Grateful for Canadian Women Writers

We are transitioning this week from our September theme of the return to school, to gratitude, our theme for the month of Thanksgiving.

After running around like a madwoman all September, I am ready to sit down and create some space for myself and to reflect on what has kept me sane for the past month.  What keeps me sane is my bulging bookshelf of books to be read.  More than sane.  It delights me.  What I am most grateful for in this month of Thanksgiving is the incredible talent of the Canadian women whose work has made my down time such a joy.

In spite of the insanity of the blur that was September, I still managed to read a lovely pile of books.  I recommend one and all and hope that you, too, will find something to love and to be grateful for.

9781770894327Girl Runner

Carrie Snyder

Toronto: Anansi, 2014.

I have reviewed Carrie’s work here before.  Her Juliet Stories are a favourite of mine, and I could not wait to read her latest.  Girl Runner is everything I had hoped it would be.  It is crisp and smart and lyrical.  It is a page-turner.  Last, but not least, there is a gorgeous illustrated map at the beginning of the book.  It reminded me of Ernest Shepard’s map of the Hundred Acre Wood.  It has beautiful little houses, neat rows of crops and trees, and a lighthouse in the middle of farmland; a mystery in the middle of a rural landscape.  It is preparation for the mystery at the heart of the story of the novel’s protagonist, 104-year-old Aganetha Smart.  Olympic runner.  Nursing home inmate.

The book begins on the day that Aganetha is sprung from her nursing home by two strangers claiming to know her.  The novel then progresses with flashbacks of Aggie’s life as they take her home to the farm where she grew up.  Aggie’s girlhood on the farm, her working life in the city, her training as a competitive runner and her winning Olympic gold for Canada in the 1928 Olympics, her friendships, work and ambition.

What I most loved about the book is the description of Aganetha’s ambition.  I don’t think there are enough stories about female ambition.  Snyder describes ambition not as something hard or calculating, but as if it is something organic, born and not made by the goal-setting cheers of the chorus of life coaches that seem so loud in the 21st century.

Aganetha reflects that

Somehow it never went out of me–the desire to compete, to line up against others, win or lose, part of a rhythm larger than myself.  One turning wheel in a crowd of effort.

That image of gears could stand equally well as a metaphor for how the book is constructed, with successive gears setting each other in motion, and when you arrive, breathless, at the end, the final gear clicks into place and the whole story makes a different and piercing kind of sense.

ellenEllen in Pieces

Caroline Adderson

Toronto: Harper Collins, 2014.

When Caroline Adderson set out to write this book, she did so with a particular goal in mind: to write a book that walked and talked like a novel but that could be taken apart into standalone stories.  Ellen in Pieces.  Ellen.  In Pieces.  She knocked it out of the park.

The cover art is especially apt because not only can the novel’s structure withstand being fractured, the book looks at the fragments of a woman’s life and at how romance, motherhood, friendship and a sense of self can all survive being shattered.  And it has to be said, there is shattering.  There is also humour, sex, and some damn fine writing about the frustrations and difficulties of being a single mother:

She met the American novelist in the restaurant of the Hyatt to review his schedule.  Interviews, bookstore signings, then the grand finale, the Reading.  He asked straight out, “Did you love my book?”

“I did,” Ellen said.  She’d only read the beginning and the end and some of the middle bits.  “It’s brilliant.”  It was middling, actually, but you don’t feed two children on honesty.

Ellen is not an entirely likeable character.  This also has to be said.  But I really enjoyed seeing how Adderson made her character succeed in spite of her faults.  She is feisty and often selfish, but she is loved, and her friends are loyal, and I found it a marvel to watch how they rally around her.

interInterference

Michelle Berry

Toronto: ECW Press, 2014.

