How writing Stand on the Sky brought Erin Bow's family closer and won a Governor General's Literary Award

Stand on the Sky is the story of a brother and sister living in a nomadic community in Mongolia.
Stand on the Sky is a YA fantasy novel by Erin Bow. (Studio J, Scholastic)

Stand on the Sky is the story of a brother and sister living in a nomadic community in Mongolia. Aisulu longs to train eagles, but it's a practice traditionally undertaken by boys. When her parents take her sick brother to a distant hospital, Aisulu adopts an orphaned baby eagle in their absence.

Erin Bow is a former physicist and author of award-winning YA books like Plain Kate and The Scorpion Rules. The Kitchener-Waterloo writer spoke to CBC's Morning Edition about how she wrote her first middle-grade novel. 

Stand on the Sky won the 2019 Governor General's Literary Award for young people's literature — text.

Subverting old tropes

"I was close with my late sister. She is the painter Wendy Yule. She died 14 years ago. When we were both adolescents, we had the usual adolescent turmoil, but she was in more tumultuous circumstances than I was. I always wanted to reach out and save her and I felt quite helpless to do so. Eventually she did die. 

"I wanted a book where one sibling saves the other. You read all these books when you're young where there is one healthy kid and one kid who's sick and it's usually about the kid who's sick and they usually die. I wanted a book that just refutes that. I wanted a book that was hopeful and healing and triumphant. I wanted a happy book."

Kitchener-Waterloo author Erin Bow talks about winning what she describes as THE Canadian book award for her middle grade novel Stand on the Sky.

Bolt of lightning

"I could never have written this book without going to Mongolia. I wrote a sample chapter and then I stopped because I really wanted to write a book that I found in Mongolia, a book with a Mongolian shape, not just my own book with some Mongolian stuff glued on. I wrote a sample chapter, I got a grant from the Waterloo Arts Fund and from the Canada Council for the Arts and then I went and I lived there for the summer of 2015 with a Kazakh nomad family.

I wanted a book that was hopeful and healing and triumphant.- Erin Bow

"I usually have an idea for a book that I think is completely workable, but it turns out to be dead on the slab until it's struck by a bolt of lightning. I thought I had a completely workable book about a boy and a hawk, but I couldn't make it work. Then it was struck by lightning in the form of these pictures of the children training with eagles in Mongolia from about 2014 by Asher Svidensky. The relationship between Kazakhs and their eagles is so different than the relationship between most falconers and their birds. It gave me a whole suite of possibilities and I knew that it was the thing that I needed to make my stuck novel work."

Family project

"I have two daughters. They are about to be 14 and 11. My previous books were written for teenagers and my kids haven't read them yet. This book is written for younger kids, so it's the first one that I read and talked to them about while I was drafting.

"I read them several different drafts. The last thing I did with this book before finalizing the text was read it all the way through to them — chapter by chapter. When we got to the end, we probably spent three or four hours reading from the third way point to the end because they just didn't want me to stop. It's special for the family to have a book that we've come together like that."

Erin Bow's comments have been edited for length and clarity.


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