Saturday, December 31, 2011

Why I'm Saying No to Movies in 2012

I'm making a New Year's Resolution to stay out of the movie theatres in 2012. At least the major ones like Cineplex/Silver City. Here's my shortlist why:

1. I'm not your $$%%^&^ 'guest.'

As we approached the ticket booth, both my husband and I recoiled visibly (yes, there was even some twitching) when we heard, "Can we help the next guest in line?"

It's true, I'm a word nerd, but really. Guest???? In my understanding of the word, when you are someone's guest, they treat you. They do not stick their hand in all your pockets and shake you down for every last cent.

At my friend's party, I am a guest. At the theatre, I am a customer. Have the civility to not insult me by trying to construe our relationship as something it is not.

2. 3D.

At it's best, 3D only thrills for the first 30 seconds. Then you stop noticing the effect at all, except for that queasy feeling in your gut and the headache that forms between your eyebrows. I don't like it and don't want it, and definitely resent having to pay more for it. But guess what? I'm gonna get it. Even though we "guests"  have clearly communicated our lack of enthusiasm for 3D to the film industry. But so what? they can charge us more for it!

So don't expect 3D to go away anytime soon.

The only option I'm left with, then, is for me to go away. So I will.

3. Ads

This item is actually about 150 items. Because that is at least how many advertisements we were bombarded with at the theatre. Ads for movies are ok with me - promotional POS displays in the lobby, trailers for coming attractions - these belong in a theatre. Every other kind of ad - and let's not mince words here - sucks.

When theatres first started showing paid advertising way back when, I was one of those folks who booed and hissed. Here in polite Canada, I was pretty much alone in voicing my disapproval. As a result, the ads, which are universally despised, not only stayed, but multiplied exponentially. 

We now get ads on the screen before the curtain goes up and the lights dim. We get more ads for 15-20 minutes after the lights dim and before the movie trailer. We also get ads during the movie, in terms of product placement and video game plugs (more on this below).

The other night, we were treated to 45 freaking minutes of ads. Yes,we kept track.

This is a misuse of the cinema/customer relationship. I am paying the theatre to be entertained. Instead, they treat me like a captive pair of eyeballs that can be sold to third parties. I am no longer the customer, I am the product.

If my eyeballs are being sold to a 'real'  customer, (oh, right, I'm a 'guest!') then don't charge me for this privilege. Pay me, goddammit.

154. Interactive 'games.'

Gosh, you really think the audience is stupid, don't you, Cineplex? You tell us you are unrolling a new and exciting 'game' for us to play on our cell phones. Then you show us a tricked out 'interactive' car ad.

Sure, some of the audience is stupid, but not all of us. How long do you think it took the audience to realize you have sold our eyeballs, our cell phone IDs, and your own souls, yet again, for ad sales (at a premium)?

It took this eyeball-holder less than a nanosecond, and during that nanosecond I decided that I was not having fun anymore. In fact, I was thoroughly disgusted by your cynicism and naked opportunism. I could practically smell the greed rolling off the screen. It smelled like...sniff sniff....a bag of vomited-up popcorn.

In fact the experience sickened me so much, I decided there and then I might never repeat it. And I'd certainly never buy that tacky lo-rent red car you were flogging.

Go sell that interactive customer feedback (at a premium) to Ford.

155. Product placement.

We saw the movie Tin Tin. It  would have been a pleasant enough pastime if it hadn't cost us $36; The cost/benefit ratio was not there vis a vis the quality of the film.

But what really tanked the whole thing was that the film wasn't really a movie at all, but rather a vehicle for more product sales. Gee, how lovely those chase and action scenes will look when translated into the video game, which was of course advertised before the movie started, sandwiched between all those car and phone ads. Platforming game, perhaps? Chase game, perhaps? Crane battle game perhaps? Gross, obvious and lame, lame lame.

And how about all those damn Snowy toys we'll be seeing in mass market merchandisers? A Captain Haddock ringtone (Blistering Barnacles!) perhaps? Take-apart Unicorn Lego (complete with secret scroll!)? The movie doesn't even pretend  that this isn't its primary goal: to sell more shit.

And it is shit. You know it, we know it, they know it.

So I'm saying no to shit.

I'll only go to independently run theatres and small chains that treat me like a paying customer, not a pair of pockets to be turned inside out.

I'll only go to films at festivals, in which Toronto is blessed - the TIFF, The Jewish Film Festival, Hot Docs, etc. And I'll go to the Lightbox, which screens great movies and treats its patrons like intelligent beings.

