Saturday, 21 January 2012

The Attempt to Ban My Books from the Toronto Public Library System: October 10, 2010.

Without my efforts, only one copy of my award-winning book, The Boy from the Sun would exist in the Toronto Public Library system (99 libraries servicing 3 million people). 26 copies of my books Spacesnake and Night Wall, the majority of them, have already been removed from the system, removed in a one-month period. I have yet to receive an explanation as to why there appears to be a bias against my books.
     Awards presented to artists are intended to introduce good works to the larger public. Awards declare – Hey! Look at this! – to suggest outstanding merit for artwork worth checking out. Awards are intended to help enlarge the artist’s audience. Awards are most often the best method that an artist’s peers can commend one of their own for their hard work, talent, and sacrifice. Awards celebrate artists to help finance, encourage and give them confidence that they may continue on their path, because it is to everyone’s benefit. The greatest benefit of awards is that they help to produce a culture worth celebrating; after all, the culture of a country, simply put, is what its people celebrate. And it starts with saying, Hey! Look at this!
     At the American Library Association’s conference in Philadelphia in 2008 I walked the crowded floors promoting my books, randomly hassling librarians. One of them turned out to be the Librarian of Congress, Dr. Billington. He was happy to order my book, The Boy from the Sun. I was elated by our quick meet. Later that day I watched as various children’s book awards were announced on big screens to a huge audience eagerly awaiting the results for the biggest prize of them all.
     At the announcement of the winner of the Caldecot award thousands of librarians who came from across the United States stood up and cheered. It was an amazing sight. You couldn’t help but get excited by their enthusiasm. And Brian Selznick’s book is a great children’s book, well deserving the accolades and promotion.
     Winners of the Caldecott Award in the United States for picture books receive national attention with radio, television, and newspaper coverage – fantastic coverage that sell enough books allowing the author to live off the proceeds for years. And the recognition allows them to continue working in their field for the rest of their lives. This is of great benefit to the public, especially children, as the books will grow in quality. Awards, with this kind of backing are key in making children’s book culture viable in the United States.
     The coverage where I currently reside, Thunder Bay, has been great. Reporters call to ask what I’m working on. My Alma Mater, Lakehead University graced me with an alumni award and plugged me as one of three local talents in a successful campaign to promote itself. I was awarded grant money from the Ontario Arts Council, which has kept me working on new books. I’ve sold a few paintings – one that paid my way through Europe. I’ve done readings, workshops, held art shows and helped a few local artists with their careers.
      Elsewhere it’s a different story, but before I get to the meat of this story I need to relate a relatively minor incident that occurred at the National Library of Ottawa after the 2007 Governor General’s Award winners gave readings to the public.
     The authors had piles of books on their tables and boxes of books stuffed beneath, ready to be sold and signed for eager buyers. I had twelve copies of my book, The Boy from the Sun. I should have given my twelve copies away for free because the Canada Council purchased these twelve copies from the local Chapters down the street when they discovered beforehand that there were none available for my table. I know this because I happened to be in Chapters before the readings when a woman from the CC bought the twelve remaining copies. I spotted the books sitting in a box behind the counter ready to be picked up.
     After the reading and selling my twelve copies I had to disappoint maybe thirty eager buyers before Michael Ondaatje came to my table. Smiling, he asked for a copy of my book.
“I’m sold out,” I said. “I had only twelve copies.”
     Michael, downcast, stated gruffly, “That’s disgraceful!” I smirked and shrugged. I made sure to get a copy of his GG award winning novel (his fourth GG!), Divisidero.
“That’s disgraceful!” I hear Ondaatje’s voice over and over, every time I think of the lost opportunities and the failures of others to simply do the job they were obligated to perform – with contracts – made as valuable as a piece of paper, by breach, inaction and neglect. I thought winning two of Canada’s top awards for children’s books might change things for me. It has, but not as I had hoped.
