TaleBlazers 2015: A Tale of Literacy and Superheroes

Delighted I got to add my left-handed scrawl to Onoway's "Wall Of Honour"

I’m so delighted I got to add my left-handed scrawl to Onoway’s “Wall Of Honour.”

After a vigorous ten days of offering literacy-based presentations in Alberta schools and libraries, I can now add the following numbers to my collection:

Number of students spoken to: 921

Number of kilometres driven: 2,147

Number of new superheroes released into the world: 358

Number of students who’ve met my top-secret superhero alter-ego: 358

Number of students who’ve received my promise about the pay-offs for working hard to become better writers: 592

Overall, it felt like a job well done. In fact, a job befitting a literacy superhero–a role I strive to fill.

Along the way, I amassed many priceless memories–something which continually happens when I am surrounded by my favourite demographic: kids and teenagers.

Here are some of my highlights from this year’s TaleBlazers literacy tour:

Meeting and encouraging new superheroes, including Golden Cheetah, EnviroGirl, Awesome Big Bro, Ninja Bat Boy, Puppy Girl, and Half-Lizard/Half-Spider Boy. They take my breath away with their passion and conviction. The world is already a better place because of them.

Feeling like the grand prize at the fall fair…. because the school that won this year’s Dr. Charles Allard Win-a-Literary Artist Contest used their “golden ticket” to invite ME to speak with their students for the day. Meeting my wonderful hosts and all of the Onoway Elementary students was a huge win for me too! And imagining myself as a massive stuffed teddy bear from the Ex (also how I felt given the fabulous lunch and snacks they served me) was a memory to cherish.

Convincing a student with behavioural tendencies that Grenade Boy wouldn’t make for a positive superhero figure, but that tapping into his love of tigers would be a fantastic mission. And so Tiger Boy emerged. He immediately got to work building his superhero cred by becoming my eager assistant for the rest of the morning. Thanks, Tiger Boy!!!

Enjoying earnest conversations with division one students… Me: “What is an adventure?” Students: “Going on a trip.” “Doing something different.” “Discovering and exploring.” And this wide-eyed response from a Cindy-Lou-Who lookalike: “Doing something brand new. It can be scary. You have to be very brave.” [author’s heart grew three sizes]

Smiling over generous feedback from the teachers and librarians… “Wow, I’ve NEVER seen those grade 6’s listen so well!” and “I learned some new writing tips today too that I’m going to use in the classroom.” Sweet!

This concludes another year of TaleBlazing author visits and I’m grateful to the entire 921 students who I met. As always, they have inspired and energized me for my writing projects in the days ahead.

Thanks also to the teachers, librarians, generous sponsors, and of course to the Young Alberta Book Society (YABS) for arranging these tours. YABS’s mission is to foster literacy and a love of reading among students in Alberta by bringing them together with Alberta’s literary artists and their works. Now, how cool is that???

Steph and Jenn - YABS's fabulous administrators who make EVERYTHING possible... when they're not dancing like chickens in support of charities.

Steph and Jenn – YABS’s fabulous administrators who make EVERYTHING possible… including dancing like chickens to support charity.

 

 

Running: A Love Story (or My 10th Runniversary)

 

My beloved Edmonton river valley donned her prettiest fall party frock for the occasion.

The Edmonton river valley donned her prettiest party frock for the occasion.

Even though my blog has recently been top-heavy with posts about running, today’s milestone leaves me with no other option but to write another one. This is because – *drum roll, please* – it’s my 10th running anniversary. (Runniversary? Runner-versary?)

Effective today, I’ve been a dedicated runner for ten years. But my relationship with running began long before that – back when I was a university student. At that time, I had an irregular-at-best running routine.

Meanwhile, my brother Derrick was becoming an incredibly committed runner. And with many of his earliest races happening in Kingston – where I was living and studying at the time – I went and watched him race at many of them. The energy and emotion when the starter pistol went and also at the finish line, always left me choking back tears – and this when my own sporadic running had pretty much fallen off.

Derrick has raced every distance from 800 metres to 100 miles. His daily running streak dates back to Christmas day 1988.

Derrick has raced every distance from 800 metres to 100 miles. His daily running streak dates back to Christmas day 1989.

Clearly running was striking some chords for me too but I never imagined myself actually running and definitely not racing. Years of intense, confidence-shredding gym classes from my formative years had convinced me that athletics were best avoided.

So when I got to pick some of my high school courses in grade nine, I had one guiding principle: no gym classes. I stuck to that for my entire five years of high school. And hey, that’s okay, I told myself. You’re better at academics than athletics anyway. So no big deal.

It actually was a big deal though and over the years, I gradually started breaking my own rule. I was a good swimmer and eventually became a swimming instructor and lifeguard. But still, I never saw myself as an athlete and rationalized that swimming was just “something that anyone could do given enough classes.” And besides, it could lead to a good summer job. (It did.)

Then at my sister’s invitation, I joined her for some aerobics classes and eventually I tried them all – high-impact, low-impact, tae bo, step, etc. I fell in love with feeling fit and while I met many wonderful, supportive instructors, I also crossed paths with some whose methods were gritty reminders of those gym teachers from my earlier years. And to add to that, I was tiring of indoor aerobics classes.

