River ruminations

A flood was on its way. The mayor asked each family to mark the front door with an X, to show that the house had been vacated. My four-year-old grandson was reluctant to evacuate. “Can we mark the door with an O when we come back?” he asked.

Then came the flood, one of the worst in our city’s history. In the hectic, surreal days that followed, my grandson’s words stayed with me. One day I heard the same words in my writing ear, but the voice had changed somewhat. After life had calmed down enough for me to sit down and listen more intently, I realized a fictional five-year-old was living inside my head. At first I thought it was a girl. Nope, wrong. It was a boy named Owen and he needed to talk about his experience with the flood.

I set aside my other work and devoted myself to working on Owen’s story. Although he bore some resemblance to my grandson, Owen was not only a year older; he was very much his own boy.

I felt I could use some mentoring, because I generally write for adults, and I approached my dear friend Maureen Bush, who writes chapter books for children. She was kind enough to agree to look at the work. At the end of a number of drafts I showed the story to Maureen. She made great suggestions, most of which I took.

After a couple of working titles fell away, the story revealed that it was called “The River Throws a Tantrum.”

At last I was done, and ready to submit “The River Throws a Tantrum” to publishers in the hope it would one day become a picture book.

I had barely lifted my fingers from the keyboard when the craziness began. It was late on a Friday afternoon. Simone Lee, the owner of the excellent independent bookstore Pages on Kensington, phoned to say she had heard from Maureen that I had a children’s story about the recent flood. Simone wondered if she could have a look at it. Our mayor, Naheed Nenshi, would be coming to Pages to read to children following Wednesday morning, as part of the YYC is Open initiative–meaning, Calgary was open for business. Perhaps “The River Throws a Tantrum” might play a part in this scenario.

I sent Simone the story. Saturday night she called to say she liked it very much, and she had already found an illustrator, Sarah-Joy Geddes, as well as an editor, Lori Burwash. A flurry of work was done over the next few days, concluding with an all-nighter pulled by the layout guy Thomas Eldridge. Tuesday afternoon the chapbook was ready and Wednesday morning, Mayor Nenshi read it to a crowd of enthusiastic children at Pages. He is a charismatic reader, with the timing of a poet.

The work of all involved was donated and the chapbook was sold at Pages with all proceeds going to flood relief.

The response to the chapbook was immediate and big. There were interviews and and such. The mayor released a youtube video of his reading as part of his “Nenshi Reads” series. The chapbook has been either #1 or #2 on the Calgary Herald bestsellers list for the past month. If you google “The River Throws a Tantrum” you can find all kinds of neat stuff. There’s been a second print run and a third is anticipated. More bookstores are selling the chapbook.

All that is terrific. I feel lucky, very lucky. But for me the best part, the part I really care about is this: I have been hearing from readers–children, parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, school librarians, teachers. And those readers have told me they have gotten something out of the chapbook. They tell me it has helped them come to terms with their own flood experiences. It has gotten them telling their own stories.

The chapbook is shorter than the story I originally wrote. I have sent the longer version out to publishers and I still hope it will be picked up and published as a picture book one day. We shall see.