In every relationship, both parties need to benefit. Sure, movie theatres have to make a buck - I don't begrudge them that. But there's a quid pro quo that is supposed to operate: you make a buck, and I get entertained.

But that's not how it works any more. My demands and desires are treated with disdain, and the theatre's naked self-interest is predominant and dominant. Our relationship is broken when the benefit all goes one way.

I know I don't represent the mass market. But I'm hoping this time I represent the front edge of the wedge, and the rest of y'all will also say no and stop paying for naked opportunism and corporate disdain.

I've got teenagers, so I can get my disrespect at home, for free. So my 2012 New Year's Resolution is to avoid cinemas that treat their 'guests' like pockets with legs.

Friday, December 23, 2011


Yes, the holiday is more about giving than receiving. But when I got these three pieces of news, I was pretty happy about being on the receiving end.

First, Porcupine in a Pine Tree hit #1 for children's bestsellers overall on Canadian Bookseller's List.

Second, Magic Up Your Sleeve has been shortlisted for the Rocky Mountain Book Award.

And third, I found out that the TV show I've been working on, Planet Echo, has been renewed for the third year.

So it's seems true that good news comes in threes.

Wishing you and yours a happy holiday season and all good things for 2012!

Monday, December 19, 2011

School Library Journal Reviews Juba This Juba That

What a lovely holiday present - a nice review from SLJ! Here's what it says:

"This modern-day version of a traditional African chant imagines an adventure that happens one evening when a dark-skinned boy follows a yellow cat to the fair. They laugh at their reflections in the House of Mirrors, take a spooky fun-house ride, and generally have a wonderful time before returning home to bed. Becker’s simple rhyme plays with opposites and is just right for clapping and bouncing along. Lightburn’s lively illustrations perfectly capture the joy of the nighttime escapade and extend the story. The boy and cat are set against backgrounds of diagonal streaks of cool colors that aptly convey movement and a sense of fantasy. This is a good choice for reading aloud to an active group of youngsters."

Thursday, December 15, 2011

How to Get Kids to Read -It's Easy!

As a follow up to yesterday's post, I thought I'd present the single best way to get kids to read. It's so easy it's mindboggling.

Let them pick their own books.

I know it's hard for control-freaky parents to let go of the reins, even a little. And reading-level controlled teachers with nervous administrators and mandatory borrow-a-book programs might even break into a cold sweat at the thought. But when kids pick their own books, voila! They find stuff they like. And then, double voila! They want to keep reading.

It's shocking, I know but true, the books you loved when you were a kid might just not thrill your progeny. My kids can't stand any of the carefully curated collection I built for them from my own childhood faves.

And books that they should read, because they are worthy? Can you say 'kiss o' death?' No devoted reader was ever birthed from a forced encounter with The Stone Angel.

What if they choose books that are above their reading level? Won't that hurt their confidence? Perhaps, but that's just as it should be. Junior may learn that he doesn't exactly know everything yet, and the world doesn't shine out of his ass. The world will thank you for this. Besides, if the book is really interesting (and maybe even has dirty pictures), well, the motivation to improve one's reading skills is right there, and the means to develop them right at hand. Literacy 101 and Citizenship 101 at one easy go.

If you must must must feel compelled to choose books for your kids, at least pick books that kids are known to like. The good folks over at Sympatico have put together a short list of their top ten kid-tested and kid-worthy reads. I'm pleased to see my own Hilarious History of Hockey made this list (but of course it would- it has pucks made out of frozen cow poo in it, and you can't get more kid-friendly than that).

So buy em all, and leave all ten top titles scattered around for your kids to find. They'll be reading like fiends before you know it.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Is Reading Fun?

Is reading fun? As a confirmed bookworm, I can reply with only one answer - of course it is. But that's not true for everyone - especially today's kids.  Even while literacy scores have been improving, we've managed to create a new generation of non-readers. According to an article in this week's National Post, fewer kids today report that they enjoy reading than they did a decade ago, despite an overall increase in literacy. 

My ultra-articulate response to this story is, "No duh." For at least the last decade, it's been obvious to those of us who care about literacy and reading that literacy education has been hijacked by the bureaucrats - functionaries who see the ability to read strictly as a job skill useful for future worker bees. Their view is that kids need to be taught to read - to decode written symbols - in order to produce valuable output - data entry, form-filling, ticking off of boxes on a customer satisfaction survey. The practical skill called literacy is completely divorced from what I would call true literacy - the ability to gather information from written sources of all kinds as a way to independently satisfy any curiosity.

