U is for Uneasy Bedfellows (AtoZ Blogging Challenge)

At this very moment, I’m sitting on a Via Rail train speeding along the tracks between Montreal and Toronto (I should maybe have saved ‘V’ for tomorrow… ‘Via’ – but hey why start planning ahead now? The alphabet is almost over!)

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I’m feeling a tad jet-lagged, but am determined not to nap so I can reset my body-clock as soon as possible. Before the day is done I’ll be in London, Ontario, settled into my hotel and trying to get a good night’s sleep before making an appearance at the London, Ontario festivities related to the Forest of Reading, Canada’s largest literary event for kids. Deep Roots (how apropos is that? a book about trees being up for a Forest of Trees award…) is a nominee in the Silver Birch non-fiction category.

 

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Lunch arrived while I was working on the train… looking at presentations and trying to decide how much I should talk about various different books… 

Over the next week or so I’ll do a number of different presentations and mini-workshops and will speak to groups ranging from modest (a class or two at a public library) to very large (the crowd at the big award gala at Harbourfront in Toronto draws hundreds and hundreds of students from all over the province…) I’m an introvert by nature, so you would think that the idea of getting up in front of people I don’t know, perhaps many of them at one time would give me the jitters. But it doesn’t. Anyone who has seen me on stage will know I’m pretty comfortable up there, doing my thing. Hand me a microphone and it’s like some other creature takes over and starts operating my control center as if I were a performing ventriloquist dummy. I do suffer from pre-performance anxiety, but I’ve come to consider those nerves and quivery-ness to be a good omen. If I am shaking in my boots before I start at least I know I’m wide awake and that rush of adrenaline will help keep me sharp when someone hands me a microphone. And, once I’ve started, it’s too late to fix any problems with my presentation – I have no choice but to roll with the punches and have some fun.

No, the “uneasy bedfellows” of the title refers to my status as a reserved sort of person who likes spending inordinate amounts of time alone doing exciting stuff like typing being thrown into the horrifying situation of having to spend time in small groups chatting with people I hardly know at all. This situation happens a lot at events like this. Tonight, for example, I will meet up with several other authors in an informal setting. We’re all presenting tomorrow in London and because a number of us are coming from afar, someone on the other end of the introvert scale from where I live has thoughtfully organized a get-together. Eek! Small talk! Ack! Casual chit-chat… Run away! Run away!

This is when an internal battle begins to rage. Part of me says that it’s perfectly reasonable for me (jetlagged and all) to just retire to my hotel room, have a shower, and go to bed early. After all, I need to be sharp for whatever tomorrow may bring. Such a grown-up tactic is just being professional. Another part of me guffaws and says, ‘But this is your tribe! Here’s your chance to chat over a glass of wine with some of the writers you admire most in this whole entire country!!!” Writers from eastern and western Canada don’t get together that often, and when we do, guess what? It’s always FUN! This is when another voice chimes in to this inner conversation and says, “Remember when you met so-and-so and you laughed so hard you spilled your orange juice all over the table? Remember when you met whosamacallit and you found your writing soulmate? Remember that time when you stayed up so late talking to whatsamawhosit you saw the sun come up and thought you wouldn’t be able to stay awake through your presentation the next day?”

Have I ever actually had a miserable time once I got over myself and left my hotel room and joined the gang? No. Au contraire, as they say in Paris (and Montreal). Some of the BEST times I’ve ever had in my life were at exactly this type of small scale gathering. The dread of the encounter is far worse than anything that ever actually happens. So what if I recognize a face but can’t quite place the name? That’s what these meet-ups are for! People introduce themselves.  Do I feel offended when someone can’t remember my name? Of course not. What if I can’t remember who, exactly, wrote what? Or which of the awards they are up for? Um, that’s what the question mark was invented for. This is how conversations get started.

 

Spending time chatting with other authors is a great chance to get to know each other. Sometimes, really great friendships form, friendships that last for years and survive long periods between meetings. (Didn’t I just spend a fabulous flying visit with the inimitable Monique Polak in Montreal??? Didn’t we meet when she was speaking at a library? Remember that, oh, voice of doom?) When the evening is well under way and the conversations are animated and we are all laughing, and yacking and having a great time I can’t actually imagine a better place to be. I know all that is quite likely to be the case over the next week as well, but honestly, it’s like that knowledge is trapped in some secret location somewhere that is not accessible to me as my train barrels along taking me to what feels more like an anticipated meeting with a group of hostile monsters.

