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Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Christmas came for me in November this year, when Magnifico won the 2008 F.G. Bressani prize in the novel category. I was thrilled to be able to attend the awards ceremony at the Italian Cultural Centre (can you see it in my face?). A few days later, I gave an email interview to Anna Foschi, founder of the prize. Here's what she asked, and my replies:

What was your first reaction when you learned that you had won the 2008 Bressani prize for the novel category? I am tremendously glad that there is such a prize that connects heritage with literature.

For me, the Bressani award is an affirmation of time well spent. It makes me feel that the year I lived every extra moment working on the story was worthwhile. Once a book is published, it goes beyond the author and all that matters is whether it captures the reader’s heart and interest. A prize says this must have happened with the jurors, and they have discovered a book they would like others to know about.

There is something else, Magnifico is a children’s book. It’s meant for children ages 9 – 12. The acknowledgement from the Bressani jurors makes a powerful and affirming statement about the importance of children’s literature, and historical fiction for children.

For this I am enormously grateful. “Mille grazie!” (Did I spell that right?)

Can you tell us a little about Magnifico the winning novel? What was your inspiration for it? The inspiration began with my mother, Joan. Raised in the 1930s and 40s in the Victoria community of James Bay, “Joanie” was given an accordion because her parents couldn’t afford a piano “and every well-brought up child should play an instrument.” She was not happy about it, though she learned to play it very well in time. Mum had no Italian in her though, that comes from my father’s side. And by that stage in my life, I so very much wanted to explore what it was like to be Italian Canadian in the late 1930s. Living in Vancouver, the natural neighborhood to parallel James Bay was Strathcona. And from friends there, I was introduced to people who remembered growing up Italian Canadian in Strathcona at that time, the visit of the King and Queen, all the pageantry and drama of those days in our history that so captivate children. I wanted to record some of what I learned, but through the flexible lens of fiction.

I feel fortunate to have had the influences of Italian friends and family in my life, particularly growing up. Even though I’m only “1/4” it runs strong, it is very visible in my face, my hair, my eyebrows… from the time I was very young, I knew I always looked Italian. That was a root of some “otherness” to me, growing up in Victoria in the 1970s, but I didn’t think that deeply on what is below the surface until many years later. When I got married, I gave up my Italian last name. That was a loss I didn’t contemplate at the time. And I don’t speak the language, which is so central to the culture. And so the only way I had to reach out and discover more about my heritage was by pursuing a story in this way.

Yours was a family of Italian pioneers on your....side. How did this heritage influence your writing?
It was my grandfather, Marino Candido, my father’s father, who came from Italy at the turn of the last century. My brother, my sister and I – we adored him! He died when I was about seven, I think, and I still remember how brokenhearted we all were. As I’ve gotten older, I’m 42 now, I’ve wished so often that my grandparents were still near. Asking my father for his memories was one way to reach back to another era and bring Grandpa near. Writing gives you a reason, and legitimacy, to ask questions that might be sensitive. Or have conversations about small details in daily life that most of us don’t think about as being extraordinary. This is the great pleasure in doing historical fiction. Time passes and the extraordinary is revealed in the backward glance. The writing is the work. A book is a huge commitment and undertaking. I had to be sure that I had a subject that fully captivated my heart to sustain the work.

What are your future literary projects?
My children are young, and I have two now, I only had my one daughter, Emily, when I was writing Magnifico. So after my day job, I find I am very tied to house and home in the evenings and on weekends. I had to find stories that would not take me away from the family for research, stories I could think through and write at home without reaching out so much. I have this year done a re-telling of an Italian folktale, I am very proud of it, but I’m not sure where it belongs. And by Christmas, I hope to finish a young reader novel (for readers ages 9 – 11) about two sisters, one is very creative and artistic, the other, is a pre-schooler and lots of trouble. It’s just meant to be funny and to help kids find the humour in sibling dynamics.

