Reading books and creating stories played a large role in Canadian kids' writer Julie Lawson's childhood in Victoria.
"I always made up a lot of stories when I was a kid," Julie admits with a chuckle. "I use to tell such outrageous stories to my friends who repeated them to their parents. I still remember one parent saying to me, 'You're going to grow up to be a writer.'"
Before plunging into writing full-time, Julie loved her career as a teacher. For 18 years, she enjoyed every moment teaching Grades 3, 4 and an occasional Grade 5. But the writing bug persisted with inspirations popping up in unexpected places.
Living in East Sooke at the time, a picture book was inspired by an incident on her daily beach walk, watching the fishing boats pulling out of Whiffin Spit.
"I found a tarnished fishing lure on the beach and picked it up," Julie recalls. "I started rubbing it, which made me think of my Dad's tackle box. The more I 'polished' the lure, the memories of being a kid on the beach became brighter and brighter. By the time I got home, I had a title and an ending for my picture book, *A Morning to Polish and Keep*."
Teaching her classes by day, Julie jotted down ideas, created characters and sent out more stories in her spare-time.
While visiting China with her husband Patrick, Julie purchased a shadow puppet of a dragon as her Chinese souvenir. This later inspired her book, *The Dragon's Pearl*, a retelling of an ancient fable.
In her dragon research for a teaching project, Julie discovered a picture of a white jade amulet with a carving of a tiger and thought "white jade tiger" would make a great title for a future book. The whole idea simmered in the back of her mind. "I took my class on a field trip to Chinatown," Julie recalls. "We visited the Chinatown Trading Store where the rooms keep winding their way to more rooms until you reach the last room with an exit door. But there was a 'No Exit' sign on the door and we asked if we could go out that way. The clerk nodded permission. When we found ourselves in Fan Tan Alley, I had this 'What if?' moment of a 12-year-old on a field trip to Chinatown who goes out this same door and finds herself back in the 1880s. I loved writing *White Jade Tiger*!" Besides winning the prestigious Sheila A. Egoff Award, *White Jade Tiger* is also one of the popular Chinatown tours, given by Charlene Thornton Joe and historian, John Adams. "I would visit schools on the Mainland and the kids would tell me of their trip to Victoria and taking the *White Jade Tiger* tour with Charlene," says Julie.
On her visits to schools and libraries, Julie's audiences know they will be magically transported to another time and place. Researching material in Halifax for her twentieth book, *No Safe Harbour*, leading up to and after the Halifax Explosion in 1917, Julie recalls the opportunity she had interviewing a 94-year-old survivor. "This lady had an incredible memory of the tragedy and I was able to talk with her for three hours. I didn't have a tape recorder with me so I jotted down her expressions, the way she spoke of things and used her phrasing to give the book that authentic Nova Scotian speech. When I visited the schools, they didn't believe I wasn't from Nova Scotia!" *No Safe Harbour* was chosen as the Hackmatack Children's Choice Award.
In 1998, Julie successfully applied as "Writer-in-Residence" at the Berton House Writers Retreat in Dawson City. "This was Pierre Berton's childhood home for the first 12 years of his life in Dawson City. When he became famous, he purchased his childhood home, had it fixed up and donated it to the Yukon Arts Council to be used as an all-expense paid, three-months retreat for any professional Canadian writer. I loved being there as it was an incredible experience."
During her time in Dawson City, Julie wrote three books using a Yukon setting including *The Klondike Cat*, a picture book that won the Christie Harris Illustrated Children's Literature Prize.
Writing the historical journals for the "Dear Canada" series, Julie immerses herself in massive amounts of research material to create a realistic time and place. Readers are pulled into a painless history lesson, from the daily lives and adventures of young girls whose observations and thoughts are recorded in a journal. Julie's latest book, *Where the River Takes Me* describes the early days of Fort Victoria and the history of the Hudson's Bay Company.
"At home, we were calling my Hudson Bay book a 'hysterical' fiction," she laughs, "because the publisher wanted this 300-year history in a book by a specific deadline." In writing the book, Julie threw herself into the project recalling that "the people and places became so real, I started to write the year '1850' on my cheques!"
Away from any writing projects, Julie is busy giving talks and readings at schools and libraries. She has been a speaker at Roundtable groups, toured for Canadian Children's Book Week and has been a presenter at North American writing conferences. Recently, she gave a successful Children's Writers Workshop for adults at Camosun College. Yoga, working out at the gym, long walks with a friend, baking treats, curling up with a good book and trips on cargo ships with Patrick keeps her creative juices flowing.
When writing her many stories, whether fantasies, fables, picture books, mysteries or histories, Julie doesn't think about a specific age.
"I just write the stories and read it to the 11 year old in me. Kids hate being read down to or told the book is for older kids. I write the way I feel and fortunately my readers like that."
SENIOR LIVING VANCOUVER ISLAND - April 2009
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