Prairie Horizons Conference

After months of emailing and phoning and worrying,  the naive and very green organizing committee of the bi-annual Prairie Horiozons conference is happy to announce that we're ready to accept registrations. Please visit us on the CANSCAIP  website for full information.

The conference is September 18-20 in Lumsden, Saskatchewan and it's going to be so much fun, because:
a) kids' writers are such wonderfully approachable people
b) Saskatchewan in September is simply gorgeous
c) it's so affordable
d) we have some great presenters
e) to z) variations of the above!

Our motto for the conference is Climbing the Beanstalk to Creative Success.

Red Cross WWI records

Red Cross records from WWI have just been 'discovered' in Geneva, Switzerland. Twenty million carefully noted records of war casualties have been sitting in the basement of the Red Cross headquarters totally untouched for more than ninety years. Amazing. They'll start digitalizing the records this fall. 

If I ever get done exploring my mom's past, I might start on my dad's. Growing up grandparent-less (ie. rootless) has given me a hunger for the past. Most of what I know about my paternal grandfather I learned in secret. Nobody's supposed to know that he committed suicide after returning from WWI. But the truth is so much more interesting than just the facts. It's the human factor - it's why numbers need words to tell a story. Even the photos aren't enough. Put the three together:  numbers, words, and photos, then you start to have a story. 

More Historical Fiction Favorites

Two favorite books I forgot to mention when I blogged about historical fiction: 
Markus Zusak's The Book Thief (Knopf, 2006) - I just loved this book. It was so gentle and so strong. A story of a girl during the Nazi times. Here's a sample of his poetic-like writing: "In the darkness of my dark-beating heart, I know. He'd have loved it all right. You see?  Even death has a heart."  And even the German children had hearts.  As a child of Germans, I judged my own parents as guilty for participating in the war. Children can be harsh judges.

And one more book  I'd like to recommend is Joan M. Wolf's book, Someone Named Eva (Clarion Books, 2007) It's about a place that no longer exists. A place called Lidice, Czechoslovakia. A powerful story about the Lebensborn program. Plus, it's a debut novel. 

The survivors of  last century's wars are old, feeble people now. It's easy to forget that they were children and involved in some of history's most horrible events. These books are about connecting the past to the present. Mid grade is that stage where they're curious about the world. Later, in their teens, they often become more involved with their own emotional turmoil as puberty takes over.

So historical fiction for mid grade is a powerful way to teach history.

Book Forest

I like to own books - to collect them. They crowd the shelves of my house, fighting for space. 

I remember once visiting a prof in his home - an apartment - and he had all his walls lined with books. This is what I want, I remember thinking ... to be surrounded by books. Books, after all, are ideas, experiences, ... forests to meander, get lost in, and explore.

I've friends who like to read, but they prefer using the library. Now I'm all for the library, but I like to put marks in my books and to take my time with them - often reading a few at once. And, I go back to them to re-visit a page here or there.  Lately, with the blessing of my tax man, I can justify the expense as a writing supply. There are times when I wonder if I've more books than I need. But as I finish a book I've enjoyed, and put it on the shelf, I feel comforted knowing it's available when I need it. Sometimes, just a glance at its spine, reminds me of the world inside its covers.

Here's a favorite quote from the Stephen King book, On Writing, that I just finished: "You learn best by reading a lot and writing a lot, and the most valuable lessons of all are the ones you teach yourself. These lessons almost always occur with the study door closed."

Yeah, so my books are my garden. After all, a book is a living thing, dormant until touched by a mind. Books are trees and many trees make a forest. Now there's a metaphor to explore.

Historical Fiction

As a child of immigrants, I couldn’t find my family’s story in the Dick and Jane

books we had to read in elementary school.  But I kept looking:  first as a university student, then as a mother, and later as a writer.  Turned out, I had to write my own. But the journey – the search, and the re-search - was a trip well worth taking.

Lois Lowry’s book Number the Stars (Newbery Award, 1990) opened my eyes to the power of historical fiction for young people.  And once opened, my eyes couldn’t get enough. Here are some of my more recent favorites.

John Wilson’s Flames of the Tiger (Kids Can Press, 2003).  World War II is seen through a German boy’s eyes during the final days in Berlin.

Kit Pearson’s The Sky is FallingLooking at the Moon, and The Lights Go On Again (Penquin Books) This is a great trilogy about English war guests in Canada during the war.

Leslie Wilson’s Last Train From Kummersdorf  (Faber and Faber, 2003).  Here children are fleeing the Russians in the chaos of 1945.

Ilse Koehn’s Mischling, Second Degree (re-released by Puffin Books, 1990). This book is a survivor’s story about growing up in a Nazi country.

My hometown of Winnipeg, Manitoba welcomed many post-war European immigrants. Some became writers. Eva Wiseman wrote several books about her background as a child in communist Hungary. Her books include My Canary Yellow Star, which was on the New York Library Best Books list.  A more recent book, Kanada, (Tundra Books, 2006) was a finalist for Canada’s Governor General’s Literary Award. And I’ve just bought her newest book, Puppet, which I can’t wait to read. It’s set in Hungary in 1882 and deals with a less known time of conflict between Christians and Jews.

Kathy Kacer is a Canadian who also writes historical fiction based on family.  Her book, The Secret of Gabi’s Dresser (Second Story Press, 1999) is set in Czechoslovakia.

Another local author who’s a must-read is the prolific Carol Matas. Lisa (1987) and Jesper (1989) are two books that deal with the Danish resistance during WWII.

Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch lives in Ontario. She’s written about the Armenian Genocide in books like Aram’s Choice and Daughter of War Kobzar’s Childrenis a young adult collection of stories that she edited. It shares the voices of unheard Ukrainians.  Enough (Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 2000 with Michael Martchenko as the illustrator) is a picture book about the Holodomor – death by hunger during the 1932 famine in what today is again Ukraine. Viktor Yushchenko - the current president of Ukraine – has awarded her his country's highest honor.

Barbara Smucker’s book, Days of Terror,  (Puffin, 1981) deals with the years immediately after the 1917 Russian Revolution. It’s about the tense and violent period just before the setting of my own fall-release book, The Kulak’s Daughter.

I could go on. These books are but a sampling of what's available. Good books, good stories, good histories.  Considering our countries are filled with people who come from foreign lands because of war, persecution, homelessness, and economics, it’s no wonder authors continue to write their family’s his- stories. They’re our-stories. The days of Dick and Jane are long over.

So, what's your favorite historical fiction book? What's your-story?

Plotting or just plodding?

I've been thinking a lot about plot lately (partly because of the Stephen King book, On Writing and partly because of my still plotless WIP ). And because I'm obsessed with metaphor I'd like to muse aloud about plot and metaphor. Plot is what moves words forward. Plot is to writing what a map is to walking. Without a plot, words just go on and on - like a long, destination-less walk. A book needs a plot, like a life needs a purpose. But whether that plot is the genesis of the work, or grows out of the work, hey - that's my current issue. King talks about 'situation' as being the beginning of his books. That's encouraging.

I think the trick is to sort of have an idea where you're going with your plot, but to be ready to leave the trail and scout out the off-trails. And sometimes, just writing, just walking, just doing, leads to possibilities unimagined. While it can be good to have trail markers and a map, (the outline) - it can be a real adventure to just go and see where that road leads. Unfortunately, sometimes you just get lost, tired, and frustrated. 

Still, that piece of wasted writing, without plot, does let one develop some endurance, some writing practice, and some understanding. A trail - a plot - can't be far off.  

Now hasn't this been a real meandering, plotless post?

Signs of spring in Winnipeg

Things have shifted in the last week, here in Winterpeg Winnipeg. Amazing what a little sun can do. We're in SPRING mode. Here are the signs:
1) Potholes - they're big, ugly and everywhere.  Poor car.
2) Puddles - it's dangerous to be a pedestrian, or to even have the sunroof open.
3) Noise - birds are twittering their little hearts out. (Chickadees, robins, even crows and a noisy, hammering woodpecker).
4) The smell of melting snow in the sunshine should be bottled and sold as 'rejuvenation'.
5) Trash - ooh, what the melting snow reveals. Last November's flyers, cigarette butts, and a winter of doggie doo. Holding my breathe and moving on....
6) Cars are revving more around the high school. 
7) Outdoor soccer practices - well, the fields are soggy, but the conditioning runs are outdoors.
8) Trees are thickening with buds - and in a few weeks they'll be green and I'll be living in my own little forest again. (Oh, except for the new plum tree that Buddy mistook for a stick and chewed - almost to the ground. What a dog.)
9) The Canada Geese are back with their mates and setting up nests in the same dangerous spots by the new roads - just like last year.
10) PUSSY WILLOWS, soft and silvery, are emerging on the edges of the Harte Trail. They're my absolute favourite sign of spring - next to the smell of melting snow, the sound of trickling water, tweets of happy birds, and the ...
Oh, I just like it all!

The Unknown Gulag by Lynne Viola

Just finished reading Lynne Viola's book, The Unknown Gulag. Quite overwhelming, actually. This book is the story of the kulaks. And it's not a fictional story, it's the real story. I was afraid that reading it would put holes in my mid grade novel. I was afraid that somehow my mother's memory would prove false, or that my imagination would be weak. But except for one point - I can feel strong about my protagonist and her twelve year old view as the daughter of a kulak. (I'll talk about that one point sometime later.)

Aleksandr Sozhenitsyn opened the can of worms that was the Gulag. It was 1973 when The Gulag Archipelago was published in the West. Thirty years later, Anne Applebaum's Gulag, A History came out. That same year I was introduced to the research of Donald Miller, (who's written several books about those years in an area once known as Volhynia). His book, Under Arrest, has one of my mom's cousins on the cover. In that book my grandfather's arrest and execution is listed along with thousands of other kulaks. 

The people who have survived those decades lived in silence - afraid, always afraid. (No wonder there's so much alcoholism in Russia.) Now they're old. If a tree falls in a forest and no one hears it, does it still make a sound? (or something like that).  

I'd like to recommend these books as background reading to my own little book. In Viola's conclusion, she writes: "History once denied through lies is now threatened by obscurity; forgetting has taken the place of falsification." (p. 193)

Putin, this is for you. (Ha! If only ...) I'd tell him to put real history back into his schools' history books, to rebuild his country, by facing the truth about its past. I dare him.  As Viola says, "... there are no national monuments to the kulaks. Their graves lie scattered and unmarked ... the death toll through the 1930s roughly half a million people ..." (p. 183) 

Visit the Memorial Society website to learn how the survivors of the Gulag are trying hard to keep the truth alive. Or check out the wikipedia entry and learn how Russia is still trying to keep the truth from the public. And in case, you don't have time to read the whole entry, let me mention that as recently as December, 2008, the Russian authorities removed several computer disks which contained the Memorial Society's collection of information to create a Virtual Gulag Museum online. (Now, supposedly, these computer files will all be returned.)

Still, this is all a very current issue. 

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