Kids' Club: Colleen Nelson on Her New Dog, Her Favourite Books, and Inter-Generational Connections
Harvey the Westie is back again in author Colleen Nelson's newest book, Harvey Holds His Own (Pajama Press).
The furry protagonist of Harvey Comes Home is now working at the Brayside retirement home alongside his owner Maggie and their friend, Austin. While there, Maggie gets acquainted with Mrs. Fradette, an individualistic firecracker who doesn't quite mix with the conservative environment at Brayside. Maggie can relate: she's having problems fitting in with her seventh-grade classmates at school.
Meanwhile, when Harvey's ever-active nose detects something interesting on a walk with Austin, they come upon an abandoned puppy. While everyone at Brayside agrees that she and Austin were meant for each other, Austin's mother and her no-dogs policy present a frustrating obstacle.
Soon, Harvey's nose is leading him to more adventure in the form of a strange scent in the backyard—but this kind could be dangerous.
Featuring delightful illustrations by Tara Anderson, Harvey Holds His Own will capture the hearts of readers once again with its title character's bravery, loyalty, and humour.
We're very excited to have Colleen at Open Book today, where she discusses how her publisher convinced her to bring Harvey back for another book, the value of connecting with the elderly, and how her real-life Westie inspired Harvey's character for his new sequel.
Tell us about your new book and how it came to be.
My new book is Harvey Holds His Own, and it is my second book about a West Highland Terrier named Harvey. In this book, his owner Maggie is having some seventh-grade friendship issues and Austin, who volunteers at the Brayside Retirement Villa, has concerns about his grandpa’s job. Harvey also has a big problem in the form of a raccoon who has moved into his yard.
This book came to be thanks to Gail Winskill, my publisher at Pajama Press. She encouraged me to write another book about Harvey. After I finished Harvey Comes Home, I figured that was it for the characters. Poor Harvey had already been lost; what else could happen to this little Westie? It turns out Harvey has a lot more adventures—tussles with raccoons and rescuing abandoned puppies to name a few.
Is there a message you hope kids might take away from reading your book?
Whenever I work on a book with multiple characters, I look for a theme that will tie all of the story lines together. In Harvey Holds His Own, all of the characters have to stand up for themselves. Maggie befriends a spunky new resident at Brayside named Mrs. Fradette and is inspired by her stories about the Flood of 1950.
I really love the inter-generational aspect to these stories. Old people have so many things to share, so I hope as people read the books, they get an understanding of how important listening, asking questions, and creating relationships with elderly people is. As a teacher, I see kids being kind to others all the time; their actions inspire me. I love that Austin and Maggie stick up for each other and find ways to bring joy to people’s lives whenever they can.
What was the strangest or most memorable moment or experience during the writing process for you?
Our first Westie died about 10 years ago, and I have been in negotiations with my husband for another dog since then. Finally, while writing Harvey Holds His Own, we got our new puppy, Rosie! She is also a Westie and a delightful dog. Of course, she has my husband, the one who didn’t want a dog, wrapped around her paw. I had been going by memory to create Harvey’s character and mannerisms, but once we got Rosie, I used her as my inspiration while writing Harvey’s scenes.
What defines a great book for young readers, in your opinion? Tell us about one or two books you consider to be truly great kids books, whether you read them as a child or an adult.
I am a total book nerd. I read a lot! It’s important not just as a writer, but as a teacher. I teach grade eight, and I try to read all the books on my shelves so I can suggest books to my students. For me, a great book for young readers is one that has a strong, relatable character and a memorable voice. No Fixed Address by Susin Nielsen or Front Desk by Kelly Yang are two books that I read to the class last year. My students loved both of them, and Felix and Mia left a lasting impact on us.
I also love books that open readers’ eyes in some way—whether by the style of book, or a topic. Look Both Ways by Jason Reynolds and Sit by Deborah Ellis are both short story collections that force the reader to consider tough questions about society and human rights.
Using books in verse, like Crossover by Kwame Alexander or Missing Mike by Shari Green is a new way for students to read. I buy the ebook version of books in verse so students can see the pages on the Smartboard as I read (I do this for all my readalouds, actually—it makes the books accessible to everyone).
At the heart of every great read is the story—one that makes you cheer and cry for the characters. Wesley King’s newest, Sara and the Search for Normal, did that for me. I just loved, loved, loved this book. We don’t hear from characters like Sara very often and her voice is important. I also love Karina Yan Glaser’s Vanderbeekers series. They are feel-good books that are a delight to read. I hope when readers pick up my books, they feel the same way.
What's your favourite part of the life cycle of a book? The inspiration, writing the first draft, revision, the editorial relationship, promotion and discussing the book, or something else altogether? What's the toughest part?
It’s a cliché, but getting a book into the world is a lot like having a baby. At some point, you are going to wonder what the heck you were thinking. Is this really worth all the pain? The answer, of course, is yes! But, my goodness, there are challenges and doubts along the way.
Coming up with the idea for a book is fun because I never know where it will take me. I do lots of research, reading, asking questions, and going down rabbit holes. Sometimes it feels never-ending. But at some point, the ideas have to add up to something. That’s when I pull out Nigel Watts’ 8 Point Story Arc planner that an editor sent me when I was working on my second book. I use it to figure out where the story is going, then begin drafting, which I think is actually my favourite part. I like being able to let my imagination run free and see characters develop. Lots of times, I don’t even know who they are until I start typing and they appear before me.
I have worked with so many amazing editors—Ann Featherstone did both Harvey books. She is gifted at seeing things I don’t. Her suggestions made the books so much better. Each revision helps the characters become fuller and their problems more defined. Seeing the final book during the proofreading stage and knowing it started from a few rough notes in a scribbler is a gratifying experience.
What are you working on now?
Right now, I have some copy edits to do on Underland, the sequel to Pulse Point, then I want to edit a book I worked on this year called The Umbrella House about two kids who are trying to save their building in the East Village of New York City. And then, I’ll dig into the next Harvey book. I have about a third of it written and want to get other projects off my plate so I can dive into it without distraction.
Colleen Nelson earned her Bachelor of Education from the University of Manitoba in her hometown of Winnipeg. Her previous novels include Blood Brothers, selected as the 2018 McNally Robinson Book of the Year for Young People, and Pulse Point, selected as one of the CBC’s Most Anticipated YA Books of 2018. Colleen writes daily in between appearances at hockey rinks and soccer fields in support of her two sports-loving sons.