Tag Archives: Personal

Train Ride through the Rockies

Lake Louise, photo credit Su Ann Quah on Stock ExchangeEverybody has one. That dream — that thing you’re going to do someday. I’m thinking about it this week for a couple of reasons.

The first is sad. My friend’s father died recently, and the funeral was last week. Mr. Moore was a wonderful, warm, caring man who had lost his wife a few years ago. The one regret he had, which was brought up at the funeral service, was that he always said he wished he and his wife had taken “that train ride through the Rockies.” They meant to do it, but the years slipped away, and then she was too ill to go.

My second reason is a happier one. Last Thursday was the five-year anniversary of my last chemotherapy treatment. I always count that date, and the anniversary of my last radiation treatment, as a milestone. Anyone who reads this who knows me already knows that six or so years ago, I won — or lost — the genetic lottery and managed to come down with three different kinds of cancer at once. If you don’t know, well, it’s not exactly a secret. Here’s the summary.

  • One cancer (thyroid) = scared but confident
  • Two cancers (sarcoma) = really scared
  • Three cancers (lymphoma) = c’mon, really? This is getting ridiculous

It wasn’t a great time; my daughter was very young, and I look odd without eyebrows. But I survived. I’m one of the lucky ones who gets a second chance.

The reason I’m talking about this is that during that eyebrow-free period of radiation and chemo and surgery and overall nastiness, it became perfectly clear to me what my train ride through the Rockies was. I didn’t even have to think about it. I desperately needed to raise my daughter. And I wanted to write books. Had things gone a different way five years ago, those would have been my two regrets.

And so as I was getting better and stronger, I made changes to my life. I arranged things so that I could spend more time with Sarah and Aaron. And I got serious about writing.

If I hadn’t gotten sick, I probably would have built a career as a teacher. And there would have been good things and bad things about that. I wouldn’t have had as much time with Sarah, and I probably wouldn’t have gotten around to writing for many years to come.

One thing Aaron said will always stick with me. He told me that to go through an experience like the one we did and not reevaluate, to emerge unchanged, was to do a disservice to the cancer. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not out to do cancer any favours. We’re not buddies. But it was a force for change, and I have enough perspective now to appreciate that and be grateful for it.

And so I try not to put things off.

Mr. Moore’s funeral last week was a reminder to value what’s important, and to take the chances that present themselves — and when no chances present themselves, to make them. I don’t need to take a train ride through the Rockies. It would be lovely, but it’s not my dream. My dream is the life I have — spending time with my family and writing.

And so, hovering around the five-year anniversary mark of my eyebrow-free period, I am grateful for that.

What’s your train ride through the Rockies? How can you make it happen?

Happy Halloween!

I have two things to share today. The first is my Halloween/scary book recommendation: The Name of the Star, by Maureen Johnson. I started it yesterday, and had to stay up really late to finish it, because I needed to see some kind of resolution. I couldn’t possibly go to sleep with all those ghosts running around.

It’s a good book with strong characterization. There was a point just shy of the middle where I was really and truly scared, and that hasn’t happened to me (because of a book, anyhow) for a while. The last one before this was Marina Cohen’s Ghost Ride, incidentally, and I highly recommend that one as well.

I don’t tend to seek out scary stuff, but I really love Maureen Johnson’s books.Last night, reading The Name of the Star, I was creeped-out, afraid-of-the-dark, not-wanting-my-husband-to-go-walk-the-dog-because-she’s-too-cowardly-to-protect-him kind of scared. In fairness to the dog, of course, I did manage to set that one aside. And the book got less scary after that point, although still gripping.

So the upshot is, I recommend it for your Halloween read. Or your anytime read.

The second thing I wanted to share is a Halloween-related thought. Today is dress-up day for a lot of kids. It’s the day they get to be someone else. My daughter is dressing as a princess (a mediaeval princess, she likes to specify). Actually, I think princess has been a recurring them in her Halloween costume choices over the years.

I like to dress up. I usually pull together a costume of some sort to hand out candy at the door. I have a really cool witch’s hat, which, unfortunately, I can’t seem to find this year. Last year my husband and I went to a Halloween-themed Jack-and-Jill party as Tenth Doctor and Rose Tyler (yup, a middle-aged, brunette Rose Tyler. Just what this world needed). Incidentally, there was someone else at that party dressed as a nerd; Aaron and I were mildly offended. But the point, I guess, is that it’s fun to dress up as something that you’re not.

