How sea glass inspired Heather Smith to write a timeless children's story

The middle-grade novel Ebb & Flow is on the shortlist for $50K 2019 TD Canadian Children's Literature Award.
Heather Smith is the writer behind the free-verse middle school book Ebb & Flow. (Kids Can Press)

Heather Smith writes YA and middle-grade fiction. Originally from Newfoundland, she now lives in Waterloo, Ont. Her books include The Agony of Bun O'KeefeAngus All AglowBaygirl and, most recently, Ebb & Flow.

Ebb & Flow is a middle-grade novel written in free verse. It uses vignettes to tell the emotional story of 11-year-old Jett, a boy with a troubled past and a shameful secret.

Ebb & Flow  was a finalist for the 2018 Governor General's Literary Award for young people's literature — text.

It is now shortlisted for the 2019 TD Canadian Children's Literature Award. The $50,000 prize is the biggest in Canadian children's literature.

Smith spoke to CBC Books about how she wrote Ebb & Flow.

A beginning from sea glass

"The idea for Ebb & Flow came during a summer visit to Newfoundland. I was on the beach and I found a piece of sea glass. It was so pretty and I wondered how was it formed, from starting off as a piece of broken glass that someone threw in the ocean. It spent so much time in there getting churned around, and eventually it became this beautiful piece of glass.

"I thought it was a beautiful metaphor for a child going through something. It might be that the hard times they're going through is making them stronger and they might come out better at the end for it. I wanted tell a simple story about a child finding a piece of sea glass.

"I had read novels in verse in the past. I thought I'll just keep writing the way I'm writing it and it will become a novel-in-verse. And it did."

Fun with free verse

"I never thought of myself as a poet in any way. The only poetry I ever wrote in my entire life were limericks. But there was something about writing this — it just came out of me. It was flowing and I went with that.

"I didn't want to think too hard about it. I thought if I start researching poetry and all the technical parts of the genre I'm going to lose what I'm trying and do — that I'm going to try too hard and it's going to be forced and not going to work. I just kept doing what I was doing and hoped for the best!"

What kids can handle

"When I started to write Ebb & Flow, I knew that I wanted this main character, 11-year-old Jett, to have made a terrible mistake that he has to deal with. I think middle-grade readers can handle that. Kids might be shocked by what Jett does in the book, but I think that we shouldn't underestimate our readers. They can read that story.

We shouldn't underestimate our readers.- Heather Smith

"When writing I'm not trying to capture today's youth. I don't want to date the book. I want this to be a book that someone can pick up 10 years from now and it's still going to be relevant."

Reaching reluctant readers

"Most of the emails I get are from my young adult audience. The teens see themselves in a lot of my stories. They might be going through some kind of crisis and they'll reach out to me through email. With Ebb & Flow, there have been a lot of teachers and teacher librarians telling me how the boys in their class that don't usually read are picking up this book and devouring it.

"That is awesome. It just feels so great for me to know that I'm reaching them. I was a former reluctant reader so I know how that feels to have people reading around you — or having a teacher wanting you to pick a book for a report — and struggling through that."

The writing process

"I don't look at word counts at all when I'm writing. It works for a lot of people. I know a lot of people who have word count targets for their writing day. But I work from 9:00 a.m. to 3 p.m. I can spend most of that time rearranging one section of that one page. I'm just moving words around and I'm okay with that.

I want this to be a book that someone can pick up 10 years from now and it's still going to be relevant.- Heather Smith

"Even if there are days where I'm not writing, I'm thinking about the book. I might go for a run and think about the writing. That's kind of a good writing day too because I'm coming up with the ideas. Sometimes I'll get out of the house and go to a coffee shop. But mostly I write in my house when it's quiet.

"Roald Dahl is my favourite author. I think about his writing space. He had a writing shed and used to go out in his backyard with a beat up chair. I think about that because I think a lot of people get too caught up with having a perfect writing space. Writing settles me and grounds me."

Heather Smith's comments have been edited for length and clarity.