Wordpower 2018: On The Move for Literacy

How am I spending my time these days, gentle blog reader?

Meet Zaine, the 16-year-old protagonist of Push Back (James Lorimer & Co., fall 2018 release).

Meet Zaine, the 16-year-old protagonist of Push Back (James Lorimer & Co., fall 2018 release).

Aside from reviewing the copy edits on Push Back, developing a new teen story to pitch, and addressing the realities of allergy season, muddy-dog season and shedding-dog season (I can never decide if it’s a good thing or not that those three seasons collide), I am….

"I didn't mean to leave dog hair and mud all over the floor. It's not MY fault."

“Sorry. I didn’t mean to leave dog hair and mud all over the floor.”

….preparing to go on tour!

Along with 17 other Alberta authors, illustrators and storytellers, I’m proud to be a Cenovus Wordpower 2018 touring artist. For next week’s tour, the artists’ fees — hotels, food, transportation, speaking fees — are generously sponsored by Cenovus Energy.

Many thanks to Cenovus Energy for again sponsoring Alberta's Wordpower tour.

Many thanks to Cenovus Energy for again sponsoring Alberta’s Wordpower literacy tour.

In addition to covering those various touring fees, Cenovus Energy has also bought hundreds of copies of books by Alberta artists to send to the schools that we will be visiting.

I am delighted that Turk, Vienna, Simone and Lily will be accompanying me on tour next week.

I am delighted that Turk, Vienna, Simone and Lily will be accompanying me on tour next week.

The tour was 100% organized by a literacy-based group called the Young Alberta Book Society, or YABS, which operates out of Edmonton. I can’t imagine the work involved in putting the many moving pieces together for a tour of this magnitude!

Many thanks to Cenovus Energy for again sponsoring Alberta's Wordpower tour.

Many thanks to Cenovus Energy for again sponsoring Alberta’s Wordpower tour, and to YABS for organizing it.

On Sunday, I will be hitting the happy Wordpower trails, where I will be offering presentations and workshops that will fire up students’ imaginations about reading, writing and books.

Even before I meet all those wonderful kids and teens, I already know that I’ve hit the jackpot — because my tour partner this year is none other than the incredible Jacqueline Guest.

Jacqueline Guest is the popular author of 19 books for children and teens.

Jacqueline Guest is the award-winning author of 19 books for children and teens.

An experienced and popular visitor to the classroom, Jacqueline engages students with her Métis heritage and historical lessons. Her body of work is renowned for advancing diversity in children’s literature, and for promoting Indigenous culture. In 2016, Jacqueline became a Member of the Order Of Canada.

Over the years, Jacqueline has made strong contributions to youth literacy — and that’s before we even consider the impact she will have at the 9 schools that we will be visiting together next week. Wow!

If I had to pick a favourite book by Jacqueline Guest, I'd have to choose "Outcasts of River Falls," which is the sequel to "Belle Of Batoche."

If I had to pick a favourite book by Jacqueline Guest, I would choose “Outcasts of River Falls.” It is the sequel to “Belle Of Batoche.” Absolutely fascinating!

It’s time now to go organize my presentations and props. And to pack some “real clothes” — because apparently my usual writerly dress code of business-casual pyjamas and workout “athleisure” gear won’t quite work next week. I’d better see to that!

And as I like to tell my students…

The students always inspire me so much. And as I like to warn them: "Anything you say and do might end up in a book."

“Be careful, you guys! Anything you say or do might end up in a book.”

Thanks again to Cenovus Energy for its generous sponsorship of Wordpower 2018. Thanks also to YABS for herding all us cats organizing all us artists for next week’s tour. You are both amazing!

Book Crush: “A Time To Run” by Lorna Schultz Nicholson

Every now and then, I develop a book crush that’s so intense it hurts–in a good way. Lorna Schultz Nicholson’s new title, A Time To Runis one such crush-y book for me.

Lorna Schultz Nicholson, author of "A Time To Run," the newest title in her One2One series (Clockwise Press).

Lorna Schultz Nicholson, author of “A Time To Run” (Clockwise Press).

A Time To Run is the fourth and newest book in the One2One series, also known as the “Best Buddies” series.

As explained in an Author’s Note: “The Best Buddies is a real program that operates in schools, including colleges, all over the world. Students with intellectual disabilities pair up with volunteer peer ‘Buddies.’ They meet together, one-to-one, at least twice monthly to engage in fun, social interaction. They also participate in group activities.”

