In this roundup of Canadian children’s publishing news: an author who escaped the Iron Curtain writes a picture book about her journey; a debut author brings to life the 1976 Soweto uprising in a YA novel; bestselling author Ashley Spires publishes a follow-up to The Most Magnificent Thing; and an adult author writes her first kids’ book, about a mountain goat living in New York City.
From the Iron Curtain to Trump’s Border Wall
Author-illustrator Veronika Martenova Charles’s new picture book is about a wall dividing two nations—not a physical wall, but the Iron Curtain, which once divided Europe in two. The Land Beyond the Wall, which comes out in May from Halifax’s Nimbus Publishing, is based on Charles’s own experience growing up behind the Iron Curtain in the Soviet-controlled Eastern Bloc in Prague, her desire to be an artist, and her eventual escape to Canada.
Her desire to create and publish her book was triggered by a photo that spread across the Internet in September 2015, of a three-year-old Syrian refugee boy, Alan Kurdi, who drowned and washed up on a Turkish shore as his family was trying to make their way to Canada. The photo was a reminder of the urgency of the refugee crisis. And Charles’s story has grown more relevant with the current political situation and President Donald Trump’s controversial idea to build a wall between the U.S. and Mexico.
“The point of the book is that history repeats itself, and walls never work,” says Charles. “And history seems to be forgotten. You just can’t put a wall between people; it just doesn’t work.”
The book tells the story of a girl named Emma, whose parents are taken away by the police for eavesdropping on the other side of the wall, leaving her to live with her unsupportive aunt. When her aunt discovers that Emma is drawing pictures in the garden, she tells her, “Stop wasting your time and do something useful!”
The story becomes more like a fairy tale as Emma gets on a big sailboat that carries her away to a better land, but at the cost of losing her voice. In this new place, she can’t speak the language. But as time goes on, Emma picks up the new language and gets the chance to practice her artwork, growing up to become the artist she always dreamed of being.
“I knew what I wanted to get across for young children—what it feels like to be in a strange place when you lose the ability to talk, and nobody understands you,” Charles said. “A lot of immigration books for children are factual. I didn’t want to deal with historical facts. I just wanted to tell a story that would stick with them.”
Bringing a Decades-Old Student Uprising to Life for Today’s Teens
Arushi Raina is only 25 years old, but she has lived in seven countries, including India, where she was born; South Africa, where she largely grew up; and her home for the past couple of years, on the west coast of Canada (though she plans to move east to Ontario shortly). And though she works by day in management consulting, last year Raina published her first book—a YA novel called When Morning Comes, published by Tradewind Books last summer in Canada, and released this February in the U.S.
The novel is based on the 1976 Soweto uprising, a student-led protest in South Africa against inadequate education, which ended in brutal police violence and the deaths of hundreds of students. Raina learned about the uprising during her high school years in Johannesburg, and chose to dig deeper into the event and write about it for her thesis at Vassar College.
“What’s really exciting about this historical event is that it was student-led,” says Raina. “Students designed this amazing phenomenon of 20,000 students [coming together] across the school on the same day, to follow each other in a line. They didn’t have phones and they didn’t have social media. There’s a lot of power in youth.”
When Morning Comes depicts events from the perspectives of four individuals: Zanele, a black female student organizer plotting against the apartheid government; Meena, a South Asian girl; Jack, an Oxford-bound white teen; and Thabo, a black gang member. As research for this book, Raina combed through first-hand accounts from survivors and student leaders, as well as photographs of the uprising, to understand how to bring the story to life.
“I want an emotional response,” she says. “That’s the power of art vs. pure historical facts. I want people to be moved. If you look at black youth[s’] encounters with authority or police, those [tensions] have not been eradicated from our society. The book isn’t written to moralize. I want people to think about where they stand on these issues and how they can respond.”
Ashley Spires’s Picture Book Teaches Kids to Try, Try Again
Author-illustrator Ashley Spires admits she wasn’t the most graceful as a child—and still isn’t. She shares that trait with the protagonist of her latest picture book, The Thing Lou Couldn’t Do (Kids Can Press), which comes out in May. Lou loves to go on imaginary adventures with her friends. But when her friends all climb up a tall tree to pretend it’s a pirate ship, Lou is too afraid to join them, and comes up with all kinds of excuses.
You might think the story would end with Lou giving it her all and making it to the top of the tree with her friends, but it doesn’t. Instead, Lou pulls herself up a couple of feet, and then falls back down again. She swears, however, that she will try again the following day.
“I thought it was super important that she didn’t succeed because I think it’s so easy for kids, and for people in general, to have that instant gratification,” says Spires, who lives in Ladner, British Columbia. “We’re all used to that story of the girl who doesn’t want to try, and then she does, and it’s OK, she does it! Well, that’s not real life! [The reality] is that you’re scared to try, and when you finally do, it often doesn’t work out. And I needed to show that.”
This is Spires’s first picture book with Kids Can since her bestselling 2014 title The Most Magnificent Thing, which has sold more than 250,000 copies, won multiple awards, and been translated into nine languages. She says she found it “terrifying” to follow up that success, but that the added scrutiny ultimately made The Thing Lou Couldn’t Do a stronger book.
The success of The Most Magnificent Thing continues to grow, as Canadian production company Nelvana (owned by parent company Corus Entertainment, which also owns Kids Can) announced in February that the book will be adapted into an animated short.
“I grew up wanting to be an animator—I was a little kid dreaming of working for Disney,” Spires says. “So I can’t believe that my characters are actually going to be animated and I cannot wait to see the first character sketches. I have nothing but the deepest respect for what everybody does [at Nelvana], and I have a lot of faith in what they’re going to do with it.”
A Kid from Toronto Meets a Goat in New York City
B.C.-based author Anne Fleming was visiting New York City for a conference several years ago when she decided that she would send her young son a part of a story every day that she was away. She spent the first day looking at the city’s old apartment buildings, and she thought to herself: “Some of those ledges are so wide, a goat could live on them.” And so begins her first children’s book, a humorous middle-grade novel out this month from Groundwood called The Goat.
The Goat tells the story of a kid named Kid (goat pun intended), who is from Toronto but has temporarily moved with her parents into an apartment building in New York City to look after her cousin’s dog. Kid tries to investigate a rumor that a mountain goat lives on the roof of the building, and along the way she meets some interesting neighbors, of all ages.
Another character in the book is a boy named Will who lost his parents in the 9/11 terrorist attacks 10 years earlier. Fleming says that it just made sense, in a New York-based story, that Kid might meet a child who was orphaned by the 2001 tragedy. It’s also a way of giving young readers a little bit of context about the magnitude of that event.
“I realized at a certain point that [my own son] had heard about 9/11, but he didn’t really know what it was,” says Fleming. “And I thought—when do you tell a kid that? I wanted to be able to tell my kid about the Twin Towers, about what happened, in a way that wouldn’t traumatize him, but would bring home the reality of it.”
The book changes perspectives from one chapter to the next, showing things from the points of view of Kid, her neighbors, and even the goat. Though this is Fleming’s first children’s book, who has written several short story collections and novels for adults, she says she didn’t alter her writing style that much for The Goat.
“Even if I didn’t have a kid of my own, I would have been drawn to writing children’s books, because I think they’re so good,” says Fleming. “As a child I loved them, and I didn’t stop loving them and reading them when I grew up. I find so much value in them.”