Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Banned book week and the waving flag…

In celebration of Banned Book Week I’m joining Tahereh over at Grab a Pen and writing two reviews of books I’ve read that are on banned lists. 

While my blog isn’t about getting all up in your bookshelf about politics; books, literacy, and the pursuit of knowledge have been used to empower and disempower people since the beginning of the written word. I hate to quote French Philosopher Foucault (because he said a lot of complicated, convoluted philosophy type things) so I’ll paraphrase him: “Knowledge is Power.”

I wrote about the experience of Ellen Hopkins when her series of books were banned.

Here are my reviews of two books on various banned lists:

To Kill a Mocking Bird by Harper Lee. Yes, I think I’m the last person on earth to read this book. I just finished it on the weekend. I wish my reader friends had told me to read it decades ago (because I could have re-read it by now). It is the story of a racial divided south in the dirty thirties told from the point of view of the young protag Scout. Her observations are fresh, innocent and portray the opposing view points and the heiarchies in society. The prose is rife with descriptions and voices of the times. It is about compassion, social justice and the tension between change and innovation. I would highly recommend this book as a classic.

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian by Sherman Alexie.  He's won a ton of well deserved awards for this book. Here’s the book flap blurb “In his first book for young adults, Sherman Alexie tells the story of Junior, a budding cartoonist growing up on the Spokane Indian Reservation. Determined to take his future into his own hands, Junior leaves his troubled school on the rez to attend an all-white farm town high school where the only other Indian is the school mascot.  Heartbreaking, funny, and beautifully written.”

This book was loaned to me by my friend Amber who is a proud Blackfoot woman from the Peigan Nation in s. Alberta (and the owner of cats Atticus Finch and Boo Radley). Here’s Amber’s take on the book: “Agreed – I read this book in a pub in Edmonton – the customers must have thought I was mad – I laughed hystecially, wept and laughed some more.”

I thought it was brilliant. It was of the tragic-comic genre and that is hard to do well. But he does it very well. You are thoroughly engaged with the characters. One minute you are laughing and then next Alexie deivers an emotional punch to the literary gut. Recommended for anyone who wants to experience the joys and pains of humanity. 
K’Naan is a Somalian born Canadian rapper/singer/songwriter/poet. If you haven’t heard of him your sasquatch writing cave clearly don’t posses a mode of electronic communication that broadcast the World Cup (since his song Waving Flag was the anthem). I’ve seen him perform twice so I guess I’m officially a fan (along with my nephew).

He tells the story of how his family escaped war torn Somalia and ended up briefly in NY before the INS escorted them out of the country. Canada took them in. He was young at the time and wrote the lyrics: “When I am older, I will be stronger. They’ll call me freedom, just like the waving flag.”

Here’s the slightly more real, non-Coca-Cola version. 

Friday, September 24, 2010

What Lime Marmalade teaches us about Character Development

When I signed up a while ago for Elana Johnson's Great Blogging Experiment it never occurred to me that the earth would continue to revolve around the sun and the due date of September 24th would arrive. The experiment is to have as many bloggers as possible weigh in on character development. Neither did it occur to me when I signed up that I would be sick on this day (due to the inhaling of communal air on the bus, at work, at grocery stores etc.).  So my contribution is an early blog post that many of my current bloggowers may not have seen (in the parlance of sitcom re-runs 'it's new to you'). 

I would encourage you to check out the great blog experiment and get full up on character development! 
Here's my offering: 

A few years ago I traveled to London, England to visit my friend Kate and go to her 40th birthday party. Kate and I met in West Africa in the late 80s. So I hopped over the pond and we had a marvelous reunion. 

Kate is a nurse so she’s one of those caring, nurturing types. I stayed in the attic bedroom, it was very Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? – it even had the wooden stairs that you pull out of the ceiling from the second floor.

The second day I was there Kate woke me up from my jet lagged induced coma. Sun was streaming in through the small attic window, which I had tried desperately to open at about 4 a.m. (but apparently they lock down everything in London).

Kate: Here’s some tea and toast with marmalade (she plopped it down on the table beside the bed).

Me: Oh, no, I don’t like marmalade.

Kate: Eat it anyway and shuuuuddddduppppp about it!

With that Kate turned, her long flowing robe spun in the breeze, and stomped down the attic stairs. Okay, there was no breeze. It was hot and stuffy and there was no air in that attic. Did I mention she’s a caring and nurturing nurse?

So I ate the toast with lime marmalade and loooooovvvvved it.

I loved it so much I wanted it the next day. But it seemed Kate had scrapped the dregs of the jar for me and there was none left. I offered to buy a new jar but Kate didn’t want sugary marmalade in the house to tempt her once I’d left. I knew enough not to buy a glass jar with the stickiest substance in the world in it, and then pack it in my suitcase to take home. Surly, I could find it back in Canada.

