When children—or adults for that matter—gather round to listen to a picture book, or a poem, I never know what will happen. The younger the age , the more unpredictable an audience is. Babies fill their diapers. Toddlers pick their noses. Little boys might show me they can cross their eyes. Stick out their tongues. Little girls might show me they've lost a tooth. Lift their dresses over their heads. And someone almost always inevitably  ...toots. (If you think I'm exaggerating, ask any elementary teacher.)

Then there's spitball throwers, pencil jabbers, knee huggers, belly growlers, belching burpers, bum wigglers and yes: The Tantrum Monster. Sometimes this monster inhabits the body of a child, but more often—this monster lurks in the form of an adult who wants a certain child to settle down, sit still and listen. To not pick their nose, not wiggle their bums and not interrupt THE STORYTELLER.

Not to worry, I want to say, it's okay, I've pretty much seen it all but by all means feel free to take your child to a galaxy far far away (for a while) if they're screaming over the top or become disruptive to others.  You will know because everyone will be giving you dirty looks. These looks mean l-e-a-v-e. But I never say that and never will because, well:

This chaos of storytelling is part of the joy of it. It is not interruption: it's conversation. Exchange. The unpredictability is delicious. We do need to learn audience manners, yes, but I expect, welcome and even invite a certain amount of... interaction.

Case in point: Take a peek at this if you want to see what can happen when a child (who knew my book) decided to join me in the telling.

I'm sooo glad no one asked her to sit down! It was my favourite reading of Mabel Murple ever. (Me and Harriet, THe Road Show?) What if everyone read aloud to themselves at least once a week? Savoured the words in the air? Welcomed the sound of their own voices?

If you're writing a book (not just one for children—any book or essay or blog even), reading aloud helps fine tune the cadence of your work. Even if the work is for adults and most likely read in solitude and silence, the text still has a pacing that depends upon how sentences are constructed, how text ebbs and flows. If you're a reader, appreciating an author's words aloud is a whole different reading experience. I know book clubs are thriving , but I'd love to see more adult "read aloud reading clubs" springing up the same way. Reading aloud to others from a book you love seems to me another way to celebrate both storytelling and books in community. I hope to start one with friends next year. I have a lot of books wanting readers to read them.

We had a wonderful launch of PARL's Writer in Residency in Stellarton on October 31st. Mums and Dads and babes in arms gathered.  Despite what I've said above, they were all exceptional LISTENERS. I tried out the newest book Singily Skipping Along and was delighted when most of the children listening wanted to come up and touch the texture of the page.

The text is illustrated with hooked rug art by Deanne Fitzpatrick. The poem/chant in the book is an invitation to play and interact with the text, texture and colour of the book through a listener's body and senses. Seeing the children react by touching was... well... touching. Currently, the rugs from the book are being auctioned online and all proceeds go to L'Arche Atlantic. Deadline for bids is December 1st.

In Antigonish, at that fabulous library, the first workshop for PARL was for adults and entitled: If You Want To Write For Children. The title is a nod to the book I call my writing bible If You Want to Write by Brenda Ueland. When I first found this book, it was like I found the person who believed everything I did about writing. Ueland echoes so much of what I believe about the reasons we want to write, about creative process, about authentic voice and about how vulnerable we can be, especially in the beginning, as we put our voices forth. Listen, for example, to Ueland here:

The only good teachers for you are those friends who love you, who think you are interesting, or very important, or wonderfully funny; whose attitude is: "Tell me more. Tell me all you can. I want to understand more about everything you feel and know and all the changes inside and out of you. Let more come out." And if you have no such friend—and you want to write—well, then you must imagine one.”― Brenda Ueland, If You Want to Write

At some point, your best friend might become an editor who can point out where you've gotten lazy or boring or muddled. At first, however, just GET the story DOWN. As Uleand says, let more come out. This is why in workshops I concentrate on exercises I call First Burst pieces. We get pen moving without thinking too much and write.

We covered as much territory as we could in the time we had in Antigonish and I'll be doing the same this week in New Glasgow. I'll be available to comment on manuscripts one on one as the weeks go on. Here is a good place to start:

What is the most recent children's book you've read?