Do you have any words of encouragement for aspiring writers or new writers?
Use your words for good.

Listen to the people who believe in you, but also listen to those who want to make your work better. Behind every good book is a good editor. At some point, you may be asked to make small sacrifices in a story, or changes you did not expect. If the integrity of the story is not compromised, it can be good to make these changes. Writing is work, it’s never done in a single draft. I always feel like I’m done with the first draft, but I am amazed, when I’m asked to develop something further, that I have more inside.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

By now you know what a bad blogger I am, that it has to be a really BIG deal to get me to update my blog. Anyone who's done a Barbie cake for the first time knows what I'm talking about. You can't wait for the party to be over so you can throw a picture up on the web, even if your blog is about books, you will do anything to diverge from the subject and show your Barbie cake to the world. There are dozens of websites chronicling the trials and tribulations of doing a Barbie cake. This is just my proof that if I can do it, you can to! All it takes is about $60 of upfront supplies (you could do it for less, but if you are like me and have fear of failure, you will buy more supplies than you need) a night to bake and then the next night to decorate. Give not up if the first hour of decorating leads to a steady strain of self recriminations of the "why did I decide to do this" and mental comparisons to the much better cakes your mother made for you. Persevere! It's a wonderful way to celebrate a four-year-old's birthday. To get full value out of the mold though, husband and other daughter can expect the same cake on their birthdays for at least the next twenty years.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Remember the feeling you had in school waiting for the cast list to come out, in the hopes you were on it? Or the posting of the honour roll? Making the first string of the basketball team? (I imagine this feels the same, but definitely can't say from experience). Well, when the 2008/09 Red Cedars were announced, that's how I felt. I've wistfully studied the annual Red Cedar poster for years now, hoping that Magnifico would share in the limelight one day. And it has!! I'm thrilled! Of course, the wonderful but dreaded "Cheese Pirates" have made an appearance as well. "Hamish X" won the Manitoba Young Readers Book Award, a well-deserved triumph, which nonetheless gave me my first experience with Magnifico in the truth that it's enough to be nominated. Same feeling with the outcome of the Chocolate Lily awards and Rocky Mountain Book Awards. Still, it's been a great ride for Magnifico, peaking with this year's Red Cedars--the fourth list of children's choice awards on which its appeared. It's great to be on the list with real imaginary Cheese Pirates and the other assorted characters created by this year's finalists. As a girl lugging her accordion through the streets of James Bay in Victoria, my Mum probably never dreamed that one day her story would be the inspiration for a book. She just wanted to make it to her lesson without getting hit by a rock.

I would go on, but the kids have discovered the hiding place of this year's Halloween candy and are making no attempts to hide the sounds of wrestling with packaging.

Thanks Red Cedar people! Thank you for what you do to get your recommended books in the hands of readers.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Left to right, this year's Henry Bergh award-winning authors: Barbara Cole; Mary Alice Monroe; Helen Wilbur; Beth Finke; Maribeth Bolts; Sue Ann Alderson; Me; Joanne Ryder and a very talented book designer of "Ape" whose name slips my mind (very sorry!).

I was so impressed by these authors. Beth Finke is not only beautifully dressed in this picture, but had us all in stitches with her straight-up sense of humour about life with a seeing-eye dog. It was lovely to see Sue Ann Alderson, also from Vancouver and a talented author on Tradewind Books list. Vancouver has a very close community of children's book writers but I haven't seen Sue Ann in a few years, so it was especially nice to be reunited with awards in our hands. Mary Alice Monroe is the talented novelist of some beautiful books, including "Time is a River" which I borrowed from the North Vancouver Public Library and thoroughly enjoyed. Thanks to Joanne Ryder for reminding us all of the importance of frog appreciation in childhood"; Barbara Cole presented the true story of "Anna and Natalie" with a warm Southern Charm; author Helen Wilbur accepted the illustration award on behalf of artist Robert Papp for for "M is for Meow" and Maribeth Boelts' reading had us all nodding our heads.

