Get to Know the 2019 Geoffrey Bilson Finalists

Each year, the Geoffrey Bilson Award for Historical Fiction for Young People celebrates Canadian contributions to historical fiction. This year’s nominated title are Don’t Tell the Enemy by Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch, The Journey of Little Charlie by Christopher Paul Curtis, Miles to Go by Beryl Young, Piper by Jacqueline Halsey and The Sound of Freedom by Kathy Kacer. We asked the nominees what book from your youth influenced you the most and helped you to become the creator you are today? 

 

Marsha is dyslexic and did not learn to read until she taught herself at age nine with Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist. She now considers dyslexia her secret weapon because it taught her patience and perseverance but also helps her see stories from different angles. Her specialty is writing about war and the refugee experience from a young person’s perspective.

She has a Master’s degree in Library Science and considers herself a librarian-detective. She’s won lots of awards and she is a princess! The President of Ukraine bestowed her with the Order of Princess Olha for her writings on the Holodomor, the genocide by hunger in Soviet Ukraine which took millions of lives. If you can’t pronounce Skrypuch (SKRIP-ick), she’ll answer to Princess Marsha.

Don’t Tell the Enemy was inspired by the true story of a Ukrainian girl and her mother who hid three Jewish friends under their kitchen floor during the Holocaust. Marsha has written more than 20 books. Her best known is Making Bombs for Hitler. Her most recent is a memoir co-written by Van Ho: Too Young to Escape: A Vietnamese Girl Waits to be Reunited with her Family. Marsha’s books are available in many countries around the world and have been translated into numerous languages.

Learn more about Marsha at www.calla.com.

The book that had the most influence on me was Oliver Twist. I was blown away by Dickens’ respect for a kid living on the streets in Victorian England and he portrayed Oliver’s life so visually and with such aching empathy that it put an indelible movie into my head. Oliver Twist seemed so visceral compared to the vanilla books kids had to choose from in the 1960s. It was after reading Oliver Twist that I decided that I wanted to write books when I got older, and I wanted to write books that would be as visceral and relevant as Dickens’ novels. I wanted them to be about people whose stories had been previously ignored. One thing that I didn’t want to replicate though was Dickens’ wordiness. He was paid by the word and so padded his stories up. I try to leave out the words people skip over, so my novels are much shorter.

 

Christopher Paul Curtis is the author of nine books for young people including Bud, Not Buddy, The Mighty Miss Malone, Elijah of Buxton, The Watsons Go To Birmingham-1963 and Mr. Chickee’s Funny Money.  In addition to being translated into 12 languages and selling more than seven million copies, his work has been performed as an off-Broadway musical with a score written by Motown legend Lamont Dozier, a motion picture directed by Tony award-winning director Kenny Leon and a world premier commission presented at the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C. with music written by Terrence Blanchard.  In 2000 Curtis became the first African-American male to be awarded the prestigious Newbery medal.

He is originally from Flint, Michigan where he worked for 13 years at the historic Flint Fisher Body Number One automobile factory.  His job was to hang doors on the largest Buicks, the Electra 225 and LeSabre.  This has left him permanently adverse to entering large cars.

Curtis currently lives in Windsor, Ontario with his wife Habon and their three children;  Ayaan, Ebyaan and Libaan. 

Even though I was a very good reader by the time I left elementary school I never was much into novels and sadly can’t think of one that really inspired me or left an impression.

The first book that really had a reaction on me was the novella The Bridges of  Toko-ri by James A. Michener. I was sneak-reading it in seventh grade algebra class and started crying when I got to the end. I remember sobbing and thinking,  “Wow!  Whoever would’ve thought a book could do this to you?”  After that, I wondered how I’d gotten along without the joy of reading good fiction.

Beryl Young is the author of six books for children. She writes novels, biographies and picture books, including Wishing Star Summer, Charlie: A Home Child’s Life in Canada, Would Someone Please Answer the Parrot!, Follow the Elephant, Miles to Go and A Boy From Acadie: Roméo LeBlanc’s Journey to Rideau Hall.

Among many award nominations, her books have won the Rainforest of Reading Reader’s Choice Award (2014), the B.C. Chocolate Lily Reader’s Choice Award (2012) and the U.S. Silver Moonbeam Medal (2010).

Beryl lives in Vancouver and has three children and four grandchildren.

See www.berylyoung.com.

When I look back to my childhood, I remember loving a book I still have on my bookshelf. It’s a big hardcover book with almost two hundred pages in large print called Blackie’s Little Ones’ Annual. The book was given to me by Miss Clarke, my grade one teacher at a one-room school in southwest Saskatchewan. I had moved with my mother to live on my grandparents’ farm for a year, and at five I attended the country school with 14 other pupils in grades one to eight.  I was scared of the big grade eight boys, but thrilled when I learned to read along with the other grade one girl.

