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.
Meet Canadian author Helaine Becker
I see Helaine Becker’s books everywhere. They include funny picture books, fascinating non-fiction, biographies, poetry… Who is this eclectic writer?
Margriet: If I’m an eclectic reader, then you must be an eclectic writer: so many vastly different titles. How do ideas come and how do you decide if one makes a good story?
Helaine: Ideas are everywhere. I get ideas from walking down the street, watching people, birds, dogs… From books, magazine articles. I get ideas from people. My skill has been learning to “catch” ideas—noticing them when they flit through my head, not let them sweep in and out without registering. Once I am aware of the idea, I can examine it: Is it interesting? Does it hold my attention? Would I like to spend months or years involved in this topic or exploration? Would other people find it as engaging as I do?
If the idea has potential, I jot it down. I don’t pre-select—meaning I don’t think about the format or genre at this stage. If my new idea is really way out there, I will have to learn and grow a lot in order to tackle it. I will also consider my energy stores and time factors. Some ideas may sit in my file for years before I feel ready to attempt them.
Margriet: Tell us about your research process. How long does an average book take you to write?
Helaine: There is no average book! Some are born in a burst of inspiration, short and simple. But those are the extreme rarity. A non-fiction, information book can take several months or longer just to do the research. A novel, with a complicated plot and rich characters, can take years to refine. Sloth at the Zoom, which came out in August 2018, is a “simple” picture book. But it took 14 years from conception to publication!
Margriet: Do you have a favourite book?
Helaine: I often joke that A Porcupine in a Pine Tree is my favourite book because it made me the most money. It was a National Bestseller and has been called “a Canadian classic.” I do love it, especially Werner Zimmermann’s spectacular artwork. But if I’m really honest, my fave is Ode to Underwear. Because it’s hilarious and I love my underwear more than anything.
Margriet: You write poetry, non-fiction, fiction and more. Do you have a favourite genre? And how do you decide which genre to use once you get an idea?
Helaine: My favourite genre is humorous verse, like Ode to Underwear (Scholastic Canada) or You Can Read (Orca). But it’s a tough sell. While readers love it, publishers have a hard time making money on verse because they can’t sell the translation rights readily, and the ability to sell a title in many markets can make a difference in how profitable it is for the publisher.
Which style of writing I’ll use for each project stems from the subject matter itself. A high tech subject, like robotics in Zoobots and Hubots (Kids Can Press), lends itself to a writing style that mimics spec sheets from engineering firms. Counting on Katherine: How Katherine Johnson Saved Apollo 13 (Henry Holt Books for Young Readers) required a cleaner, more declarative style. And Sloth at the Zoom (Owlkids) demanded a brighter, breezier touch. Part of the fun of writing is learning how to manipulate language to get the desired effects.
Margriet: Did you always want to be a writer?
Helaine: Yes. From the first moment I learned to read. As a kid, my favourite song was the Beatles’ “Paperback Writer”. Really.
Margriet: Do you belong to a writers’ critique group?
Helaine: Oh yes. I don’t know how anybody could sustain a writing career without the support and feedback of peers. You can never see your own work clearly. Writing partners give you fresh eyes and help you pinpoint areas that need improvement that you would never find on your own. Critiquing your partner’s work also helps build your own writing skills by forcing you to analyze why something does or doesn’t work. My partners and I also share news about the industry which helps us stay up to date in a competitive market. We help each other with rejections and celebrate the highlights together.
Margriet: You taught in Ethiopia. What was that like?
Helaine: It was quite an experience! I spent one week teaching at the International School in Addis Ababa, and two weeks working with a Canadian development agency called CODE, teaching adults how to write Young Adult works. In Ethiopia they want students to learn English, but there are no books written in Ethiopia for them to read—all books come from the UK or US. CODE is trying to develop a culture of writing so Ethiopians can tell their own stories, and create books that are relevant.
Margriet: What advice do you have to help teachers encourage students in their writing?
Helaine: Kids need to know that writing “bad” is the necessary prelude to writing well. Every writer’s first draft sucks. So if your first attempt stinks, that doesn’t mean you are a bad writer. It means you are a writer. Once you have that first draft down, you can fix it! That’s the magic part. Because ANYTHING can be fixed. How good it becomes depends on how hard you work. If you revise enough, you can turn that first draft into gold.
Margriet: Tell us about your newest titles!
Helaine: Counting on Katherine: How Katherine Johnson Saved Apollo 13 is the authorized biography of an amazing woman—you may remember her from the film Hidden Figures. Her tale is very inspiring, because she had to overcome terrible racism and sexism.
Sloth at the Zoom is completely different. It tells the story of a sloth who was supposed to go to the Zzzzzooo for sleepy animals, but wound up at the Zoom for fast animals. It’s a story about the necessity of slowing down, enjoying life and friendship. What I didn’t realize until I started presenting it to school kids is that it’s a fantastic tool for calming kids right down! Built into the language, are self-soothing techniques like breathing deeply and stretching, even a mini-meditation. Reading the book out loud is like a five-minute yoga session. Teachers and students will feel de-stressed, I promise!
The other book that came out this year is Hubots, the sequel to Zoobots. Both books look at the rapidly evolving field of robotics. Zoobots looked at animal-inspired robots, while Hubots explores robots in humanoid form. They are illustrated with eye-catching, hyperrealistic images by Alex Ries. Kids of all ages are drawn to the pictures.
Helaine Becker lives in Ontario, she has written over 70 books. Her website is: http://www.helainebecker.com
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Margriet Ruurs is the author of 40 books for children. Her book The Elephant Keeper is up for the Silver Birch Express. She conducts author visits everywhere. margrietruurs.com
This article is from Canadian Teacher Magazine’s Winter 2019 issue.