New Voice: Jenny Kay Dupuis on I Am Not a Number

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Jenny Kay Dupuis is the first-time author of I Am Not a Number, co-authored by Kathy Kacer, illustrated by Gillian Newland (Second Story, 2016). From the promotional copy:

When eight-year-old Irene is removed from her First Nations family to live in a residential school she is confused, frightened, and terribly homesick. 

She tries to remember who she is and where she came from, despite the efforts of the nuns who are in charge at the school and who tell her that she is not to use her own name but instead use the number they have assigned to her. 

When she goes home for summer holidays, Irene’s parents decide never to send her and her brothers away again. 

But where will they hide? And what will happen when her parents disobey the law? 

Based on the life of co-author Jenny Kay Dupuis’ grandmother, I Am Not a Number is a hugely necessary book that brings a terrible part of Canada’s history to light in a way that children can learn from and relate to.

As an author-educator, how do your various roles inform one another?

My roles as an educator and author are intrinsically interconnected. I’m always searching for meaningful, engaging ways to reach out to young people so they can learn more about topics pertaining to Indigenous realities, diversity, social and cultural justice, and respectful relationships.

While working in the field of education, I realized that there were not many children’s picture books available that focused on Indigenous realities through the lens of a First Nations family.

Co-writing I Am Not a Number with Kathy Kacer gave me the opportunity to reflect on the value of literature for young people and how educators and families can make use of picture books to start conversations about critical, real-world issues.

When writing my granny’s story, I realized that I was drawing on my expertise as an Indigenous community member, educator and learning strategist. I was cognizant of how children’s literature can be used as a gateway to encourage young readers to unpack a story (“community memories”), think critically, and guide them to form their own opinions about issues of assimilation, identity loss, oppression, and injustice; all of which are major themes deeply rooted in policies that have either impacted or still impact Indigenous peoples.

Jenny Kay Dupuis

A children’s picture book like, I Am Not a Number can support educators, students, and families to engage in deep and meaningful conversations.

The story is about my granny, who was taken from Nipissing First Nation reserve at a young age to live at a residential school in 1928.

The book can be used to direct conversations about not only Indigenous histories, but also the importance of exploring the underlying concepts of social change, including aspects of power relations, identity, and representation. For instance, young readers can engage in a character analysis by exploring the characters’ ethics, motivations and effects of behaviours, and the impact of social, cultural, and political forces.

Through strong characters, written words, and vivid illustrations, the readers can also explore aspects of imagery, the settings, and the power of voice (terminology) used to express feelings of strength, fear, loss, and hope.

My hope as an educator-author is that the book, I Am Not a Number, will inspire others to use children’s literature to encourage young people to begin to talk about past and present injustices that Indigenous communities face.

How did the outside (non-children’s-YA-lit) world react to the news of your sale?

I Am Not a Number was released on Sept. 6. The reviews have been overwhelmingly positive in Canada and the United States so far. One of the review sources, Kirkus Reviews, described it as “a moving glimpse into a not-very-long-past injustice.” Booklist also gave it a starred review and highly recommended it. Other book reviewers have recommended it for teachers, librarians, and families. 

As a lead up to the launch of the book, I was asked by various groups (mostly educators) to present either in person or through Skype about topics linked to Indigenous education and the value of children’s young adult literature. The sessions have been helpful for the participants to see how a book like I Am Not a Number and others can be used.

The book will also be available in French in early January by Scholastic.

What would you have done differently?

By Jenny’s co-author, Kathy Kacer

A children’s book is typically limited to a set number of pages. If more space was permitted, I would have liked to include a short description in the afterword of what happened after my granny and her siblings returned home from the residential school.

In my granny’s case, she enrolled in an international private school. The school was located nearby on the shores of Lake Nipissing.

It offered her an opportunity to stay in her community with her family while still receiving an education. Her siblings also each chose their own life path.

What advice do you have for beginning children’s YA-writers? How about diverse writers for young people? Native/First Nations writers for young people?

Although my first book is a story about my granny who was taken from her First Nations community at a young age to live in a residential school, we need to recognize that there are countless other community stories that need to be told by Indigenous peoples.

