Profile by Dave Jenkinson.
Beverley, aka Bev, Brenna was born on October 1, 1962, in Saskatoon, SK, a community in which she has lived and worked most of her life. Says Bev, "I'm the youngest of three children. There's 12 years between me and the next child and 14 between me and the oldest, and so I was kind of a 'surprise.' I think my mom was about 46 when I was born, and my arrival must have been quite an adjustment, but she did very well and handled things beautifully. Mom's still with us and is a very active senior citizen."
By profession, Bev is a teacher, something she wanted to be from her early years. "I always played school and tormented my friends by making them be the students while I'd be the teacher." However, Bev is also an author. "I've always enjoyed writing and started writing at about age seven. I still have scrapbooks that I filled with my big printing at that age. Probably the best influence came from my mom who is a writer as well. After the supper dishes were done, she'd always sit on the couch and pull out her notebooks and do some writing. What a powerful example in the home. It just seemed like writing was something that was OK to do, and so I've always done it."
"When I graduated with my B. Ed. from the University of Saskatchewan here in Saskatoon, I went right into teaching. At the time, I was dating Dwayne, the man who would become my husband. That spring, he was working in Regina, and I looked for work close to where he was living. I graduated in April, and for May and June, I got a job down in Coronach which is about three hours south of Regina. Consequently, I wasn't any closer to him than I would have been if I'd found a job around Saskatoon. All Dwayne had was a motor bike, and I had no vehicle, and so the two months passed very slowly."
"The next year, I came back closer to home and took a job at Strongfield, a little town about an hour away from Saskatoon, where I taught grades two and three. I had 10 children with five in each grade. These kids were so quiet and wouldn't speak, and I had to really agitate them to get them going because they were just so shy. When I think of the classrooms that I had later, like the one containing 36 grade sevens, I didn't know how good I had it then. I taught in Strongfield for a year before moving to a grade six class in Warman, a small community which is even closer to Saskatoon. By that time, Dwayne was back in Saskatoon as well."
"After that year in Warman, I got married and continued my teaching career in the area of gifted education, working in sort of a consultant position, traveling school to school, planning the pull-out programs or classroom enrichment programs, and doing catalyst teaching. I did that for about four years as well as having a bit of a resource teacher caseload, and then I had my oldest son, Wilson. I was going to go right back to work, but I just couldn't leave that baby, and we were lucky that I could stay home for a while. That 'while' turned into a 10 year stint at home with my three young kids, and it was only when our youngest son, Connor, was almost ready for kindergarten that I headed back to the classroom.".
It was during this "home" time that Bev says she began "more seriously writing for children. I had always written poetry, and, as I grew up, the poetry was for whatever age group I was. Consequently, by this time, I had written adult poetry and a few adult short stories, but definitely the writing for children evolved after having my own kids and getting more interested in reading in the children's literature genre. I'm very appreciative of the good work that's out there, and I think that, as you encounter that good work, it just inspires you to think, 'Yah, that's the art form that I really like.'"
Although Bev has spent most of her adult life in Saskatoon, between 1992 and 1994, she and her two older sons resided in London, England, while Bev's husband, Dwayne, completed his doctorate in theater history. "The two boys were fairly young when we were away, and that was a really cool experience. I learned a lot, and I put a lot of what happened in some of my books. Some of the realistic scenarios from my fantasy novel, Keeper of the Trees, happened to friends or neighbours. We had lots of families living in our accommodations in London, and we swapped childcare a lot, and so I got to know the other kids. I remember this one girl coming home really huffy saying that, not only did she have to meet new friends in her new school and have to learn new schoolwork, but she also had to do new handwriting as well. At first, I actually didn't believe her story that moving schools within the London district would mean having to learn a new form of handwriting, but indeed this is what happens."
