Both Sides Now: A Q&A with Peyton Thomas

Peyton Thomas just released his adorable and thought-provoking debut, Both Sides Now, and we’re so excited – it’s one of our #Penguin10 titles this fall! Peyton graciously dropped by the blog to answer some questions, so read on!

Q&A with Peyton Thomas

Tell us a little bit about the book! What inspired you?

Debate was my life in high school. I sacrificed a lot of weekends to arguing with total strangers. I traveled all over Canada for competitions, meeting kids from across the country, and sometimes from far beyond its borders, and yelling at them. I’m grateful for those experiences. They opened my mind, introduced me to new viewpoints, and made me a more empathetic and thoughtful person.

So I love debate, but I’m very wary of bad actors abusing it. There is, in particular, a trend of right-wingers hollering “debate me, bro!” at any marginalized person who asks to be left alone, please. Trans people are especially vulnerable to this kind of bad-faith bullying. I began to wonder: When is debate helpful? How is it abused? Is there a point where an intellectual exercise becomes a very real threat to a person’s well-being? Setting my story on the high school debate circuit allowed me to engage very literally with these questions.

How similar are you and Finch? Did you put any of your personality into other characters? Which character is the most “you”?

I’ve seen many a reviewer describe Both Sides Now as #OwnVoices – which is very funny, because Finch is the polar-whole-entire-opposite of my high school self! I didn’t come out until my mid-twenties; Finch figured it out in middle school. I was raised with a very conservative religious outlook, while Finch is pretty progressive. And I went to an all-girls’ school, which meant no hunks like Jonah roaming around. I spent a lot of time being quite sure that I liked boys, but less sure where I came down on girls – the exact opposite of Finch’s dilemma.

Maybe this is the best way to put it: Finch is the person I wish I’d been when I was younger. He’s just so sure of himself, in ways that I never was.

We do have a fair bit in common, though. We’re both on the shy side, but we still love a good argument. We’re hopeless romantics, although we’d never actually admit it. And we’re doing constant battle with our perfectionist streaks.

Ari Schechter is closer to who I was in high school. She’s questioning the worldview she grew up with, probing the gap between who she is and who her parents would like her to be. She’s very ambitious, but she’s vulnerable, too, in ways she doesn’t even realize. Can she be a jerk? Yes. But she can be so much more than that.

Did you ever have to debate heavy/personal topics in school? How difficult was it for you to get into Finch’s headspace to argue against his (and your) identity?

I spend a lot of time in Finch’s headspace, truth be told. I probably debate someone about my transness once a day. Many a trans person finds themselves constantly forced to justify their every decision – to their family, their friends, their never-ending supply of online trolls, whoever. We’re not always debating in a formal setting, like Finch, with a podium and a timekeeper, and a panel of judges. But we’re never really off the clock, either. It can be really exhausting.

And yet, there’s a reason we come back to these debates, time and time again: we want to win hearts, change minds; we know debate can do that. When I struggled, in high school, with a debate resolution, it was usually something that went against my religious and political beliefs. Abortion, maybe. Gay marriage. The wall that Israel built in the West Bank. I didn’t realize I could be wrong about these issues until I debated them.

Who would you cast as your characters in a movie adaptation?

Miles McKenna plays Finch on the cover of Both Sides Now, so he’s the obvious choice. The musician Cavetown also looks a lot like Finch. Oh, and my friend Tom Phelan, who was one of the first trans boys to play one on TV – as a teenager, he’d have been Finch from Central Casting. He’s a little too old to play Finch now, and way too punk rock. Alas.

This is your debut novel (congrats!) – what advice do you have for budding writers?

Hilary Mantel is one of my favorite authors. People like to ask her if she writes every day, or if she just waits for inspiration to strike. Her answer? “Of course I write every day, what do you think I am, some kind of hobbyist?” I regret to report that, in my experience, this is the only way to do it. Every day. Period. End of.

