The Scribbler is most fortunate to have Jennifer as our guest this week. She is an accomplished author of children’s stories. Her books have garnered numerous, excellent reviews and high praise.
Her stories have been making a splash with children and teachers alike.
She has graciously agreed to a 4Q Interview and is sharing an excerpt from Chocolate River Rescue (Nimbus Publishing).
An award-winning children’s author from Moncton, New Brunswick, Jennifer has published two middle grade adventure novels, and two picture books. Her book, The Snow Knows, (Nimbus Publishing) was the 2017 recipient of the prestigious Marilyn Baillie Picture Book Award, presented to the year’s best Canadian picture book for children. It also won the inaugural Alice Kitts Memorial Award for Excellence in Children’s Literature. Her books are a favourite with educators, librarians and young readers alike, and have been included in a number of reading programs, literacy initiatives, and book clubs across the country.
Jennifer received her B.A. in English from St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, Nova Scotia and holds an M.A. in English Literature with a Directed Study in Children’s Literature from the University of Victoria.
Her next book, Pugs Cause Traffic Jams (Kids Can Press) is scheduled for release in 2022, with Kathryn Durst illustrating. (Hey, Grandude, by Sir Paul McCartney).
4Q: As a writer myself, I admire authors of children’s books such as the beautiful collection you’ve penned. What draws you to this genre?
JM: Wow, that’s a surprisingly tricky question to answer. The short version is that’s just what comes out when I put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard). I write about things that make me happy. They are, in no particular order: things that I find beautiful; things that I find funny; things that delight me; and things I think might possibly delight others. By happy accident, much of what I write seems to delight younger readers. And that delights me, too. And when I’m delighted, I write. So it’s really a vicious circle of delight. (Except when it’s a vicious circle of angst and self-doubt, but that’s a blog for another day.)
Without disappearing into the rabbit hole of ‘What is children’s literature?’ and what makes a particular piece of writing for children, I will say that there is a sort of authenticity that’s embedded in the best children’s books – an emotionally honest and undistilled way of perceiving the world, and reflecting it back in words and art. Fantasy writer, Lloyd Alexander suggested that children’s books offer “a means of dealing with things which cannot be dealt with quite as well in any other way” and I think there is truth in that as well.
4Q: The first book of yours that came to my attention is The Snow Knows. I understand you and your Illustrator, Josee Bisaillon, are both award winning artists. Tell us about the Marilyn Baillie Picture Book Award. How exciting it must be.
JM: So, it’s kind of a funny story. I didn’t actually know about the Marilyn Baillie Picture Book Prize prior to that year. It just wasn’t on my radar at all. In fact, I didn’t even know The Snow Knows had been submitted for consideration, much less nominated and short-listed until I got a Facebook message from a writer friend of mine, saying ‘OMG, CONGRATULATIONS!!!” And I replied: ‘THANK YOU!! WHAT FOR???” And she told me that The Snow Knows was on the short list for the Marilyn Baillie Prize. That was the first I knew of it.
The Marilyn Baillie Picture Book Prize is presented annually as part of the TD Canadian Children’s Literature Awards, sponsored by TD Bank and the Canadian Children’s Book Centre. It recognizes the year’s best illustrated picture book. To say I was gobsmacked would be an understatement. That year, The Snow Knows was nominated alongside Col. Chris Hadfield’s book The Darkest Dark (illustrated by the brilliant Fan Brothers), as well as New York Times bestselling author-illustrator Jon Klassen’s book We Found a Hat. It was a completely surreal experience.
And then, when I arrived for the awards ceremony in Toronto, I found out the event was being emcee’d by CBC Radio’s Shelagh Rogers. I may or may not have had a complete book-nerd/fan-girl meltdown at that point. Plus the room was FULL of children’s authors and illustrators I had idolized forever. It was definitely a what-am-I-even-doing-here moment. Really, I could not have been more dazed and amazed if you had tapped a pumpkin and turned it into a coach-and-four. It was also the first time I got to meet my illustrator, Josée Bisaillon, in person. Which was, of course, utterly delightful.
4Q: Please share a childhood memory or anecdote.
JM: Well. Let’s see. There are so many to choose from. There was that time my parents and some friends decided it would be a good idea to build a homemade boat and sail it to the Caribbean. Did they have any boatbuilding experience? Nope. Sailing experience? Mmm, not so much. At seven years old, I was the oldest of half a dozen kids bundled aboard that boat. We set sail from the Bay of Fundy on a freezing, wind-swept day in November, loaded to the gunwales with gear, winter clothes, rations, charts (no GPS in those days), baby diapers, books, Gravol, and barf buckets.