When I got home I scoured the supermarkets for it. Lots of lemon and orange marmalade but no lime. It had to be lime. I went to the British store and found it. I had to sell a kidney to pay for the outrageous cost of it being imported from England, but it was worth it. I took that jar home and had toast with lime marmalade until it was done (which took months). Then I was done and haven’t eaten it since.

Characters revels themselves through action and dialogue. Put your characters into situations that stretch them and make them feel uncomfortable. How they cope with the situation – through action and dialogue – reveals their character to the reader. 

In Dead Bird through the Cat Door, the second in the Megabyte Mystery Series which will be out this fall, characters Cyd and Jane are faced with lunch with the evil culprits and are served such Scottish fare as blood pudding and haggis. How they react shows more about their character than me telling you what type of kids they are.

What did my obsessive search for Lime Marmalade tell you about me as a character? Maybe I was just trying to stave off scurvy?

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Top Ten Reasons I love being an author

It's been almost a year since I debuted with my novel Dead Frog on the Porch a mystery adventure for children ages 8-12. The second in the Megabyte Mystery series Dead Bird through the Cat Door will be out in November - stay tuned for deets of a book launch! Needless to say it's been an eventful year.

I've learned a lot, eaten cake with the book cover etched in icing and had some great emails from young fans. I thought I'd share what I've learned with my bloggowers and in a nod to David Letterman, it's written as a top ten list.  

The top ten reasons I love being an author:

10. I can call myself an author or a novelist.

9.  I can divert all attention to me in a conversation by uttering a random phrase like: "... last year when I was on my book tour."

8. I can furnish my house with random vagabond furniture and friends excuse it with a wave of the hand and a mumbled "she's a writer." 

7. I never have to dig out my weeds

6. Reading books and watching movies is homework.

5. The official beverage of writers' world wide is red wine. 

4. Bloggers who are teachers and school librarians, who love books for middle grade readers, do reviews of my book like: The O.W.L. (Outrageously Wonderful Literature) and FernFolio.   

3. I can wear a multitude of multi-couloured bracelets that stretch the length of my forearm and call it artistic. 

2. I love, love, love using the phrases: my publisher and my senior editor

And the number one reason I love being a writer is:

1. I can get my ISBN number tattooed on my butt!

Using a 'top ten' list is one technique to get more funny out of your writing. This is one of the exercises I do with my adult students in the Writing with Humour class I teach at Chinook Learning Services Calgary Board of Education. The course runs for a full day on Saturday November 20th and again on November 22 and 29th in the evenings. 

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Video Vednesday!

It's a dark, cold, foggy, stormy Wednesday - great time to wrap your hands around a warm mouse and click through a couple of videos here on Video Vednesday. 

The first is about that pesky bit of punctuation the apostrophe. Love it or hate it, you've probably misused it at some point in your writing life (or you wouldn't be human). A couple of the pics in the video are actually right (just saying). 

I'm late to the whole Old Spice commercial craze due to the liberal use I make of the mute button on my TV remote, but now I'm not only up to speed on the craze, I've found a parody of the commercial that promotes libraries. 

Happy video vednesday! Next post - how a top ten list can change your writing. 

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Be the egg encrusted fork!

Writing a novel is like doing the dishes. Just when you think they’re done, just when the last of the grimy sudsy water gets sucked down the drain, just when you’ve wiped dry your water logged hands – someone shows up with an egg encrusted fork they found in the basement. You can either choose to ignore it or you stop up the sink, run the water, get some suds going, plunge your prune-like hands in, and start all over again. 

A manuscript is like that. It’s never done until it’s between two covers. 

While you’re still doing the dishes, writing the novel – you be the egg encrusted fork to your writing. That problem that you know is there, but want to ignore - that's the last fork.  Don’t just put it in the sink and forget about. You pick off that egg with your nail, scrub it with the little scrunchy-wash pad thingy, and wipe it clean. Sure you feel like leaving it in the sink, for next time, for someone else to clean up. Like a member of your critique group. Like the agent or editor you don’t yet have. No one is going to get the gunk out between the prongs of your manuscript but you.

Be the egg encrusted fork to your writing. Just when you think your manuscript is done, put your mechanical pencil on the line and apply everything you’ve learned in every book, in every workshop, and in every blue pencil session. Apply what you’re learned about tension on every page, showing – not telling, realistic dialogue, flawed, yet human characters, plot, setting, pacing, grammar, and scrub - scrub until we the reader, not only don’t see any encrusted egg, we never knew it was there.

That’s your job as a writer. Doing the dishes … get someone else to do them!   