Before I became a full-time author of fiction, I wrote scripts for video games. That job was the first time I’d ever made a capital-L Living off of writing. It was also the first time I’d ever been required to write 10,000 words a week if I wanted to keep my job. Was it a grind? God, yes. Did it teach me how to meet my deadlines whether I felt ~inspired~ or not? Also yes.

So that’s my very simple advice. Get into a daily writing habit. Weekdays, weekends, holidays. Do it for fifteen minutes, or ten, or five. Come back to it, again and again, no matter how inspired you’re feeling. And see how sharp, vivid, alive your writing gets. Live for it.

What other LGBTQIA+ books/authors would you recommend for fans of Both Sides Now?

We’re in a real boom of books by trans men about trans men! Both Sides Now shares a debut year with The Passing Playbook by Isaac Fitszimons, Meet Cute Diary by Emery Lee, and May the Best Man Win by Z.R. Ellor, all of which I highly recommend.

I’d like to suggest, also, that my readers check out books by and about trans women. There seem to be fewer of these in YA, which is a real shame. Meredith Russo’s YA novel If I Was Your Girl is lovely, and I really loved Canadian author Hazel Jane Plante’s Little Blue Encyclopedia (for Vivian) – which isn’t YA, but probably won’t scandalize anyone in that age bracket. Kai Cheng Thom – also Canadian! – writes a lot of excellent non-fiction, including an advice column for Xtra that my readers should check out.

You write music reviews for Pitchfork and other outlets. What are some artists/songs you’re currently obsessed with?

I’m going to take this opportunity to be very sneaky and cryptic and embed my writing playlist for the next book I’m working on.

Can any of you bright sparks piece together the plot based on the contents of this list? Let’s find out.

What are you working on now?

When I’m not reviewing Peppa Pig for Pitchfork, I’m working on a second book. Two hints, in addition to the playlist I linked above:

  1. The working title is “Two Slow Dancers”.
  2. You already know the characters.

Pandemic question: What’s the one thing you just can’t live without these days?

The Pioneer Woman’s recipe for peanut-butter pie. It takes ten minutes to make, and it’s ambrosial.

Thanks for joining us, Peyton! Both Sides Now is available now, make sure you pick it up from your favorite bookstore!

Did you miss Peyton’s launch at Glad Day Bookshop? Catch up on our Instagram or YouTube (includes captions):

And for our Canadian friends, you have until Tuesday, August 31 to enter this giveaway for a chance to win a copy of Both Sides Now!

Both Sides Now
By Peyton Thomas
300 Pages | Ages 14+ | Hardcover
ISBN 9780735269750 | Penguin Teen Canada
There’s only one thing standing between Finch Kelly and a full-blown case of high school senioritis: the National Speech & Debate Tournament. Taking home the gold would not only be the pinnacle of Finch’s debating career, but the perfect way to launch himself into his next chapter: college in Washington, DC, and a history-making career as the first trans congressman. What could possibly go wrong? Well, for starters, Finch could develop a teeny tiny crush on his very attractive, very taken, and very gay debate partner, Jonah. Never mind that Finch has never considered whether he’s interested in more than just girls. And that dream of college in DC? Finch hasn’t exactly been accepted anywhere yet, let alone received the full-ride scholarship he’ll need to make this dream a reality. Worst of all, though, is this year’s topic for Nationals: transgender rights. If he wants to cinch the gold, and get into college, Finch might have to argue against his own humanity. People say there are two sides to every argument. But, as Finch is about to discover, some things – like who you are and who you love – are not up for debate.

Peyton Thomas: website | twitter

The Silver Blonde: A Q&A with Elizabeth Ross

Are you a classic film buff? Then you’ll love The Silver Blonde, the new historical mystery from Elizabeth Ross, set in 1940s Hollywood. Elizabeth graciously dropped by our blog to answer some questions:

Q&A with Elizabeth Ross

Tell us a little bit about the book! What inspired you?