In previous books from the One2One series, the intellectually-disabled characters include Harrison (Fragile Bones), who is on the autism spectrum; Erika (Born With), who was born with Down syndrome; Madeline (Bent Not Broken) who suffered a brain injury; and now Stuart (A Time To Run) who was born with fetal alcohol spectrum disorder.

"A Time To Run" is the fourth and newest title in Schultz Nicholson's One2One series.

“A Time To Run” is the fourth and newest title in Lorna Schultz Nicholson’s One2One series.

In each book, the stories are told in first-person narrative which alternates between the characters with the intellectual disabilities, and those of their peer buddies.

But back to that book crush… As a former junior-high teacher who worked with students born with FASD, I feel that Schultz Nicholson once again captured the voice of her intellectually-disabled character. And as Sam, Stuart’s peer buddy, says of him “Stuart sure could be complicated.”

Stuart is indeed complicated, and Schultz Nicholson does not shy away from portraying even the more challenging sides of his personality. Born to an abusive, alcoholic mother, Stuart now lives in a loving adoptive home, where he sleeps on a bed in the middle of his bedroom such that he is less apt to damage the walls. He hates conversations about consequences and – I’m not going to use any euphemisms here – he lies.

He lies to his educational assistant about the ten minutes that his mom made him spend repairing the new holes he punched into the wall. He lies to his parents about the unsavoury character he spent the afternoon with when he was supposed to be at track practice. Stuart’s go-to line when he doesn’t want to answer a question that might land him in trouble is “I dunno.” (Pretty smooth, Stuart!)

Stuart however remains an appealing, well-rounded character whose potential shines through, especially when he is with best buddy Samir, aka “Sam,” who suffers from his own challenges.

In the early pages of A Time To Run, basketball-star Sam suffers a nearly-fatal heart episode which derails his athletic career. As A Time To Run evolves, it is clear that both Stuart and Sam are at their best when they are working through their various challenges–and simply hanging out–together.

My only complaint is that A Time To Run and the rest of the One2One series arrived after my years of teaching junior-high students on a daily basis. I so wish this series had been available to me when working with special-needs students in Toronto and in Edmonton. Hence my need to offer this shout-out about the entire One2One series.

A Time To Run is another heartwarming story by Lorna Schultz Nicholson. I highly recommend it to tween and teen readers, adults, educators and to anyone who enjoys books that foster diversity, hope and sympathy.

"A Time To Run" shown here with a book lover who would dearly love with Stuart!

“A Time To Run” shown here with a book lover who dearly wants to run with Stuart.

A Time To Run is available March 15, 2018. Currently available for pre-order.

 

 

 

Story Avenue 2018: Literacy FTW!

On February 22nd and 23rd, I joined eight other Alberta artists at Story Avenue–an annual writing conference designed to foster literacy among grades 5 and 6 students from Edmonton’s downtown core.

Orca author, Natasha Deen.

Orca author, Natasha Deen, and I were among the presenters. It’s always great connecting with friends and colleagues there… and of course with the students!

Rita Feutl, author of Rescue At Fort Edmonton, Room Enough for Daisy (co-authored with Debby Waldman), and Bike Thief was also one of the presenters.

Rita Feutl, author of “Rescue At Fort Edmonton” and “Bike Thief” was also one of the presenters.

The Alberta artists led students through a series of writing and illustrating workshops. And while I pride myself on offering energetic, informative sessions, sometimes the students simply take over…. (and I love it when that happens!)

Annie*: “The protagonist is the main character and I bet I know who you’re going to talk about next–the antagonist, because that’s, like, the protagonist’s enemy and sometimes I like to hate on that character but sometimes I like that enemy-antagonist guy a bit too.”

[Wow! That also sums up my feelings about the antagonist… that the antagonist isn’t ALL bad, and some of the best stories give us insights into why antagonists behave as they do. Way to go, Annie!]

 

And then there was Keenan*: “Have you ever noticed that books sometimes start with a little bit of stuff about who the character is and where he lives, then the action suddenly takes off?”

[Yes, Keenan, I have. That’s the cool thing about the inciting incident, which alters the protagonist’s world. And then the action TAKES OFF! Good catch!]

*student names have been changed.

I love it when the students take over!

It’s always magical when the student enthusiasm fills the room!

Story Avenue is also packed with wonderful volunteers. One of them, an elementary teacher, shared an amazing story with me about a really bad day she had when she was in junior high.

Her story inspired me so much that I might write a book about it someday. I won’t tell you Ms. B’s story yet but I’ll divulge a key phrase/teaser: “teacher’s mark book.” Stay tuned!