The turning point soon followed… My kids both signed up for the only sport available to students at their small elementary school: cross-country running. While cheering them and their teammates on, I was again surrounded by the energy, the camaraderie, and the adrenaline rush of running.

Derrick after a very long run...

Derrick after running a crazy long distance.

And again, that same choked-up feeling moved into the back of my throat. Something had to give. And it was me…

I phoned my brother, Derrick, who had become a successful race director and running coach, in addition to being a talented runner with several course records to his name. I cautiously asked him if he thought I might possibly become a runner too.

I don’t remember his exact answer but it was something like “Hell, yeah, and here’s how to get started…”

My first race ever. "Pets In The Park." Spoiler alert: this run

My first race ever – “Pets In The Park” with my beautiful Tassie. [Spoiler alert: this race is a key scene in my first book, Dog Walker.]

The rest, as they say, is history. I’m now a four-season runner who’s run dozens of races with distances ranging from five kilometres to half marathons… and half marathon number eight follows in just nine days.

Another early running companion; Reilly, my handsome Newf-lab cross.

Another early running companion: Reilly, my handsome Newf/lab/teddy bear cross.

That brings me to today – my tenth runniversary – where the celebration begins by juicing up my most potent “Mean Green” (romaine, swiss chard, spinach, kale, orange, pear, cucumber, watermelon, plum – a.k.a. whatever is in my crisper),

My most potent Mean Green juice

…channeling some extra superhero inspiration,

SpiderMable, Edmonton's favourite new superhero.

SpiderMable, Edmonton’s favourite new superhero.

…and heading outdoors with my running partner.

Zolli and me, long-time running buddies

Zolli and me: long-time running buddies

Feel free to wish me a happy tenth runniversary if you see me on the trails. I’ll keep an eye out for you!

Photo credit: nice man in the river valley

Photo Credit: Nice Man In The River Valley

 

Many thanks to Derrick Spafford of Spafford Health and Adventure (www.healthandadventure.com) for the extensive coaching and support which led to this special runniversary. 

SHA-logo2

Run (And Write) For Life

"That writer who runs a lot"

“That writer who runs a lot”

Something I often hear when I first meet fellow-writers in person is this: “Hey, aren’t you that writer who runs a lot?”

Because I regularly post on Facebook and Twitter (@karen_sp_fitz), I’m not really surprised that people know this about me. Still, that comment always makes my heart soar as it captures my two passions: running and writing.

As my title suggests, I plan to do both for life. And thankfully, they complement one another perfectly; I generally write until I need a physical or a mental break, at which time I run. And while running, my children’s stories are streaming through my head leaving me inspired and energized to resume writing by the time I return home.

I don't know how many kilometres I ran before these stories gelled n my head.

I don’t know how many kilometres I ran before these stories gelled in my head.

While I’ve been writing professionally for over fifteen years, I’ve had a casual flirtation with running for much longer. Then about ten years ago, running became an essential part of my life. Since then, it has helped power me through two published novels, and through several other manuscripts and works-in-progress.

For the past ten years, I’ve not only written many stories and run thousands of kilometres, but I’ve participated in races ranging from five-kilometre runs to half marathons (21.1km) and I’ve loved all most of them. As an added bonus, most have supported charities, which means I’ve helped fundraise for wildlife conservation, MS research, teen shelters, breast and “below-the-belt” cancer research, etc.

 

Some of my running logs, race bibs and bling from the past ten years.

Some of my running logs, race bibs and bling from the past ten years.

To add to that list, I ran a race last weekend that I’ve long wanted to participate in: the Rotary Run For Life in Stony Plain, Alberta.

This event is a fundraiser for mental health issues relating to suicide awareness and prevention–something which I believe few people haven’t been affected by, either personally or through loved ones. That alone felt like an excellent reason to run the event. And so I was solidly in.

Meeting up with friends at the race kit pick-up the previous day.

Meeting up with friends at the race kit pick-up the previous day.

With a number of possible distances offered (5k run/walk, 10k run and half marathon), my gut instinct was to register for my favourite: the half marathon. I love the adrenalin-laced starts and the push-till-you-drop finishes, and what I equally love is those long, glorious kilometres in between.

But because I had previously committed to running another half-marathon just four weeks later, I instead opted to run the 10-kilometre distance. My grand plan was to treat it like a speed workout before my upcoming half marathon.

Don't trust the confident smile. This woman seriously does NOT know how to run a 10k.

Don’t trust the confident smile. This woman seriously does NOT know how to run a 10k.

As always, I spent some time in the days leading up the race visualizing myself on the course–or trying to. That wasn’t so easily done this time; I haven’t run many 10k’s ever, and I hadn’t run any for at least five years. What does a 10k race even look like? What am I supposed to think about? How am I supposed to feel while I’m running it? As for that post-run program, how does a highly-emotional writer handle that?

I couldn’t come up with any answers so I finally resigned myself to doing something that terrifies me: I would just wing it on race day.

That’s exactly what I did and three days later, I’m still trying to process everything and make sense of the experience.

Did anyone ask me how I feel about my mom running without me??? Did they???

Here are the conclusions I’ve drawn:

That a 10k race–ran hard and well–is no easier than a half marathon; it’s just a different beast altogether. (Oh, and mission accomplished with the speed work; met my target time while finishing first in my age category.)

