Times Colonist Interview - Graveyard of the Sea

Reviewed by: J. Gibson

Author Penny Draper is known as the disaster queen of Canadian juvenile literature

When Penny Draper's now 20-something children were tykes, she would entertain them on car trips or in grocery store lines while on-the-spot stories.

Plots and characters would grow from whatever had just caught her eye. None of those impromptu stories lasted beyond the telling, according to the now 52-year-old Victoria author of three juvenile novels. Her books include this year's Bolen Books Children's Book Prize nominee Graveyard of the Sea.

What began as a way to amuse her two kids eventually evolved into a 15-year career as a professional storyteller, initially from the family's base in Prince George and later here when her forester husband transferred to Victoria.

She toured remote and urban school districts telling aloud traditional folk tales or her own stories. Once on a forestry company-sponsored tour, she ended up in a tiny mill town of barely 15 houses.

"They closed the mill so the dads could come and listen," she says.

Adults make a good audience for storytellers.

"They don't expect to hear a story," she says. Unlike children, they don't react immediately -- or vocally.

"You look at their faces, they may be laughing or crying, but they're trying to hide it," she says.

But it was almost 20 years before her first book Terror at Turtle Mountain, set in 1903 at the Frank slide in Alberta, made it into print. There have been two since and a fourth based on the 1929 Newfoundland tsunami, A Terrible Roar of Water due this fall.

Her first book evolved from a story she and her storytelling partner told on tour. Their young audiences always had what-if? questions. Their questions had the potential to add depth to the story, but the usual 20-minute telling did not allow them to expand on the answers. A 120-page novel, however, easily could.

"You want to be a writer. Why don't you write it?" her partner urged her.

Storytelling has influenced Draper's writing.

"In storytelling, you pare everything down to the bare bones. You start with the basic elements. For me, that's two [main] characters, one place and one disaster," she says.

Primed by the response to her first book, her publisher prompted her to plot subsequent books around Canadian disasters. Consequently, she's known as "the disaster queen" of Canadian juvenile literature.

"My approach is to have real and [accurately portrayed] events and place a kid in it. To explore what a child can do in the midst of chaos," she says.

In a crisis, kids are shuffled off to the side, but they want to contribute, according to Draper.

"I give them the opportunity to help," the author says.

In Graveyard of the Sea, the protagonist is 12-year-old Nell, who lives on a lighthouse off Vancouver Island during the 1906 sinking of the Valencia. Her next book revolves around the 1998 ice storms in Quebec and Ontario.

Young readers want strong characters, according to Draper. They want heroes -- or an underdog who prevails. Such characters attracted her as a book-loving child in suburban Toronto.

Among her favourite childhood reads were the Trixie Belden teen detective series. The protagonist appealed to her.

"Trixie was just feisty," she says.

If she was a young reader today, Draper would devour the contemporary Harry Potter series and the earlier Narnia books.

She understands the lure of fantasy for young readers. In part, video games have them interacting with a fantasy world. But it's more than that, according to Draper.

"A lot of kids live very structured lives. They're looking for a fantasy, for a world that's very different from theirs," she says.

During the week, Draper heads the textbook department at the University of Victoria's bookstore, leaving Saturday mornings for her own books and Times Colonist reviews. Prior to her UVic job, she spent two years just writing. The words did not easily flow, but that's changed with so little time left now to write. 

"To be honest, I am far more disciplined when I'm working," she says.

There was some irony four years ago to her first day on the job at UVic: "My publisher called and said 'you've sold your first book.'"

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