The Silver Blonde is a noir mystery set in post-war Los Angeles. I was inspired by my love of old Hollywood films, particularly the noir classics of the 40s and 50s – as well as my experience working in LA as a film editor. I thought it would be interesting to explores the themes common in film noir – deceit, alienation, complicity – and apply them to a YA character.

Who would you cast as your characters in a movie adaptation?

That’s a tough one to answer. When I was writing the novel I did have inspiration pictures of actors – but they were all from the classic Hollywood era. I thought of Clara as a young Ingrid Berman, natural but with poise and intelligence. I found a great shot of a young Jack Kerouac for Gil. Babe Bannon is a composite of Barbara Stanwyck for her acting chops and guts, Lauren Bacall for her husky voice and glamor, and Veronica Lake for her incredible hair.

What kind of research did you do to write The Silver Blonde? What’s the best/most interesting/weirdest thing you learned while researching?

I did a ton of research. One of the coolest things I got to do was visit the old nitrate vaults at Paramount studios. An editor friend who was working on the lot arranged the tour. When we were standing in that narrow vault she commented that it looked like a place you might find a dead body. That chance remark was a flash of inspiration and by the end of the first chapter, Clara does indeed find a dead body in the film vaults. Also during my research I was able to attend some screenings of nitrate film prints. When you think how we consume media nowadays – on a phone or tablet – seeing a nitrate print projected up on the big screen with an audience of film buffs, I was transported. I could understand why movie stars in the classic era had such allure and star power.

How was writing The Silver Blonde different than writing Belle Epoque? Do you have any writing advice you learned during the process (or writing advice in general)?

Both books were very different experiences. I have a theory that with each book you have to relearn how to write a novel – how to write that novel. With Belle Epoque I began writing with my plain Jane character, Maude, front and center. Having her clear voice in my head made the story come easier. With The Silver Blonde it was more of a concept – film noir – and it took time to find my main characters and their histories. I spent a lot of time researching and I had a couple of false starts, but ultimately unlocking the key to this novel I found to be more rewarding as it was hard-fought. The story took me to places I hadn’t imagined when I started out. It was an intense creative journey and it tested me as a writer. Advice: please yourself, you are the first reader. Try and turn off your inner critic and ideas of perfectionism.

The Silver Blonde is set in 1946 Hollywood. What’s your favorite Hollywood film from (or about) that era?

In the novel I include a filmography of some the films mentioned in the book including Hitchcock’s Notorious, starring Ingrid Bergman and Cary Grant – such a great pairing. One of my favourite noir films is Gilda, starring the dazzling Rita Hayworth. Another superb film from this era – about the industry of Hollywood – is Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard.

Ingrid Bergman and Cary Grant in “Notorious”.

The book is something of a mystery, too. What’s the trickiest thing about writing a compelling mystery?

Mystery was a new genre for me. What makes it challenging is that you’re writing two stories: the story on the page as the characters uncover clues and solve the puzzle; and the story off screen – what really happened. Nailing down the structure and sequence of events, as well as solving logic problems can be tricky. But when you do figure something out, it’s as thrilling as it is for your main character making the discovery.

Who are some of your favorite historical fiction authors?

I adore Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. How does she pull off that incredible story structure – it’s such a feat of storytelling. I’m currently reading Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell, it’s totally bewitching. And at the top of my TBR pile is Libertie by Kaitlyn Greenidge.

What are you working on now?

I’m currently working on a TV screenplay adaptation of Belle Epoque. It’s still very much in the development stage. . .but stay tuned! And on the book front, I tend to write about places that are important to me. I spent time in Paris and Montreal, both of which provided inspiration for Belle Epoque; and of course living and working in LA inspired The Silver Blonde. I grew up in Scotland so I know there’s a Scottish story I need to tell. . . .

Pandemic question: What’s the one thing you just can’t live without these days?

