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Seeds of a Story: Kids' Book Nominees Tell All

From Beyonce's "Lemonade" to Sigur Ross, a game of shinny in the woods, a grandfather stationed on a training vessel during the Halifax Explosion, and the work of Vincent Van Gogh.

From Beyonce's "Lemonade", to Sigur Ross, a game of shinny in the woods, a grandfather stationed on a training vessel during the Halifax Explosion, and the work of Vincent Van Gogh. These are just some of the seeds of the stories which have been nominated for the Canadian Children's Book Centre Awards, presented next week in Toronto.  


Book Cover Picture the Sky

Picture the Sky, by Barbara Reid

Nominated for the TD Canadian Children’s Literature Award

Acorns and maple keys were the seeds for Picture the Sky. It was while looking at trees for my book Picture a Tree that I found a new appreciation for the sky. 

My illustrations are made by spreading and modelling Plasticine on board; the layers build from back to front. The sky is often the background and sets the mood for the image. I noticed how often the sky appears in pictures by artists from five-year-olds to Vincent Van Gogh, and that the sky is important to the story in those images too. 

But how to fit the sky into a book? When I got a letter from a young artist with drawing of a vertical strip of sky between city buildings I knew I had to try. I chose settings and moments where a child might have an emotional connection to the sky. Things like being part of the sky on a Ferris wheel, cloud spotting from a hammock, or hiding in the fog. For me, the sky became a work of art available to everyone, everywhere. I hope readers are encouraged to wonder, make their own connections and—most of all—look up!


Book Cover Town is By The Sea

Town Is By the Sea, by Joanne Schwartz and Sydney Smith

Nominated for the TD Canadian Children’s Literature Award

Joanne Schwartz: The seeds of Town is by the Sea have been percolating for a long time. I grew up in Cape Breton and spent my childhood visiting the mining towns where family and friends lived. To me, the history of these small towns seemed to vibrate. Everyone in the community had a link to the mining past and that shared history of struggle was palpable. 

I wanted to write about this reality, of growing up in a mining town. The boy in the story embodies that legacy. He is the third generation of his family to be seeing his future in the mines. His life and the life of the town are inextricably linked. He tells us about the quotidian details of his day, all the while thinking about his father—worrying about his father—because he knows what his grandfather went through and what he, himself, is facing. Past, present and future converge against a landscape of coastal beauty. Above ground life feels gentle but below ground, the dangers of mining are a constant threat. The boy understands this implicitly.

I wanted to honour this history and the lives that lived it. It is my ode to the Cape Breton miners and their families, the struggles they have endured and the communities they have created, in this rugged corner of the country.


Book Cover The Marrow Thieves

The Marrow Thieves, by Cherie Dimaline

Nominated for the Amy Mathers Teen Book Award

The youth I was at a Friendship Centre with had the good fortune of spending time with an Inuk Elder who wanted to know why we were so mad; just who were we so mad at?

We talked to him about Canadians and white people and colonization and attempted genocide. He responded that he thought we imagined that a ship full of warriors showing up on our shores, when in reality—because these people had killed off or severed ties with their medicine people, their teachers, their ancestors—what we were dealing with was a boat full of kids. He reminded us that when children are left without boundaries, they can be quite cruel trying to survive. 

Years later I was in the Northwest Territories with a group of Indigenous women writers and we were talking about motherhood. My friend Kelly Benning said, “Pregnancy is exhausting. It’s because the children we carry will do anything to survive. They literally leach the vitamins from your bones. They’re just the cutest little marrow thieves.” 

This idea of what we do to keep going and how that has played out for us, Indigenous people already living in our post-apocalyptic world, stayed with me.


Book Cover When the Moon Comes

When the Moon Comes, by Paul Harbridge and by Matt James

Nominated for the TD Canadian Children’s Literature Award and the Marilyn Baillie Picture Book Award

Paul Harbridge: When my son Daniel was seven, he started hockey in Etobicoke. One weekend we were visiting my parents in Gravenhurst, the little town where I grew up. My father told Daniel that when he was young, he and his friends played shinny on a “beaver flood” and I guess that planted the seed in my mind.

Although I myself had never played hockey on a beaver pond, my childhood home was surrounded on all sides by woods. My sister, little brother and I discovered a pond deep in the trees, and on winter days after school, we shovelled it off and passed a puck around with friends. 

I remembered the magical nights we played in those woods, winter and summer, when the moon was so bright it was like day. 

