Nadia L. Hohn has quickly become one of Canada's most prolific writers for young readers. Over the last four years, the educator and School for Writers graduate has written both fiction and non-fiction, publishing picture books, literacy primers, and early readers. She is currently hard at work on two young adult novels. In the meantime, Nadia found time to speak with us about why she writes for youth, what it’s like working with illustrators, and how she and her mentors approached their time together in the Correspondence Program.
When I first began making books, at the age of six or so, I wrote about the things that interested me. I had a fascination with languages and different countries and peoples. My first stories reflected that. I kept a journal for most of my life and I also wrote for my high school newspaper, but what brought me back to children’s stories as an adult was recognizing the lack of them. It was 2009 and I was an inaugural staff at the Africentric Alternative School, Canada’s first publicly funded Africentric school. Before the school opened, I went to stores in the U.S. and Canada to collect books for my first-grade classroom. (I am a teacher.) I realized that I had to go to such lengths to find these books that were largely African-American stories. I suppose this was when my stories for children started to return. What keeps me writing for them is that there are still so many more stories I want to tell, especially those reflecting a Caribbean and African-Canadian origins.
You’re probably best known for the critically acclaimed picture books Malaika’s Costume and Malaika’s Winter Carnival. How would you describe the experience of working with an illustrator? What should aspiring children’s authors know about working with publishers and illustrators?
I wrote Malaika’s Costume for an assignment. Years later, when the idea of a picture book seemed feasible, I began to think about this story visually. I had an idea of the look and at first, I wished to illustrate it. I provided my publisher, the late Sheila Barry at Groundwood Books, with a thick volume, sketches, descriptions, and even photos of what I envisioned for the book. For example, I wanted mixed media. Essentially, Sheila said that they would like to go with an experienced illustrator. We both felt that Irene [Luxbacher] was the right choice. I am not sure what was communicated to Irene in terms of my vision, but essentially once you hand over the script, it then becomes the illustrator’s job to communicate the text; it has to become his or her vision too. I realize that for me this took a bit of letting go and was tough. However, after seeing the finished project and her other work and knowing Groundwood’s reputation, I learned to trust more that they know what they are doing.
Turning to your development as a writer, you’ve written on your blog about how you honed your craft without an MFA. You note, though, the importance of connecting with an experienced writer. How did you find the experience of working with your writing mentor in Humber’s creative writing correspondence program? What insight into your writing did you gain through the mentorship process?
May to November 2018: The first time I completed the program with mentor Richard Scrimger in 2015. I found him to be warm, receptive, and very easy to reach. We alternated between phone conversations and email, although I did something I would not recommend. I procrastinated a lot and saved the bulk of my writing until the end of my program. He was very understanding. With his help, we also organized a writing group I attended for some time. I am glad to say I came out with a middle grade manuscript with a ton of feedback.
September 2018 to April 2019: My second time was with Cherie Dimaline who I felt would be the best person to help me tell this young adult, retold fairy tale novel. I was thrilled to learn she was on faculty as I had wanted to work with Cherie for some time. Given Cherie’s success with the Marrow Thieves, I knew she would be quite busy, but she made time to deliver very detailed and helpful feedback. I also felt that as a writer of colour whose ancestral history is one of colonization, Cherie’s insight
To learn more about Nadia and her work, visit her website or her Facebook author page. You can also follow her on Twitter @nadialhohn or on Instagram @nadialhohn_author. For a full list of Nadia L. Hohn’s books and where you can buy them, visit nadialhohn.com.