The Criterion channel. I haven’t gone to a movie theatre in over a year, so I have been devouring the treasure trove of classic and foreign films on Criterion. Recently I watched some amazing Japanese noir films – in particular High and Low by Kurosawa, starring the incredible Toshiro Mifune.

Thanks for joining us, Elizabeth! The Silver Blonde is out now, make sure you pick it up from your favorite bookstore!

The Silver Blonde
By Elizabeth Ross
400 Pages | Ages 14+ | Hardcover
ISBN 9780385741484 | Delacorte BFYR
Hollywood, 1946. The war is over, and eighteen-year-old Clara Berg spends her days shelving reels as a vault girl at Silver Pacific Studios, with all her dreams pinned on getting a break in film editing. That and a real date with handsome yet unpredictable screenwriter Gil. But when she returns a reel of film to storage one night, Clara stumbles across the authosumlifeless body of a woman in Vault 5. The costume, the makeup, the ash-blond hair are unmistakable – it has to be Babe Bannon, A-list star. And it looks like murder. Suddenly Clara’s world is in free-fall, her future in movies upended – not to mention that her refugee parents are planning to return to Germany and don’t want her to set foot on the studio lot again. As the Silver Blonde murder ignites Tinseltown, rumors and accusations swirl. The studio wants a quick solve, but the facts of the case keep shifting. Nothing is what it seems – not even the victim. Clara finds herself drawn, inevitably, to the murder investigation, and the dark side of Hollywood. But how far is she willing to go to find the truth?

Also by Elizabeth Ross:

Belle Epoque
By Elizabeth Ross
352 Pages | Ages 12+ | Paperback
ISBN 9780385741477 | Ember
When Maude Pichon runs away from provincial Brittany to Paris, her romantic dreams vanish as quickly as her savings. Desperate for work, she answers an unusual ad. The Durandeau Agency provides its clients with a unique service – the beauty foil. Hire a plain friend and become instantly more attractive. Monsieur Durandeau has made a fortune from wealthy socialites, and when the Countess Dubern needs a companion for her headstrong daughter, Isabelle, Maude is deemed the perfect adornment of plainness. Isabelle has no idea her new “friend” is the hired help, and Maude’s very existence among the aristocracy hinges on her keeping the truth a secret. Yet the more she learns about Isabelle, the more her loyalty is tested. And the longer her deception continues, the more she has to lose.

Elizabeth Ross: website | twitter | instagram

Off the Record: A Q&A with Camryn Garrett

We’re honored to have a guest post from the incredible Camryn Garrett today! Camryn is the author of Full Disclosure and the new Off the Record, both of which deal with heavy topics (HIV and #MeToo, respectively) and they’re well worth the read. Keep scrolling to hear a bit from Camryn herself!

Q&A with Camryn Garrett

Tell us a little bit about the book! What inspired you?

Off the Record is about a teen journalist named Josie who wins a contest to cover a press tour for a new movie, but while on her journey, she discovers a sexual assault scandal and must decide whether or not to use her voice to try to expose it.

As for what inspired me, I had really been wanting to write something about a teen journalist because I had that experience. With MeToo all over the news, I had been thinking about those stories and the way they were reported. There was a lot of emphasis put on the survivors who came out with stories first, but even when other celebrities, like Gwenyth Paltrow, shared their stories, they all seemed to be white. There were women like Salma Hayek and Lupita Nyong’o who also had Weinstein stories, but to me, they were reported almost as an afterthought. I wanted that to be addressed in the story; is it because there are less WOC who have been abused? Because they’re uncomfortable speaking with the (usually white) reporters? What dynamics are there?

You’ve said that this is your most personal book. How are you and Josie similar? Different? Do any of the other characters share parts of you? 

