Hometown weekend

The kids and I headed to Creston on the long weekend for the 75th annual Blossom Festival. Along with getting thoroughly spoiled by my parents, we went to the parade, tried some carnival games, and explored the farmer’s market. We also went for a tour of Spectrum Farms and the stables of the Therapeutic Riding Association. That stop was my personal favourite, because who was doing tours but… Luanne Armstrong.

Fortunately for me, I was with my librarian aunt and my book-obsessed daughter. My aunt introduced us all and my daughter immediately said, “You’re Luanne Armstrong? I read I’ll Be Home Soon and I voted for you in the Chocolate Lily awards!”

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It turns out I’ll be Home Soon won the Chocolate Lily (which my daughter now thinks was entirely due to her vote), and the four of us received the grand tour of the riding stables and met all eight horses.

When not hobnobbing with literary stars, we walked trails, played in parks, barbecued hamburgers (well, actually, we ate the hamburgers that grandpa barbecued), met old friends and a new baby, read books, attempted fishing in three-foot waves (don’t tell Min), spotted bears along the highway, picked lettuce from the garden, searched for snakes, and met a donkey.

What more could you ask from a Blossom Festival?

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Cooking is dangerous

I was making wontons a couple nights ago. They tend to spit when I flip them, so I was holding up a splatter screen between me and the frying pan. But somehow, hot oil popped out of the pan, over the screen, and onto my eyelid.

The science writer in me thought, “Wow, it’s amazing that my eye can see airborne oil and signal my brain quickly enough that I fry my eyelid instead of my eye.”

The science writer in me is not the vain type. The vain side of me was looking in the mirror the next morning at my blistered left eyelid and thinking about the UBC presentation I’m giving tonight.

I may scrap my intended script. I may speak about cyclops myths instead. And maybe about pirates.

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Art + school = why do we even have to talk about this?

I am about to rant, so if you’re curled up somewhere with a cup of tea and you’d like to preserve your serenity, you may want to skip this post and have a look at these book recommendations.

Still here? Well, then…

I received this letter from the cash-strapped Vancouver School Board a couple weeks ago, and I’ve been stewing about it ever since.

Dear Parent or Guardian of Students in Grade 4, 5, and 6:

The Vancouver School Board is exploring the possibility of offering a district-wide User-Pay Elementary Band or Strings Program beginning in September 2016. This program would be for interested students in the upper intermediate grades (Strings: Grades 5-7, Band: Grades 6-7) whose families are willing to pay for this complementary experience.

The intent would be to provide these programs in schools where we have a minimum number of students (20) who have indicated an interest in participating. If the minimum cannot be achieved at a particular site, then unfortunately, the program cannot be offered at that school. The fee to participate in the program for next year will likely be between $400 and $500 per year per student.

It goes on. But let’s stop for a moment and consider the $400 to $500 per student. It seems like a ridiculous amount of money. And yet, it’s less (much less) than what Min and I pay each year to fund Julia’s voice and piano lessons and Matthew’s guitar lessons. Outside of school. Because, unlike my elementary school which had a dedicated music teacher and a band program and a guitar program and school musicals, our kids’ elementary school has none of these things.

So, should we cough up the cash for some strings lessons?

NO! No, no, no, no, no.

Because art in school is not just for kids whose parents can afford it. Is this really something that needs to be said? At the moment, the PACs in B.C. — the parents — pay for the library books, the instruments, and tons of the art supplies used in elementary schools. The school boards don’t fund these things, because the province doesn’t give them the money to fund these things. WHICH IS RIDICULOUS!

How are we going to raise creative, resourceful kids without books and instruments and art supplies? Even LNG engineers are one day going to have to creatively solve problems, and they’re not going to learn to do this by completing math workbooks. (Though incidentally, the parents pay for the math workbooks at my kids’ elementary school.)

Honestly, I think I’m going to settle myself on the sidewalk in front of the VSB office and protest by pulling all the hairs from my head one by one. I think that would be less painful then trying to explain WHY WE NEED BOOKS AND INSTRUMENTS FOR ALL KIDS IN ALL SCHOOLS!

Done. Whew. You can check out those reading recommendations now.

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Summer reads

I’ve been reading the most wonderful books lately. Everything I pick up turns out to be enthralling. Which is bad for my work ethic and my sleep, but good for my soul!

If you need some summer reads, here are my recommendations:

North of Normal, by Cea Sunrise Person
I met Cea when I was in Ladner for an Authors for Indies event a few weeks ago. She’s this tall, blonde, gorgeous ex-model… who spent her childhood in the backwoods. And when I say backwoods, I don’t mean the backwoods of Crawford Bay, where I spent a few years. I mean the woods behind those sorts of backwoods. The places without roads and without groceries, let alone preschools or libraries or hospitals.

Cea’s in the middle of this picture. I’m on the right, and the lovely Ashley Spires (of Binky the Space Cat fame) is on the left:

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Cea’s grandparents were all about living off the land and, while they failed their granddaughter in many ways, they certainly passed along their resourcefulness. If you grew up in BC or Alberta, and especially if your mother went through that phase where she sewed your clothes from corduroy and grew her own alfalfa sprouts (which I can’t eat to this day), you must read North of Normal.

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The Summer Before the War, by Helen Simonson
This is 100% a beach read. You need the book, a towel, a sunshade, a snack, and maybe a package of tissues. That’s it. You’re set for a whole week of your summer. It’s a beautiful story about a young Latin teacher thrown into the societal pitfalls of an English town in the months leading up to World War I. There is romance and friendship, with some great twists woven between. It’s sort of like Downton Abbey in book form. What could be better?