Interference, another novel in stories, takes its title from the rules of hockey: a penalty is called if an opponent impairs the goalkeeper’s ability to move freely within his crease or defend his goal, obscures too aggressively his line of sight.  Sight, obscured and predatory and sinister, is what this book is all about.  How do we see?  How are we seen?  Who is watching?  The book is a collection of short stories about the inhabitants of a small Canadian town: the members of the Senior Ladies Leisure Hockey League, local teens, a mysterious man with a disfiguring scar.  The stories are interspersed with written ephemera: letters to parents from the school principal,  a list of myths about cancer, emails and legal Cease and Desist letters.  Sometimes, though, these bits of information raise more questions than they answer.  I absolutely loved how the book kicks off with a letter from the principal:

Dear Parents and Guardians,

This morning we became aware of an incident that occurred at another school this week.  We are forwarding this information to you, because we know you need to be aware of what is going on and we need to have an open dialogue between staff and parents.  We have found that if we don’t have this kind of discussion some of our parents get very upset.  Last year’s incident with the ice cream and the hermit crabs was just such an example of this.

In effect, “Parents, we are watching you.  We don’t like how you gossip.  This is the one true version of events.  Everything is under control.”  The letter goes on to describe an incident of a possible attempted abduction, and the threat of a pedophile lurking around haunts the rest of the book.  Everything is decidedly not under control, and disquiet hovers.  But, damn, all I wanted to know on page 1 was what happened with the ice cream and the hermit crabs!

brokenAll the Broken Things

Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer

Toronto: Random House, 2014.

All the broken things includes my heart.  This novel tells the story of Bo, a refugee from Vietnam, his mother Rose, and his sister, who is severely disfigured from the effects of Agent Orange.  It tells the story of Teacher, who tries desperately to do the right thing for Bo and his family, having sponsored them through her church, but failing utterly to understand how hard it is for Bo to accept her goodwill because he feels proud and alien and 14, for Pete’s sake.  It is about Emily, Bo’s schoolmate and neighbour, who has an otherworldly wisdom and an ability to connect with his hidden sister.  It is about getting swept up in putting on a school play, the story of Orpheus, and it is, improbably and perfectly reasonably, about a Vietnamese boy finding a home in Canada by performing in the theater of the circus: bear wrestling.  He is given his own cub to raise, and like the great writhing mass of his emotions, he has to keep her hidden from sight.

The story broke my heart because Bo has too much responsibility and wrestles with too much loss for one so young.  He is swept up in so much turmoil, and while the pathos is never gratuitous, I found it so very moving to read about a boy still so adrift after making landfall in Canada.  When Teacher invites Rose to help make the costumes for the play, Bo chafes at seeing his mother at school:

He wasn’t embarrassed.  He was ashamed.  And he wasn’t ashamed of Rose.  It was something deeper.  It was the shame Teacher conveyed, by trying to fix things.  He wanted to shout that these things were just broken.  He wanted her to understand about the pride of broken things.

That Bo is simultaneously so wise and so lost is the story’s best and, yes, most heartbreaking, tension.

Please share the book love!  Tell us what you’re reading and what we should read, too.

Guest Post: Jennifer Cypher on Why Boys Tune Out

photo (12)I’m sitting in one of those plastic chairs designed for kids. My son’s kindergarten teacher is saying things I don’t understand. “Your child doesn’t participate at circle time. He doesn’t do art, or like to draw. He does not respect his classmates.” Is she talking about my child? Because I’m getting 6 drawings a day coming home in his backpack. But then she hands me his report card, with his name on the top. This is my child at school?

I take a breath. I ask about the 6 drawings that come home daily. Those aren’t “art” because he doesn’t colour them (true, they are all in pencil) and he doesn’t like to colour and doesn’t colour in the lines. Why doesn’t he participate at circle time? She explains that he can’t sit still so she removes him from the circle, ergo he can’t participate. Disrespect? He blurts out answers and doesn’t give other students a chance. Oh, and another thing, he talks to the adults in the room too much, and follows their adult conversations. This is not appropriate.

I take another breath. Our time is almost up, so I ask about his reading. He came into kindergarten reading. “Is he reading a lot,” I ask. “Reading to others, reading in French (this is French Immersion)?” “There’s nothing special for him, that’s not a focus for us.” So, no enrichment for him, and you aren’t even using his skill to help other students? Oh. I suggest that he may be bored. This does not go over well.

