After Wendy Phillips’s first novel Fishtailing won the Governor General’s Award for Children’s Literature in 2010, she was reluctant to get started on a follow-up. She said she was wary of the “sophomore curse.”
“There was a certain amount of avoidance afterwards. It was pretty challenging,” said Phillips, who retired from teaching and moved from Richmond to Gabriola Island last summer to write full time.
Phillips spent most of the last decade writing in bursts whenever and wherever inspiration struck her. She finally completed her second novel while on a Caribbean cruise when everyone else was off drinking by the pool. That book, Baggage, was published at the beginning of May and Phillips is holding a book launch at the Gabriola Public Library on May 25.
Baggage follows a young African refugee boy of questionable origin who is abandoned at the Vancouver Airport. Robbed of his documentation and with child traffickers “swirling in the background” the boy meets a group of Canadian children returning from a trip to Japan who campaign to have him remain in Canada and “fight the government bureaucracy that wants to send him back.”
The book, like its predecessor Fishtailing, is written in free verse form and told from multiple points of view and features a refugee child’s perspective. Phillips said she enjoys the intensity of free verse writing.
“When I was working as a teacher librarian in Richmond, I was working with students who sometimes had challenges reading extended prose, but also in this day of instant gratification they wanted to cut to the chase and get right to the good parts,” she said. “And this style is sort of a novel, the ‘good parts’ version.”
She said the poetic nature has a natural appeal for young adults.
“In my mind a lot of teenagers think in poetry. Even if they’re not aware of it they think in these really intense moments and everything in between is a little bit dull and then they have these intense moments of peak excitement,” Phillips said. “And I don’t know if it comes with hormones or just a way of looking at the world, but it’s got an intensity to it that I think is really reflected in poetry.”
Despite penning “young adult” novels, Phillips doesn’t shy away from heavy topics, but she said she’s unsure if she would write differently for adults.
“I don’t know that there are particularly limits anymore for young adult books,” she said. “I’ve read a lot of them, I write reviews of them for review journals and there doesn’t seem to be any holds barred anymore. But I think the key element is at the end there needs to be some – even if it’s not the main message – some message of hope.”
WHAT’S ON … Wendy Phillips reads from her new book, Baggage, at Gabriola Public Library, 575 North Rd., on Saturday, May 25 at 11 a.m.