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Touring In: Yukon

Craft: author

Genre: picture books, junior fiction, YA

Ideal Audience Size: 50-60 (2 classes)

Maximum Audience Size: 100

Grades: Grades 1-12

Special Equipment: A projector that can be connected to Emil’s Macbook.

Website: www.emilsher.com

2015 Governor General’s Literary Award Finalist
2016 Canadian Library Association Book of the Year for Children Award Honour Book

Presentation Information

Picture This: The Making of a Picture Book
How do you get from a rough idea and rough sketches to a published picture book? Emil uses images from two of  his picture books as he takes students on a colourful journey featuring Mittens to Share, illustrated by Irene Luxbacher, and Away, with illustrations by Qin Leng. This talk lifts a curtain on the creative process and gives students a peek at how words and images are woven together.

Grades 1 to 3: Alphabet Soup: Cooking up a Story
This workshop is hands-on, in that every student is given three cards anchored to a letter of the alphabet. Depending on the number of participants, some may be given a series of cards. Every card features both a letter and an image so children who are just learning their ABC’s can still fully participate. The child holding the ‘A’ cards chooses the image that most appeals: aardvark, alligator or anteater. Once a card is chosen it is placed into a pot where our story is being ‘cooked’. Next set of cards: boat, bus, bicycle. And so between the first two participants we have the opening of a story that might read: “There was once an aardvark who travelled on a bicycle to visit…” or  “One day, an aardvark hopped on a bus and…” And so it goes, until twenty-six cards are tossed into the pot and a story is created collectively.

Grades 1 to 12: Message in a Bottle
This workshop can be tailored to meet the specific skills of the participating age group, as the theme is a universal one: what message would you write, stuff into a bottle and toss into the sea in the hopes that it will be found and read…and have an impact.  The ‘message-in-a-bottle’ starting point can work just as easily as the first page of a picture book as the opening page in a middle grade or young adult novel. After a classroom discussion about who might write a message in a bottle, why someone would write it, where they might live and what they hope will come of it, students work individually or in pairs to create a message of their own.  These messages are then shared in a class-wide discussion, opening up a myriad of possibilities as to where the picture book or middle-grade/young adult novel could lead.

Grades 5 to 8: The Book of Ashes and the Wages of War
Alia Muhammad Baker was chief librarian in Basra when the Iraqi city was invaded by foreign troops in 2003. Fearing that the library would be destroyed she set out on a mission to secretly save as many of the books as she could, recruiting friends and neighbours, some of whom were illiterate. Her moving tale has been told in two books for children and served as the inspiration for The Book of Ashes, a play by Emil that premiered at the International Children’s Festival in St. Albert, Alberta in 2016. This presentation details the process of transforming a true story for the stage and will offer participants the opportunity to perform selected scenes amidst a group discussion. Along the way, readers will be given a new perspective on the intrinsic value of books.  As the librarian says in the play: “Bread and books. Both keeps us alive.”

Grade 5 to 12: Young Man with Camera: Behind the Scenes
This debut young adult novel is told from the perspective of a thirteen-year old boy who has been scarred both physically (facial burns) and emotionally (the taunting spawned by the burns). With camera in hand, he navigates the world and bears witness to an assault on a homeless woman that leaves him in a moral quandary. Original, black-and-white photographs punctuate Young Man with Camera, and these photographs are at the heart of this presentation. The first half of the presentation is devoted to how photographs shaped the text, and how the text informed the photo shoots. A primary goal of this presentation is to inspire students to ask themselves a fundamental question about how we interpret the world: for all that I see, what goes unseen and unsaid?  This question is explored during the second half of the presentation. Students are divided into small groups, given a photograph and asked to consider what unfolds beyond the frame. The various interpretations are shared with the whole class, planting seeds about the value of critical thinking.