That the memorial markers along the trail honouring the lives of those lost to suicide would make me cry regardless of whether I was running a 10k or a half marathon. And that’s okay.

That Stony Plain is a pretty town filled with gorgeous murals, beautiful old buildings, a bong shop, a yarn store I need to return to, a whole lot of heart, and other stuff too.

Running for Tony... and others.

Running for Tony… and others.

That somewhere between kilometres five and six, I found the exact running visual I needed: collecting all of the stigmas relating to mental illness and suicide, and kicking them to the curb. With. Every. Stride.

That the nicest people in the world, as always, are the volunteers directing the runners through the course while cheering us on.

That the “Kwad Squad” push-team athletes who were navigating physically-disabled people through the course in customized chariots are both kick-ass runners and angels in compression wear.

That once I got on the course and started running, everything I’d worried about in the days leading up to it faded away.

That a suicide awareness and prevention event can be a damn good time.

That like other hard issues in our world, there’s only one way to tackle suicide awareness and prevention: together.

The fabulous Team Amerongen (minus Robyn, who was already running), of which I got to be a guest member. Hurray!

The fabulous Team Amerongen (minus Robyn, who was already running), of which I got to be a guest member. Hurray!

Happy Karen Day (and is Victoria trying to upstage me???)

 

birthday pie

You know those people who go to great lengths to make sure nobody knows it’s their birthday?

I’m the polar opposite. I even tell strangers, like store clerks for instance, that it’s my birthday. And while I’m at it, I’m careful to speak loudly enough so others can hear me too. That’s how much I love birthdays. (Did I mention it’s today??? My birthday?)

I still smile thinking about the many happy memories from my past birthdays. For example, when I was growing up on the family farm between Napanee and Kingston, Ontario, it was pretty much understood that although a birthday cake is perfectly fine, a birthday PIE is even better.

pie

Hello, beautiful!

In my family, the birthday boy or girl was allowed to choose the dessert at dinner. My older sister always chose pumpkin pie. My next brother always chose blueberry cheesecake (not pie; there’s one in every family…) My youngest brother always chose banana cream pie. And for me, it was rhubarb pie–the epitome of birthday happiness.

Since my birthday (May 18th, in case you missed it) arrives near the beginning of the Canadian growing season, it was often questionable whether enough rhubarb would have grown yet to make a complete pie.

rhubarb

Grow, darn you! GROW!

My mom was resourceful however and she occasionally made me my own mini rhubarb pie, and for the rest of the family, she made an apple or pumpkin pie. [Read: a lesser species of pie.]

Mom

Mom, rhubarb-pie maker extraordinaire

This year, my birthday brushes up against that of a certain queen from England who was famously “not amused.” This is not the first time it has happened. And as a child, can I tell you what I was not amused by?

Getting upstaged by a dead queen on my birthday.

grade 3

Who would upstage this little girl? For shame, Queen V!

The year that I turned seven, we didn’t celebrate my birthday on our farm as usual; instead, we went to my aunt’s house in nearby Napanee. My grandparents were also coming into town from Hay Bay for the celebration. And needless to say, Mom was bringing a rhubarb pie for dinner.

Even when it wasn’t my birthday, visiting Aunt Lorraine was always wildly fun. Along with my uncle and two cousins, she lived in the funkiest apartment ever above Uncle Doug’s TV and appliance shop. Given the riot of mischief we always got up to with my cousins, I couldn’t possibly have anticipated my birthday celebration more eagerly.

Aunt L

Aunt Lorraine, artist and all-round awesome woman.

Best of all, their rooftop balcony overlooked the Napanee fairgrounds where, I’d been told, fireworks would be set off once it got dark outside. Birthday presents, rhubarb pie, cousins to get in trouble with–and FIREWORKS too? I could hardly believe my good fortune.

Sure enough, the evening unfolded as expected. The adults ate at their own table. The kids had uncharacteristic freedom at their own “kids’ table” in the kitchen. The cousins all fought. The kids took turns watching around the corner in case any adults decided to “sneak in” on us. We found creative places to hide our food so it looked like we’d eaten enough first course to get dessert. The adults shouted out “What’s going on?” and “Do I need to come in there?” to our angelic replies of “Nothing” and “No, we’re being good.” We spilled fruit punch, flicked food at each other and used words we wouldn’t dare say in front of our parents. In short, it was a glorious celebration.

And then came the fireworks.

I should mention that as a rule, I didn’t (and still don’t) like loud things. I’m afraid of power tools (let’s not ponder a chainsaw or an electric drill severing or impaling one’s limbs), I don’t ride jet-skis or other loud modes of transportation, and I share my dog’s horror with the vacuum cleaner and with the paper shredder in my office.

fireworks 2

Oh, glorious fireworks!

But that night, as schoolhouses burned, rockets blasted into the heavens, and streaks of colour etch-a-sketched outward in blazing colour, I was the happiest birthday girl ever.

My siblings and my cousins started trickling back into the house before the display was over–presumably to resume fighting and scavenging for seconds on dessert and to play with my birthday toys, but I was held rapt in the chilly outdoors until the last starburst of colour had faded and the final wails and sizzles had dissolved.

Upon re-entering the apartment, one of the adults commented that I must “really like fireworks.”

fireworks 1

More fireworks… because you can’t get enough of them.

