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.
Caroline Woodward has written books I really like about her life as a lighthouse keeper, about her beloved west coast. I wanted to get to know her better so I asked her some questions.
Margriet: Your life reads like a book: living in a BC lighthouse, in India, hiking in Nepal and writing in Nelson. How did you end up being a writer?
Caroline: I wrote my first “book” in Grade 2. My teacher at the time, still one of my favourite teachers ever, tells me that I wanted her help to put my story into a book, using blank art paper in our little two-room country school in the BC’s Peace River region. I wanted to draw pictures as well. This early literary work did not survive, sad to say.
Margriet: Were you a reader as a child?
Caroline: I loved reading books and there weren’t nearly enough in our tiny school library which I read through many times over. I lived for the two times a year the heavily- loaded Bookmobile driven by pioneer librarian Howard Overend from Dawson Creek managed to get out to us on our somewhat gravelled dirt roads. How I loved selecting two precious books each time. In elementary school, I wrote songs and plays for my friends to perform.
But I never once read stories about children like myself in the Canadian north in the 1960s. While I loved escaping to the outback of Australia or rafting down the Mississippi with Huck or exploring China with Pearl Buck (I read all the books in my parent’s library as well, whether they were deemed suitable or not), I noticed this fact. I clearly remember being excited to read the word Winnipeg in a story in Grade 10. That’s how impoverished of Canadian content the English curricula was except for the gripping poem by Earle Birney, David, which even the most fidgety boys sat still for.
Margriet: Did you think you would grow up to be a writer?
Caroline: By Grade 11 I thought I would offer to write a weekly column about high school activities for the Alaska Highway News in Fort St. John. After several months I was told to “bring in my columns” as, to my surprise, I was going to be paid. I brought in my scrapbook of School Daze columns and received enough money from two and a half months of writing to buy a winter coat, hat, and scarf. $47!
My columns increased in length and scope from that first writing payday onward—accounts of basketball games, youth conferences where speakers addressed topics like teen angst, hippiedom, and societal dysfunction. I decided, since I’d never met a fiction writer or any sort of writer role model (Ma Murray was in a league of her own and I knew I didn’t have the cash or the inclination to own a small-town newspaper), to study sociology so that I could figure out how the world worked first before writing about it or saving it. I put myself through a B.A. and a teacher’s certification program at the University of British Columbia.
It took years of “unlearning” university essay writing but I came to realize that the only way I could live with integrity was to become a writer, a profession in which I had time to think and synthesize my heart and mind and life experience. I wanted a life of adventure and travel and I wanted to learn all the time. So I rejected security, a better income and a pension, in order to work at blue, pink, and white-collar jobs to subsidize my writing habit. My immigrant parents, well-acquainted with poverty and the hell of World War II, were baffled and disappointed, but eventually came around and realized I would persevere no matter. My father helped me to attend the David Thompson University Centre School of Writing school in Nelson, BC where I earned a Creative Writing diploma and where the artists-instructors and fellow students changed my life.
Motherhood and opening a village bookstore with my husband was a complete time and energy game-changer. When I couldn’t write because I was too busy working or volunteering on an arts board or singing in a choir, I always kept a journal, and reminded myself that no experience goes to waste in a writer’s mind.
Margriet: What is it like to live in a lighthouse and write in such a remote location?
Caroline: Without access to the Internet and decent cellphone connection, it would be very difficult for me to work effectively with editors and collaborate with other writers and artists. We lightkeepers have to pay for and install our own satellite dishes on remote stations and ditto for boosters to have cell phone access if possible. Our mail is delivered about twice a month by a Coast Guard Lifeboat which brings me magazine subscriptions and library books and books to review. I ended up working far more than I thought I would as a relief and now full-time lightkeeper, but that too has led to a book for adults, Light Years: Memoir of a Modern Lighthouse Keeper (Harbour: 2015) which led to a documentary film directed by New York- based Simon Mendes, The Station, which premiered in Paris in 2019 and is now doing the rounds of film festivals. In 2021 Knowledge Network will air a half-hour program called Coastal Dwellers and a three-minute segment will focus on Jeff George (my husband and co-worker) and me on Lennard Island.