 

I also invited the students from my Thursday sessions to share their thoughts about what they wrote. I have listed them below, along with the students’ pen names:

“I was proudest that I wrote my own half story.” Anonymous, grade 6

“What I liked best was the mystery of the story.” Dread Nought, grade 6

“What I liked best was the continuation of Karen’s story.” Fy-FFF, grade 6

“I liked that we got to write about being accused for things we didn’t do.” K, grade 6

“What I liked best in my story was the dark figure disappearing in the shadow.” T, grade 6

“What I did well was explain why Mrs. Granger blamed Marcy, Kyle and Alex for taking the $30.” Hazel, grade 6

“It feels so good writing my story.” Honey the Cat, grade 5

“I liked talking and making the settings for the story. I wrote lots and put lots of details.” Cyborg Hot Dog, grade 6

“I thought it was a lot of fun how we got to finish an actual author’s story.” I.H., grade 6

“I liked when she shared her tips and when we were writing the ideas.” Anon, grade 6

“I like it best when we were writing about a blame story and how I added detail to my story.” M, grade 5/6

“Something I did well was the twist to my story.” B, grade 5

“I loved it. It helped me with my writing. I loved my twist ending.” J, grade 5

“What I liked best is that Karen is so funny! All of it made me proud.” Squishy Heart, grade 5

“I am proud of how my story went so smooth.” Nicki Ma Noodles, grade 6

“The writing was the best part. I was proud of my creativity.” grade 5

“I liked that we got to write our own story. I was proudest of my powerful words.” S.

“What I liked best was that she was funny. I’m proud of the amount I wrote.” Cherry Chipotle, grade 5

“What made me proudest was when people talk in my story.” Mr. Bearpaw, grade 6  [Author note: I am thrilled to have found another writer who loves dialogue as much as I do!]

“Karen was nice and funny and I learned a lot. I am proud that I thought of so many things.” Success Queen, grade 5

“I liked the part where we learn the pro tips and the part where we got to write. Something I did well was where I solved the story.” Astra, grade 5

“I liked when you told the story, ‘Missing.’ I was proudest of how I wrote that the mean character said, ‘I thought it was my dad.'” Unicorn Cop Com, grade 5  [Author note: that was a seriously cool plot twist!]

“I liked all of it. The fun characters made me proudest.” Buzzfeed, grade 6

“What I liked best was writing how to prove you’re innocent. I explained it step by step.” J, grade 6

“What I liked best was EVERYTHING!!! I was proud that I made it interesting and I put in a twist in the end.” Kitty Vi, grade 6

 

As always, the students made me incredibly proud. Best of all, I think they made themselves proud too.

Many thanks to the Young Alberta Book Society for organizing Story Avenue. Thanks also to the wonderful sponsors for funding the program, including  buying a book for each student.

I'm so happy that these wonderful students received their own copies of Vanish. I hope they enjoy meeting Simone, Lily, Aaron, and friends!

It was a pleasure signing copies of VANISH and sending them home with the students. I hope they all enjoy meeting Simone, Lily, Aaron, and friends!

One of the students could hardly believe that he was getting his OWN book… to keep!

Much gratitude to these sponsors for their commitment to fostering literacy among Edmonton’s city-centre students:

Edmonton Oilers, Telus, Werklund Foundation, Edmonton Public Teachers (Local 37), City of Edmonton, Alberta Foundation for the Arts, Edmonton Arts Council, Alberta Government

 

 

 

 

Launched: My new baby makes her way into the big world

Gosh, they grow up so fast…

inside the door of Audreys

The display inside the door of Audreys Books.

Letting go of our babies is hard but at some point, they need to stand on their own two feet. And so it was with seventeen-year-old Vienna Fleury, whose official entry into the world took place at Audreys Books in Edmonton on Sunday, October 1st.

The design team at Lorimer Books hit it out of the park with this awesome cover illustration of Vienna Fleury, protagonist of SAVING GRAD.

I LOVE this  cover illustration of Vienna Fleury, protagonist of SAVING GRAD. (Many thanks to Lorimer’s fabulous design team!)

Vienna entered the world in a double book launch–sharing the stage with Miriam from Debby Waldman’s new book, Miriam’s Secret (Orca Books).

invitation to Audreys Books

Audreys was filled with many well-wishers–family, friends and book lovers galore. Kaylyn was our wonderful host.

Kaylyn of Audreys Books welcoming all guests to Audreys Books on traditional Treaty Six land.