“It was great,” I’d said. “Napanee did that for my birthday.”

At that point, the know-it-all “olders”–my sister and my oldest cousin–started laughing at me.

“Really? For you? The fireworks were for Victoria Day!”

I was stricken and began scrolling back through my mind. I vaguely remembered hearing something about Victoria Day but I hadn’t paid much attention at school all week because I was too preoccupied by–you guessed it–my birthday.

“I knew that already,” I said, ever eager to shrug off the dumb little sister/cousin persona that I wore like an over-sized dunce cap.

That was the best comeback I could summon up and I’m sure they knew better than to believe me. Oddly though, I don’t remember holding a grudge against those snooty olders for dashing my childhood fantasy about the fireworks. But there was somebody who I definitely blamed.

I am not amused either, Vicky.

I am not amused either, Vicky.

I’ll leave you to figure out who that person was.

Karen Day

Happy Victoria Karen Day, everyone!

The Lesser-Known Writing Stages

As a former teacher and a visiting author, I have spoken to thousands of students about the writing process. In fact, I’m sure I could rhyme off the conventional stages in my sleep.

But as I rework my latest manuscript, several lesser-known stages of writing have loomed more largely…

1)

The "holy crap, I will never make sense of all these arrows and scribbles and stickies" stage.

The “holy crap, I will never make sense of all these arrows and scribbles and stickies” stage.

2)

The "will anyone other than my mom, my dad, and my dog ever think this story is even remotely relevant or interesting" stage.

The “will anyone other than my mom, my dad, and my dog ever think this story is relevant” stage.

3)

The "budge over, puppy; I need that dog bed more than you do" stage. *cue sobbing author in fetal position*

The “budge over, puppy; I need that dog bed more than you do” stage. *cue author in fetal position*

4)

The "maybe I'm getting a cold--or the flu--or the bubonic plague and THAT'S why my brain is totally shot" stage.

The “maybe I’m getting a cold–or the flu–or the bubonic plague which explains why my brain is totally shot” stage.

5)

The "there isn't enough chocolate in the house--maybe in all of Edmonton--to get me through this manuscript" stage.

The “there isn’t enough chocolate in the house–maybe not in all of Edmonton–to get me through these revisions” stage.

6)

The "I'm hopeless because real writers use simple 'cut' and 'paste' commands on their computers, yet I need tape, glue sticks and scissors" stage.

The “I’m hopeless because real writers do ‘cut’ and ‘paste’ on their computers but I need tape, glue sticks and scissors” stage.

7)

The "my friends are sympathetic but I sometimes fear they don't fully understand me" stage.

The “my friends are sympathetic but they sometimes don’t fully understand me” stage.

8)

The "I am otherwise unemployable and under-motivated to find another job so might as well limp back to ye olde writing desk and scribble out another word or two" stage...

The “my heart breaks at the thought of finding another job, so I might as well limp back to ye olde writing desk” stage…

…because nobody will thank me if I don’t, right? And if I do–

–maybe. Just maybe, I’ll churn out a word or two that might make a difference to someone. To someone other than me, my parents, and my dog. Which, come to think of it, isn’t a bad start after all.

Story Avenue: Where Creative Magic Lives

My session is entitled "Picking On Your Protagonist." The students were exceptional at using picture cues and "Karen's PRO Writing Tips" to create stories with multiple plot twists. I look forward to hearing more from these budding authors in the future!

My session is entitled “Picking On Your Protagonist.” The students were exceptional at using picture cues and “Karen’s PRO Writing Tips” to create stories with multiple plot twists. I look forward to reading more stories by these budding young authors in the future!

Each year, the Young Alberta Book Society (YABS) and its supporters–with a special nod to Delton teacher-librarian Kathy Oster–spearhead an event called Story Avenue. Geared toward grades 5 and 6 students from Edmonton’s City Centre area, the objective is to promote literacy by bringing the students together with professional authors and illustrators from Alberta.

The event also relies on corporate sponsorship and we are all grateful to this year’s sponsors, which include:

TD Bank Group, Telus and Landmark Builders. Many thanks to these organizations for making a difference to kids in our local community!

For the two mornings in which Story Avenue 2015 runs (February 12 and 13th), an exuberant group of children’s authors and illustrators collects to inspire a love of books, reading, illustrating and writing. I am proud to be among Alberta artists presenting at Edmonton’s downtown Centre for Education.

Day one of Story Avenue has now wrapped up, and the students worked hard and had fun. They also left with a free signed book from one of the authors or illustrators who worked with them.

IMG_0144

To demonstrate how the students felt about what they did and learned today, I promised my groups that I would turn my blog over to them.

