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In Memory of Richard Rudnicki, by Michael Solomon

I was deeply saddened to hear of the death of the artist Richard Rudnicki. I was privileged to work with Richard on two very different but wonderful picture books. He had an assuredly authoritative, unflappable, eminently professional approach to illustration, and it was a joy to work with him. I found myself envying his students at numerous moments during our projects together.

In 2010, Groundwood published the first picture book celebrating the Canadian anti-segregation heroine Viola Desmond. Richard’s fearless, luxuriantly brushed style brought this captivating story to life and to young North American readers — for most it was an introduction to a sorely needed new hero from a neglected corner of our history. With its bravura passages, calm and assured scene-setting, careful attention to period and place, and the inventiveness of its human drama, the work was astonishing and the perfect complement to Jody Nyasha Warner’s sparkling, vibrant text.

Two years later, I asked him to take a look at James Laxer’s sprawling and gripping kids’ biography of the great chief and Confederacy leader, Tecumseh. Despite having numerous projects already on the go, Richard responded with eager enthusiasm, tackling the demands of this somewhat daunting 48-pager with passion and an impressive inwardness and mastery of North American Indigenous history and society — a mastery that went far in honing and shaping the text as well. The book was a perfect model of non-fiction pictorial storytelling. From maps, to narrative and explanatory images, to accurate historical reconstructions — all were given form with Richard’s unifying, swashbuckling style.

The extra thoughtful touch extended even to the delivery of the finished physical paintings — they showed up carefully packed in a really impressive and expertly crafted plywood crate!

I will always cherish these two very special projects and remember Richard as the princely artist he was — so deeply and widely accomplished.


Kyo Maclear, author of Operatic, interviews Adam Platek “the real life Mr. K.”

Operatic has two muses or inspirations. The first is the great diva, opera singer Maria Callas. The other inspiration is a middle school music teacher named Adam Platek — much less known, but (to my mind) no less fabulous.

Mr. Platek is the rare teacher in my parenting life I actually look forward to seeing. I had two sons in his music class, at various times, and in both cases, he made the experience of “parent-teacher interview” a delight rather than a dread.

Mr. Platek didn’t start off wanting to teach. He wanted to be a famous rock star. But over the last eight years of teaching public school music, he has become a rock star in his own right — a feted teacher, garnering rave reviews from a peer group not typically known for effusiveness.

When I ask my sons to share the secret of Mr. Platek’s popularity, they say things like: He always goes beyond.  He’s never a power tripper. Passion drives his classes as much as knowledge does. He doesn’t seem to bend his lessons to any boring curriculum expectations. He just knows how to create a vibe.

Having sat in on some of his classes, I can safely say I have never seen anyone enjoy their job as much as Mr. Platek enjoys teaching middle school music. His enthusiasm is contagious. Mr. Platek spent an entire year on music history, and my elder son came home one day wanting to listen to Baroque harpsichord! That’s what happens when you make education engaging and interactive.

What else can I tell you about Mr. Platek?

He is always nicely dressed and often wears a cheerful patterned tie and very narrow jeans. He talks quickly and energetically and seems not at all concerned about embarrassing himself or expressing too much passion about music or anything else for that matter. On Mondays monthly, he runs a lunchtime program called “GLOW: Gays, Lesbians or Whatever.” On Tuesdays and Wednesdays afterschool, he hosts twenty-odd bands for “Rock Band Club.” On Thursdays, he also runs a Glee Club for the “musical theatre” students.

To celebrate the launch of Operatic, Mr. Platek kindly agreed to answer some questions.

Can you tell me a bit about your teaching philosophy?

I truly believe that all people are musical, and I think it’s integral to instill that belief at a young age.  Successful musicians, in my opinion, are those that are the most focused and passionate artists, rather than the most talented or skilled. It comes from the D.I.Y. ethos of punk and indie rock, where music is for everyone and anyone. 

You know, I was just chatting with a writer whose daughter was in your class a few years ago and she claims you “turned her from a musician into an artist.” So your middle school students are clearly jiving with your message of focus and passion. Was music important to you when you were in middle school?

Yes. Music was very important to me in middle school. I hadn’t started playing any instruments until high school, but just like your character Charlie, my personal identity was strongly linked to music. I felt different and like an outsider.  I was bad at sports, and athleticism established social status in my school. I knew I had a social “place”, but hadn’t discovered that I was a musician quite yet. Music was a way for me to learn to connect socially and express myself from high school onwards, especially once I joined my first band. I felt like I was finally home.

