A Near North Forest of Reading Event in North Bay - Photo by Laura Sylvester

A Near North Forest of Reading Event in North Bay – Photo by Rebecca Upjohn

This editorial by me appeared June 13 in the North Bay Nipissing News.

A few short weeks ago, I was part of an awesome event. For three amazing days, eight other childrens’ authors from across Canada and I met thousands of Near North public school children in a national celebration of reading and writing called The Forest of Reading. With fanfare normally reserved for victorious sports heroes and visiting astronauts, for three consecutive days the authors were marched into the centre of an arena to the thundering applause from students representing all 35 elementary schools in the Near North District School Board system. Each day, Near North students were given the chance to enjoy a presentation from some of the best childrens’ writers in Canada and then to ask questions about how books are written. There was a book fair and writing related games.

One of the most impressive moments of the festival was when Janice Reynolds, the Near North District School Board teacher librarian, asked all the Top Ten Readers to stand up. Top Ten Readers are students who managed to read at least ten of the books on the Forest of Reading’s recommended book list. The Top Ten Reader program is an initiative unique to the Near North. It was created by Reynolds and her 70 plus volunteers.
Last year, an impressive 200 students stood up when the Top Ten Readers honour roll was announced. This year, more than 400 Near North elementary students qualified. This was beyond impressive. Any parent or teacher knows how challenging it is these days to convince young students that old fashioned books can out-cool their computers and techno-gadgets.

And yet I had a special place in my heart for the many students I met who bluntly told me they had only managed to read one or two books over the year. “I don’t really like reading,” they confessed. I can empathize with them because I have a reading disability. For me, there is no such thing as a pleasure read. The books on my bookshelves are not beloved old friends, they’re bloodied war trophies I struggled through word by word. But while I have never developed a love of reading, I have developed a love of “having read” because long ago a teacher librarian like Janice Reynolds convinced me that the only way to fill that empty void I felt inside me was with a good book.

It’s easy to convince keen readers to read. In the Near North District School Board Janice Reynolds had created an environment where both the pleasure and reluctant readers were flourishing. But now that environment is in serious jeopardy.

Recently Reynolds says Jeff Hewitt, the NNDSB Superintendent of Support Services, informed her that her position as teacher librarian has been made redundant. She is going back to the classroom.
This is not a money saving move. Reynolds is being replaced by not one, but four people. In the absence of a teacher librarian the NNDSB will now have a Principal of Library, Literacy and Math (PLLM) to replace the one they let go about a year ago. Under the PLLM will be a Teacher of Literacy, a Teacher of Math, and a Manager of Library Services whose field of expertise is IT. Not one of them is a trained and experienced Librarian.

Somehow the Near North District School Board expects the Forest of Reading program to continue but as a full-time teacher Janice Reynolds will no longer be able to contribute meaningfully to the outstanding program she created. The three day celebration each May is just the tip of the iceberg that the public sees. Before the festival happens, hundreds of hours have to be devoted to ordering books, training staff, encouraging students, raising funds, rounding up volunteers, booking authors, chartering busses and a thousand other details sorted.
There can be no replacement for the knowledge and contacts Janice Reynolds has built up from her years on the job. To top it off, the existing team of volunteers and school board employees are shocked and demoralized by the loss of Reynolds. “Jan was the glue who held us together,” one board employee told me.

Before writing this editorial I attempted to contact Mr. Jeff Hewitt by phone and email but was told by his Executive Assistant that Mr. Hewitt cannot discuss the matter publicly. The reason given was that because there was only one Teacher Librarian, it would breach her right to confidentiality. To set the record straight, I did not ask to talk about Reynolds. I wanted to know how the NNDSB intends to run a library system in 35 elementary and 7 secondary schools without a teacher librarian.

If you are a parent with a child or children in the Near North District School system you may want to ask that question yourself. Even though the next school year seems far away, the time to act is now. Contact your local school trustee and if you wish you can also cc Mr.Hewitt.

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Posted by on June 14, 2013 in Uncategorized


Since I started writing more than 35 years ago, many strange and wonderful things have happened to me. But I never thought the day would come when I would see my name mentioned in the same breath as Arnold Schwarzenegger, Salman Rushdie, Stephen Colbert and Neil Young. What I am talking about is this week’s Globe and Mail’s best seller lists. My book, Running to Extremes, is listed in 5th place on the Canadian non-fiction best seller list and in 8thplace on the list that includes British and American bestsellers.