My advice for anyone who wants to get started writing children’s-YA literature is relatively straightforward.

photo credits to Les Couchi for restoration of the photo
  • Have confidence in your abilities. Start by exploring a topic that you know about.
  • Be honest and authentic. Prepare to gather information to ensure the authenticity of the story through an accurate portrayal of the people, place, time period, experiences, language, and setting.
  • Be purposeful, thoughtful, and intentional. Take the time to identify what is the intended impact of the story. Writers need to continually ask themselves, “How will the readers be influenced by the characters, language, and overall messaging? How will the reader’s view of their own world be expanded?
  • Be authentic. Since I Am Not a Number is a children’s picture book, it was important that it include authentic imagery. A relative of mine, Les Couchi, had restored a series of old family photos. The old photos helped to inform decisions when communicating with the illustrator, Gillian Newland about the hairstyles, what items to include in my great-grandfather’s shop, etc. One of the old photos is included in the book and shows my granny and her siblings outside their house.
  • Identify your responsibilities. Sometimes writers from diverse backgrounds have a greater responsibility that includes not just writing the story, but also educating others and transmitting knowledge about cultural, social, political, or economic issues buried within the story. In this instance, I Am Not a Number is not just about a First Nation’s girl who was taken to live in a residential school, but it is a story that raises consciousness that Irene (my granny) is one of over hundreds of thousands of Indigenous children impacted by assimilation policies and racialized injustice.
  • Be patient and anticipate a lengthy process that may involve information gathering, several rounds of edits, fact checking, searching for the right illustrator, etc. As such, I regularly turned to my family between edits to get their feedback and continued to listen to their memories. Some of the stories included memories of how my great-grandmother often made the best homemade meat pies, baked breads, jams, and preserves.
  • Realize that your work is reflection of you. Just because something was done a certain way in the past, does not always make it right today. Be prepared to speak up and ask questions when you feel something does not feel right as you progress throughout the process, especially if you feel it feel it impacts your own ethics and values, or misrepresents a person’s/group’s racial or cultural identity or nation.
  • Discuss participation, consent and consultation. It is essential that publishers who engage with Indigenous authors fully recognize Indigenous expertise and honour the importance of how to respectfully work in collaboration with Indigenous peoples by ensuring their full participation, consultation, and informed consent at all stages.

Cynsational Notes

Visit Second Story Press

Dr. Jenny Kay Dupuis is of Anishinaabe/Ojibway ancestry and a proud member of Nipissing First Nation. She is an educator, community researcher, artist, and speaker who works full-time supporting the advancement of Indigenous education.

Jenny’s interest in her family’s past and her commitment to teaching about Indigenous issues through literature drew her to co-write I Am Not a Number, her first children’s book. The book can be ordered from a favourite bookstore (Indiebound) and online from Amazon.ca, Amazon.com, and Indigo.

New Voice: Bridget Hodder on The Rat Prince

Excerpt & Curriculum Guide

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Bridget Hodder
is the first-time author of The Rat Prince (FSG/Margaret Ferguson, 2016). From the promotional copy: 


The dashing Prince of the Rats–who’s in love with Cinderella–is changed into her coachman by the Fairy Godmother on the night of the big ball. 

And he’s about to turn the legend (and the evening) upside down on his way to a most unexpected happy ending!

How did you discover and get to know your protagonist?

Is it okay for me to say that getting to know Prince Char of the Northern Realm was a bit more like spirit possession than a process of discovery?

One day I was thinking about my dissatisfaction with the story of Cinderella and so many of its modern versions–the weak, passive main character, the inexplicable behavior of her negligent father, the mysteriousness of her stepmother and the insta-love between her and the prince.

Then I kid you not, I suddenly heard a voice in my head.

It was Prince Char, telling me to write his story–the real story. He has a commanding way about him (as befits royalty), and I basically just gave in. I couldn’t believe the words that were coming from my fingertips; details that were unique to his way of life, and the person he was, and the upbringing he’d been given at Lancastyr Manor in the Kingdom of Angland.

