What should you read based on your current TV fave? Let’s find out!
Just like Netflix’s Stranger Things or All of Us are Dead, something strange is afoot when ghost-seeing Jake realizes he’s caught in a game of survival. Try Ryan Douglass’ The Taking ofJake Livingston.
Heartstopper and To All the Boys got us in our feels, and trans teen Felix will too as he navigates romance and the greatest love story of all–loving himself. Will it happen in Kacen Callender’s Felix Ever After?
While the heroes of Uncanny Counter and Lovecraft Country face terrifying monsters for family, exiled princess Shiori finds her brothers turned into animals–and must save them and her kingdom in Elizabeth Kim’sSix Crimson Cranes.
Where Bridgerton and Rookie Historian Goo Hae Ryung gave sweet historical romances, Sophia wants to change her own story–and oh, overthrow the monarchy–in Cinderella is Dead.
Like Avatar‘s Aang and Encanto‘s Mirabel, Maya discovers there’s something special about her: she’s half-god, and must protect the veil between worlds before it’s too late. Leap into Rena Barron’s Maya and the Rising Dark.
In this instalment of What To Read Based On…, pair your fave summer flavour with these stellar reads!
In this classic tale of family, Lily strikes a deal with a magic tiger to save her grandmother⎯only, she doesn’t realize deals with tigers (much less magical ones) are never as they seem. It’s Tae Keller’s When You Trap a Tiger!
Nothing is what 12-year-old Lalani expects when her mother falls ill, and now she must take on the epic tests of on the way to the legendary Mount Isa to save her in Erin Entrada Kelly’s Lalani of the Distant Sea!
It doesn’t get cooler than 12-year-old Faryn’s quest to discover if she’s destined to command the Jade Emperor’s army of demon-fighting dragons, only in Katie Zhao’s The Dragon Warrior!
Everything collides at once when Sal learns he has the power to reach through time and space and retrieve anything he wants, including his dead mother⎯only, he’s putting the entire universe at risk. Hold on tight to Carlos Hernandez’s Sal and Gabi Break the Universe!
9-year-old Jax’s adventure will warm your heart as he aids a curmudgeonly witch on a quest to deliver three baby dragons to a magical world, only in Zetta Elliott’s Dragons in a Bag!
We’re kicking off this International Women’s Day with a round-up of our favourite women writers!
We Are Water Protectors by Carole Lindstrom
“We Are Water Protectors” is an illustrated picture book about a young Ojibwe water protector who must protect the precious resource from a snake.
The Henna Wars by Adiba Jaigirdar
“The Henna Wars” is a young adult rom-com about two teen girls with rival businesses who fall in love.
Ghost Squad by Claribel A. Ortega
“Ghost Squad” follows the adventures of two girls who accidentally cast a spell that awakens evil spirits. can they save the town before it’s too late?
Legendborn by Tracy Deonn
“Legendborn” is a young adult novel full of adventure. When sixteen-year-old Bree discovers she has magic powers, that monsters are real, and there’s a secret society at her school, she must decide her place in the coming magic war.
The Proudest Blue by Ibtihaj Muhammad and S.K. Ali
“The Proudest Blue” follows Faizah and her older sister Asiya, who’s wearing her first hijab on the first day of a new school year.
Josh, an enormous congratulations on the recent publication of your first graphic novel, The Good Fight, with words authored by Ted Staunton. We all felt incredibly privileged to watch you on this journey and are thrilled to celebrate with you now!
The Good Fight centers on fictional character Sid, who navigates through the pages as a Jewish boy growing up in an immigrant neighbourhood of Toronto’s 1930s, culminating in the historic Christie Pits riots, which became a symbolic victory for Jews and immigrants across Canada.
How was this book dreamt into being? (Feel free to include any information that feels relevant, inspiration, meeting Ted, political happenings today)
Ah, thank you for the kind words! The support I’ve had from being part of the Story Planet community has really meant a lot to me while working on this project.
The origins of the story lies with Ted, who from what I understand had been inspired after reading a book on old pickpocket tricks. And the idea came to him to do a story about kid pickpockets in the 1930s. Which, over time, morphed into this idea to pair that story with this huge moment in Canadian history, the Christie Pits riot. Toronto was a likely place to find a band of kid pickpockets at the time, and the riot was a defining moment of that era, a point where the marginalized communities of the time were forced to confront open and violent prejudice.
Meanwhile Ted and I met at a writing conference, and happened to hit it off. And Ted pitched the idea to me to take his idea and collaborate on turning it into a graphic novel. I should add that Ted is a very engaging storyteller, and the more he described the project I couldn’t help but start imagining some of the visuals I could make for it. So we kept in touch, and kept the conversation going. We started sharing ideas and rough sketches over email, slowly fleshing the initial idea out further and further.
