Magic in the Museum

Bruce JPEG“Stepping into a fossil laboratory like the one at the Canadian Fossil Discovery Centre is an adventure all its own.”

From ‘Dinosaurs’ of the Deep: Discover Prehistoric Marine Life

Bruce, the world’s largest displayed mosasaur, is the Canadian Fossil Discovery Centre’s version of a Walmart greeter. His impressive frame ripples down the exhibit hall, tail lashing, jaws open, looking as imposing in skeletal form as he probably was in real life 80 million years ago. But Bruce didn’t arrive that way. He came in pieces, trucked in from Dave Lumgair’s pasture near Thornhill, Manitoba where he was unearthed in 1974.

If there’s magic at the museum, it most likely occurs beyond the exhibit walls in the laboratory and research areas where paleontologists, technicians and volunteers unravel the puzzle pieces that arrive from fields around the area.

Bruce's jacketed vertebrae arrive at CFDC

Great care is taken to ensure a safe transfer from the field site. Large fossils like Bruce’s vertebrae shown here are ‘jacketed’ or wrapped in layers of plaster to protect them before they are removed.

Each specimen is tagged and catalogued. The "M" on this one indicates that whatever is in the jacket is likely from a mosasaur.

Each specimen is tagged and catalogued. The “M” on this one indicates that whatever is in the jacket likely belongs to a mosasaur.

Jacketed specimens are stored on shelves that line the laboratory.

Jacketed specimens are stored on shelves that line the laboratory.

Thousands of smaller fossils are stored in banks of drawers. The Canadian Fossil Discovery Centre has the largest collection of Cretaceous marine fossils in Canada.

Thousands of smaller fossils are stored in banks of drawers.


The Canadian Fossil Discovery Centre has the largest collection of Cretaceous marine fossils in Canada.

A specimen table

Tools and instruments stand ready on work stations around the room: dental picks, small chisels, magnifying glasses, microscopes, petri dishes….

Paleontologist Victoria Markstrom is CFDC’s field and collection manager.

“The fossil lab is the paleontologist’s workshop.  It’s the place where mysteries are solved, the past joins the present, and foundations are laid for the exhibits we see beyond its walls.”

‘Dinosaurs’ of the Deep: Discover Prehistoric Marine Life


Persuasive Terry Fox

Picture1Recently, an exhibit opened at the Manitoba Museum displaying artifacts from Terry Fox’s 1980 Marathon of Hope. One of the central pieces in the Running to the Heart of Canada collection is Terry’s journal. Rain or shine, good days or bad, Terry wrote in the journal every evening of his epic 143-day, 5,373 kilometre run from St. John’s, Newfoundland to Thunder Bay, Ontario.

journalI first discovered portions of Terry Fox’s journal online while researching his story for At the Edge: Daring Acts in Desperate Times. With a little more digging, I also located speeches, interviews, and more written records from the Marathon of Hope period. Until then, I hadn’t realized how persuasive Terry Fox was, or how words – spoken and written – factored into his amazing achievement.

Here are a few examples:

From a letter to the Canadian Cancer Society requesting support for his run:

The running I can do even if I have to crawl every last mile. We need your help. The people in cancer clinics all of the world need people who believe in miracles.

From a journal entry written in early July 1980, just outside of Ottawa after a particularly taxing day:

Everybody seems to have given up hope of trying. I haven’t. It isn’t easy and it isn’t supposed to be, but I’m accomplishing something. How many people give up a lot to do something good? I’m sure we would have found a cure for cancer twenty years ago if we had really tried.

At a press conference after cancer returned and Terry was forced to quit the run:

I’m going to do my very best. I’ll fight, I promise I won’t give up. This just intensifies what I did. It gives it more meaning. It’ll inspire more people…When I started this run I said that if we all gave $1, we’d have $22 million for cancer research, and I don’t care, man, there’s no reason that isn’t possible. No reason.

When Terry was forced to quit the run just outside Thunder Bay, his quest might have ended there, but it didn’t. Challenged by Terry’s words and inspired by his courage, the rest of Canada rallied. A Canadian businessman pledged to hold a fundraising run each year for cancer research in Terry’s name. A television network held a special five-hour telethon and raised $10 million. Over the following months, more donations were received. In the end, a total of $24.17 million dollars was raised for cancer research, equaling Terry’s goal.

Although Terry died on June 28, 1981, one month short of his twenty-third birthday, his legacy lives on. In my province of Manitoba where Terry was born, the first Monday of August is officially called Terry Fox Day, and each September the Terry Fox Run is held in cities and towns around the world for raise money for cancer research.

