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Seeds of a Story: 2020 Canadian Children's Book Centre Awards

Kazakh eagle hunters, Muslim love stories, Grade 7 science class and more! Canada's most celebrated children's writers tell all about how their acclaimed works were inspired.

Last week, the winners of the 2020 Canadian Children's Book Centre Awards were announced. And now we're excited to share short pieces by finalist authors on the inspirations for their celebrated works and how they came to be born.


Book Cover Love from A to Z

Love From A to Z, by S.K. Ali

Nominated for the Amy Mathers Teen Book Award

Love from A to Z grew from many seeds—one of which was that I wasn’t seeing the kind of love story that was familiar to me and my family and friends. Muslim romantic storylines in popular culture tend to be focused on marriages arranged by parents (even if that’s not the romance in the story, the main character is often presented as grappling with the expectation of arranged marriages) and that wasn’t my experience, and isn’t an intrinsic part of Islam. Muslim cultures vary widely and so how relationships develop vary. I just wanted to tell a story familiar to me but that I wasn’t seeing on shelves: two Muslims meeting serendipitously and falling for each other.

The journey of two characters falling in love had to be dealt with justly (I felt) so I set out to tell two distinct stories. That meant mapping out two story-arcs, two character journeys, two worlds, and then I proceeded to envision these two tales as they would look fully realized, as though each story stood on its own. It was only after this that I plotted out where their stories intersected, where love could bloom. It was important to me that both Adam and Zayneb (the “A” and “Z” in the title) were treated as though they each deserved an entire book of their own.


Book Cover Orange for the Sunsets

Orange for the Sunsets, by Tina Athaide

Winner of the Geoffrey Bilson Award for Historical Fiction for Young People

Orange for the Sunsets is a story of friendship, family, home, and belonging set against the backdrop of the expulsion of Asian Indians from Uganda. I was born in Uganda and my family left Entebbe just before the expulsion, but my grandparents were displaced and so many other family and friends.

I had a loose idea for a novel based on my own childhood memories: a girl’s world is turned upside when the president of Uganda announces that all Asian Indians have 90 days to leave the country. But when an editor suggested writing the story from alternating points of view of two characters, something sparked. If this story were told by two friends, Asha and Yesofu, from two culturally different families, the book could give a deeper understanding of how that historical event affected Asian Indians and African Ugandans.


Book Cover The Candle and the Flame

The Candle and the Flame, by Nafiza Azad

Nominated for the Amy Mathers Teen Book Award

Like many other works of fiction, The Candle and the Flame too, is a collection of answers to questions that life, and sometimes other writers, have posed. The first, and perhaps the most important, question was: What if there was a place where everyone, regardless of race, sex, gender, faith, or sexual orientation could belong? So, the City of Noor, the setting of The Candle and the Flame, was born. The other question, perhaps just as important, was one Shakespeare asked: What’s in a name? A lot, actually, if one wants to quibble, especially in non-Western cultures. The djinns in my novel require names to transform from beings of smokeless fire into beings of blood and flesh. Some other questions that I sought to answer: What if being Muslim was not political? What if a Muslim identity was not something to defend or feel apologetic for? What if Muslim girls and women could see themselves not as oppressed and having to be saved at every turn but as actualized people, having adventures, being magic, saving the world? What then? What if I wrote a book in which sisterhood is prominent? The Candle and the Flame is my answer to these questions.


Book Cover When I Found Grandma

When I Found Grandma, by Saumiya Balasubramaniam and Qin Leng

Nominated for the Marilyn Baillie Picture Book Award

Saumiya Balasubramaniam: The idea for When I Found Grandma originated when my mother (from India) visited me and my growing family in Canada. I was inspired to write from my observation of the entertaining and animated dynamics between 75-year-old parent and five-year old progeny.

Generational differences apart, they sometimes seemed to be culturally conflicted. Even differences in everyday expressions of communication had potential to warrant tension. While the senior seemed set in her ways, the little one was growing to be independent with her thoughts and assertions.

But sometimes, the two would skip a predictable pattern and pair up in a familiar familial fashion.

That exploration of an interesting intergenerational relationship always holds close to heart.

The story narrative arched over my matrilineal vantage point of being in the metaphorical and mathematical middle!

While assimilated children of a certain age and background may relate to the “specifics” of this story, the universality of one-to-one relationships (usually bearing strong roots in the institution of family) will hold broad appeal.


