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.
When I saw the newly released book Pedal It! I thought “What a cool idea, I wish I had written it!” I asked author Michelle Mulder some questions.
Margriet: From working in the Dominican Republic, to flipping hamburgers in Germany, and marrying your Argentine penpal, your life sounds like a book. How much of your own life shows up in your books?
Michelle: Snippets of my life show up in all of my books. The more I write, the more I find myself drawing on my own experiences. Of all my books, Out of the Box has the most autobiographical elements. When I was growing up, my parents struggled with undiagnosed mental illness. It wasn’t until I was in my twenties that I started to understand the impact this had on our lives. After years of looking for books that reflected this experience, I decided to write one myself—a realistic story that shows a kid learning to cope, doing what is necessary to feel strong, confident and healthy herself.
A book about mental illness can be bleak so I needed a subplot to lighten things up. While I was staring at the computer screen trying to conjure up such a storyline, our neighbour—a bandoneón player—began to practise for his next concert. Strains of tango drifted down through the floorboards and wended their way into my story. From there, it was an easy segue into Argentine history, which I had been learning about ever since I started writing to my now-husband.
My last novel, Not a Chance, also has autobiographical elements. When I was nineteen, I volunteered in the Dominican Republic, digging ditches for a water pipeline. Living in a remote village, I noticed that every young woman my age had two or three children in tow. I met a girl who was fourteen and engaged to be married. I’ve been thinking about that ever since, and in Not a Chance, Dian—a Canadian teen—spends summers in a small Dominican village where her parents, who are doctors, volunteer. She learns that her 14-year-old friend Aracely is engaged. In writing the book, I struggled with my own views about cultural differences. Where is the line between supporting others and imposing our own worldviews?
Margriet: You have a young daughter. Does she inspire new stories?
Michelle: I have a feeling she will. I write for audiences older than her four years, so I haven’t yet written anything based on her experiences, but I did have my daughter in mind when I wrote Not a Chance. In the story, I pit my main character against parents who are in some ways like me: they choose not to own a car, a cell phone or a television, and have strong views on social justice. Although I try not to be as dogmatic as Dian’s parents, I wonder what my daughter will make of my choices and beliefs. Will I come on so strong that I’ll send her running in the opposite direction? I hope not, and hopefully writing the relationship from the daughter’s point of view will stand me in good stead during my daughter’s teenage years!
Margriet: What inspired you to write Pedal It!?
Michelle: I’ve loved bicycles since the first time I rode one. Bicycles have been part of my daily life ever since. About seven years ago, I was sitting in my husband’s parents’ living room in Buenos Aires, Argentina, when I heard a strange whistling sound. I asked my husband what it was. He looked at me surprised and waved me over to the window. Outside, a man was pedaling down the street, blowing into a whistle, when suddenly a woman flung open her front door, came charging at him with a knife in her hand… and a big smile on her face. The man stopped his bike, propped it up on a kickstand, took the knife, jumped back on the bike and started pedaling, setting in motion a sharpening stone at the front of the bicycle. I realized then how limited my view of the bicycle had been.
I began researching bicycles and their uses around the world. The more I researched, the more excited I got. I emailed strangers in dozens of countries about historic or scientific bicycle details. It’s been amazing to be part of a project that became so much bigger and richer than I could ever have imagined.
Margriet: Tell me about your other recent books.
Michelle: When I first approached Orca with the idea for Pedal It!, they asked a question: would I be willing to write not only this book, but two more in a new series about ecological issues?
Yes! This fall, my book Brilliant! Shining a Light on Sustainable Energy will hit the shelves, and next spring, Orca will release a book of mine on water. (We’re still working on the title.) Working on this series has been both exciting and educational. Before researching Brilliant!, I had only a basic understanding of sustainable energy. Pedal It! was a deep exploration of a familiar topic, but writing Brilliant! was like leaping into the unknown and coming back with an impassioned summary of all that I had learned. I’m grateful for all the people around the world who taught me what I needed to know.
Writing the water book felt like more familiar territory. I’ve been passionate about the right to clean water ever since I volunteered in the Dominican Republic.
Margriet: What are you working on now?
Michelle: At the moment, I’m writing a novel for ages 10 to 13 about dyslexia, guerrilla gardening and dumpster diving. I can see in my mind how it all fits together and reflects a central theme, but I’ve had trouble translating that into a manuscript. I’m on my fifth draft or so, each much different from the one before. At one point, I even ditched my main character and a minor one took the lead instead! Tossing everything out and starting from scratch makes for a pretty exciting writing process. I somehow thought that at this stage, I’d approach each manuscript with confidence and march valiantly through from beginning to end. I’m still working on the “valiant” part.
Margriet: What message do you share with students and teachers during school visits?
Michelle: Visiting schools is one of my favourite parts of writing for young people. I still remember the day that Sarah Ellis visited my grade five class. I watched in awe, had a million questions about writing, characters and plots but was too shy to ask a single one. When I make presentations to young people, I try to remember how I felt that day, what I wanted to ask Sarah Ellis. With my presentations, as with my novels, I want to reach out to kids, give them interesting ideas to chew on, and encourage their faith in their own abilities—right now, as kids. I love hearing their questions and comments, and our discussions of reading and writing keep me thinking for weeks to come.
Learn more about Michelle Mulder, her books and teachers’ guides at michellemulder.com.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Margriet Ruurs is the author of 28 books for children. She conducts author presentations in schools around the country. magrietruurs.com
This article is from Canadian Teacher Magazine’s Nov/Dec 2013 issue.