In the reading-as-job-skill world view, reading for pleasure is beside the point, a distraction that interferes with measurable outcomes. So teacher-librarians, who spend their day encouraging kids to waste their time  - and tax payers' dollars  - giggling over books instead of building those black and white test scores, become redundant. And those expensive obsolete print collections called school libraries?  Frills. Let's put in a computer lab instead and call our job done. 

That has to be the thinking. Otherwise, how could politicians and educators spout the importance of literacy ad nauseum  while simultaneously gutting school libraries and eliminating school librarians?

With this week's news story, at last, the other shoe drops. Because of course you can't separate the love of reading from true literacy, any more than you can separate melody from music appreciation. There needs to be a reason to read, one that is meaningful to the reader, and not the bureaucrat, to drive true literacy. That reason comes when one discovers for one's self how books - and comics and magazines and DVDs -  open the world in unexpected ways, and how they can take you on a unique and highly personal journey.

Let's hope this new study gets the pendulum swinging back in the right direction. Let's put literacy education back into the hands of book lovers, people who revere the written world and respect children enough to let them come to the love of reading the only way possible - through old-fashioned discovery. And let's support - by funding AND through an appreciation of the critical role they play - the teacher-librarians in our schools.

They are the beating heart at the centre of any truly literate school community.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Storywalk for Juba? #fb #kidlit

Portland, Maine, is the home of a wonderful project called Storywalk. Text from a picture book is spread out on several signposts along a park's path. Families walk the path, read the story, and do accompanying actions tied to the book and to the location. The idea is to get kids reading and exercising, all at once!

Here's a photo of the Portland Storywalk, featuring the book, "And Here's to You!" by David Elliott (Candlewick Press) (photo courtesy Bangor Daily News)

When I returned from holiday, I got the good news that Bridgetown, Nova Scotia's public library is considering installing a similar storywalk in that town - featuring Juba This, Juba That! It does seem to be a perfect match up, both because the book reflects the historic roots of the city, and the because of the active nature of the story itself, which would be an ideal read-and-do adventure.

So thrilling to think about!!!

It's not a done deal yet, so keep your fingers crossed!

Monday, December 12, 2011

Porcupine Hits #1!!

How pretty it looks - Porcupine at the tippy top of the Christmas books bestsellers list for 2011.

Porcupines Don't Like To Share

And can you blame them, when they have nice sweet juicy corn on the cob?

Now you know what to buy dear Quilliam, the porcupine in the pine tree, for his Xmas gift.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Dr. Greenie's Mad Lab #science #tv #children #education

In my last post, I mentioned that I've been working with a television production company on a science show for kids. I've written the segment called "Dr. Greenie's Mad Lab" for two years now, and have also completed a full interactive webisode for the show that will be ready some time early in 2012. We're all hoping the show will be renewed for another year - it's been getting great reviews from the broadcaster, APTN.

The show is environmentally-focused, emphasizing the positive steps people around the world are taking to help protect Mother Earth.  It's a "magazine" style show, with seven different segments. Mine, Dr. Greenie, features a mad scientist and his supersized pink Guinea Pig sidekick. It's silly, sophomoric, and scientifically sound.

When I signed on for the project, I was told that the sound board contained 86 different fart sounds. My mission? To use them all. After two years, and twenty-six episodes, we've used about 40. Clearly we need another two years to complete my task!

You can see last year's totally ridiculous episodes at the Planet Echo Website. I hope you like 'em!

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Trouble in the Hills Gets a Trailer #YALIT

We may not be ready for wide theatrical release. Yet. But even so, we've got a fun little trailer to give you the flavor of the kind of trouble that awaits within the covers of Trouble in the Hills. I'm hoping to do a scripted trailer this winter, and a complete video game too, courtesy the great minds at the TV production company I work with on a science-related TV show, Planet Echo.

Here's the trailer for your viewing pleasure!

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

What's A QR Code and What's It Doing on My Book #yalit? #publishing

A QR Code is the little cryptic square appearing on consumer goods, posters and in magazine ads. You take a snap of it with your smartphone and voila! It takes you to a website - a video, or an info blurb - about the product.

We decided to be adventurous and add a QR code (two, actually) to my hot-off-the-press novel, Trouble in the Hills. It is an adventure story, after all.