Book Cover Stand on the Sky

Stand on the Sky, by Erin Bow

Nominated for the TD Canadian Children’s Literature Award

I keep writing the books that young me needed to read. For example, when I was about ten, I desperately needed Where the Red Fern Grows to have a happy ending.

A little later, I needed something different. Characters facing serious illness are common enough in kids’ lit, but what I wanted was the story of what happens to the sibling who is well when the family rallies around the one who is ill—the child who is loved but left adrift. I’ve rarely seen that story told, which is a pity because it’s common. It is, in fact, mine.

So I started the book I wanted: it was about a boy left at a loose end when his sister falls critically ill. His family were naturalists, and he was left with the task of re-wilding a human imprinted hawk. His was supposed to take this tame hawk and teach it to be wild again, so that it could fly away from him forever.

Well. That’s not really a happy ending.

I worked on this on and off for ten years, but I couldn’t write my way out of this corner—until in 2014 I saw the photographs by Asher Svidensky of young people training in the ancient Kazakh art of eagle hunting. I have an obsession with falconry, so I knew that Kazakh eagle hunters are the only falconers in the world who release their birds into the wild. I saw that, and I knew that, an in that instant my brain was struck by lightning.

That’s how I ended up and spending the summer of 2015 living with Kazakh nomads—and their eagles—on the western edge of Mongolia.

I didn’t truly find my way into my own story until I got there.


Book Cover All Our Broken Pieces

All Our Broken Pieces, by LD Crichton

Nominated for the Amy Mathers Teen Book Award

Since I was a kid, my mom told me if I didn’t have something to worry about, I’d be worried about not having something to worry about. Years later, I would learn the irony of that statement—when my mother—my hero, my confidant, my very best friend, died.

After that my "worries" were almost always super dark, so I wanted to write about it. I thought writing about OCD would allow me to explore that part of myself in a relatable way but also ‘remove’ me enough as the creator of Lennon and Kyler’s world.

So I started to research, but the further I dived into this world, the more I spoke to those diagnosed with OCD, the more I read, the more I watched documentaries—I began to question if my mother had it. Several of the things Lennon does in the book came from routines I was taught as a child—we always thought my mom was overboard on having things obsessively clean and organized with such intense precision, but now that myself and my two of my children all struggle with diagnosed anxiety issues, I suspect there is much more to it than that.

Lennon’s catastrophic way of thinking is at its core, is a reflection of my own anxieties magnified on paper. I can’t relate to her compulsions, but I 100% understand her thoughts.


Book Cover In the Key of Nira Ghani

In the Key of Nira Ghani, by Natasha Deen

Winner of the Amy Mathers Teen Book Award

I am one of those authors for whom writing is more perspiration than inspiration and In the Key of Nira Ghani is a perfect example. I’d spent a year-and-a half wrestling with a manuscript that did NOT want to cooperate (no matter how much tea and cupcakes I offered it). Common sense said to set it down and work on something else, but I couldn’t get the first lines (“The cow’s eyeball floats in the formaldehyde. It's disembodied, a part cut off from the whole, just like me…”) out of my mind.

One afternoon I found myself sitting quietly (translation, sobbing and rending my clothing) and patiently waiting to see what would happen if I didn’t force the next words, but instead let them come to me (translation, I was stuffing myself with chocolate, tea, and cookies, and wondering what made me think I could be a real-life author).

Into the quiet, came the images of a girl who desperately wanted something and had to wade into her parents’ disapproval and disappointment to get it. More than that, I saw her and her grandmother, endless cups of tea, and infinite love.

It would take me many more days of sitting quietly and being patient before I had the full images of Nira and her story, but the seed—love, identity, dreams, friends, and family—was planted that day.


Book Cover King Mouse

King Mouse, by Cary Fagan and Dena Seiferling

Nominated for the Marilyn Baillie Picture Book Award

Dena Seiferling: King Mouse was my first picture book. My process for illustrating this story began with an unexpected call from from Tara Walker, VP and Publisher at Penguin Random House Canada Young Readers. She wanted to know if I would be interested in illustrating a children’s book and sent me the King Mouse manuscript, written by Cary Fagan. I jumped at the chance to illustrate his story. I loved it and was inspired by the combination of charismatic animal characters. I thought a lot about where these characters would live and play. The environment I imagined was heavily influenced by the magical and diverse areas I grew up in and still love spending time in as an adult. Places where the sage bushes, grassy meadows and foothills sweep into mountains. I took photos and sketched on trips and used them as reference to explore scenes from the story. When my ideas were solid enough to be thumbnails, they were sent to the Editor and Art Director at Tundra. Once the rough drawings had gone back and forth a couple times for feedback and we were all happy with them, I completed the final illustrations on paper with graphite and then coloured them digitally. I work with very subtle colour so although it might not look like it, it’s a pretty time consuming part of the process. But I love this part the most, it brings out my inner child who grabs her crayons to colour, with infinite possibilities in mind!


