Books on Bullying

October is National Bullying Awareness Month. Given that the first month of school is behind us and routines have been established, for kids who are victims of school yard bullying that means the bullying pattern is probably underway by now too. Books can’t eliminate bullying – I know that – but a good story may provide enlightenment to bullies themselves, as well as bystanders caught up in peer pressure. Equally important, victims often benefit from stories, gleaning insights, coping strategies and much-needed comfort and support. Here are some books on bullying for young and not-so-young readers.

For the picture book crowd:

I Didn’t Stand Up by Lucy Falcone; illustrated by Jacqueline Hudon

Noni Says No by Heather Hartt-Sussman; illustrated by Genevieve Cote

One by Kathryn Otoshi

Chrysanthemum by Kevin Henkes

The Recess Queen by Alexis O’Neill; illustrated by Laura Huliska-Beith

Each Kindness by Jacqueline Woodson; illustrated by E. B. Lewis

Dear Bully of Mine by Vicki Fraser; illustrated by Cody McGrath and Sean McGrath


For older readers:

Queen of the Toilet Bowl and Camp Disaster by Frieda Wishinsky

Sticks and Stones by Beth Goobie

Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli

Bullies Rule by Monique Polak

Cabin Girl by Kristin Butcher

In Plain Sight by Laura Langston

Some Girls Are by Courtenay Summers

To This Day by Shane Koyczan

Dear Bully – Seventy Authors Tell Their Stories by Megan Kelley Hall

True North

A few weeks ago an editing client presented me with a question. “How can I know,” she asked, “which direction is the best one for this story to take?” Her novel was essentially finished but there were issues with the middle so she’d hired me to provide feedback. Her beta readers had highlighted the muddied middle, and the writer herself knew it was a problem. There was so much going on that the through line of the story had gotten cloudy and the ending, while nicely executed, didn’t have the punch it deserved. Each of the beta readers, however, had come up with a different solution. One reader suggested thread A be dropped, another loved thread A but argued that thread B needed to go.

The writer wanted me to make the final decision and choose one. I couldn’t. I could point out the pros and cons of losing one thread over the other. I could give my opinion on how each thread deepened the basic conflict and impacted the main character (and even the supporting players). I could discuss and debate the ending payoff of one thread over another but I could not choose. For one thing, there are many right ways to tell a story. The story could be told, and told well, minus either of the two threads. Most importantly, however, it wasn’t my novel. I could advise, I could be a midwife to her process, but she had to birth the story herself.

She needed to find her true north, or the true north for this particular novel, and go from there.

True north is our internal compass. It guides us through life at our deepest level and helps us stay on track. With all the chatter we’re subjected to on a daily basis – from family, friends, the media or, in this case, from beta readers, it’s easy to lose sight of true north. It’s easy to doubt our instincts when we can barely hear the still, small voice of our soul.

I suggested to this writer that she employ Vanessa Grant’s ‘garbage can’ test. Pretend she’s throwing thread A in the garbage can and proceeding with thread B. How does that make her feel at a gut level? Then I told her to switch it up and pretend she’s throwing thread B in the garbage and moving forward with thread A. How is her gut feeling now? Don’t overthink it, I told her. Go with the initial feelings that arise. She could do this exercise in a few minutes or spend a couple of days mulling it over. But she needed to honor her feelings and not over analyse them.

She needed to decide what was most important to her, what direction would give her the most satisfaction when it came to writing the novel. There wasn’t a right way or a wrong way. There was only her way.

True north would point her in the right direction.

We’re Celebrating!


If you’re in Victoria this Wednesday, June 7th, please join us at Munro’s Books where a group of us will be launching our spring releases. I’ll be talking about my latest book, In Plain Sight. It’ll be a fun evening. I hope to see you there!

Overheard This Week

“I hope you guys are in school because this really isn’t the kind of career type job I like to see people in.”

So said a customer at the local bottle depot where my son, now known as the Graduate (AKA Teen Freud or The Basement Dweller), has worked part-time sorting and stacking bottles since he was in high school. Amazingly (and I use that word deliberately because he’s not known at home for his diplomacy) the Graduate  smiled, nodded politely and waited for the woman to take her bejewelled self back to her Mercedes before letting loose with a rant to his co-workers about judgement and expectations and class systems.

