Sunday, October 6, 2013

A Prize Winner, Don Cummer

    In the last post I mentioned the Scholastic dinner.  One of the people I spoke to then was Don Cummer, a professional looking and personable man about my age. We chatted a bit about enjoying history and we exchanged books and signed each other's copies. I'm so bad with names that his didn't twig with me at all.  If he knew me he didn't let on, although he signed "To Rene, Well, did you ever... What a swell party this is!"  
   Last week I began ruminating through all those signed books which are suitable for older readers, reading them to see how these people do their art.
   Don's book is very well-written. Within the first two pages one of the main character's was given a nick-name 'Turd Boy' because he collects dog feces for use in his father's tannery. Buckets of piss (used in tanning leather) were also described in full olfactory detail. Kids would love this stuff.
   So did I.
   The easy chair became the centre of my world for a more hours than I had planned on (that cleanup job could wait).  The dialogue in Brothers At War is pretty good. Just boys talking, but dated back in the early 1800's and consistently you knew which one of the boys was American and which ones were Upper Canadian. I appreciate when individual voices are recognizable, but not forced, and especially if they say something of the person's character.  Many teen books, unfortunately, have the same voice for each character - usually the author's - sounding either too mature or some caricature of what kids are supposed to sound like.  Not so Brothers at War.  The setting and details peppering the story had the ring of authenticity that comes from a writer who knows his historical era and breathes it out onto the page as naturally, as, well... breathing.
   But something about this book was familiar.  I stared again at the name.  Nothing twigged.  I looked for a bio, but aside from knowing some of the same people I know, I couldn't place him.
    Finally halfway through the book I came across familiar lyrics of an old song, joined with an unforgettable scene - a young man visits the grave of his recently dead mother and infant sister while a strong odor fills the air - and I knew where I had read these pages of writing.  I had studied it last year as the winning entry of the Writer's Union competition for short prose for children.  It was a 'duh' moment for me because I had been one of the three final judges.  We chose Don's piece as first place from the ten finalists of excellent work submitted by amateur writers.  He won $1500 and a recommendation to be published by one of Canada's major publishers.  Not only had I been one of the three final judges but I remember submitting some of the comments about the piece which were used in the W.U. blurb, after a pleasant conference call with Hazel Hutchins and Don Calame last year to decide the winner.  There wasn't much debate by the way.  We all thought the writing was excellent and highly competent. We also wondered if he actually was an unpublished children's writer. Hazel went so far as to Google search it to see if it was cribbed from somewhere.  Nope.  Original stuff, but the author was obviously very well versed in his art.  Turns out he also was a speech-writer for the Prime Minister, though his bio wisely leaves out which Prime Minister.  
Check out the notice by clicking the link below.

   His short story was called "The Burying Grounds" but it is now part of the bigger novel you see above.        
    I would recommend Brothers At War to any good Intermediate reader with an interest in historical fiction.  It is written smoothly enough to be an excellent read-aloud book for teachers to their classes in History.   Don's focus in this book is limited to events leading up to the conflict - a coy way to guarantee a sequel involving the two young men in the war of 1812 itself.  
   Published by Scholastic, its reading level is probably Grade 6 or 7, although I haven't tested it, with shorter sentences and effective but accessible vocabulary.  


  1. Rene, that was you! I wish we'd made the connection at the Scholastic party -- very glad to meet you in person. And many thanks for your generous praise in the TWUC announcement. Every writer has those moments when they say, "Yeah, this has all been worthwhile -- worth the heartache and frustration," and reading what you had written was one of those moments. Sincerely, Don Cummer

  2. Quality work deserves praise. I look forward to your next book.