Pajama Press

Archive for April, 2013

Sylvia Gunnery profiled in Canadian Children’s Book News

Posted on April 18th, 2013 by pajamapress

“Author Sylvia Gunnery on learning, writing, eavesdropping, teaching”

by Kathleen Martin
(reprinted with permission from Canadian Children’s Book News Vol 36 No. 2, Spring 2013)

Sylvia Gunnery had to turn her writing desk away from the ocean. “I was getting distracted too much,” she says. There are trees outside the window next to her desk now, and on the day we talked, a group of ducks wandered past, peering in at her in an inquiring way.

Above Gunnery’s desk in her home at Crescent Beach, Nova Scotia, there is a small basketball hoop and ball. “They were on a huge cake (fellow writer) Nancy Wilcox Richards had as part of the launch for my book Out of Bounds at Bayview Community School in Mahone Bay.”

The hoop hangs on a framed print from the Writers’ Trust of Canada that is signed by Margaret Laurence, Margaret Atwood, Pierre Berton and Graeme Gibson.

“They are the writers who did the groundwork for the rest of us to continue on,” says Gunnery, her tone momentarily serious. “It is a big reminder for me that they made space for us.”

Gunnery built her writing studio after she retired from teaching and after years of working in “a little corner of a space.” This studio, she says, “is wonderful. And it is full of nice things that remind me about what I care about and who I am.”

In this space, Gunnery completed her most recent novels, Emily for Real and Game Face. And, in this space, a stone’s throw from the Atlantic, Gunnery is — even after publishing 15 books — working hard at continuing to develop her skills.

How has being retired changed your writing process?

I taught because I loved teaching young people. Still do! I was not a teacher to financially support my writing. But there are lots of bonuses to being a retired teacher. The biggest bonus is time. I loved teaching and made sure I always did the best job I could possibly do to inspire my students to care about reading and writing and all the other ways in which we get to know who we are and how we fit into this world. That meant a big commitment of time. Looking back, I have no idea how I managed to write all those books during the 80s and 90s. The two months of summer were a gift! Now, I come to my writing studio in my home every day to write, to read, to research, to revise, to connect online with other writers, and on and on… And that’s a gift, too.

But you have lost daily access to your target audience!

In the late 70s, I had a few stories published in literary magazines, so I thought I was on my way down that path. Then, a close friend changed my direction when he said, “You’re always telling stories about your students. Why don’t you write teen fiction?” Two weeks later, a new student was brought to the door of my Grade 8 classroom. Immediately I wondered what might have brought her to our school halfway through the school year and how might she feel about what’s happening in her life. I’m Locker 145, Who Are You? started at that very moment and it was published a year later (in 1984) by Scholastic. I’ve been stealing stories from students’ lives ever since!

 

As for having daily access to my target audience, like any other writer, I watch and listen. No matter where I am — in an airport, on a bus, in crowded school hallways, walking on the beach, waiting in a line-up — I’m always eavesdropping on teens, wondering why they’re saying what they’re saying or doing what they’re doing.

When you first began writing, you had the good fortune to bump into some of Canada’s greatest writers.

In 1976, I went to the Banff Centre for the five-week summer writing session. My focus was on short fiction for adults, and one of the session mentors was Alice Munro. Serendipity multiplied by 1,000! I’ve had so many lucky gifts in my life. Budge

Wilson, who lives less than an hour away in the summers, and Joyce Barkhouse were two of them. I met Joyce Barkhouse first, in Halifax. She was 30 years older than me. We lived in a little house on Birmingham Street where my apartment was in the basement and hers was the middle one. She could hear my noisy parties, and she’d say to me, “I’ll just put my good ear to the pillow.” When I had my first short fiction published in

Canadian Fiction Magazine, she said, “Sylvia, you are a real writer.” My spine straightened up because Joyce Barkhouse had said this. We had a wonderful friendship. We spoke of writing so much. Writers don’t come out of a vacuum. You come out of your experiences and the support of your community.

Did you always plan on writing?

