046: Get Your Summer Read On, Part 1
June 5, 2018
Listen Now [44.6 MB, length: 42:54]
The TD Summer Reading Club is Canada’s biggest bilingual summer reading program for kids. Developed by the Toronto Public Library, in partnership with Library and Archives Canada, this free program fosters literacy while highlighting Canadian authors, illustrators and stories. In part one of this two-part episode, we sit down to chat with Kevin Sylvester. Kevin is an award-winning writer and illustrator, and the 2018 TD Summer Reading Club English author. We also have a special co-host for this episode, Presley. He’s 9 years old, and a big Kevin Sylvester fan.
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Get Your Summer Read On, Part 1
Geneviève Morin (GM): Welcome to “Discover Library and Archives Canada: Your History, Your Documentary Heritage.” I'm your host, Geneviève Morin. Join us as we showcase treasures from our vaults; guide you through our many services; and introduce you to the people who acquire, safeguard and make known Canada's documentary heritage.
The TD Summer Reading Club is Canada’s biggest bilingual summer reading program for kids. Developed by the Toronto Public Library, in partnership with Library and Archives Canada, this free program highlights Canadian authors, illustrators and stories. The goal of the program is to foster literacy by encouraging kids, aged 12 and under, to read during the summer months.
In part one of this two-part episode, we sit down to chat with Kevin Sylvester. Kevin is an award-winning writer and illustrator, and the 2018 TD Summer Reading Club English author. He has written over 20 books, including his popular Neil Flambé and MINRS series.
For this interview, I felt I needed a bit of help, so I called on my friend, Presley. He’s 9 years old, and a big Kevin Sylvester fan. We all met up in Orleans, Ontario, at the Cumberland branch of the Ottawa Public Library.
GM: Hi, Kevin. How are you today?
Kevin Sylvester (KS): I'm doing very well. How are you doing?
GM: I'm doing great. Thanks for joining us. We're here today at the Orléans branch of the Ottawa Public Library, and we're sitting in the children's section. We have two special guests today. We have you, and we also have Presley with us because we're talking about the TD Summer Reading Club. Presley, I think you have the first question.
Presley (P): Yeah. So, what were some of your favourite books when you were a kid?
KS: Wow. Thank you very much for that question, Presley. I would say that my favourite books when I was a kid—they sort of match by different age groups. So my favourite picture book of all time, without doubt, is Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak. It's an almost perfect book. It's laid out perfectly; he's my hero when it comes to my illustration style—I absolutely love the way that book works. And then, Spiderman comic books, without a doubt.
I couldn't read. When I was a kid, I was not a very good reader and so I needed books with pictures. And Spiderman helped me read Beatrix Potter books which are 50/50 words and pictures. And that helped me read The Hardy Boys which are like 90% words and 10% pictures, and then after that, it was The Hobbit. But I also love Tintin, Asterix, all those sorts of things as well. I like bande dessinée a lot, so I read a lot of those now too.
P: Okay. Did you have any favourite authors?
KS: Do I have any favourite authors? J.K. Rowling, definitely one of my heroes. The Harry Potter books are almost perfect. Think about this—at the very least, J.K. Rowling taught kids Latin words. [Geneviève laughs.] Think about that. It's incredible. Kids know certain Latin phrases just because they've read spells in a Harry Potter book. That's kind of a genius if you ask me. And they're thrilling, and they're fun, and they're really exciting. And I also read them in French and I learned something reading them in French which is fascinating, which I didn't know when I read it in English. She uses actually complicated sentence construction. And she uses words like the Latin words that nobody would know.
And so what she does is she'll introduce it at the beginning of a chapter and I guarantee you the first time a 10-year-old kid reads that, they go, "I don't understand what that means." She repeats the same sentence structure a few pages later in a different context and so the kids actually figure out what the words mean, and how to do things like a passive voice and things like this or subjunctive clauses by seeing them repeated in close proximity to each other. Smart. She's smart.
KS: Yeah. She's sneaky. Exactly right. She's sneaky and she's smart.
GM: How about you Presley? What are your favourite books?
GM: You can say “Neil Flambé.”
KS: [laughs] Here's $5. Say “Neil Flambé.”
P: [laughs] Neil Flambé.
KS: Oh wow, that's awesome.
GM: What about before Neil Flambé, what did you read?
P: Diary of a Wimpy Kid.
KS: Yeah, Diary of a Wimpy Kid. Awesome.
GM: What do you like about that book?
P: I don't know. I just like it.
