News and Interviews

Meet Our September Writer-in-Residence, Cary Fagan!


We're thrilled to announce our September writer-in-residence, Cary Fagan!

A prolific author of books for both kids and adults, his critically-acclaimed work has earned him accolades such as the Vicky Metcalfe Award for Young People, the Marilyn Baillie Picture Book Award, the IODE Jean Throop Award, a Mr. Christie Silver Medal, and the Joan Betty Stuchner—Oy Vey!—Funniest Children’s Book Award. His latest adult novel, The Student, was a finalist for the Governor General's Award and the Toronto Book Award.

His new graphic novel, Maurice and His Dictionary: A True Story (forthcoming in October from Owlkids), follows the arduous journey of young Maurice as he and his family are forced to abandon their Belgian home in the midst of the second World War. Escaping first to Paris, they continue south through Spain and Portugal, eventually landing in an internment camp on the island of Jamaica. 

Through it all, Maurice holds steadily to his prized dictionary and his dream of becoming a lawyer, refusing to allow anything to interrupt his ongoing education. After finding a professor who agrees to help him study, Maurice works toward his high school diploma and, eventually, to a bright new life in Canada.

Based on Fagan's own family history, and featuring warm, evocative illustration by Enzo Lord MarianoMaurice and His Dictionary is a tenderhearted and inspiring story, blending humour and tragedy to tell the tale of one young man's unstoppable resilience.

Check back to our writer-in-residence page over the next month to read Cary's thoughts, and check out our Entitled interview with him below, where he discusses how a publisher's suggestion improved the title of his newest book, finding inspiration in Franz Kafka, and the myriad of writing projects he's got coming up.


Open Book:

Where is the most unexpected place you've ever found inspiration for a title?

Cary Fagan:

Franz Kafka. His aphorism, A Cage Went in Search of a Bird, not only provided the title of a picture book for me, but also the story. I came across it in a small book, but when I went to write it down in the notebook that I use for quotations, I discovered that I’d written it down before! These words were clearly speaking to me.


What, in your opinion, is most important function of a title?


I try to remember that titles are really for people who haven’t read your book. So, its primary function is to attract a potential reader’s attention. But at the same time, there seems something less superficial and more important than that. The title is part of the book itself, an inseparable part. I want it to capture something essential as well as the flavor of the text to come. For example, The Student, the simple title of my latest novel, captures something important about the main character, even when she is elderly. On the other hand, the title of my kid’s book, Mort Ziff is Not Dead, is meant to be funny and surprising—much like the novel itself (at least, I hope so).


What is your favourite title that you've ever come up with and why? (For any kind of piece, short or long.)


Mr. Karp’s Last Glass.  I like the rhythm of this kid’s title. And the enigma; the reader can only understand the reference by reaching the last page of the book.


Did you consider any other titles for your current book and if so, what were they? Why did you decide to go with the title you eventually picked?


My next book is a graphic novel for kids about my father, who was a World War II refugee. It’s called Maurice and his Dictionary. Originally, I simply called it The Dictionary (after the book my father used to learn English), but some of the people at Owlkids mentioned that readers might think it was a non-fiction book about dictionaries! I actually like that my father’s name is now in the title. I might also mention my next adult book, a collection of short stories to be published in 2021 through Freehand Books. Usually I name a collection after one of the stories, and for a long time I expected to do it again, but I didn’t think that any of them quite worked. Instead, I took a line from one of the stories that I think gives the feeling of the book as a whole: Great Adventures for the Faint of Heart.


What usually comes first for you: a title or a finished piece of writing?


Occasionally, the title will appear with the idea itself. That was true for the kids’ novel Danny Who Fell in a Hole, and I guess you can see why. But sometimes a title takes a long time to come, and I agonize over it. It took me several years into the writing process to find the title for the novel Valentine’s Fall.


What are you working on now?


I have a few more things coming out over the next year or two that I’m excited about. Water, Water (Tundra) is a kids’ dystopian novel, and in some ways a departure for me. Bear Wants to Sing is a sequel to my picture book King Mouse, and the art by Dena Seiferling is so great it makes me want to sing. I’ve been trying some different emotional tones in picture book manuscripts lately, and I’m looking forward to Boney, the story of a very young girl finding an animal bone in the woods (Groundwood). As well, I’ve just finished a kids’ novel, and I’m working on a new picture book and planning (or at least, trying to plan) a new novel. So I’m grateful that the pleasure of writing continues.


Cary Fagan was born in 1957 and grew up in the Toronto suburbs. His books include the The Student (finalist for the Governor General’s Award for Fiction and the Toronto Book Award), A Bird’s Eye (finalist for the Rogers Trust Fiction Prize, an Best Book of the Year), the story collection My Life Among the Apes (longlisted for the Giller Prize), and the novel The Animals’ Waltz  (winner of the Canadian Jewish Book Award).  His short stories have been published in GeistCNQ, The New Quarterly, and Best Canadian Stories.

As a writer for children, Cary has published both picture books and novels.  He is the recipient of the Vicky Metcalf Award for Young People for his body of work.  He has also won the Marilyn Baillie Picture Book Award, the IODE Jean Throop Award, a Mr. Christie Silver Medal, and the Joan Betty Stuchner—Oy Vey!—Funniest Children’s Book Award.  He has visited schools and libraries across the country.

Cary’s work has been translated into French, Italian, German, Dutch, Spanish, Catalan, Turkish, Russian, Polish, Chinese, Korean and Persian.

Cary lives in the west end of Toronto. He teaches courses in writing for children at the University of Toronto Continuing Studies.

Buy the Book

Maurice and His Dictionary: A True Story

This is the story of one refugee family’s harrowing journey, based on author Cary Fagan’s own family history. The graphic novel follows a young Jewish boy, Maurice, and his family as they flee their home in Belgium during the Second World War. They travel by train to Paris, through Spain to Portugal, and finally across the ocean to Jamaica, where they settle in an internment camp.
All the while, Maurice is intent on continuing his education and growing up to be a lawyer. He overcomes obstacles to find a professor to study with, works toward a high school diploma while in the camp, and is ultimately accepted to university in Canada. His English dictionary becomes a beloved tool and beacon of hope through the danger and turmoil of the family’s migration.
Moments of lightness and humor balance the darkness in this powerful story of one refugee family’s courage and resilience, and of the dictionary that came to represent their freedom.