Writer and workshop coordinator JC Sulzenko talks to Open Book about writing about Alzheimer’s disease, encouraging kids to ignore their "inner little critic" and turning her one-act play into the book What My Grandma Means to Say (General Store Publishing House).
Tell us about your new book, What My Grandma Means to Say.
This 48-page story lets children and families share the experience of eleven-year-old Jake as he comes to understand how to support his grandmother and himself as their relationship changes because she is living with Alzheimer’s disease. The book gives readers an opportunity to discuss such forms of dementia in a "safe" way, at a distance from what may be happening to someone they know and about whom they care. With more than 500,000 Canadians living with Alzheimer’s, a number that will grow significantly, many children already need strategies to handle the challenges such diseases pose. The book includes FAQs and websites for more information.
Why did you decide to write a book about Alzheimer's disease for children in Grades 4-6?
Children, educators, families and health care providers asked for Jake’s story in book form after seeing my one-act ten-minute play about one afternoon when Jake visits his grandma and something most unexpected happens. They told me they wanted to “take the story home” so that it could be discussed there. Also, my research had shown that children in this age group were not well served by what had been already written for them, while there were plenty of good books for younger readers and young adults.
The play aimed at children in Grades 4-6 because that age group is already well aware of a health crisis in many families where Alzheimer’s has a toehold but often is not part of conversations about what the advent of such illnesses may mean for each family member. The consequence of being left out? What children don’t know or understand can frighten them. Bringing them into the picture in a positive way becomes so important.
After performances or readings, for example, in education programs offered by a number of Ontario Alzheimer Societies (Click here to see the experience in Thunder Bay as an example), these students readily engage in discussions about their experiences and what they can do when interacting with someone living with such forms of dementia.
hat did you find most challenging about writing for this age group?
I love this age group. They are savvy and open-minded.
It took me a long time to "listen" to Jake, though, and to let him narrate his own story. As soon as I stepped aside, the story flowed. Still, I admit it was a challenge to go beyond the play to develop the back story and then tease it out, through the experience at the heart of the play (Jake’s visit with his grandma), to embrace what happens to everyone afterward.
You offer writing workshops for students. Can you describe one of the activities that you do to inspire young people and get them excited about writing?
My workshops focus on how to bring life into writing, whether in prose or poetry, though I usually choose poetry to illustrate my approach. One of the activities involves exploring the use of the five senses in writing. Another addresses how to put the little inner critic that plagues writers of all ages in its right place. I often suggest the writer tell it to “shut up, for now.” I also encourage them to "start somewhere" when they are in an act of writing: not to worry if they have not yet found the right beginning or ending to their work. To write what comes to them, then stand back and see where to go from there.
What do you enjoy most about being a writer in Ottawa?
I enjoy the enthusiasm and know-how of students in the Ottawa area. I also enjoy how the city is so conducive to walking in parkland and revel in the mischief of climate and season.
What are you working on now?
I am developing an ebook of “What My Grandma Means to Say” and updating the Discussion Guide for teachers which complements the play to make it available on-line. Research on my next topic for a storybook is underway, as I also revisit my collection of poetry for mature readers toward publishing an anthology. My line-a-day poetry project at jcsulzenko.com (for mature readers) is now in its second year.