Kaylyn of Audreys Books welcomed guests to Audreys Books, situated on traditional Treaty Six territory.

It was great fun explaining how the story for Saving Grad came to be. I also read three excerpts from the novel.

reading from Saving Grad.

I loved the reaction from the crowd when I read about Vienna’s winter arrival in Edmonton during a cold snap. *shivers*

big crowd of well wishers

Debby Waldman brought photos from her grandparents’ farm in upper New York State. The family stories she grew up with about her grandparents living on their farm inspired Miriam’s Secret.

Debby Waldman was the first author speaker.

The best possible group of well-wishers were there celebrating with us. I know this for sure because Vienna told me herself how much she appreciated the warm reception.

Family, friends and book lovers were among the well-wishers at Audreys.

Family, friends and book lovers were among the well-wishers at Audreys.

Orca author, Natasha Deen.

Orca author, Natasha Deen, also came to show her support.

The audience appreciated the draw prizes: gift cards from Audreys Books, and gift cards from Starbucks, in honour of a key character in Saving Grad getting a job there.

Q & A

The signing next began and I got to meet a soon-to-be début author.

How lovely to meet upcoming début YA author, Anna Priemaza.

How lovely to meet upcoming début YA author, Anna Priemaza.

There was much socializing and snacking, and browsing the shelves of Audreys.

Apparently these book lovers can't resist the offerings at Audreys.

Apparently these book lovers can’t resist the offerings at Audreys. Who could blame them?

A wonderful mix of adult and teen readers helped us celebrate the new books.

I loved the mix of adult and teen readers!

(Bonus points to anyone who can spot the authors of Rodent and of the Winterkill series!)

With Vienna now out in the big world and no longer just hanging out with me here, the Spafford-Fitz household feels rather quieter. I’m confident though that Vienna is more than capable of making her way without me/Vienna’s “mom.”

one grateful author

One happy, grateful author

Namaste, darling Vienna! You’ve so got this!

Cool Happenings

Things have been crazy busy here in my writing studio… so busy that I have, once again, neglected my blog. (Sighs) This post is my attempt to remedy that neglect, and to update you on all I’ve been up to.

My big news – and my coolest happening – is that my third book for teens, Saving Grad, was released by James Lorimer & Company Ltd. on August 15th. To say that I’m overjoyed would be a huge understatement.

*clicks heels*  *attempts handsprings*

The design team at Lorimer Books hit it out of the park with this awesome cover illustration of Vienna Fleury, protagonist of SAVING GRAD.

The design team at Lorimer Books hit it out of the park with this amazing cover illustration of my protagonist, Vienna Fleury.

Since Saving Grad‘s release, I have been busy with all kinds of fun promotional events. I even got to visit CBC Radio for an “Edmonton AM” interview with Mark Connolly and Garrette McGowan.

Mark and Garrette; butter tarts

Mark Connolly and Garrette McGowan at CBC Radio reviewing the butter tarts after reviewing SAVING GRAD.

Mark and Garrette were both warm, enthusiastic hosts who, among their many fine qualities, are appreciative diners when it comes to my homemade (and famously raisin-free) butter tarts.

Here is a link to the fun interview I had with Mark and Garrette:

http://www.cbc.ca/player/play/1029119555938

For many authors, the days following the release of a new book can be nerve-wracking as those “book babies” that we’ve done our best to nurture and nudge into their best, truest forms are – for the first time – out of our hands.

We of course hope they will be received enthusiastically by readers and by reviewers, and I’m delighted that has been the case with Saving Grad.

Avenue Edmonton magazine

A lovely mention and kind words about SAVING GRAD in Edmonton’s AVENUE  magazine (September 2017)

In the September 2017 issue of Edmonton’s Avenue magazine, the reviewer used terms like “timely, important social issues,” “approachable” and “engaging” when discussing Saving Grad. I could not be happier!

That brings me to today, when I awoke to news of this thoughtful review of Saving Grad by Helen Kubiw, keeper of the well-loved, respected blog called “CanLit for Little Canadians.”

https://canlitforlittlecanadians.blogspot.ca/2017/09/saving-grad.html?m=1

There are few things more gratifying than having a reviewer understand your intent and appreciate your story after you have poured your heart and soul into it. I admit to shedding a few tears when I read these words:

“Like Vienna and Sophie ending up in Edmonton in the middle of winter, the destination may not be an easy one at first but it is a fulfilling one in the end… It’s a story of resilience and strength and making something good out of something bad.”