But writing is even more fun. Because in writing, you don’t just get to “dress up” in someone else’s skin, you get to play pretend as well.

When my brother Mike was a kid, he and his friend Darren played with little plastic G.I.Joe and Star Wars figures. Listening to them, it seemed that every other sentence started with “say I.”

“Say I get to the top of the mountain.”

“Say your guy shoots but he misses.”

“Say I can fly.”

Anything was possible, as long as the other person agreed.

Writing is the best way I can think of to play “say I.” So, having dug out the Halloween decorations and made sure my daughter’s costume is sorted, I’m going to spend this afternoon playing dress-up in the best possible way. At my computer, writing.

Happy Halloween!


I love the fact that my daughter is an avid reader. She devours books. I think she’s reading above grade level; I don’t really know, and I don’t really care. What matters to me is that she picks up books on her own and enjoy them for hours on end. She has a cosy little reading corner, complete with beanbag chair, and it’s her favourite spot in the house. She knows the joy of getting lost in a good story. It’s one of the things I wished most for her.

But the other morning, before school, she finished the book she was reading. And she was in tears. Inconsolable. The writer had left things off at a very bad place.

She got cliffhangered.

Now, I know this is a common occurrence in series books. I was a big fantasy reader in early high school… Terry Goodkind, David Eddings and the like. I know that sometimes you have to wait a year or so to find out what happens next. But there are cliffhangers, and then there are cliffhangers.

Take the Harry Potter books. Each of them leaves questions unresolved. In each, we see an increase or a change in Voldemort’s power, and we’re left wondering what that change will mean for Harry and for the wizarding world. It’s a seven-book story arc, and it’s beautifully constructed. And since I was reading them as they were being written, I’ll always remember the agony of waiting for the next book. But never once did I feel that Rowling had cheated. Each story wrapped up, each delivered on its promise.

The series my daughter was reading is called The Familiars. It’s about animals, and magic, and all the things she loves. It’s funny and full of adventure. We read the first book together; by the time the second one came out, she was able and excited to tackle it on her own. At the end of the first book, there were threads left hanging, but the adventure that we had started on with the characters — the promise of the story — had been fulfilled. It was a good book.

Now, I haven’t read the second one in its entirety, but I snuck a peek at the ending to see what upset my daughter.

* Spoiler Alert *

Just as she said, the book ends with the main characters witnessing the uprising of the enemy (undead, I believe) army, about to be attacked.

* / Spoiler Alert *

To me, that’s a cheat. That’s not the end of a book; that’s getting to the climax and typing “the end.” And I suppose the original cliffhangers were cheats, weren’t they? I think that’s where the term comes from. Back in the days of those old Perils Of Pauline movies, or whatever they were called, the weekly serial would end with Pauline hanging off a cliff, about to fall. Or tied across a railroad track with the train bearing down on her, or whatever the peril of the week was.

It’s different when you can tune in next week, or even (as in the case of serialized television between seasons) after a couple of months, to find out what happens next. Books take longer. It’s usually  a year, or close to it, between releases. Books also require a greater commitment from the reader, and that commitment should be paid off.

* Spoiler Alert *

Take this with a grain of salt; as I said, I haven’t read the book in its entirety. But as a writer, I’d think that ending with the certainty of an uprising would do the trick. Or ending with word of the army on its way. Is it necessary to bring the enemy face-to-face with the characters, and then end the book before the first strike?

In fact, the second-to-last chapter ends with a rather nice moment, where the bad guy escapes in full cackle. That could have made a nice ending. Wrap up the action, get the good guys where they need to be, give them (and the reader) a chance to regroup with the inevitable threat hanging over their heads. Closure, but a reason to read on.

But when citizens are screaming and the good guys are huddled, looking across city walls at a giant army… that’s not a scene to end a book on. That’s not closure. That’s tacky. That’s a buy-my-next-book-or-you-won’t-know-if-they-live-or-die desperate.

* / Spoiler Alert *

I’ll probably read the book. It seems only fair, having voiced my opinion about it. And if I change my mind, I’ll blog about that too. But right now, my daughter’s experience has left something of a bad taste in my mouth.