I hear on the playground, that this teacher “doesn’t like boys” so all of his normal behaviours (not sitting still, needing to move, needing to get his words out, needing to draw freely, not caring about where the lines are) are “problems” that stem from being a boy. Two months into school he becomes his behaviour: disruptive, mouthy, disrespectful.

Every year since then it has been some version of this. There are no attempts to harness this energy, or to accommodate it, or allow it to just be. The suggestions his father and I give to “deal with” him are met with incredulity. Let him work standing up, I say. Not an option. Give him more responsibility, we suggest. It might make him feel included, and give him some skin in the game. Responsibility must be earned, we are told. Through compliance, we surmise. I literally tell a teacher that if she won’t accommodate him as he is it’s her funeral.

Why are we still doing it this way? No wonder I spend half of my energy as a university professor trying to get 20-year-olds to stop colouring in the lines and show a spark of something other than lumpen lack of enthusiasm and total compliance, or the appearance of compliance. Sometimes I make fun of them for how well they comply, not to be a jerk but to drive home how weird it is. But after years and years of molding themselves into the school system’s image, they don’t think it’s weird at all. This is not what I want for my son, more importantly it isn’t what he wants, nor does it honour who he is or what he is capable of.

When my kid does his homework, he is slow to start. He’s working on cursive right now, and doing pretty well with it. I can’t help much, he’s a lefty and I am profoundly right-handed. He stands up, writes a line or two, then does a sprint: diningroomlibrarycouchjumpstanduplibrarydiningroomkitchenfloorslide. Back to the table for another couple of lines, repeat. I know this would be difficult to accommodate in a classroom, but surely not impossible. It would be nice if anyone, just one teacher, tried.

This year, it might be different. He has a teacher who is trying different strategies, and who sees him as a human being, not a bundle of behaviours to be managed. It’s early days yet, but we’ll see. I can only be partly hopeful about this, because this is one teacher in a larger system that isn’t geared for kids like him, which means they are probably not responding to perhaps 48% of the people they are supposed to serve. I might be hopeful for my child, this year, but in the face of the larger picture I’m not hopeful at all, and I can see clearly why boys tune out. Mine is certainly on the verge, and that makes me angry and afraid.

::

Jennifer Cypher is an academic, community activist, parent, and late-bloomer hockey player. She has a PhD in Environmental Studies from York University, where she teaches part-time.

 

 

Is There a Crisis in Boys’ Education?

I feel as though I spend a great deal of my parenting energy fighting boy behaviour.  While I’ve given up entirely on stopping my three boys from making guns out of whatever material comes to hand, I feel I wage a constant battle to put a stop to other undesirable boy behaviour: taming their tendency towards violent play, stopping rough-housing before it gets out of hand, keeping the noise levels tolerable, taking their dinner chairs away and making them stand if I have to ask them too many times to just sit down and eat for the love of god, discouraging loud burps and farts.  I do not look at my battle as a war on boyhood.  I look at it as a civilizing mission.  I’m not telling them that what they are and how they want to play is bad; I’m making sure that their choices are consistent with civility and with a mission to do no harm, to self or to society.  If I surrendered to my instincts, I’d stay in bed all day with a book.  Neither that nor running screaming through the streets, as Youngest is wont to do, is going to do anyone any good if it’s the norm rather than the exception.

elementI agree that the model of education in most schools is guilty of a similar suppression of a lot of boy energy, and  I applaud teachers who are keen to get their students up and moving and using all their different kinds of intelligence.   Inspired by Sarah Easterbrook’s interview last week, I watched all the You Tube videos I could find of Ken Robinson, then I read his book, The Element.  He is wonderful about teaching us about the outliers who do not fit the mold, and who shine when they are able to be their true selves.  But there is still a time when bums have to be in seats and lips zipped.  We have to hold kids accountable to that, too.  We have to be clear that we have expectations, and we have to encourage our boys to meet them.

I was saddened to read in the first article in the Globe and Mail series from 2010 that

Nearly 70 per cent of parents said they expected their 15-year-old daughters would complete a university degree. Yet only 60 per cent had the same expectation of their 15-year-old sons.