Along with a pseudonym (or a pen name) for each student, here is what they have to say about Story Avenue so far:

I liked talking about writing. What made me proudest was the details I wrote. (iPlayMusic, grade 5)

The proudest thing about my writing would be the problem and three attempts [to solve it]. What I liked best was pretty much everything. (Leo, grade 6)

What I did well were my first-person skills. I liked writing the cat story. (Daemonight, grade 5)

What I liked best was everything and the character named Mud. (Darthshoot, grade 5)

I liked best that we got to have a wild, fun time with Karen. I got to use my sister in my story. (SMC, grade 6)

Something I did well: I got the story from a painting. I liked best when the cat opened the cage. (Flora, grade 5)

I was proudest about learning new ways to write. What I liked best was writing a story from one picture. (Shado1097, grade 6)

What I did well was banging my character’s head and writing my story. (Captain Sponge, grade 5)

What I liked best was that you gave us tips on how to write a story and meeting a real author. I was proudest about finding a problem and solving it. (Rihanna, grade 6)

What I liked best was I got to be creative. I was proudest that I wrote about a book. (Super Coolio, grade 6)

What I liked best about our writing session was EVERYTHING. (Marshmallow Man, grade 5)

Something I did well was I looked at a picture of a very colourful bird and I wrote about it. (Jeff, grade 6)

What I liked best was that Karen’s workshop is so fun. The protagonist is telling the story. (Terrier The Protagonist, grade 5)

It was fun and I like when we did names to describe the words. I put lots of detail in my writing. (Artist, grade 5)

I like the cool ideas I got from different views. I improved so much this year. (Melody, grade 6)

What I liked best was learning the fun things and thinking of new things. (Compoloompa, grade 5)

I like the learning and the writing. I am proud of the action. (Doctor Who, grade 6)

We got to write a story. I am proudest of writing the describing words. (Monkey, grade 5)

I liked writing our stories. I was proudest of how I was in the eyes of the bird. (Teeth, grade 5)

I liked best the specific word exercise at the beginning of the class. I am proud of the dialogue and my writing. (Paris, grade 6)

Something I liked best was finding a way to like writing. I am proud of writing a story and learning new skills. (Maska, grade 6)

I liked learning about writing. I liked explaining the protagonist. (Piano Player, grade 6)

 

As a second-year presenter at Story Avenue, I can honestly say that this event is a highlight for me. The students, their willingness to try new tasks, and their eagerness to learn are a huge draw. And just as the Alberta artists strive to inspire their students, I think we all agree about something else: that the students inspire us too. Such is the magic of Story Avenue.

Hate Mail by Monique Polak (Orca Book Publishers)

7754

I know I have to make an effort. Todd is my cousin.

“Think we might see a Dash 8?” I ask him.

“Do you mean the Bombardier Q400 turboprop?”

“I guess.”

“The Dash 8 Bombardier Q400 turboprop arrives at 2:07 PM from Radisson. The Dash 8 Bombardier Q400 turboprop was released in 2000. It has the longest fuselage in the series.”

“How do you know stuff like that?”

“Fuselage is the tube-shaped body of the plane.”

“You memorized that, right?”

“Uh-huh,” Todd says to his shoes.

“You don’t think that’s a little weird?”

“The Dash 8 Bombardier Q400 turboprop is more fuel efficient than the Dash 8 Bombardier Q200…”

So goes the first conversation between teenage protagonist, Jordie, and his cousin, Todd. Along with their parents, they are visiting the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Airport in Montreal. Todd has autism and is passionate about all things airplane-related, so it is not surprising that the nearest airport is his favourite place to go on outings.

I especially like this dialogue between the two boys because it reveals much about their characters–about Todd’s love of airplanes, about Jordie’s concern with appearing “normal” (or in the very least, not weird) and about Jordie’s strained relationship with his cousin.

Before Todd’s arrival at Jordie’s high school, Jordie has the high-school scene well in hand. He is a good student; he is surrounded by friends; and he is enjoying the attention of Samantha, a kind, pretty girl with an intoxicating sweet, lemony aroma (“No one else smells that good”).

Unfortunately Jordie’s school and community are not welcoming toward special-needs learners. So when Todd starts attending Jordie’s school, Todd is bullied by the other students, including Jordie’s best friend, Tyrone, who locks Todd in a bathroom stall while laughing at his distress cries. To make matters worse, Todd’s parents just received an appalling letter stating that among other things, they “should put that freak down, put him out of his misery.”

As a reader, the most disturbing thing about this situation is that despite this book being a work of fiction–one of sixteen teen novels by award-winning author Monique Polak–the letter, or the hate mail, is based on a real-life news story. When working with grade nine English students at Riverdale High School in Pierrefonds, Quebec, Ms. Polak learned about a hateful letter that was recently written about an autistic child. That letter soon became a key element in this novel.

To back away from Hate Mail momentarily, it’s significant to note that Ms. Polak is no stranger to tackling difficult issues in her writing. Animal abuse (Junkyard Dog), teenage prostitution (The Game), relationship violence (So Much It Hurts), and survival within a WWII concentration camp (What World Is Left) are several difficult themes that she has previously addressed. Once again, Ms. Polak has proven herself adept and sensitive in creating believable, conflicted characters around a tough theme, and I admire her refusal to candy-coat them.

But to step back into Hate Mail, Jordie is guilt-ridden about ignoring Todd at school, especially when Todd is being bullied by the other students. Particularly given their intolerance, Jordie is afraid that the other students will see him differently upon learning that their new victim–the ultra-sensitive, armpit-scratching newcomer–is his cousin.

Just as Jordie is conflicted about whether to disclose their relationship and to speak up for him, Todd’s mother faces her own dilemma. Should she ignore the hateful letter, or should she go public with it? And what if in doing so, Aunt Anna exposes her sensitive son to even more unwanted attention or bullying?