The thing is, The Familiars is a children’s book series. And any series written for children faces a unique challenge in that its audience is growing up, even while the books are being written. (The Harry Potter books handled this in an unusual way, by having the characters grow up with the readers.)

When book one of The Familiars came out, my daughter needed to have it read to her. Book two, she was able to read on her own. By the time book three is published, who knows what she’ll be reading or where her interests will lie? A year is a long time for a seven-year-old reader to wait.

I admit to feeling a bit of mommy-rage. Making my daughter cry is a pretty quick way to get my dander up. But I do believe, as a writer, that there is such a thing as playing fair with readers. And typing “the end” right before a climax is not playing fair. End a chapter there. Don’t end the book.

Like I said, my daughter is a reader. One bad experience will not change that. But what about the kids who aren’t? What about the ones who struggle with reading, the ones who undertake a series book with trepidation? If they reach the end and feel cheated, how likely are they to make the effort with another novel?

I admit to not having given a lot of thought to writing books in a series before this. The DragonSpeaker books were something of an anomaly, with three of us working together on them, and besides, they were all released at the same time. But as it turns out, I do have opinions on series books. I think that each book needs to have its own beginning, middle and end. I don’t believe in cheating. And if I ever write a series, please hold me to that.

Travel Tip: Leave the Sticky Notes at Home

I’m in Vancouver today, jet-lagged and a little foggy-minded. But not so foggy-minded that I can’t learn from my mistakes. Oh, no. And here’s an important one: leave the sticky notes at home.

I don’t do well with airport security. It’s not that I don’t think it’s important — in the wake of 9-11, I’m in favour of any reasonable measure that keeps people safe. I want to cooperate. It’s just that I always manage to make a mess of it.

I get nervous and scattered. I’ve beeped the metal-detection fence for such things as metal barrettes and an underwire bra. I carry too many electronic devices (at last count, four), and I fumble getting them out of my backpack. I forget to take the little ziploc baggie of hand sanitizer and toothpaste out of my purse. I trip while trying to tug off my shoes. I smile too wide and laugh too loud, and get hot-faced and anxious. In short, I act guilty.

But yesterday was something new. Yesterday, I thought I had done everything right. No hair clips. Underwire-free bra. My computer and iPad were on display, and the security lady had assured me that I didn’t need to take the cell phone and Kobo out of my purse. And yes, I forgot the ziploc baggie, but that was easily resolved.

No… the lady rifling through my backpack with the strange white wand was looking for something else. Something that showed up as liquid and large on the x-ray screen. Something that flagged me as suspicious.

I chewed my lip. Had I brought a water bottle and forgotten about it? I know better, but I’ve done stupider things. Or… what if I’d “left my bag unattended” without realizing it? What if there was something in there I didn’t know about?

And maybe they had on record the time I tried to get through Halifax airport security with my crochet project and forgot about the little Swiss-army-knife scissors I had packed with it. Maybe it was recorded as an attempt to sneak a knife onto an inter-Provincial flight. Maybe I was officially a terrorist.

I had another black mark on my record, too. A few years ago, shortly after I completed my cancer treatment, my husband and daughter and I tried to drive to Connecticut. We were stopped at the border. Something in our car had been flagged as radioactive. That something was me, the bald lady in the front seat.

I ended up sitting alone on a metal bench in a room with a large poster of George W. Bush on the wall, waiting for twenty minutes while someone tracked down a more diagnostic radiation detector that was able to prove that I was telling the truth. As opposed to having shaved my head and eyebrows on purpose so I’d look like a cancer patient.

So this was it. I was going to be arrested. My aunt and uncle, traveling on the same flight and having passed through security (flawlessly) ahead of me, were going to be the only witnesses. But then the security woman found the offending item.

It was my stack of sticky notes. Or maybe it was the pack of index cards, but I’m pretty sure she said it was the sticky notes. It seems that dense wads of paper products don’t do well on x-ray cameras. It also seems that normal people don’t carry quite so many paper products on airplanes.

Why, my aunt wanted to know, did I need so many sticky notes? Was I planning to decorate the airplane with them? Did I plan to have two hundred deep thoughts that needed capturing during the five-hour flight to Vancouver? And if I needed sticky notes for that, what were all those electronic gizmos I carried for?