This, of course, is ridiculous. Children’s authors are not hostile monsters. They will not laugh at me when I walk into the room. They will not pluck the olives from their drinks and throw them at me while pulling faces and pointing. They will not all turn their backs to face the wall rather than speak to me. They will not see me arrive, check the time on their phones and, as one, push back their chairs and say, “Well, that was nice. Here Nikki – have this table because we are all leaving now.” This may all sound very strange to those of you who belong to the extrovert camp, but this is the odd world where I live between social interactions which (though you may find this hard to believe, given this post) are generally reasonably normal. Fun, even. Sigh. It’s all a bit baffling, even to me and I’m the one who has been living like this for the past half century or so.

So, there you go. True Confessions Thursday, if that’s even a thing. What about you? Where do you fall on the introvert-extrovert scale? Get togethers with peers – are they your worst nightmare or what you look forward to most?

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Go Trees!!

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What wonderful news to start the day!! Deep Roots has been nominated for a BC Book Prize (Christie Harris Illustrated Children’s Literature Prize). Here’s a link to the full list of nominees: BC Book Prizes 2017

One of the sections that didn’t make it into the book was about trees and art… The past few days I’ve been talking to Dad a lot about art – and trees – so, here’s the link again to the little video we made of Dad drawing a tree.

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15 Painful Phases of Writing a Book

Want to know what’s going on in my head during the course of a book’s lifetime?

Scroll down for Fifteen Painful Phases of Writing a Book.

Imagine my delight when Orca Book Publishers let me know that Deep Roots: How Trees Sustain Our Planet has been long-listed for the 2017 national Green Earth Book Award, awarded annually to children’s and young adult literature that best convey the message of environmental stewardship. (For more details, visit the official website.)

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The book has had some terrific reviews (including this one at CM Magazine) and was chosen by the New York Public Library system as one of the Best 100 Books for Children and Young Adults in 2016. It’s been nominated for a Silver Birch Non-fiction Award (I’ll be heading for Toronto to take part in the celebrations in May and speaking to students at several school and library presentations), which is pretty exciting.

Of course, I am delighted to see a book is finding such a warm response out there in the world. But on the other hand, I’m scratching my head a bit, too. I mean, I’ve written a lot of books now (30 or so, and counting) and I have never  been able to predict which ones will take off and which ones won’t. You’d think that after spending decades writing I would get a feel for when something is decent and not so much. What actually happens is pretty much the same process for every book. Here’s what’s going on in my head at each stage…

Fifteen Painful Phases of Writing a Book

Phase One: Getting Started

I LOVE this project! This is the best idea I have ever had! I can’t wait to get writing! I can’t type fast enough! My ideas are FLOWING! GUSHING! My life is a string of gleeful exclamation marks! My fingers are dancing over the keyboard! Yipppeeee!! (And, yes, I use words like Yipppeeee! in everyday conversation when I’m in Phase One and never again throughout the entire book creation process).

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It’s all good… in the beginning…

Phase Two: Getting Serious

Hm. This is harder than I thought it would be. I’m not quite sure I’m heading in the right direction. Maybe I should go back and start again. No, that would be a bad idea. Keep going. You can write your way out of this.

Phase Three: Mild Panic

What was I thinking? This is awful! Nobody will ever want to read this. I should stop and start a new project. Where is the paper shredder? So boring. It is agony to sit at my desk. My fingers are leaden and uncooperative. Oh, look – Facebook! Was that a dirty dish I heard calling my name? Yes, I think I need a long walk to clear my mind. Oh, man – I’m so tired after that walk. A nap would be the best thing. I will wake up refreshed and ready to get back to work. I feel like death warmed over. Tomorrow will be a better day.

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The dog days of book-writing… Let me sleep. Let the misery end…

Phase Four: Repetitive Face Palm Syndrome Sets In

I have lost it. I can’t imagine I will ever get to the end of this excruciatingly awful project. What made me think this was remotely a good idea? This is so bad. What a mess. I should retire. My favourite coffee shop has a Help Wanted sign in the window. I was a great waitress back in the day. I don’t even go near my desk. What’s the point?

Phase Five: Resignation

Ok, it’s terrible, but I am so close to the end I might as well just finish it so I can start on a new, better project.

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In those dark, dark moments of believing what I have produced is utter garbage, I bribe myself with the promise of a new project that, surely, will be better than the dreck in which I find myself mired… 

 

Phase Six: Submission

Well, it’s done now. Be strong. Click ‘send.’ Aggghhh! Off it goes to the editor. Steel yourself for the worst. Start another project.

Phase Seven: Really?

The editor doesn’t hate it. In fact, there are some redeeming qualities. Yes, some editing to be done, but actually, now that I’m sitting down to work on it again, the edits are doable. and there are parts that aren’t hideous.

Phase Eight, Nine, Ten… : More Editing

Ok, this is getting old. I am now more sick of this project than seems humanly possible. If I have to write another draft I. Will. Die.

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May as well take a long walk off a short pier at this point… 

Phase Eleven: Survived!

Hm. I am not dead. The book is in production.

