books · Canadian books · reading

The Great White North: The Importance of Reading your Country’s Authors.

My country recently celebrated 150 years.  Canada Day celebrated on July 1st each year offers Canadians a chance to celebrate their heritage, our flag, our uniqueness and each other, often with the help of a 2-4 (case of beer for you non-Canadians out there).  Like any country that celebrates a birthday we Canadians pulled out all the stops for this big birthday bash.  I happened to be celebrating with my family at our trailer in Ontario.  There was a big fireworks show at dusk; a bike race where the kids and adults could show off their pride with red and white decorations and flags.  Most people were also dressed up in red and white for the day and weekend.  If you were fortunate to be in our nation’s capitol for the festivities (Ottawa) like my cousin was, Canadians were in for one heck of a fireworks show!

Aside from National Pride, Canadians have much to celebrate when it comes to acknowledging our amazing writing talent both past and present.  As a young child I fell in love with Anne of Green Gables by beloved Canadian author L.M. Montgomery.  Anne had red hair like me and she spelled her name with an “e” just like my middle name. Although I was not an orphan, I sometimes believed I was after the horrid tales my sister would tell me about how I fell off a turnip truck or came from outer space.  Anne is a character that any child could relate to.  She got in trouble for silly things, had a crush, turned beet-red after being embarrassed, and had challenges growing up.  I remember a highlight in my twenties was finally going to P.E.I. to Green Gables!  Oh how I loved the idyllic setting and seeing Anne’s house up close along with learning so much about L.M. Montgomery.  Montgomery created other characters aside from Anne Shirley but she will be forever one of my favourite childhood heroines.

In university I was introduced to one of my all-time favourite Canadian authors Alice Munro.   Lives of Girls and Women was part of the syllabus in first year English at the University of Western – Brescia College in London, Ontario.  What an incredible pick from my professor!  This book was love at first read and I went on to read everything Munro has published since.  Munro has a very unique writing voice.  Her characters and plot lines are very relatable yet also uniquely Canadian.  She uses real towns as the backdrop for many of her stories and her incredible use of observation skills adds a richness to her stories.

Like Munro, Carol Shields is also a favourite Canadian author.  As a teen, I first found her through her novel The Stone Diaries.  Shield writes in the raw.  Her stories unfold through the eyes of characters who are faced with sometimes terrible circumstances and tragedy as is the case in her novel Unless.  Shields created characters who are vulnerable when they need to be but also funny and sweet.  She is also the author of short stories which happens to be one of my favourite genres.  I have always liked her writing as she created very memorable stories and characters.

Recently I have consciously tried to read novels and works from Canadian authors when I can.  Elizabeth Hay is a newer favourite as is Stuart McLean, Farley Mowat, Richard Wagamese, Tracey Lindberg and Heather O’Neill.  These authors all write in a very different voices with different stories to tell yet each time I finish one or all of their published books, I leave with something new to think about.  It might be a new perspective on a social issue, a story that has been lost, or just the pure enjoyment of reading.

Most recently I finished The Break by Canadian author Katherena Vermette.  I first came across Vermette’s writing on the shelves of my local library.  Her short story collection North End Love Songs beckoned to me.  As a fan of short stories I was not disappointed. Her stories reminded me of my hometown and the people in it although it takes place in Winnipeg’s North End.  Contrary to the title, these stories were not all sunshine and roses but gritty tales that could be ugly at times.  When I saw that she had published a novel, I had to buy it. I really liked it and I had a hard time putting it down. I did have a difficulty connecting to her one character Stella and her inability to react.   The subject could not have been easy to write about but Vermette told a captivating story by creating different narrative voices to reveal each part of the story.  She will be a writer I will continue to seek out and read. 

There is a great benefit in reading the authors that come from your own country.  In this blog post I have only captured a minute snapshot of those Canadians I admire.  Whether you find a writer who tells real tales or fictitious ones, it is worth reading those voices.  It is a great way to “see” and experience the country from varying perspectives.

book club · books · reading

Why I Love My Book Club

My book club is a place where I can seek refuge from the world for an hour once a month to have active and insightful conversations with the women who are part of it.  I like to think that the book club that I belong to is unique as our membership ranges in age from 40 to most recently, 94.  I love these women and what they bring to the club.

This past Saturday I attended the funeral of our leader Dorothy Johns.  She very recently bequeathed the title of leader to me as she became sicker with those things that plague a 94 year old person including poorer eyesight.  I was so humbled by this appointment and took it (and continue to take it) very seriously.  Dorothy was a force to be reckoned with. She was one of the kindest and compassionate people I had the privilege of knowing even if it was for a short time.