“For editing,” I mumbled. But it goes deeper than that. I was a Girl Guide for fourteen years, and something about that Be Prepared motto seeped into my marrow. I don’t travel light. I bring things just in case, and for maybe, and back-ups because you never know what will happen.

I’m planning to write while here in Vancouver, and I brought enough computer-related gadgetry to set up quite a comfortable workstation, with the addition of a folding desk provided by my lovely B&B hosts. I carried an inch-and-a-half thick binder filled with manuscript and notes. And I need my index cards and sticky notes, because that’s how my brain works.

But, as my aunt pointed out, it’s possible to acquire such things in Vancouver. They have all sorts of wonders here, such as cars and electricity and even stores. Even ones with paper products in them.

So maybe next time, I’ll leave the sticky notes at home.


Last night CBC aired a story on my cousin, Mark Dawson, and his wife Yoo Choi.

Yoo died a few months ago. She had a gambling addiction that she had struggled with in the past. Things got out of control and she committed suicide.

Yoo was an incredible woman. One of the warmest, kindest, funniest people I’ve ever met. She ran a restaurant for a while, and described herself as a “foodie.” She cared about flavours and textures and the way they go together with a passion that baffled my Kraft-Dinner-cooking mind. She laughed a lot. She loved Mark with all her heart.

Mark is sharing her story, hoping to help others. Please take a look.

Happy Birthday: We’re Not in this Alone

chocolate cakeToday is my husband’s birthday. He doesn’t know I’m writing this.

In On Writing, Stephen King talks a lot about his wife, Tabitha. He says that whenever he sees a first novel dedicated to the writer’s spouse, he thinks to himself, “They get it.” Because it takes a special kind of person to put up with a writer as a partner.

I haven’t dedicated a novel to Aaron yet, but that’s only because I haven’t published any of his favourites. When I get the right book out there, it will have his name on the dedication page, count on it. It’ll be one that’s been in the works for years, and that probably wouldn’t have been finished without his cheerleading and support. And, let’s face it, nagging. But I mean that in a good way.

Things Aaron puts up with:

  • Vague, daydreamy wife trying to sort out storylines.
    Aaron: So, I took the car in for repair…
    me: Mm-hmm.
    Aaron: And it looks like it needs new brakes…
    me: …
    Aaron: And also the Warp Reactor is defective. Are you even listening?
  • Cranky, scary wife when the writing isn’t going well. Or when I’ve had to go too many days without writing.
    Aaron: Honey?
    red-eyed, messy-haired me: Grrrrrrrrowwwwl.
    Aaron: Never mind.
  • Absent wife when my writing group meets, or when there’s a seminar or course on, or when I have the chance to meet with or present to a group, or interview a subject matter expert,  or when there’s a CANSCAIP or WCDR meeting, or when I have the chance to go away and write for a few days. Some weeks, he’s more surprised when I am home for dinner than when I’m not.
  • And these are just the things I’m willing to admit to on a blog.

He’s an entrepreneur, so he knows how to work hard and navigate an uncertain future, and he knows that the rewards are (usually) worth the risks. He’s helping me learn that.

He reads my work. He lets me talk through plot problems with him. He offers clever ideas and sometimes gets grumpy when I don’t use them. (It works both ways — he also talks through his development projects with me —  but I’m not sure that my answers are as insightful as his.)

We watch movies and television shows together and he lets me dissect them, even though it must be annoying.

We work in the same house, all day, every day, and like it that way. He makes the tea more often than I do. When I hear him hang up the phone and start grumbling or swearing, I wander downstairs to see what’s going on. When I obsess over an email message for six hours, he reads it and tells me to send the darned thing already and get back to writing. We trust each other.

He encourages me. I don’t know that I’ll ever be able to express how important that is or how grateful I am for it. If you write and if you have someone supportive in your life (I hope you do), you’ll understand. That’s the best thing I can wish for any writer, really.

So here’s my suggestion for today: if you’re a writer, and if there’s someone in your life that you’re feeling grateful for, take a few minutes and let them know. The world’s a much nicer place when we’re in it with people we care about.

And me, well, I’ve got a cake to decorate.

Scott Cannata’s Run Across Canada

Have you heard about Scott Cannata yet? Not a lot of people have. The only reason I did is that he’s a local boy. He went to my daughter’s school, years ago.

