Teachers, librarians, parents and kids fill the atrium. I am there, too. We are all waiting for the same thing. The big MYRCA reveal. What books have been selected for the 2020 Manitoba Young Readers Choice Award reading list?
MYRCA was established by the Manitoba School Library Association in 1990 to mark the International Year of Literacy. For the past 29 years, students across the province in grades 4 to 9 have been offered a slate of short-listed Canadian novels to read, discuss and assess. In early April, students who have read a minimum of 3 titles vote for their favourite. Votes are collected, tabulated, and when the dust settles a MYRCA winner and two Honor Book winners are announced.
As it stands now, MYRCA offers two lists of nominated titles: MYRCA Sundogs for grades 4-6. MYRCA Northern Reflections for grades 7-9. But back to McNally Robinsons. The moment. The big reveal. The Sundogs first. Lucky me, Coop the Great is a nominated title. I’ve known for a while, but I’ve been sworn to secrecy. It’s a relief to have it public now.
There are 10 books on the Sundogs shortlist and another 10 on the Northern Reflections list. Congratulations to all the nominees. I’m thrilled to be in such great company. Even more thrilled that kids across the province will be reading about Coop.
It was an exciting evening for all who attended. The teachers, librarians and devoted others who head the MYRCA program made it special. Thanks to all who attended or contributed time and resources to launch another MYRCA year. Let the reading begin!
Along with other local writers, I was lucky enough to participate in a couple of writing festivals this week. It takes a lot of drive and initiative to organize school-wide events like this and in both cases, they ran without a hitch. At least, that was my limited perspective as one of the drop-in presenters.
The sessions offered were as varied as the writers and the genres they represented The festival at St. George ran almost a month, with authors of youth material visiting students from K to Grade 8. Daniel McIntyre’s The Write Stuff Conference ran over the course of a single busy day. From journalists, to scriptwriters, to film makers, to authors of non-fiction and fiction, The Write Stuff offered a buffet of writing approaches and talent for Grade 11 students who attended.
Hats off to Lisa Ferguson at St.George School and Benjamin Paul at Daniel McIntyre Collegiate, master teachers and organizers, who extended the invitations and ensured students were pumped and ready for us. Thanks everyone. I had a grand time.
Reading about the Secret Annex in Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl reminded of another secret hiding place I once visited and had written about in Life or Death: Surviving the Impossible. Like the Annex, this hiding place was well disguised and like the Annex, it harbored refugees targeted during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands in World War II.
Here is a recount of a post I wrote in 2015 after my visit to 19 Barteljorisstraat.
From the street, 19 Barteljorisstraat in the Haarlem district just outside of Amsterdam looks ordinary enough. A shop on the main floor, living quarters above, the same configuration as dozens of other buildings along the busy, cobbled street. Little outside hints of the story of courage inside, one that I read and wrote about, and that has lingered ever since.
On a recent trip to Amsterdam, I wrangled a day out a tight schedule and convinced my wife to accompany me on a group tour of the house. Along with twenty others, we waited at a dark green door in the alley way until our guide ushered us inside and up a flight of stairs into what was once a living room. After setting the scene for what we would see later, she guided us up a tight, winding staircase to a small room at the top of the house. Free of furnishings now, the room looked much like the exterior of the building. Ordinary. Hardly the stage for a courageous story. Yet that’s exactly what occurred in this plain looking space.
During World War II, when the Netherlands was occupied by Nazi Germany, forty-eight-year-old Corrie ten Boom, her sister Bessie and their father, Caspar, lived and worked at 19 Barteljorisstraat. They ran a watch shop on the main floor and lived above. Risking death, the ten Booms harboured Jews and other refugees, hiding them until safer quarters could be found. Keeping the operation secret from the Gestapo was difficult, and each day the threat of a raid grew stronger.
To hide their ‘guests’, the ten Booms and members of the Dutch resistance constructed a false wall in the room at the top of the stairs. Over a period of 6 days, ‘customers’ flowed in and out of the watch shop carrying cleverly disguised items – hammers, trowels, bricks or mortar — tucked inside briefcases, boxes or rolled-up newspapers. Working unnoticed, they constructed a brick wall across the rear of the bedroom to create a secret room — a hiding place for ‘guests’ should the Gestapo come calling.