“I think too many of us accept the failure of boys, we say, ‘Well, that’s just the way boys are,’ there’s a social impulse in that direction, that even our expectations are lower,” Dr. Cappon said. “We don’t pay nearly enough attention to their needs and aspirations, take seriously their interests, and what motivates them, whether it’s reading comics or science fiction. It isn’t at all clear that schools have taken account of that.”

But if part of the problem is having lower expectations of boys, then isn’t part of the solution to have high expectations of all students?

I spent a year teaching literacy to adults, teaching men who went from functional illiteracy to Grade 9 or Grade 12 equivalency.  My students were all men, injured at work and having to go back to school to get new jobs through a government re-training programme.  They had all dropped out or been kicked out of school; they were able to find work that suited them better.  Until they could no longer do that work, I don’t think any of them would have gone back to school, and believe me when I tell you that some of them very much resented having to go back to what was obviously something they thought they’d left behind.  They all earned 80% or higher on all of their work.  (For the Americans in the audience, that’s an A- in Canada.)  We had high expectations of this group of students: 80% was our passing mark, and they all did it.  It took injury and many hours of intensive teaching and studying, but they graduated with marks that I’m sure their younger selves would never have expected.  I could not have been more different from those men, but I hope we shared the same degree of pride at their success.

If I am perfectly honest, I know that it was that job that taught me how to punctuate a sentence properly, and not my own experience of Grade 9 to Grade 12.  I could not have recited the rule for semi-colon use before that job, nor could I recite the six occasions on which it is appropriate to use a comma; now I can.  I got through graduate school without the command of grammar that I am convinced can only come from having to teach it.  I persuade myself every day that Eldest will eventually learn to write in full sentences by default and that Middlest will remember to put a period at the end of every sentence.  One day, it will, finally, sink in.

I do worry a little about the boys’ reading and writing.  They were all late readers, and they are not great writers.  I view that as a need for more training, not a lack of ability, and we supplement school with writing instruction to help bring them up to speed.  I aim to read to them for an hour a day, and I pick the books.  (They can read whatever they want to when they get their own time with books.  Who am I to dictate taste?  As long as I don’t have to read a Lego Ninjago book, I’m good.)  I don’t manage it every day, and sometimes we have to surrender reading to rink time or the almighty clock, but I work really, really hard to make sure that more often than not, we end the day with an hour of books that we all enjoy.  Is this to make up for a boy deficit in language?  No.  It’s because it’s a passion and the boys experience it as one.  They will grow up knowing that books are precious, that time to read is made and not found, and, for now, that is more important than their punctuating perfectly or beating the girls’ average in English class.

And the boys do all have girls in their classes.  I do not think that an all-boys’ school is the answer to boys’ educational needs.  They need to see girls and women as leaders, colleagues and competitors.

Eldest is thrilled to have a male teacher this year.  Why?  Because he does not believe in homework.  That’s not gender-specific.  Of course, I’m happy that my boys are happy when they have male teachers.  I’m not worried that there are too few; I’m worried that we undervalue teaching as a profession.  I’m not surprised that more men are not attracted to the profession.  We do not respect or reward our teachers nearly enough.  One proposal from an advocate for getting more men into teaching is to have

A marketing campaign, similar to billboards used to attract women to apprenticeship programs, … with images of men working with young children, so society can see men that way, and men can see themselves that way.

I’d rather see those dollars go towards a pay raise, for male and female teachers.  We value them too little.

Again, it’s part of my civilizing mission to make sure that my kids do respect the adult at the front of the class, male or female.  I do not advocate blind adherence to authority, but I insist on respect for the person whose job it is to take care of you: babysitter, teacher, coach, grandparent or parent.  My message is always the same: work hard, have fun, but don’t make it anyone else’s job to manage your behaviour.

Is there a crisis in boys’ education?  I don’t think it’s productive or necessary to ring alarm bells.  Men still earn more than women.  Men still outnumber women in positions of power and prestige.   But we do all need to work hard to keep all of our kids engaged and living up to their potential.