He’s running across Canada to raise money for cancer. A marathon a day. Sound familiar? Terry Fox is one of his heroes.

Scott’s not a cancer survivor, but his mother is. She was diagnosed when he was around twelve, I think, and it affected him deeply. I guess if I were to stretch for a writing tie-in, that would be it. Character motivation and drastic action. I’d rather keep this about Scott, though.

The kids from my daughter’s school are heading out to see him today. I’m going, too. Because he’s not Terry Fox, and he’s not getting a lot of press (Terry Fox didn’t either, at first), but it’s a brave thing he’s doing.

Cancer has hit my family pretty hard. It sideswiped my life a few years back, too. My daughter was two when I got my first diagnosis, and about a year and a half later, I was battling lymphoma, sarcoma and thyroid cancer all at the same time. I understand wanting to do something, to act out against it. Against any outside force that sweeps in and changes things without your permission.

I wasn’t even through chemo yet, and still had weeks of radiation ahead, when I started training to walk a half marathon through Team in Training. Sensible? No. On my first training walk, I nearly passed out when I bent over to tie my shoelace. Satisfying? Yes. I needed to show my body who was boss.

It was probably the world’s slowest half marathon (accompanied by my lovely sister-in-law, who was extremely pregnant at the time), but on a rainy day in Ottawa, Nancy and I did it. Cheered on by family and friends, stopping at every port-a-potty along the way.

Scott Cannata is doing something a lot bigger than a turtle-paced half marathon. He’s taking on Terry Fox’s dream. That’s one heck of a legend to have looming over you. I’m probably doing him a disservice by bringing up Terry, but I think the comparisons are inevitable. Still, Scott deserves some recognition in his own right. How many twenty-somethings would give up such a large chunk of their life for a cause? He’s a runner, he’s healthy, I think he has a good shot at making it all the way; I just wish more people were paying attention.

He’s supposed to be coming through Whitby at around 11:00 or so today. I’ve made a donation, and I’m going out to see him. If you’re local and see this, or if you live west of here along his route, please keep an eye on his website to see when he’s coming through your community!

Next post will be writing-related, I promise.


“Write what you know.” We’re told that a lot, aren’t we?

Something bad happened in my extended family recently. I’m not going to go into detail because it’s not my story to tell, and never will be. I love and respect the people involved too much for that. But I’ve learned a little about different ways you can lose people, ways I hadn’t thought about before. And I know how it feels when life goes on anyhow, because it has to.

I suppose it will probably surface somewhere. These things usually do. The subconscious is a great big compost heap, and things just roll around in there and grow.

Sometimes, when I sit back and squint at my work, I can recognize the themes and figure out where they came from. It takes time and distance to do that. (I had one story published before I ever figured out what it was really about. Just as well; I might have decided it was too personal.) For the most part, it just happens. Things appear in our stories, and we don’t know why they’re there. Characters grapple with the same issue over and over again, story after story. Stephen King’s “On Writing” discusses this with brutal honesty, and is worth reading for that as well as for all of his insights into craft.

Sometimes I try to “write safe” on purpose. I’m a bit of a coward that way. Still, the world we live in informs the world of our stories. I don’t care how fantastical the setting is or how many eyeballs there are on your slimy alien antagonist. It’s you. In some small way, it’s you. Why yes, your Freudian slip is showing — why do you ask?

Like many writers, I tell a lot of stories about outsiders. Outsiders are usually different, after all, and differences make for interesting characters. I wouldn’t like to say to what extent that tendency draws upon my nerdy, nerdy childhood. Let’s just say that if I ever write a picture book about an ironing board hiding behind thick glasses, there are those who would recognize the character.

“Life gets better,” indeed. That advice can apply to a lot of people, in a lot of situations.

Families matter in my stories. I was asked once why my Boarder Patrol character Ryan keeps coming to his cousin’s rescue, over and over again, even when he’s mad at him. I’d have thought that was obvious. It’s his cousin! That’s what you do.

When family needs you, you’re there. Whenever I’ve needed mine, they always have been, and I’m grateful for that. Right now it’s someone else’s turn, and I’m trying to work out a way to help. I might not get it right; I often don’t. Screw-ups happen. Sometimes they don’t get forgotten or even completely forgiven, but family is family.

