What inspired Forever Birchwood?
Forever Birchwood (HarperCollins, out now) was inspired by my hometown of Sudbury, Ontario. I wanted to write a story that centred on this very distinct place where I was born and raised, the one that has so profoundly shaped me. While growing up in Northern Ontario, I had never read a book for children set in my city, as most books are set in larger municipalities. As a writer, I knew I wanted to change that. I believe all children should see themselves in the books they read, including the geographical setting. After growing up in Sudbury and raising our son there, I knew it was fertile ground – filled with endless possibilities for stories!
This novel touches on a number of heavy issues, including grief, identity, and sexuality. How did you navigate the sensitivities of these issues for a younger audience?
I was once an elementary school teacher and taught grades 4, 5, and 6, so I was able to reach into those lived experiences to help write these scenes for children. I look back on those years fondly; I spent each day with my students, whose parents were serving in the military and overseas in Bosnia and Afghanistan.
Wolf, the main character, derives great strength from her Indigenous heritage and lineage. Can you talk about the role elders play in a young person’s life?
I lost my beloved grandmother during the final editorial work on this novel. She was 92. I miss her terribly, but I hold all of the teachings and values she instilled in me by the way she lived her own life. I think elders can guide children and teach them how to persist through the seasons, overcome hardships, and find joy even after the darkest days. Their perspective is a necessary one to teach us about the long game and what is truly important: how to value and care for ourselves, for each other, and for the natural world, and how to respectfully harvest and safeguard the resources we need to ensure they will be there for generations to come.
Our relationship with the natural world is a central theme in Forever Birchwood. Why was it so important to share this message with young children?
There are many important books that depict dire environmental concerns, but I wanted this book to focus on the elemental relationship between children and the natural world. The good parts. The way nature can sustain us and hold us and enrich our daily lives. The way it can provide shelter or refuge from the stresses of growing up. How if we pay close attention, the interconnection of all living things can be found in the smallest crooks and corners of our neighbourhoods. My great hope is that this affection will translate into future action.
At one point, Wolf says, “Stories live in old things.” What role have stories played in your life?
Stories have played a central role in my life. Even before writing stories, I painted them. It took me a long time to be brave enough to put words down on the page. Stories help me feel less alone. From the oral stories my grandmother shared with me to the stories I’ve held in my hands written by other writers, stories make me feel connected to our shared humanity. And now, as I write stories for both children and adults, they’ve become a lifeline, a way to channel my own hopes, fears, and imagination through the characters I create.
Though this novel is written for children, reading it was incredibly cathartic for me because here was the kind of story I craved as a young reader but never found. Did you anticipate this reaction from adult readers?
Oh! This makes me so happy! Writing this book was my soft place to fall, because I was also writing my adult novel, which was gruelling and often painful. After each difficult draft, I would come back to my middle-grade manuscript and it was a true balm for me. Forever Birchwood is the book I, too, wanted to read as a child. Truth be told, middle-grade books are my absolute favourite books to read, even as an adult. There is a great tenderness and heart in these stories, which are not always accessible in other genres. Even though middle-grade books often deal with serious subject matter, they’re still hopeful, and it’s that hope that keeps me coming back to them. Reading middle grade is good for the heart. Ditto for writing it.
Can young readers expect more middle-grade novels from you?
The short answer is yes! One hundred per cent.