*wipes eyes*

Wow! So if ever it feels like time for a party, it is NOW…. or rather, on October 1st. Along with Debby Waldman, who is celebrating her wonderful new middle-grade book called Miriam’s Secret (Orca Book Publishers), I will be launching Saving Grad at Audreys Books in downtown Edmonton.

invitation to Audreys Books

Please consider yourself personally invited! I hope you will join me, and of course Vienna Fleury, at Audreys Books on October 1st to help welcome Saving Grad into the world. There will be stories, laughter, books, and of course dozens of raisin-free butter tarts.

Would love to see you there!

Wordpower 2017: Literacy in the Making

Word power is a tour sponsored by Cenovus Energy and organized by the Young Alberta Book Society (YABS). The goal is to promote literacy by bringing Alberta students together with professional authors, illustrators and storytellers from across the province.

Pre-tour prep: picking up my signs at the YABS office with Jenn Plamondon. Very generous of Cenovus Energy to buy copies of our books for the schools involved in the tour.

Picking up my signs from Jenn at the YABS office. Notice too all the books that Cenovus Energy purchased for the schools, in addition to paying the artists’ fees and expenses.

Wordpower North ran from April 24th to April 28th, 2017 and I was proud to be a part of it – travelling to schools in Lac La Biche, Plamondon, and Wabasca, Alberta.

I will never travel as lightly as Gail de Vos but this is an improvement from last year!

I am not an especially light traveller. It didn’t help that the tour began with a snowstorm, requiring heavy boots, mitts, toque, etc.

Although Wordpower wrapped up several weeks ago, my mind keeps flitting back to the many special moments that comprised it, including –

Perfect “bones:”

Even before the tour began, it smacked of perfection by its very structure – or by its “bones.” After all…

Happy tour partners... Gail de Vos and me at Oski Pasikoniwew Kamik School in Wabasca.

Happy tour partners… Gail de Vos and me at Oski Pasikoniwew Kamik School in Wabasca.

…I was returning to a region of Alberta that I adore; I got to share my passion for reading, writing and books with students; and I was touring with Gail de Vos  author, storyteller, adjunct professor, and all-round amazing human being.

 

Excited Readers:

Few things excite me as much as discovering a new book. I met many students who feel exactly the same way. Two groups of high-school students – at Mistassiniy School and at École Beauséjour – were the first to hear excerpts from my upcoming book, Saving Grad.

My upcoming Young Adult novel, Saving Grad. (Release date: August 2017)

My upcoming Young Adult novel, Saving Grad. (Lorimer Books: August 2017 release)

Through our book discussions in both English and en français, I’ve learned that students are extra inspired to read a book they feel invested in – something that happens when they’ve had the opportunity to engage with the author. The reactions of these students to a brand new, never-before-been-read book were priceless and inspiring.

(Guess who has been writing harder than ever since her return from the tour?)

The students always inspire me so much. And as I like to warn them: "Anything you say and do might end up in a book."

I often warn the students: “Anything you say or do might end up in a book.”

Compelling Numbers:

Although I’m more of a word person than a number person, these numbers excite me:

Number of tour days: 5

Number of schools visited: 6

Number of students spoken to: 933, broken down as follows… Monday – 290 students; Tuesday – 132; Wednesday – 193; Thursday – 150; Friday – 168.

Grades of students: grade 3 to grade 12

I so enjoyed all 933 students who I met during this year’s tour!

I returned from Wordpower feeling extra secure in knowing I had unleashed many new superheroes on the world. Forest Girl, Mr. Mighty, Oilers Girl, and others. They've so got this!

An added tour perk: I released many new superheroes into the world. Forest Girl, Mr. Mighty, Oilers Girl, and others have so got this!

Amazing students:

They were everywhere…. Aurora Middle School (Lac La Biche); École Plamondon and École Beauséjour (Plamondon); St. Theresa School, Oski Pasikoniwew Kamik School and Mistassiniy School (Wabasca). They all made me feel welcome. Cases in point…

…at École Plamondon: “M” in grade 8 stayed after the presentation because she wanted to share with me this excerpt from her work-in-progress: “Your fear is not what they will do but the fear of not knowing what they are capable of doing.” *shivers*

…at St. Theresa School in Wabasca – 

Grade 5 student: Do you have any friends here in Wab?

Me: No, I’ve never been here before.

Student: That’s okay. You have lots of friends here now.

Me: *heart melts*

and –

….through this email from a grade 7 student at Mistassiniy School – 

“J”: “I found the book that I wanted to show you. It’s called Riding Through Fire. I don’t usually read these kind of books but it really is a good one and I hope you like it.”