That’s amazing. That sense of home is something I hoped to capture in Operatic. Since you mention Charliein the story, she has to find her perfect song for a music class assignment, something with “personal weight.” If you were to do the assignment, what song would you pick?

Music is funny, in that our tastes change with us as people. As a middle- schooler, I was into heavy metal and worshipped bands like Metallica (angry and loud and rebellious!). As an outsider, this provided an accurate soundtrack to my experiences. Today, I see the most beauty in great songwriting; in the ability for a song to transcend time and space.  My perfect song today is the same as it was from my childhood — Mr. K’s “Take On Me” by A-Ha. It takes me back to sitting on the carpet with my big brother watching MuchMusic and just being mesmerized by the sights and sounds.

I love hearing about peoples’ favourite songs — but also the songs people loathe. I often have intensely almost-physical reactions to music, mostly when I love it or when I think a song is trying to kill me with its badness. Do you think openness can be learned? Or put another way, how do you encourage your students — gridlocked by fashion or taste or peer pressure or whatever — to open their ears to new stuff?

I introduce new music by acknowledging that taste is personal, and I do not intend to change taste. I do tell my students that my job is to refine their personal “palette” or taste, and hopefully encourage them as listeners to discover new “flavours.”  I often speak about music like food, and my class as a “buffet” that provides many aromas. My hope is that by having students introduced to many genres and artists from different time periods and places, they will discover a new unknown fave flavour.

My younger son used to mention your hamburger review assignment. I think you recently did one for “Africa” by Toto. Can you tell me how it works?

As an optional extra homework assignment, I write a song on the board that I think is cool. They can agree or disagree with my taste by submitting a hamburger review: the top bun is something they like, the patty is something that could be improved and the bottom bun is another positive. It acts as another method to expose my students to more music, but also builds their ability to critique art in a meaningful and methodical way. 

So you’re teaching students to expand their music taste by showing them how to find positive things in even the most awful songs!

YES! And also to identify areas of growth for even the great songs. Art is infinitely subjective, and I want students to develop their critical listening skills as they ponder the sublime infinity of art. At least that’s how I think of music: an endless, deep and mysterious ocean of possibilities.

One of the inspirations for Operatic was Maria Callas. Callas is a singer whose voice is considered flawed, but she’s worshipped by many opera buffs. I’m curious about your favourite singers? What qualities do you look for in great voices?

I’ve always admired great lyricists over great voices. My fave lyricist is Jarvis Cocker of Pulp; my fave performer is Jim Morrison of The Doors; and my fave all-around vocalist is the legendary David Bowie. 

You’re a pretty influential and charismatic teacher, do you think you could get a group of kids to like opera? I don’t just mean the songs with an easy hook, I mean the tough stuff.

Thanks… *blush* I think the main obstacle in getting kids into opera is the fact that the greatest operatic works by the greatest singers are in foreign languages. Music is about identity and connection, and the inability to understand the libretto limits the appreciation. We do study some opera, namely Richard Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries.” One way to get kids into opera is by repurposing the timeless melodies into a social context that would be relatable to today.

The easiest way to improve any lesson on any topic is to make it connect to the students’ home and personal life. So, for example, what would an opera look, sound and feel like via a social media platform like Instagram? Could a libretto be represented visually with still photographs? Or could all that drama be placed into a middle school milieu? That kind of stuff brings the esoteric and often intangible world of opera to their fingertips. Madame ButterWiFi perhaps?

Have you ever seen music, or let’s say Rock Band Club, change a student’s life?

Yes, music is so personal and private that there is an intense sense of pride when it’s shared publicly and enjoyed. I’ve seen quiet, shy students transform on stage through the cathartic experience of live music performance. There’s just something about making music with your best friends live for the people you care about. Music is so powerful in that it makes you live and breathe in the moment, beat to beat, and that’s where the true joy lies.

One last question: What’s a really good teaching day?

A strong cup of coffee. A lesson about some artist or genre or song I love (which is most days). And then that spark in a student’s eye, and my favourite end-of-class question: “What was the song called again?!