One thing we had in common was our passion for reading. Dorothy was a person who took the time to research the books we would be reading through our Hamilton Public Library spending hours researching the reviews of books and the author biographies. She often tried to incorporate best-sellers with Canadian authors into our list for the year.  This gave all of us the opportunity to read books we may have otherwise passed on while browsing the book shelves.

Being part of the this book club means a lot to me, as not only an avid reader, but a person who values the insight of the women who are part of it. Each woman brings a different perspective to the books we read including such first-hand accounts of living through the First World War.  Other women of the group have been incredibly candid discussing stillbirths and miscarriages as we read Call the Midwife.  For the one woman who shared her sorrow with us about her stillborn baby, it was the first time she had ever talked about her child openly.  There were a few tears shed that meeting.

Further the women in the group have worked in various professions including nursing, education and law.  They have lived through not only different decades but different centuries sharing what it was like to live through (and survive) The Great Depression in various parts of Canada and abroad in the 1930s.  They have lived to see segregation and Residential Schools be the norm of a society in the 1960s and beyond.  After reading Indian Horse by Richard Wagamese, it sparked an intense and lively conversation around Residential Schools in Canada and how finally, Canadians are speaking about this horrific event in our storied history. One of our members who is incredibly passionate about social justice issues spoke so passionately about the issue and what she remembers seeing and hearing as a child.  I was so moved by her thirst for justice.

Book Club has also been a great place to laugh out loud as we discussed some ridiculous characters from novels recently read or the antics of some of the memoirists  (Farley Mowat in Otherwise).  Book Club is a place where there are no walls.  We laugh freely, can debate fiercely and most of all, share our love of reading.

I hope I can make Dorothy proud by following her example.  I have some big shoes to fill.

comics · reading · Snoopy

Hello Snoopy! Why Peanuts continues to be one of my favourite comic strips

For as long as I can remember I have loved my stuffed Snoopy well before I knew who Snoopy was and where this amazing dog came from.  I became an avid reader of the “funny papers” due to my grandfather’s unknowing influence.  He used to say to us grandchildren after we were ready to leave from a visit, “see you in the funny papers.” As a little girl I didn’t really get it until someone pointed out that my grandpa was saying goodbye each time and that the funny papers referred to the comics section in our local newspaper.  Ever the literalist, I started to read them.  Much went over my young head until I discovered Charles Schultz’s iconic Peanuts strip.

What I love about Peanuts is that everything was observed from a child’s point of view. Snoopy was this heroic dog that could be and do anything.  Charlie Brown was a character that generated much sympathy and Lucy was that bossy older sister.  Children and adults can relate to the every day ups and downs of the Peanuts gang, often seeing themselves in the characters that Schultz created.  As Schultz stated, “If you read the strip, you would know me. Everything I am goes into the strip…” (schultzmuseum.org)  Schultz was a dedicated artist who created great stories through his strip.  Another thing I love about Peanuts is the innocence of the writing but there are also take away lessons and it is funny.

By far, Snoopy is my favourite character from the Peanuts gang.  Snoopy could imagine going anywhere and being anything from the Red Baron to a detective to even Santa Claus.  He is loyal to Charlie Brown and observes the children around him through silent thoughts and musings only really sharing with his side-kick Woodstock.  As a child I could relate to Snoopy in a number of ways.  I wanted to go different places and experience the world.  I wanted to grow up to be a detective, a ballerina, a journalist, a doctor and so on.  My imagination was in rapid fire mode as a child.  That being said, I could also see myself in Linus, Peppermint Patty, Marcie, and even Charlie Brown.  This social circle of friends experienced many of the same events that I did as a child including similar emotions and obstacles.

As an adult I came to understand and appreciate Schultz’s genius even more when I realized that as he was writing the strip he could comment on world events in the 1950s right through to the end of original publication in January 2000.  His commentary was never malicious or said with ill-intention as he wanted his readers to laugh yet appreciate what he was trying to say during some tumultuous times in society. One could argue that Schultz was ahead of his time by including comic strips that tackled integration in schools, co-ed baseball teams (including dogs), and comments on technology like the Space Race between the Americans and Russians.