At the risk of providing a spoiler, Aunt Anna’s words sum up the position that Jordie ultimately adopts: “Sometimes it’s better to stand up. Even if it’s hard!” That action alone is beautiful and courageous.

Another beautiful thing about Hate Mail is this: that Ms. Polak transformed an ugly, horrible letter into a tender, powerful story that young people will relate to. I highly recommend it to middle-grade and young-adult readers, and offer my congratulations to both Ms. Polak and to her student advisors at Riverdale High School.

Local Kidlit Authors: One Of Edmonton’s Best-Kept Secrets?

 

A smattering of kidlit books by Edmonton and area authors. This is just what I could readily lay my hands on in my person collection. There are way more!

A smattering of kidlit books by Edmonton and area authors. There are waaaaay more!!!

I’m going to tell you one of Edmonton’s best-kept secrets… in just a moment. First, I digress…

…because this best-kept secret is not supposed to be a secret at all. In fact, I’ve told it to many people over the years, yet somehow the word isn’t fully getting out. So today, I’m using my blog to shout this message out to the universe:

Edmonton is CRAWLING with children’s authors. LOUSY with them, in fact.

And you want to know something else? They’re really GOOD!

So in preparation for this week’s event, “Smorgasbook: A Youth Literature Buffet” (Wed. Nov. 12th, 6:30 pm, Whitemud Library, 4211-106 St), here is a not-everything-you-need-to-know-but-the-best-I-can-do guide to Edmonton’s children and teen authors.

The first book in the Ehrich Weisz series by Marty Chan. The second book in the series soon follows.

“Demon Gate” is the first book in the Ehrich Weisz Chronicles by Marty Chan. The second book in the series soon follows. And since it’s my blog, I’m also going to put in a special plug for my favourite series among Marty’s juvenile titles: Barnabas Bigfoot. Who can resist a bigfoot with small feet?!

Frost is my favourite book by Nicole Luiken, a long-time Edmontonian. I was captivated by the speculative element and by the characters' northern lifestyle.

Frost is my favourite book by Nicole Luiken, a long-time Edmontonian. I was captivated by the characters’ northern lifestyle and by the sometimes-creepy speculative element. I dare you to read it!

I can't talk about Edmonton authors without including something by my dear, late friend and mentor, Mary Woodbury. Merron's Ghosts is the final book that Mary released. I'm sure I'll feel like reading it some day. You might say I'm still in denial about her sudden passing nearly two years ago.

I can’t talk about Edmonton authors without including at least one title by my dear friend and mentor, Mary Woodbury. “Merron’s Ghosts” is the final book that Mary released and I look forward to reading it. Some day.  You might say I’m still in denial about Mary’s sudden passing almost two years ago.

Among Glen Huser's best known titles are his GG Award winner Stitches, and the young adult book that followed, Skinnybones And The Wrinkle Queen. Glen currently lives in Vancouver but Edmonton was his home for many years. Like Mary Woodbury, I also consider Glen one of my mentors and can't leave him unrepresented here.

Among Glen Huser’s best known titles are his GG Award winner, “Stitches” and the young adult book that followed entitled “Skinnybones And The Wrinkle Queen.” Glen currently lives in Vancouver but Edmonton was his home for many years. As with Mary Woodbury, I had the good fortune to cross paths with Glen when I was just beginning to write fiction for young people. I’m lucky to consider Glen one of my mentors as well.

Another highly versatile authors, Gwen Molnar's "Casey Templeton Mysteries" diverge widely from her previous titles. Imagine going from writing rhyming animal poetry ("Animal Rap") and "I Said To Sam" then somehow wrote a YA novel called "Hate Cell." Wow. Just wow.

A highly versatile author, Gwen Molnar’s “Casey Templeton Mysteries” diverge widely from her previous titles. Imagine writing adorable animal rhymes (“Animal Rap”) and “I Said To Sam,” then somehow writing YA novels called “Hate Cell” and “Old Bones.” Wow. Just wow.

Rita Feutl is a highly versatile Edmonton author who's perhaps best known for Rescue At Fort Edmonton. Rita has also co-written picture books with fellow Edmontonian Debby Waldman, and Rita's latest offering, Bike Thief, is a gritty YA title that diverges significantly from her earlier titles.

Rita Feutl is another versatile Edmonton author who’s perhaps best known for her middle-grade novel, “Rescue At Fort Edmonton.” Rita has also co-written picture books with fellow Edmonton author Debby Waldman. Rita’s latest offering, “Bike Thief,” is a gritty YA title for reluctant readers at the high-school level. Something I love best about this story: it’s told from the point-of-view of the actual bike thief. Very cool.

Sadly, I couldn't lay my hands on any of Joan Marie Galat's children's titles in my personal collection just now... a sure sign of their popularity among my younger friends and family members. I will however offer a nod to Joan's award-winning "The Discovery Of Longitude"--one of my favourite books by this prolific Edmonton-area author.

Sadly, I couldn’t lay my hands on any of Joan Marie Galat’s children’s titles in my personal collection just now (a sure testament to their popularity among my younger friends and family members). Instead, here are cover pictures of Joan’s adult titles, “Give Yourself A Pep Talk” and “Day Trips From Edmonton.” As for Joan’s children’s books, I can’t resist offering special mention to Joan’s award-winning “The Discovery Of Longitude”–one of my favourite picture books–and to her brilliant “Dot To Dot In The Sky” series about the night sky. Joan’s newest title, “Branching Out: How Trees Are Part of our World” also promises to be an engaging read.