The Toronto Public Library has 99 branches in the Toronto district serving 2.7million people. It is the largest library system in North America with a budget of over $180 million. A committee (I’m told) at the library decided not to order a single copy of my children’s picture book after the book had won the Governor General’s Award in 2007. In 2008 they did not order a single copy of my book when it won the Ruth and Sylvia Schwartz Children’s Book Award. Regarding the GG, this is the first time the Toronto Public Library did not order a single copy since the category (in which I won the award) was created in 1978. The Schwartz award was selected by grade 3 and 4 child jurors from Ryerson Community Public School, founded in 1877 in the heart of Toronto.
The prize money for both awards had been dramatically increased from the previous year with the hopes of helping authors and illustrators in their careers, and to attract more national attention to good quality books. Some in the children’s book business consider the Schwartz Award more valuable for a children’s book author because it is children who choose the winning book from a selection of books from across the country.
Normally the Toronto Public Library orders 50 to 70 copies of the book that wins in the category of children’s book writing and illustration for the GG.
In Toronto in the summer of 2008, I discovered that only one copy of The Boy from the Sun existed somewhere in one of the 99 branches. I headed downtown to the Toronto Public Library and the first librarian I spoke with was Brenda Livingston. Casually, I asked how many copies of my book existed in the system. She happily turned to her computer, and after a couple clicks she became quickly embarrassed. She asked me not to get angry as I sat bemused. She was certain that copies would be ordered.
Months later when no books showed up in the system I spoke on the phone with Theo Harris, the children’s service specialist. She informed me that a committee had decided not to order the book. She refused to tell me why. She refused to tell me who the head of the committee was. She refused to say whether or not more copies would be ordered.
Eventually eight more copies turned up in the system. One that went missing earlier had returned making the grand total, ten copies.
When I decided to make a serious query, I checked the library’s database and discovered that copies of my other two books, Night Wall and Spacesnake had been removed: 19 copies of Spacesnake and 17 copies of Night Wall – altogether, 26 copies – leaving 7 and 3 respectively. I wrote to Brenda Livingston who told me it was likely the books were removed because they had been damaged, not removed because of lack of circulation as they were circulating well.
     I realized some time later that if the 26 books removed were damaged it was within a one-month period, the time within which I had last checked the library’s database – that’s 26 books damaged in one month in many different libraries. Damaged books are “weeded,” Brenda told me, exclusively by librarians in individual branches. “Kids can be really rough on books,” Brenda wrote.
Brenda had forwarded my email regarding the removal of the 26 copies to Leslie Koster, the Senior Collections Specialist, Children’s Materials. Koster offered no explanation. She informed me that she would be ordering more copies of The Boy from the Sun, but it was up to individual librarians of the many libraries to reorder my other two books.
      With yet another email I enquired how many copies of The Boy from the Sun Koster planned to order. The reply: 26 copies – the same number of my other two books that had been removed, supposedly due to damage.
      Mystery unsolved I emailed a list of questions to see if Koster could explain why The Boy from the Sun wasn’t ordered in the first place, why so few later, who was the head of the committee, and exactly how it was that so many of my other books could be removed from the library system in such a short time period. I am still waiting for a reply to these questions and a few others.
Margaret Atwood liked The Boy from the Sun. She was on the jury that chose my book for the GG Award. So was Michael Martchenko, illustrator for Robert Munch’s books. I wrote to Margaret and she replied in a letter, “Canadians are dubious about success, which includes prizes. They are still not sure that it’s ok to be good at something (except hockey).”
      To help Americans understand and celebrate awards and artists, The Horn Book recently printed a special awards issue. Joanna Rudge Long points out that the Caldecot is judged only by the merits of the book itself, without external factors of fairness, ethnicity, previous winnings, history, or audience.
Roger Sutton adds in the next article; “Children’s book awards are not given to confirm the public’s taste but to reward those authors who most richly demonstrate what a book for children can be.”
The Horn Book also featured articles by the award winners in which they shed light on their books and careers. I hope one day to have this opportunity.

