Articulate, vivacious, passionate.
Those are just three of many positive word choices to describe Canadian children’s author Jacqueline Guest, who hails from Alberta and will be a featured presenter at the Word on the Lake Writers’ Festival in May.
Guest is an award-winning author who cherishes reading and is trying her best to get kids hooked on books – not electronic readers but real, paper books.
“I love the luxury of owning a book,” she raves, pointing out there were four kids in her family and no money for books. “I had A Child’s Book of Bible Verses, which teaches ethics and morals, and Alice in Wonderland, which taught me that there are things beyond our ken.”
Guest says she was an introverted child who found much-needed escape in books, and enjoyed great adventure in travelling along with the spunky Alice, page by page.
When Scholastic Books began selling books at her school, her mother told her and her three brothers they could each choose one book.
In a brilliant move to grow her own library, Guest made a deal with her siblings, getting their three books in exchange for doing their chores.
“I did a lot of dishes and took out garbage, but it was magic, heaven on earth.”
Putting words together for children requires detailed research, honesty and subjects that appeal to them, says Guest.
“Children need books they can trust; they expect the world you create to be real,” she says, pointing out she often talks to kids in the age group she’s trying to reach. “If you make a mistake, they will throw you under the bus.”
In terms of subject material, Guest says she writes what kids want – stories about sports, motorcycles, fast cars and other scary things.
The accomplished author, a proud Métis and great niece of Jean-Baptiste Tourond, a member of Louis Riel’s council, also writes historical stories about Canada.
She looks for the untold stories, Canadian history she believes Canadian children should know about. And the children are proving to be very interested in the topics.
Many of her main characters are strong role models and come from different ethnic backgrounds, including First Nations, Inuit and Métis, and her stories address issues such as bullying, blended families and physical challenges.
A single parent for many years, Guest worked double shifts to support her children and says she would arrive home to find her youngest daughter, a voracious reader, buried in the latest Sweet Valley High.
“She would read one every night, so I read a couple and said, ‘Honey, you know this is the same book over and over,’” says Guest. “She said, ‘Mom, my job is hard. When I come home from school, I want to relax, and within the first paragraph, I know who is the good girl and who is the bad girl, and at end of the book, I feel good.”
Figuring she could follow the prescribed formula, Guest wrote and submitted her first book to a publisher.
“I got a letter back telling me ‘this won’t go,’” laughs Guest, who says, the publisher saw something in her writing, knew what she was trying to do and told her to write a new book and never read another Sweet Valley High.
She didn’t and was awarded the Order of Canada in the fall for her contribution to children’s literature.
Guest was flabbergasted and honoured when she got a call from Ottawa in November.
“Are you sure you have the right person? I’m just a kid’s author in Alberta,” she told the federal official. “I had no idea who nominated me; it’s confidential, part of the inner workings of government.”
What pleases Guest the most is the recognition, not just for the arts, but for children’s literature, which she says is usually “at the back of the bus,” in perceived importance.
The author is excited about coming to the 2017 Word on the Lake on the May long weekend, where she will lead a workshop on channelling our ghosts in creating historical fiction.
Guest has high praise for Kay Johnson, author and president of the festival host, Shuswap Association of Writers.
“Kay is an amazing woman, she is in a class of her own, she’s the complete package,” she says, noting how well presenters are treated at the festival. “She is unbelievably smart, personable and a problem solver.”