Hélène Boudreau is a Canadian author of young adult and middle grade fiction and non-fiction books. Her best known work is the middle grade novel Acadian star, a time-traveling adventure about the Acadian Deportation in the 1700s. Apart from having four more fiction books for children coming out in the next two years, she’s also a painter known for beautiful maritime motifs.
How did you start writing? Was it a conscious decision or did it just happen?
I can’t remember a time when I didn’t want to be a writer but ‘wanting’ is far different from ‘doing’. I always seemed to have an excuse for not writing. First there was university then jobs, kids, etc. When would I ever find time to write? Writing just never seemed to fit in with the plan.
About five years ago, though, I had a toddler and a one year-old at home and was trying to decide whether to return to my old job or to find work I could do from home when a friend asked ‘What about your writing?’
Someone was finally taking me to task and making me responsible for ‘doing’ instead of just ‘wanting’. That’s when I realized it wasn’t a matter of finding time but rather making time to write. So now, I try to live by the wise words of the great Yoda ‘Do or do not. There is no try.’
You write young adult and middle grade books. Have you always wanted to write books for children? Would you ever consider writing a novel in any other genre?
Whenever I imagined myself writing, it was always as a children’s writer. The great thing about children’s writing is that I get to write in all sorts of genres already, so I never feel stifled, creativity-wise.
My first novel, ACADIAN STAR, is a middle grade time-travel adventure. I also have five non-fiction books for kids which are mostly science related. My upcoming early chapter book is a mystery. Next fall, I have a contemporary fantasy novel coming out and a humorous picture book the year after that.
I feel pretty spoiled that I get flex my writing muscles in so many different ways. I don’t rule out ever writing an adult book but for now I love the challenge and diversity of children’s writing.
What was your path to publication like?
Like many writers, my path to publication was paved with lots and lots of rejections.
For the first few years of writing, I tried writing a lot of different things—picture books, chapter books, non-fiction and my first novel. I started querying in 2006 about six months after I joined my writers’ critique group. Then, the rejections started piling in as I submitted book after book to as many open publishing houses as I could find. Being part of a writers’ group really helped because I quickly learned that rejections were normal and expected. That definitely helped cushion the blow.
Finally, in February of 2008, the children’s editor at Nimbus contacted me. She was going through old submissions and wondered if Acadian Star was still available. The only problem was—the ending needed a lot of work. Lucky for me, I had revised that manuscript quite a bit since I’d originally submitted it in 2006 so I sent the new version along. Shortly after that, Acadian Star was accepted and published six months later.
Your first middle grade novel, Acadian Star, is told from the perspective of a young girl, Meg Gallant. In the spring of 2010, the first volume of Red Dune Adventures: Keep Out! will be released. In that book the protagonists are boys. What would you say is the difference between a girl’s and boy’s voice? Which was easier for you to write?
I think being a writer is a lot like being an actor in many ways. Whether I’m writing from a girl or boy perspective, I need to understand my character’s motivations, wants and needs before I can step into that role. It’s true that writing from a female perspective is more familiar to me but I also love exploring the maleness of a character. So, for me, male characters are more challenging but that’s also part of the fun.
What inspired you to write Acadian Star? You share Acadian ancestors with Meg Gallant. Did you have a similar experience of getting to know your family’s past in your childhood?
Acadian Star grew from wanting to tell my daughters a story about the Acadian Deportation. The ‘Acadian Star’ talent competition in the novel is an actual competition my mom judged during my hometown’s Acadian Festival. Meg’s aunt, Tante Perle, is based on my own great aunt, Tante Marguerite. She also lived in a tiny seaside shack by the sea and was a master story teller.
All those elements came together as I imagined what it would be like for a modern Acadian girl like Meg to be placed in the time of the Acadian Deportation back in the 1700’s. I wondered what choices Meg would make and how different or similar she might be from a girl her age of that era.
My Tante Marguerite has long since passed away but I still remember visiting her in that seaside shack when I was a girl. She was eccentric, frightening and interesting all at the same time and I think she would have enjoyed starring in her own time-travel adventure.
In Acadian Star the lesson of the importance of our family history is told through an adventurous, suspenseful story. The narrative never slips into a didactic voice, yet the message comes across clearly. What’s your view of the dilemma of whether children’s and young adult literature should also educate and not only entertain?
I think readers want great stories they can identify with, first and foremost. I know I do. In Acadian Star, the backdrop of the story happens to be the Acadian Deportation because it was a time in history I really wanted to learn about and share with my daughters.
My main goal in telling this story, though, was to entertain my reader by putting my character in an unlikely situation and giving her big choices to make.
In your blog, you write a lot about the ‘rules’ you stick to during writing, all the technicalities of writing. But how do you start a book? Where do you get your inspiration? Do you first come up with a plot or characters?
Characters always come first for me because if I’m going to spend a couple of hundred hours with someone, it better be with someone I find interesting. Then, I try to begin my stories by putting those characters in very precarious situations. That’s when the fun begins.
Initial plot ideas can come from anywhere but putting those ideas into action is a very physical task. It requires sitting down, being present and putting one word in front of another. Many times, I’ll have a sense of my beginning and a vague idea of my ending, but the process of writing is where new ideas spring up. Those surprising twists can’t be planned in advance and they’re the exciting part of writing for me.
You’re not only a writer, but also a painter. Would you say that observation skills one develops as a painter help you with your writing, for example with the descriptions of nature, imagery etc?
Painting and storytelling are very similar. You start with a sketch, layer your story or painting with different textures and colours and, hopefully, the combination of those elements work together in a compelling way. Writing encompasses a lot more senses than painting, though, and I tend to rely a bit too much on visuals as I’m writing. I often have to remind myself to explore the other senses as well. I talk a little about writing, reading and art in a podcast for Just One More Book .
What are your favorite books to read, any particular genre or author, someone who influenced your own writing? Which books are you reading at the moment?
All time favourites of mine include Madeline L’Engle, Kate DiCamillo, Louis Sachar, Katherine Paterson and Tim Wynne-Jones. I’m really an equal opportunity reader and enjoy many different genres.
In the past month or so I’ve read The Hunger Games/Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins, The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman and I’ve finally (!) started the Harry Potter Series by J.K. Rowling (I’m on book 4) though I’ve been listening to those on my MP3.
You’re busy writing, revising and talking to kids in schools and libraries. What is your favorite way to relax and restore your energy for new writing endeavors? What do you do outside the world of books?
I’m an avid walker and try to get out about 4-5 times a week. I often walk while listening to talking books and find it’s a great way to get more ‘reading’ time in. I think exercise is a really important way for me to reset my inner clock.
I’m also a busy mom and think that having kids around really recharges my batteries and fuels my writing. I think kids are the neatest people. They just don’t have the filters adults have and they can see things in such an uncluttered, wise way.
My daughters constantly crack me up, make me think, and force me to reconsider how I see the world every day—much in the same way great books do!
ACADIAN STAR (Nimbus, 2008)
KEEP OUT! (Nimbus, 2010)
REAL MERMAIDS DON’T WEAR TOE RINGS (Jabberwocky, 2010)
WATER HAZARD! (Nimbus, 2011)
I DARE YOU NOT TO YAWN (Candlewick, 2011)