We had animals all around us, too. A black bear stood up on its hind legs one afternoon right in front of our house. At breakfast, we spotted tracks where a moose had waded through the snow in our backyard. And some winter nights when the moon was full, we heard wolves howling in the distance.

All that percolated in my brain and came out as When the Moon Comes.


Book Cover Recipe for Hate

Recipe for Hate, by Warren Kinsella

Nominated for the  John Spray Mystery Award

The book was inspired by true events. Years ago, I was a cops reporter at the Calgary Herald, and I came across a neo-Nazi group, the Aryan Nations, taking root in Canada. Along the way, I learned about a cell of Aryan Nations supporters in and around a local police force. I even had the photo of a cop in an Aryan Nations uniform.

My editors were nervous about doing the story, however. They didn’t let me pursue it—something that bothered me for many years. So Recipe For Hate is about all that—and it has clear echoes in the chaotic, divisive Trump era, too.


Book Cover A Blinding Light

A Blinding Light, by Julie Lawson

Nominated for the Geoffrey Bilson Award for Historical Fiction

My grandfather was a young sailor, stationed on a training vessel in the Halifax Harbour at the time of the explosion. But as luck would have it, on the morning of Dec. 6, 1917, he wasn’t on his ship. He was in a hospital, waiting to get his tonsils out. My interest in the Halifax Explosion began with that family connection—the seed that I would eventually nurture into a story.

Through my research, I learned that my grandfather’s ship suffered serious damage. Several crewmen were killed. I assume he would have joined the surviving crew to assist in the rescue operations. How that would have affected him, I can only imagine. How does anyone recover from a disaster of that magnitude? As I read the personal accounts of survivors, my main characters began to take shape—16-year-old Will and his 12-year-old sister Livy. I put myself in their shoes.

How did the disaster affect them, their friends, their family? And what about the time before the explosion? The Great War was in its third year and anti-German sentiments were rife. To explore this further, I decided to give my characters a German father. How were they treated? And what about the explosion itself? What caused it? Who was to blame? So many questions! In writing A Blinding Light, I tried to address these questions and to tell a story that young people could relate to in a meaningful way.


Book Cover Dragonfly Song

Dragonfly Song, by Wendy Orr 

Nominated for the TD Canadian Children’s Literature Award

I’ve known for years that a book Bronze Age was lurking in my future. Every once in a while I’d get a hint—like hearing a song by Sigur Ros and thinking, “That’s the playlist!” (Even though I’d always written in silence.) However the catalyst was a visit to India in 2010: the culture shock of new sounds and smells, beautiful buildings and overwhelming poverty shaped the story in a different way than I’d expected. 

It still took several years and many false starts to begin. The dilemma was that I always heard it in free verse, but worried that it was too long and complex to be a verse novel. Then, one evening at tai chi, the story appeared in a luminescent blue bubble—difficult to explain or believe, but powerful enough to bring me to tears. The next day I saw a dragonfly, the exact same colour as the bubble. Dragonflies kept on appearing whenever I made a significant decision or saw something that shaped the story: an offcut of chipped flint on a Danish island; the mysterious deep blue source of a French river that would have seemed even more mysterious and holy in ancient times…


Book Cover The Way Back Home

The Way Back Home, by Allan Stratton

Nominated for the Amy Mathers Teen Book Award

My relationship with my mom has been at the centre of my life in fiction, from Chanda’s Secrets, to The Dogs, and finally here in The Way Back Home.

Mom passed away six years ago from Alzheimers’. It was hard. She was and remains the fiercest most courageous person I’ve ever known and her love for me was unconditional. My greatest fear, which never came to pass, was that she’d forget who I was.

So in the broadest sense, Granny is Mom and I’m Zoe. Only as Zoe says at the end, truth is slippery. The Way Back Home is true emotionally and in some of the details and dialogue, but not in the overall plot. 

Like Zoe, I was the only person Mom trusted in the throes of dementia. When she’d get angry, I’d ask myself why I’d be upset if I were her. How I’d feel if people I thought were strangers woke me up and tried to undress me for a bath? Why would I want company in the bathroom? Why wouldn’t I want a doctor to ask me questions? Mom’s anger and fear made total sense when seen from her perspective.

One of the true scenes: I went to Mom’s cremation and had the undertaker straighten her coffin. I also asked to push the button that got things started. I’d fought for Mom for years as she’d fought for me when I was little. It was something I wanted and needed to do: to be with her to the end. Afterwards, I cradled her ashes. As Zoe says, the world was sky.