My friend picked up the book the other day and said, “I really feel like Josie is you.” It’s kind of embarrassing because it’s so personal. Josie and I both struggle with anxiety and fatphobia. When I was her age, I also wanted to leave my town, and I also was a teen journalist. Neither of us went to prom! We’re both into film and journalism. We both have rather interesting relationships with sisters. Her really horrible experiences in middle school were based on mine. There are many similarities.

On the other hand, I don’t think I’m as shy as she is. I had great friends in high school while she didn’t. I think she’s really great at establishing trust and soothing people, while I find it pretty difficult to be comforting. While she’s into film, I don’t think she actually wants to make them, whereas I do. My parents also never would’ve let me go on this adventure that she gets to experience!

I think all of my characters have some part of me, even if it’s just the ugly parts. I also relate a lot to Alice as a big sister. Even though she and Josie don’t really get along, I understand how hard it is to try to get along when you feel so different from your younger sibling. The awkward ways she tries to comfort and support Alice definitely stem from my interactions with my own sister.

The book also looks at “problematic faves” – have you personally had to reckon with any problematic faves of your own?

Yes, I think that’s something we all have to deal with! The problematic faves mentioned in the book were drawn from my own. I really love Hitchcock, but it’s also hard to forget how he treated his female leads, and I try to remind myself of that when I watch his work. I also love many movies Harvey Weinstein and Scott Rudin have produced. I think it feels more and more impossible to only watch work by “good” people when producers like Weinstein and Rudin really worked on everything. I don’t believe in separating the art from the artist, though I try to think really hard about who worked on films and how that influenced the way we not only see the movie in a cultural sense, but how the cast and crew were treated.

So far, your books have tackled the #MeToo movement and life as an HIV-positive teen. What other social issues (for lack of a better term) are you hoping to include in future YA novels?

I’m honestly not really sure yet! There are “big” issues I feel I can center books around, and then issues I try to sneak in, if that makes sense. Off the Record tackles #MeToo but also things like fatphobia and mental health. I really want to write about colorism, but I’m not sure if I could center an entire plot around that. Stay tuned!

How do you balance writing and school? Like Josie, do you struggle with people not taking you seriously because of your age, despite your talent?

I want to give a positive answer and say that I just schedule myself to death. But the truth is, even with my schedules, it can be really overwhelming at times. It’s finals season right now and I’ve definitely had a hard time balancing book stuff and college. That being said, it’s definitely more manageable when you aren’t releasing a book around midterms or finals!

I think some people in the actual industry might take me less seriously, but people I interact with daily tend to be a lot more impressed. I always forget how impressive my accomplishments are until I speak to one of my mom’s friends or let one of my professors in on my secret. They’re always so excited for me!

Normally, though, I don’t really tell any of my professors or classmates about my books. I don’t want it to color their perception of me. When my professor who doesn’t know about my books tells me that I’m really talented, it means so much, and I know it’s not just because they’re impressed by my writing.

Credit: Steven Ferdman/Getty Images

Who would be your dream person to profile? An actor, musician, artist, etc?

My dream person would probably be Stella Meghie. She’s a Black director from Canada who has made films like Everything Everything, Jean of the Joneses, and The Photograph. Right now she’s working on a biopic of Whitney Houston! She’s gotten so much amazing work since her debut film, which I don’t think I’ve ever seen for Black women in this field, and I love that she’s able to work in both the independent and studio worlds. I’d mostly want to talk to her for selfish reasons.

Pandemic question: What’s the one thing you just can’t live without these days?

The podcast WhoWeekly. I very eagerly anticipate it every week!

Thanks for joining us, Camryn! Off the Record and Full Disclosure are out now, make sure you pick them up from your favorite bookstore!

