Update from the North
An Interview with Sarah Ellis
by Tana Elias
Sarah Ellis is a children’s and young adult author, with several books published in both Canada and the United States. Her work has won the Sheila A. Egoff Award for The Baby Project in 1987, and the 1991 Governor General Literary Award for Children’s Literature for Pick-Up Sticks. Ms. Ellis is also a librarian at North Vancouver District Library in North Vancouver, British Columbia, and a frequent critic and author of the “News from the North” columns in Horn Book Magazine. Ms. Ellis delivered the keynote speech at the IBBY Regional Conference in Madison in October, 1999. View archived video of her speech.
TE: In Canada, your books are published by Groundwood Press, a smaller press, and in the U.S. by Margaret McElderry Books, an imprint of Macmillan. Have you noticed a distinct difference between working with a smaller publisher and a larger publisher?
SE: In terms of the business end of things there is quite a difference. With Groundwood/ Douglas & McIntyre I feel I know most of the people - the accountant, the people in the warehouse, etc. - and there's a kind of family feel to it all, whereas with Simon & Schuster the whole thing is so big that it feels like a black hole. But editorially the experience is remarkably similar. With both Margaret McElderry and with my Canadian editor Shelley Tanaka and Groundwood publisher Patsy Aldana I feel an atmosphere of mutual respect, affection and shared enjoyment in what we are doing. Margaret McElderry Books seems to manage to be like a small publisher surrounded by a big one and unsquelched!
TE: I can't think of a single ho-hum book that's come to the U.S. via Canada. What do you think are significant differences between children's literature being published in Canada and in the U.S.? Does Canada have it's own counterpart to series books such as the Babysitter's Club and Goosebumps, or do Canadian publishers such as Groundwood conciously focus more on quality children's literature?
SE: Well, it is true that there is no Canadian equivalent to say, Animorphs, and while I would like to attribute this to cultural superiority(!), I think the real reasons are economic. It takes a huge marketing machine to launch and maintain one of those commercial series and no independent Canadian children's publisher is of that size. The question of differences between American and Canadian writing is one that has been the subject of much literary debate. Forests have fallen in the discussion of this issue! I suggest tentatively that Canadian children's books tend to have as their theme more of group problem solving as opposed to the solitary hero of American books, but I'm willing to be shot down in this argument. Other than spelling colour with a "u" I'm not sure I could list the field identification marks of a Canadian children's book.
TE: Next Door Neighbors was set, I believe, in 1957. Was there a reason you chose to set this novel in the past rather than the present? I would think that given Vancouver's booming population of Hong Kong immigrants, the issue of racism would be just as central today.
SE: Originally I tried to set the book in the 30's because the germ of it came from an incident in my own childhood. When I was nine, we lived in an old rectory and there was a lock on the inside of the basement door which one day struck me as odd. I asked my mother about it and she told me that the family that lived there in the 30's had a Chinese cook, and they locked him in the basement at night. This was one of those moments in childhood when you do a big leap in growing up - I guess you could call it the first awareness of social injustice. Anyway, from that moment I wanted to write the story of that cook. But my efforts to set the book in the 30's were unsuccessful. I just couldn't feel confident in that period. Then one day, totally by chance, a friend told me that she lived in a rectory in the 1950's that had a Chinese cook. That was enough for me. I reset the story in the 50's (which would really have been the tailend of this phenomenon) and was much happier.
TE: Having recently read Back of Beyond, I was struck by the way in which you skillfully interwove the contemporary problems of teen life with the supernatural. How did you choose this departure from your other, realistic, novels?
SE: Fantasy was, for me in this book, a way into the teenage voice and experience. I had tried to write about adolescents in the way I write about children and it just wasn't working, it seemed like an invasion of their world. It seemed phony. It seemed like some dowdy middle-aged woman trying to be cool. But as soon as I added this slight fantasy element of fairies I was somehow liberated from self-consciousness and free to investigate some areas of life that don't come up in my children's books such as work, sex and the bracing cynicism of adolescence.
TE: In your article "Buster on the Screen" in Horn Book, you reported on the results of an experiment in which you read a book electronically and a similar book in the traditionally-published version. Do you find that since you wrote that article, the "everything you need you can get on the net" mentality has diminished somewhat as people struggle to keep up with the information overload that the world wide web has promoted?
SE: I just don't know. The young woman who was my technical advisor when I wrote the short story "Net" in Back of Beyond recently pronounced the internet "a bore," but I don't notice internet use at the library diminishing at all. I think the way this will go is anybody's guess and I continue to be fascinated by how this all affects reading, writing and community.
TE: What is your next project? Can Canadian or U.S. readers expect another book soon?
SE: This fall I have a book coming out in Canada called The Young Writer's Companion, which is a book of ideas for young writers based on anecdotes from the lives of classic children's writers. It is a write-in journal. Next spring I have an adult variant on the same idea appearing called From Reader to Writer, which is for teachers, parents and workshop leaders, again with background material from seventeen writers for children and writing and reading ideas that grow from that. These books have been a bag of fun to write, allowing me to indulge my enthusiasm for reading childhood memoirs and my conviction that writing is closely allied to play. In terms of fiction I'm just at the very beginnings of something, a fragile little seedling at the moment that couldn't bear the stress of description.
Books by Sarah Ellis
The Baby Project. Groundwood Books, 1986. Published in the United States as A Family Project (Macmillan, 1988).
Back of Beyond: Stories of the Supernatural. Margaret K. McElderry Books, 1997.
Next-Door Neighbours. Groundwood Books, 1989. Published in the United States as Next-Door Neighbors (Macmillan, 1990).
Out of the Blue. Groundwood Books/Douglas & McIntyre, 1994; Margaret K. McElderry Books/Macmillan, 1995.
Pick-Up Sticks. Groundwood Books, 1991; Macmillan, 1992.
Putting Up with Mitchell. Illustrated by Barbara Wood. Brighouse Press, 1989.
A Sampling of Articles by and about Sarah Ellis
“Buster on the Screen.” Horn Book (May/June, 1997), p. 289-293.
“Ellis, Sarah.” Seventh Book of Junior Authors and Illustrators. H.W. Wilson, 1996. p. 96-97.
“Ellis, Sarah.” Something about the Author, vol. 68. Gale, 1992. p. 68-70.
“An Interview with Patricia Aldana.” Horn Book (May/June 1998), p. 374-378.
“Lives of the Writers.” Horn Book (November/December 1997), p. 706-709.
“The News from Everywhere.” Horn Book. (November/ December 1998), p. 770-774.
Reprinted from Friends of the CCBC Newsletter 1999, Number 3 with permission of Tana Elias and the Friends of the CCBC, Inc. ©1999 Friends of the CCBC, Inc.