      Dr. Shiyali Ramamrita Ranganathan, the luminary and father of library science, proposed five laws for libraries. The first three relate to my case: 
1. Books are for use. 2. Every reader his (or her) book. 3. Every book its reader.

Friday, 20 January 2012

The Eyjafjallajokull Blues: Stuck in Stockholm, Journal, April 22, 2010

The day the article below appeared on the front page of the Chronicle Journal, friends emailed me to sarcastically express sympathy. "Oh, poor you. Stuck in horrible Stockholm." Yes, Venice of the North. Although I did see a few of the 75 museums and more than a couple movies, I was worried. 

2010 article     The British Navy is sending ships to France to rescue the stranded. John Cleese of Monty Python spent five thousand dollars on a cab ride. People are still sleeping at airports. Tens of thousands of people can’t afford to stay in hotels any longer. The Aviation Industry is losing 200 million dollars a day. Leaders of countries can’t travel and neither can athletes, musicians, business executives, girl guides and touring school children. Trains and ferries are booked solid. Students need to get to school. Kids need to be with their parents. People have jobs to start and return to, and a number of people couldn’t get married. Food will soon rot in warehouses. Farmers, and businesses up the food chain all over the world could soon be bankrupt. Mail can’t be delivered.
     Last Thursday, an email from my friend in Finland, Anna, warned that airports in Northern Sweden were closing. Anna is a reporter I met in Thunder Bay when she worked for the Finish newspaper, the Canadan Sanomat. Immediately after my interview with a publisher at 13:00, I booked a flight to Dusseldorf on Air Baltic’s website and quickly got to the airport. An hour later, while at the head of the line at the gate, our flight was cancelled. On Saturday, my flight with Delta Airlines from Amsterdam to Minneapolis was cancelled.
      I Google stories about the effects of the ash clouds spewing from the Eyjafjallajokull Volcano in Iceland, because the stories remind me of how lucky I am. I’m single, so I don’t have to worry about anyone except my cat. I’m self-employed, so I can work on my laptop. I’m in Stockholm in a nice B&B that is cheaper than a hotel, but twice as expensive as a hostel, (I cut a deal with the hotel manager). Earlier in my travels, I made a couple friends who are now offering me their spare room in Holland. And I have some money in the bank. I’m thinking positively.
      However, I don’t want to dig into savings that were hard to get. Staying in a hotel is expensive. There’s a possibility that I may not get refunded by two airlines. If the volcano keeps spewing ash, or truly explodes, it may be along time before a flight. I will have to consider the option of a boat ride back to Canada and a flight to Thunder Bay from wherever the boat berths.
Or, because I am also a European citizen, I can rent an apartment, and look for a job. All the while, I’m still paying for rent on my apartment in Thunder Bay, so I may have to get friends to put all my stuff into storage. To make matters worse, I’m an artist. I have no way of telling what my income will be from month to month. Grant money that I received from the Ontario Arts Council is supposed to be used for writing and illustrating my next children’s book, The Girl from the Moon. This volcano could set me back months.
      So what am I doing here? I have been in Europe a month now after attending the Bologna Children’s Book Fair in Italy to find a new publisher. I’ve dumped my current publisher, and I hope I never have to work with another corrupt Canadian publisher. (But this is another story.) My plan was to meet publishers at the fair, and then have time to visit the publishers on their home turf. This took me to Leipzig and Stockholm for the actual interviews. Along the way I stopped in Vienna, Berlin, and Helsinki.
     In Stockholm, my Swedish, French and Italian roommates at the B&B also had their flights cancelled. After three days of expectation, they lost faith in the airline’s daily offerings of hopeful updates. They thought my situation worse because I have an ocean to cross. I told them I was now pretending to be on vacation, and joked that I might start a novel. They joked that Iceland misunderstood the message, “We want cash, not ash!”
     My roommates had little interest in the actual volcano. They focused on reports from the airlines, the industry’s troubles and passenger woes. I related what I’d learned about the abrasiveness of ash, NASA flight tests, and the history of volcanoes on Iceland, specifically the one causing problems and the potential for an even bigger volcano eruption with Katla. This would truly be devastating. To them I was a naysayer and doom-monger. I thought I was being realistic. Even if Eyjafjallajokull sputters out tonight, the ash cloud has to dissipate and the airlines have to reorganize themselves. It might be a week or two before I get another flight home. If however – and this seems more likely – the volcano continues to spew ash into the sky, me and a whole lot of other people, many in very dire situations, will have to make a few big decisions.
     Friday and Saturday the trains were booked. My roommates opted to join others on crowded buses and trains. They left this morning.