Operatic written by Kyo Maclear and illustrated by Byron Eggenschwiler is now available for purchase wherever books are sold.

Read an Excerpt from Operatic by Kyo Maclear and Byron EggenSchwiler

It’s almost the end of middle school, and Charlie has to find her perfect song for a music class assignment. But it’s hard for Charlie to concentrate when she can’t stop noticing her classmate Emile, or wondering about Luka, who hasn’t been to school in weeks.

Then, the class learns about opera, and Charlie discovers the music of Maria Callas.       

The more she learns about Maria’s life, the more Charlie admires her passion for singing and her ability to express herself fully through her music. Can Charlie follow the example of the ultimate diva, Maria Callas, when it comes to her own life?

The following is an excerpt from the book:

Operatic written by Kyo Maclear and illustrated by Byron Eggenschwiler will be available on April 1, 2019.

22 Books That Celebrate the Power of Girls

In celebration of International Women’s Day on March 8, we’ve put together a collection of books that feature smart, brave, and inspiring women and girls that have made their mark on the world around them.

Whether it be through making groundbreaking scientific discoveries, standing up for human rights or simply being kind to one another, these girls prove that they can do anything they put their minds to!

Mary Anning’s Curiosity by Monica Kulling and Melissa Castrillon

Mary Anning, considered the world’s greatest fossilist, discovered her first big find at the age of twelve. This novel is an imaginative re-creation of her childhood in early nineteenth-century Lyme Regis.

Mary Anning may have been uneducated, poor and a woman, but her life’s work of fossil hunting led her to make many discoveries that influenced our understanding of prehistoric creatures and the age of the Earth.

Operatic by Kyo Maclear and Byron Eggenschwiler.

A story of friendship, first crushes, opera and the high drama of middle school told by award-winning Kyo Maclear in her debut graphic novel.

How Emily Saved the Bridge by Frieda Wishinsky and Natalie Nelson 

The amazing story of Emily Warren Roebling, the woman who stepped in to oversee the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge, which was completed in 1883.

The Breadwinner by Deborah Ellis, Aircraft Pictures, Cartoon Saloon, Melusine and Nora Twomey

This beautiful graphic-novel adaptation of The Breadwinner animated film tells the story of eleven-year-old Parvana, who must disguise herself as a boy to support her family during the Taliban’s rule in Afghanistan.

What Milly Did by Elise Moser and Scot Ritchie

Milly Zantow wanted to solve the problem of her town’s full landfill and ended up creating a global recycling standard — the system of numbers you see inside the little triangle on plastics. This is the inspiring story of how she mobilized her community, creating sweeping change to help the environment.

Happy Birthday, Alice Babette by Monica Kulling and Qin Leng

It’s Alice’s birthday! But her friend Gertrude seems to have forgotten. No matter, Alice goes out and enjoys her day just the same.

While Alice spends the day walking around Paris — Gertrude turns her attention to the kitchen. She is determined to make a lavish dinner with all of Alice’s favorite things and write a poem to match the occasion.

Inspired by the lives of artist Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, Monica Kulling’s warm and whimsical narration is perfectly balanced by Qin Leng’s bright and energetic illustrations. This is a sweetly joyful story of love, friendship and creative inspiration.

The King of the Birds by Acree Macam and Natalie Nelson

In this picture book, inspired by the life of Flannery O’Connor, a young fan of fowl brings home a peacock to be the king of her collection, but he refuses to show off his colorful tail.

This delightful story, full of humor and heart, celebrates the legacy of a great American writer.

Jane, the Fox & Me by Isabelle Arsenault and Fanny Britt. Translated by Susan Ouriou and Christelle Morelli

Hélène has been inexplicably ostracized by the girls who were once her friends. Fortunately, Hélène has one consolation, Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. Hélène identifies strongly with Jane’s tribulations, and when she is lost in the pages of this wonderful book, she is able to ignore her tormentors. But when Hélène is humiliated on a class trip in front of her entire grade, she needs more than a fictional character to see herself as a person deserving of laughter and friendship.

Leaving the outcasts’ tent one night, Hélène encounters a fox, a beautiful creature with whom she shares a moment of connection.

Lost Girl Found by Leah Bassoff and Laura DeLuca

In war-torn Sudan, a girl must make heart-rending choices as she fights for survival and a chance at a future. Available in paperback for the first time!