Grades 5 to Grade 12: Unpacking the Holocaust: A Playwright’s Journey
This presentation on Emil’s adaptation of Hana’s Suitcase has been given in schools in Ontario, Quebec and Nova Scotia and the response has been very positive, not least because Karen Levine’s book has struck such a deep chord with readers of all ages.  The talk has been structured so that anyone who has not read the book is still very much a part of the proceedings, as Emil walks students through the story as he describes how he adapted it. Using images and video footage from past productions, Emil discusses the challenges and choices one faces when the past is both honoured and dramatized. How can sets, costumes, masks, slides and silence give voice to an unspeakable tragedy? How far into the darkness of the Holocaust do you go when young children are in the audience? In raising these kinds of questions the goal is to inspire students to do the same as they give thought to how stories are shaped.

Grades 5 to 12: When Words Take Flight: The Making of Mourning Dove
The stage version of Mourning Dove is based on a radio play commissioned by the CBC. The radio drama is available to teachers to share with students ahead of Emil’s visit. The radio drama becomes a reference point in the presentation but it is not essential that students hear it beforehand. The topic of mercy killing is enough of a starting point to generate lively classroom discussions about Robert Latimer, the Saskatchewan farmer who took the life of his severely disabled 12-year old daughter. Emil explores how he took the threads of an actual story and wove them into a fictional world that provided a space where characters could be created from scratch, a place that is less about the hard facts of a story and more about how fiction can reveal universal truths in ways that transcend headlines.

Book List

Away
Illustrated by Qin Leng
(Groundwood Books, April 2017)

Mittens to Share
(also available in French: Une mitaine pour deux)
Illustrated by Irene Luxbacher
(Scholastic Canada, 2016)

Young Man With Camera
Photographs by David Wyman
(Scholastic Canada/Arthur A. Levine Books, 2015)

A Button Story
Illustrated by Cindy Revell
(Annick Press, 2014)

A Pebble Story
Illustrated by Cindy Revell
(Annick Press, 2014)

Beneath the Banyan Tree
(Scholastic, 2008)

Hana’s Suitcase on Stage
(Second Story Press, 2006)

Biography

He doesn’t look great in a fedora and he keeps a safe distance from a Stetson, but Emil wears many different hats as a writer. On any given day he might start out wearing a children’s fiction hat, stop to walk his hatless dog, and then return to his desk with a playwright’s hat neatly strapped to his head. A few hours later the strap is untied, the dog is fed, and Emil is back at his hat rack, deciding what to wear next. He might be working on a screenplay, an essay, the lyrics for a musical based on a beloved children’s story. Ideas and images are often floating in his head. Hence a hat, to capture them before they drift off.

Although he writes for all ages, much of Emil’s day is devoted to works for young readers and young audiences.  Why the pull?  The well-trodden but timeless truth that the experiences of childhood have a profound impact in shaping who we are as adults. As Emil sees it (albeit through dollar store reading glasses), to create works for children and youth is to have the privilege of working with the wondrous wet clay of childhood, when we are impressionable and open to possibilities, when we have a perspective that is wholly unique and that, inevitably, becomes more fixed as we age.

Emil’s debut young adult novel, Young Man With Camera, published in Fall 2015, won the 2016 Vine Award for children’s fiction and was shortlisted for several major literary awards, including the Governor General’s Award.  With two board books in his pocket — A Button Story and A Pebble Story — Emil has emptied his other pockets to make room for two picture books: Mittens to Share, illustrated by Irene Luxbacher and Away, illustrated by Qin Leng.

As a playwright, Emil’s stage works include the adaptation of Hana’s Suitcase, the beloved Holocaust children’s book by Karen Levine. Other works include Bluenose, Edward the ‘Crazy Man’‘, inspired by Marie Day’s book of the same name, and Beneath the Banyan Tree, a play about a young South Asian girl’s transition to Canada. The Book of Ashes, a play inspired by the real-life heroics of an Iraqi librarian who saved thousands of books in the midst of war, premiered at the International Children’s Festival in May 2016.  Works-in-progress include the book and co-writing the lyrics for a musical version of Roch Carrier’s The Hockey Sweater.

Based in Toronto, where he lives with his wife and an untrained dog that ignores him on command, Emil texts his out-of-town daughters to distraction and can be frequently be found heading east along the 401, towards Montreal and Morin Heights, Quebec.