Being from the north end of Halifax and reading only British and American authors in school, the idea of becoming a writer didn’t occur to me. I didn’t go to Banff until I was 30. But I always wrote, even as a little kid. I am from a storytelling family. We would sit around the table until the leftover food turned to glue because we were talking. There was constant storytelling. And when I was little, my older sister, Barb, would read to me from thick hard-covered books at night. And then we’d turn out the light and she’d say, “Okay Shrimp, tell me a story.” I’d make up stuff to tell her — always about hope and strength and moving on and joy.

You have done a lot of writing about how to teach young people to write. You’ve written two books on the subject for educators. What is your advice to people — teachers and mentors — trying to inspire new writers?

At Banff during that summer writing session, I discovered a significant barrier to successful writing in schools — choice. As well meaning and thoughtful teachers, we were always trying to come up with the best writing topics to engage our students and make them care about writing. But they were our topics. Our choices. Unless the writing themes truly belong to the students — not as a group, but individually — the writing will simply be an assignment done for marks in a course. There’s not much room for the kind of commitment necessary to real writing. When I go to schools to do writing workshops, teachers sometimes say that I shouldn’t expect much because the kids just don’t like writing. Those teachers always seem really happy when I prove them wrong. It’s not magic — it mostly comes down to choice.

I’m interested in why we choose to write the stories that we do. What do you think it was that drew you to Emily for Real?

What I started with, before I even imagined Emily herself, was the idea of family secrecy, especially the effects of secrets on the people who don’t realize the secrets even exist. My theory — and I had enough evidence for this in memoirs I’d read or from personal stories shared with me by acquaintances — was that secrecy would eventually rot a family from the inside out. But as Emily told her own present-tense story, my theory about family secrecy changed. I came to see that the family would not necessarily rot from the inside out if they all truly loved each other and demonstrated that love.

Emily’s extended family does that. Like my own did. Our house on Hillside Avenue in Halifax was home to Mom, Dad, my older sister, my grandfather Gunny, and my godmother we all called Tettie. If I fell backwards, there was always that cushion of love there to break my fall. As Emily tells her story, she comes to see that her life will not always make sense and that there’ll be lots of surprises, but she also recognizes the support that love offers.

You’ll be talking about Emily for Real as part of this year’s TD Canadian Children’s Book Week. I have also heard you speak passionately about Nova Scotia’s Writers’ in the Schools program. Why do you think these kinds of opportunities matter?

When people can see that somebody values something enough to call it a “Week,” that’s a gigantic huge message in itself. I think it’s important for the public — people going to libraries, kids in schools — to hear the language around author visits, illustrator visits, storytellers, and to realize that it’s part of their environment too. A friend visiting me said recently, “When I was in school, words were everywhere. But now — words aren’t anywhere anymore.” That’s true for a lot of people. And unless we have these celebrations and they are not token — not “book minutes” but “book weeks” — people in Canada can lose words. If we don’t say these things, they will be gone. And to be one of those messengers sent out across the land — it’s just thrilling!

—Kathleen Martin is a writer living in Halifax.

Click here to learn more about Canadian Children’s Book News

Nix Minus One is “complex and engaging” —Canadian Children’s Book News

Posted on April 18th, 2013 by pajamapress

At 15, Nix Humbolt is taller and leaner than in his “Fatty Humbolt” days, but he still keeps a low profile at school. He finds refuge in his father’s workshop where he builds intricate boxes and tables – and avoids arguments with his older sister Roxy. When Roxy starts dating Bryan Sykes, Nix knows he’s bad news – but what can he do? The only battles he ever fights are on his Xbox – until the day he finds the nerve to fight for Swiff Dunphy’s neglected dog. When things start to spin out of control, this dog might just be the one who saves him.

Award-winning author Jill MacLean uses verse to tell an emotionally resonant story of an extremely introverted teenager. Nix still thinks of himself as the bullied fat boy, and he struggles to find his voice. He’s fiercely loyal and intelligent, and has a strong sense of justice, but when it comes to acting on it, he feels helpless. The one area where he can do something is to take care of the neglected and abused dog, whom he calls Twig.

