Great Aunts

54 - Hilary and Great Aunt Jean

For every few famous grandmothers in children’s literature, there’s usually a Great Aunt popping up. They are often forbidding characters, grey-haired, dressed in black, possibly living in mysterious old houses or possessing of fortunes that would mean everything to a small and luckless orphan. They are holders of secrets, likers of silence, and eccentric in every possible direction.

I had a couple of the stern and forbidding types, but I was also lucky enough to have Great Aunt Jean.

Maddy and Great Aunt Jean were best friends. I don’t think that was always the case, but by the time I was born, they were thick as thieves. Maddy was the second oldest, and Jean was the youngest. Maddy lived in downtown Toronto for most of her life, while Jean moved north to Gravenhurst. They talked on the phone constantly. For Charles and Diana’ royal wedding, they celebrated with champgagne and orange juice and a long distance phone call that lasted the entire ceremony.

When Maddy came to live with us, they’d visit each other for four or five days at a time, talking from the moment they woke until late into the night, stories weaving around them along with cigarette smoke. Over the course of the day they’d move from coffee to Bloody Marys, and the stories would reach further back, to their childhood on Rathanally during the Depression, to the war.

They both loved books, and English History, and there was a constant trade of volumes back and forth between their houses. They both thought Anthony Hopkins and Geoffrey Palmer were terribly handsome, and that tennis was important.

Some relationship are a closed circle, but Maddy and Aunt Jean would always welcome me, or my sister, or my parents into whatever they were talking about. You could curl up on the couch near them and listen to them talk about books and their childhoods for hours, and always feel a part of things.

When I moved away, and started sending Maddy a monthly faux-magazine a la “Girls’ Own” it was only a matter of months before I started printing two copies and sending another to Gravenhurst. After Maddy died, I stopped writing it every month, but every Christmas I would write a new set of stories and send them to Aunt Jean, a small little piece of love and memory.   We both missed her very, very much.   When I got married a few years ago, having Jean be able to come was like having Maddy there too.

My Great Aunt Jean died a few weeks ago, peacefully while she was sleeping. I got to visit her before he went, and she was so very much herself still. Somewhere she and Maddy are drinking a Bloody Mary together.

A Wonderful Sort of Serendipity Part 2

We were lucky enough that the snow had stopped the morning we drove to Lindsay to discover the part of my grandmother’s book collection that had been donated. The Lindsay Public library is a Carnegie library, well-proportioned in pink and white brick, and once inside we made our way downstairs to the book sale room to meet the sleuths (primarily the wonderfully kind Aleta) who’d wanted to find the family of their mysterious book donor.


The lovely volunteers at the Friends of the Lindsay Library had my grandmother’s books laid out on a table in their sorting room (with more ready to be unpacked from a cart), and simply told me to pull out anything that was meaningful to me. They even provided with me boxes to pack things up in. These were books that had already been donated to them – some of which might be valuable – and yet they gave me and my family free rein. I can’t thank them enough for this generosity.

Most of the books that had been donated were from her collection of British history and travel. Maddy loved everything English, especially great houses and royal families. The collection included things from Tudor biographies to commemorative programs of the 1939 visit to Ottawa, from turn of the (2oth) century memoirs of London to travel guides to Wales. There was even a folio of rather lovely lithographs.

Some of them dated back as far as the 19th century, and likely came from the basement of Britnell’s bookshop, where boxes from estate sales (or from when the original Britnells came over from England), had a way of gathering dust for years before the staff went through them. Maddy told me about several occasions when she got told she could simply take things home.

I’ll be entirely honest – if I had known this donation before it had happened, I might have chosen to donate another part of her collection, since the British books are among my favourites. But that is spilt milk territory, and so Pam and my mother and I looked through and picked out both the ones that we know meant the most to Maddy and the ones of most interest to us. With the help of the volunteer appraiser, we packed them up and they will soon be part of the family bookshelves once again. I hope we left enough with the Friends that everyone feels happy with the part of Maddy’s library that is with them now.

We also brought two albums full of pictures of Maddy, from her days as a young model to her retirement from Britnell’s, so that we could try to give the library folk a sense of who she was. You can draw a portrait of someone from the books they treasured, but it was fun to provide them with the details of the rest of her life, in which books and bookselling played so central a role.

I feel like I could write about this forever, but for now I’ll stop. Perhaps at some point I’ll do a post of some of the books that have now come home to my bookcases, and why they mean so much to me.


