This fall, we're seeing a simply stunning selection of new books for children and young adults here in Canada and abroad and as we head into November and the 26th annual Canadian Children's Book Week, Books in Canada is gearing up to give readers a comprehensive look at new picture books, fiction and non-fiction for readers of all ages. But, in the meantime, to whet your appetite, four fabulous writers have contributed their thoughts on their latest fictions, giving readers some insight into their own unique creative processes.
We'd also like to congratulate writer Jack Batten whose book, The Man Who Ran Faster Than Anyone: The Story of Tom Longboat just won the Norma Fleck Prize for Creative Non-Fiction, the biggest award of its type in Canada with a prize of $10,000. And we'd like to note the passing of a great Canadian children's author and illustrator, Phoebe Gilman who leaves us a wonderful legacy of story and pictures in books as moving as her award-winning Something From Nothing, as wild and witty as Pirate Pearl, Grandma and the Pirates and the incorrigible Jillian Jiggs series, as rooted in the storytelling tradition as The Gypsy Princess and The Balloon Tree.
Editor, Children's Book Section, Books in Canada
In his closing Note to the Reader, Paul Yee writes that he wanted "to create a New World mythology where immigrant stories can be told and re-told." Oral traditions are rooted in the repetition and re-working of stories in order to shape and embellish the mythic world. But how, in a written text, does a writer achieve the particular layering of meaning and wealth of detail that arises through re-telling? In Dead Man's Gold, Yee seems to have found a way. Upon finishing this collection of ten ghost stories, what lingers as hauntingly as the individual storylines is the sense that one has been drawn again and again into a single, often somber tale¨the history of relentless hardship and loss, of dreams and transformations that defined decades of emigration from China to Gold Mountain between the 1850s and 1950s. Yee's stories construct and inhabit this mythic world of Gold Mountain, charting the changing lives both of those who left and those left behind.
While Gold Mountain is, of course, the literal, massive landscape, it is also the brutally discriminatory Canadian immigration measures of the time, the head tax levied only against Chinese immigrants, the closed-door policies denying status to family members. It is the ghettoes where Chinese-Canadians were forced to live, the menial, dangerous, backbreaking work that was reserved for them from generation to generation. And Gold Mountain is always the embodied dream of wealth and respectability, a chance to begin again, that drew those who dared to risk everything, or had nothing to lose.
Against this vast backdrop, Yee sets his array of characters, suitably archetypal in their virtues and frailties. There are faithless lovers and lovers loyal-unto-death. There is the village fool, wise and caring in his ways, but unable to defend himself against his tormentors. There is the poet/dreamer who communes with nature, hearing the dying whispers of the great trees being logged along the coast. And there are devoted wives long separated from their husbands who arrive at last in Gold Mountain, but find themselves unable to cross the great cultural divide. Unable to remain as they are, unable to change, they can only disappear.
Yee notes that the ghost story is a popular narrative form in Chinese culture. It suits his purposes perfectly here, as many of these stories involve acts of injustice and cruelty that demand retribution or restitution. Invoking the spirit realm is often the only way to ensure that justice is done. Ghosts of wronged men and women sour ill-gotten gains-poisoning gold, cracking jade, haunting property¨often wreaking their vengeance on the innocent until the guilty repent and balance is restored. But what that balance may be shifts intriguingly from one tale to another. In one story, a murdered soul requires the body of his murderer as his resting place, while in another tale, a murderer is redeemed by his first act of courageous honesty, an act inspired by his dead brother's undying love.
This is a complex spirit world, offering resolutions that are often subtle and forgiving. It is also the place of last resort for those seeking relief from lives where time and distance have withered dreams, turned loved ones into strangers, and shifted the world under one''s feet. In the last story, set in the1950s, an old man with an Šold school' work-and-save ethic, regrets his limited life experience once he has died. His trendy, consumerist son finds an unexpected¨and thoroughly modern¨way to meet his own traditional obligations to tend to his father's well-being: he drives his father's ghost around the country, so that they both may finally see the world. It is a poignant inversion of many elements of the conventional moral message, as it embraces change and the wisdom of youth. But perhaps the most disturbing intervention of the spirit world, devised by Yee, is its role as a place of refuge for those who cannot hope for a just remedy against the institutionalized discrimination of the state. When two lovers are brutally separated by Canada's draconian immigration policies, it is only their ghosts who can finally Šlive' out their dream, promenading peacefully together along the Vancouver sea wall.
This is the stuff of folktales, the grand struggles of good and evil, love and death, forgiveness and vengeance, given a contemporary resonance in Paul Yee's expert hands. The twists in every story surprise and please with their curious, but fitting symmetry.