At Issue: Teaching Boys

As you know, we are all mothers of boys.  We face the daily challenge of keeping the fridge stocked, the socks off the floor and the noise levels to something below ear-splitting.

But what about being mothers to boys in school?  What are the challenges of parenting boys through their academic development?  This week, 4Mothers will be discussing the challenges of teaching boys.

In a 6-part series in 2010, The Globe and Mail investigated a perceived crisis in the education of boys.  In the introductory article, Carolyn Abraham notes that

Boys have been recast as the underdogs of academics. It’s a controversial shift – fuelling a complex battle of the sexes – but these days boys are the ones making news, for falling behind and flunking out, from the U.S. to China, from the U.K. to the Philippines, from New Zealand to Canada.

Subsequent articles in the series looked at the endangered male teacherover-medicating boys, misunderstanding boys, and a call to action to even the balance.

In this article from April 2014, Erin Andersson reports on a study that shows that boys’ poor performance is actually nothing new: boys have been lagging behind girls for the past 100 years:

Boys aren’t falling behind in school. More accurately, they were never ahead.

A new international peer-reviewed study by Canadian researchers has found that over the last 100 years, girls have always done better than boys when it comes to school grades. And not just in language studies, though the gender gap in those subjects is wider: Their findings also hold true in math and science. In those stereotypically “male” subjects, girls have either performed just as well as boys, or do better. These results were not only stable over time, but across nationalities and race. And while boys do make up some ground in math and science in high school, girls still do better than them.

How does our experience measure up to these alarm calls?  Is there a crisis in our own boys’ education?  Stay tuned for our perspectives on teaching boys.

Community Success

photo 3My proudest time as a teacher was taking a group of students to South Africa on exchange.

In 2007, I took eleven Nelson Mandela Park Public School students (from grades five to twelve) to Cape Town, South Africa, for a month.

For close to two years, the school and the Regent Park community worked together and supported the exchange in every way (financially, emotionally, physically) through fundraising, learning about South Africa and Nelson Mandela, and through communicating with Battswood, our sister school in South Africa.

Prior to our trip, in December of 2006, the Regent Park community hosted a group of teachers, parents and students from our sister school in their homes and classrooms for a month.

The community aspect, both here in Canada and there in South Africa, was amazing.

It was a lot of hard work, but at the same time it was easy because we knew that other people were supporting  the project.

What was most remarkable about this whole experience was the level of trust from the school, the community, and the families that these children could be successful in doing the unexpected.

I was privileged to be a part of this life changing experience.

(Recounting this story brought tears to Sherri’s eyes).

 

What do you learn from your students?

photo (10)Being a teacher and spending my days with young children has taught me to embrace living in an imperfect world. The lives of children are often messy and complicated, but that messiness is usually short-lived and turns into joy and exuberance more quickly than we adults anticipate. I am always amazed watching children make mistakes as they are learning or as they are navigating the social world of the playground because I am also witnessing them build resilience and their inner strength, which I know they will carry into their adult lives.  Watching them build their resiliency or come to accept when their ideas don’t work out as planned makes me remember it’s okay to exist in a place that isn’t always neat and tidy, where it’s okay to fail because we often learn more from our failures than we do from our successes.

Spotlight on Teachers

honyuWe love the way that Brandon Stanton, the creator of Humans of New York, can create a biographical moment in one image, sometimes with as little as one sentence.  HONY began as a catalogue of the people of New York.  It became an internet success (nearly 10 million followers) and now Brandon is travelling the world with the UN, telling stories from developing nations and nations in conflict.

Inspired by HONY and its piercing brevity, we wanted to pay tribute to some of the teachers in our kids’ lives and ask them about their work.

Stay tuned as 4Mothers1Blog puts the spotlight on teachers for our back to school theme week.

 

Tips for How to Turn Off the Television (Without a Fight)

tvOne of the transitions my kids like the least when we move from summer mode to school mode is the return of strict limits on screen time.  We are barely one week in, and already our heads are spinning from the number of things on the calendar.  With all of the sports, extra curriculars and playdates, there just isn’t time for television during the week, so our house rule is no television until after school Friday.   We usually have a movie night on Friday, and weekend mornings are fair game for whatever screen time the kids want (if the hockey schedule allows!) and it’s back to no screen time on Sunday nights.