To supply oxygen, workers rigged up a ventilation system. They made the new wall look as old as others in the house, and installed a bookcase on the left side of it. A sliding panel, 60 centimetres by 60 centimetres in the bottom of a storage cabinet became a hidden door. Because it was constructed out of brick, the wall absorbed sounds and hid the hollowness behind.
For a year and a half, the ten Booms harboured refugees and lived dangerous double lives while Nazi security tightened. Then in February 1944, the Gestapo showed up at the house. With just seconds to spare, six ‘guests’ squirreled into the hiding place, dropped the sliding panel, and stood shoulder to shoulder while soldiers searched the house. Convinced that Jews were present somewhere, a sentry was posted outside.
After 47 hours confined in the tight space, the ‘guests’ escaped, but Corrie and her family were not so fortunate. Arrested and interrogated, they were confined to prison cells and detainment centres in Holland and Germany. Bessie died and so did her father, but Corrie lived through the experience. After the war, she co-wrote The Hiding Place, a book about the secret room, and she toured the world spreading messages of forgiveness and renewal until her death in 1983 at the age of 91.
Today, the ten Boom watch shop on the ground floor is still operational, though different owners now run it. The upper floors are a museum, and the brick wall in the small room at the top has been opened so that visitors can see the tight space behind, and marvel, as I did, at the courage it took to defy the enemy patrolling the streets outside.
Recently, in preparation for a possible trip to Amsterdam in the Fall, I read Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl. I was hoping to learn more about the Nazi occupation of World War II, the Holocaust, and the Secret Annex – now a museum – where thirteen-year-old Anne Frank and seven others hid for many months before their capture on the morning of August 4, 1944.
Anne Frank called her diary Kitty and she began each entry with Dear Kitty, just as one might do when writing a very personal letter to a friend. And personal, the diary is. From June 12, 1942 to August 1, 1944, Anne wrote about joys and sorrows, friends and enemies, wartime victories and defeats, the onset of puberty, plight of the Jews, hopes and dreams, and the daily challenges of living in a tight space with 7 others. She wrote volumes about the conditions in the Secret Annex, sharing information about everything from the moldy potatoes that were a daily staple to the buckets that replaced the toilet she and the others were not allowed to use.
Whenever someone comes in from outside, with the wind in their clothes and the cold on their cheeks, I feel like burying my head under the blankets to keep from thinking, “When will we be allowed to breathe fresh air again?”
Friday, December 24, 1943
Did Anne expect millions of people would one day read her very private account? Not exactly. According to the Foreword, Anne hoped to publish a book based on her diary when the war ended. To that end, she began rewriting and editing her Version A diary, changing text, adding and deleting passages, to create a Version B diary. When Otto Frank, Anne’s father and the only survivor of the eight confined to the Secret Annex, decided to go public with it, he handpicked passages from both diaries to create a more sanitized Version C. He omitted details that he considered too personal or that might sully the reputations of Anne and the others.
Relationships here in the Annex are getting worse all the time. We don’t dare open our mouths at mealtime (except to slip in in a bite of food) because no matter what we say, someone is bound to resent it or take it the wrong way.
Thursday, September 16, 1943
Since its release in 1953, Version C of The Diary of a Young Girl has been read by millions. I read the most recent edition, however, which is a compilation of the three versions and the most complete and consequently, the most personal, too.
The tragedy of World War II became very real when I viewed it through this thirteen-year-old’s perspective. Anne Frank was a blatantly honest and gifted writer, and it is the world’s loss that she died in a concentration camp just before the war ended. She had a wicked sense of humour and despite the seriousness of the subject matter, I chuckled at her clever and often cynical descriptions. At the same time, I found myself hurrying through mundane passages and flinching when I reached others that just seemed too intimate to read. At those moments, I felt like an intruder, peeping into Anne’s personal life without her explicit permission.
I sometimes wonder if anyone will ever understand what I mean, if anyone will ever overlook my ingratitude and not worry about whether or not I’m Jewish and merely see me as a teenager badly in need of some good plain fun. I don\’ know, and I wouldn’t be able to talk about it with anyone, since I’m sure I’d start to cry.