Twitter: @emilsher

Awards

Young Man with Camera

  • Winner of the 2016 Vine Award for Canadian Jewish Literature
  • Honor Book, 2016 Canadian Library Association Book of the Year for Children Award
  • Shortlisted for the 2016 Amy Mathers Teen Book Award
  • Shortlisted for the 2016 Ruth and Sylvia Schwartz Children’s Book Award
  • Shortlisted for the 2016 Snow Willow Award
  • Shortlisted for the 2015 Governor General’s Literary Award
  • Shortlisted for the 2015 Red Maple Award
  • 2016 Best Books for Kids & Teens, Starred selection, Canadian Children’s Book Centre,
  • 2015 Chapter Book Favorite, International LIteracy Association

A Pebble Story

  • 2015 Best Books for Kids &Teens selection, Canadian Children’s Book Centre

A Button Story

  • 2015 Best Books for Kids &Teens selection, Canadian Children’s Book Centre

Hana’s Suitcase on Stage

  • Best of the Year 2006, Resource Links

Praise for Emil Sher

“Emil Sher was an amazing presenter for grade seven and eight students.  His sense of humour, curiosity and knowledge about the writing process…engaged and inspired our students.”
—Cheryl Paterson, Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board

“Emil was a delight to have as an author presenter and …As the author of the 2016 Red Maple nominated book, Young Man with Camera, Emil provided my students with a thought-provoking and engaging presentation.  His focus on both the writing process and the power of visual art, in the form of photography, was enthralling for everyone.”
—Jennifer Brown, Castle Oaks School

“Emil was an eloquent speaker who inspired my students to return to class with many thoughtful questions.”
—Allisyn Wood, Sudbury Secondary School

“Emil showed the rare ability of easily holding the interest of young teens.  Through his visual, thoughtful and lively presentation he was able to address topics of interest to the students.”
—Alison Morin, Sherwood Library

“Emil Sher presented to large groups of Grade 7 and 8 students who visited the library from diverse areas of the city to celebrate Forest of Reading. He was a personable, informative and inspiring presenter. Students, teachers, parents and library staff were all riveted as he demonstrated the strength of storytelling through photography.  By outlining what a photograph can capture and what exists beyond the frame, Emil challenged participants to examine the lens with which they view the world.”
­—Naomi Brun, Manager of Youth Services, Hamilton Public Library

“Emil captivated my grade 2/3 class as he read picture books of his own and some by other authors, inspiring the students to create their own.  There was a buzz of excitement in the classroom each time Emil returned to continue the project.  He was patient and understanding as he guided them through the writing, editing and publishing process.  Students learned how to generate ideas, to improve a story by simplifying the content, and to create illustrations to match the text.  On the final day, Emil brought bound copies of their books for each to keep, giving them a sense of accomplishment and pride”.
—Angela Ryan, Twentieth Street Public School

“Emil entered my primary grade one class and immediately captivated my students’ attention and imagination. His gentle, easygoing nature created an atmosphere where my students felt comfortable asking questions and exploring the world of writing and publishing. It was a very positive experience for everyone.”
Ruth Torchinsky, Jackman Public School

“Emil’s presentation was captivating and memorable. The journey he took us on was like a trip around the world, from Japan to Prague, Toronto to Poland. The story of the suitcase unravels in such a fascinating way that you are sitting on the edge of your seat, waiting to hear more. I saw the presentation with a class of 9-10 year olds. Every child was entirely engaged. The Holocaust was a time in history so awful to comprehend, so enormous in scale, that this slice of a life gives you an opportunity to understand a grain in a mountain of sand.”
—Jennifer Jacobson, Parent, Halifax

“Acadia University has welcomed Emil Sher as guest speaker many times in recent years and let me state, without reservation, he is one of the finest lecturers we’ve ever had the pleasure to engage…He is a thoughtful and engaging speaker, full of energy and passion for his subject.  He’s a positive and encouraging role model for young (and not so young) people curious about the craft of writing and what it means to carve out a life as a professional writer in this country. Emil Sher is an ideal speaker for “students” of all ages.”
—Anna Migliarisi, Acadia University

 

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