Globe and Mail Best Seller List October 13, 2012

To say that I was gobsmacked is an understatement. It is not that I did not have faith in my book. It was a fascinating story and written to the best of my ability. It is just that there are so MANY other good books out there. Launching a book in this day and age is like finding yourself participating in one of those massive marathon races where you are surrounded by a sea of well-toned contenders all running toward the same finish line somewhere far over the horizon. You move ahead of some runners, others move ahead of you. It goes on for so long that eventually just finishing the race (or in my case, just finishing the book) becomes the accomplishment in itself.

Then suddenly you turn a corner and there are only a handful of runners around you. In my case, my crowd includes rock and roll legend Neil Young, sharp tongued humourist Rick Mercer, Booker prize winner Sir Salman Rushdie, actor satirist Stephen Colbert and lumbering along just ahead of me is Mr. Universe/Oak of Austria/Terminator/Governor of California and now fellow author Arnold Schwarzenegger.

If I sat up thinking for a month of Mondays I could not have come up with a more diverse and delightful list of fellow runners. One thing I learned from Ray Zahab, the subject of my book, is that life is about the running, not the race.

Schwarzenegger, Rushdie, Colbert and…me?

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Posted by on October 15, 2012 in Uncategorized


A Black History War of 1812 Ghost Story

A Forgotten Monument

A few days ago I was asked to write an Op Ed column for the Toronto Star to commemorate both Black History Month and the Bincentennial of the War of 1812.–richard-pierpoint-a-very-canadian-hero

The column was based on a book I wrote 4 years ago which was based on a magazine article I published 17 years ago which was based on a random turn I happened to take more than 20 years ago in western downtown Toronto. I was walking along Front Street west of Spadina and to avoid traffic noise I turned up a shady little residential street called Portland. On the left was a postage stamp sized parkette with the usual swings and kiddie wading pool. Then I noticed a crumbling military monument.

The monument had been erected in 1900 as a memorial to all the British/Canadian units that had fought in the War of 1812. All the big British regimental names were at the top followed by the lesser known Canadian units and then at the very bottom, almost obscured by untrimmed grass, was The Coloured Corps and Indians.

Even then I prided myself on being well informed in Canadian history but until I saw that monument I had never heard of the Coloured Corps. For some reason I decided that their story needed to be told. This, unfortunately, was the pre-internet era when research meant hunkering down in a library and my only Search Engine was a knowledgeable and infinitely patient librarian. The facts came agonizingly slow but I eventually discovered that the Coloured Corps of Upper Canada was a unit of free Black soldiers who fought for the British/Canadian side during the War of 1812. They so impressed their contemporaries that they were one of the first units called back into service during the 1837 Rebellion and they were kept in the field until 1851, one of the longest and most distinguished service records of any Canadian militia unit.

But the most startling fact to come to light for me was that I actually had a Coloured Corps connection. After the 1837 Rebellion some Coloured Corps veterans were given land grants near where the village of Priceville, Ontario, now exists. My mom’s ancestors settled in this area. In fact, my parents bought a 28 acre abandoned farm near Priceville. We spent many a summer evening camped out around a homemade fire pit nestled in the stone foundations of a tiny barn.

No Longer Forgotten

Just as I was about the publish my magazine article about the Coloured Corps in 1995, Grey County historians discovered that a small corner lot of a piece of property two lots east of my mother’s land was a 19th century “Negro Burial Ground” where veterans of the Coloured Corps of Upper Canada were buried. It is very possible that even the land my parents bought was homesteaded by a Coloured Corps veteran but I haven’t established that fact yet. Still, it makes you wonder how an Anglo-Celtic mutt like me became so obsessed about an all-Black military unit from another century long before he knew they had a common link. Was it just the famous six-degrees of separation rule proving its truth or was it something else – maybe a sixth sense from spending so many nights with my ear to the very ground where members of the Coloured Corps once walked?

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Posted by on February 13, 2012 in Uncategorized


The 100-Mile Library

My local heritage tomato crop

In 2007 two Canadian writers, Alisa Smith and J. B. MacKinnon, published a book called The 100-Mile Diet: A Year of Local Eating. The book was about the two writers attempting to live an entire year solely on food that was raised within one hundred miles of their British Columbia home. McKinnon and Smith quickly discovered that if they depended on mainstream outlets to provide local foods, they would starve to death. They were forced to seek out farmers’ markets or buy food directly from the producers. On one hand, their 100 mile diet was limiting because they could no longer purchase cheap, tasteless nitrogen-ripened California tomatoes in February. On the other hand, their diet was liberating as they discovered the joys of eating neighbourhood fare in season, that was bursting with local flavour.

