This December we caught up with Deborah Ellis, author of My Story Starts Here. Deborah Ellis has won the Governor General’s Award, the Ruth Schwartz Award, the University of California’s Middle East Book Award, Sweden’s Peter Pan Prize, the Jane Addams Children’s Book Award, and the Vicky Metcalf Award for a Body of Work. She is a member of the Order of Canada and has been named to the Order of Ontario. She is best known for her Breadwinner Trilogy, set in Afghanistan and Pakistan — a series that has been published in twenty-five languages, with $2 million in royalties donated to Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan and Street Kids International.
Many readers will recognize themselves, or someone they know, somewhere in these stories. Being lucky or unlucky after an incident of shoplifting, or the drug search at school, or hanging out with the wrong kids at the wrong time. The encounter with a mean cop, or a good one, that can change the trajectory of a kid’s life. Couch-surfing, or being shunted from one foster home to another. The kids in this book represent a range of socioeconomic backgrounds, genders, sexual orientations and ethnicities. Every story is different, but there are common threads — loss of parenting, dislocation, poverty, truancy, addiction, discrimination.
Most of all, this book leaves readers asking the most pressing questions of all. Does it make sense to put kids in jail? Can’t we do better? Have we forgotten that we were once teens ourselves, feeling powerless to change our lives, confused about who we were and what we wanted, and quick to make a dumb move without a thought for the consequences?
WOTS: Your work is couched in amplifying vulnerable and otherwise unheard voices, all over the world. When did the North American justice system and its treatment of juvenile offenders first pique your interest?
Deborah Ellis: Almost everywhere I travel, I try to meet with kids in jail or kids at risk in other ways. I am interested in how we can make things better in the future. Plus, I read a book when I was a little kid, called Knock on Any Door, by Willard Motley, which was my first exposure to the way kids are treated in juvenile prisons. Ever since then, it has been something that has interested me, in large part because this seems like something fixable.
WOTS: How does it become obvious that there is a story to be told? What is your process deciding whether to write fiction or non-fiction?
DE: Everyone has a story, so it’s not hard to find stories. First person tales of what someone has been through are incredibly valuable. We learn how a big event (like a war, like being arrested) has affected the smaller moments of someone’s life, which is not generally covered in the news. It helps us put ourselves in their shoes, and to think about what we might need in a similar situation – and how we can provide what is needed for others.
WOTS: How did you prepare for these interviews, and what kind of research did you find yourself delving into?
DE: I do a lot of research for every project, reading what has been written before and talking with folks who are experts in the field. After doing the research, it’s a matter of asking what happened to someone and how it affected them. Then the interview will take off on it’s own, depending on where the person wants to take it.
WOTS: The book is presented as a collection of essays, but also is very reminiscent of a textbook format with all its info-boxes and questions to ponder. Who is your ideal audience for My Story Starts Here?
DE: My ideal audience for My Story Starts Here are kids in trouble or on the edge of being in trouble. We hope that the readers will take away some new ways of coping or at least feel that they are not alone.
WOTS: Did you learn something that surprised you? Whose story has stayed with you the most?
DE: I learned how little things have changed over the century in Canada – we were having the same issues with youth crime back in the l850’s, and reaching the same conclusions on how to prevent it – support struggling parents, lift people out of poverty and create schools that speak to a wide variety of kids. Yet we still spend so much more on punishment than prevention. We need to wise up, invest in our kids and their families, and we can do a lot to stop the generational cycle of abuse and trouble.
WOTS: In past interviews you have expressed a perspective change that comes with learning how people persevere through difficult circumstances. How did this set of interviews shift your perspective?
DE: I’m not sure working on the book shifted my perspective exactly – more like it made it more clear. Until and unless we value everyone, every child, then we are going to keep filling the jails. We still think some kids are throwaway kids.
WOTS: How has your interview style shifted or evolved, from project to project?
DE: My interview style is probably the same as always. Each time you sit with someone, the experience is different. It is a huge responsibility, to be trusted with someone else’s words and bits of their life. I always want the person interviewed to feel valued, heard and respected.
WOTS: What are you working on next?
DE: The next book is called The Greats. It’s a novel, with Groundwood Books, that will be out next fall, and deals with the topic of teen suicide.
You can keep up with Deborah on her website, http://deborahellis.com/