KS: Do you laugh when you read it?
KS: Do you read Captain Underpants?
KS: Do you read Dog Man?
KS: Yeah? What's your favourite Dog Man?
P: Well, I think we have all of them.
KS: Yeah? What's the Dog Man Unleashed? That's my favourite. That's the second one in the series. It's the one where he had a cat and a fish. The fish turns super intelligent, starts to attack people. Yeah. Here's a funny a thing, the author, I know the author Dav Pilkey and he spells his name D-A-V. Do you know why he spells it D-A-V?
KS: Because he used to work at a McDonald's or he used to work at a restaurant and they used to do name tags. And they do those little clip, clip, clip things but the “e” didn't work so he was always Dav, Dav, Dav, Dav. So he just got rid of the “e” because who needs it? It's an extra letter. Everybody knew he was Dave.
P: Sponsored by TD Bank, the TD Summer Reading Club was originally created by the Toronto Public Library in 1994 for its 99 branches. In 2004, LAC joined as a program partner and it went national, recruiting eight provinces and territories to participate. Just how big is the TD Summer Reading Club? Big. Over 2,000 libraries are now part of the club, and over 330,000 kids registered in 2017!
GM: All right. Is it my turn to ask the next question?
KS: All right. Fire away.
GM: When you were young, did you spend much time in libraries?
KS: Oh, so libraries saved my life. I am not joking when I say that. And it was partially because—so when I talk about reading Spiderman, and I talk about reading Beatrix Potter, part of the reason for that is the library in my hometown. They did a big renovation and they did pillows. And then what they did, which was interesting, was they put the books at my eye level sitting down on these giant pillows, so the Beatrix Potter and all the graphic novels are—they weren’t graphic novels back when I was a kid, they were comic books. Those are the ones that you would easily reach out and grab, so sort of like a version of today's Dog Man or something—funny books and books with lots of pictures.
And I was not a good a reader and that was what got me into reading, was having those books readily available in a comfortable space. I've always maintained that one of the things I love—and this library has it as well—is a beautifully laid out kid-friendly space where a kid can walk in and go, "This is mine. I feel like this is made for me." That's the only reason I'm a reader because I could not focus when I was a kid, could not focus on anything.
And that library for some reason, that space locked me in and it made me sit and read books. The librarian would actually sort of surreptitiously leave books around that I might like or kids like me might like, non-stacked. And I always thought, "Oh my gosh, that's chaos," but it was great because you just walk in and you go, "Oh, there's this book right there with lots of pictures." And I would sit and I would read it and I would just lose time—time would just disappear. I would sit there for hours and hours and hours reading. So I'm not lying when I say the library in my hometown was hugely important in making me a reader.
And then, when I went to high school later on—in school libraries as well—I was blessed by having really good librarians who understood that—I love school libraries—it's the one place where the kid has an opportunity to decide how they're going to be educated. You get to go pick out your own books, you get to go do your own searching of the stacks. And so it's still one of my all-time favourite places in the universe, is to sit in a school library. It's where I learned about Greek mythology, for some reason. Before Percy Jackson—there was no Percy Jackson when I was a kid. There was just Greek myths but they were awesome—people getting killed, turned into toads and trees and stuff. It was amazing.
GM: Did you have to depend on your parents to get to the library or you could get there by yourself?
KS: Bike. I used to bike to the library all the time. And the school library obviously was a little bit different. And then, what was cool—so actually there was a new library that was built in Niagara Falls which is not far from where I live and it was also a funky architectural building. It leaks like crazy; the architect was a knucklehead, but it was funny because it was beautiful and it was cool.
And when you went, you felt like you were walking in this giant movie set filled with books, like you were in some futuristic space library and that was very cool. Then you felt like when you were pulling a book, you were almost like you could imagine that you were floating in space and you'd reach out and pull the book from the shelf and read it. That was cool too, because it was such a funky-looking building. So I always like libraries that are designed differently too, which is pretty cool. So when you're a kid, all of those things—and like I was saying—this branch we're in today, if we post photo expos, you'll see it's a kid-friendly space. And so it helped me do that.
But later on, when I knew I wanted to be a writer and an illustrator, it's where I would always go to. For example in Toronto, there's the Lillian Smith Library, which has the Osborne Collection of Early Children's Books. My friend, Sidney Smith, who's among the greatest illustrators in the history of the world, sometimes puts together these “meet and greets” there where we'll go and we'll look at original Arthur Rackham paintings from 1905, or Maurice Sendak sketches, or Beatrix Potter's letters. They have these incredible things.
