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Telling stories of northwestern Ontario: Q&A with kid-lit author Jean Pendziwol

things to do with kids in thunder bay Four of your picture books (Once Upon a Northern Night, The Red Sash, Dawn Watch and Marja’s Skis) and your upcoming adult fiction title, The Lightkeeper’s Daughters are set in and around Thunder Bay. Can you briefly share the inspiration behind each?

Jean Pendziwol: I grew up in Thunder Bay and spent much of my youth and adult years enjoying the wonderful outdoor environment here. My parents had a sailboat, so our summer weekends and holidays were always spent sailing, and I developed a strong connection with Lake Superior. As a teenager, I spent 14 months living aboard our boat while we traveled from Thunder Bay down to the Bahamas and back. That experience, combined with my childhood knowledge of the Lake, led to writing Dawn Watch. I’ve always been fond of sailing at night—it’s a magical time.

The Red Sash came about after my children and I volunteered at Fort William Historical Park as costumed interpreters. Our role was to portray what family life was like during the height of the North West Company fur trade, and that required some research. I found inspiration in the stories of the Indigenous and Metis women and children who were so instrumental in opening up and exploring this country, and yet their stories were hard to access. The Red Sash is just a small snapshot of the life of a boy living during the time of voyageurs.

Marja’s Skis is a story about finding strength in difficult times, and in our own unique ways. It was inspired by my husband’s grandmother who grew up in a Finnish community just outside of Kakabeka. And because our family spent a lot of time skiing, it just fit well into Marja’s story.

Once Upon a Northern Night takes place in my back yard. I woke up one morning to see a fresh blanket of snow, crisscrossed with the pattern of deer tracks, printed by jackrabbit paws and looking absolutely magical. It made me realizes that even when we’re sleeping, even in the darkest times, life goes on and there is hope and there is love.

My adult novel, The Lightkeeper’s Daughters, also takes place on Lake Superior and is set, in part, on an Island near the mouth Black Bay. I visited Point Porphyry Light Station as a child and remembered the lighthouse and the lightkeepers. For me, it was a romantic place—my ideal probably far removed from reality. I also remembered a boating accident that happened many, many years ago when I was a teen. A sailboat was found in Tee Harbour (near Silver Islet) with no one on board, blood on the deck and a broken rudder. It fascinated me. I never did find out what happened, but I used that as a place to begin writing about twin girls, Elizabeth and Emily, raised at a lighthouse, their lives influenced by the majestic yet temperamental Lake Superior. When I began to research, I discovered the journals of Andrew Dick who served as lightkeeper at Porphyry at the turn of the century. And then the pieces started to fall into place. The story toggles between two very different times, between the isolated harsh life out on a remote Lake Superior Island, and the turn of the 21st century, where drug deals and graffiti invade a young girl’s life. Morgan—well, I think there’s a little bit of Morgan in all of us, wondering who she is, where she belongs. It was fun putting this feisty potty-mouthed teen together with eighty-year-old Elizabeth. And to see how much they had in common.

TBWK: Why is it important to you to tell stories set in the north?

JP: I don’t know that I’ve made a conscious choice to tell the stories of the north—I think I write them because they inhabit me. But when I do think about it, I feel it’s important to capture this part of the world on the page, whether that’s by using words or through the talented illustrators who have co-created my picture books. We live in a stunningly beautiful environment with fascinating unique histories, and I’m honoured to be able to capture pieces of that. I did find it interesting when I first pitched publishers with my work that there were very few stories of northwestern Ontario available, especially for children. It’s inspiring to see so many other regional authors experiencing success, and I’m grateful to be one of them.

TBWK: What can we look forward to in your next children’s book, Me and You and the Red Canoe?

JP: Me and You and the Red Canoe will be published by Groundwood Books in fall 2017. While I don’t sail on Lake Superior that often any more, I do like to paddle and have wonderful memories of taking my own kids on trips into Quetico or to White Otter Castle or the Boundary Waters. Northwestern Ontario, and many of its creatures, are beautifully rendered by debut illustrator Phil (yes—just Phil and he’s fabulous!) If you like canoeing or fishing or camping, or just really amazing paintings of moose and eagles and fish, you’ll love this book.

TBWK: The Dragon Safety books began your writing career. What was the starting point?

JP: No Dragons For Tea was written for my daughter Erin. She was really afraid of fires [and] I looked for resources, books, that would help her. To me, knowledge is power, and the best way to empower children is to teach them. My go-to teaching tool is books. But, all the books I could find about fire safety were didactic or scary—I knew that wouldn’t be helpful. So I visited the local fire station, connected with the amazing Brian Berringer of the Thunder Bay Fire Department (who helped with the story) and came up with the scenario of a dragon starting a fire inside a house. Because really, who ever has a dragon come over for tea? It was non-threatening. My objective with this book, and with all the books in that series, was to provide essential safety information in a manner that was engaging, entertaining, relevant and accessible.

TBWK: What are some of your favourite reactions to hear from kids and parents, after reading your books?

JP: I always like my words to connect with my readers in some way—to know that I’ve made them think of something in a different way, or allowed them to experience something new or feel a connection. I’ve heard stories of children sleeping with my books, which is so sweet, and when I’ve visited classrooms to do readings I always leave feeling like a star, there’s so much love. I’ve received some pictures from kids—wonderful drawings of dragons or boats. My readers are amazing and so inspiring.

I did hear about a firefighter from North Carolina who had used No Dragons for Tea as a tool for teaching kids about fire safety and wanted to get in touch to say thank you. He attributes the book to saving the lives of six kids who had learned from the Dragon about getting safely out of a burning home. And they did. Six kids. Six lives saved. Nothing beats that.

Interestingly, I’ve heard more from adults responding to Once Upon a Northern Night. A fan posted a graphic illustration about the book. She had given it to her friend who was terminally ill, and her response was heart-rending and beautiful. At a signing once, a woman came up to me, saying that she too had given it to a friend who was ill. She read the book every day, finding hope and inspiration in the words. The book is dedicated to my sister’s children. It wasn’t written for them. It wasn’t written knowing that their mother was going to die from cancer. But I read the manuscript to her while she lay in hospice, just before she slipped into a coma. And I knew that she was in the words and always would be. Even in the darkest times, there is the light of the moon, there are stars, there is hope and there is love.

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