Allison's Book Bag

Interview with Jennifer Lanthier

Posted on: April 14, 2014

JenniferLanthierBoth a journalist and a children’s book author, Jennifer Lanthier was born and raised in Ontario. She studied political science and history at the University of Toronto, where she also served as a member of the student government and contributed to student newspapers. As part of her graduate studies, Lanthier studied journalism as well as served as interned at the Ottawa Citizen. Since then, she has worked as a speech writer for the Ontario premier, a writer for various publications, and contributed to national magazines.

Lanthier’s first book, a middle grade novel called The Mystery of the Martello Tower, was published in 2007 and later nominated for a Snow Willow Award or a Saskatchewan Young Reader’s Choice Award. Martello has been included in numerous competitive reading programs over the years in both Canadian and American schools. Its sequel, The Legend of the Lost Jewels, has also been featured in reading competitions. The settings of both books were inspired by locations in Lanthier’s home province of Ontario.

Volunteering with PEN Canada, Lanthier met the exiled journalist Jiang Weiping, which inspired her first picture book. Tomorrow I’ll provide some background to The Stamp Collector and on Wednesday I’ll review it. Save the dates: April 15-16!

Lanthier and family reside in Ontario, Canada, where she coaches girls’ basketball and attends every Toronto Raptors home game. She is an avid runner and has a black belt in Taekwondo. Recently, Lanthier took time from her busy life to answer a few questions.

ALLISON: How did a political science major end up a picture book author?

JENNIFER: Political science was a long time ago! It was a long, twisty road to writing The Stamp Collector. I’ve always made my living (more or less) by telling stories. I’ve been a wire service and newspaper journalist, a speechwriter and “communications strategist” for the premier of Ontario (the American equivalent would be something like the governor of a state) and the first two books I published were mystery novels for middle grade readers, published by HarperCollins Canada. I’ve also been a volunteer basketball coach, a marathon runner, a mother of three and (finally) a black belt (just the first dan) in taekwondo. I think it all goes into the mix somehow.

ALLISON: The Stamp Collector is not a typical picture book. It is about adults. In China. In prison. What obstacles did you encounter, if any, in finding a publisher?

JENNIFER: I was horrified when I wrote The Stamp Collector. I knew I’d just written a picture book (something I’d sworn I’d never do) and I knew it was almost unpublishable.

There are a lot of reasons why a publisher would reject it. It’s not funny. (Funny is huge in picture books right now.) The characters grow up (Today’s picture book characters never grow up. They stay kids or they stay animals with the persona of a cranky toddler). Also, my characters are not white. Sadly, that’s a thing.

Throw in the fact that much of the story takes place in a prison and one of the main characters dies and nothing about this book says picture book–let alone bestseller.

I knew it would take time to find a publisher and it did. I don’t have an agent so I packaged it up and sent it out to any and all publishers accepting unagented submissions, with an emphasis on publishers that I knew had taken risks with what are called “socially conscious” books. All but one rejected it.

But it just takes one, and Christie Harkin at Fitzhenry believed in the story. And she found the perfect illustrator in Francois Thisdale. I wrote the book in the spring of 2009 and it came out in the fall of 2012 but it was worth the wait.

ALLISON: What has been the reaction of young readers to The Stamp Collector?

JENNIFER: I’ve been touched and honoured by the reaction of readers young and old. I do try not to read The Stamp Collector to very young children. The story is simple and fairly easy to follow and the art, by Francois Thisdale, is mesmerizing–so it will hold their attention. But if you are younger than seven or eight, it can be hard to grasp the hope in the story. I have watched parents read it to kindergarteners and you can see the joy drain from their faces. I don’t recommend it. But for ages eight through 80 or older, it seems to work.

Many people who attend my readings or workshops are surprised and horrified to learn that in some countries you could be sent to prison for writing a short story, a poem, a song, a blog. And many people have come forward afterwards to tell me that this is exactly why they left their country and came to Canada – for the freedom to tell a story like the story of The Stamp Collector, and the freedom to gather in a public library and listen to such a story, without fear of reprisals.

Sometimes I get emails or letters from kids telling me the book was too sad and made them cry and they wish it had a different ending. Sometimes I get emails and letters saying the book was THE SADDEST BOOK EVER and it made them cry and they loved it and it’s their favourite book of all time.

One class here in Toronto was so frustrated by the story, they adapted it into a play and gave it a happy ending. It was brilliant – the villagers rose up and demanded freedom of expression and the release of the writer.

ALLISON: You end the book by describing what the organization PEN International is. Can young people get involved in it?

JENNIFER: PEN International is a terrific and important organization, founded in 1921 by a group of writers including George Bernard Shaw and E.M. Forster. PEN stands for Poets and Playwrights, Essayists and Editors, and Novelists and it works on behalf of writers in prison and in peril around the world. You don’t have to have been published to receive the support of PEN. PEN believes all of us have the right to have your voice heard (as text or speech) across languages and cultures; the right to an education; and the right to read and write.

Today, there are PEN centres in more than 100 countries–there is more than one chapter in the United States and I encourage children and teenagers to get involved with PEN. You have laws governing freedom of speech that are the envy of the world, so you can speak up freely on behalf of people around the world. Even a kid can sign a petition to protest laws that weaken freedom of speech at home or abroad and you can send a letter or a postcard to a writer in prison and reassure the writer that she is not forgotten and that the world is watching and waiting for her release.

PEN doesn’t get a lot of money or celebrity endorsements. Freedom of speech is messy. If you’re for it, sooner or later you will find yourself defending the right of someone to say something you fundamentally disagree with–and that’s where, for adults, it gets sticky. But not kids. Children and teenagers are incredibly intelligent about this; they have no problem grasping the fact that nobody should go to prison for something they wrote.

When I visit libraries and schools I like to tell kids that, back in the 1930s, a writer named H.G. Wells was the head of PEN and he tried very hard to get the world to take seriously a group of people who were burning books in a European country–because burning books is not, generally, a good thing. I mean, people rarely stop with burning books, bad as that is; I think of it as a warning sign of worse to come. And ,in this case, I wish the world had listened to Wells because the country was Germany and the book burners were the Nazis. And of course things got very, very worse.

CBC INTERVIEW:

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