So even now, it's a place where I'm informed on how to get better at my craft. And it's where I go and would sign out picture books because I wanted to do picture books. And so I would go sign out like 30 picture books or read them with my kids and really try to read them to enjoy them but also analyze them.
So it's a tough question. I could go on and answer this question for another three days—in other words because it's literally sewn into the fabric. I do a lot of visits in libraries, I drop into libraries. It's one of those places where I feel an instant decompression. It’s like I'm home when I walk into a library. I feel comfortable. It's a space that feels like that.
P: If we were in Youngstown, New York and we happened to chat up the librarian at the Youngstown Free Library, would your name come up in a discussion of overdue books from the 1980s? Any Hardy Boys books that mysteriously disappeared?
KS: So you've done your research young man. I think it was actually—it wasn't even a Hardy Boys book, it was like a Hardy Boys decoder book that it came out with. And it was like how you could solve your own mysteries. I loved The Hardy Boys. In fact, I have a good friend of our family's had all the originals that he had grown up with reading. And so I have original Hardy Boys from 1919 and stuff like that.
But if the Youngstown Free Library wants to come at me? Come at me, come at me! It's okay, I've sent them free copies of my books which doesn't maybe make up for that but that's the library I was talking about, though. I do owe them, so maybe I owe them money too. [laughs] Come at me! I'm a children's author, I don't have any.
GM: I think you've uncovered something.
KS: Yeah. My goodness, this is like, [panicked breathing] I wasn't aware I was being interrogated during this podcast.
GM: Secret Service is going to break in any moment.
KS: I’ll never go home again.
GM: What's signed out on your library card right now?
KS: What's signed out on my library card right now? I tend to piggyback on my wife who reads voraciously.
GM: So she gets the fines now?
KS: She gets the fines now.
GM: For when even The Hardy Boys disappear?
KS: Well, the nice thing is, I can write off the fine, so I can pay them because it's a business expense, but she does tons of stuff. And often what I'll do is, I tend not to sign out books. What I do is, I go and read them in the library—like I'll go and sit down, particularly for picture books, like if I want to go look at how the drawings are working in, say Sidney Smith's book or the Eric and Terry Fan's books.
I will go and sit in the library, and just pull a stack of picture books and look at them. Or sometimes, I'll go pull The Hardy Boys books to try to remember when I'm doing the pen and ink drawings for my Neil Flambé books—how The Hardy Boys illustrations are done because I'm trying to recapture that in the way that I do my pictures for those.
P: What made you want to be a writer and an illustrator?
KS: Well, I had to pay all these library fines so I needed a source of income. No, that's not exactly what happened. It's a tough one. There are lots of people who want to be artists and part of it is because you get to express things that are inside you in ways that make more sense. Like if I wanted to say, "Hey, you know what, you should really study history," your eyes would gloss over like they're glossing over right now, Presley, nice. Because you'd be like, "Oh, my God. Another old guy telling me to read history."
If I said, "Hey, have you ever heard of Marco Polo? This guy was a teenager who left with his uncle to go to China when he was a kid and then, he became a kind of a journalist and guess what? Half of his crew died of some mysterious illness on his way back home to Venice." Which one's going to fire you up? The "Hey, you should study history" or the "Hey, do you want to read about this cool guy who lived 600 years ago and there's lots of death, and battles, and sword fights?"
And so for me, it's always about which way human beings are better at telling stories than telling facts. Facts, when they are folded into a story, are how we as human beings tell stories about what it means to be human, what it means to be on Earth. I want to also get the thrill, or give you as a reader the thrill of whatever the story is about, adventure or sadness or justice or injustice. I want you to feel that and you'll feel it more in a story than you would if I just told you facts.
P: Why did you decide to write books for kids instead of adults?
KS: Well, I'm going to quote my hero, Maurice Sendak, on this one who said, "I don't write for kids. People tell me my books are for kids." And that's true for me. I write stories that I find interesting. For example, my Neil Flambé books are about a chef who solves murder mysteries, but there are a thousand jokes in those books that you won't get but every adult who reads them will get. For example, he fights an evil supercomputer called Deep Blue Cheese.
KS: See, Geneviève gets it because it's a joke about this very famous computer called Deep Blue. But it's a joke that as a kid, you'll read and you’ll go, "This evil supercomputer is battling him to figure out who can cook better food," but adults also get it that there is another layer of jokes. To me, the ultimate thing to strive for is Bugs Bunny cartoons, which I loved as a kid. I laughed, I loved the slapstick humor and as an adult, I still watch them and laugh because there's a whole other layer of humour that's going on in them.