Spider Summer was similar to Keeper of the Trees in that it was set in London, but it was realistic fiction. I like it better than Keeper in terms of a finished product as Keeper was just an early fantasy piece, and I'd redo some things if I could do it again. Spider Summer is about a boy, Luke, who ends up having to go to a baby-sitter even though he thinks he's old enough to stay alone. His parents, who are involved in things in London, want him to go to this neighbor's house for half days while they're spending their summer vacation there. Luke becomes acquainted with this toddler whom he nicknames Piranha and, with his tarantula spider named Croc, he ends up solving a mystery in the building they live in."
That Bev should include a tarantula in her book was a natural outgrowth of the family's owning such a spider. "Herby, the tarantula, was a very good family pet, and "she" lived to be about 27. For females, that's pretty typical of their life span. I had her as a classroom pet when I first taught in Strongfield, and she was a great classroom pet - quiet, well-mannered, and you never had to clean the cage. She would hibernate all winter, and so she just needed water. Then, as soon as grasshopper season rolled around, the kids would bring grasshoppers in, and she would suck the juices out of them every day and enjoy these 'grasshopper milkshakes.' At the end of the summer, she would hibernate again."
"I think the most interesting thing for my pupils was that Herby would shed her skin once a year. The first time she shed her skin, Dwayne and I were on our honeymoon, and we left her with my parents. My mom was a little horrified at having to babysit a tarantula, but she and my dad felt they could handle it. My dad, who wasn't a young man at that point, would catch the grasshoppers. One day, my mom went into the bedroom and saw two tarantulas in the cage. She came out screaming, 'There are two of them!' My dad, after saying that there couldn't be two, went into the bedroom and poked one with a stick. It crawled. He poked the other one, and it kind of slid along. They then quickly realized that Herby had shed her skin. At that time, Herby didn't shed every year. Initially, she sort of shed every two years and then eventually every year. She was named Herby after Herby Hancock, the jazz musician. I thought she was very jazzy, and, at the time, I didn't know that "he" was a female tarantula."
"I'd already written, but had not sold, Spider Summer and Keeper of the Trees when I saw a little notice in FreeLance, the Saskatchewan Writers Guild's news magazine, which talked about a picture book that was required. To some extent, it was a formula picture book, and so I just whipped off something and sold it right away. I thought, 'Oh well, it's not the greatest piece of literature, but it was kind of fun.' However, Dwayne said, 'No, it's really good that you have this book because, as soon as you send out your other work, you may be a little more sought-after because you have one publication.' And that, I think, was true."
"Daddy Longlegs at Birch Lane is part of a science-y series of books that attempt to get some science facts out about animals in a semi-fictional format. Doing a book about a daddy longlegs was my choice, but I had intended it to be about the little brown one that we have here on the prairies. In the end, it turned out to be an American daddy longlegs which is orange. The American publisher felt that an orange spider would sell more of the stuffed toys that go along with the picture book. I was quite disgusted because I liked our little brown ones better. I had fun researching the book because I'm quite a bug lover, and so it wasn't a stretch for me to do the research."
"With Spider Summer, I approached Nelson. As I mentioned, I'd done a nice draft of Spider Summer while we were in London. I had a neighbor lady there who really wanted to get out and do some things, and so I suggested, 'How about I look after your little girl two mornings a week, and then you could look after my boys two mornings a week?' We did a little swap like that, and I did all the writing on Spider Summer and Keeper of the Trees during that time, one right after the other, but I didn't sell them then. I did, however, send them out to a few places and had them returned, and so I kept working on them. I sent one of them to a British house. It very promptly came back with a little note saying, 'We would like you to read all of the British literature before you send us your book.' I must have said in my covering letter that 'I'm a Canadian living in London. Here's a manuscript.' I guess it came off as too Canadian. Finally, when they were in the form they are pretty much in now, I managed to find publishers for them."