I adored everything in that book and it was a rich feast. There were poems about secrets and sunsets, fairies and kittens. There was a story about a tea party with dolls wearing hats, one about a discontented chair that flew, another about a giant whose soup was served in a bathtub, and my favourite with a hidden riddle called “The Professor Whose House Ran Away.

Blackie and Co. published books from the 1830s in Britain and later in Canada. There is no date in mine, but it would have been published in the 1940s. Blackie’s published many classics, the Girls and Boys Annuals, and even the Flower Fairy books illustrated by Cicely Mary Barker.

As an adult I can pick up the book, feel the texture of the thick pages, almost all of them loose from the cloth binding now, and memories come streaming back about how special it felt to own such a treasure.

I don’t know if this book inspired me to write, but I do know it inspired me to read.

 

Originally from the UK, Jacqueline has lived in Nova Scotia for over 30 years. She has an art college background, and as a mature student obtained a BA in English at Mount Saint Vincent University. For many years she worked in the Youth Services department of the Alderney Gate Library in Dartmouth.

 She has written five books — a best-selling picture book with former co-worker Carrie Muller, and four children’s historical fiction titles. All but one of them was shortlisted for Maritime awards. Jacqueline has always loved history, and finds visiting the places she writes about is key to imagining the lives of her characters. For her latest book, Piper, she descended into the hold of the full-sized replica of The Hector. Then earlier this year she visited Fort McMurray to carry out research for Wildfire, the young adult novel she is currently working on.

Closer to home, her love of history attracted her to “The Friends of McNabs Island Society.” Hiking, history, beaches, taking care of the environment, writing and research were all things she loved to do. How could she not get involved? She now sits on the Board, takes part in organizing the massive annual beach clean-up, and during the summer months leads groups of visitors on interpretive hikes around this beautiful historic island in Halifax harbour.

During the school year, Jacqueline enjoys being part of the Writers in the School program, and also teaches English to newcomers in the library’s ELL program. Making  colourful, multi-textured Touch Quilts for dementia patients is another of her winter activities.

I didn’t have to think too hard about this question. The book that influenced my writing was Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. It wasn’t my favourite childhood book, but it was definitely the one that made me want to write.

I not only fell in love with Jo March, I was Jo March. I grew up in London, in a house heated by a small coal fired “boiler” in the kitchen. On special occasions a coal fire was lit in the living room. It was not a warm house. My bedroom was cold, and with a bit of imagination it easily became Jo’s attic. I’d write there with a hat on just like Jo. I actually enjoyed that it was cold, it made the whole scenario more realistic. Unfortunately, my hair is thin, straight and a mousy brown colour. Even I couldn’t imagine anyone wanting to buy it.

Like Jo, at first my stories were fanciful. It was only when I wrote as myself, and told my own family’s stories did my first book come into being. Fourteen years after it was published, Peggy’s Letters, based around my mother’s wartime anecdotes, is still being enjoyed in schools across the country. I have Jo to thank for that.

 

Kathy Kacer is the author of more than 20 books that focus on the Second World War and the Holocaust. Her books include The Secret of Gabi’s Dresser, Clara’s War, The Underground Reporters, Hiding Edith, The Diary of Laura’s Twin, To Hope and Back, Restitution, Shanghai Escape, The Magician of Auschwitz, To Look a Nazi in the Eye, The Brave Princess and Me, The Sound of Freedom, Masters of Silence, and others.

A winner of numerous Forest of Reading Awards, as well as the Jewish Book Awards in Canada and the U.S., and the Yad Vashem Award for Children’s Holocaust Literature in Israel, Kathy has written unforgettable stories inspired by real events.  Her books have been translated into 20 languages.  She writes stories of hope, courage, and humanity in the face of overwhelming adversity. 

Kathy became a published author in 1999. Before that, she worked as a psychologist.  She teaches writing at the University of Toronto, Canada (Continuing Studies). She also speaks to children in schools and libraries around the world about the importance of understanding the Holocaust and keeping its memory alive. In addition, she lectures in universities and colleges on the topic of teaching sensitive material to young people.

So many books influenced me as a young girl and strengthened my desire to write. But one that stands out is Up a Road Slowly by Irene Hunt. Published in 1966, it follows a young girl, Julie, whose mother has died and she is sent to live with her aunt, an unmarried schoolteacher. The book follows Julie from the age of seven until the age of 17. I loved the voice of this young girl as it changed over time. I loved the evolving relationship between Julie and her aunt, a woman who was quite severe and strict at first, but grew to be loving and nurturing. The writing was simple but evocative and just carried me away! I still have my copy of this book on my bookshelf.