Book Cover Step Up to the Plate, Maria Singh

Step Up to the Plate, Maria Singh, by Uma Krishnaswami

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

As a child growing up in India, I heard stories of men from the Punjab who had emigrated to Canada and the United States, generations before anyone in my own south Indian family had ever set foot in a foreign land. Over the years, I learned more. In the 1990s, when I lived in the US, I saw a documentary titled Roots in the Sand, about a California community where the men were Punjabi and the women were of Mexican descent. They were caught in a tangle of xenophobic legislation—miscegenation laws, land ownership prohibitions, all of it aimed at these foreigners of colour. They made choices that helped them survive. Their children grew up speaking Spanish but also proud of their fathers’ heritage. The fictional children in my novel grew from there. As I researched this history, I realized that the 1940s would be a fruitful time for the setting of my novel. So much was happening then—World War Two, the Indian independence movement, and women struggling to find their places in factories and on the ball field. Eventually Maria’s story grew into this novel. 


Book Cover Not Your Priness

#NotYourPrincess, co-edited by Lisa Charleyboy and Mary Beth Leatherdale

Nominated for the Norma Fleck Nonfiction Award

Mary Beth Leatherdale: From the time we started working together on Dreaming in Indian in 2013, Lisa and I talked about creating an anthology that explored the experiences of Indigenous girls and women. At that time, the diverse stories of Indigenous women were rarely featured in mainstream media. Apart from the efforts by the MMIW movement to bring attention to the danger Native women faced, they were virtually invisible.

After putting out a call to Indigenous women and girls for poetry, journal entries, stories, artwork and photography, we were having a very difficult time figuring out the shape for the book—until we got some help from Beyoncé. One day during a Skype meeting, we started talking about her "Lemonade" video. And, we looked at each other and said “That’s it!” The video so beautifully captures how the past impacts the present and how strength and vulnerability, pain and beauty co-exist in marginalized women’s lives. It inspired us and gave us the confidence to be bold in #NotYourPrincess—to create a collection that bears witness to the racism, misogyny, and trauma that many Indigenous girls and women face but also celebrates the deep bonds they share, their strength and leadership, their humour and hope.


Book Cover Rewilding

Rewilding: Giving Nature a Second Chance, by Ann Love and Jane Drake

Nominated for the Norma Fleck Award for Canadian Children’s Non-Fiction

We read about the idea of rewilding as a strategy for wildlife restoration for the first time in a newspaper article. As life-long nature advocates, we were intrigued.

We thought rewilding sounded more energized than plain old habitat restoration. And the three steps to rewilding—setting aside cores, connecting them by corridors, and adding keystone species—made sense. At the same time, rewilding appeals to the human addiction to manage and control Nature that has been part of the problem, causing habitat loss and the decline of wildlife abundance. 

So, our book explores the ethical knot—the good, the bad, and the ugly. How can the ideas behind rewilding be helpful? How can rewilding lead to unintended consequences? And when can it become a problem for wildlife? Or are we too far gone already with habitat decline and wildlife loss to accept anything less than full-on, radical rewilding? 

We tried to set up the book so that our readers would see all sides, think about the issues, and make up their own minds. The hope is they will develop the skills and take on the challenge of restoring the natural world into the future.


Book Cover the Agony of Bun OKeefe

The Agony of Bun O’Keefe, by Heather Smith

Nominated for the John Spray Mystery Award and Geoffrey Bilson Award for Historical Fiction for Young People

The inspiration for writing The Agony of Bun O’Keefe is not something I can put my finger on. What came first was a vibe—what I wanted the book to feel like. The storylines and characters were just a vague notion. I lived with this “vibe” for weeks and when I finally sat down to write, Bun appeared. It was as if the seed of the story had been germinating in my brain without me even realizing it—and when it finally sprouted I couldn’t stop tending to it. For the next few months I wrote day and night until the story had grown into a complete book. 

While there was no concrete inspiration for The Agony of Bun O’Keefe, there were many things that influenced it. For example, one of my favourite movies is This is England, which follows a group of young people in the 1980s. The storylines are edgy, real, and compelling—something I strive for in my own writing.


Book Cover Blood on the Beach

Blood on the Beach, by Sarah N. Harvey and Robin Stevenson

Nominated for the John Spray Mystery Award

We had worked together as editor (Sarah) and author (Robin) on many books, and in the process we had become close friends. When we finished the edits on Robin’s 2016 book, we missed our regular conversations—and decided that since we didn’t have a shared project, we would create one together.