And that's the same with my picture books. So I have a picture book called Super-Duper Monster Viewer where it's like talking to my dad on FaceTime where I always end up looking at his earlobes or up his nose or something like that. See, Geneviève is laughing at that because you know exactly what I'm talking about. But for kids, it's like there are monsters that I can't see on this book which is actually like a viewer. So, I always try to make my books operate on two levels and those were always my favourite books when I was a kid. And to tell you the truth, Junie B. Jones is a series I love which is like that. Tintin is like that—it operates on two levels and those are always the best books.
GM: Do you want to get the next one? I think it will be a cool question for you to ask.
KS: You guys can ask it together. Ask it in stereo.
GM: Do you want to ask in stereo? I'll say, one, two, three and we ask it together?
GM: Number six? Are you ready?
GM: One, two, three.
GM & P: What was your inspiration for the Neil Flambé series?
KS: Okay. My inspiration for the Neil Flambé series is a little bit like cooking a meal. And I use this as an analogy when I say that how authors come up with ideas is simply by being curious people. If you have things in your brain, they start to form connections like atoms form molecules. I'll get to the answer in just a second.
So if you think about all the books that you love—Tintin, for example, is an adventure story but also a little bit about owning a dog [laughs]. It's going to sound weird but it's like Milou or Snowy, depending on which version you read, it's part of the camaraderie and having friendship. And it's about friendship and adventure. Harry Potter is about magic and going to school. Percy Jackson is about Greek mythology and going to school.
And so for me, what I did was, I took two things which might seem unrelated, and I combined them together. For me, that's the Hardy Boys, because basically, Neil Flambé is like a Hardy boy, an obnoxious, cocky Hardy boy but he’s sort of mashed together with the world of cooking. And so, part of it was that I had a friend who challenged me saying, "Do you think kids would read about chefs?" I actually said, "No." We were out at dinner one night, and I said, "Nah, they wouldn't read about chefs."
And then, we started thinking, and I thought, "Actually, you know what? It might be interesting if a kid was the best chef in the world." So part of the intention in those books is that Neil feels deeply, thinks deeply and is great at what he does but is constantly being rejected by adults because he's just a kid. So all those little elements mined together and then I just wanted to write books that were fun. Neil travels all over the world. And he cooks food from different parts of the world. And so that also allows me to do lots of research into the different types of cooking, which is also kind of cool. Did that answer the question thoroughly enough?
KS: Okay, fair enough. No wait, I do have one other thing I want to say, which is that going back to what I was saying earlier about wanting to tell a story in order to get an idea across. Well, kind of the idea that's behind Neil Flambé is—is it okay to be great at something, but also be a jerk? Because Neil is not a nice guy. And this is a question that everybody has to face at some point in their lives, maybe with a boss, maybe with a friend, maybe with that athlete who you idolize and it turns out that they're not that nice to other people.
And if you are a great hockey player, but not a nice person, but that great hockey player helps your favorite team win the Stanley Cup, how do you balance that? Do you still like that person even though they maybe did some bad things in their life? I don't know. I'm not answering that question, but Neil is a way that I get across to kids that they have to ask that question. And within yourself, "Am I always acting the best way?” Or do I sometimes go, “Oh, I'm great at this or something, so I'm not going to listen to someone criticising me." So it's about self-reflection too.
GM: Wow. Books are a lot more handy than I thought.
KS: [laughs] That's also a lesson, by the way, in Dog Man, which you might not necessarily think. But Dog Man always has to learn to get past his animal nature in order to—because he's a dog lopped onto a policeman's body, right? Remember I said, these stories are all about combinations. That one's literally about a combination. A dog's head on a policeman's body. Dav's actually sneaking ideas and questions into those as well. Even the Jeff Kinney books are about that. They're about being a nerd. They're about the values of being a nerd in school.
GM: Wait a minute, what about Captain Underpants? Surely, that's just ridiculousness.
KS: So Captain Underpants is, of course, the principal of the school. And so what Dav…
GM: [laughs] What?
KS: He is. That's the point. He is, right?
P: He is! Yeah.
KS: So part of what Dav is doing in those books is also talking about, if school isn't fun, why bother? Dav talks about this, that he had a tough time in school, he had a tough time reading and he did a lot of that. And that's part of the underlying message of the Captain Underpants is that you make fun out of situations that you're trapped in, like school sometimes. I was trapped in detention a lot as a kid, just FYI.
