The World of Children’s Literature in the Valley

Previously published in the Duncan Journal

To the delight of many young readers, Carol Anne Shaw’s latest novel, Hannah and the Wild Woods hit the bookstores in September. This week the Cowichan Valley author sat down with the Duncan Journal to talk about her new novel, published by Ronsdale Press, her writing process, as well as some thoughts about children’s publishing. 

The first two novels in the Hannah series, both of which were shortlisted for the Chocolate Lily Awards, took place in the Cowichan Bay area. This time, Hannah and the Wild Woods transports readers to the West Coast of Vancouver Island, where 14-year-old Hannah Anderson joins the “Coast-Is-Clear” program, a group committed to cleaning Pacific Rim National Reserve’s beaches of debris that has drifted across the Pacific from the tragic Japanese tsunami of 2011. 

“I really wanted to showcase the rugged wildness of Vancouver Island’s West Coast, as well as provide a platform for discussion surrounding a very real threat for us in this part of the world: THE BIG ONE,” Shaw said. After recalling the motorcycle that washed up on the beaches of Haida Gwaii after the Japanese tsunami, Shaw added, “It boggles my mind that something could travel clear across an ocean and remain more or less intact.”

Soon after Hannah arrives on the West Coast, Jack, her raven sidekick, finds a luminous glass ball marked with a strange Japanese character. Unusual things start to happen, including the arrival of “Kimiko,” a Japanese girl with a secret past. Kimiko, it turns out, is part spirit fox, or kitsune, and is there to reclaim her source of power, the glass star ball she lost in the tsunami.

“I thought a fusion of West Coast and Japanese mythology might prove interesting,” Shaw said. “A spirit fox (kitsune) and a raven trickster! How cool would that be!”

Certainly both readers and critics have so far found the Hannah series “cool,” as Shaw has received positive recognition in reviews, award nominations, and reader feedback. Because of the local settings, environmental themes, and First Nations history, the Hannah series has been popular among homeschooled students who can combine the reading with field outings. 

The Hannah series, originally intended to be a trilogy, will eventually include a fourth book. 

“The way the third book ends,” Shaw said, “well, now there has to be a fourth. I’m 15K into that one, tentatively titled, Hannah and the Maple Moon.”

Shaw keeps a regular writing routine, essential for a writer who has now published three books in the past five years. As she herself explained in her trademark, slight self-deprecating sense of humour:

“I get up early, about 6:30, and sit like a lump with my husband for about an hour, while we drink excellent coffee and catch up with emails and social media things. Then I write. Usually a four-hour stint is it for the day. As long as I get a bare minimum of 500 words down, it’s all good. I shoot for 1000 words most days. I’m lucky to have Cobble Hill mountain just down the road and a half-hour hike to the top is an excellent way to work out plot snags, etc. If I write after dinner, it’s usually on a different manuscript. What can I say? I’m easily bored.”

Shaw has an uncanny ability to portray vividly the heart and mind of her young characters with a depth of emotion, including sharp humour. 

“I wouldn’t say that I prefer writing for young people over adults—it’s just what I’m familiar with at this point,” Shaw admitted. “That being said, I so love young adult literature.”

Most writers are familiar with the idea that you must be a reader if you want to be a writer. Besides admiring Barbara Kingsolver, Jeannette Walls, Alice Hoffman, Neil Gaiman, and David Sedaris, some of Shaw’s favourite Young Adult authors include John Green, Susan Juby, Gary Paulsen, Courtney Summers, and Sara Zarr. 

“These authors all create believable, wonderful, and often flawed characters that resonate with me,” Shaw explained. “They are all masters of dialogue, and there is nothing contrived about any of their books.”

Perhaps it was Shaw’s thirteen years of working in a high school that has given her such a sharp insight into this world of young people.

“From what I can see,” Shaw said, “young people are far more open to new ideas and tend to be more authentic to themselves than we old farts are. They’re also a pretty tough audience and they don’t suffer fools. I can respect that.”

Shaw’s respect for the tenacity and open-mindedness of youth underscores her views on banned books. While the Hannah series is quite innocent in its characters and subject matter, Shaw has been outspoken against any censorship when it comes to Young Adult books.

“In my mind, all books provide wonderful opportunities for discussion, opening doors to conversations that can encourage critical thinking,” Shaw said. “We live in the middle of a fast, superhighway of information, where it’s easy to see the good, the bad and the ugly of humanity, all with the simple touch of a keyboard. I don’t believe censoring books protects children from the more sensitive and complex issues of the world, but I do think open and honest communication about such issues, can.”

The banning of books has been a central, ongoing issue in Young Adult literature. 

“Personally, I would never assume to know what is or isn’t appropriate for a particular age group,” Shaw said. “I don’t think we give kids enough credit for being discerning or for being able to handle complex subject matter. Sherman Alexie, author of the brilliant (and also controversial) Diary of a Part-time Indian, said: ‘I don’t write to protect young people. It’s far too late for that. I write to give them weapons—in the form of words and ideas—that will help them fight their monsters. I write in blood because I remember what it felt like to bleed.’”

“So, I say, read those ‘difficult’ books,” Shaw added. “Love them or hate them. Talk about them. Discuss them and have an opinion about them.”

While Hannah and the Wild Woods may not prove controversial in this way, readers will surely have opinions, and most likely positive ones. Shaw has once again delivered the same mystery and adventure that made the previous two books popular. 

Writing a book is long and arduous process, and there are no doubt times when Shaw felt weighed down by it all.

“When I feel that way, I re-read some of the letters I’ve received over the past couple of years from young readers. I love them, and the drawings!” Shaw said. “The questions children ask are so entertaining and honest. Receiving mail (snail or email) from them is like a tonic to me. Totally energizing. These guys are the reason I write!”

Visit her website at www.carolanneshaw.com and feel free to leave her a note, ask her questions, or simply say hello. She’d love to hear from you.

Hannah and the Wild Woods is suitable for ages 10 and up. Please support your local independent bookstore or library to get a copy.