"It's too British! It's too American! It's too Canadian!"
Those remarks have repeatedly been voiced by publishers on both sides of the Atlantic. According to a recent article by Jane Whitehead in the well-respected magazine The Horn Book, there are two main reasons for these reactions. "One is the fear that reading is an endangered activity in this culture. The second is that foreignness is a barrier that can stop the reader from getting involved in a book, or cause him or her to lose interest." In the past, those beliefs have prevented many fine books from being picked up in more than one country.
But that attitude and those concerns may be changing. Without losing individuality or a distinctive voice, authors like Sharon Siamon are creating a successful literary bridge between Canada, America, and Britain.
Perhaps that's because stories by authors like Siamon possess elements common to all good writing: strong plots, colourful settings, and memorable characters. Siamon's characters express feelings children all over the world experience. They yearn for peer acceptance. They try to carve out a niche in a rapidly changing world. They work at maintaining friendships while juggling parental and personal expectations.
Siamon's own history particularly suits her to connect the cultures. Born on the Canadian Prairies, raised in Ontario, she has lived and travelled in England and the United States. She has also spent time exploring and teaching in Africa.
But it's perhaps her early years that most influenced her future writing career and her widespread interests.
As a child, Siamon was surrounded by people who loved books. She was read to often. "I used to go to Mom's friend Edith for lunch and we'd sit on her love-seat in her lovely parlour and she'd read to me. She read me Alice in Wonderland and Rudyard Kipling." Ms. Edith gave her many books as gifts, which she still cherishes.
Siamon's mother was also a great influence. She taught her all of A. A. Milne, which she recites to this day. "I love the cadence," she says. Although her family was firmly rooted in Canada, there were always American magazines like The New Yorker and American adult and children's books around. "My absolute favourite was The Wizard of Oz," Siamon recalls. "It's almost the perfect book. There's hardly any word in it that's not necessary. And the thing that intrigues me about it is, Baum couldn't get it published. He and the illustrator published it themselves."
On her own as well, Siamon devoured books. "I was an addicted reader," she explains. "I used to sit in my window upstairs, pressed against the screen till the very last light left the sky." Up in her window seat, Siamon read many English authors like Enid Blyton. "They had fabulous meals with treacle, clotted cream, and ham in her books," she remembers with relish.
Siamon's parents also gave her and her siblings great freedom to explore and dream. Her family lived in "a great house in Streetsville, Ontario" (now part of Mississauga) when Siamon was growing up. "It was a magic Cape Cod type of house," she recalls. "It was on an acre of land and had a great garden. One mile in one direction was the Credit River. The other way, there was Mullet Creek." She and her siblings played for hours. "I climbed haystacks and rode cows," she says. "I loved to pretend I was a cowboy." Her childhood was full of such adventures and peopled by memorable characters; for instance, "my mom's friend, an old lady we called Mrs. A., wrote messages on peony leaves, put them in woodpecker holes, and told me the notes were from fairies."
She was also an avid young journal writer. "I always saw things in terms of writing," she says.
When she grew up, Siamon travelled and taught. It was a teaching job in Northern Ontario that catapulted her into writing professionally. She gave her students an assignment to write a story about their region. And as they wrote, so did she. When the assignment was over, Siamon kept writing. The result was her first book, Strange Lake Adventure (Gage/MacMillan).
The northern landscape and lifestyle soon became a passion for Siamon. "I fell in love with the North," she says. "As children we always made believe we had adventures in the wilderness. And there I was living in the wilderness. I adored the winter, the snow, and the ice."
To date, she has had eleven books published with ten to come. Her new ones are being published by two British publishers, Orchard and Hodder. These books will be a unique international combination: a Canadian writer, a northeastern United States setting, and British editors. Siamon is excited about writing for an international audience, especially because many of her earlier books, set in Northern Ontario, were often declared "too Canadian to travel". That designation was frustrating and discouraging. After all, as a child, she had enjoyed and appreciated books with a variety of settings. Why, she wonders, should a specific setting limit a book's distribution?
Through writing her new books, Siamon has also enjoyed the British contacts she's made. She's recently visited England and met her editors. She exchanges constant faxes and telephone calls. And she hopes to travel to England for the book's launch this fall.
"My English editors have wonderful names like Venetia Gosling and Francesca Dow," she says with amusement, "and they're lovely." They have also appreciated and encouraged Siamon's individual voice, and made only minor suggestions for modifying her North American expressions. Her editor at Orchard has perhaps expressed best why her work does indeed travel: "Your books are real page-turners with proper writing."
Frieda Wishinsky's most recent book is Jennifer Jones Won't Leave Me Alone (HarperCollins Canada).