Although Sue Farrell Holler and Karen Bass live north of Edmonton (in Grande Prairie and Hythe respectively), I'd like to acknowledge them here too. Both are fine children's writers and I'm delighted to have their titles among my kid lit collection.

Although Sue Farrell Holler and Karen Bass live north of Edmonton (in Grande Prairie and Hythe respectively), I’d like to acknowledge them here too. Both are fine children and teen authors who frequently travel to Edmonton to participate in local book events. I’m delighted to have their titles among my kidlit collection.

Finally, these are my offerings. Vanish and Dog Walker are both written for 10-14 year-old readers and are set in Edmonton. Although they are geared toward reluctant readers, I am thrilled to learn that they are similarly read and enjoyed by avid readers.

Finally, these are my book offerings. “Vanish” and “Dog Walker” are both written for 10-14 year-old readers and are set in Edmonton. Although they are geared toward reluctant readers, I am thrilled that they are similarly read and enjoyed by avid readers.

But do you remember my earlier comment about this being an imperfect guide to Edmonton kidlit authors? At the risk of sounding terribly haphazard, the above books are those which I could readily locate within my personal collection. In other words, this blog barely scratches the surface when it comes to all that Edmonton and area authors are turning out for young readers.

In the very least though, I hope that I’ve succeeded in whetting your appetite for finding out more about what Edmonton’s professionally-published kidlit authors have to offer.

As for “Smorgasbook: A Youth Literature Buffet,” it will feature several of the local authors I’ve mentioned above, among others.

There will be opportunities to purchase signed, personalized copies of books, and the speaker’s line-up includes:

Joan Marie Galat, “Branching Out: How Trees Are Part Of Our World”

Jim Sellers, “Jackie The Brave”

Karen Spafford-Fitz, “Vanish”

Georgia Graham, “Nana’s Summer Surprise”

Bill Bunn, “Duck Boy”

Natasha Deen, “Guardian”

Larry Loyie & Constance Brissenden, “Residential Schools, With The Words & Images Of Survivors”

Kate Asha Boorman, “Winterkill”

Lorna Schultz Nicholson, “Hoop Dreams,” “Puckster’s Christmas Hockey Tournament,” and “Puckster Plays The Hockey Mascots”

and Marty Chan, “Demon Gate.”

I look forward to hearing the various authors speak about their new titles and to growing my collection of kidlit books by local authors. I will be sure to take my Christmas shopping list to Whitemud Library with me on Wednesday, and I look forward to meeting friends and book lovers there. I would love to see you among them.

 

I Am A Taleblazer, Hear Me ROAR!

As a children’s author, I find that the best professional development involves reconnecting with kids and teenagers whenever possible. And once again, the Young Alberta Book Society’s “Taleblazers” program afforded me that opportunity throughout October.

Taleblazers features a fall touring program designed to promote literacy by connecting authors, illustrators, and storytellers with students across the province.

Guess who thought she was going on tour with her mom? (Oops! Can someone else please tell her for me next time?)

Guess who thought she was going on tour with her mom…

This is my second year of Taleblazing and once again, I returned with my thoughts spinning over the many special moments along the way.

Connecting with young readers in Bonnyville.

Connecting with young readers in Bonnyville, Alberta.

Memorable Questions: I am continually amazed by the thought-provoking and sometimes hilarious questions that students ask, such as–

  • How many books do you think you’ll write before you die? (Ummm…)
  • Are there any writers who you think of as your rivals? (Cue reality tv show… duelling authors…. pen mightier than the sword, etc, etc)
  • Why is your last name so long? (I’ve always had this thing about hyphens–and putting together random names–especially when they have lots of–uh–F’s in them–and isn’t the Z at the end a sweet touch?)

TerryFox

The Terry Fox Run READ: I met a lovely student in Bonnyville who WALKED the Terry Fox Run the week before my visit. This might not be unusual except that her ulterior motive was to finish reading Vanish. I’m happy to report that K., nose in book, successfully completed both Vanish and the Terry Fox Run without incident.

How wonderful to see so many Orca titles at the library in Veteran!

Wonderful to see so many Orca titles at the Veteran Municipal Library.

Moral Dilemma: Some of my books were stolen from a school library that I visited. While I don’t endorse theft, I admit to feeling a titch flattered. I mean, of all the possible books to steal, he/she stole MINE. (Does that make me a bad person?)

Inside the stunning, three-year-old Sheep River Library in southern Alberta.

I presented to students from Turner Valley and Black Diamond inside the stunning, three-year-old Sheep River Library in southern Alberta.

Lesson Learned: The group that shuffles, wiggles, and paces more than any other group EVER can also be completely tuned to you. Many thanks to the active and actively-engaged grade 4/5 students of Black Diamond for teaching me this!

Warm praise for the teachers and librarians who work tirelessly to foster literacy with their students. Isabelle Mineau of École Dr. B. Brosseau School is one such literacy warrior!

Warm praise for the teachers and librarians who work tirelessly to foster literacy. Librarian Isabelle Mineau (left) of École Dr. B. Brosseau School is one such literacy warrior.

