Catherine Austen books for young people

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"Her writing cuts straight to the heart."

(The Globe and Mail)


link Learn More About the Author

Frequently Asked Questions

Click on a question to get the answer. (These should really be called OACs, for Occasionally Asked Questions and Once Asked Questions. The only questions I am frequently asked are, "What's for dinner, Mom?" and "Can you give me a ride to the mall?")

General Questions

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  1. How long does it take you to write a book?

  2. Where do you get your ideas?

  3. Does anyone read your books before they are published?

  4. Do you have an agent?

  5. What advice would you give to kids who want to be writers?

Walking Backward Questions

snake tail
  1. Are there real Darwin Awards?

  2. Why did you write about Power Rangers?

  3. Are you afraid of snakes?

  4. Did your mom die when you were a kid?

  5. Where did you get all the jokes in the book?

hieroglyphs

My Cat Isis Questions

  1. Why is there a ring around the cat's eye on the cover?

  2. Did you illustrate the story?

  3. Which ancient Egyptian god looked like a cat?

  4. Do you like cats?

  5. Where did you learn about Ancient Egypt?

doodles

26 Tips for Surviving Grade 6 Questions

  1. Who are the people in the dedication?

  2. Do you like writing boy characters or girl characters more?

  3. Why did you write this book as five separate stories?

  4. Did you do the doodles in the book?

  5. What is your favourite story in the book?

hieroglyphs

All Good Children Questions

  1. Do you like your main character?

  2. How did you get Tim Wynne-Jones to give you a quote for the book?

  3. Is there going to be a sequel?

  4. Do you really think this could happen?

  5. Is the pacing of the first part of the book deliberate?

dave

28 Tricks for a Fearless Grade 6 Questions

  1. Which story is your favourite?

  2. Did you write this as a sequel to 26 Tips?

  3. Are any of the stories true?

  4. Did you ever have a teacher like Mr. Papadakis?

  5. Have you ever cured your own phobia?

Answers to General Questions

  1. How long does it take you to write a book?

    I never write a book in one clear timeline. I usually start with an idea for a plot and character. I write a few pages of text and outline the plot. Then I put it away - usually for a couple of years! I believe this time is important for my subconscious to work out the book - but that could just be an excuse for laziness.

    I read through my files of partial manuscripts a couple of times a year. If what I read grabs me and won't let go, I start drafting that book. A picture book may take only a day or two to draft; a middle-grade novel takes me a month or so; a teen novel takes several months. My first drafts are messy, hurried things. When I'm done one, I put it away again till I want to work on it. Then  I reread the draft and begin to revise. Revising takes me many months.

    So I could say that I wrote Walking Backward in two weeks (the time of my frantic first draft), or I could say it took me two years (the time from writing the first page to mailing it out). It's complicated.

  2. Where do you get your ideas?

    From nature, from other books I read, from my pets and kids, from old memories, from all the fragments of life coming together in a new way. I get a lot of ideas while walking my dog. Movement seems to enliven my brain. Having no ideas is never the problem for me. 

  3. Does anyone read your books before they are published?

    Often not. I am very shy about my writing. I usually don't share it until I have polished it as best I can.  A few years ago, I joined a local writers' group. We meet once a month to share our work.

  4. Do you have an agent?

    No. I suppose I will one day, but right now it's just another thing on a very long to-do list.

  5. What advice would you give to kids who want to be writers?

    Love words and learn how to use them well. Read lots of what you love and try to read some classics, too. Let your mind wander and follow it around. Learn to stick to a task long enough to accomplish something. Have faith in the fact that you have a truth that's worth telling.

    I have other suggestions on my Writing Tips page.

    award plaque

    This is my book award.

Answers to Walking Backward Questions

  1. Are there real Darwin Awards?

    Yes. And they're really funny (at least, if you are not mourning an accident-prone winner). Consider them cautionary tales. You can read them at DarwinAwards.com.

  2. Why did you write about Power Rangers?

    I watched an awful lot of Power Rangers with both of my sons. They don't remember much of the shows - they stopped watching around first grade. My storage closet is full of Power Ranger toys - I couldn't bring myself to throw them out.

  3. Are you afraid of snakes?

    No. I love snakes. I am kind of snake-crazy, actually. I used to catch them as a kid and bring them home to keep for a day or so before releasing. Now I leave them be, but I admire them and photograph them, and I am always really happy to see one. (I live in a place with no poisonous species.) If there is a character in Walking Backward that is me, it's Karen, not the mom.

    I am afraid of heights, though, and that phobia came on me suddenly in just the way Josh's neighbour Mr. Smitts describes it.

  4. Did your mom die when you were a kid?

    No. My mother died when I was almost 40 years old. I didn't lose anyone close to me when I was a kid - not to death, anyway. What Josh writes is based on what I've seen and read and imagined, and felt in other contexts, not on my own memories of childhood.

    Many people have told me that this book helped them or a child they know deal with loss, and for that I'm truly glad. It was an emotionally exhausting book to write - but not because it brought back memories of losing my mom. I was lucky to have my mom in my life far into adulthood.

