Happy Halloween!

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“The ghosts swarm.
They speak as one
person. Each
loves you. Each
has left something
undone.”

(Words from “Unbidden” by Rae Armantrout, 2009. Illustration from “Ghosts” by Marc Boutavant. Enchanted Lion Books, 2013.)

Martin says “Merci!”

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The winners of les Prix Jeunesse des libraires du Québec were announced yesterday in Montreal. “M.Flux” (the French version of “Mr. Flux”) received the award in the “International 6-11 year old” category. Matte Stephens and I share this honor with our wonderful French publisher, La Pastèque.

Thank you booksellers and readers of Québec! Thank you La Pastèque for always thinking outside the box. You are the best and the true spirit of M. Flux.

Bon Appétit.

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Today is the official pub date for Julia, Child. I hope it nourishes you in little-big ways. I hope you enjoy feasting on Julie Morstad‘s delectable art.

I did an interview about the book with Jama’s Alphabet Soup, which you can read here, and, while you’re at it, you might want to check out Jama’s posts on other Julia-related reads (such as this). Also, there is this, which is simply too amazing for words. You’ll just have to take a peek yourself.

And, finally, I thought I’d share two quotes from Julia Child herself:

“You’ll never know everything about anything, especially something you love.”

“I’m afraid that surprise, shock, and regret is the fate of authors when they finally see themselves on the page.”

(Images: book illustration by Julie Morstad; “Julia correct proofs of Mastering the Art of French Cooking,” 1961.)

All Over the Map

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As you can see, this blog hasn’t exactly been a hotbed of activity. To resuscitate things a bit, I agreed to take part in this blog tour on the invitation of the very talented and kind Lauren Stringer. Lauren’s work is a marvel—lyrical and smart. If you’re not already familiar with her book When Stravinsky Met Njinsky (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), I suggest you get a copy pronto.

The format of this blog tour is to answer four questions and introduce two other writers at the end. So here we go:

1) What am I working on?
Thankfully my writing notebook has not been as empty and forlorn as my blog. I have been busy working on several projects including: 1) a narrative non-fiction book about birds; 2) a graphic novel about singing, a boygirl and Maria Callas; 3) a picture book about a band of solitaries.

2) How does my work differ from others of its genre?
I find this hard to answer. It feels a bit like being asked: “How does your dog differ from other dogs?” There is so much intra-species variety within the breeds “literary fiction,” “memoir” or “picture book biography.” A “novel” can be as wildly various as a “terrier.” Also: I keep reading the word “differ” as “worse than” or “better than” and neither seem like beneficial comparisons.

3) Why do I write what I do?
I write all over the map (literally and figuratively) but, in general, I write what I do because I like to take a bit of this and a bit of that (usually unlikely people and/or dissimilar things) and see what happens when the two combine. I am also a professional dilettante. I get restless if I’m not investigating something new. I am a writer of the “I think through writing” ilk. On good days, I thank writing for keeping my mind open and considering.

4) How does your writing process work?
On a very mundane level: my process is propelled by routine. It is wonderful to know I am going to wake up at 5:30AM, go to the gym, drop my son off at school, go to a café and writewritewrite, go home for lunch, do some writing-related work (admin, school visits, mentoring or editing), writewritewrite, listen to music, make dinner or go to dinner with friends, read a bit, go to sleep by 10:30PM and then wake up and do it all again tomorrow. If there are weeks of this, I am happy and entranced. The creative benefits of a routine were affirmed for me when I read this interview with Haruki Murakami in the Paris Review. (To quote: “The repetition itself becomes the important thing; it’s a form of mesmerism. I mesmerize myself to reach a deeper state of mind.”)

On a more general level: my process is bewilderingly slow. Long periods of gestation. Bouts of low morale. Moments when the manuscript feels about as appealing as a cold and wet log covered with giant slugs. Moments of inspiration. Moments of pragmatism—i.e. a final push to finish so as to feed the children.

And, last but not least, here are the two fabulous authors whom I’ve invited to join this tour. They will post their entries on June 23rd.

SARA O’LEARY is the co-creator with Julie Morstad of The Henry Books published by Simply Read: WHEN YOU WERE SMALL, WHERE YOU CAME FROM, and WHEN I WAS SMALL. Their latest book, THIS IS SADIE, will be published by Tundra Books in 2015. Also, in 2015 Sara will be producing a series of baby books for Owl Books. She blogs at http://123oleary.blogspot.com

VIKKI VANSICKLE is the author of the acclaimed Clarissa books (WORDS THAT START WITH B; LOVE IS A FOUR-LETTER WORD; DAYS THAT END IN Y). Frequently referred to as “Canada’s Judy Blume,” Vikki’s most recent middle grade novel, SUMMER DAYS, STARRY NIGHTS, has been called “Summer reading at its best.” After obtaining an MA in Children’s Literature from UBC, Vikki’s career began in bookselling at The Flying Dragon Bookshop, which earned her the 2011 CBA Young Bookseller of the Year award. She is a popular children’s lit blogger and is frequently called upon to speak about kids’ books for radio panels, conferences, and as Lainey Gossip’s YA mentor! Currently she balances writing with her duties as the Marketing and Publicity Manager for Young Readers at Penguin Canada. She blogs at http://vikkivansickle.wordpress.com/