Friday, September 10, 2010

Blogger Buddies in the Cybersphere and cats taking over the world

Time to give and receive some blogger buddy acknowledgement in the cyberspere. My blogger buddy Leigh T. Moore blogs over at That's Write about writing, getting published, life and being a mom. She gave me the blogger buddie award. Thanks Leigh - you rock and so does your blog! All my bloggowers should check it out.   

I'm passing it on to three of my blogger buddies:

Angela Ackerman who blogs at The Bookshelf Muse where she creates her own thesaurus for settings, colours, texture and shape, smells, symbolism, characters etc., If you can't figure out what I mean then pop over and check out the site for yourself. It's a helpful resource for writers. 

Stina Lindenblatt blogs at Seeing Creative and offers photography and fiction writing tips for really cool people. I would agree with that and hope I'm included as one of the cool people!

And Sherrie Peterson who blogs at Write About Now. Where she shares her ramblings about reading, writing and life in a small town. Another interesting and enlightening blog for you to check out. 

I really enjoy blogging and the supportive community of writers, readers, and educators that I have found blogging. There's a whole lot of creativity out there and bloggers who are willing to share their knowledge and experience. 

*Jan steps off her soap box*

Now, in my continued effort to convince you that cats are secretly plotting to take over the world I present this video as evidence. They are everywhere people!  Be ever vigilant!

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Author visits!

Yes, I have been known to wear funny frog related hats - but only to school visits! 

With fall upon us and school back in I thought I would let my bloggowers know that I’m taking bookings for school and library visits for the month of October (some black out dates apply) in Alberta, Canada.  Dear sweet bloggowers please pass this on to teachers and librarians in your network. 
Brooks, Alberta   

My presentations work best for grades three to seven and I tailor my presentation to the needs of the class.  As you can see I make them write until their fingers bleed
engage their imaginations in a writing exercise! And you can bet, if it's pajama day I'll be there in my flannel reindeer pajamas! 

Students at a Toronto school
My debut novel Dead Frog on the Porch (Gumboot Books 2009) is a mystery adventure that has been called “Nancy Drew for the ipod generation.” The second in the series Dead Bird through the Cat Door will be out later in the fall and can be descried as “Lady Macbeth meets Nancy Drew.”

While my books are funny and fast paced, they explore themes and issues in a way that is realistic for children (and non-didactic) such as the interconnectedness of humans and the environment, genetic engineering, anthropology, eco-systems, social responsibility, and I even throw in a little Shakespeare in the second book. My books incorporate classic lessons in a contemporary context. 

For schools and libraries outside of my hometown of Calgary, (but still in Alberta) visits can be booked through the Young Alberta Book Society (YABS). Every October YABS puts on a literary festival called TaleBlazers. YABS subsidizes author visits by paying for travel and accommodation. To participate, schools and libraries must be a member of YABS. 

The Young Alberta Book Society is a registered charity that has been in operation for over 25 years. The mission is to foster literacy and a love of reading among young people in Alberta by providing access to Alberta's literary artists and their works.

You can check out my author profile on the YABS site where there are details about my presentations.

Check out my website for more information about me and my books. Blog posts about previous school visits can be found under the label: school visits. Interested teachers and librarians can contact me through the email on my website. 

Thanks bloggowers! You rock something awesome! 

A cat harnessing her higher intelligence 

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Sharpened pencils and quirky bios

With fall in the air and everyone headed back to school I thought it was time to sharpen my pencil and hammer out a rewrite of my bio.

When you’re a published author you get asked for your bio a lot and everyone wants something different (short bio, long bio, just right bio). I have my official bio that I use on my website, book, other sites where I have profiles posted, for classes I teach and when I present at events. I decided to write a quirkier bio for my blog.  

It goes something like this:

Jan writes, reads and blogs – and not necessarily in that order. Jan can spot a clich√© at ten paces but never met a comma she didn’t splice. Her literary aspirations lay somewhere between being a one hit wonder to taking over the world one manuscript at a time. Jan has a profound, and somewhat disturbing, addiction to sour ju jubes. She has a puzzling fondness for going for sushi given that she appears to dislike raw fish. Jan worships the sasquatch as a superhero for writers for his ability to eschew human contact and spend long hours in his writing cave. She loves lentil soup more than lentil soup loves itself.  When not picking cat hair off her sweater, Jan can be found in her sasquatch writing cave with a mug of chai tea writing her next work in progress.  

What do you think? Not quirky enough? What’s your quirky version of your bio (or what will it be when you’re published).

Check out this brilliant art – these are really pencils sculpted into amazing images and shapes - gives a whole new meaning to the word rewrite!

 Oh, yeah, and if you see Elvis - tell him he still owes me five bucks!