If you want to write for children you must read, read, read, read books for children. You do not have to take a course in children's literature—(but that's not a bad idea)—but you do have to immerse yourself in the world of children's books. And an even better question to leave you with:  

What was your favourite children's book when you were a child?  Why do you think it's your favourite?

Answering that means you begin to examine what your idea of excellence is.

Was it the book, the art, the context it was read in, the character, the theme? All of the above?

Hope you give me some thoughts in the comment section. Next "museletter" on Breathing and Stretching and Writing and some more book suggestions.

For futher reading: Here is an article I wrote for Atlantic Books years ago when asked for  "tips" on writing for children. And here is a piece on PARL Writer in Residence from The Advocate (long live community newspapers.)

TD Children's Book Week & YOUNG CANADA's BOOK WEEK

Among books I bought at an auction last year was this catalogue from the Canadian Libraries Association-- featuring an article on the first  Young Canada's Book Week/ Le Semaine Du Livre pour la Jeunesse Canadienne. 

We've come a long way since 1949...but thank you Viscountess Alexander of Tunis!  

It's Canada's TD Children's Book Week and this year there will be over 116 free public readings during the week of May 5th-12th across Canada.

This means every day writers and illustrators have the chance to meet readers face to face, talk about the creative process, what goes on in the the making of a book, (who are we really- do we have dogs or cats or lizards or hobbies like parachuting and do we make a lot money and how old are we and on it goes.) The creators of books get to hear how a reader reacts to their work or feels about a character. We see the enthusiasm generated by our books and words BECAUSE hardworking teachers, librarians, parents, community members care enough to put "good" books in the hands of children. Books where they will see themselves reflected back and meet and greet otherness, too. A child in Nunavut reads a book about a child in Afghanistan. An inner city child contemplates coastal life he has yet to experience or sails an ocean she has yet to splash around in. A child with depression learns he is not alone.  And somewhere someone is talking pure nonsense and getting everyone excited about word music. So I picture children flying this week too -- flying through the wide blue skies of their imagination, the pages of books their magic carpets — zooming across our country—from sea to sea to sea.

Yes, they clap for us, the creators. Yes, we sign our names. We eat lots of cake. We feel happy.We are useful. We work hard but most often, they have worked harder preparing for us and yes, it makes us want to do more and better.

For a look at what is happening across the country this year, check out the Bookweek website. And as for the past—for many writers, myself included, we cut our touring teeth during the days when the Canadian Children's Book Centre held Children's Book Week in November. Those weeks were busy and full and a way we got to travel beyond our own region and see the bigger country. But the weather.

My first trip north (89?) I was on eight planes in ten days. It was mostly dark all day and cold—very cold and I missed my own children. Still, I loved every second of it and kept pinching myself: was I really in the north at last? There was the night the pilot scraped off the windshield of the small  twin engine plane with his credit card before we took off. We circled the airport and landed back down in the same airport. Tuktoyaktuk was snowed in. Had we made it there, I would have been storm stayed for a week. There's many stories to be told by Canadian children book authors and artists --and their hosts-- maybe there's a fund rasing anthology in the making one day.

May seems a better month for Children's Book Week for many reasons—weather being one—but also it's the time of year when everyone needs reminding reading can be as f-u-n as it is instructional. Or as in the essay above, "wholesome".  

I'm shouting out to Yayo, who's on the road with his magical art work and I hope reading from—

A lot of people, for a lot of years, have cared about children and what they read. Where, would we EVER be without our libraries?

Just for fun—the table of contents. Sir Stanley might have to choose another title were he writing today. Or the topic suggested might mean something quite different. Some things change.

Happy Birthday : A DECADE OF Nova Scotia READ TO ME !

 1-2-3 ABC 


Today is family literacy day.

A cause for celebration, a time for awareness. Around the world. In our own neighbourhoods.


A day to pause and reflect a bit, too.

The links beteen illiteracy and poverty, illteracy and violence, illiteracy and crime are indisputable.

Here are some sobering statistics from Corrections Services Canada on federally incarcerated prisoners...