After that first otherworldly contact with Prince Char, I saw the events in the book as if they were a movie happening in front of me in real time, and I simply described what I saw and heard. It was incredible, exhilarating…and exhausting.

As an autism specialist-author, how do your two identities inform one another? What about being an autism specialist has been a blessing to your writing?

Though I’m devoting myself to writing full time now, I worked for many years with children who have various learning differences, primarily on the autism spectrum.

Interacting daily with people who sometimes literally can’t speak for themselves has taught me to listen, to pay attention, and be present with others in a much deeper way than I ever did before.

Human beings are wired for quick judgment based on obvious traits, like the way someone speaks or looks. But these things are not the totality of a person; they are the beginning of a story.

If you let others tell you their own stories, in their own ways, rather than making up stories about them in your head, you open up a whole new level of meaning in life.

I think that new awareness helped me go deeper into the point of view of every single character in The Rat Prince. People have asked me how I “figured out” the motivations for personalities on the fringe of the original Cinderella story, like Cinderella’s father, and the fairy godmother.

The answer is: I paid attention, and I realized their situations spoke for themselves. Just like with Prince Char, all I needed to do then was write what I heard them telling me.

Bridgit’s living room

Guest Post: Joy Preble on Life as an Author-Bookseller…or Bookseller-Author?

Joy’s first full day at Brazos Bookstore

By Joy Preble
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Last month, I became the new Children’s Specialist at Brazos Bookstore in Houston. I hadn’t planned on it, but when you stumble into your dream job, well, you take it!

It’s a balancing act: Selling books and buying books and merchandising and creating store events, while also writing and promoting my own novels. I’m not just an author anymore, but I’m not just a bookseller either, and this hybrid from means I’ve seen behind one curtain, and now I’m peeking behind another.

What have I learned in the past few weeks the job? Lots of things, and not so much that they are new but that I’m seeing them through a different prism.

And so the responsibility of hand-selling books I love by authors whose work I admire weighs heavy—and heavier because we are a small, highly curated independent store and space is a premium, especially so in the children’s area.

Our buyer’s philosophy is: “if two copies is good, then one is better.” If I order three copies or four, then I better not only adore this book, but have made it clear to my co-workers why I love it, made sure they’re reading advanced copies and come up with a plan to sell it big. If I put a book face out or make it part of a special display or grace it with a shelf-talker that choice is mine. Already, I’ve seen how store love and hand-selling can quickly turn a small book from a small press into a bestseller.

It makes me all the more appreciative for the booksellers and librarians who’ve supported my career and talked up my books and kept copies on hand. Because I know now what happens when I see that a book hasn’t sold any copies in a month or two. I purge all or most of the copies from the shelves and replace it with something new.

Booksellers channeling Dorothy Parker

Of course I knew this before… in theory. But while the author part of me—the part that knows what it takes to write a book and bring it into the world—struggles with the idea, the bookseller part of me either has to come up with a plan or put it on the return shelf.

We return a lot of books each week. Stacks and stacks of them. The author part of me will probably always feel sad about this. But that is how it works.

On the other hand, one of the grand things about working at an independent bookstore is that while we respect the Kirkus Reviews recs and the Indie Next List and all the rest of it, we are under no obligation to promote only the books that the reps have pushed when we take meetings.

Oh, we want to predict the big titles as much as the next guy, but we also revel in finding that hidden gem of a book and giving it its due. But I know now that this takes more than just keeping it on the shelf. It means moving it around the store, making it visible, putting it in customers’ hands, crowing about why we love and why they should read it.

My new job has revived and broadened my reading tastes because of this and colleagues who put translated Latin American novels in my hands or find themselves shocked that I had not read Kelly Link’s latest short story collection.

I could go on and on and tell you how our particular store is owned by a co-op or how the reps often bring pizza. Or how I still have a weird series of reactions each time I see my own books in the store. Should I write a shelf-talker? Put them face out? Force my colleagues to read the latest?

Am I author/bookseller? Or bookseller/author?

Ringing up your own book for a random customer is, well, strange.

But this is enough for now.

