Congratulations on your latest two books for youth: A Refugee’s Journey from Syria and A Refugee’s Journey from Afghanistan, part of the Leaving My Homeland series by Crabtree Publishing Company and winners of the Middle East 2017 Youth Non-Fiction Book Award.
Q. You have had a varied career, most recently as a editor and project manager for educational publishers. Why did you decide to make writing books for young readers your full-time job?
A. I have spent most of my career writing for young readers, at first in magazines. During the early 1990s, I wrote and sold seven non-fiction books. Although these are now out of print, they are still in Canadian libraries. It was my interest in writing that attracted me to educational publishing, where I worked to develop materials that students could read or view and enjoy.
I closed my full-time editing business in 2014 because I wanted to spend more time writing and found that I couldn’t do that when I was immersed in editing projects. Since then, I have written and sold 22 books for various publishers. I am also working on a couple of novels.
Q. Looking at your list of books published on the Canadian Children’s Book Centre website, your titles are non-fiction. Why do you like writing non-fiction?
A. From a practical point of view, non-fiction books are easier to sell than fiction books, which is a plus when you’re starting out in a new field.
Writing non-fiction also gives me a chance to learn a lot of fascinating information. I choose subjects that interest me, that I don’t know a lot about, and that I would like to learn more about. The world is so full of amazing people and ideas. It isn’t hard to find topics.
Q. How do you research your books? What sources do you use? How do you fact check your work?
A. I usually start in the public library with a search of what books are currently available on the topic. Librarians are wonderfully generous people who are always willing to help me find information on my topic. They also order unusual or out-of-print books and academic articles for me through inter-library loan.
Once I have some basic information, I turn to the Internet. There’s a lot of good information online, including a lot of archival material. Of course, you have to be careful of the sites you use. Much of my information comes from government and/or publicly funded sites. For historical and scientific data, I search for corroboration of the facts I’m finding. You’d be shocked at the number of errors online.
For example, when I was researching the materials for Agricultural Inventions: At the Top of the Field (Inventions that Shaped the Modern World), Crabtree Publishing Company, 2013, I wanted examples of foods that had interesting genetic material. Numerous sites referred to the lemato, which they described as a cross between a tomato and a lemon. There were multiple pictures of a fruit that looked like a lemon on the outside but a tomato inside. I kept searching until I found the name of the researchers who developed this new food. The popular descriptions were wrong. A lemato is a cross between lemon basil, a herb, and a tomato. This is just one example of the many incorrect pieces of information that abound on the Internet because writers don’t go back to the original source.
Often that source is individuals. I often text, email or telephone experts to obtain and check information. People are very generous with their time and often willing to provide more recent information than I could find either in print or online.
Q. How did you get involved with Crabtree Publishing Company’s Leaving My Homeland series? Was the idea yours or Crabtree’s? What do you find interesting about this topic? Why is it important to share this information with children? What age is this series aimed at?
A. The Leaving My Homeland series was developed for Crabtree Publishing by a development house out of Great Britain. Crabtree had been happy with some of the earlier titles I had written for them so gave my name and contact information to staff in the United Kingdom.
When those people contacted me about the series, I was immediately interested because individuals in Prince Edward County, which is the part of Ontario, Canada, where I live, were working to welcome a number of Syrian families to our community.
Canada has been a haven for many refugees. I grew up in Toronto after the Second World War and went to school with children whose families fled from Europe after the war. My friends shared some of what their families had experienced.
I’d also been involved with various Vietnamese refugees when my community welcomed both a family and an unaccompanied minor during the late 1970s.
Children hear about conflicts like these on the news. The books I wrote provide accurate information in a non-threatening manner that young people can understand and empathize with.
The series is geared toward children in grades 3 to 6. You can tell this because of the age of the child in each case study. However, because of the content, many of the readers are older. Some of my friends have given the books to grandchildren as young as four and report that the kids loved them.
The information I included was limited by the amount of space I had in the book. I tried to choose information that showed the importance of Syria to the development of the modern world. I also felt it important to explain what led to the current conflict in Syria.
Q. How did you find the children’s stories? Why was it important to include those stories?
A. The children’s stories are called Case Studies. The purpose of them is to help readers identify with individuals in the situation I describe. The children and families portrayed are not actual people. They are a composite picture compiled from the research I did. I used them to help readers identify with the events described in the book. I also wanted to show the kind of things that happen to children and families during the conflicts I described.
I developed the stories using research and interviews.
The United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) has a wonderful website that includes the stories and artwork plus interviews from large numbers of children and families assisted by the agency.
I used information from this site, as well as from books and articles I read.
For Syria, I also interviewed a large Syrian family who had settled in the area where I live, as well as someone who grew up in Damascus, Syria, but has lived in Canada for 20 years. It was wonderful to talk to young refugees ranging in age from about eight to 19. Both older Syrian immigrants and teen refugees remember what life in Syria was like before the war started. This helped me develop the parts of the story before the war. I wrote the parts during the war using news reports and UNHCR interviews.