In his haunting illustrations that introduce each tale, Harvey Chan captures pivotal images from the stories, often leaving them suspended against a somber, muted background, suggesting an interchange between different realities. The stark images are sometimes disturbing, while the etched look of the works maps great hardship onto people's faces. Chan's pieces successfully complement both the storylines and the general tone of the work. Ideal for junior and intermediate readers who have outgrown more conventional and less complex tales, these sophisticated, suspenseful and topical stories and illustrations will spark their interest.
Deborah Wandal is a lover of gardens, kayaking and children's literature who lives and works in Toronto.
This fall we'll be seeing a stunning crop of young adult novels at the forefront of what's new and exciting in Canadian children's literature. Books in Canada wants to take note of some of these exceptional offerings by asking four writers to talk about the very different ways that their latest novels grew. Last issue, we reviewed Arthur Slade's Tribes and we'll have reviews next month of new novels by Martha Brooks, Gillian Chan and Alan Cumyn. Here's what they had to say about their new fictions!
Gillian Chan's A Foreign Field (Kids Can Press, $6.95, paper, ISBN: 1553373502),relates the story of a young English fighter pilot, training in Canada during the Second World War, and his growing connection to a Canadian family with boys of their own overseas.
"In many ways, A Foreign Field is a book which I have been fated to write and which I have been resisting writing, as it is the book which is the most personal in its genesis. Too young to be a Warbaby, nevertheless the Second World War is something that was always present when I was growing up. Without it, I wouldn't have existed. My very English father would never have hooked up with the Irish South African girl who became my mother if he hadn't been sent to Pretoria as a gunnery instructor after his nerve-wracking escape from France in the summer of 1940. He stayed in the RAF after the war and my childhood was spent on bleak airbases in England and Germany. Stories were always present, not only in the form of books, since both my parents and much older brothers were great readers, but also because both my mother and father were great raconteurs who seemed to make sense of their lives through the stories they told. My mother's were of what seemed to me an impossibly glamorous life, where she was seen as wild because she dated divorced men and entered and won a beauty contest to find the most beautiful girl working for the CTC (Cape to Cairo) department store. It was my father's stories, however, that I loved most, that seemed the most real. As I grew older, I made connections, realizing that I knew many of the characters who peopled these stories ¨my genial "Uncle" Len, who made dancing girls and rabbits out of his pocket handkerchief was the man who'd received the George medal for the feat of bomb disposal which my father described with such awe. As I grew older, although I loved the stories still, I heard them with a slight wariness as my father would wistfully say, "We could write such a book together, my stories with your writing!"
A couple of years ago, I was taking a non-fiction course at McMaster University and had an assignment where I had to interview someone and write an article about them. Dad immediately sprang to mind, and I fixed upon his early war experiences. Here was the opportunity to record some of those stories. The transatlantic phone lines buzzed, and the familiar stories unfolded, but with new details. I approached it methodically, overlaying my father's memories on maps of the German advance in France. As I did this, the enormity of what he had gone through struck me, although he would claim he had had an "easy war." At nineteen, a newly promoted sergeant, he was left with two other men to disable planes to prevent them from falling into the German's hands. They fled on a flatbed lorry, which they loaded with cans of petrol, tins of fruitcake and cartons of cigarettes. They saw the German outriders crest the hill, were stoned by French villagers, narrowly missed being blown up on The Lancastria, the boat sent to evacuate the RAF, and, although they didn't know it at the time, were often behind enemy lines. I kept pressing my dad for how he felt, but he kept saying that he didn't remember. Finally, in exasperation, he said something that became the starting point for A Foreign Field, "We were boys, Gill, just boys!"
Boys, that was what struck me most¨boys being forced to grow up. I brooded about it for weeks, until my father said something else, a throwaway line, "You realize your Uncle Stan lied about his age and was only sixteen when he joined the RAF." I hadn't. My uncle was long dead, dying of cancer in his fifties, and had never talked about the war, not even to his brother. I pieced the story together, a boy who had been out of London only once in his life was sent, within six months of joining up to Texas, Florida, and finally Canada to train as a pilot. By the time he was nineteen and three months old, he had completed the requisite tour of 30 missions, and volunteered to be a pathfinder so he could stay with his crew. They were shot down on the night of October 22nd, 1943 and those who survived spent the rest of the war as prisoners of the Germans.