Book Cover Cels

Cells: An Owners Handbook, by Carolyn Fisher

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

As a 12-year-old in Mr. Otani’s Science 7 class, I loved to draw the one-celled creatures like the amoeba and the paramecium that we examined under the microscope.

Years later, I decided to make a children’s picture book about the paramecium. So I sketched out a storyboard for a book called Taking Care of Your Pet Paramecium.

When I pitched it to my editor, she said: “Carolyn, I really like this story. But I want you to make a book about CELLS, not just about the paramecium.”

I was a little dejected when my editor rejected my Paramecium book, so I went into my bedroom and screamed into my pillow. Then I forgot about the paramecium book, until one day I had an idea. I sketched out a storyboard for another book, called My Rhinovirus. When I pitched it to my editor, she said: “Carolyn, I really like this story. But I want you to make a book about CELLS, not just about a virus.”

I was a little distraught when my editor rejected my virus book, so I went into my bedroom and screamed into my pillow. Then I forgot about the virus book, until one day I had an idea. I sketched out a storyboard for a book called Cells: An Owner’s Handbook, featuring an amoeba. When I pitched it to my editor, she said: “Carolyn, I really like this story. But I feel like the amoeba protagonist isn’t as engaging as it could be. Can you do something about that?"

I was a little disconsolate when my editor wanted me to cut my amoeba protagonist, so I went into my bedroom and screamed into my pillow. Then, back at the drawing board, I rewrote and redrew my storyboard 19 more times, which is how many tries it took to come up with the book that you read today. I still love drawing cells just as much as I did in Science 7. It’s been a joy to investigate intricate cellular machinery and the wonderful way that cells come together to make you and me and everything else that’s alive.


Book Cover Pipo

Pipo, by Amélie Dumoulin

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

Pipo originates from two creative sources, two “parents” that are quite different, but who complement each other. Her mom would be Astrid Lindgren, or more precisely, Lindgren’s famous character, Pippi Longstocking. This heroine, strong as a fiery horse, was a real source of fascination during my childhood. She was my absolute role model; I so much wanted to be her! (And when I think of it, I was somehow…) Real Pippi fans will find in Pipo all kinds of hidden allusions to Lindgren’s universe.

The second inspiration for Pipo is my own father, a man who has been practically absent throughout my whole life. From afar, I followed his adventures. It is hard to separate fact from fiction in my father’s spectacular life. He claims to have been a master chef, to have been involved in ultra-secret submarine missions in China, and to have hunted antelopes from a helicopter on the Kennedy's ranch! Antonio, Pipo’s father, is fully inspired by him. He embodies a father figure who is terribly imperfect, not to mention neglectful, but still a loving one. Antonio has many flaws, but has the capacity to transform everyday activities—like watching cars go by—into poetic and magic moments.

Pipo provient de deux sources créatives, deux « parents » bien différents, mais complémentaires. Sa maman serait Astrid Lindgren, ou plutôt son personnage de Fifi Brindacier. Cette héroïne, forte comme un cheval et anticonformiste, a exercé sur moi une véritable fascination durant mon enfance. C'était un modèle absolu, je voulais être elle! (Et quand j'y repense, j'étais un peu elle aussi...) Les vrais geeks de Fifi trouveront d'ailleurs dans Pipo toutes sortes de références cachées.

L'autre source d'inspiration, c'est mon propre père, un homme presque entièrement absent de ma vie, mais dont j'ai suivi à distance les aventures. Dans son existence rocambolesque, difficile de départager le vrai du faux. Il prétend avoir été grand chef cuisinier, avoir traité une affaire de plans de sous-marins ultrasecrets en Chine et avoir chassé en hélicoptère les antilopes du ranch de la famille Kennedy! Antonio, le père de Pipo, est complètement inspiré de lui. Il représente un modèle paternel terriblement imparfait, voire négligeant, mais aimant, malgré tout. Antonio a mille défauts, mais possède le don de changer une activité banale – comme regarder passer des voitures sur l'autoroute – en moment poétique, magique!