Even with these limits, and even with a whole morning of available screen time on weekends, we still have a hard time when it comes to turning off the tube.  The kids resist unplugging, and there’s inevitably a squabble once the television stops entertaining them.

So at CBC Kids’ Days, when I met with Dr. Lynn Oldershaw of CBC Kids, I knew exactly what I wanted to ask her:

1. How can television teach kids how to regulate their emotions when the t.v. goes off?

2. How can we turn off the television without the meltdown that almost inevitably ensues?

Oldershaw pointed out that as part of their teaching of emotional intelligence, CBC Kids shows teach kids how to name their emotions, regulate their emotions and then problem solve to cope with their emotions.  Shows like The Adventures of Napkin Man and Poco teach strategies for how to manage anger or sadness, for example.  I’ve taken to getting Youngest to name the sense of aimlessness he feels when he unplugs.  At least if he’s able to recognize the pattern of feeling at a loss when the tv goes off, he can begin to find ways to overcome it.

Her advice for how to turn off the screens without a meltdown is to make empowerment the key.  Give your children choices.  The more control they feel they have, the less they will resist the limits you impose.  Have a family discussion about what is a reasonable amount of screen time and when it can happen.  Present them with choices before and after screen time:

“Do you want to watch television or play on the Wii?  It’s your choice how to spend your screen time.”

“Do you want to put in a movie or watch a television show?”

“Do you want to have lunch or go to the park?  It’s your choice what to do next.”

What do you do to help your kids unplug?  Is it a difficult transition? 

 

 

Back to School? Time to Get Their Eyes Checked!

Portrait of lovely girl drawing with colorful pencilsWhen Middlest started Junior Kindergarten (five years ago!), his teacher asked us if he’d had his eyes checked.

No, we said.  We should get on that, since we both wear glasses.

Poor kid.  Not only did he need glasses, he needed a really strong prescription.  I will never forget the mix of humour and guilt I felt when he walked around the optometrist’s with his new glasses, saying, “Look at the carpet, Mum!  It has patterns!”

Thank goodness his teacher had asked us.  There was nothing in his day-to-day activity or behaviour that had indicated that he was (so badly) in need of glasses.  He didn’t know he was supposed to be able to see more clearly, and we had not noticed anything to draw our attention to his weak vision.

If your little ones are starting school for the first time this week, and if you have not had their vision tested, please consider doing so sooner rather than later.  The really great news is that now, their first pair of glasses could be provided for free.

The Ontario Association of Optometrists has launched a children’s vision program, Eye See…Eye Learn®, in Toronto, a program that will provide free glasses to Junior Kindergarten children.

The information below is from their press release:

More than 25 per cent of Ontario children have vision problems, yet according to 2013 government data, only 10 per cent received a comprehensive eye exam from a Doctor of Optometry before the age of four.  On July 1, 2014, Eye See…Eye Learn®, a not-for-profit program designed to detect, diagnose and treat children with vision problems, will launch a campaign to provide free eye exams and glasses to Junior Kindergarten children in Toronto.

“The integration of Eye See…Eye Learn® into the Toronto market is a direct result of the program’s success elsewhere in the province,” said Dr. Farooq Khan, President, Ontario Association of Optometrists. “While children rarely complain about vision problems, or are even aware of them, statistics show the correlation between education and eyes – nearly 25 per cent of children have a vision problem, many of which are thought to have a learning disability. The Eye See…Eye Learn® program will reduce these mislabeled children and ensure that they have the best chance to succeed in school.”

Through Eye See…Eye Learn®, children starting Junior Kindergarten in Toronto this fall will join thousands of other students across the province that are eligible for one free pair of glasses with their annual OHIP eye exam, if prescribed, through participating Doctors of Optometry. Every child in Ontario who has a valid Ontario Health Card is entitled to an annual OHIP-insured eye exam by a Doctor of Optometry, up until age 19.