We both loved reading mysteries when we were younger (and still do), and thought it would be fun to try writing one for teens. And it was! We wanted to write a “locked room” mystery, so we set Blood on the Beach on a small fictional island in the Pacific Northwest, where we both live. We outlined a rough plot, which evolved over time, and we each wrote the point of view of our chosen character. In the final stages of writing the book, we spent a few days together on a small island, re-working our outline for the last chapters and discussing the ending of the book. It was great fun to write this book together and a thrill to be nominated for the John Spray Mystery Award.


Book Cover Everything Beautiful Is Not Ruined

Everything Beautiful is Not Ruined, by Danielle Younge-Ullman

Nominated for the Amy Mathers Teen Book Award

After my final year of high school I went on a wilderness adventure, and my experience there had a huge impact on my life. My mom had decided halfway through my senior year that she wanted me to graduate as an Ontario Scholar, for which you had to have a certain GPA. She felt I was underachieving (likely true) and also maybe not quite ready for the rigours of “real life” (also possibly true) and so she decreed that I either had to bring my marks up to Ontario Scholar level, or go to this wilderness program over the summer. 

My mom and I were very close, and still are, but we had a lot of fights over this decree, while I simultaneously tried to raise my marks. In the end, of course, I didn’t raise them enough. So off I went to “camp,” only it didn’t turn out to be camp, it turned out to be camping, and pretty hardcore camping at that. The program was excellent, but I was completely unprepared—mentally, physically, and emotionally—and had a complete breakdown out on the trail. I had been to “normal” camp, and I’d even been on a canoe trip, so I was really taken aback at my reaction. That trip, and the way it brought me face to face with my strengths and weaknesses, my memories, my relationships, and some essential truths about the world and how I wanted to be in it, is the inspiration behind Everything Beautiful is Not Ruined


Book Cover Clutch

Clutch, by Heather Camlot

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

“Can you tell me about my grandfather?” That’s the question I asked my uncle long, long ago. My grandfather had died when my dad was a teenager, and all I really knew was that he had come to Montreal from Russia, owned a small grocery store in The Plateau neighbourhood, was quite poor and had three children who were very close. But the three children—my uncle, my aunt and my dad—never talked much about growing up or about their father, and my question was never really answered. So my mind began to wander and I decided to answer the question myself—by making up my own story. 

I set Clutch around the time my uncle, the eldest child, would have been having his bar mitzvah, the mid-1940s. Research helped narrow down the year and fill in the rest of the story, namely the aftermath of the Holocaust and Jackie Robinson’s season with the Montreal Royals. 

As the novel progressed, my dad—perhaps accidentally, perhaps intentionally—did tell me one story about my grandfather. It was about his death. That story inspired the first chapter of Clutch


Book Cover Meatless

Meatless?, by Sarah Elton

Nominated for the Norma Fleck Award for Canadian Children’s Non-Fiction

My book, Meatless?, was inspired by the many conversations about meat eating that I've had with my kids. When they were very young, they started asking questions such as why we eat meat and why we eat certain animals and not others. Also, they wondered why some people in our family don't eat pork, while others do. I always wanted to take the time and answer my kids' questions thoughtfully. But these are big questions and the answers are not simple!

So in Meatless? I tackle everything I wanted to share with them in a format that I believe is accessible to younger readers but also satisfies their curiosity about this serious matter. I start the book with the story of the day I ended up helping to kill a chicken on a farm. My daughters were with me and this experience marked us. I look at why people have been butchering animals since before our species started farming about 12,000 years ago and also wrote about the people who for thousands of years have chosen not to. It was fascinating for me to learn in the research that the questions my kids were asking me that felt very modern were in fact themes that people have long explored.


Book Cover When Planet Earth Was New

When Planet Earth Was New, by James Gladstone and Katherine Diemert

Nominated for the Norma Fleck Award for Canadian Children’s Non-Fiction 

James Gladstone: In the deep past, Earth was a hot, lifeless, alien world. That was the idea that first sparked my interest in writing When Planet Earth Was New.

The incredible changes that have occurred over more than 4.5 billion years have taken Earth from its boiling beginnings to the living planet we know today. I wanted to tell that story of change—to capture the grand spectacle of Earth’s sweep forward through vast stretches of time.

And story is the operative word.

Through narrative nonfiction, my wish was to excite children’s interest in Earth’s story, and to instill a sense of wonder at the variety of life that has evolved on our amazing planet.