P: How can kids join the TD Summer Reading Club? Kids can participate at local libraries across Canada, as well as at home, online, or on the road. Wherever their summer takes them! Club participants explore recommended reads, track their own reading, and connect and share with others across the country. They can read books online, join in activities, collect reading incentives and write jokes, stories, and book reviews. There are great resources for kids with print disabilities, as well as resources for pre-readers and their families.
GM: You're the TD Summer Reading Club English author for 2018.
KS: I'm extremely excited by it.
GM: The end of this question is, "How cool is that?"
KS: It's cool, it's awesome, actually. I cannot believe that it happened. I'm thoroughly excited by it. So, yeah.
GM: How does it happen? Did you get a phone call? Did you get a crown and a bouquet of flowers?
KS: Oh yes, definitely, and a limo came and whisked me away, and then at midnight, it turned back into a pumpkin with five mice or something like that. No, no. There's a selection committee, you apply, my friend Marty had done it last year, Marty Chan. For me, loving libraries so much, it's like I honestly can't believe that I got the gig. So, I applied. They sent me an email, and then I met them at the library, and I got to go over some ideas. And I've actually already done the story, the story is already done.
GM: Oh yeah?
KS: Yeah. I work ahead of schedule. One of the nice things was, in my previous life, I worked as a journalist and I had to do sportscasts every morning. So, you couldn't be late because you're on air at a certain point, and the clock switches over, and you have to finish on time, and so I do not miss deadlines. It's built into my brain to not miss deadlines.
GM: Upwards and onwards. This is sort of le sommité, le summum.
GM: Where do you go from here?
KS: Well, the story itself is an interesting challenge, so this will lead into my answer. But the story itself is an interesting challenge because if you look at the books I've written—I'm sort of a hyper person. And so, I get distracted by things, and then I go deeply at them. So Neil Flambé, I dove deep into the world of mystery and cooking. My MINRS series is a science fiction series, a completely different approach to a storytelling.
And so for the TD thing, what I wanted to do was try something else. And so it's a 12-part scary, mystery story, where these two kids named Pat and Raj end up in a haunted house. And they have to find 12 keys to get out of the house, or else they actually become part of the house, and they never move again.
GM: [Makes a scared sound.]
KS: And one of the things they said when I applied, they said, "You have to be able to do cliff-hangers." And I thought, "Each one of these segments now ends on a cliff-hanger." So, when you're going to be reading those in the summer book reading club, when you read them online and you're like [sharp inhale], "When are they going to post the next one? When are they going to post the next one?"
So, to tie that into the answer of your question, I don't know where to go next because something will grab me, something will pop into my head and I will go, "Ahhh, I want to do that." I actually have books that are going to be coming out because in the publishing world, you're usually about a year ahead of time. So, I have a picture book which I've just finished. It's essentially about baby Godzilla. And so, Godzilla's wrecking cities, but then has a baby, and then she becomes nice. And then the baby wants to grow up to be like her, so the baby wants to attack space robots and knock down buildings and stuff. That's not necessarily a good idea if you're a child.
So, there's that. And then I also have a series which I'm doing, which is coming out starting in fall 2018. And it's with three other authors: Richard Scrimger, Lesley Livingston, and Ted Staunton. It's one of these book series where you can read one book at a time and they cross over. It's sort of like Marvel Comics…
GM: I was going to say it was like…
KS:…like where characters cross over.
GM: One summer, Marvel did…
KS: Yes! Everything popped into…
GM: The summer of Onslaught! That cost me so much money.
KS: Because you had to get the one issue of Fantastic Four that crossed over into the other universe. Yes. So it's like that. My character's name is Jessica Flem. What happens is that all four of the kids get zapped by radiation when they're babies, but then they grow up and have bad superpowers. So my character's superpower is she has allergies like I do. And so, she can make her boogers come to life and fight battles for her.
GM: Boy, you're really getting the scoops today, Presley.
GM: Then you get to go see your brothers and sisters and say, "I know things you don't."
KS: Yeah. She plays a video game called Gang of Greats, which is like a World of Warcraft. And so she creates all the monsters from this game to go fight battles for her. But, they only last a short time, then they dissolve into gooey puddles.
KS: Yeah. It's like microwaving gummy bears. It's disgusting.
KS: Yeah. But see? You're laughing, you're laughing. So, I've already won.
GM: You're doing the preview laughing?