“Tell me what you eat and I’ll tell you who you are,” French epicurean Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin once wrote. Similarly you could say “Tell me what you read and I’ll tell you who you are.” Step into any chain bookstore (or for that matter any supermarket or department store) and you will not see books by local authors. Instead you will see bookracks bloated with the latest long-haul best-sellers that are picked not for their flavour but for their extended shelf life -the literary equivalent of a nitrogen tomato.

When I first moved to Ontario’s Near North I was under the impression that writers up here are few and far between. Once I took the trouble to ask at the local independent bookstore ( I discovered I was wrong. Writers abound in this area: Barry Grills, Lynn Johnston, Jennifer Rouse Barbeau, Patty Fedeli just to name a few. Lynn Johnston, of course, has an international following but the others also now have a well deserved home on my library shelf.

Now that I think of it, Canada’s two most famous literary exports, Stephen Leacock and Elizabeth Maud Montgomery, started off as unknown local authors writing about their small towns. I think the foundation of their success was their ability to bring their hometowns to life. Local authors give you local flavour.

Being purists, McKinnon and Smith had to forgo spices and cooking oils for their year of eating locally. I confess I’m not that much of a stickler and I might spice up this year’s reading diet with a little Arundhati Roy or Patrick O’Brian when the mood strikes me. Still, the 100- Mile Library has forced me to search for local authors who deserve my support as much my neighbourhood organic farmers and artisan goat cheese mongers.


Posted by on January 6, 2012 in Uncategorized


The Perfect Moment

Perfect Moment

If you were allowed to go back in time to re-experience a “perfect moment” in your life, what would it be? I’m not talking about those rapturous Mount Everest once-in-a-lifetime landmark high points like marriage, graduation or birth of a child but a single quiet perfect moment where you were truly happy for just a moment in time? I have been blessed so I have many to choose from but if I had to select one I would pick a hot steamy August night in Toronto about fifteen years ago.

It was the seventh consecutive day of temperatures in the high thirties. We lived in a fifties-era red brick bungalow with small windows, no insulation and no air conditioning. The week of merciless heat had turned our house into a 1200-square foot pizza oven.

I am sitting on my front porch with my wife Nimmi. Our young son, Kevin, is playing Tonka trucks on the lawn. Most of our neighbours are central air challenged as well so they sit on their respective porches too. We wave to each other, sip cold drinks and complain about the weather. It’s getting late. Nimmi and I are dreading another night of lying our our bedsheets as our bodies slowly turn meat-falling-off-the-bone tender from our bedroom’s slow-cooker temperature.

Something cool hits my arm with a splat. It is a raindrop. At least I hope it is. High above seagulls riding the hot air currents swirl overhead. The sky is completely black so you can’t see them, you can only hear their screeches in the darkness. Another drop hits, then another. Suddenly the skies open. First a steady drizzle and then a full-out downpour. Our neighbours grab their drinks and folding chairs and dash indoors like sensible people. Nimmi holds the door open for Kevin and me but we pause and look in the opposite direction.

Earlier in the day I had hauled a broken down old blue couch out from our livingroom to the curb. It was an ancient Victorian styled thing, wide beamed and awkward as hell. A true Pitt. I had to knock the legs off just to get it out the door and now it sat there in the merciless rain like a mortally wounded bison stoically waiting for the wolves to close in. More likely two Newfoundlanders with a pick-up truck named Buddy who scavenge ahead of the garbage crews each Wednesday morning.

A lot of memories were invested in that chesterfield. Since he was a toddler Kevin and I had spent countless hours there with him sitting on my lap, my arms wrapped around him and my chin resting on his fuzzy head. As Kevin grew, we had to adjust for size. Now Keven has grown so tall we now sit one behind the other like two men on a motorcycle.

I have never been accused of common sense but fortunately Kevin seems to like that in an old man. As the downpour swells to a deluge Kevin and I kick off our shoes and we run whooping across the lawn to sprawl out on the old couch for one last time. It is parked under a street light and it is not long before our neighbours spot us us sitting on our couch in the pouring rain. We can see them standing in their livingrooms gawking out at us. Most have known me since I was a child so I doubt they are surprised to see me out there getting wet. Now they can see that silly gene has inflicted our second generation. Maybe that’s why they are sadly shaking their heads.