Friday, December 24, 1943
On my fall trip to Amsterdam, I hope to visit The Anne Frank House. It will be my second attempt to see the interior of the Secret Annex where Anne and the others lived. On a previous trip, my wife and I failed to secure tickets in advance and could not enter. Having read The Diary of a Young Girl has made me even more curious and I will not make the same mistake again.
Tonight the guns have been banging away so much that I’ve already had to gather up my belongings four times. Today I packed a suitcase with all the stuff I’d need in case we had to flee, but as Mother correctly noted, “Where would you go?”
Saturday, May 1, 1943
Over the holiday period, my son and his family from Seattle stayed with us. It was relaxed visit and fortunately the weather was mild enough that we could enjoy winter activities. Because they live in a region where snow is a rarity, our six-year-old granddaughter, Raeghan, was thrilled. She made snow angels, skated at the Forks, tobogganed down hills, built a snowman, and tossed snowballs at her parents.
Long ago, when Rae was just beginning to speak, she started calling me Bumpa. I think she was aiming for ‘Grandpa’, but came out with Bumpa instead. The name stuck. Bumpa I became and Bumpa I still am to her. (Later, we discovered that Rae was on to something. My parents immigrated from Belgium and in Flemish, grandfather is Bompa so Rae’s ‘Bumpa’ is perfect!)
Rae is in grade 1. Her parents – both book lovers – have been reading to her since she was only a few months old, and they’ve passed on their love of books and stories to their daughter. Rae loves all kinds of books – fiction and non-fiction – and with each visit, I see remarkable changes in her reading abilities. She uses many strategies to decode words and has a never-give-up attitude that carries her through difficult passages.
On this visit, Rae wanted to write her own book. She started by telling the story of How the Unicorn Meets the Wolf to her dad. He created a storyboard with panels representing each page of the book. They folded paper to make a booklet, and Rae began to transpose the story she’d created, allowing room for illustrations that she would complete later.
Rae’s story had all the elements: a main character – Winter, the unicorn; a secondary character – the wolf; conflict, rising action, climax and resolution. There were touches of drama and adventure, and even humour.
When I showed her that we could create her book on the computer, Rae quickly shifted gears. Using Publisher, we shared the experience of typing out the words. It was slow going for Rae who hunted and pecked out the letters, but she giggled often and loved seeing her creation come to life. I showed her how to capitalize letters, add punctuation to sentences, insert quotations for dialogue, shift between lines and use other tools of the writing trade.
The whole process of putting words on the pages took several hours. Later Rae spent more time illustrating her story. The end result was a book she could call her own, and a satisfying experience for the 3 generations of contributors to the project – Rae, Dad and Bumpa.
Looking over photos from 2018 made me realize how many special moments I enjoyed as a writer throughout the year. In no particular order here are eight Golden Writing Moments of 2018:
Golden Writing Moment #1 – In May, I spent two days as a volunteer driver during Canadian Children’s Book Week. On one of those days, I drove visiting author Rina Singh to Morris where she presented to a group of children at the Morris Library. Rina and I had lots to talk about on the drive. We covered many topics, but writing was at the top of the list. I was in a bit of a writing slump, but at the end of the day I couldn’t wait to write. Thanks Rina Singh!
Golden Moment #2. While in Arizona, Jo & I heard about the Wiener Dog races. Held annually as a fundraiser, dachshunds race against each other in different categories. Having just finished Coop the Great, we had to go, of course. Dachshund owners are an enthusiastic bunch and I never realized until then how many different varieties of dachshunds there are. We had a blast!
Golden Moment of 2018 #3. Great Plains Publications was at the top of my submission list for Coop the Great so I was thrilled when they agreed to publish the book.
Golden Writing Moment of 2018 #4 – Early in November, Jo & I drove to the town of Altona, Manitoba to watch Coop the Great roll off the presses at the Friesens plant. Friesens employs many in town, and it is a huge operation spread over several buildings. It was a thrill to see the book come alive, and the folks at Friesens were accommodating in every way.