A Wonderful Sort of Serendipity – Part One

Last week, I was working away at my desk, and I go the strangest phone call. Phone calls in general are a little strange, since my office and particularly my job are very much email based in terms of communication. When you work with ISBNs, talking isn’t always the most useful way to work on something.

Anyways, there goes my telephone with an Ontario number I don’t recognize, and on the other end is a woman from the Lindsay Public Library. Might I be Marion Foskett’s granddaughter?

It turns out the library recently had a substantial donation of books to their book room, which arrived as a bit of a mystery. Looking inside, they found bookplates with my grandmother’s name (some old enough they were from her first marriage to my grandfather). Intrigued, one of the volunteers headed to the Internet, and managed to find me. The books included an old yearbook of my grandmother’s from her days at St. Clement’s school, and the Library was intrigued.

As my father lives in Lindsay, it wasn’t hard to check with him and discover that yes, he’d donated about 25 boxes of books to the library, and it was possible he hadn’t checked them quite completely for what was inside. Mystery solved, on my part.

But the folks in Lindsay were intrigued – where had these books come from? Who was my grandmother?

When I sketched out the bare bones of her biography, we discovered that one member of the volunteer group remembered seeing her once in Britnell’s – and said she was “the most beautiful woman I had ever seen.” Another had lived on the same street as Scroggies of Summerhill Gardens fifty years ago – might they be relations (yes, they were – my great great aunt and uncle). They had legendary Christmas Eve parties, and it was the only time, she wrote in an email, that she had seen a suckling pig actually served.

With so many connections – and the possibility of some lost treasures among the books – we headed to Lindsay to see just what this wonderful sort of serendipity had brought about, and I will write all about how that turned out very soon.

Sometimes, Things Are Just Sad


Sometimes, I can wax poetic about the way the landscape of bookstores is always changing, just like everything else in a city. Sometimes, I can look at a dingy old building being torn down and remember how the walls were cracked and the staircases ancient.

But sometimes, we can be walking to work and discover that demolition for the World’s Biggest Bookstore began, and all there’s room for is sadness.

You can still see the fixtures, bookcases, even office chairs, intact and exposed where the bulldozers haven’t reached, mangled and flattened where they have. We walked around behind and saw Geoff’s receiving bay, now just a pile of rubble, with the second floor mezzanine, still bright yellow and carpeted, visible from the alley below.

I worked there for years.

Some of my favourite things about World’s Biggest Bookstore:

  • Standing at the top of the steps down into the Fiction section and looking at the miles and miles of shelves full of things I haven’t read yet.
  • The mysterious old back staircase where we found a bowling pin from the store’s first incarnation as a bowling alley.
  • Being the store that always had book #7 of an old children’s series when no one else did.
  • Starting work at 6:30 in the morning in this hushed world full of wonderful books – such a strange peacefulness.
  • All those books, all the time.

It was a strange old duck of a bookstore, and for every nostalgic story there’s truly weird sagas of squirrels nesting in conveyor belts, broken air conditioners and electrical fires, and the basement that was so scary I never, EVER, went down there, just in case.


Posts left out in the cold

I thought I’d been very clever and set posts to publish in a queue while I was in the midst of the most busy time of the year at work, but it turns out I am not clever at all and no such thing occurred, so I am going to quietly backpost them.   That will teach me to think I’m being clever.

Working Alone Together

As I’ve mentioned before, I am very, very shy about writing, as the fact that almost all the posts on this website are about books I read, rather than books I write, can attest. I write slowly, I write things all out of order, and my drafts are full of ALL CAPS instructions to myself full of such useful gems as “A THING HAPPENS HERE” or “THIS IS TERRIBLE”.

But when I did Nanowrimo last year, I took a deep breath, swallowed my shyness (it doesn’t taste very good, shyness), and started meeting up and writing with a small group of other writers every few weeks. I’ve been joining them on and off ever since, and by halfway through the year I even talked about what I was working on sometimes. I’m really not kidding about the shyness.  I can talk about nearly anything as long as it’s not important to me.

In the past, I’ve been leery of writing groups, not just because I’m shy, but because I think of writing as being such a solitary endeavor that I didn’t understand the value of doing it alongside others. I should have known better – it is precisely because it’s so solitary that having a small community to talk about it with and be encouraged by is such a quiet comfort.   Hearing how other people work, the problems they wrestle with as they compose stories, and the ways they write can make you a better – or at least more conscious and thoughtful – writer in turn.

So every few weeks now, there is me, and tea, and a few very lovely people, and it’s been another important part about why this year has been so much more full of writing than the last.