Nimmi rushes out to take one photo then runs back inside. She may have to prove insanity to a judge some day. After another five minutes even the neighbours lose interest. The livingrooms turn blue as televisions come to life. Raindrops continue to hammer down all around us, bouncing off our heads and streaming water down our faces. Kevin and I say nothing. I tilt my head back on the couch arm. Kevin leans his head back on my chest. If I look straight up, I can rest my chin on his head just like old times. We lie there in silence, faces titled skywards and my perfect moment frozen in a yet to land raindrop.

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Posted by on December 3, 2011 in Uncategorized


Give a Canadian book for Christmas

Christmas Hound

There is a “New Christmas Tradition” e-mail message making the rounds urging Canadians to buy local services rather spending a fortune on junky gifts made in sweatshops on the other side of the world. The poor writer of that e-mail was so hard-up to think of any product still made in this country he/she instead suggested that we should treat each other to Christmas coupon books for car washes, hair cuts or snow shovelling for the winter. Too bad he/she didn’t think of giving Canadian books for a holiday present. I sent the following message back to the person who sent me the original message. Hopefully it will trace back to the original writer and Canadian books will find their way under the Christmas tree next to the snow shoveling and hair cuts vouchers.

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Posted by on November 17, 2011 in Uncategorized


Of Dogs and Blogs

The Nose Knows

This entry is in response to a comment and question by my fellow TWUC member, Gloria Varley. “Don’t stop there, Steve. Tell people the Poochini story — I’m sure they’d love it. And is she a character in a children’s book yet?”

First, for those entering the thread at this point, Poochini is our family dog whose name has appeared in some of my posts on the writers list-serves to which I belong. Unlike her male namesake, Poochini is a girrrrl. Like everyone else in my family she’s a mutt (an Al-Dal – half Alsatian, half Dalmatian) and she got her name from the fact we used to live next door to a wonderful Calabrese family (don’t ever call them Italian). Our backyard garden backed onto their garden which was very handy for trading plants or glasses of homemade wine. Besides giving me expert advice on how to grow killer tomatoes and basil, my neighbour Bruno used to play opera music loudly on outdoor speakers while we worked. Assuming (rightly) that I didn’t know one Italian composer from another, whenever the music changed he’d point to the speaker and say “Now that’s Rossini.” or “That’s Verdi.” and I would point to my dog and say “And that’s Poochini.” Never failed to crack him up.

Second, in answer to your question, Gloria. Poochini has not yet appeared as a character in a children’s book but she has appeared several published non-fiction humour stories. For example, she was the star of a story about me having to collect a dog pee sample for a veterinarian in a story that was published in Chatelaine. That’s also her nose intruding on the cover of my book of humour stories, “My Life and Other Lies”.  The photo was an impromptu moment. Poochini likes to sleep under my desk while I’m working. When she decides it is time I need a break she surfaces and begins pushing random keys on my keyboard with her nose until I take her for a walk.

We had been struggling to get an interesting photo for about an hour and then Poochini intruded and we nailed the cover shot in one take. When she sleeps under my desk she sometimes has doggie dreams and begins to run in her sleep. This propels my desk slowly across the room and if I want to continue writing I’m forced to follow my desk on foot in a bow-legged half-crouch like Jerry Lee Lewis doing his famous no-seat “Great Balls of Fire” finale.


Posted by on September 15, 2011 in Uncategorized


Hello world…

Hello world…

Hello. My name is Steve. I’m a fifty-something writer living in Ontario’s Near North. Despite the fact that I live in the woods by a lake and spend a good deal of my time chopping wood or hauling water by hand, my son thinks I need to enter the 21st century by writing a blog. I tried to get out of it by pointing out that I don’t know how to create a blog. My smarty-pants daughter-in-law then created one for me. Now she says that if I don’t write something she will and I probably won’t like it. She’s even threatening to publish my high school report cards so here it is, my blog.

Being a Word Nerd I first had to look up where the word blog even came from. Seems it is a mangled combination of the words web and log. Well that feels a little better. The web, of course, is this scary cyber thing but a log’s roots go back to an actual piece of lumber that sailors used to toss over the side of their ship to see how fast their vessel was going. The speed was recorded in a book that became known as a log book, which became just the log and now we have web logs called ‘blogs. I guess I can get the hang of this and if not, I have lots of real logs around here to throw at my computer.


Posted by on July 11, 2011 in Uncategorized