With his undergrad degree freshly in hand, the Graduate will likely make a job switch at some point over the coming months. But so what if he doesn’t? What if he decides he wants to stay where he is or open a bottle depot of his own? What if he was like a former co-worker who chose the job because he was a photographer (his passion) during off hours but the bottle depot provided a steady salary? Or his single mother co-workers who find the work, though dirty and often unpleasant, reliable and well-paying, especially for a job that doesn’t require post-secondary education.

Why do the jobs we do, the Graduate asked, inspire so much judgement? Why indeed.

That got me thinking about some of the jobs I assign my fictional characters. The mother character in In Plain Sight is an artist and predictably absentminded when she’s lost in her painting. The father is a terrorist and in jail so I went out of the box there. But in The Art of Getting Stared At, the main character’s parents are a doctor, an airline pilot, and a model respectively. In Girls Who Dish, my latest Laura Tobias title, the main characters are a restaurant owner and a lawyer, though I do throw in an accountant with a Shirley Temple obsession.

Sometimes characters and plot reveal the best choice of career or job to further our stories. You need a detective in a whodunit, for example. But Agatha Christie’s  Miss Marple was an elderly spinster and a most unlikely detective, something Christie used to her advantage.

So the next time I’m considering character careers, I’m going to forget the doctor or the teacher or the artist or the politician (especially the politician). I’m going to look for something fresh. How about a timeshare seller or a spider researcher or a cello maker or an otter technician for the Department of Conservation? Or  a chimney sweep . . . letter carrier  . . . judo instructor . . . dialysis tech . . . FAA tower controller . . . exterminator . . . glass blower . . . Christmas Around the World salesperson . . . preschool dance teacher?

So many jobs . . . I’d better get writing.

But first I’m heading out to get a t-shirt printed for the Graduate and his co-workers. I want it to read: Recycling Equipment Engineer . . . and proud of it.

Fuzzy Puppies and Cotton Candy

Some days – some weeks – all you want is fuzzy puppies and cotton candy, or, at the very least, a story that gives you a happy ending.

Last week I started reading a book by an author I particularly like. It was billed as a love story so I had high hopes. But there was a stalker and a dead ex-wife and lots of angst and even a slimy government official. While I expected an escapist romp, I had to force myself to finish the book. Finish it I did, partly because I will go wherever this particular author takes me, but also because I wanted to see how things ended up. Maybe the sun would come out and things would brighten up. Maybe the characters would redeem themselves and cheer up. If that’s the mark of a good book – that we care enough about the characters to keep reading – then the author did something right. Unfortunately, I wasn’t as invested in the characters as much as I wondered if they’d go through any character growth, and if the tone would lift as the story concluded. It didn’t. No fuzzy puppies or cotton candy there. And certainly not the happy ending I envisioned.

Around the time I read that book, the list of Oscar nominated films came out and we started doing our annual movie marathon. We try to see as many of the nominated films as we can because it makes awards night fun (though it leaves me feeling slightly guilt-ridden because I know many good movies never make the short list just as many good books are never nominated for awards). Still, date nights in January and February are good diversions when the weather’s bleak. We’ve seen quite a few of the movies and with the exception of two (Hidden Figures and Lion) the tone of many has been grim. No fuzzy puppies or cotton candy there either.

I began to feel grim myself. That could be because, along with my choices in movies and books, I’ve been watching the news. Way too much of the news. And I’ve been worrying about the state of our world, particularly the mindset of a recently elected official with a love of Twitter.

Writing began to feel hard. (For excellent tips on how to keep writing during hard times read this post by Kristine Kathryn Rusch:  ) I began questioning the legitimacy of my current project, a Laura Tobias novel. It’s a romp of a story about a woman who happens to win a lottery and uses some of the cash to promote herself as a Dessert Diva, a TV cooking star famous for – you guessed it – desserts. Of course she has problems (it wouldn’t be a novel if she didn’t) but it’s not grim, there’s no stalker or dead wife, no ‘the-world’s-about-to-end’ scenario. It’s set in Spain. There’s good wine and nice scenery. A hot love interest. There’s humor. Some of it’s even a little wacky.

