Sarah Ellis: Current Writer In Residence at The Osborne Collection

Sarah Ellis at the Lillian H. Smith Branch of the Toronto Public Library. (February 11th, 2012)

Sarah Ellis is currently the writer-in-residence at The Osborne Collection of Early Children’s Literature. She will be working at the Lillian H. Smith Branch of the Toronto Public Library until May 31st.

Ellis is here from British Columbia, but she first worked as a professional librarian in Toronto, in 1975. She was here for a very short time, but during that time she made lasting friendships, and remembers meeting Lillian H. Smith, the founder of the Boys and Girls House in Toronto. For a librarian, she said, it was like meeting the Queen Mother.

Thirty-seven years later, she admits that some of her beliefs about libraries and children have “taken a beating,” but one thing that has stuck with her is the belief in the value of the imaginative life of children, expressed through reading and writing. The two readings she chose to present at the launch of the program, this past Saturday, reflected her commitment to that value, and her ability to carry that imaginative life into adulthood.

Part of Ellis’s imaginative life as a child involved making paper dolls from images in the Sears catalogue. She explained how that experience, combined with a conversation she had with her travel agent years later, led to her writing the first piece she read aloud. It was a short story titled “The Fall and Rise of the Cut-Out Family,” available in When I went to the Library: Writers Celebrate Books and Reading.

She described her second reading as a bit “cheekier and weirder” than the first. It was an unpublished piece called, “If it’s a Story,” a stream-of-consciousness-like essay, following the thoughts of a writer as she forms the idea for a story. It also showed how Ellis’s non-fictional life informs her work. She does some ESL tutoring in Vancouver, which helps her stay in touch with her audience—mostly eleven-year-old girls—and the second piece she read began by introducing two girls: Mildred (a recent immigrant from China) and her friend, Dogsmirt.

The questions Ellis was asked, following the reading, are probably familiar ones: questions about where ideas come from and the writing process.They are questions I have become afraid to ask authors, though I’m always curious about their answers. Ellis’s storytelling abilities were clear in her answers, as was her good-nature. I have been to readings where those questions received eye-rolling and snarky comments from the author. Instead, Ellis included anecdotes and descriptive examples to make her responses unique and interesting.

For example, when asked whether or not she was the type of writer who reads a lot, or one who thinks reading impinges on a writer’s creativity, the answer was one you might expect from an author/librarian: she reads a variety of books and is often reading more than one book at the same time. However, she included an anecdote about a common experience readers have when they are reading two very different kinds of books at the same time, and then pick up one, mistaking it for the other. She compared it to sitting down at a dinner table with a glass of milk and a glass of wine. If you are expecting milk and drink from a glass of wine by mistake, it’s disgusting, and vice versa, even if you like them both. She took a familiar question, with a predictable answer, and added a common experience… and totally grossed me out. It was surprising and wonderful.

Ellis will be hosting several workshops while she is in Toronto and she will deliver the 9th Albert Lahmer Memorial Lecture. I received the following information about the workshops and the lecture in an e-mail from The Osborne Collection of Early Children’s Literature.  The information can also be found on their website.


Build Your Own World Saturday February 18, 2-4 p.m.

A workshop for young writers ages 9-13.

A Picture Book Celebration for Writers and Writer/IllustratorsTuesday March 6, 6:30-8:30 p.m.

Sarah Ellis and Barbara Reid host a picture book appreciation evening. Please bring a picture book that you admire for its craft and be prepared to share your enthusiasm. What can we learn from the masters? In the course of the evening we will look at some Osborne treasures.

Writing and Telling Monday May 7, 6:30-8:30 p.m.

Join Sarah and members of Toronto’s storytelling community for an interactive discussion of stories in the air and stories on the page/screen.

 Everything I Know About Writing for Young ReadersFriday May 25, 1-4 p.m.

In this adult workshop for aspiring writers, Sarah will take a once-over-lightly approach to the pleasures and pitfalls of writing for and about children and young adults. Bring questions, and come prepared to play.

 Albert Lahmer Memorial Lecture:

Sowing Seeds in Danny, Dorothy, Dennis, Dillon and Destiny:  A Century of Library Service to ChildrenThursday, April 26, 2012, 8 p.m.

When we think of female social activists of the early twentieth century we think of women like Nellie McClung.  Politician, organizer, dynamic speaker, writer (children’s novel Sowing Seeds in Danny, 1908), McClung was in the vanguard of a huge shift in public consciousness.  Less often do we think of the quieter, and in some ways more subversive, revolution that was taking place in public libraries.  As we celebrate the centenary of service to children at the Toronto Public Library and look back to the early decades of library service to children let’s examine some of the specific books and stories that lay behind that mission. What were those seeds that Lillian H. Smith and her disciples were sowing with such energy, idealism and creativity?  And how did they get away with it?

All events take place in the Community Room at the Lillian H. Smith branch of the Toronto Public Library. If you would like to register for any of the following workshops you can call Osborne Collection of Early Children’s Books at  416-393-7753. Registration is not required for the Albert Memorial Lecture.


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