Book Cover My Winter City

My Winter City, by James Gladstone and Gary Clement

Nominated for the Marilyn Baillie Picture Book Award

James Gladstone: The title itself—My Winter City—was the seed of the story for this picture book. I carried the title around with me for months thinking I would write a very different type of book than the one I wrote.

Then early one morning—in winter, of course—I woke up knowing how to write My Winter City. I would use the title as a sentence starter. And I would bring together a variety of childhood winter memories, rolling them into a day out with my dad.

Compiling winter scenes from my early life was a pleasure—that was the time of life I enjoyed winter most. And it was the simplest part of writing this book. But language is important to me, so the real challenge was figuring out how to use my sentence starter to help convey these winter scenes in thoughtful, playful ways that children might enjoy. With Gary Clement’s wintry, yet warm, illustrations, I hope we succeeded.


Book Cover Les Etoiles

Les Étoiles, by Jacques Goldstyn

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

This story is like a little seed that took about 15 years to germinate.

Every day, I cycled through the beautiful Outremont district in Montreal. I was fascinated by the swarm of young children scurrying around the sidewalks like sparrows. I then began to imagine that one of these kids wouldn't be like the others. I named him Yakov.

Yakov dreams of becoming an astronaut. One day, by chance, he meets Aïcha, who also comes from a strange planet. A very different planet from Yakov's. It’s not clear that the two will be brought together, however, they will discover a common passion: astronomy.

When I started to talk about this story, there were people who told me: "Such a story is absolutely impossible. Things like that do not happen in real life. Really, you don't have your feet on the ground. "

And yet, Yavov and Aïcha will become best friends in the world. They'll enjoy sesame seed bagels and chocolate chip ice cream while devouring books on asteroids and comets.

I wanted these two children to escape light years from the prejudices, superstitions and beliefs that are meant to keep them apart. I wanted them to escape toward those billions of stars that sparkle and smile at them.

This is how Les Étoiles were born.

Cette histoire est comme une petite graine qui a pris une quinzaine d’année avant de germer.

Tous les jours, je traversais en vélo le très beau quartier Outremont à Montréal.

J’étais fasciné par la ribambelle d’enfants juifs hassidiques qui s’ébrouaient sur les trottoirs, heureux comme des moineaux.

J’ai alors imaginé qu’un de ces enfants ne serait pas tout à fait comme ses amis. Je l’ai nommé Yakov.

Et ce petit Yakov rêve de devenir astronaute.

Un jour, par hasard, il fait la rencontre de Aïcha, qui elle aussi vient d’une étrange planète. Une autre planète que celle de Yakov.

Rien ne les destine à fraterniser. Pourtant, ils se découvrent une passion commune : l’astronomie.

Quand j’ai commencé à raconter cette histoire autour de moi, il y a des gens qui m’ont dit :

« Une histoire pareille, c’est absolument impossible. Ça ne se voit pas dans la vraie vie. Vraiment, Jacques, tu n’as pas les pieds sur Terre. »

Et pourtant, Yakov et Aïcha vont devenir les meilleurs amis du monde. Ensemble, ils vont déguster des bagels et de la crème glacée aux brisures de chocolat en dévorant des livres sur les astéroïdes et les comètes.

Je souhaitais que ces deux enfants s’évadent à des années-lumière des préjugés, des superstitions et des croyances qui font tout pour les séparer.

Je voulais qu’ils s’envolent vers ces milliards d’étoiles qui scintillent et leur sourient.

C’est comme ça que les Étoiles sont nées.


Book Cover The Big Dig

The Big Dig, by Lisa Harrington

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

I smiled when I saw the question, “What real life encounter launched your imagination?”

Years after my mom died, I was going through some of her things and I came across the very same items my character Lucy does in The Big Dig (I don’t want to say what, in case it gives something away). I never ended up getting an explanation for their existence, so I just went ahead and made up this story.

This was the first story I ever wrote (by hand because it was before I had a laptop!). When I started writing, everyone said, “Write what you know.” That’s why so much of what happens in this story is inspired by my own experiences and is set in the ‘70’s when I was growing up.

Like Lucy’s mom, my mom passed away from cancer. The circumstances, the hospital, the funeral, the aftermath, the feelings—those are all my mine.

Lucy’s great aunt Josie is based on a real person, my grandmother, Josie. Everything Josie does in the book, 100% my grandmother did. Trust me, you can’t make this stuff up!