KS: Exactly, right. Yeah, that's my blurb on the back of the book. Giggle, giggle, giggle. Presley.
GM: This year, Kevin will contribute an original 12-part story in English. His story is entitled The House of the Twelve Keys, and will be released in installments on the program’s website throughout the summer.
The French author for the 2018 TD Summer Reading Club is Camille Bouchard. Camille has been a children’s author since the 1980s, and has written over 100 books! He has also won multiple awards, including the Governor General’s award in 2005 for his book, Le Ricanement des hyènes. Camille will also contribute an original 12-part story in French, entitled Les dieux de l’Infierno. We’ll be interviewing him, in part two of this episode.
GM: [laughs] Do you want to do question number eight?
GM: It's a big one.
P: The TD Summer Reading Club has asked you to write an original 12-part story for the program. How are you approaching writing this story as opposed to writing your own books?
KS: I wanted to pick different characters and have them do different things from my other books. And I'd never written a haunted house story before. So, I wanted to have spooky, scary and mysterious stuff. So, there's a monster that's chasing them around inside this house that they're trapped in and maybe there are ghosts and there are haunted pictures with eyes that follow them as they walk down the hallway. And then, they get locked into a safe at one point, and then, there's also a computer that's going to blow up if they don't type in the right code.
So for me, it was like 12 stories wrapped into one, which is neat because it's like when you're a kid—there’s a thing—my parents used to watch “B” movies and they would always end on “cliff-hangers.” And it was literally like Tom Mix, the cowboy, was literally hanging from a cliff and then they would cut away and you'd have to go [sharp inhale], "What's going to happen? I want to come back and watch that again." But it wouldn't be out for another week.
And so for me, that was the approach. I want to hook you into this story so that you have to come back, read it week after week after week after week and find out if they escape, or do they die? Do they become statues? That's the thing that could happen to them. And then they never leave. They're trapped in the house…forever…forever…forever. [Laughter] It could happen.
P: I asked Kevin if he could give us a little more of a sneak peak about the 12-part story.
KS: Sure. So, one of the things that I love is the idea of codes and games and puzzles, like brainteasers. So what the keys are—sometimes it's a physical key in getting out of this house, and sometimes it's a puzzle you have to solve. So, I'll just give you one example. At one point, Pat and Raj are trapped in a barn and the animals are sort of weirdly warped, like they're shaped like letters and they have to try to get them in the right sequence in order to solve a puzzle. And if they don't, the door behind the animals will close and they will be locked in…forever. But if they can figure it out, then they can rush past the animals and move on to the next challenge.
So, you have to get your brain warmed up. You can't just float around in the summer like, "I'll just be lazy and sit on the beach all day long." No. You will think. Your brain will work. And that's part of actually what the reading club is about, right? It's about keeping your brain. Your brain is a muscle, right? Do you play sports? You want to be a hockey player or a baseball player? You don't take the summer off. You don't take months off because then when you come back, you will stink.
It's the same thing with thinking. Don't take the summer off. Have fun but keep that brain cooking. And that's one of the things that the summer reading club does. It's going to keep your brain working. You've got to solve puzzles. If you don't solve puzzles, Pat and Raj—they turn into garden gnomes and it'll be all your fault, Presley. All your fault. You're laughing. That's a laugh—it's an evil laugh right now.
GM: So breaks from the swimming pool this summer?
KS: Yeah. Although there is a swimming pool thing too where they have to swim to try to get a key in a shower stall that's filling up with water.
KS: And it's a race against time. They have to get the key before the water covers them, yeah, because Pat's not a particularly good swimmer. She's a good hockey player, not a particularly good swimmer.
GM: Where do you get your inspiration for all the puzzles in your book? In your 12 books.
KS: Yeah. It’s sort of like 12 mini books and it’s because they're all different puzzles. I love trivia, I like word games, I like playing Scrabble. So, they're all little mini problems that you have to solve. Mazes, there's a game called Pipes. If you’ve ever played it, you have to figure out how to get the pipe to go from point A to point B. And it's almost like a maze itself. And so, there's one that's like that. There is some math puzzles that you have to figure out. I'll give you a hint—the Fibonacci sequence—look it up. It's an amazing little mathematical thing. And so, little things like that.
Pat and Raj know some of this because they've actually created a game called Random Knowledge. And what they do is, they go to a library and they just pick a book. They're not even allowed to look. They go and they pick a book off the shelves and they read it and they quiz each other on stuff that's in the book. So they know weird stuff, and sometimes that helps them figure out weird puzzles.
