More Information on Books and School Visits

Monday, 24 October 2011

Made in Manitoba - Children's Books aren't just for Children Anymore

I’m not just talking about Harry Potter and his magical adventures that tweaked the curiosity of adults across the globe. Literature for children today, has to be well researched and well written with strong, believable characters. Books for the under 18 crowd have to be stellar from the first to last line, with no room for sloppy storylines or fanciful writing. A classroom full of kids is far more discerning than a stadium packed with adults.

But…wait, how can that be? Aren’t we better educated, older, and have read far more books than our children and grandchildren?

“Guffaw, hogwash, and balderdash!” you may say, but consider this:

Growing up, our entertainment consisted of a handful of television shows, hours tooling around the neighbourhood on our bikes, and books. Now, those bikes have grown rusty and children have a selection of 24 hour kid-focused television stations, not to mention; Ipods, Ipads, PS3s, PSPs, DSIs, and WIIs vying for their attention. 

But I digress.

Seriously, if the first paragraph of a children’s novel doesn’t grab and sustain their interest, kids will turn to a handful of other completely interactive and “easy” modes of entertainment.

(And yes, as I write this my children are bickering over Super Mario Bros, on the cursed, ‘why-did-we-ever-let-this-into-the-house’ WII.)

Mulling over this need for well crafted kids books got me thinking about an incredible book I read over the summer. It was the page-turner, The Kulak’s Daughter, by Manitoba author, Gabriele Goldstone.

The protagonist is a twelve year old girl, whose family is deemed ‘kulak’ under Stalin’s brutal regime and forcibly removed from their farm and exiled to Siberia on their way to a Gulag.

Yes, the central character is the same age as a middle grader. Yes, the perspective is from her viewpoint. And yes, it is a spell binder that kept me up ‘til . I couldn’t go to sleep until I knew how it ended. Would Olga survive? What about her baby brother? Where is her father?

Once done, I was left with more questions. How much was true? What exactly is a Kulak? Why were the landowners targeted so viciously?

Luckily for me, the author is home-grown and part of my critique group. She graciously responded early the next morning, to my email of questions that plagued my dreams. She also agreed to do my first author interview and share the work that goes into writing a novel. Gabe's blog can be found by clicking on this link,

Here's a glimpse into the research she did for her first novel, The Kulak's Daughter.

Q. Gabe, what made you want to write this novel?

A. I've always wanted to write, but life kept getting in the way...(okay, so maybe I procrastinated a bit.) In 2000 a relative sent my mom a self-made calendar with old photos in it. It was the first time I'd seen photos of my mom as a child and all of a sudden I just had to know the story - what happened to the in-between time of those photos? The fact that my mom hid the calendar because she didn't want to be reminded of those days, just intensified my curiosity.

Q. You went to Ukraine (the former Soviet Union) for research. Where exactly did you travel?

A. I went to find a little placed called Fedorofka, about 2 hours east of Kyiv. I stayed in the city Zhytomyr, which is about the size of Regina.

Q. Why was it so important to physically go there, when we have so much access to photos and videos on the Internet? 

A. I did have a lot of information before I went. But going there and actually talking to the old people who remembered, walking the land where once my mom and her family lived, finding the remnants of the windmill, and reading my grandfather's files in the former KGB archives was very empowering for me. Plus, I got to smell linden tree blossoms, feel the soil, the wind - you know - the sensory detail. Plus I got to rub shoulders with the ghosts of the past and they touched me to the core.

Q. What did you do/read to research this novel?

A. I listened to my mom tell her stories. I mean I really listened. Sometimes it's easy to ask a question but not really hear the answer because I assume I know it already. My mom's answers kept surprising me. Plus, she gave me nuggets of information at times when I wasn't expecting it.

For example: I was telling her about my broken tooth and then she mentioned how she remembered when they broke her mother's teeth after she'd died, to extract the gold. I'd already written a draft of the story at that point, but had to go back and add this. 

