award-winning author of more than twenty books and teaches in the masters writing program for children and young adults at the Vermont College of Fine Arts.  I heard Shelley interviewed by children’s writer Alice Kuipers at the CANSCAIP Saskatchewan Horizons Conference in Saskatoon.  

Alice asked Shelley what she is looking for when she reads a new manuscript. “Something that isn’t like anything else,” Shelley said.  She is drawn to books that are wonderfully written, and are about something that matters, books that ask important questions. Shelley has a soft spot for manuscripts that are quirky and humorous with hints of irony.

She gave examples of two books she has recently edited whose authors were in attendance at the Saskatoon conference. Rolli is the author of Kabungo.  Shelley described his book about the relationship between a modern city girl and her cave dwelling best friend as hilarious and weird. Another book Shelley talked about was  Swan Dive by Brenda Hasiuk, the story of a young refugee from Bosnia who is living in Winnipeg.  He tells a reckless lie and has to face the consequences. 

Shelley encouraged those of us who are trying to get our work published to read the kind of works we aspire to write ourselves. She talked about the value of critique groups where writers support one another. Shelley also recommended two lectures by Louise Hawes to us. One was on overwriting and the other on how desire drives the plot of our stories.  

Other suggestions from Shelley for writers included………..

  • becoming your own editor and learning the mechanics of writing. 
  • becoming an enthusiastic advocate for your own work. 
  • putting your soul into your writing.  
  • considering who your audience is. Who is on the receiving end of your book?  Who is your reader? 
  • writing across the genres – picture books, middle-grade fiction, non-fiction, graphic novels, teen fiction, young adult fiction, early reader stories.  

Alice engaged Shelley in a fascinating discussion about psychic distance and the current generation of writers who are capturing the stories of previous generations.  You can learn more about that by subscribing to the videos of the conference here. 

Although Shelley did say timing and luck were two of the key ingredients in getting your work accepted in the current competitive mainstream children’s book market, she also provided lots of other great ideas to help pursue the goal of becoming a published author. 

Other posts……….

Write Don’t Wine

Vision and Voice

Writing that Heal


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Writing As A Healing Art

Did you know that writing in a journal can lower your heart rate and blood pressure, increase your pain tolerance, help you sleep better, give you self-confidence and make you more empathetic? My second day at the CANSCAIP, Saskatchewan Horizons conference for children’s writers started with a journaling session led by Kristine Scarrow.

Photo of Kristine from her author website

Kristine is not only the author of four novels for teens published by Dundurn Press she is also a writer in residence at St. Paul’s Hospital in Saskatoon where she is part of a team that provides services in the healing arts to patients. She works alongside visual artists and music therapists. You can find out more about that program here. 

I learned a new term from Kristine’s presentation ‘narrative medicine’. It is an approach that uses people’s narratives or stories in clinical practice, research and education as a way to promote healing. Kristine told us a narrative medical approach can help doctors to understand their patient’s whole story and not just their symptoms. 

Kristine led us through several healing writing exercises.  One was called Captured Moment where we wrote a short journal entry about a happy, sad or challenging moment in our lives. Kristine encouraged us to use lots of sensory details.  

Another writing prompt was the Character Sketch, where we described ourselves or someone else. It could be someone we admired or liked but it could also be someone that was a difficult presence in our life.

Finally, we did a journal entry called Perspective.  We thought about something that we hoped would happen, or we knew would happen, in the future and wrote about it as if we were already in that future moment. Kristine told us she used this technique to give her perspective when a heart condition had her bedridden for months.  She imagined a future when her life would return to more normalcy and that helped put her situation into perspective. 

Although I have used writing as a tool to help me through some of the most difficult periods of my life, it was great to get Kristine’s ideas for some new healing ways to journal and to learn how the arts are becoming recognized tools for healing by the medical community. Kristine’s workshop provided a nice contemplative beginning to what was going to be a jam-packed day full of learning and networking at the conference. 

Other posts……….

Writing is the Way I Think and Remember

A Pool of Possibilities in Our Own Back Yard

Keeping a Record

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Vision and Voice

Arthur Slade, David Robertson, and Miriam Körner are some of the most successful children’s writers in Canada right now.  Between them, they have published a raft of books and have won all kinds of awards.  I listened to them last night as they shared their vision and voice in a discussion at a Saskatoon conference for children’s writers. Their exchange of ideas was led by Alice Kuipers a children’s writer who helped to organize the conference. 

Arthur and David listen as Miriam talks about her writing motivation

It was interesting to note what motivates each writer. Miriam is passionate about Canada’s north and loves sled dogs and sled dog racing.  In her books, she is trying to share that passion with others.  

Arthur told us his latest book Crimson was written especially for his daughter who he and his wife adopted from China in 2010. He wanted to create an authentic story for her.

David talked about trying to be an example for young indigenous writers. He wants them to feel that they too have powerful stories they can share. 

As you can see the discussion wasn’t all serious. Alice and her panelists were having a good time.

When Alice asked each writer to talk about how they present themselves to the world Miriam laughed and said she would rather not have to think about presenting herself to the public.  She wishes her books would speak for themselves and she could just spend all her time in her cabin in the bush in La Ronge Saskatchewan with her husband and sixteen sled dogs.  

Arthur talked about the persona he needs to maintain on social media and how it is hard to balance the work that involves, with his need to find space and time for writing.

David shared his thoughts about wanting to present himself as an indigenous writer. He hasn’t always embraced that role but realizes there are many things Canadians need to know about his culture.

Why does each author choose to write for young people rather than adults?

Miriam writes books for young teens because she thinks that is such a crucial time in their lives when everything begins to change for them and the world they had taken for granted suddenly looks so different. Many young people believe they can change the world and Miriam wants to capture those youthful voices in her writing.

Arthur told us he fell into writing for kids accidentally.  He was writing adult novels and someone evaluating one of his manuscripts told him it would be a great teen or young adult novel.

David says he writes for kids because he wants to have some input into shaping the children who will be our leaders of tomorrow.  He thinks about what he wants young people to carry with them so they can create a different reality for our country and the world. What will his books teach them?

The Vision and Voice panel was a great way to kick off the conference and really got attendees thinking about their own motivations, public persona and why they have chosen to write for young people.  

Other posts……….

Reading Pictures

A Top Ten List From a Top Notch Speaker

Writers All Around

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