I found myself looking around at the teenagers I knew, picturing them in the lives of that earlier generation. I was reading a lot of Canadian history, especially of Canada's role in the second World War, and it struck me as what an odd time it must have been for the inhabitants of the small towns alongside the airbases that were created to train pilots. All their young men would have gone, joined up, and here were batches of lonely young foreigners being dropped in their midst. What happened? In exploring that, A Foreign Field was born. Its hero, Stephen Dearborn shares the initials of my uncle, but Stephen's experiences are not his, rather they are an attempt to explore what it must have been like to live through extraordinary times where childhood became a luxury¨a situation that is, all too sadly, still happening around the world today."
Arthur Slade won the 2001 Governor General's Award for his Young Adult novel, Dust. His new novel, Tribes (HarperTrophyCanada, $15.99, paper, ISBN: 0006391702) examines life in a contemporary high school as seen through the anthropological eye of a teenager who is trying to cope with the death of his father.
"Writing a novel is similar to digging up a fossil. In the beginning you stub your mental toe on an idea. You look down but all you see is the bony edge of the concept. As you carefully chip away the surrounding rock the idea takes shape and, after careful, painstaking work (which may involve further chiseling by an editor) you've unearthed the novel and can now show it to the public. But even when you're finished there's a mystery about the process. Where did the idea actually come from? How did it evolve?
Tribes began with voice¨the idea of someone telling a story in anthropological vernacular. It would be a character who possesses an extreme awareness of humanity's past, from the first eukaryote to the present day homo sapiens¨a narrator trapped inside a continual National Geographic TV special. I loved the idea; it was one of those few "eureka" moments that we writers are blessed with, but I was stumped by how to adapt it to a novel. The first attempt was a murder mystery set in a radio station (I was working as a copy writer at the time). That fell flat after several pages. Frustrated, I left the "anthropological novel" alone for a couple of years. In that time I wrote several more books¨mostly in the suspense/fright genre¨always meaning to return to my "eureka" idea.
Then one day I looked outside my front porch at the students slouching towards Saskatoon's Nutana Collegiate and the setting and background characters of the novel became instantly clear. Next, Percy, the narrator, was born¨a boy who sees his high school world through anthropological eyes.
One aspect of the western psyche is that we see ourselves as separate from the rest of humanity. We find the habits of those half-naked bushmen quaint, interesting, and, ultimately, backwards. We forget that we have our own bizarre habits. Can you imagine explaining to a Kung tribesmen that certain grown men will spend hours polishing their cars? Or that we cut our grass because it's more pleasing visually than unkempt grass.
So I saw Percy as someone who would examine "our" rituals and he would start with high school, a place rife with rituals and cliques. Once I had the central idea, the narrator, and a few characters, the novel was simple to write (if you don't count the months of research and rewrites, first at the urging of my wife, then my agent, and finally my editor¨but those are rituals too deep and dark to explore here).
It was a challenging process, quite different than the suspense driven novels I'd written before. Here, character was the fuel to the novel's engine. After the release of Tribes I must admit I was worried that I might alienate the audience I'd built with my genre writing. At the same time I didn't want to be known only as that "fright writing" guy, I wanted the freedom to pursue whichever idea interested me (including "genre" ideas). Writers, like other humans, have to evolve and test their limits with each book. Then they have to pace around their rooms, or their front porches, hoping to stub a mental toe on another good idea."
Alan Cumyn's first novel for young readers, The Secret Life of Owen Skye (Groundwood Books, 144 pages, $18.95 cloth, ISBN: 0888995067), takes readers on a wonderful frothy journey into pains and passions of young Owen's daily life as he tries to cope with being a middle child, falling in love and the trials and tribulations of just being a kid.
"The Secret Life of Owen Skye got its start from a short story that I wrote for Christmas one year for my daughter, Gwen, who had just started to read. I had recently finished my darkest work for adults, Man of Bone, which is about a Canadian diplomat kidnapped and tortured in a small third world country. After that harrowing leap of the imagination, I wanted and needed to work on something light and fun and innocent, and set out telling a straight-faced tall tale of the "olden days" of my own childhood. When I finished it, just a few days before Christmas, I showed it to my wife, who said, "That's very good, Alan. But you have two daughters. You can't just give a story to one of them." So I very quickly wrote another story in the same vein with the same characters for our second daughter Anna. Over the years, as birthdays and other celebrations came up, I added to the collection, and finally shaped it all into a novel.
The stories are very much concerned with a boy's world, which reflects my own childhood growing up with two brothers and no sisters. Owen is the middle child and so was I, and I wanted to work with that interesting dynamic of being close to but between two others. I suppose there are lots of books in which the lead character is an only child or the eldest or youngest, but I can't think of too many with the middle sibling as the lead. But I also thought it would be interesting for my daughters and their friends to get a glimpse of that world. I approached the writing very much the way I approach my adult work, in that there's a terrible effort involved in getting the voice, the perspective right. Perspective is the key to much of my work, and I experiment a lot with point of view, whether I'm writing through the lens of a torture survivor (Man of Bone and Burridge Unbound) or an Alzheimer's sufferer or closet fetishist (Losing It).
