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.
A non-fiction picture book about World War I; a story about friendship; a biography of a Canadian artist; an information book about writing and illustrating AND a fantasy mystery novel. These were the 2015 shortlisted books for the TD Canada Book Award. What a difficult job it must have been to select a winner among such vastly different topics and genres!
The winner, in the end, was the fantasy novel: The Night Gardener by Jonathan Auxier. I was curious about the book and immediately checked it out of my public library. Once I started reading, I couldn’t put down this deliciously scary tale. And after I finished reading, I asked the author some questions.
Margriet: Congratulations on winning the TD Canada Book Award! I couldn’t put down my copy of The Night Gardener. How valuable do you feel awards are for children’s books?
Jonathan: It was a tremendous honour and still puts a smile on my face every time I think of it. Awards like that are an incredibly powerful way to raise awareness about a book in the general reading population. So many of my favourite books in recent years I first picked up because they won a book award. I’m delighted to think that even more readers will find The Night Gardener now!
Margriet: You are a Canadian, right? But now you live in Pittsburg. How did that happen?
Jonathan: I grew up in BC, but I came down to Pittsburgh to study playwriting at Carnegie Mellon University. I was only supposed to be here for two years, but then I met a local girl. She was smart and pretty and smelled nice so I decided to stick around and marry her.
Margriet: You are a writer but I also saw fabulous art on your blog. Do you do your own illustrations? Have you considered picture books or graphic novels?
Jonathan: I actually started out wanting to be an illustrator. My mother is a painter, and so I grew up thinking of myself as an artist. At some point, however, I realized my technical skill was not where it needed to be in order to tell the stories I wanted to tell, so I switched from drawing to writing. I still draw every day and I also did illustrations for my first book, Peter Nimble and his Fantastic Eyes, as well as my newest book, Sophie Quire and the Last Storyguard (out in April 2016).
Margriet: What inspires your stories, sparks your ideas?
Jonathan: I mentioned I draw every day, and that’s because almost all of my ideas start as pictures. In the case of my newest book, I started with a sketch of a girl mending stacks of half-burned books. I wanted to know who that girl was and where she had found those books. So I wrote Sophie Quire and the Last Storyguard.
Margriet: What does an “average” day look like for you? Do you write each day?
Jonathan: I write every morning for four hours and then read and draw and do chores in the afternoon. I also occasionally teach Children’s Literature in an MFA program.
Margriet: How does teaching affect your writing?
Jonathan: I teach literature more often than craft, so the classes are generally an opportunity for me to spend a lot of time examining how good stories work. It’s also a great way to force myself to read books on my “shame shelf ” (to-be-read books that have been sitting there for a while).
Margriet: Are there children to whom you tell your tales before writing them down?
Jonathan: I have a few younger readers who give me feedback on early drafts, but I still primarily write books for myself. I do not “tell” the story to anyone before I’ve written it. I find that if I talk about an unwritten story too much, I lose the desire to actually write it.
Margriet: As a kid, were you an avid reader? What did you read?
Jonathan: I was a strong reader, and I came from a serious reading family. For several years, however, all I would read were comics. There’s nothing wrong with comics, but there can be too much of a good thing! It wasn’t until undergrad that I started taking reading seriously. By that time I had a lot of catching up to do! I spent every summer working through a massive list of classic books that most of my peers had already read in high school.
Margriet: What advice do you have for educators and parents?
Jonathan: Reading aloud is important! But so is modelling reading behaviour. It’s one thing to lecture a kid about the importance of reading (the way one might lecture about the importance of eating vegetables), but that’s nothing compared to living a life where that same kid sees you choosing to read in your own spare time. I guess it boils down to “walking the talk.”
Margriet: What is next? Are you working on a sequel? A whole new fantastical tale?
Jonathan: As I mentioned, I have a BRAND NEW BOOK coming out in April called Sophie Quire and the Last Storyguard. It’s the story of a 12-year-old bookmender who discovers an ancient, mysterious book that contains the secret to preserving all magic in the world.
Margriet: I’m sure that will be another read that I, and many other readers, will not be able to put down!
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 Apr/May 2016 issue.