"I sent Keeper of the Trees to perhaps one or two publishers before Ron Hatch from Ronsdale saw it, and he very quickly answered back. I didn't have a request for much editing on it, and it seemed to go right into press there. That's 1999, and then there's seven years of trying before my next book, Wild Orchid appears. During that time, I was doing a fair bit of short story writing for adults, and I had some publications along that line, nothing major, but three of the short stories were produced by CBC Radio. I also sort of kept stocking my 'first draft cupboard.' I actually have one of those big green bins pretty much full of old stuff that I think is still good enough to rework. I did a lot of first drafts during that time."
"With Wild Orchid, I started working on something set at Waskesiu Lake, a setting I quite like. When I was a child, we usually spent about a week there every summer. I had journals and logs that my mother kept of the wild flowers that grew there and at which times in the summer they appeared. I thought that was a really nice resource to be able to access. About the same time I was working on this, I was on a Curriculum Advisory Committee for Sask Learning that was looking at refreshing the grade 7 to 9 curriculum guide. One of my particular interests was to make sure that we had lists of books in that guide that were about characters with special needs."
"I found very few to start with, and so, being interested in special education as I am, I started really seriously looking for more. I realized that there's a bit of a dearth of that kind of material. It's not that there's a lack of characters with special needs in books, but I think that there's a lack of protagonists in central roles who live and grow as other protagonists do while having unique challenges. My character, Taylor, had been leaning towards some obsessive compulsive behaviors and some pervasive developmental behaviors that were somewhere along that autism spectrum, but it was quite a conscious choice I made to include more of that because, at the time, I was thinking, 'Gee, we really could use a few more of these materials out here.'"
"Taylor, the 18-year-old central character in Wild Orchid, is entirely fictional. I know quite a few children with autism, and I do a lot of reading in that field, but, if anything, I was very careful not to have the character be in any way recognizable as anybody that I actually do know. As a teacher, that would be not a good thing, and so it was probably Tony Attwood's book on Asperger's Syndrome that was the most helpful to me. Luckily we were on sabbatical in Australia in 2005, and I had a chance to hear Tony Attwood speak at a workshop. Many of the anecdotes that he used in the workshop I worked into the book in the last stage of editing. I probably worked harder on Taylor's character than on any other character I've written about."
"As I really got into the book seriously and, in fact, had a contract from a publisher, Red Deer Press, I began to get a bit afraid. Here I was, a special educator writing about something in the field of special education. I'd better darn well do it right because I didn't want to have families or colleagues saying, 'Oh, you've really made an error here. Autism isn't at all like this.' I had someone from Autism Services in Saskatoon read it for me, just as a caution. When she didn't have any concerns at all, I kind of relaxed."
Bev is quite pleased with the cover of Wild Orchid. "I think the cover of a book is very important. The flower which appears on the cover is from a photograph that my dad, Arthur Stilborn, took at Waskesiu when I was a kid. I had the photograph and asked Peter Carver, my editor at Red Deer, if he'd like to see it. He loved it and managed to get Red Deer to include it. My dad passed away about 15 years ago, and so it meant a lot to me to have that picture on the cover. The girl on the cover actually looks a little like I did as a young teenager as I had hair just like that and pigtails. A few of my relatives have said, 'Oh, they even used a picture of you.'"
To the observation that readers laugh with Taylor, but never at her, Bev responds, "I'm really glad it came through that way. I hadn't even really thought about that possibility other than I felt I really needed humor in this particular piece, just as a stylistic thing. I felt that it might engage a reader who was a little reluctant to engage with the actual story as it stood. I hoped that the humor was going to be appropriate, but, as a teacher, I think we enjoy our students and all the things about our students that they show us. As a special educator, I know that you just really have to enjoy a lot of the unique things about your kids. Sometimes you can help other people see the good in being a 'community' and embracing diverse folks. Strangely enough, my next character has fetal alcohol spectrum disorder. I guess I made a leap, and I'm going to keep on going in a bit of a vein there."
