25th Trillium Award

Open Book on the Road: Kingston WritersFest (Part Four of Four)

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Kingston WritersFest is proving to be one of the top literary festivals in Canada. This year, the festival ran from September 22-25, and attendance topped 4,000, with an audience that included local, national and international guest. Open Book editors Grace O'Connell and Clelia Scala travelled to the Limestone City to take in the weekend's festivities. We saw many wonderful readings and had dozens of marvelous conversations. We'd like to share with you a few of the festival highlights.

Children's Lit Sunday at Kingston WritersFest: Ruth Ohi, Sarah Tsiang and Robert Paul Weston

Kingston WritersFest 2011 was a celebration for book lovers of all ages. Adults and teens enjoyed readings, workshops and conversations with some of their favourite writers, and the festival planners made sure that even the youngest readers (and listeners) got the thrill of meeting some of their most beloved authors. On the final day of the festival, Ruth Ohi, Sarah Tsiang and Robert Paul Weston awed children with readings, illustrations and hands-on creative fun.

In large sun-lit room on top of the Holiday Inn, little voices chattered eagerly in anticipation as they waited for Ruth Ohi to start her talk. Ohi is the author and illustrator of over 20 books, including the beloved Chicken, Pig, Cow series. She has an abundance of delightful energy, and the children were dazzled.

Ohi started her presentation by showing her audience the first book that she had ever illustrated — a Dr. Suess book, which as a child she'd "improved" with an illustration of a princess being eaten by a monster and by adding a chimney to a house.

Ohi explained how she got into illustration — she went to the Ontario College of Art, and before she graduated she sent off illustrations to Annick Press, which soon hired her to illustrate a book. She explained the many stages of book production — from writing to editing to printing — and her account was fascinating, to the children and to the adults. Equally fascinating was Ohi's demonstration that you can draw almost anything by using a circle as a starting point. Shortly after, the kids all sat down with crayons and paper, and Ohi exclaimed just as loudly over a two-year-old's squiggles as she did over an eight-year-old's representational drawing.

After the event, Ohi explained why she talks about the making of books with groups of young children. "It increases excitement about books," she said. And to Ohi, getting kids excited is key. "It's not about being the best artist." Instead, it's about the process. A current Toronto District School Board writer in residence, Ohi is a pro at engaging children, and she speaks regularly to classes.

Equally inspiring as Ohi's excitement over working with children is her enthusiasm for Canadian children's book publishing. She feels fortunate to be a children's author in Canada: it's a relatively small but "great world" that offers a "supportive environment." She's been with Annick Press for 25 years and is delighted by the press's standards. While she has considerable creative freedom, she knows that her editor will let her know when she needs to rework a story. Ohi's own standards are also impressive; she won't write a book that she can't relate to, and she spends many months lovingly working on each of the books we've all become so familiar with.

The creativity continued in Kingston writer Sarah Tsiang's launch for her latest children's book, Dogs Don't Eat Jam and Other Things Big Kids Know (Annick Press), a story about the wisdom that a four-year-old offers to her younger sibling. The room was filled with happy children munching on delicious jam-filled cookies and busily making their own books.

After stopping by Tsiang's launch, I visited the book room to say hello to Oscar Malan, the owner of Kingston's celebrated independent bookstore, Novel Idea, and his wife, Joanna Malan. It's always a pleasure to see the Malans, and they were delighted by the success of Kingston WritersFest. As we spoke, I flipped through a copy of Robert Paul Weston's Zorgamazoo and was told that I should really try to catch Weston reading from it because his performance is impressive. Alas, I missed out on the reading, but I did manage to catch up with the popular children's author later in the day.

A Queen's University graduate with a degree in film and sociology, Weston was familiar with Kingston, and he and his wife Machiko were enjoying their brief visit to the city. We settled into the hospitality suite as the couple grabbed a bite to eat between events (Weston was giving a workshop in the afternoon on "Writing for Young Readers"), and he told me about how he came to write his first award-winning book, Zorgamazoo. He had been working on his MA in CreativeWriting at the University of British Columbia and was invited to participate in the program's reading series. Though the focus of his MA was short stories and film, he decided to test out the children's book in verse he'd been writing. The reception was very favourable, and he decided to shift his focus.

Weston's ability to write books that children want to read is likely attributable in part to his ability to see things through his readers' eyes. Writing for kids, he says, is difficult because you can't fool kids; they want books with satisfying plots and won't be distracted by tricks of language.

Given the success Weston had with Zorgamazoo, I asked Weston why he decided to write his second book, Dust City, in prose rather than verse. "When I finished Zorgamazoo I was extremely proud," he told me, "but I was also exhausted and a little worried. I thought that if someone actually published my book, there was a good chance I might end up becoming The Rhyming Novel Guy. While I love form verse for kids, it's not the only thing I like writing. So I started toying with ideas that were as far from Zorgamazoo as I could imagine. Hence, Dust City, a book about corruption, murder, addiction, urban decay. Serious stuff. As I wrote it, though, I realized that in some ways Dust City had a lot in common with Zorgamazoo. There’s the lost promise of enchantment; a father and son with a strained relationship; an underlying conspiracy; there’s even the mysterious disappearance of a bunch of otherworldly creatures. I suppose every writer has their motifs!"

Thank you to the authors for four fabulous days of readings and discussions and thank you to the festival organizers for welcoming Open Book: Ontario to a fantastic series of events. — Clelia Scala

Top photo: Ruth Ohi. Photo by Open Book.
Middle photo: Oscar and Joanna Malan. Photo by Open Book.
Bottom photo: Machiko and Robert Paul Weston. Photo by Open Book.

Read Part One, Part Two and Part Three of our coverage of Kingston WritersFest.

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