It was the Boat’s maiden voyage as construction had taken a longer than anticipated (I am told the sails were still being sewn the night before our departure) and the window to get out of the Bay before winter weather made it impassable was rapidly closing. There were storms, waves, whales, a brief mutiny and, oh yeah – we ran aground on Plymouth Rock. Yup. That Plymouth Rock. It was underwhelming. There weren’t even any pilgrims.
I should probably write a story about that someday.
***I agree, Jennifer, it would be an amusing story.
4Q: Tell us about The Chocolate River Rescue. What was the most difficult part to write?
JM: CRR was first book I’d written so I really had no idea what I was doing. Because the idea for the story stemmed from real-life events, I struggled initially with how much to ‘stick to the facts.’ I didn’t know when, where or if I should take creative license. The first draft followed the real-life incident as it was told to me very, very closely. There were three boys adrift on an ice floe who were eventually rescued by firefighters and a SAR helicopter. It read a little bit like those Reader’s Digest drama-in-real-life stories…but, you know, not as good. It felt stilted, two-dimensional. When I submitted my manuscript to my editor, she read it and very gently pointed out that there weren’t any girls or women in the story. Would I perhaps consider adding another character or two? And that’s when the lightbulb went off in my head.
I could do that? Really? You mean, I was allowed to, you know, just…make stuff up??
That’s when it hit me what being a fiction writer actually meant.
I could write Anything. I. Wanted.
It was a dizzying realization. I felt like I had been driving with the emergency brake on, but now it had been released, and I was free to hit the gas.
The character of Petra pretty much leaped onto the page fully formed and she completely changed the course of the book. I re-wrote the entire thing from the beginning, in less than three months.
4Q: Favorite authors? Novels?
JM: You KNOW that this question melts the brains of the book obsessed, right? My favourite author this week? This month? Of all time?? Favourite Canadian author? Children’s author? Picture book or YA? Modern or Classic? Fantasy? Sci-fi? Short Story?
Okay, I’m spiraling.
I will be forever and infinitely grateful to my parents for reading to me for as far back as I can remember. Treasure Island, Robin Hood, The Lord of the Rings, Watership Down, Pippi Longstocking, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Jacob Two-Two and the Hooded Fang, Alice in Wonderland, Jake and the Kid, Anne of Green Gables and countless others were read aloud to me before I’d even lost my baby teeth.
Others I discovered later on my own – Narnia, A Wrinkle in Time, Northanger Abbey, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. My grandfather gave me books like White Fang, The Grapes of Wrath, Sherlock Holmes and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Today I am delighted by storytelling wizards like Neil Gaiman, Cherie Dimaline, Ami McKay, Thomas King, Holly Black, Theodora Goss, Eden Robinson, Michael Chabon, Maggie Steifvater, Daniel O’Malley, Erin Morgenstern, N.K. Jemisin, Katherine Arden, and so, so, so many others. A galaxy of authors. A wonder of worlds.
4Q: How much and what kind of research do you have to do for your books?
JM: I am an obsessive researcher. Compulsively curious. The hard part is making myself stop researching long enough to begin writing. I take what I call the ‘White Rabbit’ approach to research (alternately referred to as, ‘Squirrel!’). I love it when I go to look up something and stumble upon something else entirely by accident - something that takes me on an entirely new and unexpected path but that also, simultaneously, feels absolutely RIGHT. I think most, if not all stories are born out of serendipity.
4Q: Anything else you’d like to share with us?
JM: I’m pretty sure I’ve overshared as it is. I like dogs. And ponies. And also goats.
An Excerpt from Chocolate River Rescue (Nimbus, 2007)
“We’re losing ice!” said Craig.
It was true. Almost every wave that rippled over the floe carried away another piece of the crumbling ice. Tony half-turned his body to look toward the shore. The ice floe tilted dangerously. A large wave sloshed onto the ice, soaking the boys up to their ankles.
“Whoa!” yelled all three boys. Slowly, slowly, the ice floe righted itself again.
“Do not move!” ordered Shawn.
“Move?” croaked Tony. “Man, I’m barely breathing!”
Another wave washed the ice floe. A piece of ice crumbled away.
“It’s breaking apart, Shawn,” whispered Craig. His blue eyes were very wide.
“Don’t move,” repeated Shawn.
“We’re out of time,” Tony said softly. “This is it.”
(Copyright is held by the author. Used with permission)
Thank you, Jennifer for being our featured guest this week. Wishing you continued success with your stories.
More from Jennifer.