On an inland sea

November 2023

As the author of 13 children’s picture books and a best-selling adult novel, author Jean E. Pendziwol has barely scratched the storytelling surface of this place we call Northwestern Ontario.

“A lot of my writing has been inspired by place and how I live my life,” says Pendziwol. “I love being outdoors and am one of those people who really enjoy winter. I also take inspiration from gaps I see on the children’s bookshelf and consider what children want/need to be hearing. I ask myself; what stories do I have the unique perspective to tell? Often, that leads to me writing about my home in Northwestern Ontario.”

Place is hugely important in her books Dawn Watch, The Red Sash, Me and You and the Red Canoe and Once Upon a Northern Night. In her adult novel, The Lightkeeper’s Daughters, Lake Superior herself almost becomes a character, playing a powerful and mysterious role in the story being told. Her latest picture book, Skating Wild On An Inland Sea, launched this October and is set on these very shores in the winter of 2020.

“The Harbourfront Centre in Toronto approached me in November of 2020 to create an audio installation for an exhibit highlighting Northern Ontario,” says Pendziwol. “They indicated that my piece would be located near the outdoor skating rink. It got me thinking about the wild ice skating that had been so fabulous that year, both at Amethyst Harbour in Shuniah, and Sturgeon Bay in Neebing Township. I wanted to capture the feeling of skating on wild ice and transport listeners to the shores of Lake Superior. After the installation, I reworked the piece and submitted it to Groundwood Books to see if they thought it translated well as a picture book, and they offered me a contract.”

Over the years, Pendziwol has discovered a lack of books (both for children and adults) set on or near the Great Lakes.

“When I was a child growing up in Thunder Bay, most of the books I read took place in the UK or other places,” she says. “I never saw my own back yard in stories, other than Paddle to the Sea.

I have intentionally written about where I live, shining a light on Lake Superior and Northwestern Ontario. But there are still very few books, especially children’s books, that feature this region. Superior’s north shore is sparsely populated, so it could be that there just aren’t enough writers writing about this area. But I think it could also be that sometimes we forget that who we are -- our history, our experiences and where we live -- are worth writing about. The interest in my work from international publishers and readers is testament to the fact that there is a worldwide audience for books set here. There are a lot of stories drifting in the fog on the lake, singing through the balsam and spruce, rumbling down logging roads, and hanging out in local bars, restaurants and theatres. We need to see our own back yard, our own cultural communities, our own experiences on the page. And I’m not just talking about Persians here!

While it’s getting better, with books by authors like Karen Autio, Marion Agnew and Eleanor Albanese to name only a few, we need more stories from here about here by people who live here.”

Whether for children or adults, Pendziwol’s style is thoughtful, evocative and lyrical, with an almost musical quality to the language.

I asked her why that seemed to resonate with children and the parents who read them.

“My picture books are written for a very young audience, typically pre-K to grade three,” she says. “This is a time when children are learning language and they especially connect with writing that is prosodic. To me, the rhythm and sound of a word is just as important as what it says. Books for this age group are also, most often, read to a child, so I’m able to use language that may be more challenging but can be understood through context. I recognize that there are most often two readers of my books – the adult reader and the child listener, and I need to keep both engaged. I also want to point out that I respect the child tremendously. Just because my audience is young, it doesn’t mean that they don’t deserve rich, evocative language and stories with meaningful messages that are not didactic. I never underestimate the ability of a young person to “get” the subtleties of language and story – it may not be on a conscious level, but they are much more capable than we sometimes give them credit for.”

And it shows, with many of Pendziwol’s work going on to win awards and receive critical acclaim. But as a picture book, the words are only a part of the story.

“I have been so fortunate to co-create with some phenomenal illustrators,” Pendziwol says. “Including Todd Stewart, Carmen Mok, Nathalie Dion and Isabelle Arsenault. Many people don’t realize that I have very little control over the images, but I honestly love that part of creating picture books. It’s magic.

The publishers I’ve worked with, specifically Groundwood Books, have this uncanny ability to pair text and illustrator.

The illustrator works with the words, (not with me) and creates a visual story that comes alongside what I’ve written, often bringing something new and exciting that wasn’t there before.

Just as I feel it’s important to give children beautiful artful language to feed their developing brains, I love that they also get to hold in their hands some of the most incredible art being created in Canada today.”

What’s next on Pendziwol’s publishing journey?

“I have a few picture books with Scholastic and Groundwood for publication in 2025,” she says. “And then there’s the 25th anniversary edition of my first picture book No Dragons for Tea: Fire Safety for Kids (and Dragons), which will be out in the spring of 2024. Hard to believe it’s been 25 years!! I continue to work on other projects, fiction, non-fiction, adult, kids…some may see publication down the road, and some may not, but it’s been fun developing the ideas.”

With an ear to the ground and a toe in the water, Pendziwol welcomes us to join her as she shines a light on the big inland sea we call Superior. So grab a book, and maybe a paddle, and dive on in! For more information, go to www.jeanependziwol.com, or anywhere books are sold.

Heather L. Dickson is a photoshop guru, zoologist and author of 6 novels.

Visit her website at www.hleightondickson.com

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