Here's the QR code that appears on the back:

Go ahead, try it! See where it take you....

Monday, November 14, 2011

A Porcupine in A Pine Tree is a 2011 Heather's Pick!

I was so pleased to discover A Porcupine in A Pine Tree is a Heather's Pick for the second year in a row.

Here's what the page featuring Quilliam - print and stuffed versions - looks like:

And here's the display I found at the Yonge-Eglinton store last week. I had the great pleasure of signing more than 50 copies - an author's dream come true. This week, off to Yorkdale and Bayview to repeat!

Friday, November 11, 2011


Trouble in the Hills was successfully launched this past weekend.

Here are some photos to prove it!
A whole whack of the Canadian kidlit contingent. How many do you know????

The cake, made by awesome editor
and pastry chef Christie Harkin

Reading from the book. I am making
sound effects. Kaboosh!!!!!

Writer Mahtab Narsimhan, displaying
the hot off the press book.

Here I am with writers Danielle and Jeff Szpirglas and my hubby Karl

Writers Rebecca Upjohn and Jennifer Lanthier say, "Let them eat cake!"

Watch out Jen - psycho coming up behind you!

Kids book launches feature bumper cars. Take that, boring adult writers!

Fun was had by all.

Check out the expression on writer Kari Lynn Winters' face!

Here with editor Christie Harkin and writer Lori Weber,
whose wonderful book Yellow Mini was also launched the same day.

One must always wear awesome boots for bumper car racing

Friday, October 28, 2011

ARRRR!!!! Discover Your Inner Pirate


Gosh I love my job. Today's project is to come up with the list of quizzes that I'll be including in next Fall's Quiz  Book for BFFs (Scholastic Canada). While going through my files, I came across this piratey quiz I wrote last year for another project. It didn't make it into that book, but it still makes me laugh, maties! Maybe it will make you laugh too!

1. You have stumbled across a treasure chest in your grandma’s attic. You:

a. Shout: Mine!!!!!

b. Bury it in the graveyard in the dead of night

c. Make your granny walk the plank and then run off with the treasure.

2. Which do you fear most?

a. Crocodiles

b. Drowning

c. Being bored

3. Your pirate flag would be:

a. Made from the tanned skin of your enemies

b. A skull and cross bones, what else?

c. A happy face

4. What does your parrot say?

a. Aaaaar!!!!

b. Please don’t kill me, kind pirate sir!

c. Grog and Ale! Grog and Ale!

5. Where’s the best place for pirate gold?

a. Under your mattress

b. In a bank

c. Buried under the x of course, on a desert island.

6. You have captured a British frigate. You:

a. Make everyone walk the plank

b. Drop everyone off on a remote island with just 1 jug of water.

c. Put them all to work, styling your hair and curling your moustache

7. What body part are you missing?

a. Your eye

b. Your hand

c. Your left leg

8. What would you name your ship?

a. Wastin’ Time

b. Maid of the Mist

c. Terror

9. Which is your favorite piratey island?

a. Newfoundland – lots of puffins to amuse my parrot

b. Bermuda – you get to wear plaid shorts with your pirate hat

c. As if I’d tell you, landlubber!

10. What is your favorite pirate meal?

a. Grog and biscuit

b. Barbecued red snapper and iced tea

c. A head on a stake!


11. A 1 b 2 c 3

12. A 5 b 2 c 1

13. A 5 b 1 c 3

14. A 1 b 5 c3

15. A 1 b 2 c3

16. A 3 b 5 c 7

17. A 2 b 5 c 1

18. A3 b2 c 4

19. A 2 b 4 c3

20. A2 b4 c 5

15-20 Cap’n Crunch. You don’t really think of pirating as anything other than a good time. A chance to hang out with pals, see new places, lop off a few heads when you get bored. You’d be just as happy as a hockey defenseman.

21-30 Jack Sparrow. Why is everything so difficult? All you want is a peaceful place to relax in the sun. But those soldiers keep getting you out of your nice comfy hammock. But watch out! Once you’ve been roused to action, you are the terror of the seas!

31-37 Captain Kidd Ah, pirating is the life for you! Nothing more enjoyable than boarding another ship, stealing their treats and sneaking back to port with your pockets full of cookies. But you have a terrible temper. Nobody crosses the Kidd and lives to tell the tale!

