Diverse literature is an important theme in education today. Books with authentic and diverse characters give students an important perspective of what it’s like for people with a different race, religion or socio-economic background. It also allows for representation for students to see their own experiences reflected in books, sometimes for the very first time. Exposing students to diverse Canadian books is an educational goal in schools from coast to coast, which is why the Forest of Reading program’s curated list is valued greatly by educators (including Teachers on Call’s in-person and online tutors). While the 2022-2023 literacy program has officially concluded for the year, the reading party does not need to end. In fact, this year’s 100 titles provide the perfect summer reading list. For this reason, Teachers on Call’s president, Joanne Sallay, is continuing to share interviews with Forest of Reading creators. This blog features Jen Ferguson, who personally understands the importance of diverse characters in children’s literature. Read on to learn more about Jen, and her debut title featuring a Métis girl living on the Canadian prairies in The Summer of Bitter and Sweet.
What is the Forest of Reading program?
Led by the Ontario Library Association, this initiative is our country’s largest recreational reading program where the student readers select the winning titles, announced at the big festival. The books chosen are all Canadian, so it is a true opportunity to spotlight books, publishers, authors and illustrators throughout Canada. There are 10 reading award programs in total, including nine categories for students of all ages and one specifically for adults. While the voting for this year has already taken place with the winners announced in May 2023 at the annual Forest of Reading Festival, the reading party does not need to end. In fact, weekends and summer break provide a wonderful opportunity to catch up on any of the nominated books students did not read during the official program window.
How is Teachers on Call celebrating the Forest of Reading this year?
More than 250,000 readers participate in the Forest of Reading campaign annually through schools, local libraries or at home. This includes elementary, middle and high-school teachers and students from the Teachers on Call education community. In celebration of the 100 nominated titles in 2023, Teachers on Call’s president, Joanne Sallay, is featuring interviews with Forest of Reading creators across Canada. Fun fact, her children participate annually in this literacy program, and her son attended the Festival of Trees at Toronto’s Harbourfront Centre this spring and got to meet his favourite Canadian authors!
Did you catch our last Hooked on Books with Blue Spruce Award Winner, Monica Arnaldo, from Montreal, Quebec? Not to worry if you missed it, click here. For our most recent feature, read on for our interview with Jen Ferguson and her debut title, The Summer of Bitter and Sweet.
Hooked on Books with Jen Ferguson
An Interview with Jen Ferguson
Check out Jen’s answers to our questions below!
Tell us in your words about The Summer of Bitter and Sweet.
Eighteen-year-old Lou is having a tumultuous summer. She’s just graduated from high school and she’s working at her family’s ice cream shack to pay for university with the boyfriend she just dumped because she didn’t feel a thing any of the times they kissed, her best friend who is going through her own rough summer, and King, someone Lou hasn’t spoken to in three years since he disappeared from town without a trace. To make things just a little worse, Lou gets a letter from her biological father, a man who has been in prison her whole life: he’s being released, and he wants a relationship with her—something Lou absolutely does not want! That’s how The Summer of Bitter and Sweet starts off!
Living on the traditional and unceded territories of the Meskwaki, the Báxoje and Očhéthi Šakówiŋ nations, do you have a favourite reading and writing nook?
I’m such a homebody. So, my house. I have a screened-in porch on the second story that looks out over the woods. It’s my cat Frank’s favourite spot too!
Congratulations on your Governor General’s Literary Award and White Pine Award nomination. What does the Forest of Reading program mean to you personally?
I’m a library kid! I grew up in Toronto—shout out Downsview branch (2793 Keele Street, Toronto, Ontario M3M 2G3)!!! So that’s where I got all my books. The Forest of Reading program didn’t exist in its full form when I was young and that’s partially because YA didn’t quite exist either, at least not in the form it takes now back then. So, seeing how accessible The Forest of Reading makes reading for kids of all ages absolutely means the world to me. I know that kids and teens coming up these days have a venue to celebrate books—and access to so many absolutely wonderful stories!
What inspired you to write a YA novel for your debut title?
Funny story, I’ve been writing novels since high school. And I didn’t start in YA. I began writing adult fantasy then as I grew up and my education consistently told me there was only value in literary fiction, I started writing adult literary novels. After I graduated from my PhD in 2016, I was… disillusioned at best, depressed certainly, and that’s what brought me to the excellent YA that was being published at that time. And those books brought me to writing YA. It was a long journey.
Publishing is full of rejections. While I’d gotten agents interested in my writing before The Summer of Bitter and Sweet, I’d never gotten an offer of representation. With my first YA contemporary (yeah! I’d never written one before!), I got 6 offers of representation and later when we went on sub, we sold the book in a week. Oof!
Your widespread recognition, awards and nominations are very impressive. What do you attribute to your writing success?
That story above? I’ve been writing a really long time and I’ve taken writing seriously for a really long time and that means that I’ve been practicing my craft for a really long time.
Craft is the only thing we writers have control of in this business. Everything else is luck and timing. And I’ve never found a way to influence luck or timing, so, craft is where it’s at.
What message do you hope readers take away from The Summer of Bitter and Sweet?
I suppose I try not to think about this too much. Each reader will find their own thing, and I hope that I’ve done justice to whatever it is they find.
Which books and authors have influenced your journey along the way?
So so so many. But particularly for The Summer of Bitter and Sweet, these two: Cherie Dimaline’s The Marrow Thieves and Claire Kann’s Let’s Talk About Love. They were the first time I saw a Métis main character and a demisexual main character, respectfully. And that was revelatory.
What’s next for you?
Those Pink Mountain Nights, a contemporary YA novel with mystery vibes comes out September 12, 2023. It’s about three teens working at a local pizza shop in Canmore, Alberta, and late one night they see who they think is a missing Indigenous girl the police have stopped looking for. Then the next morning, the teens discover that their boss is selling the pizza shop to a corporation that plans to franchise. The novel is about the hurt of a life stuck in the past tense, the hum of connections that cannot be severed, and one week in a small, snowy town that changes everything. It’s available for preorder wherever books are sold.
We hope you enjoy our interview with 2023 White Pine Award nominee, Jen Ferguson. For more Hooked on Books spotlights with Forest of Reading authors and illustrators, check out the Teachers on Call blog!
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