  • 77 percent did not complete high school
  • 60 percent have no trade or skill
  • 80 percent have unstable work history

Ten years ago The Nova Scotia Read To Me program was officially born. The vision for the progam had been in the minds and hearts of many for years. It took a team of visionary, hard working, committed people : professionals and volunteers to bring this initiative to fruition. The work is never-ending. The program's birthday means the first babies Read TO Me served are now ten years old.


The link to  the Read to me website is here.

The links to community, the links to the health and well-being , to the literacy education and heart education of the children and families of Nova Scotia are endless and priceless.

The program is about so much more than giving away bags of books and CD's and literacy inforrmation for every baby born in Nova Scotia- although this is no small thing ---and to date 78,500 bags of such treasure have been distributed. 78,500 babies reached!

The Read to Me program is about how we nurture our children in the world and the world of words and numbers, how we cradle our children in the rhythmns of life and language. How we help them find their voices. How reading aloud can create a safe place for imagining and asking, for thinking and dreaming and problem solving.

It's about turning the hope for a more literate culture and healthier society into action and reality.

I'm starting to sound like I'm running for some sort of office.

So, let me tell you a story.

I'm in grocery store. I'm wearing my Read to Me vest. A  young mother, child in tow, approaches. The mother is somewhat embarassed but the child is excited. "She spotted the logo. We have a Read to Me Bag." says the mother proudly.

Her child is fourteen months old she tells me.

"Your child is reading!" I almost shriek.

"I know", she says, "I know. We read every day."

I've been both humbled and proud to have been The Honorary Spokesperson for the program since its birth. That's meant I've held more babies and read to even more children than I might have. I've also been blessed to work with special people -Dr. Richard Goldbloom, Shanda LaRamee to name but two. Above all I worked with one of my best freinds as a collegue.

On Read to Me's tenth birthday I want to sing Happy Brithday to writer, children's literature consultant, speaker and teacher, and Executive Director of Read To Me: Carol Mcdougall.

Carol: your vision, your professionalism, your kindness, your endless hours of work, your love and many gifts have made a HUGE difference. Yes, it takes many to make a program run, but your passion for this program and vision of family literacy is inclusive, open-hearted, authentic.

As a mother, a grandmother, a writer, a literacy educator, and your friend, thank you for allowing me to be part of a most wonderful wonderful story. You've taught me much.

So blow out the candles, dear friend !  Dance !   Babies are tapping toes ! Families are reading !


Up in The Tree, In a Tent, Out on the Land in Iglurjuakuluit, Nunavut

You’re in a tent. It’s vast and cold outside, very vast, very cold. It’s a howling wilderness.

~ The Tent, Margaret Atwood

It isn’t that cold, especially when you’re among friends. It’s the end of July 2005. But we are in a tent on south east Southampton Island, in Iglurjuakuluit, Nunavut. The Canadian Arctic. It’s not exactly comfortable, but the landscape is breathtaking. It can be overwhelming.

It’s vast, very vast.

In the large communal tent, a pot of tea simmers on the propane burner, a lantern casts shadows against the canvass, which, in this raging wind, snaps, whips, whorls around us. We’re hours away from the nearest community, having traveled here by boat. Many of us are afraid of the water, even when it’s calm. And somewhere out there, a polar bear lurks. He paid us a visit our first evening. He was big, very big. I’ve been out on the land before, but this is a first.

Hunters with guns kept watch as we slept.

All of us are afraid of polar bears.

For the moment, however, we forget about the isolation, the weather, the wilderness, the sharp teeth and claws of bears. We’re wrapped around and snug inside the syllables of a simple, charming, story-in-verse. It’ s better than flannel.

We like our old tree,
Our home in the tree ;
We swing in the Spring
We crawl in the Fall
And we dance on the branches
Way up in the Tree.

Nineteen Inuit women, and one Quallanut huddle together; listening to the storyteller. The Quallanut would me; it’s an Inuktitut word which, loosely translated, means southerner.