Then the 2016 American election happened. And there was this cultural shift, even in Canada, where a lot of hate speech and bigotry started being discussed openly in a pretty scary way. And for Ted and I, who had been looking at the news and politics of the 1930s leading up to World War II, the parallels felt very clear. And the project went from being a story that seemed kind of interesting, to a story that really spoke to what we were experiencing today. And a story that felt like it NEEDED to be told. That’s what drove the book forward from then on.
What was your process as an illustrator in putting together such a huge project?
“Huge” definitely felt like the word for it – making a graphic novel is no easy task! And it takes a lot of time and patience. Every artist’s process is a little different, but for me, I always find it easier to approach a project like this into smaller steps. Step one was Ted writing the whole story out as a script. Step two was me taking Ted’s script and breaking it down into pages and “panels” (the smaller drawings that make up a comics page). I then drew out a very rough version of those pages, which I shared with Ted and our editors at Scholastic. We then made some small changes here and there, based on our editors’ notes now that they could see what the visuals might be. After that came step three, where I took my rough pages and drew over them more carefully, creating a much cleaner black and white version of the book. And step four was adding colour to give it that extra “pop,” and to add any extra little details before the end.
So it was a lot of work when you look at it all together! But I would do my best to just focus on the next step in front of me, and not worry about the rest. And that made the process a lot easier to manage. (And ultimately more fun!)
How much input did you and Ted have between each other’s parts, i.e. did you provide any feedback or tweaks on the writing process, did Ted provide feedback on the illustrations?
Yes, we were very much in contact with each other throughout the whole thing! Before Ted even started writing we did a lot of emailing, and had a couple different meet-ups where we talked about the story, the characters, and what our visions for the book were. I know there are a couple of scenes Ted put in the script that were based on some of my thoughts from our early conversations, and I’m very grateful for that. And then there would be times where I would show Ted a sketch of a character, and that would change the way he would write them a bit. Or Ted would tell me an extra detail about a character’s backstory, and I’d try to bring that into the drawings. And then we were pretty actively in touch throughout the drawing process. I often liked to check with Ted that a particular expression I drew fit his vision for a scene, or to make sure I’d gotten clothing or period details right. It made the drawing process feel a bit less lonely too, haha.
What kind of research did you undertake to more accurately portray fashion, architecture, and overall ambiance of Toronto in the 1930s? It’s a drastically different city than today, after all.
Oh yes, very much so. The big difference between a historical project like this and something set in the present day (or even the far future!) is the amount of research required. Ted and I spent a good amount of time looking through photos in the City of Toronto Archives and the Ontario Jewish Archives for reference, and I took a few trips with just me and my sketchbook as well. We looked at a ton of books and photos from the period, to try to make sure we got all the little details right. You can look at the acknowledgements section at the back of the book for a list of some of the books we pulled from. And then I also looked at a lot of old catalogues and fashion magazines! All the photos from the period were in black and white, but the magazines were in colour, so it gave us a better idea of what some of the clothes looked like.
Which parallels, if any, do you see between Sid’s story today and those whose cultural and ethnic identities (including Jewish) are still discriminated against?
Our hope is that readers will be able to see a lot of parallels. The hate speech leading up to the Christie Pits riot was primarily targeted towards Toronto’s Jewish and Italian populations, but they were far from the only group of people who suffered descrimination at the time. And the same, sadly, remains the case today. When things feel uncertain, people are often quick to jump to an easy answer. And hatred is easy. Blaming people who seem different from you is easy. We keep seeing the same monster pop up over and over, targeting different groups, wearing different clothes. And we have to keep rejecting it. That’s what “The Good Fight” really comes down to. The story is set in the 1930s, but we hope it will have a lot to say for readers today. We’ve fought this monster before. And we have to continue to confront it, and say no, this isn’t the way.
At Story Planet we work with students who may be at the beginning of a lifelong love or career in writing and illustration. What would your advice be for anyone starting to draw, and how to improve and practice the craft?
The first thing I always want to say is keep drawing, keep practicing. The more you do something, the more you work at it, the better you usually get. Then the second piece of advice, which I think should be paired with the first, is to remember to have fun! Drawing is always best when it feels like play. There’s never a “right” or “wrong” way to draw. So find the style of drawing that feels the best for you. And then keep exploring! There’s always something new to learn or try. I think if you can pair those two approaches together, you’ll never go wrong.
What can we expect from you next? Any other projects in the pipeline?
