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Part One: Seeds of a Story

Nominees for the Canadian Children's Book Awards share the inspirations for their celebrated works. 

Next week, on November 18 in Toronto, the 2015 Canadian Children's Book Awards will be presented, celebrating the best in Canadian kids' books; you can explore the shortlists here. And this week with "Seeds of a Story," nominees will be sharing their literary inspirations with us—where did these stories come from? Where they inspired by real life encounters? Amazing flights of the imagination?

The answers to these questions are various and curious, each one a story of its own, offering remarkable insight into some excellent books.


Book Cover Sea of Shadows

Sea of Shadows, by Kelley Armstrong

Nominated for the Monica Hughes Award for Science Fiction and Fantasy

I often don’t know where my stories come from, but with Sea of Shadows, it’s so clear that I use it as an example when I speak. I was talking to my agent about wanting to write a teen high-fantasy trilogy. As we discussed settings, she said “Have you ever heard of the Sea of Trees?” It’s a forest at the foot of Mount Fuji, best known as the second highest suicide location in the world. While that combines the macabre with a wilderness setting—two things I love—it’s not an actual story. Then I watched videos of volunteers who try give peace to families by finding the bodies...which involves going into a forest so dense they need yellow tape to get out. That resonated with me—doing such a terrifying thing for an altruistic reason. And that became my story spark, which evolved into a teenage girl in a fantasy world, tasked with going into a similar forest to give peace to the spirits of exiled convicts.


Book Cover Arrow Through the Axes

Arrow Through the Axes, by Patrick Bowman

Nominated for the Geoffrey Bilson Award for Historical Fiction for Young People

Arrow Through the Axes finishes off my "Odyssey of a Slave" trilogy, so I’ll tell you why I wrote the trilogy. We really don’t realize how much Greek mythology still influences us, even today, 2500 years later. Hundreds of modern ideas, from the Cyclops to sirens, from Trojan Horses to Mr. Tumnus, from O Brother Where Art Thou to the Odyssey minivan name, come straight from Greek mythology. I wanted to rewrite Homer’s Odyssey, one of the coolest but less-known myths, as a story that people would read for pleasure.

It didn’t start as a trilogy, incidentally. Before I started the first book, Torn from Troy, I looked at the translations. They’re usually about an inch or so wide, printed on this really thick paper with lots of white space, so I figured, sure, I can fit all that into one adventure book. Big mistake! I hadn’t thought at all about characterization, sub-plots, minor characters, setting, theme...all that stuff. I was only a third of the way into it when I realized it was going to take a trilogy to fit it all. Live and learn. Still, it was worth it. I hope your readers think so too.


Book Cover Dead Man's Switch

Dead Man’s Switch, by Sigmund Brouwer

Nominated for the John Spray Mystery Award

I happened upon an article that described a website where a person could upload information to be sent after they died, and the concept fascinated me so much that I wanted to build a story around it. When I decided it had centre on a teenager on the run from adult authorities, I began to search for an isolated location where the teenager was geographically trapped. That research led me to an island with a prison, and that lead me to the rest of the story. It was fun to combine today’s technology with the age-old theme of humans on the run from other humans.


Book Cover Le Voleur de Sandwichs

Le voleur de sandwichs, illustrated by Patrick Doyon (and see below for a piece by the book's author, André Marois)

Nominated for the Prix TD de littérature canadienne pour l’enfance et la jeunesse

Le Voleur de Sandwichs is a bizarre mix between a novel, a comic, and a children's book. I knew that, given the large number of pages, I had to stick to a limited colour palette. In this sense, the first illustrated books of Tomi Ungerer (The Mellops, Crictor) turned out to be an inspiration for the liveliness of the drawing and the restricted use of color. Although these Ungerer's little gems are not similar than my book, reading them allowed me to reassure myself for the decisions I took for Le Voleur.

Sometimes the author likes to indicate ideas for illustrations but it wasn't the case for Le Voleur de Sandwichs. So I had almost carte blanche for the number of pages and the editing. It's challenging, and this creative freedom can be very frightening. So, personal tastes as children's book reader guided me to how I approached and cut the text. I must confess that I am not a big fan of children's books with lots of text on a page and an illustration that summarizes all the action on the other. My school of thought is much closer to comics, where the action is usually divided into several small images. It explains my decision to chop André's text in small sequences: to leave only few sentences on each double-page allowed me more freedom about the rhythm of the book. 

