06 March 2014

Dreaming Small

Lots of beautiful Julie Morstad prints for sale on her site, but I have to say I'm pretty sure I know which is my favourite....
                                                             from WHEN I WAS SMALL

28 February 2014

International Typewriter Appreciation Month

This is my son's cherished typewriter. A Hermes Baby. Built in Switzerland, boasting a distinctive shade of mint green and and a QWERTZ keyboard.

Ron Charles writes about his appreciation of typewriters in the Washington Post.

26 February 2014

A Pro-Empathy Reading List

I am re-posting this in honour of Pink Shirt Day. I don't have any problems with the sentiment behind wearing a pink shirt to say that you are anti-bullying but I think that it's good to look at it as an opening gambit in the conversation about way of building empathy.

from Skim

I'm interested in suggestions for an Empathy Reading List--books that we can give to teens to help them see the world from a perspective other than their own.  Really, any good fiction can do this but here are some books that deal specifically with issues around high school bullying, cyberbullying or just plain old being different (always a tough one in high school).  I will add to the list as suggestions come in through comments here or over on twitter @saraoleary.
Another Kind of Cowboy by Susan Juby
Getting the Girl by Susan Juby
Wonder by R.J. Palacio
Skim by Mariko Tamaki and Gillian Tamaki
Words That Start with B by Vikki Vansickle
What I Was by Meg Rosoff
Matilda by Roald Dahl
Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh
Maggot Moon by Sally Gardner
Encore Edie by Annabel Lyon
Odd Man Out by Sarah Ellis
Seraphina by Rachel Hartman
Metawars Heff Norton
Wintergirls Laurie Halse Anderson
Holes by Louis Sachar
Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare
America by ER Frank
Speak Laurie Halse Anderson
Monocerous by Suzette Mayr

I haven't read all of these but I have read and reviewed several. Here is my review of What I Was. I'll try to post some of the other reviews as I find them.
Studies have shown a direct link between reading fiction and empathy in young people. There have been a number of recent articles on the subject including this one by Keith Oately in Psychology Today.  This link between fiction and empathy seems to be a good place to start in thinking about problems of bulling and cyberbullying.
I wrote here about the Pink Shirt campaign the other day, trying to work through for myself why the idea of being Anti-Bullying didn't seem terribly useful to me.   And I'm still not at all sure about demonizing bullies as a way of instilling greater compassion in our young people.
But I have been reading up on Pink Shirt Day and to be honest I'm kind of impressed. It originates with the actions of some Nova Scotian high school students and occurs annually on February 27. Rick Mercer has this to say on Jer's Vision: Canada's Youth Diversity Initiative:
It's this failure of compassion or empathy that seems almost endemic in our society that truly frightens me.  And it's got me thinking about ways to inculcate these values in our children. There's a fascinating program designed to address these problems called Roots of Empathy.  You can read the first chapter of the book about it here.  It says: 
When students in Nova Scotia saw a younger student being harassed because he was wearing pink, they decided to do something. They took it upon themselves to buy every pink shirt in town and they did it on their own dime.  The next day they handed these shirts out at school. Suddenly the bullies who were making this young man’s life miserable were surrounded by students in pink. They learned in no uncertain terms that the vast majority of kids were not going to accept their behavior. Message sent. To me, the kindness, courage, compassion and creativity exhibited by this gesture is what being Canadian is all about.
I agree that it's a good message and that those young Nova Scotians deserve kudos for what they did.  It's good to remember when the news is full of the stories of what some other young men from that area did and the consequences their actions had.  Rehtaeh Parsons was driven to suicide by the sexual assault that she suffered and the distribution of images related to that assault.  Those were criminal actions--not anything as innocuous-sounding as bullying--but part of her suffering was to do with the the ongoing circulation of those images and the cruel comments made about her by her peers through social media.  And that kind of cyberbullying is all too common right now.
The program is based on the idea that if we are able to take the perspective of the Other we will notice and appreciate our commonalities and we will be less likely to allow differences to cause us to marginalize, hate or hurt each other.
And that seems to me to be a good place to start.  Reading fiction helps children to develop emotional literacy and that means they will be better equipped to see the suffering of others and be moved to do something about it.