Phase Twelve: A long time later…

Hey! A box of books arrived in the mail! Did I write that? It was all so long ago… Well, I’ll be… some of this isn’t too bad! Oh dear – I’d change that bit if I could. Too late now… Let’s hope someone else out there reads it and doesn’t hate it.

Phase Thirteen: Reviews, or Silence

With any luck, someone will care enough to read and review the book. I try not to read reviews too carefully – sort of skim through them to see if there’s anything really bad and otherwise file them away and try to ignore them. Ditto with lists of nominations – I have done my best and making it onto long-lists or short-lists is completely beyond my control. This is when I put on my best, ‘whatever will be, will be’ face.

Phase Fourteen: Shockingly short timeframe later…

The book goes out of print. Did it ever exist? Does anyone care? Does anyone else miss the book the way I do now that it’s gone?

Phase Fifteen: Return to Phase One

Because, you know… I’ve got this GREAT IDEA!!

(Images courtesy of the talented photographers at unsplash.com)

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Enjoy the blog? Consider becoming a patron to support the creation of these blog posts, photo essays, and short videos. In return, you’ll have my undying appreciation, but you’ll also get access to Patron-only content, advance peeks at works in progress, and more – all for as little as a buck a month! It’s easy – head on over to Patreon to have a look at how it all works.

The Book that Almost Wasn’t (and which is now, apparently, very popular with New York Public Library librarians…)

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Whenever I do a presentation, someone inevitably asks where my ideas come from. It’s a hard question to answer because my ideas come from everywhere, all the time. Getting ideas isn’t much of a problem as pretty much anything anyone says or does, or things I see on my travels (or in my back yard or my dreams or …), snippets from the news, or a passing comment on Facebook or a cool image on Instagram or… well, you get the idea… the sources of inspiration are everywhere. The problem is always turning the idea into some sort of narrative, and that’s true whether I’m writing fiction or non-fiction.

In the case of Deep Roots: How Trees Sustain Our Planet, the idea resulted from a question I always ask when I’m giving a talk about books in the Orca Footprints Series.

What do we need to thrive on this planet?
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Kids have no problem answering the question, “What do we need to thrive on this planet?”. Food. Clean water. No pollution. Shelter. Those are the answers that come up right at the top of the list. Several times, though, students offered the answer trees. Which, to be honest, was not on my initial list of things essential to human survival. I only had to think about that suggestion for a few minutes before I realized just how right the kids were. Trees are actually a fascinating subject and, yes, trees are essential to our survival on the planet.

Did you know baobab flowers bloom at night and are pollinated by bats?

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Note: This is NOT a baobab tree.

 

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The more I read about trees (including The Wild Trees by Richard Preston which is just excellent and proves that if you are a good enough writer you can make any subject heart-stopping…) the more I realized that trees would be the perfect subject for another Orca Footprints book. I pitched the idea to my editor and, I have to say, the response was lukewarm.

I persisted and started doing research. And writing. And pestering (very politely) my editor. And thinking about what trees have meant to me over the years (each Orca Footprints title incorporates some personal connection the author has with the subject). Before I knew it, I had a manuscript. The editor started warming up to the subject. The designer started laying it out. We all found photographs of glorious trees making people happy. And, before long, Deep Roots was born.

Well wouldn’t you know it, that book has struck a chord! It has been nominated for a Silver Birch non-fiction award and, just yesterday, it showed up on the New York Public Library list of the 100 best books for children in 2016!! (Here’s a link to the full list.) The Korean rights have been sold and the book seems to be finding an audience for itself!

Trees? You think anyone would care about trees?

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Peeling bark on a madrona tree (aka an arbutus tree) on Sidney Spit, just off Vancouver Island. I LOVE these trees. They are just gorgeous! 

You may wonder what other suggestions from the students I’ve taken to heart. One of the things that was on the list of human ‘must haves’ (according to my informal student polls) was love. It took a little head scratching to figure out how an abstract concept like love could possibly work as a Footprints title, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized the kids were right. Alone, we are small and vulnerable: people need each other. The working title of the manuscript I just submitted this week? Love and Belonging: Family, Friends, and Communities Working Together to Create a Better World. I suspect the title will be shortened before the book comes out, but it turns out the manuscript was really interesting to write.

It’s all about love. heart-love-romance-valentine

At this point (we’ve had no editing rounds yet) it includes material as diverse as Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, prison nurseries, the UN Charter, the Human Genome Project, what it means to have a BFF and the Los Angeles Police Department’s take on gangs. And trarantulas and the people who adore them. The book is not scheduled for publication until 2018, so we’ll all have to wait and see how it does, but the success of Deep Roots gives me hope that listening to my readers is perhaps the best place of all to look for inspiration.