Flannery by Lisa Moore

A spellbinding story about chasing love, fighting family, losing friends and starting all over again, from the internationally acclaimed Lisa Moore.

Book Uncle and Me by Julianna Swaney and Uma Krishnaswami

Every day, nine-year-old Yasmin borrows a book from Book Uncle, a retired teacher who has set up a free lending library next to her apartment building. But when the mayor tries to shut down the rickety bookstand, Yasmin has to take her nose out of her book and do something.

Aluta by Adwoa Badoe

For eighteen-year-old Charlotte, university life is better than she’d ever dreamed — a sophisticated and generous roommate, the camaraderie of dorm living, parties, clubs and boyfriends. Most of all, Charlotte is exposed to new ideas, and in 1981 Ghana, this may be the most exciting – and most dangerous — adventure of all.

Becca at Sea by Deidre Baker

Becca has often gone with her parents to visit Gran at her rustic cabin by the sea. But this year Becca’s mother is expecting a baby, and Becca visits her grandmother on her own. The prospect of spending time at Gran’s is hardly appealing to Becca.

But by the time her parents arrive with the new baby, she realizes that adventures, and even friends to share them with, may have been right under her nose the whole time.

Becca Fair and Foul by Deidre Baker

When eleven-year-old Becca returns to her grandmother’s rustic cottage for another summer, she finds herself seeing her beloved island in new ways.

Dodger Boy by Sarah Ellis

From award-winning author Sarah Ellis comes the story of an American draft dodger who turns up to stay with thirteen-year-old Charlotte and her family.

Viola Desmond Won’t Be Budged by Jody Nyasha Warner and Richard Rudnicki

A picture-book biography of Viola Desmond, Canada’s Rosa Parks, who defied an order to sit in a segregated section of a movie theater and was arrested for doing so.

The Stella Series by Marie-Louise Gay

A collection of stories by Marie-Louise Gay about Stella and her little brother Sam as the explore the natural world. Stella is an adventurous, imaginative and curious child who is always excited to learn and go on a new adventure!

The Story Behind the Story

Written by Saumiya Balasubramaniam

I am often asked if my stories are based on personal experiences — perhaps that has something to do with my deliberate choice of first-person narration, or the similarity between the profiles of the characters in fiction and personal life.

The seeds are sown in reality, but the tales that spring from them are figments of my imagination — often nurtured over an exceedingly long period of time!

The idea for When I Found Grandma originated five years ago from my parallel piece of non-fiction writing titled “Between Five and Sixty-five.” While that essay recounted my personal observations as I tried to find middle ground between my visiting parent and growing progeny (born and raised in North America), the entertaining and animated dynamics between the two inspired me to expand and create an age-appropriate picture book.

From casual everyday behavior, I have observed that while social /communicational expressions can often be a differentiator or grounds for teasing, they can also really be a reminder of what we have in common. (You like Potayto/I like Pothato.)

When Grandma delights at spotting Maya near the “merry-go-round,” Maya promptly corrects her, saying “carousel.” While she is not wrong in doing so, the nuances in personal/conversational styles can have potential for unwarranted conflict.

As with many adults, Grandma is quite set in her ways and it is challenging for her to comprehend Maya’s preferences. But when the fear of losing sight of her grandchild sets in, she uses everything in her power to reconcile — holding up a baseball cap on her cane, calling Maya by the name she prefers, and setting off to walk in the direction of Maya’s favorite place on the island.

Nothing could be more reassuring to Maya than to find her “special” family when lost amongst a sea of scary strangers. Neither Grandma’s clothing nor her loud mannerisms really matter!

Girl and Grandma find each other in more ways than one.

While assimilated children of a certain age and racial heritage may relate better to the specifics, context and characters, the story arc and exploration of familial love will hold universal appeal.

Neither the narrative nor the events bear any resemblance to real life. The story arc sort of shaped itself over time and several rewrites — two years from conception to final draft and over three years from submission to publication.

The idiosyncrasies and charm of the characters are brilliantly brought to life by Qin’s illustrious illustrations.

When I Found Grandma written by Saumiya Balasubramaniam and illustrated by Qin Leng is now available wherever books are sold.

An Excerpt from Cold White Sun by Sue Farrell Holler

A teenage boy stands outside the Calgary bus station, alone, on a frigid night. He has no winter clothes, no identification, and he speaks little English. His name is Tesfaye, but who is he, and where did he come from?