(Dear J: Thanks so much for the recommendation. I will definitely read Riding Through Fire. And I’m thrilled that you so enjoyed Vanish!)

 

As Ms. Gullion says: "I tell people I am the principal of the most beautiful school in the province."

As Ms. Gullion says: “I tell people I am the principal of the most beautiful school in the province.” Such pride at Bigstone Cree Nation. Many thanks to everyone for the warm welcome and the beautiful day at Oski Pasikoniwew Kamik School!

One incredible hour after the other:

My final presentation of the tour was in a special-needs program, which I think of as “a single perfect hour of my life.”

The aptly-named “Eagles” made my heart soar. In addition to sharing laughs and chatting about books, animals and pets, the students made me the most thoughtful cards, which I continue to savour.

I only hinted a *little bit* about how much I'd enjoy cards to remember them by.

I only hinted a *little bit* about how much I’d enjoy cards from the students. And yes, I made one in return for these new friends at Mistassiniy School.

Many thanks to Cenovus Energy for sponsoring Wordpower 2017, and to the Young Alberta Book Society for organizing the tour. As a student, I would have benefited greatly from meeting professional writers, illustrators and storytellers. I have seen first-hand that this tour indeed fosters literacy. I’m humbled to have met so many wonderful young readers and writers!

Many thanks, Cenovus and Young Alberta Book Society. It was an honour being a Wordpower 2017 artist!

It was an honour being a Wordpower 2017 artist.

Final Wordpower lesson….

…that people who care about kids, teens, and stories are MY KIND OF PEOPLE!

For example, at Le Goff School – just south of Cold Lake, Alberta – principal Mary Anne Bushore knows each of the students and their families’ personally. She welcomed Gail de Vos and me warmly and beamed while telling us about the school and about the various cultural events the students would soon enjoy with Dene elders from the community.

As for Mary Anne’s words about “Come back and visit us any time you’re in the area….” well, that just could happen!

My tour partner, Gail de Vos, with Le Goff principal Mary Anne Bushore

My tour partner, Gail de Vos, with Mary Anne Bushore, principal of Le Goff Elementary School

At Nelson Heights School in Cold Lake, librarian Shaula Corr arranged for me to speak with two large groups of students in the morning, and to offer a small-group writing workshop in the afternoon to students who could most use a writing “boost.” In so doing, I felt my teaching background and writing expertise were put to optimal use for the students’ sake. Shaula definitely called it, and memories of that wonderful day continue to warm my heart.

Do these students look like they are writing "reluctantly?" I don't think so either. They worked so hard and made me incredibly proud!

Do these students look like they are writing “reluctantly”? I don’t think so either. The entire grade 6/7 group worked so hard and made me incredibly proud. Thanks, Shaula Corr, for the great photo and for the memorable day!

Knowledgeable, dedicated to literacy, and a whole ton o’ fun, Gail de Vos was an ideal tour partner. The same goes for author Hazel Hutchins and illustrator Georgia Graham who were also touring in the Bonnyville-Cold Lake area. The four of us thoroughly enjoyed sharing stories and learning from each other throughout the week.

My fellow Wordpower touring artists: Gail de Vos, Hazel Hutchins and Georgia Graham

My fellow Wordpower touring artists: Gail de Vos, Hazel Hutchins and Georgia Graham.

Cenovus Energy sponsored the Wordpower tour – every nickel of it, including my travel costs, hotels, speaking fees, and my food. And as I told the students, I might be small but I can eat a LOT!

thanking Cenovus at the beginning of my presentation

My “thanks to Cenovus Energy” moment at the beginning of every presentation.

Shelby, a representative from Cenovus, joined me for presentations at H.E Bourgoin School and at Le Goff School. Shelby’s enthusiasm and passion for northern Alberta communities were ever apparent.

Shelby from Cenovus

Shelby’s enthusiasm and general awesomeness were great additions to my sessions. Please feel free to join me any time, Shelby!

The Young Alberta Book Society (YABS) is a literacy-based organization that brings together Alberta students, and working authors, illustrators and storytellers. Hugs and hearts to Stephanie Gregorwich and Jennifer Plamondon of YABS for their commitment to literacy and to Alberta artists.

Steph from YABS proudly offering me the Cenovus Wordpower signs that traveled with me and Gail for the week.

Steph from YABS offering me the Cenovus Wordpower signs that traveled with me and Gail for the week.