Success Reveals Itself In Diverse Ways:

  • when the too-cool-for-school-“here’s-a-special-insult-just-for-you” student leans in to catch everything you’re saying, then actively participates in the Q&A session at the end.
  • when the student who physically can’t sit still voluntarily leaves the carpet to go and shuffle at the edge of the group–a strategy that he knows helps him listen better and retain information.
  • when the unreadable teacher leaves off with her unfinished stack of marking, finally makes eye contact, and thanks you at the end of the presentation.
  • when the shy student with speech problems summons up the courage to ask you a question and it’s a question that NO OTHER STUDENT has ever asked and that you’re DYING to answer. (“What else do you know about that mean teacher at the start of Vanish?” Love it!!!)
  • when the students leave the library pestering their librarian to catalogue your books FAST because they NEED to read them RIGHT AWAY!
  • when the special needs student seeks you out afterward to tell you her puppy story and to assure you she’d “worn her thinking cap” the whole time you were talking.
  • when you receive waves and calls of “Bye, Karen!” as you drive out of town. [Related: the best way to meet friends in an unfamiliar small town is to present to the entire school. In this instance, the student population was 56.] Thank you, Veteran Alberta!
What is it that makes libraries feel so inviting? The books? The kids? The people who work there? All of the above?

What makes libraries so irresistible? a) the books; b) the kids; c) the people who work there; or d) all of the above. I’m going with D for the win!

Best Answer Ever:

Me: So where do story ideas come from?

Grade four student: From the back right corner of your imagination.

Me: YES! *happy-dances*  *wishes she had thought of that herself*

I have been referring to Dale of 24-7 Brigleys Towing as "Patron Saint of Stranded Alberta Authors."

Dale from 24-7 Brigleys Towing is “The Patron Saint of Stranded Alberta Authors.” Just ask anyone. Or at least me.

Small-Town Kindness: In Coronation–a small town in east-central Alberta–the clutch on my truck jammed. I was stuck and in the process of cancelling some upcoming visits when Dale of “24-7 Brigleys Towing” arrived on the scene. After tinkering with the clutch pedal, he soon uttered the words I’d abandoned hope of hearing: “Looks like you’re good to go.” And then he wouldn’t accept any payment because “It doesn’t really feel like I did anything.” Seriously. SERIOUSLY??? Hopefully Dale and his family are enjoying their signed copy of Dog Walker.

 

Despite the many “memorables,” the best thing about hanging out with kids is the kids themselves and their unique way of reminding me that what I do–the writing, the touring, the presenting–is important. I have made several career changes over the years, but all have focussed on trying to make a difference in kids’ lives. I can truly say that the students I met as a Taleblazer in October have, in turn, made a difference in mine.

#luckyauthor

Blogging from Bonny Bonnyville, Alberta

 

Welcome to Bonnyville, Karen Spafford-Fitz. Thank you, Bonnyville. I feel very welcome indeed!

“Welcome to Bonnyville, Karen Spafford-Fitz.”
“Thank you, Bonnyville. I feel very welcome indeed!”

Tomorrow marks my first author visit as part of the TaleBlazers 2014 tour. This program is part of the Young Alberta Book Society’s annual campaign to promote literacy by bringing working artists into school and libraries throughout the province.

My first visit of the 2014 tour happens in Bonnyville, a small town which is a three-hour drive northeast of Edmonton. The sunshine and the ever-present big Alberta sky made for beautiful driving conditions today. The few clouds were hanging low enough that I felt like I could reach up and tear off pieces then stuff them into my mouth like handfuls of sun-bleached cotton candy.

And while I sometimes hear people complain that “Alberta is so flat” (and that’s a problem for WHAT reason???), I find the rolling countryside irresistible and soothing. At several points along the way, I was tempted to pull over, swap out my walking shoes for running shoes, and go for a run through the golden, hay-stubbled fields among the massive jellyroll-styled hay bales.

I resisted though and continued following that beautiful open sky all the way to Bonnyville, at which time my usual touring routine kicked in: checking into my hotel, then locating my school in readiness for the next day’s visit.

École Dr. Bernard Brosseau School grades 5-8; English and French immersion

École Dr. Bernard Brosseau School
grades 5-8; English and French immersion

Sure enough, I easily found École Dr. Brosseau School. At 6:30 pm on a Sunday, it was empty but for a family playing in the nearby park. The quiet however was perfect as it gave me an opportunity to savour this lovely greeting.

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Needless to say, I can’t WAIT to meet the wonderful school librarian who has spearheaded the school’s “Read It 4WRD 2014” program. And of course I’m especially excited about meeting the students!

The Happy Valley Family Restaurant's "Combo Dinner For One," which I have renamed the "Combo Dinner For Three-And-A-Half."

The Happy Valley Family Restaurant’s “Combo Dinner For One,” which I have renamed the “Combo Dinner For Three-And-A-Half.”

I turned next to finding the Chinese restaurant that the hotel clerk recommended. Sure enough, the offerings at the Happy Valley Family Restaurant were as delicious as I’d heard.

And as I head into tomorrow’s sessions with my students, I only hope I can live up to the message contained within my fortune cookie.

"You will be a lion in your own cause."

“You will be a lion in your own cause.”