Each year, the Amy Mathers Teen Book Award celebrates Canadian contributions to YA literature. The award is sponsored by Sylvan Learning and founded by Amy Mathers. This year’s nominated title are Aftermath by Kelley Armstrong, The House of One Thousand Eyes by Michelle Barker, Easy Prey by Catherine Lo, Learning to Breathe by Janice Lynn Mather and A Girl Like That by Tanaz Bhathena. We asked the nominees what book from your youth influenced you the most and helped you to become the creator you are today?
If you want to learn more about the nominees, listen to our episode of YA Write with Amy Mathers, featuring all 5 finalists!
Kelley Armstrong is the author of the Rockton crime thrillers and A Royal Guide to Monster Slaying middle-grade fantasy series. Past works include Otherworld urban fantasy series, the Darkest Powers & Darkness Rising teen paranormal trilogies, the Age of Legends fantasy YA series and the Nadia Stafford crime trilogy. Armstrong lives in Ontario with her family.
One book from my childhood that had a huge impact on my writing is Watership Down. It opened my eyes to the possibility that fantasy fiction could exist on many levels — that one book could both be entertaining and illuminating. It was a roaring good story, but also made thought-provoking points about political structures, religion and the power of story.
Michelle Barker is the author of the award-winning YA novel, The House of One Thousand Eyes. Her newest YA novel, My Long List of Impossible Things, will be published in Spring 2020 by Annick Press. Her historical picture book, A Year of Borrowed Men, was a finalist for the TD Canadian Children’s Literature Award. She has also published short fiction, non-fiction and poetry in literary reviews around the world. Michelle holds an MFA in creative writing from UBC and works in Vancouver as a senior editor at The Darling Axe. www.michellebarker.ca
Asking a writer to choose only ONE formative book is cruel! But I’ll go out on a limb and say Harriet the Spy influenced me more than any other. Harriet was a budding writer herself, after all. She carried a notebook and was brutally honest about the things she recorded. She paid attention. She had an eye for detail and an ability to bring characters to life. Writing was who she was as a person. Without it, she was lost.
I’m not sure when exactly I knew I would be a writer, but for most of my life I have kept a journal. When I was young, they didn’t have the beautiful journals that are now available. I wrote in one of those embarrassing little books that locked with a small (and basically useless) key and didn’t provide enough space for what I needed to say. But we make do with what we’ve got.
I have always made sense of the world by wrestling with it on the page. I love Harriet’s determination and passion, and I love her sense of humour and no-nonsense way of looking at things. Though I didn’t realize it at the time, I think she became my role model.
Catherine Lo is the author of two young adult novels, How it Ends and Easy Prey. Her writing is influenced by her experiences as a high school teacher, where she sees firsthand the issues impacting teens today. Her latest novel, Easy Prey, was named one of New York Public Library’s 2018 Best Books for Teens, and was featured in Toronto Public Library’s The List: Great Reads for Youth. Catherine lives in Mississauga with her family.
I remember the day I first found the book that made me want to become a writer. I was 11 years old, wandering through the shelves of our school’s library when I came across a tattered copy of Judy Blume’s Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. The creased spine and torn cover seemed like a recommendation to me. This was a novel that had been signed out many times before.
I sat down between the rows of books and started reading right there in the library. And I kept reading every spare moment I had for the next few days. Because what I found in that novel was revolutionary to 11-year-old me. I found girls who talked about things I was embarrassed to even admit I was curious about. And I found in Margaret a character who was grappling with difficult questions, wondering if she believed in the same things as her parents.
Margaret felt like a real person to me, and I hung on to her every word as she struggled through friendship problems and family issues and the confusion that comes with being 11 going on 12. This was a girl with hidden depths — with private questions and thoughts and feelings that no one else could guess just by looking at her. In reading her story, I began to sense for the first time that I might contain hidden depths, too.
Looking back, I feel like I can draw a straight line from the young reader I was, discovering how complex people could be, and the adult writer I am today. The interest in appearances and how they can both conceal and reveal our inner selves that was kindled by Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret continues today. I delight in writing complex characters who are more than meets the eye. I love exploring the difference between the selves we show the world and the selves we hide, and why. And I love creating stories in which nothing is as it first appears.
Janice Lynn Mather is a Bahamian writer with an MFA from the University of British Columbia. Her first novel, Learning to Breathe, was a 2018 Governor General’s Literary Award finalist, a BC Book Prize finalist, a 2019 YALSA Best Fiction for Young Adults selection, an Amelia Bloomer’s 2019 Top Ten Recommended Feminist Books for Young Readers pick, and a Junior Library Guild selection. Her second novel, Facing the Sun, will be released in 2020. Janice Lynn lives and writes in Vancouver, British Columbia.
Until I was 13, our TV had one station that started broadcasting at 3pm and signed off at 11, so our family read daily, individually and collectively. There was Roald Dahl’s The BFG that we started as a Saturday night family read when I was six. The story drew in my father — he had an office full of reference books and Bibles, and though I never saw him read a novel himself, he had a way of joining us for that story. So did my maternal grandmother, a quiet Jamaican woman who visited from England every year and made herself comfortable in the armchair to listen in during storytime. On my own, I dog-eared and water-splattered Charlotte’s Web while I read and reread it at the table and in the tub and while brushing my teeth.
Later came Cynthia Voigt’s The Homecoming, along with Jean D’Costa’s Escape to Last Man Peak, which woke a dormant Jamaican lilt in my mother’s British-accented tongue. In secret, I read Stephen King’s It, hiding it in a bag in the living room at night, turning pages while fearing I would be struck down with lightning for such a shocking book. In university, I found heaven in Daughters of Africa: it gifted me with stories and poetry by black women going back centuries, assuring me that I did, indeed, come from a long line of lovers of words.
When I think of important books in my life, I think first of Alice Walker’s The Temple of My Familiar, which I devoured on sticky, endless summer afternoons, or Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, which kept me company in quiet outdoor nooks of the T Block in my first year at the College of the Bahamas. But really, the influential books in my life are more a wall made of many bricks: I doubt the big, succulent ones at the top would be so firmly anchored if not for the early ones laid at the base.
Tanaz Bhathena was born in India and raised in Saudi Arabia and Canada. Her critically acclaimed novel A Girl Like That was nominated for the 2019 OLA White Pine Award and named a Best Book of 2018 by The Globe and Mail, CBC, Quill & Quire, Seventeen, PopSugar, and The Times of India among others. She is also the author of The Beauty of the Moment and a fantasy duology called Hunted by the Sky, with the first book coming out in June 2020.
As a teen, I picked The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy for my English independent study project. The book took my breath away with its beautiful sentences and unconventional narrative. It also gave me the confidence to turn to my Indian roots to write fiction and to play with language and narrative to tell my own stories.