38-46 Blackbeard Guess who woke up on the wrong side of the bed this morning? Make that every morning! You are the one everyone should fear because you are king of the cranky. Even your parrot fears your wrath – and your breath. You should stop eating that raw liver and onions on an empty stomach!

Friday, October 21, 2011

The Power of Children's Literature

Last night, I had the great pleasure of hearing Art Slade speak at the Lillian Smith Library in Toronto. His talk was entitled From Hobbits to HTML, and focused on the ever-changing world of digital publishing.

Art began his talk by describing some of the books that had influenced him when he was a child. At the top of his list was Tolkien's The Hobbit, and the Chronicles of Prydain, by Lloyd Alexander. Art said he'd read both of these in fourth grade, and they changed his life.
 Now Art and I had very little in common during our childhoods. He was raised on a ranch in Saskatchewan. I'm a New York native. He was a boy; I was a girl. But we did share one thing.

I, like Art, read The Hobbit and the Chronicles of Prydain when I was in 4th grade. And the books made a huge impression on me too.

Thousands of miles apart in space, and worlds away in terms of experience, both young Art and young Helaine were moved, inspired and changed by reading those same books. What does this small fact tell you about the power of literature, and the importance of reading for children, then and now?

Me, the summer I read The Hobbit. I was so taken with the book that I faked sick
and read the book in the motel as
the rest of my family explored the Grand Canyon.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Trouble in the Hills Launch!

Trouble in the Hills Launch!

Time Sunday, November 6 • 2:00pm - 4:00pm


Location Playdium Mississauga, 99 Rathburn Rd.

Please join me for the launch of my first Young Adult Novel, Trouble in the Hills! The launch will be held at the fabulously fun video and game arcade, Playdium, so not only will you get an exciting book, you'll have a fun afternoon! Even better - if you buy a book you will receive a


How awesome is that! There will also be a special GIFT for all TEACHERS and LIBRARIANS!

And because this book is aimed at teenaged boys (girls will like it too - I promise) and we know boys around here, there will be a MAJOR EXPLOSION at some point during the event.

A snippet from the book:

The whomp! Whomp! Whomp! Of the choppers was deafening. They loomed overhead like giant man-eating insects, ready to pounce.

“You are surrounded. Surrender peacefully and you will not be harmed,” an amplified voice commanded. It seemed like it was coming from everywhere at once.

Cam instinctively held his breath so as not to betray his presence. Not that anyone could hear him amid the chaotic roar of the machines. He was nothing but a bug, after all.

He crouched low, trying to flatten himself into the meadow. There was almost nowhere left to go; their only chance was the creek. Once there, they could make their way along its sheltered banks, hidden by the willows that lined its edge. Then, maybe, they could get to safety.

Set in the Rocky Mountain borderlands, Trouble in the Hills is an action-packed adventure that pits an injured teen against the elements.  As he slowly makes his way back to town over cold, inhospitable terrain, he encounters a trio of kidnappers, the girl who escaped them, his former best friend, and a gang of drug runners. And that's just for starters. Can Cam and Samira survive in a situation where another teen lost his life just a few months earlier?

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Hey! I'm in the Movies!

I got a few messages today from friends who'd just seen the new movie, 50/50. My book, What's the Big Idea? is pictured in a few background scenes in the film.
Here's my imaginary Star Interview, as per ET (if they wanted to interview the author of the book used in the set design).
What's What's the Big Idea About?
Ideas. You know, those thingies some people think of to come up with movies.
Is it Funny?
As Funny as Seth Rogen?
Funnier. A lot funnier.
Did you get paid for having the book in the movie?
Should Seth Rogen star in your next book?
He can be in my trailer for Trouble in the Hills. And I'd like to invite him to my book launch Nov 6. There will be cookies. I can name the homicidal mutant bug in the horror story I'm writing now after him if he'd like. I won't pay him, though.

Is there any Cancer in What's the Big Idea?
No, but there are great facts about toilets, explosions, and toasters.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Hold the Date! Trouble in the Hills Launch is November 6th

It's set - the date for the official launch party for Trouble in the Hills is November 6th. Watch this space - there will be deets announced here as soon as I've got them. There will be SPECIAL TREATS for teachers and librarians so please spread the word to all your bookish chums!

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Cultural Appropriation - Is It Appropriate?

A heated discussion recently erupted on a writer's listserve that I belong to. The topic - cultural appropriation. Specifically, should authors be allowed to write from the point of view, or about, people from different cultural or ethnic backgrounds from their own?

