I have already written about the inspirational keynote address Margriet Ruurs gave at the recent Prairie Horizons Conference for children’s writers. She also did an interview with writer Alice Kuipers. Here are ten things I learned from Margriet during the conference that I want to remember as I continue to write for children.
1. Possibilities for stories are everywhere. “There are so many books out there just waiting for you to write them. Stay curious. Keep your eyes, ears and mind open and it will take a lifetime to run out of things to write about.”Margriet told us she has lined notebooks where she collects ideas.
2. While it is important for children’s books toaddress pressing social issues we need fun and silly books too, books brimming with happiness that aren’t filled with hidden messages and meanings. Margriet says about 90% of the books she reviews are issue-based.
3. The first draft of a book is often the easiest to write. It is easier to cut words from your manuscript than it is to add them. Sometimes editing can take years.
4. In order to keep publishing it seems best to have more than one project on the go at a time. Margriet is often working on five or six projects.
5. Doing extensive research is important even for fiction and poetry. Search for information on many different websites and look carefully at the source of the information to be sure it is authentic and trustworthy. Margriet said one of her books took seven years to research.
6. Ultimately you are not selling your book to kids but to the adults who are going to buy the book for them.
7. Most publishers expect you to have a social media presence and to promote your book online. Since Margriet has not been able to travel or do author visits in person during the pandemic she has used the time to work on her website. She keeps a blog about her travels.
8. Being stubborn is a valuable trait in a writer because you will get lots of rejections. Margriet has written more than a hundred children’s stories and only forty of them have been published. She talked about a binder of rejected manuscripts. On its spine, are the words, “Only those who persist are published.”
9. Being a children’s author takes lots of courage. Margriet says you need to give yourself a prize every time you submit a book because it means you have been brave. She admitted she has some manuscripts she is scared to submit.
10. You can’t count on your past track record as a children’s author. Every piece you submit has to have legs of its own. It is never easy to get published. The rejections won’t magically stop so you have to really believe in your story.
I bought the book Stepping Stones as a gift for my grandchildren recently. Their mother is a physician in Saskatoon and part of her job is working in a clinic for refugees. I thought Stepping Stones, which tells the story of the immigration journey of a Syrian refugee girl named Rama, would help my grandchildren gain a greater understanding of the importance of the work their mother does. My oldest grandson is very artistic and I knew he would be intrigued by the beautiful illustrations in Stepping Stones that were made with rocks.
I am almost embarrassed to admit that at the time I bought Stepping Stones I didn’t even look at who the author of the book was or learn anything about its story.
Then last weekend I attended the Prairie Horizons conference for children’s authors. Normally it is held in Saskatoon but this year it was online. The keynote speaker was none other than Margriet Ruurs the author of Stepping Stones and she told us the story of the book.
Margriet has written and published some forty books for children. She lives on Salt Spring Island in British Columbia but has travelled the world. Margriet was on Facebook one day and came across the work of a Syrian artist named Nizar Ali Badr. She was fascinated with his beautiful creations that were made from rocks he collected from a beach near his home. As he finished each piece of art he took a photo of it with his camera.
Margriet wondered if she could use his art to illustrate a story about a refugee family. You can imagine the energy and persistence it took for Margriet to connect with an artist who lived across the world and didn’t speak the same language, make arrangements to use his artwork, write a story that dovetailed with his pictures, and convince a publisher to take on the book. At the conference, she explained it all in fascinating detail and you can get an idea of the process from this CBC videoor from this page on the Orca Publishers site.
What is even more fascinating is what has happened with the book since it was published in 2016. Stepping Stones has won a bevvy of awards and has been translated into many different languages. Margriet decided to donate her share of the royalties from the book to organizations that help refugees, and that as well as other efforts initiated as a result of the publication of Stepping Stones has raised more than $100,000 so far. The book has solicited countless accolades including an endorsement from the Pope.
At the conference, Margriet also told the story of two of her other books The Elephant Keeper and My Librarian Is A Camel. The publication of both has been instrumental in raising support and awareness for important environmental and literacy endeavours. Her stories about these books were riveting and by the time Margriet was finished her keynote address at the conference I was in tears.
Margriet told us that a book is a dream we hold in our hand. An author never knows when they write a book what can happen with it, what the book can do to make people’s dreams come true, how a children’s book we write might play an important role in changing the world.