Off the Record
By Camryn Garrett
320 Pages | Ages 14+ | Hardcover
ISBN 9781984829993 | Knopf BFYR
Ever since seventeen-year-old Josie Wright can remember, writing has been her identity, the thing that grounds her when everything else is a garbage fire. So when she wins a contest to write a celebrity profile for Deep Focus magazine, she’s equal parts excited and scared, but also ready. She’s got this. Soon Josie is jetting off on a multi-city tour, rubbing elbows with sparkly celebrities, frenetic handlers, stone-faced producers, and eccentric stylists. She even finds herself catching feelings for the subject of her profile, dazzling young newcomer Marius Canet. Josie’s world is expanding so rapidly, she doesn’t know whether she’s flying or falling. But when a young actress lets her in on a terrible secret, the answer is clear: she’s in over her head. One woman’s account leads to another and another. Josie wants to expose the man responsible, but she’s reluctant to speak up, unsure if this is her story to tell. What if she lets down the women who have entrusted her with their stories? What if this ends her writing career before it even begins? There are so many reasons not to go ahead, but if Josie doesn’t step up, who will?

Also by Camryn Garrett:

Full Disclosure
By Camryn Garrett
320 Pages | Ages 14+ | Hardcover
ISBN 9781984829955 | Knopf BFYR
Simone Garcia-Hampton is starting over at a new school, and this time things will be different. She’s making real friends, making a name for herself as student director of Rent, and making a play for Miles, the guy who makes her melt every time he walks into a room. The last thing she wants is for word to get out that she’s HIV-positive, because last time . . . well, last time things got ugly.
Keeping her viral load under control is easy, but keeping her diagnosis under wraps is not so simple. As Simone and Miles start going out for real–shy kisses escalating into much more–she feels an uneasiness that goes beyond butterflies. She knows she has to tell him that she’s positive, especially if sex is a possibility, but she’s terrified of how he’ll react! And then she finds an anonymous note in her locker: I know you have HIV. You have until Thanksgiving to stop hanging out with Miles. Or everyone else will know too.

Camryn Garrett: website | twitter | instagram

A Taste for Love: A Q&A with Jennifer Yen

In honor of AAPI Heritage Month (and just because we loved A Taste for Love), we asked author Jennifer Yen a few questions about her sweet – in more ways than one! – new romcom!

Q&A with Jennifer Yen

Tell us a bit about A Taste for Love! What inspired you?

I originally pitched A Taste for Love as Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice meets the Great British Baking Show, with matchmaking Asian mommas! While it is a young adult romcom, it’s actually a story about all kinds of love: for yourself, your family and friends, and of course, for that special someone! I was inspired to write it because growing up, I wanted to see characters like me finding and falling in love. I also wanted to write a book that highlighted the experience of growing up as Asian American diaspora.

Are you a baker yourself? If so, what’s your specialty?

I do bake, though I’m not anywhere near Liza’s level! My favorite pastries to bake are cakes, because I love the different flavors you can layer in through the cake, icing, and toppings. One of my hopes once COVID has passed is taking lessons on how to decorate them!

Related: if you were on a cooking show, what would be your signature dish?

I’ll let you in on a (not so well kept) secret . . . I’m a terrible cook! However, when I do attempt something, I stick to the dishes my mom taught me. My favorite is her vegetarian sushi.

Who is your favorite Jane Austen hero and/or heroine?

There’s a reason why I chose Pride and Prejudice as my first retelling. Elizabeth and Darcy have a very special place in my heart.

What’s your favorite romance trope?

Oh my goodness . . . there’s so many! I love enemies-to-lovers, friends-to-lovers, one-sided (they think) love, there’s only one bed, stoic versus sunshine, I could go on. . . .

If you could write a modern version of any classic novel, what would it be? Why?

This will probably surprise a lot of people, but I would love to write an epic fantasy like Journey to the West by Wu Cheng’en. It was the book my dad used to read me at bedtime when I was growing up, and I remember being so enthralled by the characters and their adventures.

What’s your number one piece of writing advice (either that you give people or that you’ve received)?