This Heritage Minute video nicely recaps Terry Fox’s run and his lasting legacy:

Crafting ‘Night’, Elie Wiesel’s Masterpiece

Night coverYears ago, when I was looking for samples of creative non-fiction to read, the late Elie Wiesel’s book, Night, appeared on almost every recommended list. Creative non-fiction is a somewhat nebulous category, populated by everything from memoirs and biographies to personal essays, and Night was considered a prime example of the form.

I dipped into Night, more interested in exploring the genre than in Wiesel’s account of his experience at Auschwitz during the Holocaust. Within a few pages, I was hooked. The book is a slim volume, barely 100 pages, but it is a powerful read, wrought with evocative language and steeped in incomprehensible horror. I left behind my analytical self, the reader bent on learning about the mechanics of the genre. Instead, I became the reader so engaged in Wiesel’s tragic story that I forgot time and place. I was carried along on his journey, and I finished Night a changed person deeply affected by Wiesel’s account.

AuchwitzRecently, after Wiesel’s death, newspapers carried obituaries about the Nobel Peace Prize winner. I read them with great interest, not only because I was eager to learn more about the man, but also because I hoped to discover something about his way of writing. How had he accomplished this tremendous feat, crafting a story so engaging and horrific, yet one instilled with such humanity, in so few pages?

One obituary mentioned how the book had evolved to its final form. Wiesel’s first account was an 800 page story in Yiddish written in the mid-1950s. It was trimmed to under 300 pages when it was released in Argentina later, then cut to 200 pages for the French market. By the time it was finally published in the United States in 1960, it was little over 100 pages.

With each cut, Wiesel, distilled the story. “Substance alone mattered,” Wiesel writes in the foreword to Night. “I was more afraid of having said too much than too little.”

By allowing time to intervene, Wiesel gained a cushion of detachment, and by cutting out unnecessary material, he found the core to his story. Rather than becoming less, his story became more.  As one reviewer wrote about Night, “there is no extraneous detail, no analysis, no speculation. There is only a story; Eliezer’s account of what happened, spoken in his own voice.”


Behind the Scenes at a Press Run

A few weeks ago, before ‘Dinosaurs’ of the Deep was in its current hardcover form, I scored a thrill by watching the book roll off the presses at the Friesens plant in Altona, Manitoba.

The Friesen plant is a huge place.

The Friesens plant is a huge place.


Stacks of paper…stacks of covers…. all set to go

I had never seen this end of the publishing operation before, and I was amazed at the complexity of the process. Then again the pros at Friesens made it all seem easy.

The Man Roland machine cranks out full panels at an amazing rate. Check out the video below...memorizing!

The Man Roland machine cranks out full panels at an amazing rate. Check out the video below…memorizing!

One panel = 24 pages on one side

One side from a sheet off the Man Roland equals 24 pages in the book or 48 pages when you count the 24 pages printed on the back sideI

Each panel is checked for colour and accuracy, and then signed off by the publisher before the run continues.

Turnstone's publisher Jamis Paulson signs the first panel giving approval for the run to continue.

Turnstone’s publisher, Jamis Paulson, signs the first panel giving approval for the run to continue.

Now we're good to go!

Now we’re good to go!

The cover looks amazing, thanks to the vivid illustration by Julius Cstonyi, a world renowned paleoartist.

Aaron, our Friesen guide, discusses the finer points of the cover with Jamis Paulson, Turnstone's publisher.

Aaron, our Friesens’ guide, discusses the finer points of the cover with Jamis.

One side from a sheet off the Manover machine equals 24 pages in the book or 48 pages when you count the 24 pages printed on the back side.

I get to sign off on the cover, too.

DSC08814(1)-1There’s something to see at every turn in the plant.  Here’s the trimmer.  It slices through a stack of pages like a knife going through butter.  Watch your fingers!

What a great day this was!


At the Launch

What a welcome! A display at the entrance to the book store.

Welcome!  A display at the entrance to McNally Robinson Booksellers 

The launch for ‘Dinosaurs’ of the Deep: Discover Prehistoric Marine Life has come and gone, but the residual effects still linger.  By one count, there were well over 125 people in the atrium of McNally Robinson Booksellers and it was standing room only.  I was wowed by the number of young people attending, but then again perhaps that’s not so surprising. Kids (and most adults, it seems) are curious about all things dinosaur, and even though the Western Interior Seaway’s creatures were technically marine reptiles and not dinosaurs, for most people it’s a moot point.  Ferocious prehistoric creatures are fascinating whether they lived on land or in the water.