I’m grateful for the many teachers and librarians I worked with throughout Wordpower and have truly never met such a caring group of professionals. And a special nod to the Nelson Heights teacher who said these generous words: “In my entire career, I couldn’t have offered the students what those authors did in eighty minutes.”

*heart melts*

No doubt about it, people who care about kids and teens are my kind of people, and they were EVERYWHERE on the Wordpower tour. It was a pleasure crossing paths with them, exchanging stories, and sharing our passion for making the lives of young people better through literacy. #RealLifeHeroes

Cold Lake First Nations

Cold Lake First Nations, where I left a piece of my heart.

And to the students themselves, I so value your incredible personalities and the time we shared together. I hope you’ll keep writing, and I know you’ll keep being your beautiful, amazing selves.

Please remember the promise I made to all of you: “If you work at becoming better writers, your lives will be better and easier in ways you haven’t yet imagined.”

offering my magical writing rules to grade four students.

Offering my magical writing rules to grade four students.

For sharing your time and hospitality, my thanks to the wonderful staff and students of:

In Bonnyville: École Dr. Bernard Brosseau School; Bonnyville Centralized High School; Bonnyville Library; and H.E. Bourgoin School.

In Le Goff and Cold Lake: Nelson Heights School; Le Goff School; Cold Lake High School; Le Goff School; Cold Lake Middle School.

Wordpower Lesson #3: Special-needs students are called “special” with good reason

Over the next several days, I’ll continue to share some lessons I learned from the Cenovus Wordpower 2016 tour. Today, it’s my pleasure to write about some experiences working among special-needs learners in the Bonnyville and Cold Lake areas.

When I worked full-time as an elementary and junior-high teacher, numerous special-needs learners were integrated into my grades four, seven and eight classrooms. These students always brightened my classrooms and during the Cenovus Wordpower tour, the special-needs students again brought a welcome light and energy with them.

My fellow Wordpower touring artists: Gail de Vos, Hazel Hutchins and Georgia Graham

My fellow Wordpower touring artists: Gail de Vos, Hazel Hutchins and Georgia Graham

Colin [student names changed], for example, is a junior-high student who thrives within the warm, caring environment of his classroom. Despite the challenges of autism, he is comfortable interacting with the other students and adults around him.

Because some of the autistic students who I’ve met in the past have had difficulty with new people and unfamiliar situations, I gave Colin some space to see if he wished to approach me, as opposed to the other way around.

I was delighted when this young man progressively worked his way nearer me while I was setting up my Powerpoint presentation. When Colin’s teacher introduced me, he even shook my hand.

One of Colin’s favourite activities is doing word scrambles with his classmates. His joy when he successfully solved the puzzles using the words ‘author’ and ‘Karen’ was rivalled only by mine. In fact, I felt like part of the grand prize. As though I’d been anointed “Queen For A Day.”

Inspiring student art in Cold Lake

Inspiring student art in Cold Lake

In the same classroom, I met another special-needs student who engaged me in the most charming conversation ever.

Kolton: Are you an author?

Me: Yes, I am.

Kolton: I know a good book. It’s called Romeo And Juliet. Did you write it?

Me: What a perfectly lovely question. Unfortunately, no, I didn’t write Romeo And Juliet but I wish with my whole heart that I had.

Kolton: *beams*

Me: *also beams*

I love how special-needs students have their own way of making others feel extra special–in their own time, and in their own beautiful way. Lucky, lucky me to have met these wonderful students.

Wordpower Lesson #2: Small People, Big Hearts

Yesterday, I posted about the first lesson I learned on Wordpower 2016: that it’s hard to present to students when you’re crying.

Today, I offer a second lesson: that the size of a student’s heart is generally larger than the size of the student.

 

Photo credit: Shaula Corr

Photo credit: Shaula Corr

One of the younger students who I spoke with during the Wordpower tour pulled me aside after my presentation. She told me that although writing and schoolwork in general come easily to her, that is not the case for a friend of hers. Above all else, “S” is concerned that her friend “doesn’t believe in herself” and “if you don’t believe in yourself, you really have nothing and that’s very sad.”

Wow. Just – wow. “S” is ten years old and has the world by the tail–yet is focused on her friend’s situation. And (gulp) was looking to me for advice.

I took a few deep breaths then said something like this: that believing in yourself is enormously important and that it’s incredibly sweet that she’s worried about her friend. But that I want her to remember that S’s friend actually has one of the most valuable things in the world: a friend who cares about her.

