Allison's Book Bag

Interview with Janet Wilson

Posted on: June 9, 2015

JanetWilsonJanet Wilson is an author and fine artist who is continually inspired by stories of young people making a difference in their world. Her book Shannen and the Dream for a School was the winner of the First Nations Communities Read program for 2012-13. She has written two other books about how young people are changing the world and making a difference. In addition, Wilson has also written and illustrated many picture books. I’ll review Shannen and the Dream for a School tomorrow. Save the date: June 10!

ALLISON: Why do you believe that creative expression is important for young people?

JANET: I believe babies are born naturally creative, but as children get older, some become inhibited and self-conscious about their abilities. Too much emphasis and judgement is place on the end result of a creative endeavor rather than the positive benefits of the act of self-expression. It’s sad that we deny ourselves the creative impulse because we might lack ‘talent’. I believe it is unhealthy in the long term. I think we are much happier if we sing, dance, write, and draw.

According to her biography, Wilson had no idea what she wanted to be when she grew up. When most of her friends were going to university and getting jobs, Wilson was raising her kids. Both her boys were amazing little artists and drew in their sketchbooks all the time. Watching them also inspired her to go to Art College. Wilson didn’t know what kind of artist she wanted to be until she got her first job illustrating a story book. Over the twenty years since that time, Wilson learned what she wanted to do–to tell the world how amazing kids are!

ALLISON: What drew you drew to the field of writing?

JANET: As an illustrator, I tell stories in pictures, so it was a natural progression to want to add words. When I came across Shannen’s important story, I felt compelled to leap into writing.

ALLISON: How do you balance two creative pursuits?

JANET: After spending several hours sitting in front of a computer screen, I welcome the chance to switch disciplines and stand in front of a painting on my easel. This is what inspired me to become a Daily Painter of small landscapes and still life.

Wilson and her husband live in the village of Eden Mills. The village, a tight-knit community of many artists and writers, is located twenty minutes northwest of Milton, Ontario. It’s also a community with a strong environmental focus that includes an initiative to be the first village in North America to go carbon neutral. ( Her home and studio are located beside the Eramosa River, a pleasant setting for summertime barbecues with her husband. Besides illustrating and writing, Wilson enjoys giving talks to schools.

ALLISON: What do you like most about Ontario?

JANET: I was born and raised in Ontario and have never lived anywhere else. My family has a cottage in Muskoka, a place that National Geographic named one of the most beautiful regions of the world. I appreciate my great fortune to be born in Canada.

ALLISON: What themes do you most like to explore?

JANET:My last six books have been telling true stories of young activists from around the world. The themes are mainly about justice issues—social, indigenous, economic, intergenerational, and environmental. I believe children have an important role to play in influencing adults and reminding them about what is really important—fairness, compassion, kindness, and responsibility.

In her biography, Wilson credits Gandhi’s belief that “To reach peace we must begin with the children” with inspiring her to begin both writing and illustrating a series of books about the power of one to motivate and empower readers to make a positive difference. One Peace: True Stories of Young Activists was followed by; Our Earth: How Kids Are Saving the Planet and she’s working on the third about the rights of the child. These books combine her passions for portraiture and for non-fiction that is “inspiring, inter-generational, culturally inclusive, and international in scope, addressing important global issues of non-violence, environment, and social justice”.

ALLISON: How did you encounter the story for Shannen and the Dream for a School?

JANET:I learn about many child activists from the International Children’s Peace Prize. Shannen had been nominated for her actions to get the Canadian Government to build a much-needed school in Attawapiskat First Nation. It was the first time I had come across a story where a child’s rights were violated in my own country.

ALLISON: What kind of research was involved?

JANET: My first step was to meet Shannen’s family to receive their blessing to proceed. I traveled to Ottawa to meet with politicians and Aboriginal rights activists, and then to Attawapiskat to speak directly to Shannen’s friends, relatives, and teachers. I was able to get transcripts of House of Commons exchanges and many newspaper articles. The rest came from Shannen and her sister Serena’s many speeches on YouTube. I taped all the personal and phone interviews.

ALLISON: How long did it take to write Shannen and the Dream for a School? What was your writing process?

JANET: I wrote this book quickly because I felt an urgency to tell this story of Aboriginal injustice in a timely manner. The publication coincided with the introduction of Shannen’s Dream in Parliament, an initiative for equality in education funding for all First Nation children. After I established an accurate timeline, I wrote a draft including dialogue, which was mostly taken from my many interviews. I invented very little and only where absolutely necessary. Shannen’s family read the final draft and gave their approval.

ALLISON: Many young people dislike school. What has been student reaction to this book?

JANET: I’m most proud of the reaction by First Nations young people who have found a positive and inspiring role model to admire as a hero. Non-aboriginal children are outraged by the injustice and unfairness of our government’s treatment of students on remote northern reserves. I hope that kids who claim to not like school can feel empathy for others who understand the importance of having a good school with proper resources and are willing to fight to get the education they deserve.

ALLISON: You write about kids who make a difference. Besides Shannen, whose story most stands out to you?

JANET: I could write a book about every kid I’ve written about! I’m most impressed with children who come from very difficult circumstances in poor countries without the advantages of education, and yet they find the courage and strength to stand up and speak out against injustice, and they show kindness and compassion to help others. Another book in the creative nonfiction Kid Power series is Severn and the Day She Silenced the World, about Severn Cullis-Sukuki’s powerful speech asking world leaders to stop wrecking the planet for future generations.

To find out more about Shannen Koostachin, youth education advocate from the Attawapiskat First Nation in Ontario, check out the below links:

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