Suzy, the mosasaur, was there, courtesy of the CFDC

Suzy, the mosasaur, was there, courtesy of the CFDC

CBC radio personality Terry Macleod moderated a panel discussion involving Peter Cantelon, Executive Director of the Canadian Fossil Discovery Centre, Victoria Markstom, CFDC’s Field & Collection Manager, and yours truly. After several rounds of questions, Terry opened it up to the audience.  The youngsters in the crowd took the lead. Most of their questions were aimed at Victoria. What’s it like being a paleontologist? How do you extract fossils?   My personal favourite came from a young man sitting near the front:  Who earns more – a paleontologist or a writer?  Turns out he wanted to do both.  I say go for it, my friend.

Left to right, Terry Macleod, yours truly, Victoria Markstrom & Peter Cantelon

Left to right, Terry Macleod, yours truly, Victoria Markstrom & Peter Cantelon

I can answer that!

I can answer that!

Signing for a dino enthusiast

Signing for a dino enthusiast


The cake aka edible cover!

All in all, the launch was a blast.  Thanks Turnstone Press, McNally Robinson, and everyone who attended for sharing this very special time with me.

My Year of MYRCA


This past year the Manitoba Young Readers Choice Award (MYRCA) celebrated its 25th anniversary. Each year for a quarter century now, grade 5 to 8 students across the province have been offered 15 to 18 shortlisted Canadian novels to read, discuss, and assess. In mid-April, students who have read or heard read a minimum of 3 titles vote for their favourite. Votes are collected, tabulated, and when the dust settles a MYRCA winner and two Honor Book winners are announced.

from Rebelight siteboundless

This year, my mystery-adventure novel, Missing in Paradise, was among 17 other honoured titles on the 2015-2016 MYRCA shortlist. My book didn’t win. That honor went to Kenneth Oppel for his wonderful novel, The Boundless. But, as with many things in life, winning isn’t everything. In my case, it was definitely the journey that counted.

Here are a few highlights from my banner year:

Early May, 2015– The shortlist for 2016 is announced. I see names I recognize – icons like Eric Walters, Deborah Ellis, Kenneth Oppel & Jennifer Dance. Wow!  I  am on the same list.

AT Ste Anne School in Ste Anne, Manitoba

                      At Ste Anne School in Ste Anne, Manitoba

October 19-21, 2015 – On a MYRCA blitz sponsored through grants by the Manitoba Arts Council, I visit schools in Carmen, Ste. Anne & Richter. City or rural, kids everywhere share a common bond over books, but for many rural students meeting a ‘real live’ author is first-time experience. As MYRCA’s ambassador I spread the word of its merits, hoping to hook teacher-librarians not already involved in the program.

At the Roundtable-MYRCA event

                          Hopping tables at the MYRCA-Roundtable event


With fellow authors Melinda Friesen, Suzanne Costigan, Gabriel Goldstone Deborah Froese

               With fellow authors Melinda Friesen, Suzanne Costigan,                                      Gabriel Goldstone & Deborah Froese

October 21, 2015 – At a combined MYRCA & Winnipeg Children’s Literature Roundtable dinner event, I sit at a table with 7 others. Some are teachers, others students , librarians, parents. We engage in a lively discussion about reading, writing, school, travel… A half-hour later, I move to another table. A new group. A half-hour later yet another move, another group. It’s a unique experience – readers of books meeting the people who write them, and finding common ground in their love of stories.



December 16, 2015 – Walking into the library of École Saint-Avila during lunch break, I am floored by what I find. Sixty-five students are involved in the school’s MYRCA program. It’s a huge number! In collaboration with the teacher-librarian, two parents spearhead the operation. The kids are totally hooked. Many have already read more than their required quota and are eager for more.

MYRCA Display at Ralph Maybank School

               MYRCA Display at Ralph Maybank School

Feb. 10, 2016 – An email arrives from the mother of a home-schooled student. Her son has read my book and has a suggestion. At the one point, my main characters use a home-made metal detector. He’s researched the topic and found a website with detailed information. Could I add the link to my author website? I write back. Certainly and thank you my resourceful reader.

April 2016 – After an author visit, a grade six student lingers, waiting for others to leave before approaching. He describes his favourite scene from the book, then high-fives me for “doing such a good job” . Later, his teacher tells me that he has Aspergers. She’s surprised by his response. Normally, he is detached and rarely engages, but this time…. Somehow this time, it was different.

So there you have it. A few highlights from my MYRCA journey. The goal of the program is to promote literacy by celebrating the best in Canadian literature. As an author, I saw evidence of literacy at each stop – eager readers gobbling up books, speaking of characters and plots that resonated with them, and networking with the writers who crafted the stories they love.

Considering the 400 plus titles offered by MYRCA over its 25 year history, and the thousands of young readers involved in the program, MYRCA has achieved its goal in spectacular fashion.

Congratulations MYRCA on 25 outstanding years!