Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Q&A with Teresa Toten, Winner (ya-hoo!) of the 2013 GG's Children's Lit Award

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Kid Lit Can, with Susan Hughes

In her latest Kids Lit Can column, Susan Hughes speaks to Teresa Toten, Winner of the Governor General's Award for Children's Literature (text) for her YA novel, The Unlikely Hero of Room 13B (Doubleday Canada).

SUSAN: Teresa, thanks so much for agreeing to answer some of my questions today. I'm so thrilled to be speaking with you! First, let me take a minute to list your many writing credits.

You've published one picture book. You've had stories in three anthologies, and you've been the editor of an anthology of short memoirs. As well as co-writing one YA novel, you've authored six other YA novels, including the Blondes trilogy and your most recent hit The Unlikely Hero of Room 13B, which — congratulations! — has won the 2013 Governor General's Award for Children's Literature (text).

Wow! Okay, you talk for a minute. I'm speechless.

TERESA: Me too when you add it up that way! What I’ve just very recently found out about myself is that I tend to “purge” the book I’ve just written with something wildly different in scope and theme. I can’t imagine that the publishers like it, but it keeps me energized and appropriately terrified.

SUSAN: Why did you decide to write a book about a guy with obsessive compulsive behaviour?

TERESA: I know so many of these kids. Bright, talented, articulate, ambitious and suffering. They are the children of my best friends and the best friends of my children. I’ve also been privileged to receive a lot of personal notes from young people across the country over my years as a writer. All of this exposure led me to become enthralled with the question of how would it be to move through this world operating under such an invisible burden.

SUSAN: If you could answer any (other) question about The Unlikely Hero of Room 13B, what would it be?

TERESA: What was the scariest part of writing this book?

SUSAN: Okay, go for it! Answer away!

TERESA: Oddly enough, I’d spoken to so many young people labouring with OCD, to so many therapists and psychiatrists, that I wasn’t all that nervous “about getting it right.” What scared the life out of me was getting “a boy voice” down. Adam was my first guy — my first male protagonist. That was what kept me up at nights.

SUSAN: Can you tell me a bit about how you came to write children's books?

TERESA: I wanted to write picture books, pure and simple. I LOVE everything about picture books to this day, the artistry, the economy and the wonder of them. I wrote Bright Red Kisses with Annick Press, which I’m very proud of, but it took over ten years to get those 400 words right. Apparently, picture books are not my natural voice. Sigh.

SUSAN: What's the hardest thing for you about writing?

TERESA: The inner critic stuff is pretty brutal and it used to stop me cold. I’m pretty disciplined so I write through that inner noise now. It used to be the fear, but I’m actually coming around to accept that fear is my writing companion and try to harness it.

SUSAN: What is the funniest thing you've ever been asked by a student at a school visit? And how did you reply?

TERESA: It was when I was on tour with The Game, another book about mental health. One young man wanted to know how long I had been “institutionalized.” Then it happened again, and then again. It was kind of flattering actually. I hoped it had do to with the way I had successfully depicted the world in that novel rather than the vibe I was giving off. Nevertheless, I soon started leading with “contrary to popular belief, I have never been institutionalized.”

SUSAN: What one piece of advice (or two or three pieces, if you like!) would you give to an aspiring writer of children's books?

TERESA: Like all writers, I offer the old adage of READ! When you think you can’t read another word, read some more. Read out of your comfort level, read children’s books from different countries and in different time periods. Read what’s critically acclaimed and what is hugely popular for no discernible reason. Keep the books and writers you’re most passionate about close to you. Join CANSCAIP, Join the Children’s Book Centre. Write and FINISH what you write. That last little detail trips up a lot of us.

SUSAN: Many authors, — myself included so don't bother asking! — won't ever reveal what they're "working on next." Will you?

TERESA: I’m that weird writer that loves talking about what I’m writing about. Hearing the words out loud helps me formulate my ideas and passion for the project. I’m working on a couple of projects that I’m crazy excited about. One is a psychological thriller called “Slightly Damaged” and I’m in love/terrified with it. And the other is a massive project called Seven Secrets with six other fabulous authors including Kathy Kacer, Nora Mclintock, Vicki Grant, Kelley Armstong, Marthe Jocelyn and Eric Walters!

SUSAN: Will you autograph my copy of The Unlikely Hero of Room 13B? Please?

TERESA: Susan Hughes, it would be an honour to sign your book!!! Thank you so much!


Susan Hughes is an award-winning author of children's books — both fiction and non-fiction — including The Island Horse, Off to Class, Case Closed?, No Girls Allowed and Earth to Audrey. She is also an editor, journalist and manuscript evaluator. Susan lives in Toronto. Visit her website,

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