Now I can hardly wait till the pandemic is over and I can visit my grandchildren in Saskatoon again so we can read Stepping Stones togetherand I can tell them all about the story of Margriet’s book. I wouldn’t be surprised if a few more of Margriet’s stories didn’t find their way into the Grandma bag of books that always comes along on my visits.
Yesterday I gave a talk to a church group about how the various things I’ve written in my life have taught me ten valuable things. I gave examples from my own writing for each one.
1. The world is full of fascinating people with interesting stories to tell.
As a writer, I have had the opportunity to interview NBA basketball players, politicians, politician’s partners, Hutterites, peace advocates, Olympic medalists, airline pilots, Buddhist monks, teachers and women who served as maids for Winnipeg’s wealthy in the early 1900s. These stories about interesting people were published in the Winnipeg Free Press, on travel blogs, in magazines and in my regular column in The Carillon.
2. Teamwork is important.
My novel Lost on the Prairie would not be coming out if it wasn’t for my wonderful editor Nandini Thaker and designer Jacqui Thomas who worked so hard with me to create a book I can be proud of.
3.Criticism can be very helpful.
When I wrote for the Faith Page of The Winnipeg Free Press I received many letters that criticized what I had written. It forced me to think carefully about what I believed, to learn to express myself clearly and taught me to be very humble.
4. Look at the world through the eyes of children.
Trying to see things as a child would can open up new perspectives and help you see things in entirely new and meaningful ways. I had to look at things from a child’s point of view when I wrote curriculum materials for children. I had to try to see the world through the eyes of a 12 year old boy when I wrote my novel.
5. Writing helps you get through difficult experiences
Writing about difficult life experiences like my mother’s death or how our family survived the tsunami in Phuket, or how I dealt with the foster care system as a teacher helped me process those experiences and deal with them.
6. The Bible may be an old book but it still has things to teach us.
That’s a truth I’ve discovered when I write sermons or devotionals for an annual meditation magazine.
7. Look for the positive.
I have had quite a number of my stories published in Chicken Soup for the Soul anthologies and when you write those kinds of stories you have to look for the silver lining, for what is good and positive in life.
8.I can speak up about important issues.
I have noticed that particularly recently I have been using my newspaper columns in The Carillon to speak up about issues that are important to me and that I think society should address.
9. We are all connected.
Writing my daily blog has certainly proved this. Via a blog post I’ve reconnected with a childhood friend, my former students, connected with an employee of the British Supreme Court, connected with the writer of a film textbook and many others.
10. Being a life -long learneris rewarding.
My writing assignments have taught me about so many different subjects many I would probably never have explored if I hadn’t been assigned to write about them.
My job as a writer has enriched my life. I am grateful to Grace Mennonite Church in Steinbach for asking me to talk about my life as a writer last night. It was a good exercise to try and list the ways writing has made my life meaningful.
I was lucky to grow up in a home where my parents read to me a lot.
I could read already when I was in kindergarten. I devoured books. I read whole series like The Bobbsey Twins, The Box Car Children, Nancy Drew, Cherry Ames, Little House on the Prairie and Elsie Dinsmore.
I still have my original copy of Anne of Green Gables, a gift from my Aunt Viola.
I was always reading. My Mom took me to the Good Will store in Winnipeg to buy used books and my Dad ordered books from Readers Digest that came every month- they were condensed versions of novels, usually, four in a book and I read them all. I think my love of reading is what led to my love of writing.
My writing was nourished by teachers who celebrated my writing talents.
In grade five my teacher Mr. Helmut Klassen submitted a story I had written about a big snowstorm to the local paper The Carillon News and they printed it. I was thrilled. My mother cut out the article and framed it. I still have it.
In 1966 when I was in grade seven my teacher Mr. Melvin Toews published a magazine about Canada’s upcoming centennial and each student had a story or a poem in it. My contribution was on the first page in the magazine and it was a short essay about Canada. I was really proud of thatand I still have a copy of the magazine.
In high school, my English teacher Miss Gunn was brand new to the profession and she assigned so many writing assignments. Although some of my classmates weren’t very happy about having to do all that writing I was in my glory andMiss Gunn was very affirming about my writing. Her encouragement led to me becoming the editor of the school newspaper at my high school.
