The people in the neighbourhood

Today I filled in for my lovely friend Stacey as a volunteer for the Writer’s Exchange. The organization works to get inner-city kids excited about reading and writing. This morning, the team was helping grade one and two students at Thunderbird Elementary start their own book about what they’d like to be when they grow up.

To kick off the project, the Writers Exchange hosted a mini job fair. I was there to represent the writers of the world. There was also a farmer, a flight attendant, a nurse, a police officer, two basketball players (maybe they only travel in pairs?), a magazine publisher, and a teacher. (There was no firefighter, much to the disappointment of the nurse.)

It was like being a real-life part of Sesame Street.

I think the police officer won the “coolest tools” contest, with the nurse a close second. And the flight attendant got bonus points because she had a miniature airplane with her. But the kids liked that I could write whatever and whenever I chose, and that the illustrator for my 50 Questions books got all his best ideas by putting a chicken on his head. (You were a hit, Ross!)

At the end of the morning, one of the little boys put his head down on the table and refused to leave the library. I felt the same way, really. I wanted to stay and talk to all the other volunteers. How does one become a farmer, anyway?

Q & A time: finding your illustrator

Last question recap from Monday night’s VPL panel. This one came after the official discussion had ended:

How do I find an illustrator for my work?

Good news! You don’t have to. In fact, it’s probably best if you don’t try.

Publishers have files of samples from professional illustrators all over the world. And they have editors with particular opinions. So, if your manuscript happens to strike an editor’s fancy, and she has a vision of what it would look like when realized by a particular New York artist… then you get a call!

On the other hand, you could ask your best friend’s cousin — who happens to give amazing watercolours to her entire family every Christmas — to create samples for your book. But you risk an editor glancing at the first image, rolling her eyes at how much she detests watercolours with overtones of green, and hitting the reject button before even getting to your brilliant writing.

Plus, it’s pretty darn fun to send your writing into the world and see it brought to life by someone you’ve never met. The illustrator for the 50 Questions books lives in New Zealand. Possibly in a commune. Sometimes with a chicken on his head.

Loving the lateral

Reading this interview with science writer Claire Eamer, I was struck by how she describes seeing her words transformed into an illustrated, designed book. She says:

“Maybe the highlight was the first time I saw the page proofs for Super Crocs. That was the first time I had seen my plain old words-on-digital-paper transformed by a designer into a startling and entertaining piece of art. I think that experience is one only kids’ writers get…”

Whenever I give school presentations, kids ask how I come up with my ideas for the illustrations in the 50 Questions books. And, of course, I don’t. My manuscript gets sent into the nether (otherwise known as New Zealand), and a few weeks later, sketches begin to arrive from Ross Kinnaird.

It’s the best part of the book-creation process.

It’s SO much fun to see how an illustrator can take an idea you brushed upon or a word choice you unknowingly made, and come up with something new and mind-bending and hilarious.

We writers pride ourselves on lateral thinking, but we have nothing on illustrators.

And as I tell the school kids, Ross gets his big ideas while sitting in a bathtub of lemonade, with a chicken on his head. (You can see for yourself. He says so in the books.)

Weekend learning

I spent a lovely few hours on Sunday evening with the Book Burglars book club at Christianne’s Lyceum, talking about 50 Poisonous Questions. And wow! Every time I stop by that place, I learn things. Here are just a few of the eye-openers from yesterday:

  • According to an ex-military dad named Bernie, the best way to poison people and get away with it is to inject potassium chloride between their toes. (Bet that’s not what you thought we’d be talking about at a book club for intermediate students, hmmm?) What we couldn’t figure out, though, was how to inject people between their toes without leaving incriminating evidence. You can’t exactly say, “Excuse me, would you mind holding up your big toe for me while I get this hypodermic needle ready?” (And if anyone ever does say that to you, you should run.)
  • There is a type of underwear made in Vancouver called STUD briefs which is supposed to increase men’s fertility. We got talking about THAT because I’d brought in a copy of 50 Underwear Questions and apparently the makers of STUD live in Vancouver and their kids attend the Lyceum. Who knew?
  • There is no such thing as a brontosaurus. How crazy is that? Something about two palaeontologists fighting and both of them rushing to identify the most dinosaur bones and one of them getting the wrong head on the wrong body. Obviously, I need to look into this further.
  • I can draw a killer pair of oxen. I know this, because they were correctly identified while I was frantically trying to draw “dioxin” in a competitive round of Pictionary. Okay, there were guesses for deer, cows, and… um… bunny rabbits before someone (Bernie the ex-military dad, actually) hit upon oxen, but still. I think Ross Kinnaird now has competition. If we ever do 50 Oxen Questions, I’m totally illustrating it myself.

Thank you, Christianne, Laura, and Book Burglars, for an illuminating visit!

Fifty questions I didn’t ask

Look what arrived on my doorstep on Friday:

That’s right: 50 Climate Questions, by Peter Christie and illustrated by Ross Kinnaird. You will notice that it’s not written by me, and that’s because the only thing I know about climate science is that it freaks me out. Peter Christie, on the other hand, knows quite a lot. For example, he knows that Earth had a bad case of flatulence 4 billion years ago, he knows how climate and witch burnings are related (crazy, no?), and he knows why a mini-ice age helped Stradivari produce great violins.

You know what else is great about this book? Annick just sent me a cheque for use of the concept.

Now that’s even crazier than climactically affected witch burnings! From now on, I’m skipping all this tricky research and writing stuff. I’m gonna sell me some concepts.