The Big Dig is part my story, part my mom’s story, part my grandmother’s story. For these reasons, it is the most personal piece I’ve ever written, and closest to my heart.


Book Cover Broken Strings

Broken Strings, by Eric Walters and Kathy Kacer

Nominated for the TD Canadian Children’s Literature Award

Kathy Kacer: My telephone rang one day a few years ago, and it was Eric Walters on the other end. He had an idea for a book, and wanted to know if I was interested in writing it with him. Interested? YES! And when he told me his idea, I was definitely on board! The idea was to write about a girl who auditions for a school musical—Fiddler on the Roof. She goes to her grandfather's attic to rummage for clothes and props, and discovers something—we didn't know what at the time—that would link her grandfather to a hidden past and an experience he had during the Holocaust. Knowing my background as a writer of Holocaust books for young readers, Eric thought I could bring some of that history to this story. I loved his premise, and knew which part of Holocaust history I wanted to explore. I wanted to write about the orchestras that had been created in some of the concentration camps, filled with Jewish musicians who played for the arriving Jewish prisoners in a sad attempt to make them believe that all was going to be well for them in these terrible places. I knew we could fold that history into this fictional grandfather's experience and the past that he was hiding. Eric and I began to meet to plot out the book. And the rest is history!


Book Cover It Began WIth a Page

It Began With a Page: How Gyo Fujikawa Drew the Way, by Kyo Maclear and Julie Morstad

Nominated for the TD Canadian Children’s Literature Award

Kyo Maclear: It Began With a Page is the story of a trailblazing Japanese American illustrator-author.

I had Gyo Fujikawa's books as a child—Little Babies, and Oh, What a Busy Day. I didn’t know who made them, but I loved them. They were like Richard Scarry, with a galaxy of characters all doing different things, and with some images of children that looked a bit like me, although I wouldn’t have been able to articulate that at the time.

Julie also loved Fujikawa’s books. We realized we knew so little about their creator. We were full of questions. So we set out to find out more and to correct some of the muddled information circulating on the internet. Our search eventually led us to Gyo’s family and her original papers in California. It’s no exaggeration to say this book would not exist without the warmth and welcome of the Fujikawas—particularly Denson, Danny, Melissa, and Bonita—who shared family stories, photos, and archival materials.

The central metaphor became the image of a blank page and the idea of breaking the mould or template of what a story could be because Gyo was such a rule-breaker. Julie and I both wanted the structural elements of our book to echo the way Gyo invited children, placed at the outer margins of history, onto the main stage of children’s literature. As kids read through the book, we want them to feel what it’s like to tumble into belonging, what it means to begin with a page and tell your own untold story.


Book Cover Picking up the Pieces

Picking Up the Pieces: Residential School Memories and the Making of the Witness Blanket, by Carey Newman & Kirstie Hudson

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

Carey Newman: I came to writing through my art. In 2014, I completed the Witness Blanket as a response to a Truth and Reconciliation Commission call for commemoration initiatives. I made it to honour my father and to tell the truth about residential school experience in Canada.  The blanket is built from physical objects that me and my team collected from almost every residential school in Canada, as well as pieces from government buildings, churches, and traditional structures. We also spoke to many residential school Survivors and recorded their stories. The work toured for four and a half years and is now undergoing conservation at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights.

During the tour, an editor from Orca, Sarah Harvey, asked if I had ever considered writing about my experience and the making of the blanket. That was the moment that the idea for this book began to form. I worked with my friend and co-author, Kirstie Hudson, and together we found a way to weave together the experiences of Survivors, with my personal story as an intergenerational Survivor, and the process of making a work of art

Our book, Picking Up the Pieces, Residential School Memories and the Making of the Witness Blanket includes stories about the objects that make up the blanket—a shoe, a doorknob, my sister's braids, a porcelain dish, a photo of kids leaving their community in a boat. It includes the personal experiences of Survivors and intergenerational Survivors. It shares a bit about what life was and is like for Indigenous people in Canada, and explores what role we can each play in reconciliation.


Book Cover Be My Love

Be My Love, by Kit Pearson

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

Be My Love is the third book in a trilogy that includes The Whole Truth and And Nothing But the Truth. After the first two books I thought I was done with the story of Polly and her family on Kingfisher Island. At the end of the second book, a baby is born and another is on the way. I started to imagine the future lives of these two girls, and I decided to write about them 15 years later. I also decided, at long last, to write about a girl—Maisie—who falls in love with another girl. Although Maisie is not me, I also first became aware that I was attracted to girls when I was a teenager. That was in the early 1960s, a time when homosexuality was regarded as deviant and, in the case of men, illegal. In 1951, when the novel is set, same-sex relationships were even more repressed. Maisie is thus as confused about her feelings as I was. But, as her creator, I was able to give her a gift I wish I had had: an older person, Maud, who understands what Maisie is going through.  