Cynsational Notes

Joy Preble is the author of several young adult novels including the Dreaming Anastasia series (Sourcebooks), the first book of which was named an ABC Best Book in 2009; the quirky/humorous Sweet Dead Life series (Soho Press); a contemporary road trip/family drama, Finding Paris (Balzer and Bray/Harper Collins), which School Library Journal called, “An intricate guessing game of sisterly devotion, romance, and quiet desperatio.”

Her latest release is It Wasn’t Always Like This (Soho Teen), which Kirkus Reviews called “a modern Tuck Everlasting with a thriller twist.”

Joy lives in Texas with her family, including a sweet but slightly unhinged basset/boxer. In between writing and working at Brazos Bookstore as bookseller/Children’s Specialist, she teaches and lectures widely on writing and literacy and is currently on faculty at Writespace Houston.

Book Trailer: Snow White by Matt Phelan

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Check out the book trailer for Snow White by Matt Phelan (Candlewick, 2016). From the promotional copy:

Award-winning graphic novelist Matt Phelan delivers a darkly stylized noir Snow White set against the backdrop of Depression-era Manhattan.



The scene: New York City. The dazzling lights cast shadows that grow ever darker as the glitzy prosperity of the Roaring Twenties screeches to a halt.


Enter a cast of familiar characters: a young girl, Samantha White, returning after being sent away by her cruel stepmother, the Queen of the Follies, years earlier; her father, the King of Wall Street, who survives the stock market crash only to suffer a strange and sudden death; seven street urchins, brave protectors for a girl as pure as snow; and a mysterious stock ticker that holds the stepmother in its thrall, churning out ticker tape imprinted with the wicked words “Another . . . More Beautiful . . . KILL.”


In a moody, cinematic new telling of a beloved fairy tale, extraordinary graphic novelist Matt Phelan captures the essence of classic film noir on the page—and draws a striking distinction between good and evil.

See also Interview: Matt Phelan on Snow White: A Graphic Novel from Teenreads.com. Peek: “It’s the goodness of Snow and her optimism that conquers the evil. It’s an important thing to remember in today’s world.”

In Memory: Barbara Seuling

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

From Barbara Seuling’s Author Website: “…children’s book editor, author, illustrator and teacher. For several years Barbara worked as an editor for Delacorte Press and Yearling Books at Dell Publishing Company. Later, she moved to J. B. Lippincott & Co.

“As author and/or illustrator of her own books, Barbara became a featured speaker at many educational and writers’ conferences and served for many years on the Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators‘ Board of Advisors. She taught writing at Bank Street College and at The Writer’s Voice in New York City before establishing The Manuscript Workshop in Vermont…”

From SCBWI: “One of the SCBWI’s earliest members her sense of humor shone through in the many books she both authored and illustrated. Two of her more popular series were her Robert books, and her wildly successful Freaky Fact series, including Elephants Can’t Jump and Other Freaky Facts About Animals (Dutton, 1985).”

Obituary: Barbara Seuling by Shannon Maughan from Publishers Weekly. Peek: “Outside of her own children’s book projects, Seuling used her extensive publishing experience to lead small private writing workshops. Her adult nonfiction title How to Write a Children’s Book and Get It Published (Wiley, 2004), first released in 1984, was considered a key read for aspiring authors and is currently in its third edition.”

With Thanks to an Unforgettable Teaching Author & Mentor by Esther Hershenhorn from Teaching Authors. Peek: “Simply put, Barbara Seuling respected each of her writer’s capacity to become, including this writer, and for that I remain forever grateful. She held the bar High, because we write for children.”

Cynsational Notes

I read the 2nd Edition
Popular series by Barbara

In 1995, when I decided to begin writing for young readers, I was living in downtown Chicago. I didn’t know anyone in the business. I’d never heard of SCBWI.

I walked to a bookstore on Michigan Avenue, to a shelf of writing craft and publishing information books in the basement. I pulled a dozen or so titles, sat down on the floor and began looking through them. I bought two or three. Barbara’s (Scribner, 1991) was the one that most clicked.

I read it cover-to-cover, highlighter in hand, and then I re-read it. I learned from the book, formed a plan for moving forward with the dream that would become my life’s work.

Thank you, Barbara, for helping me take the first steps of this journey.