Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Welland, Ontario, one street down from the Welland Canal. A favorite pastime was standing along the shore to watch the ships pass. My sister and I would wave to the men working the boats and make up stories about where they were from and what the ship was carrying. Swimming and fishing were a big part of my childhood.
What is your earliest memory of writing/drawing?
My first recollection of writing was in my grade-two class at Maple Leaf Public School. I remember receiving two pages of foolscap and a sharpened HB pencil. It was like someone had opened up a treasure chest and given me full reign to scribble to my heart’s content.
What inspired you to write/illustrate your first book?
The idea for How Robin Saved Spring came about during a writing exercise I was performing as part of a writing course. I was taking a walk through the neighborhood, jotting down as many details about what I found, trying to use all my senses. It was early spring and a robin landed on the lawn (the first robin I’d seen this particular spring). Robins have always been special to me—my maiden name is Robins. I was trying to describe the sounds he made. When he made that throaty sound between warbles, I decided that is sounded like ‘UP, UP, UP’. I got the fanciful idea that he was running around waking things up after a long cold winter. My first idea was to write a short story about this and send it off to a magazine. Terry Harshman, the editor of Turtle Magazine, rejected the story but suggested I expand it and try sending it out to book publishers as a picture book instead. Henry Holt and Company accepted the manuscript shortly after that.
Do you use your childhood as inspiration?
Absolutely. How could you write for children and not include your own childhood memories? I’ve always loved fairytales and legends. I couldn’t get enough of them as a child. In fact, I still collect fairytales, fables and legends from all over the world. I also collect old books which have varied versions of them.
What books from your childhood have most influenced your work? What about adult titles?
My favorite childhood books were fairytale collections by the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Anderson. I still have my original copy of them along with ‘Old Bayana’s Tales’ with my name (Debbie Robins) scribbled inside its cover. My other love was Doctor Zeus. I think that reading his books as a child sparked my love of poetry which I write and have published to this day.
Anne of Green Gables (the full three-book collection) was a big favorite that I take out and reread from time to time. When my daughter, Sarah, was eight we spent three months reading all three books as part of her bedtime ritual.
I believe in the advice that, if a writer wants to hone their craft, they’d better read a lot. My tastes are pretty eclectic and I have a system for choosing books to make sure that I round out the experience. I read a classic, then a children’s book, a book about writing, then a book I’d like to read just for pleasure. I’ve always got a book of poetry on the go at the same time.
When I read a book strictly for pleasure, I often read a fantasy. I’m a huge fan of Charles de Lint who writes mythical fantasy. I’ve read just about everything he’s written. My favorites are Dreams Underfoot, Moonheart and its sequel Spiritwalk.
What are your hobbies and interests besides reading and books?
I write, perform and publish poetry. I’m the chair of the Vaughan Poets’ Circle, a poetry writing and critique group that meets monthly and puts together an annual anthology. I also perform live readings of poetry in the Greater Toronto Area at local poetry and literary festivals and poetry cafes. My poem, Finale placed first in the Poetry Canada Rhyming Poetry Contest in March 2008. My poem, Rainstorm placed third for Best Poem in the Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine 2008 Readers’ Awards.
I dabble in art, done in soft pastels and colored pencils, with a few pencil sketches. Portraits are my favorite things to sketch. I’ve won first prize and best-in-show in a variety of categories at a few art contests at local country fairs.
I love all kinds of crafts. Sewing, knitting, crocheting and papier-mâché are a few of my favorites.
Who are a couple of your favorite author/illustrators? What is it about their work that inspires and interests you?
Authors of Children’s Books
I’ve read almost everything by Lucy Maud Montgomery. I love her strong female characters. She seemed to know what a young girl wants to read about (and us older ones who want to remember what it was like to be so young). Her characters always challenged the rules and stereotypes. They got into mishaps that made you laugh and cry. There was always a bit of romance, but always in a way that was hard-won. Her characters did the right thing regardless of how difficult it might be, and those around them were better for knowing them.
Authors of Adult Books
I’m a big fan of Charles de Lint. I think the first thing that struck me the first time I read one of his books, Dreams Underfoot, was his ability to tell an adult story and still maintain his sense of wonder. De Lint takes myth and legend and mixes them all up with modern day people and places. In one of his books, a biker can walk into a bar, sit down and have a conversation with Pan, or the trickster, Coyote. A homeless person is really a tree spirit forced into the cities because we’ve cut down the forests. He tells the story so well, that you almost believe it could happen.
I love when a writer can make a character so real for me that I feel like I’m walking around in their skin throughout the story. Stephen King is a master of this. My favorites of his are The Stand and Four Seasons.
Margaret Atwood is a great author and poet. I love her books about the writing experience. My favorites are Second Words and Moving Targets. She has great insight (and amazing wit) about the craft and what it means to be a writer and poet.
What one or two words of advice would you give for young authors/illustrators?
Whatever you do, keep writing. Write what you love, what interests you, what keeps you awake at night. Write it down and then rework it. Tinker with it until you’ve got the best possible combination of characters, words and story. Learn the craft of writing, the same way you’d learn to play a musical instrument. Take lessons, and practice, practice, practice. Don’t get discouraged if you send something out and it gets rejected. That’s just part of the process on your way to a published piece.