Book Cover Room for One More

Room for One More, by Monique Polak

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

In a way, Room for One More began when I was in fifth grade. My teacher, Sharon Browman, was the first person to tell me I was a writer. I stayed in touch with Sharon, and several years ago, she invited me to speak at Montreal's St. James Literary Society. I can’t remember much about my talk, but I remember how at the dinner afterwards, I sat next to an elderly woman named Rosetta, who was sharp, funny and kind. Rosetta told me the story of how when she was growing up in Montreal in the early 1940s, her family adopted a teenage boy who was a Jewish German war refugee. Her story gave me goosebumps—the sign I get when I hear something I know I have to use in a book. Rosetta and I became friends, and I learned more about how her life was transformed by the presence of this “readymade” brother. Rosetta died in 2017 at the age of 102. “Mrs. Browman” died unexpectedly two years later–but I’m happy that when I ran into her and her husband shortly before her death, I told her that Room for One More would be dedicated to her.


Book Cover Beastly Puzzles

Beastly Puzzles: A Brain-Boggling Animal Guessing, by Rachel Poliquin and Byron Eggenschwiler

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

Rachel Poliquin: The idea for Beastly Puzzles had spun in my mind for years before its parts slowly came together. The idea started with early travellers’ descriptions of unfamiliar animals. I love how strange these descriptions can be, often like bizarre puzzles combining the tail, hands, fur, and teeth of various known animals to create a patchwork vision of the unknown creature for their readers.

I thought these animal puzzles would make a fun guessing game, but I wanted to push the concept to include not just what the animals’ parts looked like, but also how they were used. So many animals have a tail, for example, but is it used as a flyswatter or a paddle? Rather unexpectedly, I realised using human-made objects and tools as clues made for a tidy (if weird) introduction to animal adaptation.

Once I had the idea of using human-made objects in the puzzles, I began to think of rooms within which you might find such an assortment of thing. Coming up with the rooms was by far the hardest part of the project, but I liked how these strange spaces became a gentle nod back to those travellers of unknown realms, where the whole idea began.


Book Cover Among the Fallen

Among the Fallen, by Virginia Frances Schwartz

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

A novel begins in much the same way as planting seeds deep in the dark underground. An image. A word. Waiting. You never know what will develop.

At The Morgan Library’s exhibit "Charles Dickens at 200," Dickens’s original letters about Urania, the home for "fallen" street girls he supervised, ones with histories of abuse, abandonment and imprisonment, brought me to a dead stop. Dickens’s domesticity, curriculum for the girls, incidents at the home were conveyed with passion and humor. Dotted with pet nicknames and details of dress, they brought vivid images to my mind. I immediately thought: What if I was one of those girls? And then: Who were they? And why did Dickens get so involved in this project?

When my main character, Orpha, appeared in my imagination, she jump-started this book. Physically and emotionally, she resembled a shy childhood friend who disappeared inside herself. I had wondered what kept her in the background, what she withheld and why. Once Orpha appeared, and I connected her to my old friend, she took over the story. I had no choice but to pry open her secrets along with Dickens. The threads between fact and fiction stretched wide open. The book begins and ends with a character’s story. Story is gut. Research is the brains. To write historical fiction, you need to fuse both to ground the work.


Book Cover THe Phone Booth in Mr Hirota' Garden

The Phone Booth in Mr. Hirota's Garden, by Heather Smith and Rachel Wada

Nominated for the Marilyn Baillie Picture Book Award

Heather Smith: I first heard about Itaru Sasaki’s “wind telephone” on an episode of NPR’s This American Life. The idea that a simple object—a disconnected phone—could help a grieving community heal was incredibly beautiful to me. On hearing this story, I was instantly struck with the idea of fictionalizing it for a picture book audience. Told through the eyes of a child, The Phone Booth in Mr. Hirota’s Garden, allows young readers to connect to the wind phone in a deep and meaningful way. Rachal Wada’s powerful illustrations draw the reader in, and the gentle text guides them through the sad, yet hopeful, story.

With Rachel Wada’s help, I was able to connect with Itaru Sasaki and share my idea of telling his story in a picture book format. It was a thrill to receive his blessing.

