After a two-month hiatus, I’m so glad to once again offer you Toronto Tuesdays Interviews!
Our Toronto MG/YA writers’ group is full of ultra-talented authors and illustrators, the fabulous people that you’ll have the pleasure of meeting during the coming months. I try to keep up-to-date with everyone’s news so as to feature them at the best possible times, like right before or following a new book release! And considering the calibre of talent in this group, we’re never at a loss for those! Feel free to browse this blog to catch the interviews you’ve missed so far. Believe me, each one is worth reading!
And this week’s interview is no exception.
Vikki VanSickle is one of the cutest, smartest, book-lovingest people you’ll ever meet. She wears her passion for writing and books on her sleeve and you can’t help but get excited about whatever it is she’s talking about. It’s always enjoyable to sit beside Vikki at a tweetup!
Meet Vikki VanSickle.
Please introduce yourself to us.
My name is Vikki VanSickle- yes, that is my real name. Clearly my parents had a premonition that my name would be on the cover of a children’s book one day and so they opted for alliteration. Always a good move.
When I’m not reading or writing I can be found at The Flying Dragon Bookshop in Toronto, where I am the manager. In the summer, I am the playwright and director of Lock and Keynote Production’s musical theatre summer camps. I’m currently living in Toronto with the world’s best roommates, two human, one feline. I love autumn, chocolate milkshakes, going out for brunch, musical theatre, my friends, vintage clothing, long walks, Vancouver, camp, singing, and of course, writing.
Tell us about your book.
Words That Start With B, is a friendship story. It chronicles a particularly bad year in the life of Clarissa Louise Delaney, who describes herself as the “unexceptional daughter of a bona-fide beauty queen.” Clarissa’s mom runs a hair salon out of their basement. She spends most of her time with her next door neighbor Benji, a shy kid with a hockey-loving dad who just can’t understand why Benji would rather hang out with Clarissa at the salon. In grade three, Clarissa was rescued from the principal’s office by enigmatic grade seven teacher Miss Ross. Now that grade seven is just around the corner, Clarissa has decided that this will be her year. She’s going to be smarter, nicer, funnier; she is determined to be the best possible version of herself.
But things start to go downhill pretty quickly. First, Miss Ross is no longer at the school and is replaced by goofy Mr. Campbell. Then it turns out that Benji’s dad is not the only one who finds his preference for girls and beauty salons weird, and he becomes the target for a particularly nasty bully. Michael Greenblat keeps giving Clarissa weird gifts and for some reason, goody-two-shoes Mattie Cohen seems to think she’s her new best friend. But things go from bad to worse when Clarissa’s mother is given a diagnosis that changes everything. But Clarissa is a survivor, and she manages to stumble through the year if not with grace, then with a lot of humour.
Why did you choose to write children’s books?
It was never a conscious decision for me. When I sit down to write, the things that come to mind always happen to be children’s stories. Other than a few plays, I’ve never attempted to write any sort of fiction aimed at adults. I think this is due in part to the fact that I love kids and I have worked with children in various capacities since I became a reading buddy in grade four. I think writing for kids was a natural progression of my love for kids and how I am ceaselessly amazed by their intelligence, complexity, and struggles. In many ways, my writing comes out of a deep respect for children and the process of childhood and adolescence.
In terms of my own reading, I have always read children’s books, even as an adult. And not just because I worked in a bookstore or was a camp counselor, but because I really enjoyed them. Anything goes in children’s literature- there is so much room for experimentation and wonder. Kids are a naturally open and receptive audience. How freeing for an author! And how exciting to be contributing to a child’s development in their formative years. So many people remember vividly and fondly the books they loved as children. It is an honour and a privilege to write for young audiences, one that I take very seriously.
Were you an avid reader as a child? What were your favorite books?
I was a HUGE reader. At one point the librarian at my public library kept my library card behind the desk because I was in borrowing books so frequently. I read everywhere: in bed, in the bathtub, in the car, at lunchtime, at the arena when the zamboni was resurfacing the ice before skating practice- it’s safe to say I was addicted. I wasn’t picky about what I read, either. I particularly loved Nancy Drew books, Anne of Green Gables, ghost stories, WWII novels, anything to do with witches (but particularly the Salem Witch Trials) and Sweet Valley High.
Do you think you were born to write or is writing something you discovered along your life’s journey? Either way, when did you decide to do it in earnest?
I think I was a born storyteller. As a kid I entered poetry contests and kept a fairly elaborate journal. In grade eight I convinced my teacher to allow me to spend an entire year working on a novel instead of handing in individual writing assignments. For awhile I took a bit of a detour into acting and directing, but I found my way back to writing and I feel like I’ve found my niche.
It wasn’t until I entered the Master of Arts in Children’s Literature program at UBC in 2005 that I seriously considered writing as a calling. I enrolled in a creative writing for children course with writer and teacher Alison Acheson and everything just clicked. I made wonderful friends and read fabulous books and stayed up late discussing children’s literature. I left the program with the tools, the confidence and the drive to pursue publication. I am a huge supporter of writing groups and workshops. If you are serious about writing but need some structure or support (or both), get thee to a workshop!
Was there anything in particular that inspired you to write your first book?
Warning: This section contains spoilers!!
Words That Start With B came out of a number of sources. I wanted to write a friendship story between a boy and a girl that didn’t turn into a romance. So many middle grade and teen novels are about the boy (or girl) next door who suddenly become appealing, but I found truly platonic boy-girl friendships hard to come by in children’s literature.
I also wanted my male character to be more effeminate than perhaps we’re used to seeing in kids fiction. I knew (and know) many boys who preferred the company of girls, were perhaps a little more sensitive than other boys, and had more traditional female interests, but these boys are practically invisible in children’s fiction. I had written a few scenes about a shy boy named Benji and his spunky neighbour Clarissa, but not much came out of it.
Then I had an interesting conversation with a friend of mine who relayed a story about a girl in grade six who chose to take a fail on a test rather than label the parts of the female reproduction system because she was embarrassed by the subject matter. I wondered how this girl would react if someone close to her, like her mother, developed breast cancer? This seed lead to a monologue I had written that began with the sentence, “Of all the cancers in the world, my mother had to get breast cancer.” I realized that this monologue sounded an awful lot like my character Clarissa, and then everything fell into place. Fun fact: that sentence is still in the book.
Is there anything that you’ve found to be particularly helpful in your journey to publication?
My friends, both writerly and non-writerly. My writerly friends understand the agony and ecstasy of the process, including the long stretches of time between your first submission to receiving an offer to signing the contract to your first round of edits to seeing the final product. They know what it is to agonize over word choice and covers. My non-writerly friends are also supportive, but most importantly, they remind me to get out and do stuff. What’s the point of sitting at home and stewing when there is so much to see and do in life that is non-book related?
Can you share a favorite quote with us?
I was a camp counselor for many years, and one of the quotations I used to write out in big letters and tape above the cabin door was, “Don’t Count the Days, Make the Days Count.” There are lots of great inspirational quotations out there, but this one has really shaped how I live my life. So much of life (particularly when you’re a writer) is waiting for something. It’s easy to be idle and let time pass. It’s much harder to get up and do something. I try to make the most out of every day, whether that means enjoying all the small things or connecting with my friends or writing. When I’m old and grey I want to be able to look back and think, I made every day count!
Thanks, so much, Vikki! WORDS THAT START WITH B is a great choice for middle-grade readers or for anyone who remembers what it was like to be in 7th grade! (I do. I moved part-way through the year. And besides that, how could anyone forget a teacher like Mr. Baker? Sheesh. He was no Miss Ross, that’s for sure.)