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GGBooks Special: The Chat with Philippa Dowding

PhillippaDowding Photo by Andrea Gutsche

“With poetic prose, a memorable character and evocative settings, Philippa Dowding deftly handles challenging subjects in this emotionally honest story. Supported by a unique cast of characters, Firefly will shine for readers and resonate long after they close this quietly powerful book.” – 2021 Peer Assessment Committee

Philippa Dowding is a children’s author, poet, musician and copywriter. She has won many industry awards and has had poetry and short fiction published in journals across North America. Her children’s books have been nominated for numerous literary awards in Canada and abroad, including the SYRCA Diamond Willow, OLA Silver Birch, OLA Red Maple, Hackmatack and White Raven awards. In 2017, Myles and the Monster Outside was an OLA Silver Birch Express Honour Book and her 2021 novel, Firefly, won a Governor General’s Literary Award in the Children’s Literature – Text category. Philippa Dowding currently lives in Toronto, Ontario.

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Congrats on your GGs Award, Philippa! How does it feel to be recognized in this way by your peers?

On October 3rd this year, a woman in Golden, BC, woke up to a meteorite crashing through her roof and landing in bed beside her. I think that’s a perfect metaphor for winning the Governor General’s Literary Award: it’s somewhat miraculous, unforeseeable, and frankly leaves you a little shaken up.

I couldn’t be more honoured by this win for Firefly, a book very close to my heart. This is my first piece of realistic fiction, and the costume-shop setting and a main character are inspired by my extended family. To be chosen by your peers for such an intimate story is really special, and in a very talented field too; all the nominated books this year were moving reads about family, the one you’re born into or the one you make along the way.

 

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On October 3rd this year, a woman in Golden B.C. woke up to a meteorite crashing through her roof and landing in bed beside her.

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It’s also extremely humbling to know that so many readers will connect with Firefly’s story in the months and years ahead; I hope that the book begins or deepens many discussions for young readers around PTSD and mental health. Thank you to the assessment committee and to the Canada Council for this remarkable honour!

Firefly tells the story of a young girl sent to live with her Aunt Gayle after her mother is taken away by social services. It explores PTSD, resilience, and ideas of home and family. Tell us more about the inspiration for the story.

The story is set in The Corseted Lady costume shop, which is inspired by Thunder Thighs, the family-run film and television costume shop mentioned above. The character of Aunt Gayle is inspired by my late sister-in-law, who started the shop with a single rack of costumes in the late 1970s. It’s an amazing, inspiring, magical place and I’ve always wanted to set a story there.

One day three years ago, I was driving over the Bloor Street Viaduct in Toronto and saw two children in costumes, holding hands and looking down onto the highway below. It was such a vivid image that I wrote about it right away, and that bridge moment is still a pivotal scene in the book. Suddenly the setting of a costume shop had found the kernel of a story: a child in a costume, on a bridge.

The story went through many iterations before I finally found the bigger story I wanted to tell: how a child might use costume to cope with PTSD and trauma, and with help and support, come to discover and celebrate herself.

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The story went through many iterations before I finally found the bigger story I wanted to tell: how a child might use costume to cope with PTSD and trauma, and with help and support, come to discover and celebrate herself.

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Were there any particular challenges in creating your main character?

Firefly tells us her story in the first person, with internal dialogue as well as flashbacks and nightmares from her earlier life with her mother, who is experiencing a crisis of mental health, poverty and addiction. As a story that explores trauma and PTSD for younger readers, I had to find a way to highlight on the page that “Firefly is safe now, this part of the story is a memory.” Early versions of the manuscript had Firefly use a few words like “uh oh” or “fade out” before a flashback, but I finally settled on short bursts of italics to firmly set all those difficult memories in the past.

The other challenge was to balance the dark and the light for younger readers. I did that by creating a resilient character with a big heart and a good sense of humour: Firefly is funny, indomitable, a good friend, and also a vulnerable child.

What’s your own litmus test for great storytelling for young people?

I am always drawn to stories that make me feel something deeply: elation, despair, a new angle on beauty or truth. I also believe that a great children’s story feels true (even if it’s fantasy, magic realism or horror), because the author is fully invested, and is taking a risk to write a truth about the world as they see it, and not necessarily as we’d like it to be.

So, for me the best stories for young readers are brave, truthful, even difficult, and yet still have something hopeful or innocent about them. Those are the stories that resonate for me long after I’ve finished the last page.

49th Shelf is built around a large community of readers and fans of Canadian literature. What Canadian authors are you reading these days?

I just read and loved the works by my fellow Governor General nominees: Liselle Sambury, Angela Ahn, Sharon Jennings, Basil and Kevin Sylvester. They’re wonderful writers, and I’d encourage everyone to read them. I’m also looking forward to reading more of David A. Robertson’s work.

We have a deep talent pool in young people’s literature in Canada, you can’t really go wrong with whoever you choose; just read Canadian!

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Excerpt from Firefly

ONE

The Corseted Lady

“What’ll it be, Fifi?”

“It’s Firefly.” I say this slowly.

Formerly Fifi,” I add, to be kind.

There are pancakes on the stove. Real pancakes. Aunt Gayle waves the spatula in the air.

Spatula. Weird word.

“Sorry. What’ll it be, Firefly? Syrup or jam on your pancakes?” Aunt Gayle dumps a plate of pancakes in front of me, and my mouth waters. Hard. I clamp my lips shut.

I am not a dog.

But really, when was the last time I had pancakes?

“Can I have both?” Aunt Gayle opens the fridge door and pulls out two bottles, maple syrup and strawberry jam, and plunks them on the table in front of me.

I swallow. I pour syrup and spoon out jam. I hope she doesn’t notice my hand shaking.

I eat.

Aunt Gayle sits across the table, lights a cigarette, takes a deep drag. Watches me, squinting through the smoke.

I slow down. Close my eyes. Chew.

Food.

I open my eyes. A last ray of October early-evening light pierces through the kitchen window and lands on my plate of pancakes. It lights my hands, falls across my face. Like a sign. Aunt Gayle takes another long drag of her cigarette and looks at me.

I chew. I swallow. I don’t eat like a dog, although I could.

“Hungry, huh?” she says in a careful way. I shrug, nod, notice a full glass of orange juice in front of me, and drain it in one long chug. I draw the back of my hand across my mouth.

ORANGE JUICE. I can’t remember the last time I had all I wanted of that, either. The case workers and therapists at the Jennie Smillie Robertson Women’s Center (but everyone just calls it Jennie’s) kept the orange juice locked in the fridge, along with the methadone.

I reach for the carton and pour another glass.

This one, I sip.

I can’t possibly answer her question. Hungry? That’s not really the word. Empty. Diminished. Shriveled. Distorted. I finally settle on Dangerous. I’m dangerous with hunger. Aunt Gayle sits patiently, her cigarette burning slowly, smoke unwavering, straight up to the ceiling. That’s how still she sits.

No questions yet. I guess that’ll come.

I finish my plate of pancakes and try not to belch. Something reminds me that it isn’t particularly polite to belch after you eat, although no one has told me that for a while. When it’s clear I’ve finished, my aunt stubs out her cigarette, leaves the kitchen, and heads out into the darkness of the shop.

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December 2, 2021
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