The story of Coop the Great centers around a dog who has been adopted and rejected multiple times. For the launch, I wanted to focus in part on the service shelters provide. I visited D’Arcy’s Animal Rescue Centre and met D’Arcy Johnston, the founder, and D’Arcy’s canine ambassador, Darnold (Darn Arnold). D’Arcy agreed right away to speak at the launch and as bonus he said he would bring Darnold. This is my Golden Writing Moment of 2018 #5.
Golden Writing Moment of 2018 #6 – At a time when everything I wrote seemed to be mush, this meme popped up on Facebook. The message carried me over hurdles that seemed monumental at the time. Writing is not like brain surgery. More like sculpting a lump of clay.
Golden Writing Moment of 2018 #7 – On a visit with my granddaughter to McNally Robinson Booksellers, Winnipeg’s premier independent bookstore, we found a copy of G is for Golden Boy: A Manitoba Alphabet on display. My granddaughter lives far away and this was our first visit to the store together, and the first time I could show her where those books grandpa writes actually go.
To wrap it up, here is Golden Writing Moment of 2018 #8 – the launch of Coop the Great. You never know with launches who, if anyone, will show up. For Coop, the atrium at McNally Robinson Booksellers was full. When I looked over the crowd, I saw familiar faces from many different circles – family, friends, fellow teachers, fellow writers, even a few from the restaurant where I write each morning. Thank you to all who came and made this a golden moment.Thank you to those who purchased the book. Thank you to those who read it and shared their reactions.
Enthusiastic crowd. Generous support. Laughs, chuckles, and some serious moments, too. These are a few descriptors for the launch of Coop the Great that was held at McNally Robinson Booksellers in Winnipeg on November 18, 2018.
My daughter, Ashley, kicked things off with a lovely introduction. From there, I read a few chapters, discussed where the seed for the book was planted, and talked about some of its writing challenges. In the book, Coop is a rescue dog from fictional Derby Animal Shelter. Guest D’Arcy Johnston of D’Arcy’s Animal Rescue Centre spoke about what goes on at a real not-for-profit shelter like his. D’Arcy’s canine ambassador, Darnold, was there too, eager for photo ops. It was a great afternoon, thanks to all those who attended.
They say a picture is worth a thousand words, so here are a few wordless memories from the launch of Coop the Great.
Dog's eye narration tackles tough subjects with sensitivity and humour.
Just as Coop the Great sets to launch, this article appeared in a issue of Prairie Books Now, a publication dedicated to promoting books by Prairie publishers and writers. I am including it here for readers who would like to know more about the characters and story line of Coop the Great, and the issues and themes that run through the novel.
With Coop the Great heading to print, it’s time to take stock of a few things that steered me to a successful conclusion. Not everything I’ve written has ended this well. I can show you filing cabinets filled with bits and pieces that never made it to print.
In the case of Coop the Great, I owe much to a writer’s group I belong to called The Anita Factor. All of us in this small group are passionate about writing for children and young adults, so we are pretty focused when we meet. Meetings are held every two weeks. Whoever can make it shows up, so the arrangement is flexible and works well for those who travel or have other commitments. Typically, anywhere from 3 to 6 people read their work at the meeting. It could be a chapter from a work-in-progress novel, the manuscript for a picture book, a short story, even occasionally a query letter to be sent to a publisher. After each reading, we take turns discussing the work.
After I’d written the first ten chapters of Coop the Great, I read the prologue and first chapter to the group. I thought it was a pretty solid stuff, but even though the others seemed to like the concept, they offered suggestions and asked probing questions that got me thinking.
One of my colleagues pointed out that dogs rely on their sense of smell more than sight, and suggested I tweak a section with that in mind. Someone else wondered if the vocabulary was a bit beyond my target group of 9-12-year olds. Another pointed out that since Coop was a very small dog, he’d be viewing life from a very different perspective than a larger dog. Another asked whether Coop was a young dog, then pointed out that if he was, a few details in the story would have to change.
I realized from these comments and questions that there were gaps in my story. If I wanted readers to buy into the concept of a dog as a narrator, then I needed to enhance the doggy details. I hadn’t really given a lot of thought to Coop’s age until then either. I’d written these chapters assuming he was a mid-life dog, but realized now that if I made him an old dog, the story would have more impact.
