I’ve always loved picture books, and I’ve always loved history. My first published book for children, The Reunion, started out as a picture book story set on Vancouver Island during WW II, which my editor asked me to expand into a novel. Seven novels later, I kept promising myself that I would take the time to return to picture book writing. I’d borrow piles of wonderful picture books from the library with the aim of studying how they were written, and they’d be overdue before I had a chance to open the covers. My solution: a self-directed writing retreat at Spark Box Studio near Picton Ontario (with funding gratefully received from the Canada Council!). A whole week without distractions, focusing on the craft of writing historical picture books! And October 2012 was the perfect time to explore the question, “How do I take a huge topic such as the War of 1812 and hone in on a small story suitable for children?”
To help me get on the right footing for my retreat, I stopped in Toronto beforehand to meet with children’s book author Monica Kulling, for a thoughtful and inspiring discussion about writing historical stories for children. Her latest book, Lumpito and the Painter from Spain, about a little dog who touched the life of Pablo Picasso, was hot off the press, and provided a great example (I love the dog, illustrated by Dean Griffiths).
Next, I took a side trip to soak up some War of 1812 history and watch the reenactment of the Battle of Queenston Heights near Niagara Falls. The boom of cannons, smell of smoke, calls of the soldiers, costumes of the military and civilian reenactors, and the cool, damp fall day helped to cast a spell that opened a window into the past.
At Spark Box Studio, I started each day with a solitary walk between farmers’ fields. The empty fields, subdued colours, and the whispers and rustles of leaves and grasses that followed me as I walked, made it easy to imagine a young girl two hundred years in the past, standing on the edge of a field, hearing the distant boom of cannon and cracks of musket fire. I felt like I was walking with one foot in the present and one in the past as I wrote these haiku:
on the lonely path
the words always
out of reach
While it was great to have so much time to myself to think and write, talking with the creative hosts and other guests at Spark Box Studio (most of them artists, rather than writers) was also enriching. And, despite that last haiku, the words weren’t out of reach. I finished the first draft of a picture book story and concluded the retreat feeling buoyed in spirit, recharged and reinspired to continue writing… all kinds of writing!