P: The illustrator for the 2018 TD Summer Reading Club is Anne Villeneuve. Anne’s vivid and cheerful illustrations can be seen throughout the program’s website, and on all the program materials. Anne is also the author and illustrator of the popular Loula book series, along with many other titles in her long and accomplished career.
GM: All right. We have the last question, would you like to ask it or shall I?
P: What advice do you have for kids who want to become authors one day?
KS: Read. That's the easiest thing, read. Because the more you read, the more ideas you have in your head, and the more you also see how other writers solve problems, how to create characters, how to write funny dialogue, how to create a plot that hooks you in. So, I read a lot of books, it makes me a better writer. The same way that if you want to be a great hockey player—I keep using hockey as an analogy because I play hockey a lot—you watch other hockey players to see how they do it. I'm a goalie, so I watch NHL goalies to figure out how they play angles, or how they direct pucks into the corner in order to become better at how I do it. So that's the easiest bit of advice, is if somebody wants to be a writer, read.
GM: Well, that was fun.
KS: That was fun.
GM: Thank you so much, Kevin, for coming to the library with us and having a seat. Maybe we can go check out the stacks a little bit with Presley and…
KS: I think that would be cool.
GM: We can chat about books.
KS: I'll give you some recommendations. We'll go through the stacks, and I'll give you some recommendations. There's this author named Kevin Sylvester, his stuff is hilarious.
GM: He's got a crime-fighting chef, apparently.
GM: And thank you, Presley, for helping out with this interview today.
GM: It's good to have a co-host, takes a little bit of the pressure off.
KS: Yeah. Nice work.
P: You’re welcome.
KS: Here, give me five. Ouch! Man… that hurt.
GM: After the interview, we went for a walk in the stacks, with Presley’s brothers and sisters in tow, to check out some of the books. Kevin did indeed have a few suggestions.
GM: So, we're in the children's section at the Ottawa Public Library, and we're going to just walk through the stacks and see what's what. See if we can’t…
GM: …find some fun books. What?
P: Where the Wild Things Are.
KS: Yeah, there's a poster up on the wall. It's a great book. Have you ever read it?
P: I think so.
KS: Probably. So, here's the cool thing about that book. Max, when he starts to get angry, if you look at the actual illustrations, they get bigger and bigger and bigger until they fill the whole page. And then at the end, when he starts to calm down, they get smaller and smaller and smaller. So, the whole book is actually about a temper tantrum.
GM: Forgot to mention, we've got Presley with us, but we also have all his brothers and sisters also with us today, so we've…
KS: Trailing along.
GM: …a whole bunch. We've got a posse of library fans.
Kevin: That’s right. Have you read this one? Ken Oppel's about The Boundless? Ken's a friend of mine and I share a love of trains with him. My grandfather was an engineer on the Kettle Valley Railway in British Columbia. And actually, his book, Airborn, is one of my all-time favourite books. And it's one of the books that I stole from [laughs] when I started to write my own stuff because it has such a sense of wonder and such a sense of fun and character. He's a great writer of dialogue and character. I highly recommend those, or another book that's awesome.
GM & P: Word Nerd.
KS: Excellent. Remember I was talking about codes and trying to figure out codes and stuff? So this is a book—this would be like that if Jeff Kinney's characters were teenagers, angsty teenagers. Word Nerd by Susin Nielsen, is an excellent book—Canadian author, also a friend of mine. It's a small community, the Canadian writer's community. Sign it out. No, no, you're not putting that back. You're signing that out and you're reading it. You've got a homework assignment from me.
P: [laughs] All right.
GM: You were telling us how important it is to, or how useful it is that you want to teach something to someone, you can tell a story instead of just giving them plain old facts. But we're approaching the non-fiction section in the children's corner of the library. How do you get that—how do you get non-fiction over? You've written a few books about basketball and baseball and money.
KS: Baseball and sports and yeah, yeah, money.
GM: And so, how do you spin that so it's not boring?
KS: So to me, there are a lot of visuals in all of those books. Basketballogy, Baseballogy, Follow Your Money—they all have pictures in them. Again sort of like info-graphic styles so that if you're reading it and you're a kid and you don't understand the economy—or me as an adult, I don't understand the economy. So, I tried to write those books in a way that you could jump into them, see a visual that would clue you into the main point. And then, you can go read the numbers—what the math is on, how much a video game cost to make, or how much the sound person on a movie might actually make, which is not a lot of money.