Gail de Vos and me: ready to present and, as always, to learn from our students.

Gail de Vos and me: ready to present and, as always, to learn from our kind-hearted students.

When I later had a moment to reflect, I realized that I need to take this young woman’s advice to heart, especially on those days when writing is hard and believing in yourself is even harder.

“Believe in yourself, Karen.”

Yep, the very reminder we all need from time to time–and it spun out of a conversation with a child half my size.

*heart grows three sizes*

 

Many thanks again to Cenovus Energy for sponsoring Wordpower 2016 and to the Young Alberta Book Society for organizing the tour. 

Lessons Learned From Wordpower 2016: Part 1

I hope everyone will pardon my distracted mental state these days as my mind continually slips away to this question: “What was I doing last week at this time?”

This is because I spent last week doing what many children and teen authors love best in the world: speaking to students. Firing them up about books, stories and the written word.

This “firing up” happened while I was traveling through northern Alberta as one of sixteen authors, illustrators and storytellers who participated in the 2016 Wordpower tour, which was sponsored by Cenovus Energy.

Many thanks to Cenovus Energy for again sponsoring Alberta's Wordpower tour.

Many thanks to Cenovus Energy for again sponsoring Alberta’s Wordpower tour.

Alberta’s kids’ book-touring scene is distinct in that professional artists can not only apply for the Canadian Children’s Book Centre’s “TD Week” tour, but we also have a provincial counterpart through an Edmonton-based organization called the Young Alberta Book Society (YABS).

For the past several years, YABS has organized the one-week Cenovus Wordpower tour, which is dedicated to fostering a love of literacy among Alberta students by bringing them in contact with professional artists from the province.

I was fortunate to be part of this year’s Wordpower tour and I went in GANGBUSTERS! I hope the students learned tons from my presentations and writing workshops. I learned TONS from them too–so much so that I can’t convey everything in just one post…. hence the “part one” status of this week’s multi-day post.

So for today’s instalment, here’s the first thing that I learned:

It’s hard to present to students when you’re crying.

To be clear, the students didn’t do anything bad to make me cry; rather, the students of Le Goff School at Cold Lake First Nations did something all-out wonderful and unexpected and powerful.

But I need to back up a bit first…

While Le Goff teacher, Ms. Christine, helped me rearrange her room for my presentation, she also taught me some words in Dene. I practised and practised and could finally say ‘hello.’ (It sounds like “ay-GLOHN-its-ay.”) To my surprise, when I said it to the students, they not only understood what I was saying BUT THEY SAID IT BACK TO ME!

My tour partner, author/storyteller Gail de Vos, and principal Mary Anne Bushore at Le Goff School

My tour partner, author/storyteller Gail de Vos, and principal Mary Anne Bushore at Le Goff School

I told them they were making me feel very welcome and that at my home, we sometimes greet people in French by saying ‘Bienvenue.’

Then came the magical question from one of the teachers: “Would you like us to sing for you?”

WOULD I??? There is of course only one answer to that question. So out came the guitar and next thing I knew, the students and their teacher were singing me an amazing “welcome song” in English, Dene and in Cree. The beauty of the song combined with the light and the pride in the students’ eyes were overwhelming and, well, I think you know what happened next.

*sniffle, throat and eyes fill, shoulders heave*

I learned that this musical greeting was in honour of me having traveled to share my stories with them and because they wanted to wish me a continued safe journey.

Wow. Just, wow. And like I said, it’s hard to present when you’re crying. The students however graciously waited me out until I could share my stories with them in return.

One of my stories involved a farm adventure from my childhood years and it included farm animals. The students tried to teach me the Dene words for the various farm animals and they only giggled a little at my best efforts to say them.

As it is, the only animal name that I had much success saying was a word that sounds like “goo-goose,” which does NOT mean ‘goose’ as I thought, but PIG. Clearly I need to return for more lessons at Le Goff.

The newly-caped Puppy Girl from Le Goff School clearly shares my dog-loving sentiments.

The newly-caped “Puppy Girl” superhero from Le Goff School clearly shares my dog-loving sentiments.

The students were an enormous amount of fun and the younger group joined me in transforming into superheroes. The world already feels like a kinder, better place.

Along with the hand shakes, hugs, and open invitation to “please return whenever you are in the area” (you bet I will!), my time at Le Goff School–crying and otherwise–was magical and will forever live in my heart.

To all of the fabulous students and teachers at Le Goff School, a big ‘mass-ee’ (with apologies for mis-spelling ‘thank you’ in your beautiful language).