How, I wondered, could I write something so frivolous when events in the world felt so weighty? When the world is struggling with terrorism, and issues around immigration, climate change and economics to name just a few? Maybe I should write another serious book. I’ve done my share. My latest Langston release, In Plain Sight, addresses terrorism from a teen perspective. I often gravitate to serious topics and serious books. I like reading them and I like writing them too. At least I do sometimes.

But sometimes you don’t just want fuzzy puppies and cotton candy, you need them. Sometimes a break from reality is a gift. It’s a gift to read and it’s a gift to write. So I’m giving myself permission to take a break from real life and I’m spending part of my writing day in Spain where my larger-than-life character breaks into a convent in search of a top secret and highly coveted angel cookie recipe. Will she or won’t she get caught? I’m leaning to yes, though I’m not entirely sure. But I do know one thing: caught or not, she’ll get her happily-ever-after. She’ll also rescue a stray Greyhound and she’ll bake dessert. Plenty of dessert. It’s not fuzzy puppies or cotton candy but it’s close.

And that’s good enough for me.

Cover It

In Plain Sight CoverBook covers are on my mind. Last week I received an advance copy of the cover for In Plain Sight. If you missed it on my Facebook Author Page, here it is on the left.

I’m thrilled with the way it turned out though I’ll admit my first glimpse of the cover raised concerns. Megan, the girl you see, finds out early in the story that the father she thought was dead is very much alive, he’s a convicted terrorist, and he’s Middle Eastern. For my story purposes, Megan needs to look a little like him. Not a lot, but enough that one could argue for some similarities.

The first time I saw the cover I identified Megan as a beautiful girl with a strong Celtic look. Her hair was reddish rather than the dark hair I’d referenced in the story, her eyebrows were light, and her face was made even paler by direct sunshine. I asked the art director if she could darken Megan’s eyebrows as well as her hair, and possibly give her skin more of a golden tone. I did get darker eyebrows, but messing with skin tones is problematic, so instead the art director removed the direct sunlight which gave Megan’s skin a slightly golden look. The hair, which remained a lovely reddish hue, remained the same and that posed a bit of a problem for me.

Luckily Orca shared the proposed cover before my final page proofs were done so I was able to go into the manuscript and tweak. Where a couple of girls make racist comments and insult Megan because she looks just like her father, I have the girls referencing the fact that Megan must streak her hair to hide the fact that she has the same coloring as her terrorist father. I think it’s a stronger passage than what I originally wrote and it’s realistic too: most teenage girls mess with her hair color at least once or twice in their lives. I made a few other subtle modifications here and there, allowing for Megan to look the way she does on the cover.

I’m grateful to Orca Book Publishers for sharing the cover early enough in the process that I could make some changes to the manuscript. It’s wonderful to have a strong cover that matches your story. Watch for In Plain Sight in 2017.

Meanwhile, I’m just starting the cover design process for Million Dollar Blues, my next Laura Tobias title. It’s a novel about love, money and relationships. I’m excited to be working with Viola Estrella of Estrella Cover Art. I can’t wait to see what she comes up with!



Revise, Revisit, Retreat

reviseI’ve been in revision mode for the last few weeks, working on In Plain Sight, a YA novel about a girl who learns her father was a terrorist. I’ve also been cutting and shaping Million Dollar Blues, a women’s fiction novel about a lottery win.

This Friday, however, I’ll be leaving the desk and heading up island. I’ll catch up with a dear friend that night and then on Saturday, I’ll head to the Red Door for a two-day writing retreat with my friends, the Pen Warriors.

It’s a revise, revisit, retreat kind of week. With luck, I’ll find time for a beach walk.

And that’ll make it rejuvenating too.   P1000623

Seeding Heavy

I usually plant heavy and I tend to write long. That means my garden overflows even after I thin and prune. And it means my novels sometimes get a little out of control before I revise them down to an acceptable length.

I can plant sparsely. I’ve done it plenty of times. I can write lean prose too. I do it when I produce novella length books for reluctant readers (watch for In Plain Sight coming in 2017).

Gardens and books start with seeds – the seed of an idea or the seed of a tomato – and in the beginning stages, it’s my nature to seed heavy. With garden seeds, you rarely get 100% germination so it’s prudent to allow for some failure. With novels, you never know which tiny tangent, random piece of dialogue, or secondary character might play an important role in the final novel. I outline, but not rigidly, and I like to leave room for surprises.