Yup, that's Joe Pentangelo, star of "Animal Precinct" on Animal Planet. My nine year old was so impressed that I got to shake his hand at the ASPCA Awards Ceremony in June! Me too!

One of the events the ASPCA treated authors of this year's Henry Bergh books was a chance to visit and read at the Southeast Area Animal Control Authority (SEAACA), a local Anaheim animal shelter, on June 29th. So if I look a little flushed in this picture, well, it was warm and I was unlucky enough to have come down with stomach flu the day before.

Proceeds from the sale of the books that day were donated to SEAACA and benefit homeless animals in the area. It's an absolutely lovely shelter and every inch is immaculate, what a great refuge the staff provide for those animals. We learned later that they have a very high adoption rate, no surprise in such a welcoming place. The real surprise of the day was "Henry", a little black dog on the loose on the streets of Anaheim. He was running in such a confused and startled way we could tell he hadn't just raced ahead of his owner, he was definitely on his own, skittish and scared. We spotted him when we were just a few blocks away from the shelter. Kristen from the ASPCA headquarters in New York pulled her mini-van over and we all watched as she leaped out of the car, knelt down and opened her arms. "Henry" leapt right in. We all had tears in our eyes. Our convoy started up again and a couple of minutes later, Kristen delivered authors plus dog to SEAACA. Of course this story has an even happier ending, Henry was adopted a few days later.

Saturday, September 06, 2008

A big thank you to the Canadian Children's Book Centre for including Old Mother Bear on their list of Best Books for Kids and Teens 2008. Molly and I very much appreciate the affirmation!

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Years ago, when "Sea Otter Pup' received an "Our Choice" seal from the Canadian Children's Book Centre, a little boy at a school reading pointed to it--I think he was too young to read--and said, "that means it's GOOD!"


Old Mother Bear now has her own seal of approval, the 2007 Henry Bergh Award from the ASPCA for the category of fiction, ecology & environment. The ASPCA's definition of "GOOD", in Henry Bergh terms, is "to honor books that promote the humane ethic of compassion and respect for all living things."

In doing a little "who was Henry Bergh?" research, I came upon this quote attributed to him "Mercy to animals means mercy to mankind." It is one more way we find our humanity, when we extend kindness beyond our own species. I'm so glad "Old Mother Bear" is seen to have done this. So glad.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

I'm so excited to be going to the ALA. The ASPCA has invited me, along with all the other winners of a 2007 Henry Bergh Children's Book Awards for Excellence in Humane Literature. I'll be there representing "Old Mother Bear". Anyway, I went to the ALA's website to see who's speaking at the conference and found this cute little graphic in the process. I also found out Dianne Carroll will be the closing speaker. Too bad I'll be on a plane home when she steps up to the podium. I would have loved to have heard her, I had a "Julia" doll when I was about 7, the best Barbie ever!

Monday, June 16, 2008

"Seeds of anemone from far away"

That's one of the last lines in Old Mother Bear and I was reminded of it recently, on a visit to Leeds Castle in England. Behind me in this picture is an anemone meadow. I recognized it instantly from my imagination. Husband did as well, and patiently worked around the tourists to create my new author photo.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

This is probably the cyber-equivalent to scrawling my phone number on the wall of a public washroom stall, but here goes...

Rumours are swirling out there that there's film interest in Magnifico! I always thought it should be a movie and it sounds like there's at least one producer out there who agrees. I hope they call soon to talk to me, or my agent at Curtis Brown. We are keen!

An Italian-Canadian family story, a plucky 11 year old, a handsome accordion teacher, a "royal" time in history, a dramatic underground survivor story and a tale of two countries--leaving Italy and coming to Canada -- with a superstar musical instrument at the heart of it all, well, sounds like a movie to me!

I hope we get this sorted out soon so I can uncross my fingers!

Friday, February 22, 2008