"Writing is an arduous process, and for me, it doesn't come easily that's for sure. Much of what I write has been drafted and redrafted. To me, it feels like what I do is I create a puzzle that isn't put together right when I first create the draft. Most of the time, I then end up pulling all the pieces out and putting new pieces in and shifting everything around. Luckily, I have a computer that I can do some of that on via the cut and paste commands, but I also take physical manuscripts and cut pieces out of them and do that kind of physical sorting. I'm not one who can do a good plot line, especially mentally. I think I'm pretty good at character, situation, dialogue and all those sorts of things, but not plot. I haven't the same long-term experience of writing plots, and so that, for me, is my albatross. Perhaps my plot problems come from my background in poetry where plot isn't as much a driving force."
"So, in writing, I tend to do a lot of re-piecing, but that's OK. It just means that my books aren't created that quickly. I find if I write something, I tend to write it in first draft form very quickly, and so in a few weeks I can have 100 pages. At that point, I always think what I've written is really good, but then I put it away for a year, and when I pull it out, I think, 'Oh my goodness! How could I have written this?'"
"Now with my work and the family, I typically don't do a lot of work in the winter. If I'm publishing something and it's at the editing stage, I can edit, but, in terms of creating new, that's really a summer project for me. As you're puzzling out the story, you have to hold so much in your mind all at once, remembering, 'Ok, well, this person was like this in chapter one, and so when that person comes back in chapter six, she or he probably should act or look much the same.' If I'm not working at something very consistently, I don't have enough long term memory."
Because Bev's interview occurred in the summer, she was in full writing mode and said, "This week, I have the goal of redrafting a hundred page manuscript, and it will be done at the end of the week. Because I have the kids in camps, I can work on it pretty well eight or nine hours a day and can manage it. When you're teaching writing to children, it's not really a style you'd want to encourage them to follow. It's kind of like cramming, I think, but it does work for me. Over the school year, I will jot things down as ideas come to me, but I've never been able to keep a diary or journal, again, not something that I'd recommend to kids because I love it when they keep diaries. As I said, during the year, I'll jot things down, or I'll do a bit of a picture book, a poem or even an adult short story, but that would be the lengthiest I think I could get to. I know better than to start something long because I just get frustrated with myself and try to make my family go away which doesn't work. I'm pretty careful about balancing my time."
In talking about her approach to writing, Bev says that she starts "with a character and with a strong personality that I'm interested in. Then I kind of work around that, building that into a situation, and then go bigger and try to get a plot. St. Peter's Abbey at Muenster, SK, has a colony of writers that will open up hostel-like accommodations, and I used to go there for a week. It's pretty ingrained in me that I have a week, a month or whatever during which I work really steadily and hard at something, and it appears to be my preferred mode of working. Now that I have air-conditioning, I can work at home in the summer. Before the air-conditioning, I didn't do much summer work in the house. Instead, I'd go into town and work in the library."
The title of Bev's newest book-to-be is "The Moon Children." "It's about a friendship between Billy, a lad with fetal alcohol spectrum disorder, and Natasha, a Romanian war orphan who's living in Canada. That got to be interesting because the war orphan has Post-traumatic Stress Disorder, and, at early points in the novel, she wasn't speaking. So, try and have a dialogue with a character that's not speaking. That was the challenge I set before me, but I'm kind of happy with how it turned out."
"I've seen kids in our school system who've come from war-torn countries and have Post-traumatic Stress Disorder. I saw some of the difficulties they were having, and I wanted to find out more about it. When I got into the drafting of the novel, I started reading on the internet and getting stories of firsthand experiences that families had in adopting these kids as well as the stories of the kids, themselves, if they were old enough to write. It was a fascinating kind of project, one that opens up your eyes to things that aren't right in your own realm of experience."
"In my draft, Natasha's background is that her mother gave her up to the orphanage, but the mother would come and visit Natasha when there was a full moon. As a result, Natasha really counted her life in terms of where the moon was so that she would know when her mother would again come. In Canada, Natasha's still doing that, and she is keeping this moon journal, but, of course, her mother never comes. Billy gets kind of interested in this kid who's out there drawing pictures of the moon every night and doing this charting. So, that's how their relationship starts."
