Books·How I Wrote It

The lesson Wendy Orr wants to share with readers: 'We're all stronger than we think we are'

Wendy Orr takes readers inside a world inspired by the Minotaur myths of ancient Minoa.
Wendy Orr's middle grade novel Dragonfly Song follows a girl's struggle to reclaim her voice and her name in an ancient world. (Pajama Press)

Wendy Orr is the author of more than 40 books for young people, including the 2001 hit Nim's Island, which was adapted into a film starring Jodie Foster, Abigail Breslin and Gerard Butler. Now, Orr's middle-grade novel Dragonfly Song was a finalist for the $50,000 2018 TD Canadian Children's Literature Award

Dragonfly Song tells the story of Aissa, a young girl who is struggling to find her voice and her place in society in the wake of a terrible tragedy. Inspired by the mythology of Bronze Age Minoa, the novel follows Aissa as she becomes what she was destined to be: a bull dancer.

In her own words, Orr talks about finding inspiration for Dragonfly Song in signs she couldn't ignore.

Not letting go

"About 30 years ago, I dreamed about a priestess climbing a mountain. I started to wonder what this dream represented and if it had some truth to it. I worked it back to the Minoans. I went on to try writing the story a few different ways before eventually giving up. But I kept thinking about that world, so I finally went back and started playing with it again."

Following the signs

"One day in my daughter's car, I heard Sigur Rós on the radio and I thought, 'That's the playlist for the book I'm going to write!' I never listen to music while I write. I'd never had a playlist. I didn't even know what this book was going to be, but it kept evolving like that. I was doing tai chi one day and I saw this floating blue bubble that was the shape of the story. I didn't know what it meant, but the shape and the colour were so beautiful that it brought me to tears. The next day, I saw a dragonfly that was the exact same colour as this blue bubble. I thought, 'I think this is an omen that I'm on the right track.'" 

Getting help online

"I did a heap of research. When I first got interested in this 30 years ago, we lived on a farm miles from any big city and so interlibrary loans were all I had. When I came back to the idea around 2010, there was so much available online! I kept researching and kept changing things because I'd come across some new paper. I did various online courses and would listen to podcasts of university lectures. I would go to online forums of archaeologists and I'd write and say, 'I'm not an archeologist; I'm just a fiction author. Can you tell me this?' And people loved helping!" 

Finding strength you never knew you had 

"When I write, I never have any real sense of what I want people to take away. But as I'm doing final drafts, I become more aware of those things. With this book, it was that we're all stronger than we think we are. 

"I've often had kids write to me about Nim's Island and they'll say, 'I wish I was as brave as Nim.' To which I always say, 'You would be if you had to be.' And I think that's it for Aissa. I hate to think of anybody in her situation, but I also know that there are kids living in that kind of misery. I want them to know that people survive the most extraordinary stuff. 

"Even though we may have totally different belief systems than Aissa does, people have the same emotions. People who lived 4,000 years ago feel the same way we do about love and being hurt and belonging. It doesn't matter if we believe there's a God in every tree or if we have to jump bulls for a living, those things are still the same." 

Wendy Orr's comments have been edited and condensed.