Tesfaye’s story is true, told by Alberta writer Sue Farrell Holler after hundreds of hours of research and interviews with the real “Tesfaye,” who cannot be identified so as to protect his family. Cold White Sun has the full support and endorsement of “Tesfaye,” and he has provided a statement that serves as the novel’s frontispiece.

The following is the frontispiece from Cold White Sun.

When the author and I began work on this story, I was hurt, confused, and didn’t understand what had happened to me or why. I was angry, but I didn’t know why I was angry and I didn’t know where to direct it — my country, my family, the set of circumstances that caused me to flee Ethiopia, or a combination of all three. My underlying anxiety was senseless but I couldn’t let it go.

Sharing my story and watching it develop as a work of fiction helped me see my past in a different context. is perspective has changed my heart and my mind and brought me peace.

— Tesfaye

Cold White Sun, by Sue Farrell Holler will be available on March 1, 2019 wherever books are sold.

Happy 20th Anniversary, Stella!

Written by Marie-Louise Gay

It’s hard to believe but Stella, Star of the Sea was first published 20 years ago! I wrote and illustrated the simple story of a little girl who discovers the wonders of the sea with her tiny brother Sam. When I wrote the story, I wanted to focus on the child’s point of view. How a child would perceive, understand and discover the secrets of a place that he or she had never seen. I wanted to develop a dialogue between a younger sibling and his slightly older and more knowledgeable sister. I wrote dialogues peppered with questions and answers, at once serious and whimsical:

“Where do starfish come from?” asked Sam.

“Starfish are shooting stars that fell in love with the sea,” answered Stella.

My intention was to write only one story but after Stella, Star of the Sea was published in 1999, I missed my two small friends and I began to see the natural world through their eyes and their curiosity. So, one day, as I walked through a lovely snowstorm, I wondered how Stella and Sam would see the winter landscape, and Stella, Queen of the Snow was born.

I went on to write and illustrate six Stella books and three Sam books.

Since then… Stella and Sam have learned to speak many languages. The books have travelled around the world and were published in over twenty different languages…here are a few: in Chinese, Hebrew, Welsh, Korean, Portuguese and Slovenian.

Various Stella books have won awards over the years: the Mr Christie’s Book Award, the Ruth Schwartz Award, the IBBY International Honor List, the Elizabeth Mrazik Cleaver Award, to name a few, while others were shortlisted for the Governor General’s Award.

Since then…Stella and Sam have become world travellers. They have travelled on letters, packages and postcards since two Stella illustrations were reproduced on postage stamps issued by Canada Post.

Since then…Stella and Sam have become international TV stars in an animated TV series created by Radical Sheep and based on the Stella books: The Stella and Sam Show, 52 episodes, some of which I wrote and worked on as a creative consultant.

Also, a play was created in Lisbon by the theater group Gato que Ladra with live actors playing Stella and Sam.

I feel very fortunate that my Stella and Sam stories are read and loved by children all over the world. I have been touched by the hundreds of letters and drawings that I have received from children and their parents who shared the stories of Stella and Sam. I have been inundated by letters from teachers and students who have read and studied my Stella books and have created art, new stories and fantastic projects inspired by my books. They have let their imagination run wild!

Thank you to all my readers and writers and artists!

Happy Anniversary Stella and Sam!

See all of Marie-Louise Gay’s Books and check out her website.

16 Books to Love This Valentine’s Day

Love comes in all shapes and sizes. Fall in love this Valentine’s Day with these books about first crushes, first loves, and the love shared between family and friends.

Grab your loved ones and snuggle up with one of these heart-warming tales.

Flannery by Lisa Moore

A Boy Named Queen by Sara Cassidy

A Family is a Family is a Family by Sara O’Leary and Qin Leng

Buddy and Earl by Maureen Fergus and Carey Sookocheff

Buddy and Earl and the Great Big Baby by Maureen Fergus and Carey Sookocheff

Buddy and Earl Go to School by Maureen Fergus and Carey Sookocheff

Buddy and Earl Meet the Neighbours by Maureen Fergus and Carey Sookocheff

Calvin by Martine Leavitt

Dodger Boy by Sarah Ellis

Friend or Foe by John Sobol and Dasha Tolstikova

I Was Cleopatra by Dennis Abrams

I’m Glad That You’re Happy by Nahid Kazemi

Louis Undercover by Fanny Britt and Isabelle Arsenault

Ophelia by Charlotte Gingras and Daniel Sylvestre

Prince of Pot by Tanya Lloyd Kyi

The Mosaic by Nina Berkhout

10 Books to Help Start a Conversation about Mental Health With Your Kids

In honour of Bell Let’s Talk Day on January 30th, we have put together a collection of books that explore the day-to-day struggles of being a kid.