That’s going to be in my stories, too, obvious or else buried somewhere. Floating around. Because that’s part of my worldview, the one that comes from deep inside, where all the compost is. And I’m glad it is.

I’m writing something new now. I don’t have much of a plan for this one, which is strange. I tend to be more plotter than pantser. That’s okay. I’ll see where it goes. And later, much later, I might try to look at the story with new eyes and work out where the pieces came from.

Or maybe I’ll choose not to know.

Open Letter to my MP

I live in Whitby, Conservative stronghold and home to our current Finance Minister, Jim Flaherty. He’s our MP. And I figure, whatever the outcome of the election Federally, he’s pretty safe.

But I don’t know who I’m voting for yet. Because the issue that had me worried before the election has kind of vanished, and nobody’s talking about it. Let’s face it, copyright law isn’t exactly interesting. Not the sexy sort of issue that makes headlines.

But after the election, it’ll be back. So here’s the main body of the letter that I just wrote to Mr. Flaherty.

And I promise: I will not make a habit of getting political on this blog. But this one’s for the children’s writers among us.

* * *

My letter is about a bill that I expect will resurface in one form or another after the election. Bill C-32.

I’ve been a resident of Whitby for nearly all of my life… and I have the wonderful fortune to be in the early stages of a career doing what I love.

I write books for children. My third was just published, and I have two more books under contract for publication in Spring 2012. I have several other manuscripts in the works, including a juvenile historical novel set in Whitby in the 1880s.

In particular, I write books for reluctant readers and for the hi-low (high interest, low vocabulary) market. These are books for children who are not reading at grade level. For example, a boy in sixth grade might be reading at a third grade level. These books give him an opportunity to read stories written with his age group in mind, but written at a reading level that he can access. The idea is to provide an enjoyable reading experience, which will hopefully encourage him to read more in the future.

Needless to say, one of the places that my books find a home is in school libraries.

There was a clause in Bill C-32 that established “educational use” as one of the legitimate cases where a work could be copied without penalty. I believe that “private study” was another. For myself and for other creators of books, art and other media for children, this represents a real threat.

I’m not Margaret Atwood or Kenneth Oppel. I’m not J.K. Rowling. I will not, in all likelihood, rise to fortune through writing. I make approximately 8% of the cover price on each book sold, and a share of that goes to my agent. My books are priced in the neighbourhood of $10-$13, which means I make around a dollar each time one is sold.

I doubt that anyone who writes books for children is in it for the money. I do this because I love it and because I think it matters. But I cannot afford to give my books away, either. My understanding of Bill C-32 was that a school, or even a school board, could buy one copy of my book and then photocopy it (or, in this age of technology, scan it and make electronic copies) for use throughout the school system. Or, if we take this example to an extreme, that one copy of the book could be copied once and shared electronically through Canada’s education systems.

Can you see how a prospective reimbursement of one dollar for the many hours of researching, writing and rewriting a book, not to mention the time spent learning the craft of writing, would be detrimental to any writer’s career?

I feel optimistic about my writing. I am doing well. By this time next year, I’ll have published five books, and I have several other manuscripts close to a submission-ready state. I am building a career in baby steps. I have even had the good fortune to receive a grant from the Ontario Arts’ Council, for which I am extremely grateful.

But in truth, I’d rather earn my money by selling books than have it come from grants. I’m old-fashioned that way. The grant helps me get started, and as I said, I’m extremely grateful. But Canada needs to move toward an economy in which artists and creative types can support themselves. Bill C-32 was in direct opposition to that.

There is value in having new material, written by Canadians, in the school system. Kids want to read about characters that reflect them and their values. A body of literature set in the 1980s, before cell phones and computers changed the world, will lose immediacy. Yes, there are core values and classic works of literature that should never be forgotten, but for some children, the easiest stories to connect with are contemporary ones. By making it possible for writers to continue to write, you ensure that readers, and the teachers who work so hard and care so deeply about literacy, have the materials they need for a positive learning experience.

When the time comes to reconsider Copyright legislation, my sincere hope is that you will keep in mind that you are balancing the needs of many people. And I hope that you will keep in mind, Mr. Flaherty, that some of those people are creators.