The solitary life of a lighthouse keeper suits me well after growing up on an isolated homestead without electricity or plumbing. It’s about physical and mental/emotional self-reliance, which means a big garden and greenhouse and baking from scratch because we get groceries flown in by helicopter once a month. It means hobbies like bird-watching and my lifelong vocation of writing and dabbling in photography.
Margriet: Are most of your books non-fiction?
Caroline: Only two: Singing Away the Dark, my first children’s picture book, and Light Years. I like the freedom to invent worlds and situations and characters, like the young adult novel I’m revising now, set in 2059. It frees up my imagination and I get to play with words and the structure of the novel.
Margriet: You write both for children and for adults. Do you have a preference? How do they differ?
Caroline: Different material need the right genre to work as a successful literary creation. The intense weather conditions we document as lightkeepers suit haiku poetry, for example, exploring the contrast between external nature and internal processes. As a writer, my job is to search for and create the best form to suit each story or poem, play, song, children’s picture book, chapter reader, young adult novel, essay, memoir, you name it. I find novels difficult to write—often taking me ten years of rewrites, while I write and publish other books in between, I prefer picture books, more fun and much less torturous!
Margriet: Which books do you read when you go to live in a remote location for a while?
Caroline: We belong to the Vancouver Island Regional Library Remote Services and it’s always like Christmas when the bags with books arrive by Coast Guard Lifeboat! My must-haves when going to another station to work are: Sibley’s Field Guide to Birds of Western North America and my binoculars. I take wild plant identification guides, marine life guides and west coast ethnobotany books by Dr. Nancy Turner. I always read a variety of genres— children’s picture books, adult non-fiction, history and everything in between. Also, reading great poetry helps sharpen my own use of language. When I have a children’s book underway, I reread Crow Girl by Bodil Bredsdorff, translated by Faith Ingwersen (Farrar Straus Giroux: 1993). To me it is the perfect children’s book: unsentimental, magical and hyper-realistic,with a brave child at its centre, adults and children both noble and despicable, with domestic and wild animals and birds given their proper importance, in a world which could be far in the past or far in the future. This book sets me on the right path when I need to begin anew.
Margriet: What do you do during school visits?
Caroline: I’ve created different presentations for K to 2 students with Singing Away the Dark (Simply Read Books: 2010/2017) and Chanter Dans Le Noir (Le Courte Echelle Editions: 2014/2018), including an active participation game. For for Grade 3 to 5, I use The Village of Many Hats (Oolichan: 2012), and for larger groups, K to adults, in the library or gym, I do a lighthouse life presentation based on Light Years using a thirty-minute slide show of my husband’s photographs documenting our work and the environment and the wildlife on a dozen different BC lightstations.
My most recent book is a collaboration with Salt Spring Island artist, Carol Evans, whose gorgeous paintings of children at work and play near the ocean I responded to with a poetic invitation to enjoy A West Coast Summer (Harbour: 2018). For school presentations, we’ve made a slide show of Carol’s paintings; the first four are good discussion starters for the K to 2 groups as to what they see, or imagine they’d see, and smell and hear and touch and taste at the seaside. I read the book aloud while the visual images of the book flow behind me. We have fun with the refrain, which they can join in on, To the sea, to the sea, Who or what waits here for me?
Thank you, lovely Miss DeCario from Grade Two who brought the conch shell to our two-room school in Cecil Lake, BC. I soaked it in and I wanted to go there… and now here I am, surrounded by the sea, writing books.
Good teachers last a lifetime and the rest are left in the dust!
For more details on Caroline Woodward and her books go to: carolinewoodward.ca
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Margriet Ruurs is the author of 40 books for children, including her latest title Robert Bateman, The Boy Who painted Nature (Orca Book Publishers) MARGRIETRUURS.COM
This article is from Canadian Teacher Magazine’s Spring 2020 issue.