I became a teacher and enjoyed writing song lyrics and poems and stories for my students.
I helped to set up a kind of publishing house in my school so my students could publish stories they had written.
Then in 1985, just after my second son was born, someone wrote an article in our local paper The Carillon News that said parents, particularly mothers, who enrolled their children in daycare didn’t really love their kids. I was UPSET! I knew daycare was an important service to communities and families and so I wrote a letter to the editor Mr Peter Dyck explaining that. He not only printed my letter he asked if I’d like to become a weekly columnist for the newspaper. That wasthirty-six years ago and I am still writing a regular column called Viewpoint for that newspaper. For three years I also worked as a newspaper columnist for the Winnipeg Free Press.
Being a newspaper columnist led to lots of other writing jobs and since then I have had hundreds of articles published in magazines, newspapers, anthologies, journals and on blogs and travel websites. I have written many curriculums, some institutional histories and even the script and lyrics for a musical.
I moved to Hong Kong for six years to be a teacher there and joined an organization called Hong Kong Women in Publishing. Their regular workshops and discussions and a chance to be published in their annual anthology was a big boost to my confidence as a writer.
I also wrote about our travels on travel websites and for newspapers and magazines. I began a blog to let people know about our life in Hong Kong and when I got back to Canada I changed the name of the blog but kept it going. I still write something on my blog What Next? everyday.
When I came back to Canada from Hong Kong I decided it was time to try a different kind of writing so I started taking courses, and going to workshops and joining professional groups that could help me learn to be a children’s writer. I discovered that many people believe getting a book published as a children’s writer is harder than getting a book of any other kind of writing published. I wrote all kinds of stories for children’s magazines, wrote several picture books, started a couple of novelsand finally finished Lost on the Prairiebut none of those things got published.
I worked on the novel for several years changing it, adding to it, doing more research, and getting lots of advice. I submitted it to publishers who rejected it and then I tried Heritage House and they loved it and sent me a contract to have it published.
I am currently finishing the first draft of another novel and am trying to find a publisher for a picture book I have completed.
Writing is something I like to do, but over my lifetime it has become something I need to do. Writing helps me learn about the past, make sense of the present and dream about the future.
Recently I was part of an online seminar led by Tiara Chutkhan, who is also known as The Book Worm Babe. Tara’s presentation was focused on helping authors learn about how they can promote their books on the Good Reads site.
For those of you who aren’t familiar with Good Reads, it is a place to keep track of the books you have read, are reading, and would like to read, and to write reviews of books.It can give you an idea of what your friends are reading too. Authors can generate interest in their books on Good Reads. They can also find out what kinds of readers like their books and get feedback on their writing to help them improve their craft and their audience.
Tiara gave authors lots of tips for how to use the site to promote your booksby creating an author page, inviting friends and family to review your book, by getting involved in Good Reads book clubs and discussions and even lobbying to have your book receive a Good Reads award.
I’ve had a spotty presence on Good Reads for the last couple of years but the seminar I took convinced me that utilizing the site more consistently could be beneficial to me as an author.
I’ve got much to learn about book promotion, especially book promotion during a pandemic when book launches and book club invitations and school visits and book parties just aren’t possible. Workshops like the one I attended about Good Reads are helpful and best of all during COVID many are being offered for free.
You can check out the books I’ve reviewed on Good Reads here.
Non-fiction is BOOMING! Last week I attended an online presentation by Melissa Manlove a senior editor for Chronicle Books. She gave a very insightful seminar on writing non-fiction picture books for children. The market for them is apparently BOOMING!Authors have a much better chance of having a non-fiction picture book published than a fictional one.
Melissa told us teachers are looking for exciting, engaging non-fiction books that will teach kids about scientific ideas, mathematical concepts and social studies topics. She suggested children’s writers should begin by closely examining the Common Core standards most American schools use. These standards tell you exactly what specific things kids are required to learn in each subject area and it’s those things picture books should address. In Canada, there are education standards in each province for schools as well. But to really have a successful book you need to capture the America marketAND the Canadian market.
I have done quite a bit of work on a biographical picture book about famous Canadian female artists but Melissa made me think I should probably shelve that project. First of all, she told us there is a glut of biographies about famous people written for kids right now so to get a biography picture book published is extra tough. She also said they don’t publish that many art books because teachers tend to use visuals rather than text in art classes and…….. she added as a final blow to my idea for a picture book about female Canadian artists……. biographies of artists just don’t sell very well.
