Can Write: Meeting Canadian Writers and Illustrators of Children’s Books
What inspires the writers of the books your students read? How does an illustrator decide what to draw? Is it true that most authors and illustrators don’t know each other? This column features a different Canadian children’s book creator in each issue and shows you the story beyond the covers.
I recently looked at two attractive historical novels. One had a Métis character, the other took place on an Irish ship. The author is Jacqueline Guest from Alberta who has written seventeen novels. I was curious about her and so I asked her some questions.
Margriet: You live in a log cabin in the Rocky Mountain foothills. How do your surroundings influence your writing?
Jacqueline: The area is about the same elevation as Banff, and beautiful. Lots of animals, large and small. I was impressed to learn how fast I can move when a 600 pound bear was hot on my heels last summer! I see birds, bunnies and squirrels from my Scriptorium window.
Margriet: Tell me about your writing, your books.
Jacqueline: Writing is not just a job for me; it’s a passion. I love the creative process. I try to make my books “classroom accurate” so that teachers can count on facts being correct. I spend a lot of time getting the details right. I help write Teacher’s Guides to ensure the lesser known, but interesting facts are included.
If I don’t write, I get antsy. I write on a computer, but do my synopsis first in my head, then on paper, then transfer it to the computer. Whenever I start a new book, I buy a new pen! Old habit as I write exclusively on a computer. I spend much time researching, and find it fascinating. History is amazing. Usually we only know snippets, big events. History is like an iceberg, we see only one-tenth bobbing on the surface. I want the stuff hidden in the depths.
My books are written so that parents can read them as well, opening lines of discussion between children and adults. Ghost Messages is an example of a book that works well for this: adults are amazed at the process of laying the transatlantic cable, the ship, the Great Eastern, which made the Titanic look like the dud that it was, and young readers love the intrigue and strong female character, Ailish, plus the ghostly mystery discovered at the end of the book. In Outcasts of River Falls, my latest book, we learn hidden Canadian history that not even teachers know about: the Road Allowance People, marginalized Métis who were forced to live in ditches beside the roads from 1885 to 1945. They lived and died there with no rights or help. Their story was swept so far under the carpet that it has all but been forgotten… until now.
I want children to lead the world in the 21st century, and they can, but only through better literacy will this happen. By creating books that children want to read, it is my hope to instill a love of reading at an early age that will continue throughout their lifetime. For myself, reading was my salvation and my safe harbour. I escaped into books and lived there happily, I still do. I had only two books growing up: A Child’s Book of Bible Verses, which taught me morals and right from wrong plus Alice in Wonderland, which allowed my imagination to soar as I chatted with a smoking caterpillar or grew so tall I couldn’t fit into the room. That timeless classic showed me the magic waiting between the pages of a book. Last week I purchased a new copy of Alice for my grandson in hopes that he will want me to read it with him.
Our family did not have the resources to buy books and there was no library in our small country school, not did we have access to a public library. I read those two books over and over until I had memorized them. Then Scholastic came to town! My mother allowed each of us (my two brothers and sister) to choose a book each time the order sheet went home. My brothers were not readers, and hated doing chores. I struck a deal with them: I would do their chores for a month if I could have their book selection. They jumped at the chance. They figured they’d put one over on their little sister who got only a book in exchange for all that work. They still think they won that deal… silly boys.
There were not a lot a books with ethnic content I could relate to. In fact, this was a driving force behind writing my first book, Hat Trick, with the lead character a Métis girl. I want kids to celebrate their heritage and to cheer their ancestors, wherever they came from.
Margriet: Many of your books, like Belle of Batoche and Outcasts of River Falls, have First Nations characters and settings. How does your own background help you in telling these stories?
Jacqueline: I want all Canadian children to succeed. Literacy levels among First Nations children are much lower than they should be, but in this electronic age getting children to read is tough, let alone struggling readers who need encouragement. By creating contemporary novels with strong role modeling and high adventure, I hope to encourage aboriginal kids to keep reading. I give them novels they can connect to either by ethnicity, situation, location or culture. With this connection, kids are more likely to read the book as they can relate on a level not in other mainstream books. As a proud Métis lady, I also have the pedigree to show that through reading, they too, can achieve their dreams. I do not have any formal training as a writer, but was always a reader, learned about sentence structure, plotting and character development through the books I read. Reading allowed me to have my dream job—a writer. This is the truth. Children need to know they can have dreams—it begins the first time they open a book. As a Métis who came from a very humble background, I provide a living testimonial to the power of reading.
Check out Jacqueline’s books here: http://www.jacquelineguest.com/teachersinfo.htm
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Margriet Ruurs is the author of 28 books for children. She conducts author presentations in schools around the country. margrietruurs.com
This article is from Canadian Teacher Magazine’s May/June 2013 issue.