Are you in the holiday spirit yet? We hope that wherever you are, and however you're celebrating this winter (or getting cozy and skipping the celebrating), you're feeling the magic.
To help with that, we're welcoming Stephanie Simpson McLellan to Open Book today. Her children's book The Christmas Wind (Red Deer Press) tells the story of a cold and windy Christmas Eve. Jo is searching for somewhere warm for her, her mother, and her baby brother to take shelter. The only option is grouchy Farmer Murdoch's barn - a scary prospect. But Jo and her family are in for a happy Christmas surprise - one that reminds us that assumptions and appearances are often misleading.
Brooke Kerrigan's elegant, dreamy illustrations combine with Simpson McLellan's sparse and lyrical narrative to make holiday magic. Not only that, but the book also spawned the Christmas Wind Story Project, a literacy project for which Simpson McLellan has worked with over 1,000 primary students across Canada.
We invited Stephanie to Open Book to tell us more about The Christmas Wind and get us feeling merry. She tells us about the surprising resemblance between Jo and a famous statue erected after she was first drawn, the magic that can happen when young and old characters are brought together, and the importance of being able to close a door as a writer.
Tell us about your new book and how it came to be.
Stephanie Simpson McLellan:
Some of the classic children’s Christmas stories were as integral to our holiday traditions as stockings hung by the fire. I wanted to contribute to that tradition. If you read closely, you’ll see that many elements of the original Christmas story are in The Christmas Wind, but jumbled and thinly disguised, suggesting that we all have the capacity for new beginnings. My young heroine, Jo, is my favourite kind of protagonist – someone who becomes fearless through necessity, squaring off against adversity to create something bigger than herself. She and Murdock are, unexpectedly, exactly what each other needed, enabling each to access the true spirit of the season.
Prior to the release of The Christmas Wind, I worked with almost 1,700 primary students in every province/territory of Canada (plus one school in Australia) on a unique literacy initiative that resulted in over 13,000 student drawings of Jo, Murdock and the wind. The Christmas Wind Story Project involved the Canadian Children’s Book Centre in the spring of 2016, and was a top 10 finalist in the 2016 CST Inspired Minds Learning Project Contest. This was a fascinating and rewarding initiative (details at www.ChristmasWindStoryProject.com).
Is there a question that is central to your book, thematically? And if so, did you know the question when you started writing or did it emerge from the writing process?
Jo and Murdoch landed pretty well fully-formed in my head and it is the juxtaposition of these two characters, more than any question, which led me to this story. In a way, it’s a similar story to my first book, The Chicken Cat, which throws young and old into the same arena (coincidentally also in a barn) to explore how each has something the other needs, and how one plus one might equal something far greater than two. Unlike my first book, however, the young and old in The Christmas Wind must do battle before any good can happen, and it’s Jo’s unshakeable resilience, despite how life (and the wind) pushes her around, who leads the charge.
There’s an illustration in the book where Jo challenges a cow upon finding her baby brother missing. Interestingly, even though Brooke Kerrigan created this illustration in 2015 (when the book was first to be launched), Jo’s physical stance and her fearless attitude are uncannily similar to the Fearless Girl statue in NYC which faces the Wall Street Bull, even though this statue was first erected in 2017 (see www.KidsBeFearless.com to see the two pieces of art side by side). This self-reliance, fearlessness and refusal to be held back by someone else’s boundaries are important qualities for both adults and children to possess, especially these days.
Did this project change significantly from when you first starting working on it to the final version? How long did the project take from start to finish?
The story evolved under the thoughtful and generous guidance of Peter Carver who helped me find the heart of the story with his insightful questions. I actually wrote the first draft in 2005, and my first communication with Peter was via snail mail, back and forth, over a few years. More recently, Kathy Stinson joined the conversation as story editor, guiding me with her own great questions. The story didn’t change much in terms of plot, but I worked to tighten it and make the language more vigorous. Somewhere along the way, the wind pushed its way to the forefront, becoming a character in its own right.
What do you need in order to write – in terms of space, food, rituals, writing instruments?
Inspired by Kathy Stinson’s “fish house” in Port Jolie, NS, my husband and kids gifted me with a “writing room” (a spare bedroom in our house) to give me a work space distinct from my day job as Director of Marketing for a Seminar/Coaching business. It’s liberating to be able to walk across the hall, close the door and enter a space uncluttered by my other work. That being said, my day job demands most of my time, so I generally get up at five to put in a few hours before the chaos starts.
What do you do if you're feeling discouraged during the writing process? Do you have a method of coping with the difficult points in your projects?
I keep a beautiful, leather journal with me and one of those Pentel gel pens. While I feed any story I’m working on into my computer, when I’m having trouble making something work, or figuring out what should happen next, I write pages of longhand notes, posing and answering questions to work through the problem. I also read and research to jam more information in my head (and journal) in an attempt to find a different route in. I’m very much a numbers and patterns person, so I also create countless excel charts to help me organize my thoughts and shake out solutions.
What defines a great book, in your opinion? Tell us about one or two books you consider to be truly great books.
I want to love the characters, even if they’re wicked, and perhaps especially if they are. I love language that makes me stop to read and re-read a passage because it’s so skillfully packed with layers of meaning and fresh phrasing. I loved Margaret Atwood’s The Robber Bride for these reasons. The Chaos Walking series by Patrick Ness is brilliant, as is Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief. Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak is a perfect picture book.
What are you working on now?
I have multiple manuscripts on the go in various stages of readiness: a near-future, psychological YA thriller with dystopian and sci-fi elements (think Girl on the Train meets 1984); a contemporary mid-grade manuscript, both dark and humorous with a touch of magical realism (think Diary of a Wimpy Kid meets Holes), plus half a dozen picture book manuscripts.
Stephanie Simpson McLellan holds an MBA in Marketing from the University of Toronto. She had a career in corporate Canada and the world of marketing and advertising, including a stint as Account Director with one of the major agencies before she moved into books as a ghost writer and with the launch of Neverending Stories, a mail order children’s book company which celebrates, reviews and offers the best in children’s literature to a growing database of customers. From 2001-2012 she wrote the children’s book reviews for Today’s Parent magazine. She is the author of The Chicken Cat, which won the Ruth Schwartz Award for Excellence in Children’s Literature and The Mr. Christie Award. It was also shortlisted for the Blue Spruce Award and the CNIB Tiny Torgi Print-Braille Book of the Year. The Christmas Wind is her fifth book.