That means starting out like this if I want a garden bed of basil:basilseedlings 002





And starting like this if I want to work my way down to something publishable:april 11 2016 032





Then I need to take that overwritten book and revise it, and take that over seeded flat and thin it. I like the process. But last weekend, as I worked outside transplanting peppers I’d grown from seed, I felt a little sad at the number of plants that wouldn’t make it to the garden. They’d germinated but they were either stunted or so far behind the other seedlings that there was no point potting them up.

april 11 2016 023

Coincidentally, the day after I finished my garden work, I was back at the computer editing Million Dollar Blues and feeling a little blue myself at the passages and phrases I had to delete.

But if I want to get to this:april 11 2016 033






And eventually this: STEPPINGOUTCOVER9781459808959









Then the work of thinning and revising has to be done. It requires a certain ruthlessness that can be painful. But the end result is always worth it.  basilpot

Digging for Facts

diggingfactsI spent the better part of the last few weeks digging for a few key pieces of information I needed in order to finish my latest novel, In Plain Sight.

When I’m conceptualizing a book, I don’t think about the challenges I’ll face writing it. I think about the kind of story I want to tell and the best way to tell it. I think about my character, their story goal, and their character arc. I consider secondary characters too, and turning points and rising stakes and setting. I also think about setting.

In Plain Sight is set in Las Vegas and Los Angeles. I’ve been to both cities; I’m moderately familiar with them. And if I don’t know something, I know where to go to find the answer. I love research, I’m somewhat tenacious when it comes to digging, and I’m more than a little obsessive about making sure I have my facts straight. Thanks to all those years at the CBC, my old journalism roots go deep.

I was well into the story before I realized In Plain Sight might pose problems (This wasn’t as much naiveté as it was overwhelming enthusiasm to dive into the story and get the basics down).

The novel revolves around 16-year-old Farah Caliente who learns the father she thought was dead is in jail for committing an act of terrorism. Farah was an infant when it happened; she never knew the man. Her mother, who had nothing to do with the crime, was supposed to testify at his trial but she took Farah and bolted. Since then, she and Farah have been living under false identities. Hiding in plain sight, if you will. When her mother’s real identity comes to light and she’s taken into custody, Farah’s world is shattered. Life, as she knows it, will never be the same.

I was most interested in Farah. What does this mean to her? How does she cope? Who stands by her? Who doesn’t? And where does she go from here? But the story doesn’t play out in an emotional vacuum. Stuff happens. Legal stuff. Lots of it. And while much of it takes place ‘off the page’ it had to be realistic and it had to be factual.

I began to write. At the same time, I began to research some of the legal points I was fuzzy on. For every fact I uncovered there was another fact discounting the first one. I’m reasonably familiar with the Canadian judicial system but less so with the American one. After weeks of going around in circles (and writing around a few key points) I knew I’d need help. I put out feelers to a couple of U.S. law firms with PR departments. I didn’t get far. I put out more feelers to legal aid foundations and legal non-profit groups. I continued to strike out.

I could have changed the setting to Canada but I didn’t want to. As I’d structured the story, the terrorism act committed by Farah’s father would have taken place six months after 9-11. At that time, there was a huge backlash in the United States against anyone even remotely connected with terrorism. In fact, many innocent people were the subject of intense police scrutiny. I wanted that to be one reason Farah’s mother ran.

I could have paid for a legal consult. As I neared the end of my first draft, I considered it. But then I thought about my days in the newsroom when we’d be scrambling to find an expert. We always found one, often minutes before air time, generally when panic was setting in.

My panic was looming; that had to be a good sign. I took another shot at things, this time approaching the media departments of the Los Angeles County Superior Court and the Clark County Court systems. And rather than hitting them with all my questions, I selected the few I thought they’d best be able to answer. Success!

But I had one last hurdle to jump. So I turned to other writers. My plea for a U.S. legal source turned up a retired California attorney who was more than happy to answer my questions. Not only was Robin Wonder Siefkin able to comment and clarify the facts, she added a lawyerly layer of depth to the story that I hadn’t considered. While her input won’t stand out in the finished book, it is there. And without it, In Plain Sight would lack the realism and honesty I was shooting for.

Last week, I submitted the manuscript to the publisher. My digging is over. For the time being, at least.