I was surprised to see that several of the listserve's contributors questioned an author's "right" to produce works on any topic, and from any point of view they choose. After all, isn't that precisely a writer's  job description, to get into the head of another person, no matter who they are, and render them so accurately and believeably that no one knows nor cares who created them? Great characters live and breathe on their own.

Who gets to decide who has the "right" to publish anyway? Some thought we should self-censor, which is bad enough on its own. But it also made me wonder where the slippery slope begins. How quickly do we move from self-censorship to political correctness to fascism and book burning? (For more on self-censorship, see my post on science publishing at

I, clearly, come down in the "Yes" camp - that any of us, all of us, can write about whatever we darn please. And we should be judged by the output of our efforts, not by the color of our skin, our gender or our age. If I was restricted from writing from the point of view of a boy, I'd never have been able to write either The Looney Bay All-Stars series, or my current YA adventure novel, Trouble in the Hills.

If I'd been judged by my skin color, I couldn't have written Juba This, Juba That, my hot-off-the-press picture book from Tundra Books, either. It's based on an African American slave chant. I'm not African-American, but I knew a good subject when I saw one. And I also knew no one else had ever written a picture book using this theme. For me, bringing the Juba chant alive for a new generation of kids of all colors trumped my own ethnicity. What a crime it would be if publishers had refused to publish this book, citing "cultural appropriation"  and my white skin as the reason!

I find the concept of cultural appropriation abhorrent. I understand that certain groups have been marginalized in history, and should be encouraged and assisted in telling their own stories. But that doesn't mean we should continue the crime of judging people by their race or gender, and preventing them from developing opportunities to create or to work because of those or any other personal characteristics. 

When people do that, they cease to be positioned on the left, where many fans of this philosophy seem to be situated. Instead they show themselves to be more in tune with the repressive philosophies of the totalitarianists and fascists on the far right.

Please read Juba This, Juba That  and judge it on its own merits - the calibre of the writing, the beauty of the art (expertly created by Ron Lightburn), and not on the color of my or Ron's skin. That would be what I call culturally appropriate.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Trouble in the Hills Coming Soon!

My previous post highlighted Juba This, Juba That, my upcoming picture book. I've got another book coming out this Fall too - something completely different. It's a Young Adult thriller:

Trouble in the Hills was my first venture into adventure (pardon the terrible wordplay; I'm incorrigible). I'm delighted by what  Christie Harkin, editor par excellence at Fitzhenry and Whiteside, has helped bring out in it! Our goal was riveting, edge-of-your-seat, page-turning, hold-your-breath, stay-up-til-2am storytelling.  I think we did it. The cover is awesome, anyway.

My current challenge is figuring out how to do an equally exciting trailer on a dollar-store budget. Anyone out there have some cool video of a helicopter shooting at kids running across a BC ranch? What about exploding ATVs? (And that's just the first chapter....)

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

The Roots of Juba This, Juba That in Black History

Is there anything more exciting than the arrival of a new book?

My advance copies of Juba This Juba That arrived last week. Ummmm...that new book smell......

The artwork by Ron Lightburn is fantastic, and double fun, the dust jacket reverses to a fabulous poster!
Here's my fave image from inside the book:

What's going on in this funhouse image, you may ask? To answer this question, we'll need to take a trip back in time - to Colonial America, to be exact.

The book originated in a family trip to Monticello, the home of Thomas Jefferson. There, the costumed staff were showing us how people lived in the 18th century. One staff member was grinding corn and singing a work chant. Its first verse went like this:

Juba This Juba That
Juba killed a yellow cat
Juba This Juba That
Juba Juba Juba Juba

I'm not big on killing cats, but the rhythm of the chant, stuck with me. I kept hearing it in my head throughout the rest of that holiday, and especially on the long drive back to Toronto. No wonder the slaves chanted it to make the work go easier - it was hard to think of anything else once those lines were lodged in your head.

Back at home, I decided to do a little research on the chant to see how I might adapt it for a children's book. Catchy rhythms, after all, are great hooks in picture books for younger readers.

My first research foray on the web was disappointing. The versions of the chant I came across were universally violent and gruesome, or just plain unappealing for children. Not exactly kid-friendly in our era! But there were verses, too, that incorporated opposites (high/low, here/there). Those, I thought, could be the basis for something more contemporary.