The Best of Times… and, not so much

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Well today’s reading (as I’m finishing up the first draft of my new book in the Orca Footprints series about love, families, communities, and global cooperation) has been, as they say, the best of times and the worst of times. I was working on a couple of sections about some innovative intergenerational programs and found myself thinking that people, if given half a chance, can be very nice to one another. In one initiative (the Humanitas retirement home in the Netherlands), college students unable to find accommodation live rent-free in a nursing home for seniors. In exchange for their housing, they agree to be ‘good neighbours’ for at least 30 hours per week. There’s a great video here about the project. 

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Various places, including the Kipling Centre in Toronto, integrate space for a preschool in the same building as a nursing home. Several times a week young children and seniors come together to dance, do crafts, and spend time getting to know each other. The kids learn to accept their grey-haired, slower moving friends at the same time the elderly residents enjoy the lively company of their young dance partners. (If you are wondering about the risks of sniffles and coughs being passed along to frail residents, apparently plenty of hand sanitizer before and after visits goes a long way to keeping everyone healthy).

Reading about those initiatives made my heart swell just as much as the next set of stories made me want to weep and long not to be part of the human race.

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Writing about people finding common ground and coming together led to writing about what happens when membership in a group becomes about excluding those who don’t belong. Any conversation about the ways in which ethnicity, race and religion bring people together and allow powerful bonds to form leads naturally (sadly) to the observation that violence and hatred often result from the us vs them mentality stemming from that same sense of belonging that can be so powerfully positive. The genocide in Rwanda, ongoing persecution of Muslims in Burma, Syrian refugees unable to scrape together enough money for paper and bus fare so their children can go to school – there are so many examples of how how badly we treat each other it is hard to decide which would be the ‘best’ examples to include in the book. I don’t want to include any of them, really. I want the children who read this book to think about all the wonderful ways we come together, help each other reach across the divides. Having to write about the dark underbelly of belonging and acknowledge there are times when we lose sight of the fact that we have far more in common than that which divides us is just sad.

I don’t want to watch the videos of the struggling refugee families. I want to focus on the delightful exchanges between the senior and junior residents of that nursing home in the Netherlands (apparently, you are never too old to learn how to play beer pong). But to understand and fully appreciate the grace, dignity and beauty of our better moments as people, we need also to see how dangerous it can be to love our own communities (whether they are based on race, ethnicity, orientation, politics, religion or otherwise) to the exclusion of all others.

From the ‘Weird Things I Discover’ Department…

In the course of doing research for a new book I dug up this factoid:

The American Tarantula Society has enough members to warrant an annual conference and publication of a magazine!

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That would be a Gooty tarantula (Image by Soren Rafn, from the Wiki Commons). Lovely colour on that hairy creature, don’t you think?

I’m not actually writing a book about arachnids, though that might be quite cool… This research is for my latest Footprints title with Orca Book Publishers. The series looks at all the things we need to thrive on this planet and this book in particular looks at the many ways we forge bonds with others. By creating communities large and small, we look after one another when we are young and vulnerable or ill or old or displaced, we share responsibilities for education and health care and, sometimes, we get together because we share an interest or passion. Like, say, you love tarantulas and want to spend time with your peeps – you might want to join the American Tarantula Society so you can enjoy chatting about all things spidery…

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I quite like spiders, but if I glanced down and saw one of these on my arm, I suspect I might make a shriek-scream-wail-like noise… And that would probably get me banned from the annual conference of the American Tarantula Society. (Photo from the Wiki commons Joao P. Burini)

Research for this book has led me down some interesting side roads – from the Burning Man festival to prison nurseries to ecovillages to office Halloween parties. Stay tuned… I’m just finishing up the first draft so there will be many changes and additions between now and publication in 2018, but wow – what a cool project!

Deep Roots and a Forest of Reading

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There is nothing quite so exciting (and hole-in-tongue-inducing) as getting an email that tells you not to mention to anyone that you have received an email with wonderful news! Such was the case when I learned that Deep Roots: How Trees Sustain Our Planet has been nominated for a Silver Birch Award!!!

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The Forest of Reading is Canada’s largest reading program where the winners are selected by the readers. Students (and adults and ESL readers) from across the province of Ontario read titles in 8 different reading programs, vote on their favourites and, at the end of the year, a big reading festival is held where readers and many of the nominated writers gather to celebrate.

It’s a huge honour to be included in the list of nominated titles for the Silver Birch non-fiction prize and I’m thrilled to report that I will be able to travel to Ontario in May to take part in the festivities! More than 10,000 people will attend the celebration held at Harbourfront in Toronto!

For more information about the festival, visit the Festival of Trees website (it looks like they even have an app so you can keep track of what’s going on. I’m going to download it and see what that’s all about!)

If you happen to be a school teacher or librarian interested in having me visit your school or library while I’m in Ontario, check out my page at the Authors Booking Service website for more details about how to book a visit.