The Wrong Book

After I shared this story in class last week, Lena Coakley suggested that I blog about it. Our assignment was to identify the one children’s book that influenced us most, either as a reader or as a writer. Not an easy question at the best of times, and I admit, I was caught a bit flat-footed, being asked on the second night of class. So I talked about the time I read the wrong book, and why that experience has stayed with me.


This is me in grade eight: bad hair. Braces. Coke-bottle glasses. A chest that would make an ironing board proud. Brains, yes, I’ve got those in spades, but just catch me raising my hand — not gonna happen. Let’s just say I wasn’t winning any prizes for self esteem back then.

And oh yes, this is an important bit. Nose usually buried in a book. Often fantasy or sci-fi borrowed from Dad’s collection, but really, I’d read just about anything.

Also, I was convinced that the world was going to end in fiery nuclear disaster. I believe I wrote to the Prime Minister (it was Mulroney back then) once or twice to address the issue.


My grade-eight teacher, Miss Beaton, was either a saint or a martyr. There were 33 of us in my year; usually a full class with a few left over for a split grade. She decided that it was important that we all graduate to high school together, so she took us all on. She had experience on her side, and a student teacher for the second term, but still — a mammoth undertaking.

I don’t know if this was an experiment in self-sorting or if she was just too tired out by Spring to do things any differently, but for the final novel study of the year, she offered each of us a choice. Janet Lunn’s newly-published Shadow in Hawthorn Bay, a “challenging” historical novel with a girly pink cover, or Robert O’Brien’s Z for Zachariah, a much shorter read with some kind of spaceman on the front cover and promises of post-apocalyptic adventure.

She talked about each book. I had already made up my mind.


It was a no-brainer. I fidgeted, waiting for her to get to the end of the alphabet (T for Thomas), and when she did, I snatched up a copy of Z for Zachariah, relieved that there were still a few left. Funny thing, most people seemed to want Shadow in Hawthorn Bay. Even some of the boys.

Maybe I hadn’t been listening properly when Miss Beaton described it. Maybe I’d been busy staring at the spaceman on the cover of the other book. It didn’t matter.

I had my book. I tucked it into the opening of my desk and started reading.


I think it was recess that day when Miss Beaton asked to speak with me. She wanted to know why I had chosen Z for Zachariah. It wasn’t because it was a shorter book, was it? Because she didn’t think I was one to back away from a reading challenge. Really, she thought I would find the other novel a more suitable reading experience.

I still remember how my face heated up. I loved Miss Beaton. I didn’t want to displease her, but I was already partway into Z for Zachariah and fully hooked. Memory says I gripped the tiny paperback, prepared to defend it with the safety pins in my jeans if need be. (Don’t ask. It was an 80s thing.) More likely, I stared at my shoes and stammered something about really wanting to read this book.

She let me read it. When we broke into our novel study groups, I understood better that I had picked the group that didn’t “fit.”

Most of the stronger students and nearly all of the girls were in the other, larger group, reading Shadow in Hawthorn Bay. I was in a smaller group, a handful of students led by the student teacher. It was the reluctant reader group, to use today’s terminology.

These were the kids who got detention, the kids who got into fights. The kids who skipped class to smoke… or at least said they did. Several of them I barely knew, despite having attended school together for eight years. Remarkable and sad when I think of it now, but at the time, I didn’t question it. We were all far-flung planets, but my orbit was on the opposite side of the social sun from theirs.

But the thing is, I really loved the book. And I remember the novel study as a positive experience. And while there were no friendship bracelets or phone numbers exchanged, I had one or two interesting conversations with people I hadn’t had conversations with before. And that was a good thing.

I’ve read Shadow in Hawthorn Bay since, of course. It’s a fine book. But it wouldn’t have spoken to my 13-year-old self the way Z for Zachariah did. So even decades later, I can’t regret having chosen the wrong book. It was the right book for me at the time, and it brought me into contact with people I hadn’t spoken with much before. We traded ideas and talked about nuclear disaster and survival.

I’m glad I read it. I’m glad I had that experience. And I’m glad that I stood up for my choice and read what I wanted to read, and didn’t let the judgemental vibes I was picking up dissuade me. That wasn’t exactly a characteristic move back then. I’m proud for that geeky little eighth grader.

And, as my friend Susan Blakeney pointed out, what do I write now? Books for reluctant readers. Books for boys. Science fiction.

I guess your literary home is where your heart is.