I also read lots of books about the Stalin years and collectivization. Since the early nineties there have been many excellent books written about the subject.

Q. What surprised you most when researching Stalin's time in history?

A. The confusion. This was not a carefully thought out cruelty - like Hitler's Third Reich. The other surprise was the sheer numbers. There was nobody in that part of the world who wasn't affected in some way by Stalin's insanity.

Q. You've done school visits. Can you tell me about your first one?

A. My very first school visit is quite memorable for me. The class did drawings of their favourite scenes and the teacher collected these along with letters to me. She put these together into a little booklet. Another teacher also made me a collection of the class study questions. She even had someone from the local paper come in to interview me and do a write-up. Visiting classrooms is a very heart-warming experience. 

Q. What question from a student has surprised or impressed you most?

A. The kids are so interested in the fact v.s. fiction aspect. One boy wanted to know if I found Olga's dog when I went back.

Q. You are obviously no longer a child. Can you tell me why you write for children?

A. I've always felt a strong connection to kids - as a babysitter, as a parent, and even now as my own kids move on, I still feel that kids (especially the age I write for, which is 11-13) are on the cusp of life. They are open, vulnerable and so very honest. As adults we lose that. Staying connected to kids through writing, keeps me connected to my inner child.

Q.What advice do you have for kids who want to write?

A. Do it. Read lots and lots and make writing a habit. Trust your writing voice, it's uniquely yours.

Q. Where can people buy your book?

A. Well, I've just learned that my little publisher down in Austin, Texas is shutting down. So, it might become difficult to get my book. However, it's at the library, or contact me through my blog - I'd be happy to send it out. I'm also going to get an e-book version made. Again, please visit my blog for information about when that will be available.

Q. Can you give us a little taste of your current Work-in-Progress?

A. Well, I do have a sequel to The Kulak's Daughter, but that's been put on hold because of my publisher issues. So my current work-in-progress that I've been sharing with my delightful and talented critique group isn't historical fiction at all. It's about a boy with a brain injury.

Here's a snippet:

Black. A few sparks dance in and out of the corner of my left eye, but I can’t move - can’t turn my head to see the rest of the light show. I get vague images – but it’s all far away. Hard to explain... can’t focus.

Is that a mosquito whining in my ear?  I want to slap it, but where’s my darn hand? Why can’t I make it move?  Stupid bugs, there’s another one, sucking blood out of me and I’m letting them. What’s happening to me?

Hey! Is that a whippoorwill calling? I’ve got to see it! (Better not be an omen.) Ever since I was little, I’ve wanted to see a real live whippoorwill, and now, now it seems like I can’t even, I can’t...get my eyes open. Somebody help me!

The fireworks fade, and I’m alone in the dark. But it’s like the darkness is in me, not around me. I am the night.

I try to fight it - try to stop it from making me disappear completely. 

(And no, I did not take artisitic license with Gabe's responses. She actually said we were delightful and talented. And no, I didn't prompt her or bribe her. The Laura Secord chocolates were just a thank you gift.)


  1. Thanks, Jodi! You asked great questions. Can't wait to read your next 'made in Manitoba' interview.

  2. What a great idea, Jodi! This is one fantastic interview. Interestingly, I too am a huge Gabe fan!

  3. That was a great interview! I loved the questions and the answers. Gabe always gives such thoughtful replies. Oh, if only there were Laura Secord chocolates for the commenters too!

  4. Hi Barrie!
    Thanks for stopping by. Someday I'd like to introduce my great critique group to you in person!

  5. Hey Barrie,

    I don't have any Laura Secord lying around, but I do have pounds of Halloween treats...

    And thank you for the comments. When you have someone as interesting as Gabe, an interview is a breeze.

  6. Good Morning Gabe,

    Any friend of your's would have to be awesome. Thanks again for being my first interview victim, ahem, I mean guest writer.

    See you Thursday. Happy writing.