I still talk to myself in ALLCAPS in all my drafts, but at least I know now I’m not the only one. :)

The Power of Prequel

Prequels sometimes get a bad rap. It’s not hard to see why, especially for someone in my generation, who may have waited in line for the epic first episode in a beloved series, only to be disappointed. They are often suffused with a sort of nudge-nudge, wink-wink narrative twitch, where everything is a set up or an Easter Egg for a future event. Often, it’s hard not to roll your eyes.   Even worse than this is when the ‘before’ story ends up bearing no resemblance to what you imagined, and somehow ends up tainting the rest of the books, or the series, or the movies, as well.

BUT, but when it’s done right, a story that’s a prequel can be a thing of beauty.   I got thinking about this when watching t.v. the other night, and an episode of Endeavour came on. It’s a series about the young Inspector Morse, yet to become the irascible John Thaw iteration, and is excellent on its own, and as a prelude. And when a prequel achieves that, being its own story while being in conversation with the inevitable future, the moments that evoke that future stop seeming so cheesy and jarring. Instead, when the closing credits turn out to be the same Barrington Pheloung theme as the original Morse, it’s a moment that’s both evocative and earned.

The inevitable future is a constant counterpoint in a prequel. If the future is a glittering one, it can make a grim story brighter and more bearable.   If the main character goes on to fame (or infamy), you can recognize the beats bringing them there, even if the details are unfamiliar. I’ll admit, though, to a fondness for prequels where the destination is not so rosy, where choices with the best of intentions start things colliding in a way that can’t be avoided. I know I’m truly invested when I find myself hoping if maybe it’ll turn out differently, maybe this time the thing won’t happen, despite the certainty of it.

If prequels are also your cup of tea, and you’re a Garth Nix fan, then I’d highly recommend Clariel, coming out this fall. It takes place a few hundred years before Sabriel, and it is thrilling and melancholy in equal measure.

Quantifying Enjoyment – My Uneasy Relationship with Counting Stars

I love looking for ideas about what to read online.  I love lists, and Tumblr-created infographics, and websites manned by savvy librarians or passionate booksellers.  I love the rabbit hole of curiosities the Internet can be, and how it can show me things I’d never seen or noticed once and then forgotten.  Good Reads is a daily website for me, both at work and at home.

But I’m not sure how I feel about rating everything in 4 stars, or 5 stars, or however many stars or thumbs up graphics I’m given in a particular context.

As a person giving said stars, I’m almost always unsatisfied.  Three is never quite right – I’m always thinking to myself, really I mean maybe 3 and half, not quite fantastic, but still really enjoyable.  And then I wonder if what I mean by three stars is the same as someone else’s three stars, and on, and on. I know the easiest answer would be to actually review each book I read when add it, say what I really mean to say without relying on the ranking, but that’s time I don’t always seem to have.

I sometimes wish I could create my own ranking system, by adjective, in a handy drop-down menu on my booklist:

  • Book of Pure Wonder
  • Splendid
  • Really, Really Good
  • Really Good
  • Good!
  • Enjoyable
  • Intriguing (for books that I’m just not sure about yet…)

The only thing I’m ever perfectly comfortable with is when I give a book five stars, because it was splendid, amazing, wonderful, fantastic, and I want everyone to know immediately that they should read it too. But not every book I like (or even love) makes me feel that way, and that middle range of enjoyment is much harder to express

Also, because I use a lot of math at work, I tend to automatically turn them in to percentages in my head, which then become letter grades, and then I’m thinking to myself “I really don’t mean that was a C+ sort of book…”

One or two star books I don’t even put on something like Good Reads.  I’m not interested in joining a negative conversation – just because a book wasn’t for me doesn’t mean it’s not for all sorts of other people, and I’d always rather talk about what I like than what I don’t.

In the end, I’m not anti-stars.  They are, without doubt, a handy thing for sorting out information, for coalescing opinion, for highlighting something unexpected happening for a particularly wonderful (or unexpectedly disappointing) book.  That book by an author you’ve never heard of garnering five star rankings and gif-filled reviews on Good Reads? That’s something to watch out for. But it’s all more than the sum of its stars.

Toronto’s Bookstore Landscape

Bookstores come and go.  Like with any shop, people retire, sell their business, a neighbourhood changes demographics or a building changes hands.  When I was young, a bookstore closing wouldn’t seem like a dire event, followed as it always was by another bookstore opening.  Every downtown had a bookstore, and nearly every mall did too.  Toronto was swimming with them, to the point where I even own a printed directory from a couple decades ago.

