Touring In: Saskatchewan (Northern Region)
Genre: junior fiction, YA, teen, adult novels
Ideal Audience Size: 10-50
Maximum Audience Size: 100
Grades: Grades 3-12
Special Equipment: For readings to large audiences, a sound system would be helpful.
For writing workshops, a blackboard, flip chart or whiteboard are useful.
Winner of the 2016 Vicky Metcalf Award for Literature for Young People
2012 Ottawa Book Award Finalist
Alan Cumyn is an award-winning and highly versatile novelist and writing teacher whose work for young audiences includes the beloved middle grade Owen Skye trilogy and the young adult novels Tilt and Hot Pterodactyl Boyfriend. A gifted public speaker, Alan will either read from his work and engage students in a discussion about writing and books, or bring small groups through a writing workshop that will stimulate personal expression and encourage students to create and polish their own stories.
Readings for Grades 3-7:
Alan reads from The Secret Life of Owen Skye, After Sylvia and/or Dear Sylvia, the epic/comic love story of young Owen Skye and Sylvia Tull. Together, these books have won or been shortlisted for twelve national awards. Owen is desperately in love with the beautiful Sylvia who sits across the classroom from him and who, at the end of The Secret Life…, moves away to far-off Elgin.
Readings for Grades 8-12:
Alan reads from his young adult novels. Tilt, named one of the top 100 Canadian YA novels by CBC, tells the story of an intense 16-year-old boy, Stan Dart, whose focus on basketball gives way to other preoccupations when the intriguing Janine Igwash begins to return his affections. His most recent work for older teens, Hot Pterodactyl Boyfriend, received a starred review from Publisher’s Weekly and was called by The Globe and Mail “satirically brilliant and genuinely captivating… a terribly strange experiment gone terribly right.” A charismatic pterodactyl arrives as an inter-species transfer student in time to knock student body chair Shiels Krane completely off-stride, with unpredictable results, as she suddenly begins to question her most basic assumptions about life.
With older students Alan also sometimes reads from his work for adults, which includes the award-winning human rights novels Man of Bone and Burridge Unbound, and the Great War novels The Sojourn and The Famished Lover. A past Chair of The Writers’ Union of Canada and a former writer and researcher in human rights for the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada, Alan has lived and worked in China and Indonesia, and brings a wealth of interests and an abiding passion for story to any classroom.
Usually Alan reads aloud a story or chapter or two, then answers questions students might have about the characters, the books, the writing life. He goes into detail about how he wrote the stories, and also brings in other novels he has written and tells some stories associated with those books. He likes to keep the sessions flexible, allowing for student questions and the free flow of ideas. Sometimes, for example, students are curious about how he takes episodes from his own life and turns them into fiction. Or they might want to know more about the cover artwork. Often students are unaware of the importance of reading, and writing, from an early age if they want to write books of their own.
These Alan usually creates in consultation with the teacher, taking into account the interest and skill level of the students. Most sessions will involve a mixture of guided discussion and short and focussed writing assignments. Alan, who has taught writing at the Banff Centre and at the Vermont College of Fine Arts, will bring the class through some exercises, perhaps figuring out what makes a good story and exploring how professional writers go about creating characters and fashioning fictional worlds. He usually asks if students want to share their work aloud, keeping the emphasis positive in any feedback he gives. The focus in all of Alan’s workshops for young writers is on raising interest in the creation of one’s own stories and encouraging experimentation and expression.
Hot Pterodactyl Boyfriend (Simon & Schuster Canada, 2016)
Tilt (Groundwoods Books, 2011)
Dear Sylvia (Groundwoods Books, 2008)
After Sylvia (Groundwoods Books, 2004)
The Secret Life of Owen Skye (Groundwoods Books, 2002)
Also of interest:
All Night (Grass Roots Press, 2013) [adult/YA literacy]
Alan Cumyn is the author of thirteen wide-ranging and often wildly original novels, including the Owen Skye trilogy, the young adult novels Tilt and Hot Pterodactyl Boyfriend, and several novels for adults. Born and raised in Ottawa, Alan won a city-wide writing contest for students in grade 8, and became especially interested in writing his own poems and stories in high school. But he had been a slow reader in earlier grades, and drew on those memories when writing Dear Sylvia, a novel in letters written by the young Owen Skye — the world’s worst speller — to his true love Sylvia Tull.
Alan joined the military directly out of high school, an experience that helped years later when he began researching the life and experiences of his great uncle who fought in World War I. Later Alan fashioned this material into two novels for adults: The Sojourn and The Famished Lover.
Eventually Alan earned degrees in English literature, history and creative writing. He has worked in many jobs — running a group home in Toronto for Katimavik, teaching in China and Indonesia, writing and researching on human rights issues for the Canadian government — work that has always fueled his fiction.
Alan has lived all across Canada, from St. John, New Brunswick to Toronto, Ontario, Winnipeg, Manitoba, Eastend, Saskatchewan, Victoria, British Columbia and Dawson City, Yukon, but most of his life has been spent only a few blocks from his high school in Ottawa.