  5. Where did you get all the jokes in the book?

    Some I simply remembered because they're faves. Others I looked up - like the ugly baby joke. (I changed it a bit - the version I read online was about a woman taking her baby on a bus; mine is about a woman with her baby in a restaurant.) You can find lots of jokes with a "jokes for kids" search on the internet.

    Oh - and I made up the "Gope Who?" joke. It's written in the graffitied outhouse at my family cabin.

    joke

    This is my outhouse joke.

Answers to My Cat Isis Questions

  1. Why is there a ring around the cat's eye on the cover?

    Ancient Egyptians - men, women, children and adults - liked to wear make-up and jewelry to express themselves. They lined their eyes with kohl, made from ground-up galena (a silver-grey metal). They kept it in little pots in their homes (kohl pots). They mixed the kohl with oil or water and applied it around the eye with a special stick - like modern eyeliner. It makes the eyes look bigger and the whites of the eyes look whiter, and it might protect eyes from the glare of the sun. Lovely. (But not often seen on cats.)

  2. Did you illustrate the story?

    I wish I could say those beautiful illustrations are mine, but no, I am not so visually talented. The illustrations were made by Montreal-based artist Virginie Egger, who won has won many awards for her beautiful illustrations. She is fabulous. It is unnerving handing off your story to be illustrated by a stranger - but I was thrilled when I saw the results. Check out more of her amazing work on Virginie Egger's website.

  3. Which ancient Egyptian god looked like a cat?

    Bast (also called Bastet). You can learn more about her on my Fun Stuff page.

  4. Do you like cats?

    Yes. I like almost all animals, but I have become a distinct cat-person. I grew up with dogs. My mom disliked cats (she'd grown up with only feral barn cats to judge by), so I too thought that cats were no good for the first years of my life. But they are just so cute I had to investigate further. I bought a kitten, Riki, when I was 15. She lived to be 20. I've since had several other cats, including Isis, who is about 9 years old now.

  5. Where did you learn about Egypt?

    Books! Lots and lots of books. (I especially like Richard H. Wilkinson's Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt.) I have actually been to the Middle East but that was 25 years ago and I don't remember much, certainly not enough to trust the memory. I love to read so, for me, research is a great part of being a writer.

    Ancient Egypt is a complicated subject, not just because it is so old that much is lost to time, but because it was so long-lasting (3000 years!) that much changed through time. There are some stories passed down through the ages via hieroglyphs but many more were passed down second-hand via the Greeks and other outsiders. Some were local stories; others spread more widely. Some of these stories seem to contradict each other. There really is no one story of Isis or any other god or goddess from so long ago. There are lots of stories. (And that's all right, because I like lots of stories.)

    Isis

    This is my real cat Isis. (She likes LEGO castles.)

Answers to 26 Tips for Surviving Grade 6 Questions

  1. Who are the people in the dedication?

    Stefanie Black lived up the street from me from grade six right through high school, and we were close friends through much of that time. After writing this book, I looked for Stefanie and met her again for the first time in 30 years - it was wonderful!

    I went to a few years of grade school with Mike Gray, and we went to the circus together in grade 6, with two other kids whom I'm completely forgotten. I was a tad smitten with the acrobat. In fact, I must have been going on about the acrobat's gorgeousness because all I remember about Mike Gray and that day at the circus is Mike joking later in the park, asking, "What's he got that I don't have?" Mike does not remember this at all - not the park or the circus, and probably not me. He has clearly deleted this embarrassing memory.

    The characters of Scott and Violet are not based on Mike and Stefanie. They are entirely fictitious. (I fear that Mike and Stefanie might wonder if I'm fixated on them 30+ years after knowing them. But I really don't remember them or grade 6 much at all - except the acrobat, whom I can still picture vividly).

  2. Do you like writing boy characters or girl characters more?

    Probably girls. They are more fun for me to write, maybe because I can relate to the character more personally (or maybe just because girls are more fun). Because my own children are boys, and most of their friends hanging around my house are boys, I often think up boy characters. And I love writing them, too.

  3. Why did you write this book as five separate stories?

    I wrote the first part, Tips for Finding a Friend, as a short story a long time ago (over eight years ago!). When an editor suggested that I expand the story into a novel, it made more sense to me to build new stories on top of the first one, adding new characters and conflicts as whole new episodes. I like the way it worked out.

  4. Did you do the doodles in the book?

    No. The publisher arranged the whole design. But I found some of the same doodles on a graphics website and purchased the right to use them here. I am not much of a doodler.

  5. What is your favourite story in the book?

    It is hard for me to decide. It might be a toss up between #2, Tips for Understanding the Human Male (the circus story), and #4, Tips for Solving 2 Minus 1 (Violet's crush on Jason).

    me and stefanie

    This is me and Stefanie in grade 5 or 6 (first picture in the photo booth - it always came as a surprise).