The experience of raising children, of course, has helped me remember and relive my own childhood, and I found that it's a delicious realm to explore fictionally. Nobody feels things more than a child, whether it's embarrassment at being scolded by a teacher or absolute joy in rediscovering a long-lost comic book or the exhilaration and fear of harbouring a secret love. It's also a time of great wonder and questioning, a fascination with things both small and huge.
Children, of course, are more intelligent than most of the rest of us older people, they just don't have the same deep bank of experience to draw on. So in writing for kids I found I had to keep a careful balance, to use plain enough language and a simple style but remain subtle and stimulating and not shy away from issues of universal concern, like love and death and fear and illness. In many ways I came to consider this material the antidote to the tortured world of Bill Burridge in Man of Bone and Burridge Unbound: the wonder and sensitivity and great trusting good humour of a free-running childhood, which I believe remains our best hope in a sick and troubled world."
Martha Brooks pushes the boundaries yet again in her YA novel, Confessions of a Heartless Girl (Douglas & McIntyre, $12.95, paper, ISBN: 0888994761), which focuses on a teen who turns a small Manitoba community upside down as she inveigles her way into the hearts and souls of almost everyone en route to her own re-discovery and awakening.
"True Confessions of a Heartless Girl began life as an abandoned short story, called "Heart Line." I had taken it out again, hoping, for reasons I won't get into here, that it could be made into a novella. I really liked the characters, the young adult protagonist, Noreen Stall, and her 20-year-old boyfriend, Wesley Cuthand. Looking over the story again, however, it became apparent to me that the material might be better suited to the structure of a novel. Once I began to write, however, something unexpected happened. I filled the pages with adult characters. I gave them their own up-close points of view and their own stories. Like a mother who longs for adult conversation and concerns, I had grown tired of a strictly young adult world view. My Canadian and American publishers were, at first, lukewarm to the way the novel appeared to be shaping up. Not only did it have a decidedly adult tone, but the omniscient third narrator, the non-linear structure, the past told in the present tense, and the present told in past¨all did not make for a comfortable fit within the existing borders of the YA genre. What was I writing? I was told I had to decide. Finally, I agreed that it was a young adult book even as I clung to the notion that it could also, somehow, be something else. In turn, they clung to the notion that the adult world would have to take a back seat in any young adult story. To be completely fair we were all struggling with what is probably a hybrid.
So I was amazed when, in successive drafts, their advise progressed from cautioning me to pull back from the adult voices to asking me to dig a whole lot deeper. We had reached a place that everyone could embrace: Seventeen-year-old Noreen was still the central figure, but the adult stories, of necessity, had to be explored because she was the catalyst for every one's change¨including her own. By that time, of course, we had all fallen in love with the work and had begun to refer to it as "Our Girl." This really was an exceptional evolution¨ rare, even.
It is difficult for publishers, who, after all, must survive, to take chances. Likewise, it is difficult for artists, who must grow or wither, not to take chances. The balancing act for both, this time, was a refined mediation with the work at its center. Dr. David Jenkinson, professor of young adult Literature here in Manitoba sent me an email after reading
"True Confessions of a Heartless Girl." He praised my publishers for, "responding to the need for YA books for the older adolescent who wants to read about more adult concerns." All I can hope is that this need becomes a demand. Meanwhile, I'll continue to push the boundaries of the genre that has been so very good to me."
With the second Harry Potter film opening mid-November as well as the second installment of The Lord of the Rings, you'll need to know what's hot in the world of fantasy fiction. Here are some of the new titles that are hitting the scene this fall and will lead readers on fantastic voyages of the imagination into an array of inventive new worlds:
The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents: A Story of Discworld
272 pages, $28.00 cloth
Winner of the 2001 Carnegie Award for the Best Children's Book of the Year, Pratchett spins an amazing tale of a motley band of talking rats, looking to find a rat paradise where they can start a civilized society, and lead by an ingenious and constantly conniving cat, Maurice, who is always looking at an opportunity to take advantage of gullible humanity. Maurice is a wonderful rogue, always coming up with a new scam, but even he isn't prepared to face the evil that lurks at the heart of the little town of Bad Blintz. Pratchett inventively uses the story of the Pied Piper of Hamelin as well as an array of folk and fairy tale motifs to create a novel that is dazzlingly hilarious, horrifically frightening and poignantly touching¨a tour de force from every angle.