The Phone Booth in Mr. Hirota’s Garden was a special book to write. I hope that readers, young and old, find comfort in this story.


Book Cover Quand le vent souffle, by Todd Stewart

Quand le vent souffle, by Todd Stewart

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

I am lucky to have access to a cabin in the woods in Western Quebec and it was to this place I retreated, for a week one early spring, to recharge and think of new ideas for projects. As I was walking through the forest one morning, this story of a conversation between two trees flashed into my head. Just a couple of trees, permanent neighbors, having a conversation about life, spanning seasons and decades. I had recently been reading about the way trees communicate with each other, both underground through their intertwined root structures, and above ground, by releasing chemical “messages” into the air that are then passed along by the wind and received by other nearby trees. It felt natural, in the picture book sense, to turn the idea of these messages into a grand conversation.
I am an illustrator first and foremost—Quand le vent souffle being my first book as an author—and from the beginning I had a very clear idea of the visual structure of the book: each tree takes up one side of a full 2-page illustration; as the years go by they change and the world changes around them.


Book Cover The Starlight Claim

The Starlight Claim, by Tim Wynne-Jones

Nominated for the John Spray Mystery Award

The Maestro was my first novel for young adults, and for years afterwards, kids asked me what happened to Burl Crow, the protagonist; they also especially wanted to know what happened to his evil father. I always meant to write a sequel but by the time I finally did, Burl was old enough to have a sixteen-year-old son of his own. So in The Starlight Claim, it’s Nate Crow who journeys up to Ghost Lake in the deep dark Boreal Forest with no idea of what’s in store for him. Two ideas came together to compel me to write this one: a daring escape from a penitentiary that I saw on the news, and something more personal. On the real lake that Ghost Lake is fashioned after, there was a tragedy, before my time, but not before the time of a close friend, who lost his own best childhood friend in the accident. I was kind of haunted by the tragedy and so is Nate. Which is why he makes a trip he shouldn’t in the depths of winter, with a blizzard coming on, no means of communication and no way out. That’s the recipe for the kind of adventure I most love to read and I sure enjoyed writing!  


Le Grain de Sable, by Webster and Valmo

Le Grain de Sable, by Webster and Valmo

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

Webster: I was inspired to write this story because Olivier Le Jeune is an important part of Canadian and Quebecois history. He is the first enslaved African and the first African immigrant to permanently live in Canada, as well as one of the first students in our history, but still quite unknown. A lot of people in Quebec and Canada don’t know about their African-Canadian past and slavery: everybody can picture slaves in cotton fields in the United State’s deep south, but few understand how it came about in the northern part of the continent. This book is a way to foster African-Canadian and Afro-Quebecois awareness; it is a way to help children understand the plurality of our past.

Valmo: For the visual I simply let myself be carried away by Webster's text but also by all the archive images that he took care to put at my disposal. This allowed me to "travel a little in time" to better understand and learn from Olivier Lejeune. As for the landscape, I grew up near the river in Quebec City, surrounded by nature. So I went back to my childhood to represent winters and typical Canadian landscapes.


Book Cover City on Strike

City on Strike, by Harriet Zaidman

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

My concern over issues of social justice rose from learning about my family’s experiences. Sadly, the issues of discrimination and poverty my immigrant grandparents and other workers faced during the 1919 Winnipeg General Strike still face immigrants, refugees and working people today. In 1919, impoverished workers wanted living wages, safe working conditions and the right to organize. Greedy businessmen used the might of the state to crush the strike so they could continue profiteering. Employers and the government spread racist hysteria to divide people. Capable, intelligent people who came to create a positive future for their children were prevented from pursuing their dreams. I saw and experienced that discrimination and see it today as new Canadians struggle for a foothold in society. I want children to learn from the events that shaped our country, with the goal that they will reject misinformation and efforts to divide them from others with common interests, but different origins. I hope children will put themselves in the place of children who were there, to understand how it would feel if it happened to them, to develop empathy. I hope they use these lessons to be better citizens as they go forward in life.