If I wanted to turn Juba into a picture book, then, I'd have to do some serious alteration to the verses, not just a tidying up. But could I, should I,  actually rewrite the verses? Part of me - the part that was a History Major at Duke - recoiled at the thought of altering historical texts. But the other, larger part of me thought that by doing so, the Juba chant could be revived for a new audience that would never hear it if the words remained unchanged. Can you imagine a jaunty kids' book making it to market if it talked of killing cats or cutting off a pigeon's wing?

Neither could I. So I got to work, writing new verses that were in keeping with the original ones, minus the ick factor.

But finger snappy verses do not a picture book make. I also dreamt up a  magical story line that involved a boy, a cat, and a night time visit to a carnival, to tie everything together.

My book was born. I hope it honors the spirit of the creators of the original Juba This, Juba That chant. And I hope you like it.

For more on the origins of the Juba chant, go to the excellent website It also incorporates teaching lessons for grades 3-5 based on the chant.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Red Cedar Award Shortlists Announced......

...and yes! One of my books, The Insecto-Files, is on it.

Here is the complete list of nominees in both the fiction and non-fiction categories:

Red Cedar Fiction 2012 Nominees

The Dread Crew by Kate Inglis

Wanting Mor by Rukhsana Khan

Rex Zero: The Great Pretender by Tim Wynne-Jones

Walking Backward by Catherine Austin

After the Fire by Becky Citra

Faerie Rebels: Spell Hunter by R.J. Anderson

The Ship of Lost Souls by Rachelle Delaney

The Giant Slayer by Iain Lawrence

Zoobreak by Gordon Korman

Dear Canada: A Desperate Road to Freedom Karleen Bradford

Timothy and the Dragon's Gate by Adrienne Kress

The Prince of Neither Here nor There by Sean Cullen

Red Cedar Information Award 2012 Nominees

Charlie: a Home Child’s Life in Canada by Beryl Young

Learn to Speak Music by John Crossingham

The Insecto-files by Helaine Becker

Big Train: the Legendary Ironman of Sport by Lionel Conacher. Richard Brignal

Fighting for Gold by Lorna Schultz Nicholson

Pharaohs and Foot Soldiers by Kristin Butcher

Animal Aha! Thrilling Discoveries in Wildlife Science by Diane Swanson

It’s a Snap! George Eastman’s First Photograph. Monica Kulling.

Whispers from the Ghettos by Kathy Kacer & Sharon Mckay

Hoaxed: Fakes and Mistakes in the World of Science by The Editors of YES Magazine

How to Build Your Own Country by Valerie Wyatt.

100% Pure Fake by Lyn Thomas

Out of this World: The Amazing Search for an Alien Earth by Jacob Berkowitz

You Are Weird: Your Body’s Peculiar Parts and Funny Functions by Diane Swanson

Kaboom! Explosions of all Kinds by Gillian Richardson

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Whirlwind Month Ends in a Win!

I've done over 60 school and library presentations since April 1st, so my head is spinning for sure. But what spun me round the most was having two of my books honored with yummy awards this past week.

On Thursday last week, while I was presenting to schoolkids in Amherst, Nova Scotia, the Silver Birch Awards were being handed out in front of more 700 screaming book lovers in Toronto. What's the Big Idea? received the Honour Award in the nonfiction category.

Then, on Saturday night, the Canadian Booksellers Association held their annual Awards dinner for their fave books of the year. And yippy yahoo, A Porcupine in A Pine Tree won the Picture Book of the Year Award!

Here are some pictures from that wonderful event for your viewing pleasure:

The Toronto children's book store, The Flying Dragon (woot!) won Specialty Retailer of the Year.

Vikki VanSickle, bookseller and #Torkidlit Author, won the award for Young Bookseller of the Year!

Here she is, looking gorgeous accepting her award.

Here we are accepting our award from Eleanor of Mables Fables Bookstore.

I know everyone expects me to blabber on whenever they hand me a mike, but I surprised everyone by letting Werner take center stage and say our thank yous.

See how adoring I look??

                                              Of course I couldn't leave the stage without saying something......

Here, with my hubby Karl and Diane Kerner, Publisher at Scholastic Canada.

And here with Susan Chamberlain, owner of Sarnia's fabulous The Bookkeeper, which won the Bookseller of the Year Award. Susan and I go waaaaaay back, to our days working at McClelland & Stewart. Don't ask how long ago that was.

This is my favorite shot of all. Yes, we were pretty chuffed. :)

Because: Science!