Answers to All Good Children Questions

  1. Do you like your main character?

    This is an odd question but it pops up a lot. Most readers like Max, some love him, but some can't stand him. Obviously he's supposed to be the kind of kid that some adults believe should be controlled or "treated." He is not sweet. He does not want to be sweet. But seriously? Do I like him? I love him. My heart breaks for him. He is a good kid. He may not be "nice" but he is good - in a way that none of the adults around him can compare to. Okay, yeah, he's arrogant and annoying and maybe I wouldn't want to have to teach him English every day but honestly, he's fifteen, living in a world of lies. Give the kid a break.

    When you write in first person, there's always some degree of unreliability in your narrator because a person is never really the same as his self-image or the identity he strives to maintain, and everything in the story is skewed by his viewpoint -- the facts of what's going on around him, and the "facts" of who his is and how he acts and what consequences those actions have. If Max were described by a teacher, he might come off worse. But if he were described by me in third person, he'd come off much better - if only because his thoughts would remain private. (Really, how noble would any of us be if our unspoken thoughts were on display?)

  2. How did you get Tim Wynne-Jones to give you a quote for the book?

    I was extremely lucky, no? My first book, Walking Backward, was a finalist for the Quebec Writers' Federation Prize for Children's and Young Adults' Literature in 2010, and Tim Wynne-Jones was a judge for that award, so of course he read the book. I later met him at his launch of Blink and Caution in Ottawa, and when I mentioned Walking Backward, he told me he liked it and asked if I had anything else on the go. I said I had just written a teen novel, and he offered to read the manuscript.

    I was pretty nervous about that - I'm not used to being read by anyone, let alone authors of his stature. But what the hell, I thought, if the book is hopeless, it's better to hear that in private in a coffee shop than read it in a string of bad reviews that some passive-aggressive type will send me with their condolences. But hah, he didn't say it was lousy at all. He said he loved it. He made a few suggestions for changes and wished me well. What a nice man.

  3. Is there going to be a sequel?

    I wrote All Good Children as a standalone novel. I did not have any sequel in mind. I do not generally like sequels as a reader and I'd never thought of doing one as a writer. But several people have asked, including my editor, so I decided to give it a go. I even got a grant from the Conseil des art et des lettres du Quebec to write it. (Just in time because I went in massive debt writing All Good Children instead of writing reports for clients.) So I wrote three different partial drafts of a sequel, all of which were basically stupid. I have not entirely given up but it's not a burning desire for me.

  4. Do you really think this could happen?

    Parts of it, maybe. I  think cosmetic and behavioural pharmacology will become more commonly applied, so long as they are cheap, and I think germline therapy and genetic screening of children will become more common than in the book. But I can't say how - maybe they will make all people healthier, or maybe they will extend Haves and Have-Nots into Ams and Am-Nots. (I sadly lean toward the latter.)

    Will the elderly be herded into hospitals and treated en masse for the greatest ease and efficiency? That would not surprise me. Would people extend that treatment to children? No. At least, not ALL children. But that's what this story is about: it's about the erosion of freedom that finally gets to your doorstep. It's about being a Have (or an Am) but finding that insufficient protection for what's coming. The freedoms of poor vulnerable people are taken away all the time and no one says, "Oh that would never happen." Because it happens now.

    The most unlikely aspect of the book's future world is that an American high school wouldn't care about football. (I didn't set the book in the States originally and when I changed the setting to the US, I thought, "Wow, no one is ever going to buy this." But no one mentioned it.)

  5. Is the slow pacing of the first part of the book deliberate?

    Very much so. It follows a traditional arc (like the stories it references - I wrote this purposefully as a sort of Stepford Wives for kids). There is a slow build-up to the realization of what's going on in part one, then things fall to pieces quite speedily.

    old school

    This is old-school student behaviour control.

Answers to 28 Tricks for a Fearless Grade 6 Questions

  1. Which story is your favourite?

    The second one, in which Dave and his friends help Andrew overcome his fear of public speaking. It's the funniest, I think, and it's the one I usually choose to read aloud when giving a presentation. (I read chapter 11, "If you want to keep a secret, don't post it on the internet," because I get to read in a devil voice, which is always fun.)

  2. Did you write this as a sequel to 26 Tips?

    Actually, I wrote it as a standalone middle-grade comedy, but Lorimer wanted to publish it and, since 26 Tips for Surviving Grade 6 had done well and won awards and this book was likewise episodic, funny, and set in 6th grade, it was natural to package it as a companion book. I think people who like one would like the other, too.

  3. Are any of the stories true?

    No. It's all made up. But I'd love to know the kids in it, if they really existed. I think they're great friends.

  4. Do you think Mr. Papadakis is a good teacher?

    Hard to say. He's like a typical student: not very organized, self-centred, and he'd rather be anywhere than school. But he genuinely likes the students, and that has to count for something.

  5. Have you ever cured your own phobia?

    I've come far in curing my fear of heights. I can stand on a step-ladder without anxiety, and I feel great when I climb a tree (just the right level of thrill). I've been on small ski lifts where I felt okay. I'm not ready to try the Whistler Mountain ski lift again (I tried that when I wasn't ready and it set me back years) but maybe one day. If I had Dave Davidson to help, it might take a little longer.

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