I've written about empathy here before and I'd like to once again direct readers to this article by Nikhil Goyal about empathy on the Globe and Mail site. The article gives some alarming statistics:
Today, there is a dearth of empathy in young people. After analyzing data among almost 14,000 college students over the last 30 years, a University of Michigan study two years ago concluded that college students are 40 per cent less empathetic than their counterparts in 1979. Indeed, the most significant drop has been in the past decade. What’s more, cases of bullying and suicides are climbing at an alarming pace. That means empathy education is needed more than ever before.
Happily, empathy education is being addressed in at least some of our schools.  I learned today about The Empathy Factory which is a fantastic initiative out of Nova Scotia.   According to their site:  "The Empathy Factory was founded on the belief that by instilling empathy in our youth, injustices will be stopped, communities transformed and hope inspired."  

So there are reasons to be hopeful.  And I will be doing my best to think pink.

Let's Make Some Great Art

I spotted this book on my young pal Ezra's desk the other day and wanted to share. 

I've just looked up Marion Deuchars and she has several books available from Laurence King. They all look like great fun and I'd highly recommend for either children who like to draw or those who may not be as naturally inclined. Let's Make Some Great Art reminded a little of a book my boys had when they were small by Quentin Blake called Drawing: For the Artistically Undiscovered (Klutz Books). We all loved it and it's a nice souvenir from earlier days.

You can see inside Let's Make Some Great Art here, do online activities here and see more of illustrator Marion Deuchars work here. I think I may need a copy of my own. And maybe one for my boys.

12 February 2014

Becoming a Children's Writer

I've found myself having a few conversations this week about how I got into writing children's books and (not un-relatedly) how I met Dimiter Savoff of Simply Read Books. Mainly this is a direct result of the lovely little profile Helen Spitzer did for Bunch Family (thank you, Helen!)  As a result of my little visit to memory lane, I've had a burrow through the archives and here is a profile I wrote about Dimiter back when I was a columnist for the Vancouver Sun. (And yes, if I were still a journalist I would have to call him Savoff.)

Simply Read Books
Are publishers born or are they made? Could you make one out of wood, say, the way you could a puppet or a little boy? This may not seem like a rational question to you, but then you probably haven't spent the past few days immersed in a remarkably lavish new edition of the classic children's story Pinocchio, by Carlo Collodi, with illustrations by Iassen Ghiuselev (Simply Read Books, 153 pages, $29.95), the brainchild of the newest publisher on the Vancouver scene. This isn't a new and improved Pinocchio. It's an old and improved Pinocchio -- a freshly revised and unabridged text based on a translation of the 19th-century Italian original, written by Collodi for a popular children's serial publication of the time.
The difference is like the one between thinking you know the Frankenstein story -- dead bodies, lightning, staggering monster throws girl in pond -- and actually reading the Mary Shelley original. Pinocchio is a dark and nuanced tale of the morality of being human; it serves as a reminder that all in this world is not the hum-along merriment that makes up the world according to Disney.
The adventures and misadventures that befall the little wooden puppet aren't typical of childhood. He falls asleep with his feet on a brazier and wakes to find his feet have been burned up. He is almost burned up entirely by the Fire Eater, gets robbed by a lame fox and a blind cat, and falls into the hands of murderers who string him up and leave him for dead, where he is found by the Lovely Girl with the Blue Hair. And that's just the beginning. But while this is the stuff of tales, the impudence, the pranks, the relentless curiosity and the restless imagination displayed by Pinocchio are all too typical of childhood.
Boys will be boys, no matter what the century or country, no matter whether they are made of wood or flesh and blood. And ultimately Pinocchio's innate goodness -- his love of others above himself -- allows him to become what he most wants to be ... a real live boy. Pinocchio is not a story about lying and a nose that won't stop growing: That's just a single incident. Pinocchio is a love story -- a story of filial love and its rewards.
But what, I wonder, makes a man decide that the world needs a new edition of Pinocchio? What makes him search and search for an artist capable of doing illustrations worthy of the text, and then wait until that award-winning illustrator has time to undertake the project? What makes this would-be publisher spend more than a year combing the world for a printer capable of producing work to his exacting standards for a price at which the book would still be affordable? It's obviously a case of a born publisher.
The publisher in question is Dimiter Savoff who, along with editor Gillian Hunt, has produced a brilliant debut title for a press that plans to specialize in beautiful illustrated books for readers of all ages. Savoff, a Vancouver architect who fondly recalls growing up in a home with more than 12,000 books, a member of a family of translators, editors and bibliophiles, and the grandson of a publisher in his native Bulgaria, has translated his lifelong love of books into Simply Read Books, an enterprise which one can't help but wish a long and fruitful life.
Simply Read's second title is the work of two Vancouver authors, Judith Steedman and Robin Mitchell. It's a photographic book for young children that Savoff says is both reminiscent of work of the 1960s and very modern. At 48 pages, it's longer than many books aimed at children of this age, and again the production values will be very high. The book will include instructions for building a kite (a tie-in to the story's subject matter), and it will be the first in a series.
Also in the works is an edition of Alice in Wonderland, again featuring Ghiuselev's artwork. It's bound to be a sumptuous, fascinating, provocative rendering of Lewis Carroll's imaginings, and I can't wait to see it. A sneak preview -- in the form of a poster -- should be available this year. The book is on Simply Read's lists for 2003.
So why Pinocchio? Savoff says it's one of his favourite tales from childhood and that when he was looking for a version to read to his children, he couldn't find one that satisfied him. The one he has created should bring pleasure to readers young and old for years to come. I could tell you to go out and buy a copy, but I won't. Instead, I'll tell you to go out and buy two copies -- one for yourself and one for someone you love.
(Jan 19, 2002)