The best advice I’ve ever received from several authors – the most recent of whom was the wonderful Sarah Kuhn – is that successful writers are the ones who don’t give up. Publishing is tough, and you’ll face a lot of challenges, but perseverance is key to making it through. As for the advice that I give, it’s to know your strengths. Start from there so you have the confidence to tackle the parts that are most challenging to you.

What are you working on next?

I have a few projects in the works, but there are only two I can talk about right now. The first is my second book, Love, Decoded, a modern day retelling of Jane Austen’s Emma. My protagonist is Gigi Wong, James’ younger sister. Of course, it wouldn’t be a Jennifer Yen novel without delicious food, family drama, and a banter-filled romance, so there’s that too! The second is Every Body Shines, a fat positive anthology I contributed to that’s coming out in June 2021. My short story, “A Perfect Fit,” features a girl who must become the hero of her own story if she wants to be a princess at prom.

Pandemic question: What’s the one thing you just can’t live without these days?

I think anyone who knows me knows I will say BOBA TEA! Granted, I don’t always get the boba, but I live for milk tea. Also, with social distancing, I can’t live without my phone and computer! They’re my connection to the world.

Thanks for joining us, Jennifer! A Taste for Love is out now, make sure you pick it up from your favorite bookstore!

A Taste for Love
By Jennifer Yen
336 Pages | Ages 12+ | Hardcover
ISBN 9780593117521 | Razorbill
To her friends, high school senior Liza Yang is nearly perfect. Smart, kind, and pretty, she dreams big and never shies away from a challenge. But to her mom, Liza is anything but. Compared to her older sister Jeannie, Liza is stubborn, rebellious, and worst of all, determined to push back against all of Mrs. Yang’s traditional values, especially when it comes to dating. The one thing mother and daughter do agree on is their love of baking. Mrs. Yang is the owner of Houston’s popular Yin & Yang Bakery. With college just around the corner, Liza agrees to help out at the bakery’s annual junior competition to prove to her mom that she’s more than her rebellious tendencies once and for all. But when Liza arrives on the first day of the bake-off, she realizes there’s a catch: all of the contestants are young Asian American men her mother has handpicked for Liza to date. The bachelorette situation Liza has found herself in is made even worse when she happens to be grudgingly attracted to one of the contestants; the stoic, impenetrable, annoyingly hot James Wong. As she battles against her feelings for James, and for her mother’s approval, Liza begins to realize there’s no tried and true recipe for love.

Jennifer Yen: website | twitter | instagram

Guest Post: My Spunky Little Sister by Paul Harbridge

Today is Down Syndrome Day and we asked author Paul Harbridge if he wanted to share a little bit about his sister, Linda, who is the inspiration for his upcoming picture book, Out into the Big Wide Lake. Keep reading for Paul’s reflection as well as a note from his editor, Samantha Swenson.

Paul Harbridge: My Spunky Little Sister

Linda is my younger sister. When Linda was born, I had just started school. I remember my mother crying when a nurse told her my pretty little sister might never talk and my father getting angry when a doctor suggested she live in an institution.

The Harbridge Family

Almost as if to prove them wrong, Linda grew to be a very active girl. When we went swimming at Muskoka Beach, she was the first one in and the last one out. She loved to go out onto Lake Muskoka in our family’s little boat, usually accompanied by our black-and-white family dog. Benjie trotted along, too, on her long bike rides, and one day she came back and said, “We met a bear.” When she got cross-country skis, the first time she went down a hill without falling, she raised her ski poles triumphantly above her head and cried, “I did it!”

Linda played T-ball and hit the ball a mile. She was a member of a swimming group and later won a medal for Canada at the Special Olympics in Vancouver. Her bedroom was full of ribbons, medals, and trophies from all the sports she played, and she even won $1,000 at a bowling tournament!

Contrary to those early predictions, Linda learned to speak very well. She was an expressive, warm, and social young woman with an exceptional sense of humor.  She liked to show off the ASL signs she had picked up at school and when I taught her some Spanish words like leche, patatas fritas, hamburgesa, she remembered them for years.