The feedback was helpful. Although I thought I’d nailed Coop’s voice, I realized that I hadn’t developed his character as well as I should. I didn’t know him or his history. Before going on, I needed to give more thought to who Coop was, how he viewed life and how his past influenced his present situation.
As the creator of the work, I determine what suggestions to incorporate, but having alternate viewpoints from other writers can pay off big time. In the case of Coop the Great, they certainly did.
Stepping into D’Arcy’s Animal Rescue Centre (ARC) is like stepping into the opening scene in Coop the Great where Coop, a senior dachshund, awaits adoption at the fictional Derby Animal Shelter. Coop has been adopted numerous times before and, as he cynically puts it, ‘rejected’ just as often. Derby Animal Shelter is his latest stop in a long chain of rejections.
Here’s Coop’s colorful description of Derby:
Derby Animal Shelter was a no-kill facility. More than a dozen dogs lived there. Some had strayed from their homes and were found wandering the streets. Others, like me, had been rejected by their owners. Across the hall, behind a cinder block wall, lived a gazillion cats. I’m exaggerating of course, but judging by the volume of non-stop wailing coming from their quarters, it was an impossibly high number. Probably it was closer to thirty or forty. Too many.
While writing Coop, I spent some time at the Foothills Animal Rescue in Scottsdale, Arizona, and my fictional Derby is loosely modeled after it. But Derby is also similar in many ways to the very real D’Arcy’s Animal Rescue Centre in my home city of Winnipeg, Manitoba.
Like Derby and Foothills, D’Arcy’s ARC is a ‘no-kill facility’ dedicated to rescuing abused, abandoned, homeless and neglected animals. D’Arcy’s focuses on giving dogs and cats veterinary care and a comfortable place to live until they are adopted for life no matter how long it takes. Unlike some other rescue operations, there is no time limit involved, no X number of months before unadopted animals are put down.
D’Arcy’s is unique in another way, too. It’s a not-for-profit organization which means that it relies entirely on donations and volunteers – not grants and hired help - to cover its expenses and maintain services.
Recently, Jo and I toured D’Arcy’s Animal Rescue Center with founder D’Arcy Johnston. D’Arcy is a former Animal Health Technician who saw a need for a facility with care and comfort as its focus. Since its establishment in 2001, over 15,000 animals have found permanent homes through ARC and at any given time there may be 100 animals at ARC waiting for adoption.
D’Arcy’s compassion was apparent at every stage of our tour. He knew each animal by name along with its backstory and medical history, and as we walked about the center, he answered our many questions and described the operation. We learned that volunteers walk animals, feed them, administer medication if necessary and tend to their needs. Veterinarians donate time and expertise.
Because adoptive guardians often ask to purchase food and other start-up supplies, D’Arcy’s maintains a well-stocked store. In addition, D'Arcy's operates a thrift shop at 1076 Main St. Like everything else, proceeds from both are funneled back into the shelter to cover expenses.
Along our tour, D’Arcy introduced us to Darnold (short for Darn Arnold) a rescue dog with three legs. Darnold arrived at ARC so severely injured that amputation was necessary. He quickly adapted to his three-legged existence and as proof he walked over and greeted us with enthusiastic tail-wags. Darnold has become ARC’s canine ambassador and he often accompanies D’Arcy to events and school visits.
Which brings me to an announcement. The launch for Coop the Great will be in the atrium at McNally Robinson Booksellers on Grant Avenue, Winnipeg on Sunday, November 18 at 2 p.m. I’ve asked D’Arcy Johnston to partner with me and say a few words. Darnold will be attending too, ready for photo-ops with anyone who stops by.
There is no obligation, but for those so inclined there will be drop-off bin for donated items that D’Arcy’s ARC needs in its day-to-day operation. Supplies like pet food, cat litter, and treats are always appreciated, but so too are other items like hand sanitizer, bleach, unscented dryer sheets and newspapers. Office supplies such as computer paper, staples, and manila file folders are needed, too. For more about donated items, you can check D'Arcy ARC 's wish list on its website.
I hope to see you at the launch to help me celebrate the release of Coop the Great. I think we’ll have a doggone good time.