Eye See…Eye Learn® is funded in part by the Government of Ontario and administered by the Ontario Association of Optometrists, in conjunction with over 40 school boards, community and industry partners. Further information is available at EyeSeeEyeLearn.ca.

 

 

Kazu Kibuishi and Hayao Miyazaki Book and Film Fest

little

Our wonderful local comic book store, Little Island Comics, hosted an event with Kazu Kibuishi last week, and Middlest being a HUGE Amulet fan, we went along to hear him speak and watch him draw.  Middlest has been counting down the days to the publication date of Book Six in the series all summer, so we were all terribly excited when we got our paws on Book Six a week early because that’s the kind of perk you get with a store like Little Island in the ‘hood.  Middlest read it cover to cover in the store, which was all very well until he asked, “When is Book Seven coming out?”

Kazu Kibuishi did a degree in Film Studies (not film making, but film criticism), and in his talk at the Palmerston branch of the Toronto Public Library, he said that it was the essay-writing he did for that degree that best prepared him to create the Amulet books.  As an artist, he is self-taught, but he had to learn how to shape a narrative by writing essays.  Even now he finds that writing is difficult, and drawing is the real treat that comes after the story has been written.

Kazu Kibuishi at the Palmerston Branch of the Toronto Public Library

Kazu Kibuishi at the Palmerston Branch of the Toronto Public Library

What I loved most about his talk was how much he shared about the failures he had on the road to success.  After several years working in design and animation, he wrote and drew 20 pages of Amulet, but quit after 20 pages because it was so difficult.  Scholastic asked him to pitch a book idea, though, and he dusted off Amulet and revised it for a pitch.  They liked it, and he had a contract to do the first book.

He wrote and drew book one of Amulet four times.  As the deadline to turn in the book drew close, he felt that the draft he had completed was not good enough.  Ignoring the editors at Scholastic who said it was, he made the most difficult decision of his life and held the book hostage until it was something he felt right about publishing.  He wrote and rewrote the book, and with four drafts in hand, he was still not certain.  He asked Jeff Smith, the author of the Bone series, to take a look at what he thought was the best draft.   “Some of it is good,” he said.  With that as his guide, Kibuishi set about finding the good parts in each of the drafts he had made.  He turned the book in a year late, after taking the best pieces from each of the four drafts and building new bridges to connect the sections he had saved.  Going through that process taught him that creating a finished book has to begin with the faith that a bunch of small parts that do work will eventually work as a larger whole in the end.

I also loved how down to earth he was about his drawing process.  He draws his first drafts on cheap printer paper because he wants to feel that he can throw them away.  He carries around a small notebook that he can whip out as soon as inspiration strikes or whenever he has an idle moment.  He does not want to be precious about the process.

And what is his advice to young writers and artists?  The ability to draw is not something you are born with.  It takes practice, hard work and a lot of discipline.  He borrows from the Boy Scouts, and also says to “Be prepared.”

Hard work, staying true to what you believe deserves to be published under your name, pushing through writer’s block, illustrator’s block and repeated failure to realize on paper the ideas in your mind–all wonderful inspiration to a crowd of admirers.

Emily and Miskit, drawn on the computer while he answered questions form the audience.

I am sorry to say that until I had heard him talk, I had not read the Amulet books.  I knew that they were among Middlest’s favourite books, but I just had not made it to them yet.  (This could be in part because he re-reads them so often, they are never on the shelf!)  That changed post haste after seeing Kibuishi in person, and I read all six Amulet books the next day.  Kibuishi  told us that the Amulet books are full of parodies and tributes to movies, games and comics that he loves, so Middlest and I looked through the books together, looking for references to those influences.

One influence that he cited specifically was the work of Hayao Miyazaki, so after reading the books, we went off to Queen Video to look for a copy of Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind.  We came home with four films instead of one, and turned the excess into an excuse for a party: a Hayao Miyazaki film fest with sushi for dinner.

One of the things that is immediately apparent as an influence is that both men eschew traditional roles for their female characters, and their girls are leaders, brave, grounded, and in Miyazaki’s case, not paired off at the end of the story.  Praise be!

All told, a great way to finish off summer.

nausicaa_r4_dvd