Q. Have you been to a refugee camp? Do you have any first-hand knowledge of the subject?
A. I have never been to a refugee camp. I have read a lot about them, including fiction and non-fiction books written both by former refugees and by people who have worked at refugee camps. I got additional information from the Facebook pages of the camps. This was particularly helpful in describing the camp in Pakistan.
Q. At the end of each of the books there is a checklist of ways children can help as well as some discussion prompts. Why did you include these in there? Why is it important to get children to help?
A. This is not the first time that people have fled to Canada seeking safety from war-torn countries. When I was growing up in Toronto during the 1950s, many of my classmates’ families had fled Europe following the Second World War.
I clearly remember the stories some of my friends told me, tales I had difficulty believing at the time.
Unfortunately, the truth was worse than they told me. As I listened to their stories, I also learned what had helped them and their families feel at home in their new country. These are some of the things that I included in the checklist.
It is difficult for people to leave everything they know and come to a new country with a different culture and a different language. It’s important for people already there to do what we can to ease that transition. Sometimes it can be as simple as a friendly smile and a nod. Children who learn this early continue to behave with empathy throughout their lives.
Q. You have written books about creative careers to agricultural inventions and word problems. What is your favourite topic to write about? Why? Is there any topic you would like to explore that you haven’t already?
A. I write about a lot of different topics because I have wide interests and experience. Recently, publishers and production houses have approached me with non-fiction ideas that they would like me to write about.
If the topic interests me – and it often does – then I agree. So far, I’ve published a lot of non-fiction. But I’ve also been improving my fiction writing skills. I’m currently planning the fifth draft of a young adult novel about a young teen whose mother dies of a drug overdose. Writing about this scenario, one that I experienced at 15, has called to me for many years. I soon hope to get have this novel ready to look for someone to publish it. Writing about suicide and mental illness for young audiences intrigue me. They’re difficult topics that need to be understood and discussed.
Q. What is your ideal age range to write for? What do you like writing about for these children?
A. I like writing for young people who are starting to come to terms with the difficult things in life. Many of my books are for readers between eight and 12. I like that age because the kids are starting to question things around them and develop their own ideas about the world and how they want to be in it. I want to write materials that help them focus on the many positive things in our world but also acknowledge and work on the difficult ones. That last part is a challenge that I’m just starting to try to meet.
Q. How did your variety of jobs prepare you for life as a writer?
A. Chuckle. I’ve worked as a teacher, which taught me to listen and learn to put myself in my students’ shoes and try to see things their way. I didn’t always succeed – but not for lack of trying.
My work as an editor honed my research and communication skills. It also strengthened my spelling and grammar. Both are important in helping authors say what they mean. As an author, I both create and edit.
During the creation phase, I have to learn to let my right brain speak and follow its lead. During the editing phase, it’s better to listen to the logical left brain that corrects things. But that logical brain has to take a backseat during creation. I’m still learning to allow that.
Q. How does writing full time differ from what you thought it would be? What do you find hardest, easiest? What do you like the best? The least?
A. For me, the hardest thing about this stage of my writing is not having specific deadlines from publishers like I did when I was an editor and project manager. I work best to deadline so have to make them for myself. But as a writer, I need to make these deadlines a little more flexible than they were when I was working full time. Sometimes the writing doesn’t flow and I do very little in a long period of time. But if I’m patient, work hard and let go of my expectations, things can suddenly fall into place better than I dreamed.
Q. Both of your titles for the Leaving My Homeland series won the Middle East 2017 Youth Non-Fiction Book Award and were starred selections in The Children’s Book Centre’s Best Books for Kids and Teens 2017. Can you please tell me a bit about these awards as well as your reaction on winning them.
A. The winners of the Middle East Book Awards are chosen by the Middle East Outreach Council. Judges, who include teachers, librarians and people from the council itself, look for books that provide an authentic picture of the Middle East and the topic being discussed. They also want something that appeals to the target audience. The middle school educators who judged the non-fiction category liked my two books because the content is sophisticated enough to interest both middle school and struggling high school readers. They appreciated the way I defined difficult words and how the books interspersed historical content with the story of one refugee family. They also liked the checklist feature that provided ideas for helping refugees feel more welcome in a community.
I was gob-smacked when I heard that two of my books had won the Middle East Youth Non-Fiction Book Award. It was completely unexpected and came at a time when I was feeling tired and discouraged. What a pleasant affirmation of my work.
Best Books for Kids and Teens is a directory published by the Canadian Children’s Book Centre (CCBC). Readers for this group review the latest books, magazines, audio tapes and videos produced in Canada for kids and teens. Twice a year, in the spring and fall, the CCBC publishes a list of the titles they consider to be the best.
All of the five books I had published in 2017 were listed in this directory. A Refugee’s Journey from Syria and A Refugee’s Journey from Afghanistan were starred selections in the directory. This means that they were identified as books of a particularly high calibre, another pat on the back that gave me great pleasure.