What immediately seduced me in André's script text is the idea (fairly universal) of a sandwich's theft and the way that Marin (with a little help from her mother) finds the person responsible for this nefarious act. We all know someone in our entourage who has had to deal with a lunch's thief… And it's never a good feeling. I had a great pleasure of drawing the main character's anger, and the cover's design reflects very well my delight in expressing Marin’s rage. 


Book Cover L’autobus

L’autobus, by Marianne Dubuc (published in English as The Bus Ride)

Nominated for the Prix TD de littérature canadienne pour l’enfance et la jeunesse

L’autobus (The Bus Ride) tells the story of a little girl who takes the bus on her own for the first time, and meets tons of funny anthropomorphic characters. I wanted to make a book that my (then) three-year-old daughter would like, and she is the inspiration for Clara's character. In my work I like to make references to other stories, such as Little Red Riding Hood, as one can see in this book. I had a lot of fun adding all the details to the images so readers could spend a lot of time talking about what they see in the illustrations. L’autobus was made for Comme des géants, and it was their second book to be published. I had a lot of freedom when creating this book, and it is something that I am very thankful for.


Book Cover The Show to End All Shows

The Show to End All Shows, by Cary Fagan

Nominated for the John Spray Mystery Award

It was my own childhood fascination with street performers and buskers, which has carried on into adulthood. Musicians, jugglers, magicians—I've long been entranced by their talent to entertain, to transport the viewer to a different place for a moment. And I admired their courage, too. As a kid I practiced magic tricks endlessly but I was too shy to perform them—much like Sullivan in the books. In The Show to End all Shows, I had a chance to imaginatively immerse myself in that world. I know that I was also influenced by Charles Dickens, whose novels I fell in love with at the age of 16. His villains have seemed particularly appealing to me—nasty perhaps but all too human. That's how I saw my own pair of kidnappers, Master and Mistress Melville. And Dickens' stories were always full of mystery.


The Voice Inside My Head

The Voice Inside My Head, by Susan Laidlaw

Nominated for the John Spray Mystery Award

My father was a psychiatrist. I went into clinical social work largely because of him. When I started counselling we shared cases. He was my mentor and hidden strength. I was barely a year into my first job when he died. The loss was devastating. I coped by continuing our dialogue in my imagination. When something troubled me, I sought his guidance and invented his answers. Despite being a discourse of my own creation, there were times when I felt his imagined responses contained wisdom beyond my own. My father’s voice inside my head inspired my main character’s conversations with his missing sister.

I set the novel where I was living when I wrote it. Utila, a tiny Central American island, mostly swamp and forest, lent itself to a story about a boy who goes searching for his sister and finds himself. The eerie island history, formerly a Payan Indian burial ground, coupled with the present day reality of isolation, surrounded by an ocean teeming with sea life, including whale sharks, provided endless opportunities to test my character’s courage. Add to that the quirky individuals who really do wash up on the shores of remote islands and the story clamored to be told. 


Book Cover The Art of Getting Stared At

The Art of Getting Stared At, by Laura Langston

Nominated for the Amy Mathers Teen Book Award 

When I write, I tend to gather bits and pieces from a variety of places, like a bird slowly building a nest. The Art of Getting Stared At was no different. My daughter had a friend who didn’t spend a lot of time on makeup or clothes. That’s not to say she didn’t care what she looked like—she did—but she wasn’t overly concerned with her appearance. Before a school dance, my daughter and her friends would spend hours at our house doing their hair and makeup, and figuring out what to wear. This particular girl would spend maybe twenty minutes getting ready. The rest of her time was spent surfing the net or talking to us. She was much more concerned about what was going on in the world than making sure her lipstick was the right color. I was intrigued by that and by some of the social dynamics I witnessed between her and the other girls. They were all very good friends but they thought she was a little weird and she thought they were a little shallow. Around this same time, I met someone who had lost her hair to alopecia. She commented that she’d never truly appreciated her hair until it was gone. I began to wonder how it would be for my daughter’s friend if her appearance was significantly altered. What if she began to obsess about her appearance? How would she feel if she’d always prided herself on being "just a little bit better than those other girls?" From there, the story took shape. 