29 January 2014

Picture Booky Q & A

I've just discovered that an old Q & A that appeared on the site Little Literati is no longer online (due to Posterous's untimely demise) and so have received permission from the lovely Heather Thompson to re-post it here. The interview was done just prior to the publication of When I Was Small and I did like the direction the questions took.

WHO would you visit if you had a time machine teleporter?

Nobody famous,  I don’t think, although there’d be a great temptation to visit H.G. Wells around when he wrote The Time Machine just to freak him out.
Really, I’d like to visit my maternal grandmother as a little girl.  She grew up in and around Glasgow and emigrated to Canada after her father was killed in WWI. I’d like to meet her just before she set off for her new life. I was named for her and she for her mother and I’d love to know more about them both.

WHAT book had the greatest impact on you as a child?

The book that I loved the most may have been Joan Walsh Anglund’s Look Out the Window.  I still have my copy and if I try to work out what I liked about it, I suppose it comes down to identification.  I was very much a looking-out-the-window child.
I also really loved the "Just Mary" and "Maggie Muggins" stories by New Brunswick writer Mary Grannan.  They were quite magical stories but the books also resonated with me because they had belonged to my father as a child and were stories that he’d grown up listening to on CBC radio.  Clearly I have a sentimental attachment to the past.

WHERE do you think technology is taking the picture book?

Wonderful things are being done with iPad apps for picture books – Oliver Jeffers’ beautiful The Heart and the Bottle is an excellent example.  But I think that picture books will contain to thrive alongside their animated cousins.  The print copy of The Heart and the Bottle that I am saving with my store of books for future grandchildren is the one that will be cherished the longest.

WHEN did your passion for picture books begin?

I wrote any number of other things before coming to picture books and it was only after having my own child that I found myself reading the same picture books over and over and over and over.  It’s a good way to learn how a thing works.  Of course many people read picture books and think, “I could do that!” which is funny because you don’t come away from a night at the ballet and tell yourself the same thing.
I made up stories for my son for years before I got around to doing anything with them and it was only after interviewing a brand new children’s publisher that I suddenly got passionate about them.  I was working for the Vancouver Sun at the time and the publisher was Dimiter Savoff of Simply Read Books who had just produced an edition of Pinocchio that was one of the more beautiful books I have ever seen.  I gave him one of my little stories and hey presto he transformed it into a beautiful book.   Lucky me!  My third book with Simply Read is coming out this fall and like the others is illustrated by Julie Morstad and designed by Robin Mitchell-Cranfield and I can’t wait to hold a copy in my hand.

WHY do you think children connect with picture books so intimately?

Maybe it’s the wonderful Rosetta Stone sensation of un-locking the mystery of the text.  The first book I thought I could read was Goldilocks and the Three Bears, but of course I couldn’t read it at all but had simply memorized the text and could make it correspond to the image on the page.  The first word I ever read was “wagon.”  It was in a Dick and Jane reader (yes, I am that old!) and I can still recall the moment the letters suddenly became the word and how somehow the rest of the page aligned itself into a decipherable text in the moments after. Magic!

27 January 2014

Bring Back The Crack in the Teacup

There's a very interesting conversation happening on twitter right now about Joan Bodger and the fact that her brilliant and devastating memoir The Crack in the Teacup is currently out of print. If you'd like to chime in on this discussion you can find me @saraoleary over on twitter. And if you feel inclined I'm looking for people to support a plea for bringing the book back into print.