So, when I'm writing non-fiction, they’re still stories. There's still anecdotes. I always put in like weird sports injuries or stuff that kids will find funny. Humour is a big part of it. Humour was a big thing for me when I was a kid. It allowed me to actually sit and read books that I might have found boring if they were funnier. The Hardy Boys are sort of like that. J.K. Rowling's like that, right? Like again, what I was saying, it teaches people Latin but they're also funny, the books are also funny. And so, you learn stuff that way. So, I try to make those books funny. I try to make them visual. And I try to make them plain language, not technical language. That would be my approach. Maybe that's also a storytelling skill.
In fact, sorry, I know I'm going on long here, but I would say in fact, it was part of the thing that helped when I was a broadcaster. Because I was a sportscaster on the CBC. And one of the things that CBC listeners say repeatedly is that they don't like sports. So, I had to be able to talk about things that sports people care about in a way that non-sports people would still appreciate.
And the way you do that is you don't give scores for the game last night, which the people who care about it already know—you talk about what might have been the interesting nugget of a story in that game last night—the rookie who made five mistakes and gave up four goals in net or something like that—or the veteran and this was their last chance to make it. You look for those sorts of things. And I think when I write my non-fiction, those are the stories I try to find as well.
GM: The Ottawa Public Library has many amazing resources for kids and their families. To learn more about what the library has to offer, visit their new kids’ website, which highlights books, music, online resources, and videos related to their children’s collection.
While walking around, we happened to stumble across a display of some of Kevin’s books.
KS: I recognize these. They're mine. For some reason, I don't know why but they're not disponible en français which is weird. Oh, wait, wait, wait. Here's the Super-Duper Monster Viewer. So, this is the book I was telling you about which is sort of like Pokémon GO but it's also like me talking to my dad. So, you're supposed to hold the book and you can see the monsters that are standing in front of you. But it never quite works. And they're always like, "No, no, no, no, no. Try aiming it lower." So, you aim at lower. It's like, "No, no, no. That's too low. Try moving back." So, you lean back and then they're too far away. He says, "That's too far try being closer." And then, whamo, you smack him in the face. But then…
GM: That's like talking to my mum on the iPad.
KS: Oh, it gets worse because then, eventually you get their eyeballs in the front thing or you're looking up their noses, all that sort of stuff. And then they get mad and then they try to eat you. So, there he is. “That's it. I'm going to eat that kid.” And then he comes charging at you. It crashes right through the screen. So, that's Super-Duper Monster Viewer.
Remember I was saying one of the things I love about libraries is to come and just look at the pictures. So, this one here, Choeur de grenouilles, look at the pictures of those frogs. They're all a choir, a choir of frogs sitting on a lily pad. That's beautiful. If you want to be a good writer and an illustrator, go get a stack of these books from your library and just sit and read them. Look at the pictures, bring a sketchpad and doodle so that you're doodling like they're doodling.
GM: Also like the stacks are all—they stop here. They’re at the kid height.
KS: Or my height.
GM: Or mine.
KS: You can't really tell. Yeah, I'm short enough that they're perfect for me too.
GM: Stay tuned for part two of this episode, where we interview the 2018 TD Summer Reading Club French author, Camille Bouchard.
To learn more about the TD Summer Reading Club, please visit us online at bac-lac.gc.ca. Also, to kick off this year’s program, libraries across Canada will be hosting their own Get Your Summer Read On Day during the week of June 16–23. Check with your local library to find out what exciting events and activities they’ve scheduled around their registration drive.
Thank you for being with us. I'm Geneviève Morin, your host. You've been listening to “Discover Library and Archives Canada—where Canadian history, literature and culture await you.” A special thank you to our guest today, Kevin Sylvester, and our excellent co-host, Presley. Also, thanks to Théo Martin, Noah Lacroix, Lianne Fortin and Ashley-Ann Brooks for their contributions to this episode. And thanks again to the Cumberland branch of the Ottawa Public Library for hosting our interview.
This episode was produced and engineered by David Knox with assistance from Paula Kielstra.
If you liked this episode, you are invited to subscribe to the podcast. You can do it through iTunes, Google Play or the RSS feed located on our website.
If you're interested in listening to the French equivalent of our podcast, you can find French versions of all our episodes on our website, iTunes and Google Play. Simply search for “Découvrez Bibliothèque et Archives Canada.”
For more information on our podcasts, or if you have questions, comments or suggestions, please visit us at bac-lac.gc.ca/podcasts.