Book Cover Residential Schools

Residential Schools, With the Words and Images of Survivors: A National History, by Larry Loyie with Wayne K. Spear and Constance Brissenden

Nominated for the Norma Fleck Award for Canadian Non-Fiction

I lived a traditional Cree life until I was eight years old. The forest was my cathedral where I practised the skills taught by my parents and elders. This beautiful way of life ended when I was eight years old. A high-sided truck picked us children up to take us on a six-hour journey to residential school in Grouard, Alberta. I spent 10 months of every year for the next six years at the school. Lying in the lonely boys dormitory at night, I remembered my home, family, culture, and traditions. Remembering kept me going. While in residential school, I got sick and spent two weeks in a hospital. I saw a photograph of Ernest Hemingway at a bull fight in Spain, surrounded by pretty ladies. It looked good to me. I wanted to become a writer, just like Hemingway. When I went back to school in my 50s, I had a purpose to fulfilling my dream of becoming a writer. I wanted everyone to know about the beauty of traditional cultures, and what we lost in residential school. My national history, Residential Schools, With the Words and Images of Survivors, is not just my story. It's the story of more than 144,000 First Nations, Métis, and Inuit children across Canada. I want our common experiences to be known, understood, and never forgotten. 


Book Cover Le Voleur de Sandwichs

Le voleur de sandwichs, by André Marois, illustrated by Patrick Doyon

Nominated for thePrix TD de littérature canadienne pour l’enfance et la jeunesse

L’idée du livre Le voleur de sandwichs est née en 2006. J’animais un atelier sur le roman policier dans une école primaire à Candiac et j’avais demandé aux élèves de me raconter un fait réel qui leur serait arrivé à l’école, dans leur famille ou avec leurs amis. Ça devait être un événement mystérieux qu’ils n’avaient jamais expliqué et qui pourrait devenir l’élément déclencheur d’une enquête. Les enfants m’ont regardé sans réagir. Personne n’avait d’idée. C’est finalement la professeure qui a levé la main pour me raconter que depuis le début de l’année quelqu’un volait dans les boîtes à lunch suspendues dans le couloir. J’ai noté l’anecdote dans mon carnet et l’année suivante, de nouveau invité par la même professeure, je lui ai demandé si le voleur—ou la voleuse—avait été démasqué. C’était le cas. Mais ce qui fut surtout intéressant, ce fut la réaction des élèves, tout à coup curieux, intrigués et accrochés. Je savais que je tenais un bon truc.


Book Cover Dolphin Sos

Dolphin SOS, by Slavia and Roy Miki, illustrated by Julie Flett

Nominated for the Marilyn Baillie Picture Book Award 

After my 4 a.m. meditation, and while having my breakfast, I read a newspaper article about a group of dolphins trapped by ice in Seal Cove, Newfoundland. The crisis mounted when the fisheries department refused to help. Later we learned that the people of Seal Cove were told they were not allowed to rescue the dolphins either. Given the circumstances, and with the ice closing in on them, making it impossible for the dolphins to surface and breathe, it seemed to Roy and me that only Divine intervention could save the dolphins. I began to meditate for a miracle. When news came that the dolphins had been rescued by four men and a sixteen-year-old boy, I immediately recognized that this was a modern day spiritual story of David and Goliath, and once again David had defeated Goliath. The dolphin rescue was such a compelling story of compassion, courage and heroism that Roy and I felt it needed to be told. A few months later, Roy attended a conference in New Brunswick. We decided that he would travel to Seal Cove to interview the rescuers and to ask their permission for us to write a children’s book about their experience. Graciously they agreed. Because of them, and for them, Dolphin SOS was written. 


Book Cover The Gospel Truth

The Gospel Truth, by Caroline Pignat

Nominated for the Geoffrey Bilson Award for Historical Fiction for Young People and the Amy Mathers Teen Book Award

This was supposed to be the fourth book in the Greener Grass series—Annie’s story. As I was researching, I learned about the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 and began the story from Annie’s point of view—maybe she was an abolitionist or maybe she worked for one. But as I learned more, I became intrigued by the injustice of slavery and especially by the courage it would have taken a slave to even think of running away from all he or she knows. That’s when I started to write in Phoebe’s voice and when I realized this was her story, not Annie’s.

Unlike my other novels, this was not my journey, not my heritage, not my voice—and yet it fascinated me. I’ll do the research, I told myself, and see. I soon realized this journey wasn’t about telling a story as much as it was about listening to others’. I will never claim to have a right to this story, but I do have a duty to it. We all do. To listen. To learn. To see and to share. 

Imagine what life would have been like back then if they approached each other with that same empathy. 

Imagine what it would be like today if we all did.


Part 2 of "Seeds of Story" will be published on Thursday.