These books highlight the importance of understanding one’s emotions, standing up for what you believe in and most important of all, that you are not alone.

Having a conversation about mental health or educating your kids (and yourself) about it is the perfect way to reduce the stigma associated with it. It is never too early to talk to your kids about mental health.

Morris Micklewhite and the Tangerine Dress by Christine Baldacchino and Isabelle Malenfant

Morris is a little boy who loves using his imagination. He dreams about having space adventures, paints beautiful pictures and sings the loudest during circle time. But most of all, Morris loves his classroom’s dress-up centre — he loves wearing the tangerine dress.

A story about the courage and creativity it takes to be different.

Calvin by Martine Leavitt

In the town of Leamington, Ontario, a seventeen-year-old boy named Calvin is suddenly stricken by a schizophrenic episode and wakes up in hospital.

Martine Leavitt brings her inimitable gentle wit, humor and compassion to a story about a teenager struggling to gain control of his own mind and destiny.

Ophelia by Charlotte Gingras and Daniel Sylvestre

Two teenaged outsiders, Ophelia and Ulysses, establish an uneasy truce.

One night, intruders invade their sanctuary, and their shared bond and individual strength are sorely tested.

A visually arresting, one-of-a-kind collage-style novel.

Louis Undercover by Fanny Britt and Isabelle Arsenault

In this powerful new graphic novel from Fanny Britt and Isabelle Arsenault, we meet Louis, a young boy who shuttles between his alcoholic dad and his worried mom, and who, with the help of his best friend, tries to summon up the courage to speak to his true love, Billie.

Jane, the Fox and Me by Fanny Britt and Isabelle Arsenault

Hélène has been inexplicably ostracized by the girls who were once her friends. Her school life is full of whispers and lies — Hélène weighs 216; she smells like BO. Her loving mother is too tired to be any help. Fortunately, Hélène has one consolation, Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre.

The Mosaic by Nina Berkhout

Twyla Jane Lee has one goal. To finish senior year so she can get out of her military hometown of Halo, Montana. But to graduate, she needs to complete forty hours of community service, and that means helping out a rude and reclusive former Marine named Gabriel Finch, a young veteran of the conflicts in the Middle East.

Gradually the two misfits form a bond, and Twyla begins to unearth the secrets that have left the Marine battling ghosts.

A Small Madness by Dianne Touchell

Rose and Michael are good students with bright futures and are very much in love. But when Rose gets pregnant she pulls away from her best friend, and from Michael, while she struggles to cope with her predicament.

Rose cannot admit that she is pregnant, moving from denial to ineptly trying to terminate her pregnancy, to believing that she has miscarried. She is on a mental and emotional downward spiral. Meanwhile, Michael sinks into his own kind of small madness.

Skim by Mariko and Jillian Tamaki

“Skim” is the story of Kimberly Keiko Cameron, a not-slim, would-be Wiccan goth who goes to a private girls’ school in Toronto in the early nineties.

Depression, love, sexual identity, crushes, manipulative peers –teen life in all its dramatic complexities is explored in this touching, pitch-perfect, literary graphic masterpiece.

Lily and Taylor by Elise Moser

After her older sister is murdered in a horrific incident of domestic abuse, Taylor begins a new life in a new town. She meets Lily, whose open, warm manner conceals a difficult personal life of her own, coping with her brain-injured mother. The two girls embark on a tentative friendship. But just when life seems to be smoothing out, Taylor’s abusive boyfriend, Devon, arrives on the scene, and before they know it, the girls find themselves in a situation that is both scary, and incredibly dangerous.

Broken Memory by Elizabeth Combres

Hiding behind an armchair, five-year-old Emma does not witness the murder of her mother, but she hears everything. And when the assassins finally leave, the young Tutsi girl somehow manages to escape.