Peanuts has stayed with me long after the last strip was written.  My son enjoys Peanuts too laughing along at the mishaps of the gang and the observations and antics of Snoopy often resulting in discussions about the characters at bedtime.  I appreciate that Schultz opened a world of comics to me later encouraging me to look beyond books and explore traditional comic books and graphic novels.  This is why Peanuts continues to be my favourite comic strip of all time.  See you in the funny papers!

kids · reading · Robert Munsch · storytelling

Tell Me A Story – when the art of storytelling promotes reading

Robert Munsch is one of Canada’s best known storytellers.  I had the opportunity to see him live at Hamilton Place when my son was young; too young to appreciate the sheer genius of this person.  As my son grew older his admiration of Munsch grew and he looked forward to snatching his stories off the shelf at our local library.

So much of what Munsch says in a story is how he says it and that resonates with both children and their parents.  He is loud, he is ridiculous and most of all, he is honest in his books.  Children can relate to the characters and the situations that each of Munsch’s protagonist finds his or herself in.  For example in Mortimer this young boy promises to go to sleep but chaos ensues with his love of noise or as some might see it, his singing voice.  Given the right amount of enthusiasm, this can be a hilarious selection for bedtime.  My son loved that song and laughed each time I sang it to him in my loudest singing voice.  Further Munsch’s story Makeup Mess is so absurd that the listener cannot help but laugh at Julie who is just trying to find the right way to express herself.  The story is very clever in the sense that it teaches indirectly about financial literacy or saving your pennies and the importance of believing in and loving oneself.    

If I tell those Munsch stories and others like them in a dramatic, enthusiastic way, I am encouraging my children to read.  They want another story or for me to tell it again!  If you have ever had the chance to visit a really good children’s section of your local public library or observe a JK – Grade 3 class in action during story time it can be captivating seeing all those little bums move closer and closer to the reader, eyes wide and giggling as the story unfolds.  This is a skill that these librarians and teachers have.  They are natural and the flow of the story keeps those children listening.

“Storytelling is the social and cultural activity of sharing stories, often with improvisation, theatrics, or embellishment. Stories or narratives have been shared in every culture as a means of entertainment, education, cultural preservation and instilling moral values” (Wikipedia, 2017).  When one examines our different cultures there is almost always some sort of history of oral storytelling that reveals who and where we came from. When I was teaching the older grades, we would study the ballad.  This form of writing was genius for its time period.  We studied The Highway Man by Alfred Noyes, The Wasteland by T. S. Eliot and another by Eliot, The Love Son of J. Alfred Prufrock.  These poems, spoken with dramatic flair and feeling made each protagonist come alive.  This was always one of my favourite sections to study as both teacher and student.  The stories would provoke questions and invitations to study that particular writer further thereby promoting more reading.

As both a parent, a teacher and former teacher-librarian, I have the highest regard for master storytellers like Robert Munsch who can captivate a reader with the greatest of ease.  It is a difficult skill to possess and not everyone is a natural storyteller like Munsch. But don’t be discouraged.  Read to your children in your silliest voice, loudest or quietest tone and with your best facial expressions.  Your children will be delighted!

books · death · library · NYC · reading

Some have Disney World. I have The Library Hotel.

Customs officer:  “Anything to declare Miss?”  Me:  “Just books.  Mountains and mountains of books.”

“Book lovers never go to bed alone…” is the tag line for the amazing Library Hotel.  I had the thrill of visiting their NYC location in March.  I wanted to do something spectacular and memorable for my milestone birthday.  And what better way to celebrate (for me!) than to visit this beautiful boutique hotel in Midtown Manhattan.  From the planning stages to the booking stage, I was pumped.  This small hotel boasted rooms organized by the Dewey Decimal system along with many other perks like a 24/7 Reading Room and fresh continental breakfasts served each morning.  The staff was delightful and so helpful as my husband and I organized our few days away.  We wanted to make the most of NYC while we were there.

Although both of us had previously visited NYC, it had been a while.  The hotel was thoughtful providing weather forecasts each evening for the next day, turn-down service and little touches like a card for my birthday with truffles.  Another perk of the hotel was the offer of FREE BOOKS in the lobby while we were guests there.  Although the copies were advanced editions, it was a unique perk of the hotel.

We were close to many places and favoured to walk as the weather had yet to turn to the nasty snow storm.  As we explored the city we found little book shops tucked away, the New York Public Library, The Strand Bookstore and Grand Central Station.  The streets were clean and the people friendly as I had remembered.  It wasn’t Las Vegas or any other spectacular holiday destination like Disney World but as a book lover, it was incredible!

We stayed in the Communication Room which housed its own library of books to read.  In my feature photo for this post, many of those books are photographed.  The rooms are small but cosy and we would read in our room or move into the Reading Room just to relax and unwind after a day exploring this iconic city.