These Inuk women, aged twenty and older, are here to participate in an innovative program called Somebody’s Daughter. Over the next two weeks, they will learn, laugh, cry, and heal. They will sew by day, reclaiming the traditional Inuit sewing skills of their foremothers: cleaning, scraping, stretching, chewing then stitching the skins of caribou and seal. They will make parkas, kamiks, mittens. By night, ulus, thimbles, needles and thread will be put aside.

They will claim their voices.

They will improve their literacy. They will tell their stories orally, or use pen and paper. Sometimes they will write poems that will crack my heart wide open. They will send messages to loved ones, letters to politicians and inspiring words to women around the world.

This storyteller is also their teacher. It’s her first year. But she will become, as well, both courier and messenger. At times, the voice is barely audible, competing, as it must, against the wind’s howl. So we lean in closer, riveted as she turns pages and shows us pictures. This story’s in a book. This book is called Up In the Tree. There’s more than a touch of irony in this; we’re miles above the tree line. Some of these women have never touched a tree, let alone climbed one. Fewer still know anything about this storyteller, either by name or reputation.

She is also "a picture book maker."

"So you write books?" they inquire shyly after she closes the book.

"Did I maybe see you on TV?"

And Margaret Atwood will smile and say, "You may have, yes."

In Inuit culture, the oral tradition is still revered. Art, film, song, dance and radio, are perhaps a better media to articulate this culture than the world of books will ever be. Legends and stories, especially from respected elders- are still a valued way of transmitting Inuit culture and history.

If or when there the world crashes, satellites go out, we might all remember such basics and rely on the storyteller’s very human voice. We might once again take sinew from whale, rinse it in salt, stretch it across a board and then wait until it dries in the sun, spun gold, transformed into thread. Thread with which we sew things together , or back together, stitch by stitch.

Bernadette Dean can do this.


It’s because Dean asked and Atwood said yes, that Atwood has the honor of being teacher and writer-in- residence out on the land with Somebody’ s Daughter. Dean is the mover and shaker behind the scenes, social co-coordinator for KIA, an association committed to the education of Inuit youth and preservation of Inuit culture. A long time educator and activist for healthy communities and a more hopeful future for her people, Dean has worked in ways than we cannot to begin to fathom.

Bernadette can shoot a caribou.

She also gives power point presentations. Yesterday she emailed a video of her first granddaughter made just that morning. Dean’s produced CDs. collecting the songs and chants she wants never to be lost. Her great- grandmother was Shoofly. She’s shown me pictures. Dean is Somebody’s Daughter, and great granddaughter. I still dream of her writing that book.

We met in 1992 at Arctic College. I was going by instinct, my first time teaching creative writing in a cross-cultural setting, painfully aware of my blonde hair and blue eyes, of being under scrutiny. It was my job, above all else, to create a safe place so authentic voices might come forth. On the third day, Dean wrote and read a poem about her mother ‘s bannock recipe and her mother’s battle with cancer. There wasn’t a dry eye in the class when she finished reading. Writing class stopped. Learning began. The women got out the flour and lard and baked bannock.

When the teacher is ready, the students appear.

Dean straddles, as many Inuit do: two cultures, two languages, two worlds, embracing the new, preserving traditions, negotiating through tangled beaurocracy. She holds a lot of stories inside . She hurts when yet another woman is beaten, or another community loses a teen or other loved one to suicide.

And she is also a woman of great faith. Let Go and Let God is on the silver cross she gave me first summer.

I hold many stories from the Daughters of Somebody’s Daughter but I will not tell them. They are their stories. I can tell, however, I ‘ve never met such brave or resilient women. This program heals and humbles me.

I chewed sealskin and sewed a miniature kamik, my first year, thanks to Hattie, my teacher. (I’ve barely ever sewn a button on anything.) When they clapped for me, my chest exploded and I cried as many of the women do when our sewing project is completed. Your hands are healing the elders told me.

They named me Naluaqq. White sealskin hung out to dry.

My tiny kamik, here in my office, holds insense and a piece of thread Bernadette made from the sinew.