What does sell?
Melissa suggested we check out the picture books recommended each year by the National Science Teachers Association to get an idea of what kinds of books are popular with elementary school science teachers. The 2020 list includes intriguing-looking books about animals and oceanography, computer code and electricity, the senses, astronomy and evolution.
Melissa introduced us to the kind of non-fiction books publishers are looking for by reading quite a number of books to us. She readbooks about sharks, Hurricane Katrina, Albert Einstein, microbes, hibernation and locomotives.
Melissa’s seminar was courtesy of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators a professional group providing some wonderful on-line programming during the pandemic. I belong to the organization so I can keep abreast of what’s going on in the publishing world of children’s books.
It is nice to just follow your own creative ideas when you write picture books. I’ve finished manuscripts for quite a few but………..they haven’t sold and Melissa’s seminar helped explain why. She reminded me that we have to consider the MARKET when we write!
So it’s back to the drawing board! Melissa says at the top of the list for picture books that sell are those that really make kids ask questions and wonder. She encouraged us to write books that address scientific inquiry and engineering design. Mmmmmm I need to start brainstorming. Do you have any ideas for me?
Illustration by Francesco Ciccolella for an article in The Guardian about autofiction called Drawn From Life
The other night at my writers’ group meeting one of our members announced she thought she’d finally found her niche genre. “It’s autofiction,” she said.
I think most of us had puzzled looks on our faces at that point. Although we are all published authors with decades of writing experience, the term autofiction was new to us. Someone looked up the definition and read it.
“Autofiction is a term used in literary criticism to refer to a form of fictionalized autobiography.”
I think most fiction writers will tell you their novels contain all kinds of references and descriptions and characters that are drawn from, or inspired by, their own personal experience. I suspect almost every work of fiction has certain autobiographical elements. Does that make it autofiction?
I am reminded for example of a reading author Miriam Toews gave at the public library in her hometown of Steinbach more than two decades ago. She was reading from her first book The Summer of My Amazing Luck. She had just told us the novel wasn’t autobiographical but as she was reading a passage from it about the father in her story, her voice broke and I wondered if she would be able to finish. It was clear Ms Toews had a very personal and emotional connection with her character. Those of us who knew her father, as I did, and had read The Summer of My Amazing Luck could find many similarities between the fictional father in the story and Miriam’s own Dad.
Many years later a CBC reporter about to interview Miriam about her award-winning novel A Complicated Kindness said in their introduction that the novelwas a “thinly veiled autobiography.” So would you call Miriam’s Toews work autofiction?
I think most autobiographical writers will tell you they use poetic licence and imagination when writing their books. Their memories may have faded and there is always a tendency to embellish past experiences, to construct them in ways that will allow us to live meaningfully in the present. Many autobiographical writers include sights and sounds and details in their work that may not be verifiable. One of the best books I read about Hong Kong during the six years I made my home there was Gweilo: A Memoir of a Hong Kong Childhood by Martin Booth. It was beautifully written and provided a remarkable and engaging insight into what Hong Kong was like in the 1950s. Booth lived in Hong Kong with his family from ages 7-10. His autobiographical memoir published in 2004 is a fabulous read. But……….. I found it almost impossible to believe that fifty years after the fact someone could recall the taste of every item on a dinner menu, or the word for word conversations of their parents, or all the fashion details of a woman’s dress they saw in passing on the street.
As a New York Times reviewer said of Martin Booth’s memoir “his observations are marvellously detailed, if sometimes suspectly so.” So would you call Martin Booth’s memoir autofiction?
Although I am not an academic in the field of literature or a literary critic I have this feeling that almost everything one writes is a kind of autofiction. What do you think?
Yesterday I was part of a group of children’s authors who met on Zoom to learn how to bake bread from Harriet Zaidman. Harriet is the author of several picture books as well as the middle-grade novel City on Strike recently nominated for the 2020 Geoffrey Bilson Award for Historical Fiction. Harriet shares her recipes and her culinary expertise on her blog North End Nosh.
I had never baked bread before and neither had several of the other authors in our group. But under Harriet’s expert guidance we all managed to produce three kinds of delicious bread before our baking session was over.