Times change, though, and the book business has changed too.   The seismic shifts in how we read, what we read, and how we buy what we read have made themselves felt in every aspect of my life.  In my education, where my Information degree included a serious focus on the digital revolution and what it meant to the future of reading.  In my own pursuit of writing, where publishing spaces have collapsed and expanded like solar systems.  And in my employment in the book industry, where we grapple with these issues every day.

So, when a bookstore closes now, it renders me more thoughtful than it once might have.

This winter and spring, Toronto is losing the Book City in the Annex, Chapter Runnymede, the Cookbook Store, and the World’s Biggest Bookstore.   Each with its own particular clientele, history, and quirkiness, and all with their own reasons for shutting their doors.  When, as a book-loving community, we lose so much so rapidly (Nicholas Hoare, I miss you too…)

Whenever I get reflective about books and bookselling, I tend to think of my grandmother.  She and I both ended up with (what is likely to be, in my case) a lifetime working in and about books.  Just after World War Two she started working at Britnell’s Book Shop on Yonge Street, to help support her husband and her young son.  She started on the sales floor and was, by the time I visited her there as a little girl, the head buyer for the store, wearing pearls and a smart skirt and a desk on the second floor.

Me and Maddy, back then:

Maddy and Me

Although my grandmother had been retired for several years when Britnell’s shut its doors (she’d worked there for half a century before she left), the news was hard on her.   Albert Britnell’s bookshop had seemed a permanent fixture to her, a constant.  She thought it was the beginning of the end of something, and it’s hard to argue that point.  My book industry and my grandmother’s bear little resemblance to each other, bustling as they both are.

I’m not actually a pessimist about the future of the bookstore – I think they have a real and vibrant life ahead of them.   But it’s still terribly sad to see one close, and I hope very much we shall see some new ones open their doors to take their place.

Touchstone Books

“This is a short book because most books about writing are filled with bullshit.  Fiction writers, present company included, don’t understand very much about what they do – not why it works when it’s good, not why it doesn’t when it’s bad.  I figured the shorter the book, the less the bullshit.” Stephen King – On Writing

 Stephen King’s book on writing is one of my favourites.  “Favourite” implies I’ve read loads of books on writing, and I haven’t really – I’ve read much more about reading, and readers, although it’s very much a side-of-the-coin distinction.   Regardless, even though Stephen King’s books aren’t always on the top of to-read list (I love his style, but I’m squeamish), On Writing is a wonderful exploration of writing as craft, a thing you do, not a distant and mysterious planet.

My other favourite (again, from my actually fairly short list) is Susan Cooper’s Dreams and Wishes, which is a selection of her essays on the subject of writing for children.  Her acceptance speech for the Newbery Medal in 1976 is about how writers of fantasy “see around corners”:

“The material of fantasy is myth, legend, folktale; the mystery of dream, and the greater mystery of Time.  With all that haunting our minds, it isn’t surprising that we write stories about an ordinary world in which extra-ordinary things happen.”

In the same speech, she says something about children I’ve always taken to heart:

“They aren’t a different species.  They’re us, a little while ago. It’s just that they are still able to accept mystery.”

My touchstone for amazing writing for children has always, and will always be, her Dark is Rising sequence.  They mesmerized me as a kid, and shaped the way my imagination grew.

 Other books I love, about children’s literature, fantasy, and storytelling:

Only Connect: Readings on Children’s Literature: The first book of essays I ever read where I discovered there were people took children’s literature very seriously indeed.

Suddenly they Heard Footsteps: Storytelling for the Twenty-First Century: Dan Yashinsky is a Toronto storyteller who is not only awesome at what he does but has really interesting things to say about the art of storytelling.

The Wand in the Word: Conversations with Writers of Fantasy: Most of the writers are writers of children’s fantasy, and they are an awesome group – Nancy Farmer, Madeline L’Engle, Garth Nix, Terry Pratchett, Tamora Pierce, Philip Pullman…

The Dreamer Awakes: Alice Kane was a children’s librarian of the Old School, a teller of myths and legends whose storytelling voice was luminous and literary.

Reading Matters – What the Research Reveals about Reading, Libraries, and Community: Science (well, social science) about reading!  This book was one of the best things I came out of library school with.

Innocence and Experience: Essay and Conversations on Children’s Literature: More along the lines of Only Connect.

I agree with King that writers don’t always understand very much about what they do – and what we do know tends to be personal rather than universal – but for me there’s no writing unless there’s reading, and listening, and learning.  More practically, there’s also no writing unless there are goals and discipline and doing, which reading the thoughts of writers on their craft reminds me of.