In February, Atwood wrote an essay for the Washington Post on the writing life and on how participating in this program brought her back to some basics. Fundamentals such as : if you want to learn, teach. And that writing is always for someone. A few days later, Dean participated in that paper’s online chat to folks around the world. By some wonderful quirk of fate, Dean and I ended up in a cubicle at the Sheraton in Winnipeg airport together with a window of few hours. And logged on. Margaret Atwood was in New York.

A Inuit woman talking through cyber space to folks around the world—about her culture and what this program and literacy education means in the north—with a literary icon. A writer whose books, along with Alice Munroe’s, I once kept under my bed, dreaming of the day I might one day maybe be a published writer.

During the chat, when one person asked if sewing wasn’t rather degrading for women, my hackles went up. Atwood’s response was terrific, but, because she can be extremely generous , she handed over the forum to Dean. Dean calmly typed in, quoted a Buddhist saying. A line about humility, about making the best basket one can make.

I remain in awe.

Because of Atwood’s connections with UNESCO, and Dean’s ongoing commitment as she attends conferences on aboriginal education around the globe, Somebody’s Daughter could end up being a model for land -based literacy programs in other cultures. It’s both an experiential and contemplative model of education. Ghandi’s words on literacy education embody its premise.

"Literacy education should follow the literacy of the hand- the one gift that visibly distinguishes man from the beast. It is superstition to think that the fullest development of man is impossible without a knowledge of reading and writing. That knowledge undoubtedly adds grace to life, but is in no way indispenable for man’s moral, physical or material growth."

Those are challenging words for writers to wrap their heads around, or readers, or anyone in the book industry. In today’s world, most folks do need to read, write and keep up with technology. Employment matters. Survival. So it is a bit more tangible than Grace, though it is that too.

It is difficult to speak of grace.

Let me try again.

Atwood’s voice is hypnotic, the cadence consistently monotone, and her face, somewhat of a mask. Her pitch-up here is perfect. It’s also culturally appropriate; we are in the midst of a mostly modest culture—one where an animated expression is often seen as rude. Among Inuit, 'yes' is a barely discernible raise of both eyebrows, 'no' is a subtle scrunch of a nose. It takes some time to adjust. I’ve been trying to learn on and off for almost twenty years. Why?

Because when I was eight years old I read Farley Mowat and Jack London and Robert Service. I fell in love with the word aurora borealis as colours splashed across the pages of a Grade Three Reader. Because I had a recurring vivid dream that I was under a white dome. I was in an igloo with the Eskimos the only word I knew then.

The north—as it does for many, beckoned.

I made my first trek there in 1988 thanks to Canadian Children’s Book Centre and the Canada Council. It was dark and cold and I was glad to get home. There was, however, no turning back after that. Thanks to Peter Gzowski and his literacy fundraisers, a band of southerners going up to play golf on the ice, I ended up in Pond Inlet. Bernadette’s daughter Ashley, now studying to become a teacher, was in Grade Five then.

After that there were other calls to go work. Sometimes I said yes. Sometimes no. Bernadette’s CALL was no ordinary call. Want to come teaching in a camp at the top of the world?

I joke that maybe because I only had sons, I have had to go north to find my daughters. God-daughters maybe. But also, sisters, friends. Teachers. Truth is, I have them back home in the Maritimes and here in Washington—a real a cold place if you don’t have friends to remind you to follow you heart’s affections.

How is it that women who 'told' me stories in a tent , and three sentences written on a piece of torn paper, passed through a tent flap, by a woman who initially wept each time she tried to write—has become more valuable to me than any book I could ever write? To be of use, writes Marge Piercy on a poem by that title. It is work that makes me feel I am of use. Sometimes, I think my love of the north began with Santa. But it’s bigger than that – it might just be as close to heaven as I will ever get.

It is vast—this view at the top of the world. A line from one of the Somebody’s Daughters participants in summer, 2004 comes to mind: "Such large land and sky!"

There is a possibility of angels close by.

Picture my friend Bernadette spreading arms wide as if hugging the land— saying this—this—this—is my living room! Picture a storyteller in a tent keeping fear at bay as she gathers us around her. Vast, says Atwood.


~ Sheree Fitch, first published in New Brunswick Reader