     I decided to wait a couple days after the weekend in an attempt to avoid long lines and crowds at the train station. I may leave tomorrow for Holland, but the manager here just offered me an even better deal on the hotel bill, if I pay in kronor. That’s cash, not ash.

Thursday, 19 January 2012

Derelicte 3 Fashion/Art Show: Walleye Magazine, Feb. 2011

Like falling through a layer cake of events, the fans and dedicated fashion followers, witnessed a body slam of wearable clothes, fabulous art, funky music and a good party when it hit the Black Pirate’s Pub. The artists outdid themselves this year, and the models got into the act, proudly displaying barely wearable non-functional self-imploding get-ups that make you happy to be alive, because life is still full of surprises.
     Just one of the many events organized by Renee T. and David K., the Derelecte 3 Fashion Odyssey rang in the New Year for a string of upcoming fundraisers and art shows for the Definitely Superior Art Gallery.
     The venue was packed. The audience feasted on fashions featuring teams from The Crafty Coccoon, The Craft Collective, Lux Boutique, The Loop, Red Earth Imports, and Creation Body Piercing. Much of these works were bright, stylish, and youth-orientated, including “wool and ‘faux fur’ Cowl,” drindle skirts, baskets, linen capelettes, bamboo cotton, silk, tassels, plaits, wrist cozies, embroidery, hoods, scarves, dresses and a cape. Some of these ensembles were warm for Winter wear, but most would kill the model if they attempted to walk it home that cold night.
      Pictures tell a thousand words, (see images), but not when it comes to movement. And the models and performers emboldened their acts with creative daring. Tanya Elchuk stood out. Dressed as a deer (Sarah Furlotte design), she mimicked Johnny Depp’s Captain Sparrow walk – as a drunken, or terribly confused, deer. It was so good, I forgot to raise my camera. And again when Tanya performed a burlesque piece as a lumberjack, disrobing to her undies, teddy bear, and tiny tassels. Duct tape was never used so well.
     Kathleen Baleja and Jelena Psenicnick modeled headwear made of wasp’s nests and feathers. They walked with poise and elegance in a bird like manner as if to pay homage to ancient avian rituals.
      Christian Chapman wanted to push his audience away, literally. His silver NASA float wormed its way to the stage with the help of Julia McArthur, somewhere in its centre. The silver cloud ballooned over the catwalk and into an appreciative audience.
      Helen Leaf Black and Carol Kajorinne, covered in body paint, wearing next to nothing and Helen’s amazing jewelry, came out from their animist world to perform a ritual dance of unknown origin. And with their brief performance comes the realization of the incredible work the artist’s costumes bear for the brief time they are displayed on stage.

      The night sped by. Four hours contracted with a wonderful balance of sight, sound, experimentation, improvisation, daring and humour. Here’s looking forward to the challenges the artists and designers have set themselves up for next year.

Wednesday, 18 January 2012

Lantern Keeper: The Art of Alana Forslun: Walleye Magazine, January 2011

Alana Forslund is concerned that we adults are losing the best part of ourselves – memories of childhood, along with our imagination and our ability to play, overrun with the pressures of living the day-to-day adult life.
With the aid of a grant from the Ontario Arts Council, Alana was given enough time to play with these ideas in her wonderful new paintings. “Lantern Keeper,” featuring a barefoot woman in the forest with her jar of fireflies, is a good example of her new work. Alana’s deft handling of oil paint (“amazing mush” she calls it) is a joy to observe. Backgrounds are complete works, not filler, which Alana treats and uses to great effect to place her subjects in real and allegorical settings. Light and shadow dance over the skin of her subjects, reacting and firmly setting the characters within a story – a happening of some sort, where the subjects are absorbed in their playful activity. Much is alluded to but nothing is resolved, much like the act of playing itself. These moody images, focusing on a singular character, inspire the viewer to ask, “what’s her story.”