Book Cover Des couleurs sur la Grave, Marie-Andrée Arsenault

Des couleurs sur la Grave, by Marie-Andrée Arsenault and Dominique Leroux

Nominated for the Prix Harry Black de l’album jeunesse

Marie-Andrée Arsenault: The Magdalen Islands, an exceptional archipelago located in the middle of the Gulf of Saint Lawrence, is my main source of inspiration. Having my roots there, I take advantage of the summers spent on these islands to let my imagination run free. “Des Couleurs sur la Grave” is a picture book that I began writing during one of those summers. I wanted to create an adventure on “La Grave”, a historic site of these islands, whose atmosphere I particularly appreciate. In fact, the characters represented in the story are real people who I have met! Among these, Jean-Marc the pianist, Francine the artist, and Henri the inventor, who are all driven by their dreams, and quickly found their place in my narrative. It was not difficult to make them come alive on paper, as they have all, in their own way, colored the memories of my childhood on La Grave. At the heart of this book, we also find twin sisters whose parents are divorced. Through their eyes and in their footsteps, I wanted to convey a message of hope for children going through similar circumstances. In this way, every family can be understood as an archipelago. From storm to storm, some islands, sometimes, become more difficult to reach. But, they will never be completely separated, and always thought of as a whole.

Les Iles-de-la-Madeleine, archipel exceptionnel situé au milieu du Golfe du Saint-Laurent, est ma principale source d’inspiration lorsque vient le temps d’écrire. Y ayant mes racines, je profite des étés là-bas pour laisser aller mon imagination. L’histoire de l’album Des couleurs sur la Grave est justement née l’un de ces étés. J’avais envie de camper une aventure sur la Grave, un site historique dont j’apprécie tout particulièrement l’ambiance et les humains colorés… de véritables personnages en fait! Parmi ceux-ci, Jean-Marc, le pianiste, Francine, la peintre et Henri, l’inventeur, tous animés par leurs rêves, ont rapidement trouvé leur place dans mon récit. Il n’a pas été difficile d’en faire des êtres de papier puisqu’ils ont, tous à leur façon, teinté mes souvenirs d’enfant sur la Grave. Mais, au cœur de cet album, on retrouve aussi deux jumelles dont les parents sont séparés. À travers leurs yeux, au fil de leurs pas, j’ai voulu transmettre un message d’espoir pour les enfants traversant le divorce de leur papa et de leur maman. Au fond, toute famille est archipel à sa façon. D’une tempête à l’autre, certaines iles deviennent parfois plus difficiles d’accès. Mais jamais elles ne seront complètement séparées.

Dominique Leroux: Autumn on Magdalen Islands. The fresh wind, the woolen scarf, the gray hay, the stormy months, the salty air. I like textures, smell, taste, listen, observe the details of a landscape in daily change and take inspiration from the territory. I am a puppeteer and visual artist. Naturally, every object and piece of paper comes to life, shrinks, flies away. Like a paper theater, I wanted to stage the pages of the book, make the characters dance, play with the text in the image, plunge into this journey imbued with memories and joy through simple, emotional images in movements. Inspired by piano melodies, I play with lace, cut-out photos, scraped paints and torn papers to create the atmosphere of maritime places and unique characters. Urban of Montreal, I now live on Magdalen Islands after ten years of seasonal visits. Each of my projects, whether it is a show, an installation or a painting, is inspired by the passing seasons, the transforming nature, the colors, the materials, the poetry of everyday life. Everything becomes a playground, the ordinary can sublimate and our perceptions waver to surrender to the game, dream.

L'automne aux Iles-de-la-Madeleine. Le vent frais, le foulard de laine, le foin qui se grisonne, les mois des tempêtes, l'air salin. J'aime les textures, sentir, goûter, écouter, observer les détails d'un paysage en changement quotidien et m'inspirer du territoire. Je suis marionnettiste et artiste visuelle. Naturellement, tout objet et bout de papier prend vie, s'anime, se rapetisse, s'envole. Tel un théâtre de papier, j'ai voulu mettre en scène les pages du livre, faire danser les personnages, jouer avec le texte dans l'image, plonger dans ce voyage empreint de souvenirs et de joie par des images simples, émotives et en mouvements. Inspirée par des mélodies au piano, je fais jouer les dentelles, les photos découpées, les peintures grattées et les papiers déchirés pour créer l'ambiance des lieux maritimes et des personnages singuliers. Urbaine de Montréal, j'habite maintenant aux Iles-de-la-Madeleine après une dizaine d'années de visites estivales. Chacun de mes projets, que ce soit un spectacle, une installation ou un tableau, s'inspire des saisons qui passent, de la nature qui se transforme, des couleurs, des matières, de la poésie du quotidien. Tout devient un terrain d'exploration, l'ordinaire peut se sublimer et nos perceptions vaciller pour s'abandonner au jeu, rêver.