Technically, that would have been in Grade 5, when I won a story contest at my elementary school. I’d written a fairy tale about a girl living in the woods who tied dust mops on a bear’s paws so he would clean her cottage. The story was published—well—posted on the school bulletin board, and I won hair ribbons.
It was a long while before I dipped my toe back into children’s publishing. My son brought home a wonderful book in Grade 6, Space Trapby Monica Hughes. I remember thinking, a Canadian author has written this, and what a great job that would be!
A few years later, my youngest son was playing soccer on a cold October day. I thought about a diabolical soccer match and came up with The Secret of Grim Hill. That book won the Silver Birch Award and turned into a series, and all of it was an amazing experience.
Where do you draw inspiration from?
When my character Ephemia meets her first elephant in my lastest book, Ephemia Rimaldi: Circus Performer Extraordinaire, I drew upon a story of my grandmother’s. She’d attended the first Pacific National Exhibition parade in Vancouver in 1910. When she saw an elephant, she fainted because nothing in picture books prepared her for the size of it. That fired my imagination. How would a very limited access to the world shape your point of view?
Also, when I think of my grandmother and great-grandmother, both of whom had belonged to the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, I think of fierce and forceful women who prized stoicism and determination. My character Ephemia is independent, determined and unconventional. It made sense her attitudes would be shaped by suffragists.
A lot of my books hold that real-life kernel—a soccer match, a parade, a magic show I attended or heard about, role models in my life. From there, I recreate feelings I had as a young person, such as the sharp sense of injustice, and the anticipation that anything is possible.
At the start of your most recent book, your heroine Effy is happily living with her great-aunt Ada, who is fiercely committed to campaigning for women’s rights and sets up a trust fund for her education. How unusual would this have been at the turn of the 20th century?
That would depend on where you lived and what class you were in. There was no social safety net for newcomers scrabbling out a subsistence on farms, or for widows, or the general working class and the poor. A world where women had access to higher education would not have been an opportunity they could imagine.
On the other hand, upper-middle-class women who were not providing financially for their families felt it was their duty to create a more just world. For that to happen, they needed more opportunities—and for that, they wanted better access to higher education. You began to see women becoming doctors and lawyers and scientists, although the percentage was small. They weren’t welcomed with open arms.
What does Women’s History Month mean to you when it comes to writing and exploring the issues of diversity and social justice we face today as a society?
Diverse voices have often been left out in earlier literature. Ephemia Rimaldi: Circus Performer Extraordinaire is a gentle poke meant to add a different voice to traditional children’s adventures.
Also, it’s important not to take any progress we’ve gained for granted. For example, my grandmother, a widow, worked on airplane engines in the Second World War. Because the men were overseas, she was able to break out of traditional roles. She eventually became the western manager of a large company.
Fast forward a couple of decades, when women’s rights should have advanced even more, and my mother hit terrible roadblocks. As a divorced and single parent, she couldn’t get a loan at a bank or a mortgage because a man would have to co-sign, even though she worked. She had no husband, father or brother to do this, so it brought our family a lot of hardship.
The rights of marginalized communities can move forward and backward, and we aren’t there yet. Learning more about women’s history makes us more aware of this.
How can children's publishing do better when it comes to the representation and inclusion of women's voices?
I was a total bookworm from the age of eight, and while I read and loved almost anything I got my hands on, it was a rare thrill when a girl protagonist made choices that mattered in the story—even better if she was rebellious.
There are a lot more books like that now. Children’s publishing is doing a great job of being more inclusive. My hope is that they don’t leave anybody behind.
As wider representation and inclusion trickles into classrooms and young people are encouraged to read a variety of fun and exciting stories, boys will enjoy books where girls are the main character. Young people will discover that reading a story with characters of a different gender and from another culture is all part of the adventure.
What projects are you working on now?
Currently I’m putting the finishing touches on a middle-grade manuscript that’s a contemporary suspense/mystery. The main character has been in the foster system and witnesses a crime. This sounds very serious and does touch upon social justice issues, but it’s also hopefully going to be fun and spine-tingly.
Linda DeMeulemeester's first book, The Secret of Grim Hill, won the Silver Birch Award and was selected for Canadian Toy Testing Council’s great books. The series was also optioned for television, making it all the way to MIPCOM in Cannes, and was picked up by Scholastic Arrow Book Club. She lives in BC with her husband and an assortment of pets in a 100-year-old house that only some of her friends claim is haunted. Find out more about Linda on her website.