(Images: “Maria Callas with her Poodle”; “You Are Here Personal Geographies and Other Maps of the Imagination” by Katharine Harmon)

Quiet Infinity

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One of my best friends, Nancy Friedland, is a brilliant artist and among the many amazing images she has created is this one showing a woman asleep on a lawnchair. It is not the sleep of someone sun-dozing. It is the Sleep of Oblivion. I happen to know that the woman pictured is Nancy’s mother. I also know that at the time the photograph was taken she had three young children and was studying for a graduate degree in Occupational Therapy, every minute accounted for.

There is something subversive about the sight of a woman who is always on call, always in a heightened state of watchfulness and awareness momentarily checking out—zoning into her own internal infinity. We all deserve moments of quiet eternity.

There is so much finitude in the lives of the mother artists I know. We are so often counting (time, money, errands, coffee.) We are too often irritable and impatient with our children, counting the hours until bedtime, and this makes us uneasy and sometimes ashamed.

I want for every overextended artist in my life long stretches of unclaimed time and solitude, vast space to get bored and lost, waking dreams that take us beyond the calculative surface of things.

I love these lawnchairs (also by Nancy Friedland.) I look at them and think: here you go. Here is your way back to infinity, back to the woods and that deep creative and contemplative mind. Deep in the sod, in the infinite sub-terre, that’s where work happens.

(p.s. Support working artists and artisans. Buy art! Your heart and walls will thank you.)

Three Things About Penguins

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#1. A few books.

As a teenager, I was infatuated with those early Penguin paperbacks. They were well priced and came in a spectrum of colours: orange, green, dark blue, purple, yellow. Often I’d go to the old bookshops on Queen West in Toronto and pick up a George Bernard Shaw or Graham Greene for $1.00.


(Vintage Penguin and Pelican Paperbacks, The Monkey’s Paw, Toronto.)

#2. A film.

“There was a boy and there was penguin, strangers from the opposite sides of the ocean…” This animated version of the lovely and gentle children’s book by Oliver Jeffers is one of the nicest adaptations I’ve seen (Shaun Tan’s The Lost Thing is another.) The former is quite different to the picturebook—arguably less saccharine, the boy slightly more complicated, which I prefer.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XaGTYl0hZQw

#3. A protest.

For more info on the campaign to free Tarek Loubani and John Greyson, who have been unjustly detained in a Cairo prison since August 16th, please see: http://tarekandjohn.com/

(The penguin costumes were my eldest son’s idea. He has a small role in JG’s next film, playing “Tango,” a chick raised by two penguin papas, Roy and Silo—AKA the famous couple of Central Park Zoo.)

Write Every Day

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It’s over. The big time-sucking gig that kept me so busy (not writing) these past few months has ended. I should be celebrating. I can finally get back to my desk. I can’t remember the last time I spent so long from it, so long not working on my own projects. So why this damp ambivalence. Could it be nervousness?

When I took the big gig (a good gig—brain-fueling) I thought: “Perfect. A fallow period. Time to retune and replenish.” I saw a sparkly clear mind at the end of it.

It wasn’t a bad notion. My mind was feeling a bit cloudy.

But something happened when I was away from my desk. All those writing muscles I take for granted grew flaccid. I could feel the pressure building up but also a waning of confidence. Too many ideas and too little nerve = bad alchemy.

I’ve never thought or spoken of myself as a writer who must be writing all the time. I’ve always bristled at books that exhort writers to Write Every Day. “Macho dogma,” I thought. “Pathological ambition.” What did these exhorters know of life’s interruptions and contingencies? But now I am hearing Ray Bradbury: “You must write every single day of your life… You must lurk in libraries and climb the stacks like ladders to sniff books like perfumes and wear books like hats upon your crazy heads…” I am hearing Stephen King: “I like to get ten pages a day, which amounts to 2,000 words…” And Haruki Murakami: “The repetition itself becomes the important thing; it’s a form of mesmerism. I mesmerize myself to reach a deeper state of mind.”

I am thinking about the difference between lulls and ruts in a practice. At what point does the former turn into the latter? What is the right amount of fallow time? I am starting to believe you have to write everyday. That spurt writing is not enough. That consistency and discipline are all.

Maybe I’ll become an exhorter. But somehow I doubt it. I’m too interrupted, too interested in many other things.

Bravo Isabelle!

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Congratulations to Isabelle Arsenault on winning the 2012 IBBY Canada Cleaver Picture Book Award for Virginia Wolf!