It’s still a little while off, but I do have my next project lined up. It’s another graphic novel project set in a similar time period, about what it’s like to live through a major moment in history. And then after that, I think what I’d enjoy most is to create a graphic novel all on my own, where I both illustrate and write the whole thing. And I have a couple of different ideas on what that book might be. Although we’ll see. I still really enjoy collaborating with other writers. So if another opportunity to work with someone like Ted pops up, there’s a chance I might push my solo project a little further down the line.
Thanks so much for taking the time to chat with us. We’re so fortunate to be able to work with you at Story Planet and can’t wait to celebrate The Good Fight even more, and all your future projects!
Linh, an enormous congratulations on the recent publication of your first chapbook, Visiting Gales, with illustrations by Christie Wong. Some of us from Story Planet were honoured to attend your online launch party, and witnessed the beautiful collection of gentle creativity from many people looking to evoke the mood of the chapbook. We’re all incredibly grateful to witness your embarkation of a career as a writer.
Visiting Gales is a collection of two short stories that ask, through memory and fiction, what composes childhood, growth, and independence. Young characters weave within their relationships to find answers to their evolving selves and environments, where changes are shaped by commonplace occurrences alongside miraculous unknowns.
How were these stories and this chapbook dreamt into being?
The two stories for this chapbook, “The Robins” and “Down Feathers”, were born in my creative writing class at U of T four years ago.
At the time, I was only writing creative nonfiction — not because I preferred it but because I hadn’t yet figured out my fiction voice and was still scared to admit I wanted to write stories for a living. So when the time came for us to write our final project for this class, I thought, “I’ll just stick to nonfiction.”
That’s where “The Robins” was born. It was inspired by a robin’s nest in the eaves-through of my family’s home many years ago. That summer, we saw the birds teaching their babies how to fly, and when the little ones flew away, I thought the parents’ mourning cries were the saddest thing I ever heard. It really stuck with me, so I decided to write about that. I changed all the names and POV, called it fiction, and handed it in.
Fortunately, my creative writing professor was too sharp. She read it, and said, “I know this isn’t fiction. I can tell in the writing voice.” No matter how hard I argued, she refused to let me turn in anything short of a real fictional story.
So I tabled “The Robins”. It would go through many rounds of edits and rewrites in the following years and finally return to its roots as a personal reflection on childhood and growth. I asked my trusted editor, Jasmine Gui, to review it before I submitted it to The Soap Box Press.
Instead, for class that year, I wrote “Down Feathers” on the subway to school, specifically between Runnymede and Spadina stations on the TTC in Toronto.
All I had to go off was the first line that just came to me: “Lyra was seven when her wings grew in.” And a line from Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s short story, “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings”. The line was an offhand comment in his story, mentioned briefly, about a “Portuguese man who couldn’t sleep because the noise of the stars disturbed him”.
So those two lines informed that entire story. I had no plan. I just wrote. It came out remarkably easily, almost fully formed, and honestly, I loved it. I knew from the start it was special, and “Down Feathers” will always hold a special place in my heart, because it opened the door to my fiction writing again, which is so much of what I write now.
Then last August, I was browsing several websites in search of a home for some of my stories. I found out The Soap Box Press was publishing chapbooks and became excited at the prospect of putting together a bigger project with more creative control.
When this idea came to mind, I approached Christie, sent her five short stories that I had floating around, and asked for her thoughts on what stood out, whether she’d be interested in illustrating, and which stories she thought would work well together. We chose these two for their similar themes and submitted!
Can you tell us a little bit about your relationship with Christie?
Christie and I have only recently met in person, after our chapbook was released! We were introduced by Jasmine Gui, founder and editor of Project 40 Collective in 2019. My personal essay, “Cracks in the Wall”, was published in LooseLeaf Magazine Volume 7, and Jasmine thought that Christie would be a good person to illustrate it. Little did she know of the creative chaos she would unleash! Or maybe she did. Jasmine is a genius.
Since then, Christie and I have worked together on a number of projects, from workshops to illustrated pieces. We have a beautiful working relationship built on profound trust. She is a creative amplifier, and I always feel excited and energetic coming off a call with her. Our skills complement each other well. It’s fabulous to have that artistic push from someone so talented.
These stories evoke a lot of emotions about growing up, finding your place in the world and redefining what that world can look like, as an individual and within a family. What was your inspiration for this?
The idea of growing up has always been something I’ve struggled with, probably because I read too many fantasy adventures as a child and desperately wanted my own. I spent a long time resisting that I might not get to fight dark lords with secret magic powers. When I inevitably grew older, I began reflecting on what the idea of “growing up” actually means. I don’t have an answer, but these stories are my explorations of the feelings involved in that question, of which there are many complex ones!