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Pleased to Meet You, by Caroline Adderson
I keep saying I don’t like short stories. Then I read a book of short stories and I love them. Maybe I only like them once they’re bound into book form? Or maybe (gasp!) my tastes are changing? This is a collection of Caroline Adderson stories published a decade ago, but I picked it up at a workshop on the weekend and now I can’t put it down. She’s so adept at wiggling into the heads of quirky characters, from an actuary-turned-poet to a hospice volunteer on the cusp of love. Love — and the yearning for it — is what all these stories are about. So for this one, you’ll need a glass of wine, a chair on the back deck, and a bright summer evening. Enjoy!

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Authors for Indies

Things that will probably happen at Black Bond Books in Ladner this Saturday, as I participate in Authors for Indies day:

1. They will find me curled in the back corner reading some irresistible book that I’ve found, and they will have to tell me to get back to work.

2. I will recommend Dan Bar-el’s Audrey (Cow) to adults looking for thrillers. Because really, everyone should read Audrey (Cow) and it IS suspenseful.

3. I will meet Ashley Spires and say something gushy, then excuse myself to go to the washroom and knock my head against the wall a few times.

If you would like to join me in any of these activities, I’m at Black Bond from 10 a.m. until noon. Stop by and say hello! Also, read Audrey (Cow).

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Notebook mysteries

Because my bedside table is overflowing, I decided to go through my full notebooks and then get rid of them (which is code for putting them in the crawlspace, because I find it impossible to part with notebooks).

Here’s what I discovered while flipping through the pages: my notebooks are crazy. There are grocery lists and PAC meeting notes, drafts of letters and story ideas, to-do lists, revision notes, prices for internet connections, bubble maps of title possibilities, strange doodles, words I can’t decipher, and something that reads “Three friends — The Furies — gay boyfriend.”

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WHAT DOES THAT MEAN? What if it was going to be something brilliant, and now it will be nothing because I failed to communicate to myself in complete sentences?

Also, there are pages and pages in these notebooks that I have no memory of writing. I don’t remember coming up with the ideas, or starting the stories, or ever being interested in the topics.

I’m pretty sure an alien secretly lives in my brain.

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And more news!

There’s a rule about blogs. One is supposed to offer interesting and entertaining content, and not talk about oneself all the time. But I have so much exciting news this week!

I’ve just signed a contract with Groundwood Books for a young adult novel, to be published in Fall 2017.* And can I say that I was already thrilled to be working with Groundwood even before they won Best Children’s Publisher of the Year in Bologna?

Next news: The Children’s Literature Roundtables of Canada have shortlisted DNA Detective for the 2016 Information Book Award. Woohoo! There are many other stellar books on the list, including Annick’s Urban Tribes, by Mary Beth Leatherdale and Lisa Charleyboy, Groundwood’s West Coast Wild by Deborah Hodge, and Kids Can’s Child Soldier, by Jessica Dee Humphreys and Michel Chikwanine. Plus lots more fodder for my to-read list!

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* Sooooooo far away. Aaaaaaaaaaah. How will I last that long? People say their books are like their babies. Having had both, I can tell you that books take a LOT longer to birth.

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News flash

Two exciting things to report! First, I am thrilled to have DNA Detective shortlisted for the Science in Society Book Awards, presented by the Canadian Science Writers’ Association. You can see the entire shortlist here. If you share my level of science-book-geekitude, you will want to read all the books in both categories. Who can resist a science book called Is Gwyneth Paltrow Wrong About Everything? (Is she, do you think?)

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Next in the news department: I’ll be spending the morning of Saturday, April 30th, at Black Bond Books in Ladner, as part of Authors for Indies day. I’ve always wanted to work in a bookstore, and this is my big chance. They’re even going to let me recommend books to random shoppers, which may prove dangerous for everyone involved.

Come and visit if you’re in the ‘hood!

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My Russian tour

I’ve been taking an accidental course in Russian history. I started with The Family Romanov by Candace Fleming. It’s all about the last tsar of Russia and his family, muddling their way through a quickly changing political world. The book is wonderfully written, sort of a sweeping family saga except tragically true.

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The Family Romanov served as the perfect appetizer for the what turned out to be the main course: Symphony for the City of the Dead, by M.T. Anderson. This is another (supposed) children’s book about Russian politics and history, all carefully woven around the life story of composer Dmitri Shostakovich.

Shostakovich was first loved by the Russian people, then targeted by the government and treated as a pariah, then loved once again. He survived the siege of Leningrad during World War II. The symphony he wrote while starving in his beloved city became an international symbol of hope and humanity.

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The book was fascinating. My only issue is… it’s about a billion pages long. And it’s about Russian history. Are kids really going to read it? I devoured every possible book as a kid, but I can’t see my 13-year-old self choosing this one. And my daughter, avid reader that she is, didn’t make it through the more palatable Family Romanov.

What makes a non-fiction book a kid’s non-fiction book? That’s what I’ve been wondering, in between marvelling at the machinations of Russian politics. The prose in Symphony for the City of the Dead is clear and compelling… but shouldn’t that be a mark of good adult non-fiction as well? Anderson doesn’t assume the reader has prior knowledge of history, geography, or politics, and he offers plenty of background information… but wouldn’t more adults read Russian history if that were the case in all non-fiction books?

I have no real answers to these questions, except to say that both kids and adults should be choosing more non-fiction and these books are a wonderful place to start (for adults) and an impressive challenge (for younger readers).

I’m off to continue my Russian education with Stalin’s Daughter by Rosemary Sullivan. I’ll let you know how I do with my transition to actual grown-up biography.

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