Meanwhile, I dug out the review I wrote when the book was first published and here it is.

There is real life and there is storybook life, and I never expected the twain to meet. But in the person and works of Joan Bodger, they do. Joan Bodger, author, storyteller and gestalt therapist, has spent her life reading and telling stories, and the result is her new autobiography The Crack in the Teacup: The Life of an Old Woman Steeped in Stories (McClelland & Stewart, 412 pp., $34.99).
Bodger's name was already familiar to many readers because of her wonderful tale of a family's very personal quest, How the Heather Looks: A Joyous Journey to the British Sources of Children's Books (McClelland & Stewart, 249 pp., $29.99). To read the two books in tandem is to risk laying the heart bare to all the joys and sorrows of both childhood and parenting.
How the Heather Looks was first published in 1965. It was out of print for more than 30 years before it was brought out in a new edition. In the meantime, copies were passed hand-to-hand, illegally photocopied, borrowed and never returned. It had the dubious honour of being the book most often "retired" along with retiring children's librarians.
It tells of how, in 1958, Joan and her husband John took their children Ian (almost nine) and Lucy (two-and-a-half) on a trip to England. The couple had come into what Bodger calls "a modest windfall" and decided the children should have the opportunity to see the places of storybooks such as A Child's Garden of Verses, The Wind in the Willows, Swallows and Amazons, and Puck of Pook's Hill, among others.
It's a glorious idea, and halfway through reading the book I was ready to call the travel agent and book passage on a Cunard liner, modest windfall or no.
Their trip is lovingly described, an idyllic journey where the storybook characters resonate with meaning for the four family members. Ian, at nine, is curious and fearless, disappearing down country roads, scrambling over bluffs, shadow-jousting on the ramparts of castles. He is Puck, and King Arthur, and the boy narrator of Robert Louis Stevenson's verses all at once. Lucy, at two, dressed in practical corduroy overalls when all little English girls of the time wore little nylon dresses, red-haired and lovely, running down paths ahead of her parents, looking for Mrs. Tiggy- Winkle.
It is all achingly perfect and perfectly real at the same moment. And then, in Bodger's new afterword to the book, we read how, before the book was even published, the family had suffered the devastation of death and schizophrenia.
Wanting desperately to believe in the idyllic world where parents and children can travel into pages from storybooks brought to life, I almost had to make myself open The Crack in the Teacup,Bodger's autobiography. Can't I just leave them all on holiday? I wondered. Ian and Lucy forever children, Joan and John forever happily married.
Reading the autobiography was a completely different experience. Not that it wasn't an enjoyable read, because it was. Bodger writes of the events of her American childhood, how she was moved to join the army, her courtship and marriage and the birth of her children. It's all very interesting but not particularly extraordinary.
Now 77 and suffering from exhaustion and illness in the aftermath of completing her memoir, she shows that a life can equal much more than the sum of its parts. What lifts her book above the ordinary run of recollections is the relationship she has to myth and story. In the period when she was writing How the Heather Looks, her young daughter developed a brain tumor and her husband began showing symptoms of what would later be diagnosed as schizophrenia. He was institutionalized as a result of hallucinations and she was left alone with two small children.
Her brother-in-law refused her an advance from the family trust to enable her to attend library school because he said he'd noticed that in cases where the wife went to work, the marriage generally ended in divorce.
She was heartened to learn that one of the other mothers from her daughter's class, Betty Friedan, was also writing a book. She called her up, but Friedan said she was too busy to talk to every suburban housewife who called her. Still, Bodger wrote her joyous book about a "joyous journey." It strikes me as a remarkable achievement.
Bodger came through the devastation of her family and began again. She worked at nursery schools for the poor and in education and library studies. She reviewed children's books for the New York Times and became an editor in the children's division of Random House-Pantheon-Knopf.
She married a Canadian, moved to Toronto, trained as a gestalt therapist, started a storytelling group and became a tour leader for literary trips to England.
Bodger's genius lies in shaping her life into narrative. She writes: "There is a genre of fairy tale in which the hero or heroine must go through a door, or run through a forest, or face a dragon, or jump down a hole, not knowing the outcome." Sounds a lot like life.
The Crack in The Teacup is a brave book, free of self-pity or recrimination. It is one to learn from.
(article originally published Vancouver Sun, December 9, 2000)