Linda Catherine Harbridge

When my mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in her seventies, Linda’s support workers suggested she move into a group home in town, but Mom would have none of it. When my mother passed away, Linda made the move into a group home at age 47 and told us, “I’m big now. I have my own place.” In her early fifties, Linda’s own memory started to weaken but that did not slow her down. At 58, she took up snowshoeing and, although I wasn’t there, after she successfully made her way down the first snowy trail, I’m sure she raised her arms and cried, “I did it!”

A couple of years ago I visited my father who still lives in the house he built us up in Gravenhurst. Looking through an old family photograph album, I got the idea for a story about a spunky girl with Down Syndrome and her best friend, a black-and-white dog. I wrote it with the encouragement from my agent Amy Tompkins, and my editor at Tundra Samantha Swenson loved it immediately. Josée Bisaillon did the brilliant illustrations, and Out Into the Big Wide Lake was born. For her 59th birthday, I sent Linda an advance copy of the book and she was absolutely thrilled, especially since there is a photograph of a her as teenager hugging Benjie on the very first page.

Linda and Benjie

I hope Out Into the Big Wide Lake will inspire children facing challenges to give it their best shot and say, like Linda, “I did it!”


Samantha Swenson: A Note on Out into the Big Wide Lake

What spoke to me immediately about this book was two words: Why not?

To me this encapsulates the beauty of picture books, the ability for a minuscule number of words to hold infinite possibilities. In this story, at every moment of something new, Kate asks “Me?” and her grandmother responds “Why not?” And with those two words, the world opens up. Why not, indeed? Those words are empowering, those words are life-changing, those words are even a little scary (especially for Kate’s rightfully nervous mom!). These two words allow Kate to ask the question of herself and answer with bravery and spirit.

After reading this story for the first time and sitting with it, I also realized how meaningful it is to have a character with Down Syndrome inhabit the space of the every-character. Her Down Syndrome doesn’t define her character here; her challenges aren’t defined by it either. These are challenges that all kids face: trying something for the first time, overcoming fear, being given a level of responsibility that’s new. And challenges that all parents face as well: letting go and trusting in your child – trusting that you’ve given them the tools to take on this new thing. It could be going on bike ride with a friend for the first time, a first sleepover, a first walk to school on their own, a solo plane trip to see parent in a different city, piloting a boat for the first time. Having a Down Syndrome character embody this freedom and this universal experience felt so important and so exciting.

Linda Catherine Harbridge

Paul’s respect for the character is evident in every line. As a writer, he knew how to create a character who leapt from the page to grab you. But as a brother to someone with Down Syndrome, he knew how to honor that character’s life and experience in a way that is singular. Kate is not just a picture book version of his sister Linda Catherine; Kate is a beautiful embodiment of Paul’s love and respect for Linda Catherine and a celebration of her spirit and personality.

I hope that everyone who reads this book feels that warmth and love and admiration, and I hope you all fall as in love with Kate as I did. And I hope when you or your loved ones are challenged, you think of those two little words: why not?

Out into the Big Wide Lake
By Paul Harbridge
Illustrated by Josée Bisaillon
48 Pages | Ages 4-8 | Hardcover
ISBN 9780735265592 | Tundra Books
It’s Kate’s first time visiting her grandparents on her own at their lakeside home. She’s nervous but excited at the adventure ahead. She helps her grandfather with his grocery deliveries by boat, where she meets all the neighbors, including a very grumpy old man named Walter. And she makes best friends with her grandparents’ dog, Parbuckle. Her grandmother even teaches her to pilot the boat all by herself! When her grandfather takes ill suddenly, it’s up to Kate – but can she really make all those deliveries, even to grumpy old Walter? She has to try! Based on the author’s sister, Kate is a lovable, brave, smart and feisty character who will capture your heart in this gorgeous and moving story about facing fears and gaining independence.