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Meet the GG contenders for children's books

Categories: Books

Governor General's Literary Award nominees

It would be difficult to find five more different books than the children's text nominees for the Governor General's Literary Awards. Readers get teen romance in Under the Moon, a rollicking adventure tale in The Grave Robber's Apprentice, a rich fantasy novel in Seraphina, a tough, comic look at a kid's life in The Reluctant Journal of Henry K. Larsen and a modern fairytale in The Umbrella.

Susan Noakes takes a look at the five contenders. The winner will be announced on Tuesday, Nov. 13.

Under the Moon

By Deborah Kerbel of Thornhill, Ont.

Under the MoonUnder the Moon's heroine is a teen insomniac. (Dancing Cat Books, an imprint of Cormorant Books)

Under the Moon is about a girl with an extreme case of insomnia. Lily has spent more than 25 days without sleep since the death of her eccentric Aunt Su, the person to whom she felt closest in her life. She lives in the fictional southwestern Ontario town of Big Bend, a beachfront community with a population that swells in the summer. But it's September and when Lily walks the streets in the long empty hours of the night, there's almost no one around -- except Ben Matthews, the boy manning the booth at the 24-hour drive-through.

Both are prickly characters without close friends. Lily is working through her grief and doesn't trust her own judgment due to her lack of sleep. Ben is new to town and worried about his family, which has recently fractured. Their connection is a way of moving forward in this rather unusual teen romance.

Kerbel, whose earlier teen novels include Lure and Girl on the Other Side, said readers have told her they suffered insomnia that started in their teen years.

"What would a teenager do with all of that time, all those long dark hours? That's really where the idea came from," she said.

"When the book started, all I had was a sleepless teenager. I didn't know why she wasn't sleeping. As the character evolved, it became clear to me: she'd lost that human connection. The person she'd let in died and she was sort of cut adrift and to find her sleep again, she had to open herself up, let herself connect to another person again."

Deborah KerbelDeborah Kerbel loved reading romance when she was teen. (Dancing Cat Books)

Kerbel said she identifies with introverted characters, including those like Lily, who find it difficult to know how to interact with other people.

"I do write with a teenage girl in mind, about the age of 14, 15; someone who is starting to think about romance for the first time, facing new situations and at the point where [she's] changing. Everything is moving at high speed. Often they need to see themselves reflected in a book."

Kerbel said she enjoyed reading romance at that age herself, but she believes in restraint in portraying affection between teens.

"When you start putting in detail, it takes away from the moment. I think that [when] writing for teens, I can leave it to their imaginations. A first kiss is about as far as I like to go with my characters. Me, personally, that's enough," she said.


By Rachel Hartman of Vancouver

SeraphinaSeraphina takes place in a fantasy world where dragons can transform into humans. (Doubleday Canada)

Rachel Hartman began creating the fantasy world of Seraphina when she was still in junior high school. It's a world where dragons and humans interact and both species love music. Throughout her teens, she created stories set in this land, which she called Goredd. In her 20s, she tried to create a graphic novel about it. Dragons were so difficult to draw that she came up with the notion that they could transform into human form, now a key concept in Seraphina. Still, it took her nine years and two publishers to see her fantasy novel debut.

"Dragons, in dragon form, would have one set of senses. They'd probably have good eyesight [and] good sense of smell because they're hunters," Hartman said, describing how she developed her dragon characters.

"Touch probably wouldn't be as important because they'd have scaly skin. But when they turn to human form, they have human senses and a human brain. So human senses are going to be overwhelming to them and they're going to have trouble with it. Their skin would itch all the time. It would be frustrating not to have as good eyesight.

"Reptiles in general aren't very social creatures and so wouldn't feel love or empathy. In human form, those emotions would be overwhelming. They would have rules to prevent being swept away by these feelings."

