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Touch of the Clown – About the Book

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Books often begin from a ‘what if…” idea – something in a writer’s experience or something that he reads or sees on the news or hears in conversation that captures his attention. I got the idea for Touch of the Clown when my good friend Ian Wallace (not the Canadian children’s book illustrator but a clown actor who uses “Nion” as his professional moniker) came from Toronto to Edmonton to work in a number of plays at the Citadel Theatre. Ian chose to rent an apartment in a part of the city – about 15 blocks north of the downtown area – that has some very rough edges. But it was an easy bike-ride from there to the Citadel. I visited Ian a few times in his second-storey digs in a nicely-reclaimed older building. I’m not too sure just when the “what if…” idea came to me but at some point while Ian was in town, it occurred to me that there might be an interesting story in someone like him encountering a couple of neglected kids in this neighborhood.

That was the seed that poked its head out of the ground – and I looked at that green shoot for a long time before it flourished and took form. Who would the neglected child (or children?) be? What would make up the set of circumstances in their lives (who would be neglecting them?)? How would the actor figure encounter them? How would he impact their lives? As most writers do, I mulled over the possibilities in my mind for a good while before setting pen to paper. The central teen character (Barbara) who was to become the voice of the novel took shape as a girl burdened with the care of a younger sister. What if the actor figure awakes a spark in her connected to acting and drama? Maybe he’s doing clown workshops for teens? With that godlike power that writers have, I took away the girl’s mother and left her with an unemployed dad and a cranky old grandmother for her ineffective caregivers. I thought about the prospect of there being something in the dad’s background that would lend credence to Barbara’s interest in acting – and ended up making him someone obsessed with old movies (as I am myself!). The old movie connection led to the naming of Barbara and her sister, Livvy, after famous movie stars that are the dad’s favorites.

The old movie connection also provided me with a working title for the novel: And Children First. It comes, of course, from the sinking of the Titanic, a film version of the disaster that is on the TV during a key scene (the 1953 movie starring Clifton Webb and Barbara Stanwyck). My idea was that, when children are involved in a dramatic crisis such as the sinking of a luxury liner, everyone works to get them into lifejackets and into boats, but when children are slowly sinking day by day into a sea of neglect or abuse, those life preservers are often missing. A group of Edmonton writers I met with (we critiqued each other’s manuscripts), was less than enchanted with the title, though. One member of the group, discussing the clown workshops in the novel, recalled an experience she had had as she took in a weekend seminar on clowning and mask-making.

“In the final session,” she remembered, “a master clown demonstrated how to make up a white clown face. When he was finished, he ran a finger over the white makeup he’d applied and then touched each of our own faces, saying, ‘I leave you with a touch of the clown’ and the wish that you can pass on this art to others.’” I was able to easily work this bit of business into one of the actor’s workshops  — and it gave me the perfect title: Touch of the Clown, the literal touch of white makeup, but also how the clown actor eventually touches Barbara’s life in a positive way.

I sent the manuscript out to a number of Canadian publishers. One was interested but wanted some substantive changes, including dropping Nathan, the metis character Barbara befriends at the workshop, and wasn’t prepared to offer a contract until they saw a revised draft. As I debated this prospect in my mind (I had grown rather fond of Nathan), Groundwood Books contacted me and made me a definite offer. They felt the manuscript needed some work, but they weren’t being didactic about it. Rather, they assigned to me one of their topnotch editors, Shelley Tanaka. I loved working with Shelley. She kept me on track with the voice of the young female narrator and she encouraged me to write additional scenes to strengthen some of the character relationships. The whole episode of the picnic trip to Mayfair Park was added during this revision process. Plus – I got to keep Barbara’s metis companion.

The book surfaced with some very positive reviews. It was picked up by the Junior Library Guild, and was shortlisted for a number of prizes including a Mr. Christie Award, Ontario’s Red Maple readers’ choice award, and Alberta’s R. Ross Annett Award for children’s literature.

Touch of the Clown is available from Groundwood Books. Ordering information is on their website:

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The book is recommended for readers in grades 5 to 8.