When the country establishes courts to allow victims to face their tormenters in their villages, Emma is uneasy and afraid. But through her growing friendship with a young torture victim and the gentle encouragement of an old man charged with helping child survivors, Emma finds the courage to return to the house where her mother was killed and begin the journey to healing.


Interview by Laura Chapnick and Meaghen Seagrave
Photography by Laura Chapnick


Qin Leng draws at her desk

1) How did you become interested in illustration?

Growing up, I always loved to draw. My sister and I would spend our days doodling on old calendars, scraps of paper, and sometimes even on walls! My mother also enjoyed drawing in her spare time and my father, an artist, has been a huge influence on me. So, you could say that expressing myself through drawings has always been a part of my life and always felt very natural. However, I always imagined illustration as a hobby, something I could do whenever I had some spare time. Only after a few years working in the animation industry did I finally consider illustration as a possible career path.

Qin's paints

2) Why did you decide to illustrate children’s books over other art mediums?

Of all the various subjects I could be illustrating, I have always been particularly drawn towards children. They are fascinating to observe, so spontaneous, hiding very little of what they think or how they feel, their body language so expressive. I find it to be such an exciting challenge to try to capture all of that in a few simple brush strokes. For that reason, it was an obvious decision for me to illustrate children books over any other medium.

Away by Emily Sher and Qin Leng

3) What is the first thing you do when you sit down to create something?

When I am ready to start on a new book, I like to open my sketchbook and jump right into it. I think it’s important to empty my mind with all sorts of ideas onto paper, both the good and the bad, to get a feel of what I want to create. Once I have poured my creative juices out, I sift through everything that’s in front of me and slowly piece together what will become the world of my next project.

Qin's shelf

4) Where do you draw inspiration from?

I get inspiration from various places. I will get composition ideas from photography or movies. For characters, I get ideas by looking at people around me. I love people watching, and anyone I spot can become a potential character in my books. Someone walking on the street, someone standing in line in front of me at the grocery store, or sometimes even members of my family . . .

I also love to look at what other illustrators or painters do. I have an extensive collection of fabulous artists at home, and I always like to go through those books whenever I feel at a loss.

Qin's notebook

5) Describe your artistic process.

Usually, I will start by doing a lot of sketches to get a feel of my characters and the world they live in. Who are they, what’s their personality like, what kind of place do they live in? Once that’s sorted out, I start building the structure of the page and figure out what to illustrate on each page and the various compositions and pacing.

I like to keep the rough pass very quick and dirty, so that I have only a very loose template to work from once I am ready to go to final. At that stage, when I am ready to ink, I like to go straight ahead with very little planning. I find that the more I plan, the stiffer my drawing becomes . . . So, I prefer to jump right in and to some extent ‘improvise,’ so that my pieces feel as spontaneous as possible.

Qin draws a character from her book

6)  What are some of your favourite tools?

Over the years, I have tried many different drawing tools. To this day, I bounce back and forth between nib (a very fine one, size 102, so sharp it’s like drawing with a needle) and brush, and paint with watercolour. I used to colour picture books digitally, but I have recently made the jump and decided to do everything traditionally, from inking to painting. Watercolour is a medium I am still learning to control, but I love how it sometimes has a mind of its own and I welcome the happy mistakes.

Qin's painting supplies

7) Your next illustration project, the book When I Found Grandma, written by Saumiya Balasubramaniam, publishes this Spring. How was illustrating this book different from others you’ve worked on?

When Sheila Barry presented me with the manuscript two years ago, it instantly struck a chord with me. It brought me back twenty years to when I was a young teenager and my own grandmother came to visit for the first time from China. I remember feeling so excited at the prospect of finally reconnecting with such a big part of my life, and yet, at the same time, it was a real culture shock. The teenage girl I was was sometimes annoyed, short and impatient with my grandmother whom I didn’t always understand and who was bringing with her parts of China I had become completely disconnected from. Her visit was a memorable experience, which I relived while working on When I Found Grandma.

A sketch from When I Found Grandma

8) If readers could take one lesson from When I Found Grandma, what do you hope it will be?

Treasure your elders and treasure your culture. Often times we want to fit in so desperately that we forget that being different is what makes us valuable as human beings. So, hold onto those traditions and make sure that they live on in each passing generation.




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