Alan has been writing fiction more or less full-time since 1999, although he also teaches at the Vermont College of Fine Arts and has done significant volunteer work for PEN Canada and recently served as Chair of the Writers’ Union of Canada.
Alan began writing his Owen Skye stories when his own daughters were young and just beginning to read. These stories were originally Christmas and birthday gifts to them. The three Owen Skye books have between them won or been shortlisted for twelve national awards. His first young adult novel, Tilt, was named one of the best young adult novels in the United States by Kirkus reviews and in Canada by Quill & Quire in 2011. Hot Pterodactyl Boyfriend has an unusual premise – a sexy and charismatic pterodactyl comes to high school and completely disrupts the well-planned graduating year of student body chair Shiels Krane. Beneath the surface, this unusual book, which Maximum Pop in the UK has called “the most outrageous novel of the year”, is about how unconscious desires steer our lives in unknown ways. Alan’s novels for adults have also won many honors. Most notably, in 2000 Alan’s human rights novel Burridge Unbound was shortlisted for the prestigious Giller Prize.
Odd facts about Alan Cumyn:
- In high school, Alan was the shortest basketball centre in Ottawa.
- He is 14 inches taller than his wife, author Suzanne Evans.
- When Alan and Suzanne taught in China in 1986-87, in the city of Xuzhou, crowds gathered wherever they went and people referred to them with hand motions as “the short one and the tall one.”
- Alan has written at least as many unpublished novels as published ones. Every page of writing for him is an act of exploration. “You never know what you’re going to discover,” he says. “That’s what makes it so exciting.”
Alan’s current work-in-progress, a novel set in Dawson City, YK, comes out of two trips to the famous gold rush town, the first of which happened through a CCBC tour in 2012. In the second, longer stay, he lived in the childhood home of Canadian historian Pierre Berton, just across the street from the preserved cabins of other legendary writers Robert Service and Jack London.
- Shortlisted for the 2012 Ottawa Book Award
- Winner of the 2009 Silver Birch Express Award
- Nominated for the 2009 Ottawa Book Award
- Nominated for the 2008 Canadian Library Association Book of the Year for Children Award
- Nominated for the 2006 Red Maple Award
- Nominated for the 2005 TD Canadian Children’s Literature Award
- Nominated for the 2005 Canadian Library Association Book of the Year for Children Award
- Nominated for the 2005 Ruth and Sylvia Schwartz Award
The Secret Life of Owen Skye
- Winner of the 2004 Hackmatack Children’s Choice Award
- Winner of the 2002 Mr. Christie’s Book Award
- Nominated for the 2005 Pacific Northwest Libraries Association Children’s Choice Award
- Nominated for the 2004 Rocky Mountain Book Award
- Nominated for the 2002 Governor General’s Award for Children’s Literature
- Nominated for the 2002 Ruth and Sylvia Schwartz Award
Selected for Adults:
- Winner of the 2001 Ottawa Book Award
- Shortlisted for the 2000 Giller Prize
Man of Bone
- Winner of the 1999 Ottawa Book Award
- Shortlisted for the 1998 Trillium Award
Praise for Alan Cumyn
“Alan’s strong commitment to arts education for young people and his extensive experience working with children and young adults
—Wendy Hartley, Program Director, MASC (Ottawa)
“Mr. Cumyn has a humble, gentle disposition that comes through in his speaking. No one feels intimidated by him. There is a sense that we are all entering his story as his equals… Perhaps the best testimony to his effectiveness as a speaker is the rapt attention of the young people in his audience. When the time for questions comes during his presentations, students always feel compelled enough and comfortable enough to ask theirs.”
—Ruth McKeague, Ridgemont High School (Ottawa)
“My students had questions about his writing process, where he gets his ideas, and even some interest in his personal life. Whatever the topic, Mr. Cumyn was able to connect with them and even inspire them in their own writing endeavors.
My high school in Little Rock, Arkansas is an urban school where many of our students are impoverished and are thus struggling academically and/or personally. Mr. Cumyn was very sensitive to this and made my students feel comfortable and appreciated. It was a pleasure to have him in my classroom.”
—Jennifer Diggs, Hall High School (Little Rock, Arkansas)
“Alan has a very soft manner that puts my primary children at ease. Even my most shy student is involved listening and laughing at story parts while Alan enthusiastically reads. Alan is able to engage my class, from the demanding restless students to the various ranges of intellectual abilities that I have. Alan encourages questions and does not rush the children as they express themselves…
Alan is professional, yet very approachable, and has been a wonderful literary guest for our language arts program. I would encourage you to please consider Alan for your school program.”
—Ruth Cooper, Rockcliffe Park Public School (Ottawa)
“Alan is a celebrated author, yet he speaks from the heart and in such an unassuming and quietly winning manner that even shy students who often lack the confidence to speak up about their wish to write speak to him whether in my lecture hall (my classes have grown to 140/50 students) or at the end of his talk when he is signing books.”
—Aida Hudson, University of Ottawa