Rachel HartmanRachel Hartman began imagining the world of Seraphina during her teen years. (Doubleday Canada)

What results is a dragon state that keeps rigid control of its citizens, part of the political backdrop for the story in Seraphina. Hartman's heroine is half-human and half-dragon -- a heritage she struggles to conceal throughout the story. There has been peace between humans and dragons for 40 years, but there is no trust. Seraphina herself is the music mistress in the court of Goredd, able to understand dragons and to entertain both races with her music. Because of this, however, she is thrust into a high political drama involving attempted assassinations and dissidents from both worlds.

The tale explores sweeping themes of tolerance and the nature of prejudice, while Seraphina's personal story -- especially her relationship with the crown princess Glisselda and her cousin, Captain Lucian Kiggs -- is about conquering differences and mastering oneself.

"There's a moment in everyone's life when they have to step out into the world, maybe feeling like you don't know how to navigate it and that everyone else has it all together and you yourself are a weirdo. That was my teenage experience. I thought a lot of kids could relate to Seraphina's struggle on that count," Hartman said.

Fortunately, Seraphina is just the beginning. Hartman has set the conditions for more intrigue and an approaching war in Goredd as she works on a sequel to her rich debut novel.

The Reluctant Journal of Henry K. Larsen

By Susin Nielsen of Vancouver

The Reluctant Journal of Henry K. LarsenThe Reluctant Journal of Henry K. Larsen offers a comic, kid's-eye view of bullying. (Tundra Books/Random House)

Henry K. Larsen, a 13-year-old forced to transfer to a new school in Vancouver, tells his story in the first person in Susin Nielsen's wry, clever little book. His life has been turned upside-down since his older brother shot the school bully before turning a gun on himself. In the aftermath, Henry has put on weight and his family had to move. His mom and dad aren't living together anymore and he's being sent to a hippy therapist who suggests he write down his thoughts -- hence the book's title.

All this grim material is revealed in the first few pages of The Reluctant Journal of Henry K. Larsen, but Nielsen quickly takes her young readers on a charming and frequently humorous journey about adjusting to change. Henry makes a somewhat oddball friend named Farley, is coerced into joining the Reach for the Top trivia team and waxes lyrical about his favourite TV sport, wrestling.

"I loved getting to the hub of this kid. The reason I'm able to find humour, even in dark subject matter, is because it's told in the first person," said former Degrassi and Robson Arms screenwriter Nielsen, who notes that her own inner voice is eternally aged 12.

Susin NielsenSusin Nielsen says she has the sense of humour of a 12-year-old. (Tundra Books/Random House)

"There are a couple of people who start out, through Henry's eyes, a bit stereotypical -- like Farley, an Asian guy with the big glasses. But through the book, readers will see -- with Henry -- that we're a lot more three-dimensional than that. "

Nielsen began thinking about the families of school shooters after reading a novel that made reference to a brother of one of the Columbine shooters.

"It stopped me in my tracks. I had never stopped to consider what it would be like for the surviving siblings, for the surviving family members of the boy who committed a horrible crime," she said.

"I got to thinking about Henry, the younger brother. Who was he before this happened? How did he and his brother relate to each other. What was that family like?"

The family she portrays in her book is nuanced, neither lacking in parenting skills nor fully effective as parents. She also paints a clear picture of bullying, a subject much in the news lately, but seldom seen from a kid's-eye view. Henry's judgments aren't always fair and his actions not always wise, but they're true to his quirky, loving personality. His world also includes characters from some of Nielsen's earlier books Word Nerd and Dear George Clooney, Please Marry My Mom.

The Umbrella

By Judd Palmer of Victoria

The Umbrella The Umbrella is a whimsical tale of an umbrella who loved a man. (Bayeux Arts)

The Umbrella is a simple story -- accompanied by pictures -- that takes just minutes to read and yet has a strong emotional impact. It's the story of an umbrella who loves a man and what happens when the wind turns the umbrella inside out. A mischief-making crow, who perches on the umbrella at one point, urges it to fly on the wings of a storm, as crows do.

The idea for the book was sparked by a flash storm in New York and the umbrella salesmen that suddenly appeared, said Judd Palmer.