Alana felt that the love her friends used to have for childhood activities were fading in their memories. “Losing memories is normal. Memories are fluid. They make us human, but losing them is also sort of a scary,” Alana says. That tone of thought can be seen in other paintings where striating interference lines scratch the surface, obscuring some of the imagery and reminding the viewer that something unreal is going on. Thankfully the strength of the images, the wonderment and enjoyment the subjects find in their activity indicate that Alana is optimist. There’s enough hope and resolve to keep positive memories alive that make Alana’s work brilliantly humanist, and make Alana’s paintings and career worth great attention.

Tuesday, 10 January 2012

On May 4th: From Roermond, Holland, May 6, 2010

A two-minute silence at 8 pm on May 4th to respect the dead was broken at its tail end by a man intentionally and unintelligibly screaming amongst thousands of people in Dam Square, Amsterdam. The screaming caused a domino effect of panic, some were trampled, many injured. Queen Beatrix and princess Maxima were quickly hustled out by security. Many feared a repeat of last year’s attempt to kill members of the royal family. The incident was relayed live on television across Holland. Dutch viewers bolted forward in their seats, and feared the worst. Did someone drop from a building? Was a bomb about to go off? The live feed continued, creating anxious suspense. Within minutes, to appreciative applause, Queen Beatrix and princess Maxima returned to the square and the ceremonies continued. The Dutch viewers relaxed, back in their couches.
The threat of violence and the quick display of resilience had associations to the historical events portrayed in many television documentaries and news items about the liberation of Holland by Canadian, British, American and Dutch troops. Days earlier, particular attention was given to the Anne Frank House and Anne’s story. The museum opened 50 years ago on May 3rd. 

65 years ago, Canadian troops lead the way in a four-month assault on the Nazis who occupied Holland. The Nazis were starving the Dutch to death and the Canadians became the heroes that fought from street to field to canal to street again. The Nazis, having already eradicated nearly all the Jews from Holland, had gone on a killing spree to murder tens of thousands of Dutch men from the ages of 17 to 40. The Dutch men were rounded up in stadiums and dispersed to “work” camps. 

In Roermond, a town close to the German border, what was once a synagogue hasn’t been used as a place of worship since the war. The man who owns the men’s clothing shop across the walk claims to be the only Jew in town. His wife passed away a few years ago, and he plans to move to Amsterdam.

There are about at hundred thousand Jews living in the Netherlands today.

The Germans of today don’t celebrate May 4th or 5th, obviously, but they are certainly aware of the date. Many Dutch and Germans live in one country, but work in another, so the Germans who work in Holland get a holiday on May 5th, but the Dutch who work in Germany, do not. Many speak each other’s language fluently. 

Germany is now a peaceful nation, open to immigration. A mix of races inhabits the streets, all speaking fluent German. The border is mentioned in a signpost somewhere along the autobahn, and you can travel by car or train through border countries in and out of Germany without having to show your passport.

Germans are very friendly, industrious, progressive (green technology is everywhere), and wealthy. Young people don’t ignore their history and are quick to make references to the wartime past when they encounter tourists. When asked for directions to the old section of Frankfurt, a young woman says, “Well, there’s not much left. It was bombed by the British.”
And she smiles to reveal that she holds no grudge.

At a “flashmob” night dance at the beautiful waterfront in Düsseldorf, hundreds of young strangers gather for a spontaneous 3-hour practice. They are video taped for a televised Eurovision song contest. References to the war appear on a few t-shirts and can be heard in youthful banter. If you don’t speak German, you can still get the gist that rougher kids use ‘Auschwitz’, ‘Nazi’, and ‘Hitler,’ in insults to each other, without animosity. The Nazi past has blended into a Goth-like popular subculture. Young Germans seem to be free from the worry that violence and hatred is some kind of genetic trait which it is most obviously not.