While never explicitly stated, MacLean draws a subtle and effective connection between Roxy and Twig in Nix’s mind. The more out of control Roxy becomes, the more desperate Nix is to save Twig. Just when he thinks he’s failed at that, too, it’s Roxy who surprisingly gives him the strength he needs to fight for what matters to him. Nix Minus One is also a story about transformation, and MacLean skilfully parallels Twig’s transformation with Nix’s. As Twig transforms from a skittish, unhappy animal to a happy, healthy dog, Nix gradually is able to come out of his shell and emerge as a stronger, more confident boy.

MacLean’s books demand a lot from their readers, and Nix Minus One is no exception. Her characters are extremely authentic, and they will make the reader root for everything to turn out OK. The story is complex and engaging, and the deep themes make this an excellent novel for study and discussion.”
—Rachel Seigel is Selection Manager at S&B Books – a division of Whitehots.

 Click here to learn more about Canadian Children’s Book News.

White Ravens review of A Good Trade

Posted on April 18th, 2013 by pajamapress

On March 18 we announced that A Good Trade had been selected for The White Ravens 2013, a list of outstanding international books for children and young adults. Today we bring you the review A Good Trade received in the White Ravens catalogue:

“Kato lives in a small village in Uganda. He wakes early because his daily chores include trekking to the well outside the village and fetching the water his family will need during the day in two large jerry cans. On his way back, he spots an aid-worker’s lorry that carries wonderful gifts. Kato would love to offer the aid-worker something in return—and in the family garden, he finds just the right thing: a beautiful white poppy. In this deceptively simple and positive story of a little boy’s daily life in an African village, readers will discover subtle hints and overt references to the effects of civil war both in the quiet text and the brightly coloured digital illustrations. Thus the book will serve as a wonderful incentive to discuss this serious topic with younger and older children alike. (Ages 6+)”

Click here to learn more about the White Ravens.

MacLean’s book is “Beautifully descriptive”— The Calgary Herald

Posted on April 15th, 2013 by pajamapress

“Nix used to be ‘the fat kid’ and although he has lost the weight, he endures bullying every day.  Written in free verse, this sensitive story follows Nix as he deals with all life has to throw at him; his desire to help an abused dog, frustration in trying to protect an older sister heading for disaster, an old infatuation and a blossoming new friendship. Beautifully descriptive, with some mature content, this book is recommended for mature readers ages 12 to 16.”—Barbra Hesson

Jean Little Library recommends One Step at a Time

Posted on April 8th, 2013 by pajamapress

“Skrypuch’s simple language captures the fear and bewilderment of a girl who’s barely had time to deal with the trauma of her escape from Vietnam and new life in a strange country when she’s confronted with yet another frightening experience. Tuyet still doesn’t speak English and although she knows they’re trying to fix her leg, she doesn’t understand why they’re doing it the way they are. However, with the help of friends she makes it through the operation. Then the real work begins as she struggles with physical therapy and recovery. However, Tuyet has boundless determination and insists on standing on her own two feet, both emotionally and physically, and finally triumphs. Along the way there are incidents and growing experiences that give the reader a good look not only at Tuyet’s childhood but also at the time period…Recommended.”

Click here to read the full review.

 

The Montreal Gazette praises free verse in Nix Minus One

Posted on April 1st, 2013 by pajamapress

“Poetry, at its best, has the power to evoke a maximum of emotion with a minimum number of words. As such, it’s a fitting tool for an author whose novel revolves around a teenage boy best described as tongue-tied and introverted — and whose life goes into overdrive when the usual changes that accompany puberty are added to those of a family with its share of secrets.

Nova Scotia’s Jill MacLean has set her most recent novel in Bullbirds Cove, a small town in Newfoundland that used to be home to 37 families but where, now that “the codfish are gone from the sea (and) groundfishing closed years ago,” only 23 families remain — including the Humboldt family. Fifteen-year-old Nixon (better known as Nix) and his 16-year-old sister, Roxy, are part of that family. In telling their story, MacLean uses free verse — which might sound off-putting to some, but actually turns out to be a great way to put into words what Nix thinks and has trouble saying. It also makes for a well-paced story that will leave readers thoroughly engaged with the characters, and probably reaching for a tissue or two before getting to the final page.”

—Bernie Goedhart