Now let’s get to the books!  At the time of our trip I was reading Opening Heaven’s Door: What the Dying May Be Trying to Tell Us About Where They’re Going by Patricia Pearson. Certainly a heavy subject on a birthday holiday but it happened to be my book club’s pick for the month.  I found snippets of time to squeeze in chapters here and there.  I did like the book as it was well researched while connecting it to the author’s own personal experiences with death.  I certainly feel more educated about near-death-experiences (NDE) and how both secular and religious people can open their minds to experience what happens after we die.  From a personal perspective I witnessed much of what the author was exploring as my own father faced his final days in hospice three years ago.  The book offered me some comfort as I looked back on that sorrowful time yet I imagine this book is not for everyone as some of the nonagenarians in my book club opted; understandably; not to read the book.

As we prepared to leave my idea of paradise on a snowy March morning, I left without regret.  The Hotel Library was one of the most inviting hotels I have ever stayed in.  For all you book lovers like me, it is a must-see.  I look forward to visiting again or exploring one of their other locations around the globe.

books · genre · reading · science fiction · what if

A Step Out of my Comfort Zone – My Discovery of Science Fiction

It started in grade 9 English when I read The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury.  What should have been an epic entry into the world of Science Fiction turned sour very fast.  The book was confusing and choppy and at the time, my English teacher was having some issues or at least we think she was.  Perhaps if I had some better guidance I would have embraced Bradbury and his attempt to write in the short story genre (more on short stories in a later blog post).

Fast forward a few decades and I have learned to like and even enjoy the genre.  Why wouldn’t I as a self-professed lover of Star Trek, Star Wars and Firefly?  As I delved deeper into the genre at the behest of my husband, I learned to appreciate the genre for its unique qualities.  As Joyce Saricks says, “Even the biggest science nerd in the world appreciates a good story, and the SF novels that tell good stories are the ones we need to know to share, especially with readers who might not consider themselves fans of the genre.”  And she should know as the Queen of genre writing.

My first real attempt at enjoying the genre came as I read The Unit by Swedish author Ninni Holmqvist.  I was skeptical but intrigued.  As I read further into the book I started to see the appeal of this multi-faceted genre.  My conscience was rattled.  My ethical radar shot up as the story unfolded.  I started to think that this could happen to us!  After reading the novel I thought about it for days.  That is one thing I really appreciate about the SF genre is the WHAT IF? questions that stew in your brain long after the book is closed.

From that time I have read other SF books including most recently A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle which I would have loved as a 10-13 year child.  The genre is valuable for so many reasons and I often found that my students would gravitate to this genre reading such titles as:  1984, Ender’s Game, Frankenstein, Dune, I Robot, and The War of the Worlds.  

As for Mr. Bradbury, I rediscovered his writing through the highly original Fahrenheit 451 which offered me a good look into the dangers of censorship and defiance.  Book burning!  Oh the horror!!  I’m not done with this genre yet.

books · kids · literacy · reading

Good Night Moon

Bedtime reading with my children is non negotiable even when I am exhausted.  From the womb I was reading to my bio-baby and we have loved stories ever since.  So many parents can underestimate the importance of reading early and often to their children.

From the parent lens, I know the importance of reading to my children each day.  We talk about the stories and sometimes make up stories along the way and the results have been amazing!  We love to go to the library and bookstore and seek out new reads and old favourites.

Recently we read The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane by the talented Kate DiCamillo.  The story was so beautifully illustrated by the Bagram Ibatoulline and we were utterly captivated by the story and the journey that Edward the China Rabbit made.  Aside from the wonderful story, it was a time for us to bond after the busyness of school and activities.  There were many questions about Edward and the different characters who found him every few chapters.  It took us many nights to get through the story but that time with my son was gold.  Next we hope to tackle The Little Prince by author Antoine de Saint-Exupéry.

Tonight I had the pleasure of reading to my foster son a silly book with nursery rhymes. As I sang Three Little Monkeys and the other rhymes in the book, he started to participate and be silly with me.  This amazing child cannot get enough of books and is so wanting to read.  He will get there – that I have no doubt.  Yet because I do not know if he was exposed to reading in his first four years, I worry needlessly.  This beautiful child cannot get enough of the books that fill the shelves in our home and we are incredibly fortunate to have a supportive SK teacher who encourages his reading and writing.

So as a final thought about bedtime reading, I encourage all parents to take that time to read to their children and have them read to you when they are ready.  It will amaze you!