168 pages, $23.99 cloth
Gaiman is a master fantasist and in his first book for children he plays on folk and fairy motifs to create a chillingly macabre tale of adventure. A supposedly blocked-in door, in fact, takes Coraline into a sinister otherworld ruled by the soul-snatching "other mother" who, for centuries, has been luring children into the darkness of her empty empire. Coraline is on a dangerous quest to find her parents, held captive by the "other mother" and is aided by a large black cat, a trio of shadow children and a mysterious stone that allows her to see lost souls. Gaiman is certainly inventive and readers will long remember the "other mother's" black-button eyes but there isn't quite enough meat on the bones of this slim novel to make it a really satisfying fictional fare. Coraline is clever and entertaining but compared to Gaiman's Neverwhere and Stardust, it lacks the substance of his earlier fictions.
The Thief Lord
The Chicken House/Scholastic
352 pages, $23.99
Welcome to Venice! Prosper and Bo, on the run from their cruel Aunt Esther and Uncle Max, have taken refuge with a gang of thieves and vagabonds hiding out in an abandoned movie theatre in the city about which their mother told the most wonderful stories. The gang is protected by a young hooligan called Scipio, aka The Thief Lord, who appears to be the epitome of daring-do¨he certainly takes credit for a variety of spectacular break-ins that have taken place in some of the most celebrated palazzos in the city.
But there is more to the Thief Lord than he's letting on and when Prosper stumbles on the Thief Lord's true identity, things begin to go awry. Funke uses Venice's magic to great effect in this fabulous fantasy with a most surprising finale.
The House of the Scorpion
Atheneum Books for Young Readers/
Simon & Schuster
382 pages, $28.50 cloth
Nancy Farmer leads us into the devastatingly bleak futuristic world of Opium where, for generations, El Patron has ruled a drug empire with an iron fist. El Patron has survived by having clones made from a supply of frozen DNA, clones who can provide body parts and, ultimately, new life and clones who aren't even considered human in this society. Matt is the latest in the line of the clones who have been harvested for El Patron and El Patron has decided that he's going to give Matt a chance to have the best of everything before using the boy's heart. But things are about to fall apart in the perfectly dreadful world that El Patron has created and Matt holds the key to a brighter future if he can survive.
Nancy Farmer has written an intensely inventive fiction that deals superbly with the difficult issues that genetic modification raises.
Stravaganza: City of Masks
336 pages, $13.95 trade paperback
An old notebook whisks Lucien into the mysterious world of Bellezza, a city that is a sort of parallel to our Venice but a Venice of the 16th rather than the 20th century. Belleza is ruled by the beautiful and mischievous Duchessa who is in the midst of conducting a tense political battle with the Reman ambassador (in this time-warped world Remus, not Romulus, is the founder of the city that lies at the heart of this vast empire) and his band of thieves and assassins.
Lucien moves between our world, where he is struggling against terminal cancer, and his life as a time traveller, a Stravagante, in this fantastical otherworld. The first part of a proposed trilogy, Stravaganza is a deliciously satisfying time-travel adventure with just the right amount of depth to make it stand out as fine literary fiction.
Gail Sidonie Sobat
Spotted Cow Press
110 pages, $19.95 trade paperback
Ingamald's destiny is to be a great witch, a sensitive healer, a thoughtful friend but she has a quest to take on before she can assume her place in the grand scheme of things. Ingamald has to undo the tapestry of evil that her birth-mother, the immensely powerful sorceress Spinne, wore to celebrate her daughter's entering the world. In a story spun out of the threads of folk and fairy tales, Sobat has herself created an imaginative tapestry that will make young readers reconsider the role of witches in our society. The novel's overly poetic prose style gets in the way of the storyline but this is, nonetheless, an intriguing fantasy.
The Rumplestiltskin Problem
Vivian Vande Velde
116 pages, $6.99 trade paperback
These re-workings of one of the classic fairy tales makes for exciting fare for lovers of fantasy fiction. Vande Velde contends the Rumplestiltskin never quite made sense to her as a child so she's invented fantastic versions of her own¨her fair maiden is set on the path to spinning straw into gold by numerous kinds of disasters including a fire that destroys her father's mill, a boastful dad who has to sell everything they own to try to set things to right as well as a princess who is much more conniving than her luckless father. Vande Velde has a light touch and is always looking for a good laugh. Not all of these stories work either but they are certainly inventive fare for the discerning lover of fairy tale fiction.
Jeffrey Canton is editor of the children's books section in Books in Canada.