The jury’s comments on Virginia Wolf:

“An un-precious treatment of depression that never diminishes its poignancy. Isabelle Arsenault’s illustrations illuminate the story. She begins with a touch of red and blue here and there. Then the sadness, embodied in blacks and greys that encroach on the page in a messy cloud, surrounds and engulfs Virginia as she becomes a dark shadow of herself. When Virginia starts painting and as the spirit changes, more colours begin to subtly appear as the darkness recedes. Arsenault reminds Virginia and the readers that the world is full of beauty.”

Books for the Grown-Up Picture Book Lover

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A few of my favorites:

1. On the street, everyone is rushing by, each person with their hidden thoughts and emotions, light or serious. (Marie is terribly jealous…Eric has a little music in his head.) Laurent Moreau’s beautiful book—”A quoi penses-tu?“—makes empathy and psychological insight a simple matter or turning a flap.

2. Antonio Frasconi’s “Kaleidoscope,” originally published in 1968, is a wordless accordion-fold book, which when fully opened is 130″ long. (Caveat Emptor: It is hard to find but not impossible. If it proves to be elusive, Frasconi has other wonderful picture books.)

3. Edward Gorey’s “The Doubtful Guest” is the bizarre and delightful tale of a sneaker-sporting creature that arrives at a family’s home one day. Oddly enough, the flummoxed occupants never ask their uninvited guest to leave, enduring his mischievous and mournful moods for 17 years. My favorite Gorey by far.

4. Ted Hughes’ “The Iron Giant.” This classic story of an unlikely friendship between a metal-consuming colossus and a young English boy named Hogarth has always been a favorite but Laura Carlin takes it to a whole new level of amazingness with her mixed-media artwork.

5. “Duck, Death and The Tulip” by celebrated German writer/illustrator Wolf Erlbruch is a strange and beautiful book about death and (perhaps more palatably) about life. “For a while now, Duck had had a feeling. ‘Who are you? What are you up to, creeping along behind me?’ ‘Good,’ said Death, ‘you finally noticed me. I am Death.’”

6. “Fortunately” by the exuberantly interdisciplinary Remy Charlip (please look him up) is about a boy’s journey to happiness through a series of roller-coaster extremes. (“Fortunately, Ned was invited to a surprise party. Unfortunately, the party was a thousand miles away. Fortunately, a friend loaned Ned an airplane. Unfortunately, the motor exploded.” Good luck, bad luck, Ned just takes everything as it comes. How does he do that?) First published in 1964, “Fortunately” is also a masterwork of sequence, using page turns so very cleverly.

7. “Dillweed’s Revenge: A Deadly Dose of Magic,” by Florence Parry Heide and Carson Ellis is a perfect Goreyesque allegory of creativity, wickedness and joie-de-vivre triumphing over our fuddy-duddy, kill-joy selves. (To quote Bob Shea and Lane Smith: “WHY WE RECOMMEND THIS BOOK: debauchery, black magic, murder and inspired shenanigans throughout.”)

8. “The Tiger Who Came to Tea” by Judith Kerr. How would you react if a tiger wanted to come to tea? What if your ravenously hungry feline guest ate all the food in the house, and drank all the drink right down to the last drop of water in the tap? A reminder that good things can happen when our lives are infiltrated by enigmatic (and cheeky) strangers.

9. “The Conductor” is a wordless book by French illustrator Laëtitia Devernay that models the ambient and rhythmic experience of listening to a musical score. I love the way this unusual book jumps the fence between art forms, while conjuring a harmonious avian and tree-filled world.

10. John Burningham’s “Aldo” is about the everyday life of a little girl whose home life is empty—apart from her parents’ arguments—and whose school life is overshadowed by bullies. It would be a devastating book were it not for the buoyant comfort she finds in the company of her secret friend Aldo. It’s a gentle lesson in the power of the imagination to create a new reality.

11. In “Bob & co”, Delphine Durand opens with a line-drawn character called “Empti­ness.” (“On the blank page there’s a vast EMPTINESSS all alone.”) Our lonely character is soon joined by the characters of Sky, Earth, Water, who jostle and cavort until Emptiness gets pushed off the page. Stunningly simple metaphysics.

12. “Stephen and the Beetle” by Jorge Luján and Chiara Carrer is the deceptively small tale of a boy’s encounter with a beetle. In truth it is a large story of big decisions, turning points and mindfulness, all beautifully amplified by Carrer’s mixed-media art. (“If I drop my shoe…the day will go on just the same, except for one small thing.”)

13. Olaf Hajek and Angelika Taschen’s new yoga primer “Little Gurus.” The playful and beautiful illustrations capture the yoga poses but also the historical and cultural background of the discipline.

14. Artist and author Peter Sis’s illustrated adaptation of a 12th-century Persion poem, “The Conference of the Birds.” The story, “in which all the birds of the world get together for a conference,” assumes a prejudice-free aviary world, in which even flightless penguins can have their say.

15. Belgian iIlustrator/author Kitty Crowther’s “Annie du lac” (2009). Three islands in a lake turn out to be three giants, who help Annie find a way out of loneliness.

(Image by Fadim)