We baked artisan bread first, then plain white bread and finally, we learned how to make challah a bread whose name comes from the Hebrew language. We needed a little help from Harriet to learn how to pronounce “challah” just right.
Our group included Anita Daher whose fourteenth novel You Don’t Have to Die in the End was recently nominated for the 2021 White Pine award, Gabriele Goldstone author of Red Stone and Broken Stone who has a new novel coming out with Ronsdale Press in 2021, Pat Trottier whose book Relationships Make the Difference was published by Pembroke andaward-winning authorColleen Nelsonwho has a long list of books to her credit including this year’s Teaching Mrs Muddle and Harvey Holds His Own both from Pajama Press.
As we baked we chatted about our current works in progress, the state of the publishing world during a pandemic and events in our personal lives. Colleen interrupted our conversation at one point to announce the final results of the American election and that of course generated lots of discussion.
It was a great day and in the end, a group of children’s authors had become a group of accomplished bakers. Thanks so much, Harriet!
During one summer of our courtship, my husband Dave and I were separated for several months because we had jobs in different countries. We exchanged letters about two or three times a week. I have saved them all and frequently re-read them.
The emotions, ideas and dreams expressed in those letters have been a real source of encouragement and strength during our nearly five decades of marriage. We were poor college students in 1972 so we couldn’t afford to call each other during our summer apart and it was long before everyone had personal computers. The only way we could communicate regularly was through cards and letters.
My grandparents on their anniversary
At my grandparents’ 60th wedding anniversary, two of my aunts, who both had lived most of their lives in places far from their mother’s Manitoba home, presented a readers theatre that gave a humorous and entertaining look at our extended family’s history. Every line of the dramatic script was an excerpt from one of the hundreds of letters my grandmother had written to her daughters.
Heinrich Enns and his wife Gertrude my husband Dave’s grandparents
My husband’s grandfather Heinrich Enns was doing alternative service in a forestry camp in Ukraine in the late 1800s. He went to church with a buddy and met a girl named Gertrude Unruh. He had to go back to the camp but he wrote Gertrude such passionate and beautiful letters, she agreed to marry him.
Gertrude and Heinrich during wartime. You can see Heinrich’s medical hat with the red cross on the table.
Later during World War I when he was serving as a medic in Moscow his letters were the ones all the villagers back home wanted to hear read aloud because they provided such a descriptive and informative picture of the battlefront. In those letters, he was also able to offer advice and encouragement to his young wife who was trying to run their large estate alone during his absence.
Personal letters are a special and unique form of communication. Somehow e-mail missives just aren’t the same as handwritten letters.
Silver ink well I inherited from my maternal grandmother Annie Jantz Schmidt. Grandma received it as a Christmas gift from her brother Henry in 1911
I lament the loss of personal letters every time I look at this lovely heirloom letter writing set I inherited from my maternal grandmother Annie Schmidt. She had beautiful handwriting and wrote many letters to family members.
Last week I listened to the CBC’s Tom Power interviewing best-selling author Nick Hornby. You may know him as the author of books like About A Boy or High Fidelity, both of which were made into popular movies.
Although the interview was about Nick’s latest book Just Like You the part of the conversation I found most interesting was when Nick talked about how being alone and isolated while you work is one of the hard things about being an author.
Writer Nick Hornby- photo from Wikipedia
Nick goes to his studio each day and stays there for about eight hours usually writing about a thousand words a day. The actual physical act of typing those words takes about 30 minutes the rest of the time is spent thinking and doing research. Nick finds it easy to get distracted during this time by watching all kinds of things online. One thing that helps, he says, is to always have a jigsaw puzzle on the go in his studio. He can puzzle and take a break from writing, but while he is puzzling he can still be thinking.
I have been struggling of late to focus on my latest work in progress and while I did plenty of puzzles during the near-total isolation at the beginning of the pandemic I hadn’t done a puzzle now for months so I took out one I’d actually planned to give to a friend as a gift and got started.
I’m loving it. As Hornby said, puzzling is a great way to take a break from writing and still keep thinking. I’m about a third done with my puzzle and I’ve written two new chapters for my book.
I’ve heard of writers who take a break for inspiration by listening to music, going for a walk or having a shower. I’ve tried all of those and they can be very effective. Puzzling was a new suggestion for fuelling creative thought but I’m liking it. Thanks, Nick Hornby.