As an English major, I studied children’s literature in my undergrad and wrote my thesis on portal fantasies as a way of understanding maturity and responsibility. This is further informed by my experience as an immigrant. This intersection of childhood and home are central to much of my work presently and going forward.
As you touched upon, as children, we often have this sense of “growing up” as being a big discovery or fantasy in life, when in reality the realization otherwise can be challenging. What would you hope your writing could leave for others, both young and old, to deal with this notion of growing up?
Personally, the message I want to weave into my stories is one that’s helped me reframe my own relationship to fantasy. While I initially wanted to escape as a child, I later became more interested in the return to our world and how fiction allows us to see everyday occurrences in a new light. After all, magic does exist. We see it all the time in small gestures and grand phenomena; it just might look a little different than in the stories. That doesn’t mean it has any less power or ability to effect meaningful change. I wrote about this realization many years ago on my blog.
In “Down Feathers” specifically, it was important for me to show adults of all sorts who, like Lyra, keep their wings throughout their lives. I don’t want to see adulthood as the loss of any wonder or magic. We do have the ability to preserve that beauty, though of course, doing so is a privilege for many.
That said, I still hope readers interpret my work in any way that speaks to them, especially in ways I can’t predict.
What was the process of working with The Soap Box Press to release the chapbook?
It was so smooth! I loved how much creative freedom we got. All the art, from cover to illustrations, are Christie’s. None of my words were changed without my consent. We got a say in every step, including the layout. I feel a lot of ownership over the project, never once like it’d been taken from my hands.
Tali Voron, the founder and publisher, has supported us wholeheartedly in our unconventional and ambitious release of this book, including our stacked launch and workshop that followed. She’s a skilled facilitator and organizer, always ready to jump in and say yes to our wild ideas.
Alongside yourself and Christie talking about your creative processes, your launch party featured people across the creative spectrum, including a dancer, painter, meditation guides, and musicians. What inspired you to set it up this way?
Honestly, Christie was a huge driving force of this event. Her wide-ranging and incredible creative connections made it so easy to gather everyone we wanted to join us in performing. We knew we wanted to share the celebration and feature other artists. At the same time, we wanted a community-like feel. It ended up being the perfect night with an amazing turnout.
Personally, I love seeing my words take on different artistic forms that I’m not skilled in, which is why working with Christie is so great. She sees things I don’t, in a whole new medium. To see my stories interpreted through dance, music, and meditation, was mind-blowing and heartwarming. It wouldn’t have been nearly so special without Alena, Anda, Rosie, Jess, Vicky, Justine, Jazmin, and Julia. We got to celebrate them all!
At Story Planet we work with students who may be at the beginning of a lifelong love or career in writing and illustration. What would your advice be for anyone starting to write, and how to improve and practice the craft?
It sounds trite, but reading and writing are the only ways to excel at this craft. There’s no shortcut! More specifically though, the practice of freewriting is essential. I’ve been intentionally honing my ability to sit down in front of a blank page and write whatever comes to mind for nine years now, without getting stumped by a need for perfection or inspiration. So much of writing is doing it badly and doing it over again; I’m on draft number four of my book right now, and the first one was awful! It’s not about talent. I wish I’d known that as a child. You are a writer if you write. That is enough.
Pursuing a career in the arts, especially for racialized youth without industry knowledge or connections, can be a tumultuous path, but it is possible and incredibly rewarding. I love the work I get to do. It’s definitely challenging, but I’ve tried to prioritize creative projects in my life (mostly because I don’t know how to live any other way), even when working minimum wage jobs for years out of school. Maybe fame and fortune will follow, but that’s definitely not how it starts and not what I’m counting on. I’m still very much in the grunt work stages yet loving it.
What’s next for yourself and your life as a writer?
I am off to the University of Cambridge to pursue graduate school! My one-year program is called Arts, Creativity, and Education, and I’ll be focusing on the role of play and storytelling in decentering whiteness in learning spaces. My last degree tied in well with my creative practices and writing, so I’m very excited for what this adventure holds.
I also have some super exciting writing news on the horizon that I can’t yet share publicly. It involves my debut novel, which is a middle-grade portal fantasy featuring an 11-year-old Vietnamese-Torontonian protagonist! I can’t wait to talk about it more, so stay tuned!
In the meantime, I have two creative non-fiction stories to be released later this year! “Death and a Wind Farm” will be published in the next issue of Living Hyphen magazine, and “The Christmas Lamp” will be published in The Soap Box Press’s anthology, “The Hyphenated Generation”.
Thanks so much for taking the time to chat with us. We’re so fortunate to be able to work with you at Story Planet and can’t wait to celebrate Visiting Gales even more, and all your future projects!