"There are no references to Billy's racial heritage in the novel. I had some references, but then I just thought, 'In my mind, he's the same character, whether there's references to his race or not,' and so I just took them out because I wanted readers to see him as anyone. There's still a certain amount of ignorance about the disability, and I think it's also pretty prevalent where a mother has a mental health disorder, she's also self-medicating with alcohol. As a consequence, these kids often then have co-morbid disorders, schizophrenia, bipolar, depression. When you try and treat one disorder with one set of drugs, it backfires on another part of the condition."
"Both major characters in 'The Moon Children' are 11-year-olds. Billy is living with his mom who's recovering from alcoholism. She's also expecting a second baby, and so she's staying clean. The dad has left the house and doesn't come back in the course of the novel, but Billy ends up entering a talent show, which is part of his growth and development. Even though he can't read and has lots of issues, he can sing, and he sings in this talent show. He thinks his dad is there singing with him, but he's actually doing it by himself."
"I'm glad to work with Peter Carver again because I liked the work that he did on Wild Orchid. The guidance that he gave me was terrific. Writing chapter headings really helped readers access Wild Orchid, but initially I didn't have them, and Peter just suggested that it might be a better way for readers to key into the main ideas as they went along if there were chapter headings."
"The manuscript for 'The Moon Children' is done, and I think I've put the puzzle back together in a way that I'm happy with. I've got two others on the go now, and I should have both good drafts finished by the end of July. Both are old pieces that I've pulled out and said, 'This summer I'm going to be working on them.' One is called 'The Kindergarten Kid,' and it's about a five-year-old boy who lives on an acreage with two other siblings, very much like here. That's the one I would anticipate being able to continue on with as a series like Beverly Cleary's Ramona. I loved those Ramona books, and I think we could use something like that set in Canada but with a boy as a star. That's what I'm working on particularly."
"The second one has the working title 'Katherine's Choice.' It's about a 14-year-old girl who goes back in time to meet Henry VIII when he was a young boy. Fed up with a lot of the things in her family life, she wants to get out of her time, and so she escapes. Eventually, she has to make a decision, knowing what she knows about Henry, to stay or to come back. I'm fascinated by Tudor history, and I was never ever one to be interested in history as a kid. In fact, I did anything I could not to read history books. Now I wish I'd paid more attention, but maybe I have a second chance. It's a fascinating time period, and I think Henry VIII was a fascinating young man, very charismatic. There's a lot there to work with, and lots of very interesting stuff to put in a young teen novel, such as what the period's bathrooms were like and the fact that they used sticks as toilet paper."
"Occasionally there is an anecdote in the books that is reminiscent of my family. I won't ever write about anybody else's family, but I will write about things that have happened to me or the kids. I feel that that's OK, and the boys kind of like it. A lot of really cool events happened to us while we were in London, and I found that putting them in those books was a way for me to remember them. The Keeper of the Trees has one little bit about the cat's tooth that emerges in somebody's soup. Well, that happened to a neighbour of ours. Stories like that I don't make up. Those are true."
"There's a story of mine called 'Toe Jam' in a book called Opening Tricks, and it's based on my real experience of getting my toe caught in a vacuum cleaner. At the time, we were living in Saskatoon, and the kids were very small. Dwayne was at work, and I was vacuuming when I pulled the powerhead back on my foot. One toe got sucked up into it, and it was terribly painful. I called the kids, but they didn't hear me because, of course, they were downstairs watching cartoons. Finally Connor, who was then about two, heard me and came upstairs. I said, 'Get one of your brothers. Get Wilson or Eric.' When he went down to their bedrooms, he just got their piggybanks, took out the money and started played with it. I could hear him playing with this money in the kitchen while I was in agony. Finally, Wilson, the eldest, did come up, but we couldn't figure out a way to get my toe out. Wilson then went and got some neighbors, but they, too, couldn't figure out a way to extricate my toe, and so we had to call the fire department. They came into my bedroom and, using this little miniature jaws of life, popped my toe out. That was just too good a story not to use again, but in "Toe Jam,' the experience happens to a teenage boy with a would-be girlfriend looking on."
