Writing is in Trilby Kent’s DNA. Mom, Cilla, was a journalist in her native South Africa, and dad is Conservative MP Peter Kent, who made a name for himself over the course of a lengthy career as a TV anchor, producer, and foreign correspondent with postings around the globe. “That, combined with being an only child, gave me access to a range of experiences from an early age,” says Kent. “Different cities, different schools, different windows into other ways of living.”
Those experiences have served Kent well in her own career, first as a journalist, and now as a novelist. In September, Tundra Books will release Kent’s fifth novel (her third for young adults), Once in a Town Called Moth.
The book is a departure for Kent, whose previous books – including Stones for My Father, which won the TD Canadian Children’s Literature Award in 2012 – have all been historical novels centered around war or political conflict. Set in the present, Moth retains elements of conflict, but it is on a more personal scale, detailing a year in the life of a 14-year-old girl named Ana, who is forced by her father, Miloh, to flee their strict Mennonite colony in Bolivia and move to Toronto. “The contrast between a Mennonite colony in Bolivia and life as a newcomer to a major Canadian city was stark enough without complicating things by going back in time,” laughs Kent.
The juxtaposition of the two environments and lifestyles proved both inspiring and challenging. Kent was initially drawn to the subject of South American Old Colony Mennonites by a photo essay. The images – particularly of the children – fascinated her. “Ana grew out of those photographs,” says Kent. But, tackling a modern teen experience, even from an outsider’s perspective, wasn’t easy. “There’s nowhere to hide in a contemporary setting, because young readers know their world as well – if not better – than you do.”
While Ana’s circumstances are certainly uncommon, Kent was careful to include experiences and feelings that would resonate with her young audience. As the book opens, Ana is starting high school. Though her style is decidedly uncool, and she has a lot of catching up to do academically, the social aspects of teendom aren’t much different for her than for her best friends Suvi and Mischa, both of whom face their own challenges, including bullying and homophobia.
Having returned to Toronto in 2013 after 13 years in London – “a period that took in my undergraduate years, a master’s, work experience, a PhD, marriage and the birth of our daughter” – the author was intimately familiar with her character’s fish-out-of-water feelings. “I came back to Toronto a different person, and found that the city had evolved hugely while I was away. In some respects it was a challenging return to make, because I had a strong sense of not wanting to lapse backward, to keep moving forward.”
Part of that momentum comes with the publication of Moth, and also from joining the faculty at Humber College, where Kent teaches creative writing via distance education, acting as a mentor in a one-on-one set-up with her students. And, as always, there are more stories brewing. While Kent would love to write a book for kids about the history of the world, her next book will be another novel. Set in the 1960s, it “fuses Steppenwolf with the life of 17-century naturalist Maria Sybilla Merian,” says Kent.
“I guess I just love a good culture clash.”