"The rain would start and people would buy an umbrella and then the umbrella would be destroyed in the wind. They would toss the umbrella aside and then they'd buy another umbrella a block later. The whole squall was done in 15 minutes and the wreckage of umbrellas was strewn all over the streets. They looked very much to me like something had killed all the crows and they were lying broken on the street," he said.

 Judd PalmerAuthor Judd Palmer is also a puppeteer at Old Trout Puppet Workshop. (Bayeux Arts)

"I began by drawing pictures to make sense of the experience. I wrote text later and it became a love story: man with his umbrella and crow who once eyed the umbrella and wants him to fly."

Palmer is a founding member of Calgary's Old Trout Puppet Workshop, which recently premiered its newest production, entitled Ignorance. The Umbrella marks the third Governor General's Literary Award nomination for Palmer, who created the series Preposterous Fables for Unusual Children, a new take on well-known fairy tales that combine writing with line drawings.

Bayeux Arts, a small Calgary publisher, has included The Umbrella in its new Odd Little Books imprint, so the volume is sized for small hands.

"It was real pleasure to get to do a little book-writing like The Umbrella... It's always been my secret favourite thing to do," he said.

"With a book you can sit down and have yourself be the only voice."

The Grave Robber's Apprentice

By Allan Stratton of Toronto

The Grave Robber's ApprenticeThe Grave Robber's Apprentice revolves around a girl who wants to be a puppeteer and a boy who wants to know where he comes from.(HarperCollins)

Allan Stratton's mother used to take him to the Stratford Festival and, from the age of five, he loved the Bard. So it's not surprising that The Grave Robber's Apprentice is laden with sly references to Shakespeare's work, from Juliet's potion and girls dressed as boys to a prophecy about a marching wood. But children don't need to know their Shakespeare to enjoy this rollicking adventure tale, a fast-paced story with a couple of engaging young heros.

Hans is the title character, a baby cast adrift in a chest and rescued by a man who loots the tombs of the fictional Archduchy of Waldland. Angela is a young countess who would prefer to be a puppeteer, but is selected as a bride to the evil Archduke. She and her parents devise a plan to fake her death and avoid the marriage. When Hans discovers her in the tomb -- still very much alive -- the pair set out on a wild quest to evade the Archduke and his wicked Necromancer.

"I never think about writing for children or adults or young adults. I think about writing stories that I would personally like to read," said Stratton, who started as an actor in his 20s before becoming a playwright and teacher. He started writing young adult fiction with Leslie's Journal in 2001 and Chanda's Secrets, about the HIV/AIDS crisis in Africa, in 2004. The Grave Robber's Apprentice is his first book for younger readers, aged nine and up.

Allan StrattonAllan Stratton borrows Shakespeare's plot devices to bold effect. (

Stratton says all his work -- from stage plays to fiction -- touches on themes of identity, secrets and the power of imagination. The Shakespearean references are just part of the fun.

"If you know the Juliet reference, then that's fun. But if you don't know it, then it's still kind of fun and creepy that someone is going to pretend to be dead in order to avoid a marriage that they don't want," Stratton said.

The notion of imagination is a particularly strong theme in the novel. Angela's skill at acting and mastery of puppets gets the pair out of some difficult situations, while the villain -- a frightening Necromancer -- is able to trick others by playing on their fears.

"The Necromancer, for example, has no real power except what he makes you believe -- and with his understanding of human nature and his sense of imagination, he manages to accomplish what he does," Stratton said.

At the same time, the character is leavened with a great sense of humour.

Meanwhile, Angela is bossy and often takes the lead as she and Hans travel. She not only dresses as a boy, but is the sort of strong female character that contemporary readers love. She's a little bit bratty, Stratton admits, but so confident that she'll blunder into the most dangerous situations. Hans embarks on a personal journey: learning about his hidden abilities and the secret of his birth, as he and Angela have a breakneck adventure.

"The key is who are we, because Hans doesn't know who he is growing up. We all wonder on one level or another who we are growing up and who are our families and what is family and all of those things you find in the [Shakespearean] comedies," Stratton said.

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