Amongst Bev's many talents is that of puppeteer. "I have a huge cast of these large puppets that I sewed out of foam when my kids were small. Again, my use of puppets was a way of trying to make a little extra money and to get out of the house. I had seen Robert Munsch read, and I really liked the way he captured kids with his enthusiasm. As well, Peter Eyvindson, a wonderful storyteller, lives nearby. Seeing him in my classroom, I thought, 'Maybe I could do that.' I've had a lot of fun with storytelling. Actually, when we were away in England in the 1990's and Australia in 2005, the puppetry became a way of getting into schools and seeing what the school systems were like. I have this shtick thing that I'll go and do in schools. The puppets are like Muppets. They're really just characters, and basically it's me telling a story using them to catch kids' attention."
In addition to being a member of CANSCAIP, Bev is also a member of ACTRA (The Alliance of Canadian Cinema, Television and Radio Artists). "I kind of got in through the back door because I ended up selling some of my short fiction to CBC Radio, enough that I could get an ACTRA membership card. That was very fortunate because I was doing a little bit of acting at that time and then I would get ACTRA rates. The year Wilson was born, I had auditioned for a National Film Board production that was to be shot in Regina, and I got the role. Wilson was just three weeks old when they flew us down to Regina. Dwayne actually played the husband, and I played the wife which was very cool. On the very first day on the set, the costume lady came up with this little bag, and in it was a girdle. She knew that I had just had a baby, and I think she was wondering how sensitive I was going to be about having to have to wear this. I tried it out, and it wasn't very comfortable, and so it didn't get worn."
In addition to everything else she does, for the past decade Bev has also reviewed children's books for Saskatoon's The Star Phoenix on a once per month basis. "I had a very good friend who was in that role. When she moved away, she asked me if I was interested and said she would pass my name along. I've been so grateful because I get boxes and boxes of brand new books which I can take to schools. My own children have really benefitted by them as well. I'll keep doing it until my eyes fall out. I do think that children's literature needs to be out there as something important, and I just want to make sure that I do my part because sometimes families don't often remember about accessing quality children' literature if they're not reminded."
As well as her B.Ed. and a more recently completed B.A., Bev also holds a graduate degree in education. "My M.Ed was in curriculum studies, and I studied four-year-olds who were early readers. I was taking special education classes and upgrading all along because every regular classroom always has diverse kids. For me, the questions always were, 'OK, how can I reach this kid?' or 'How can I find out more about that learning need?" I was constantly looking for more training in that area, and so it was through taking extra courses that I got my special education qualifications. It seems like wherever I am, I'll do some regular classroom teaching for a little while, and then somehow, I'll get drawn over into a resource class or a special ed. position of some kind."
"I still think I'm a regular classroom teacher, but right now I'm a consultant in exceptional learning needs. There are two of us for about 50 schools in the Saskatoon public system. I get to travel around and see all sorts of really neat kids and work on program development and celebrate with the teams where things are going well and pass some strategies to schools that may need just a little boost. It's been a tremendous learning opportunity. I have two more years in that role, and then I think I might teach kindergarten, a level I've never taught. Despite most of my beginning training being in early literacy and primary, I've really only had my feet in primary for a couple of years. So, I might go back if my knees hold out. I've heard that unless you can get down on the ground and get up again, you can't be a kindergarten teacher."
Books by Beverley Brenna:
This article is based on an interview conducted on July 12, 2006, at the Brenna acreage which is located south-east of Saskatoon and revised November, 2006.
- Daddy Longlegs at Birch Lane. Soundprints Press, 1997.
- Spider Summer. Nelson, 1998.
- The Keeper of the Trees. Ronsdale, 1999. Grades 3-6.
- Wild Orchid. Red Deer Press, 2006. Grades 7 and up.