There’s an anxiety and exhilaration that’s particular to sending in one’s creative work to be critiqued.
Having a nurturing space to do that can make all the difference when you’re starting out, and one publication in particular was just that for many young writers, says Qualicum Beach children’s author Carol MacKay.
Though her work has appeared in close to 500 publications, MacKay has just released her first book. Titled Lily in the Loft, it’s a tribute to the publication that helped make her into the writer she is today: the Western Producer.
A weekly newspaper based in Saskatchewan that provides agricultural news, the publication at one time ran something called the Young Co-operators Club from 1927 and 1994.
The publication’s women’s editor, Violet McNaughton, created the club for young writers, encouraging kids from across Canada to send in their stories and poetry for possible printing in the YC pages of the paper, said MacKay.
She discovered the pages at about eight years old when her sister showed her the Western Producer’s pen-pal program. While that was somewhat intriguing, MacKay found the YC pages as well and was even more intrigued. “I took it upon myself to send them poems,” she said.
“I was nervous,” said MacKay of her first submission, adding she didn’t really expect to get published. And in fact, that first poem didn’t make it into the pages right away.
Instead, MacKay got a letter from Sister Anne (the pen name for most editors of the pages) explaining very kindly why the poem hadn’t been published, while suggesting some changes and encouraging MacKay to keep at it.
“Sister Anne was a master at putting a nice spin on things,” said MacKay. Undiscouraged, she took the edits, made some changes and re-submitted. Then her poem was published.
“It was wonderful,” MacKay said. “I was thrilled and it encouraged me to continue submitting. I think by the time I finished with the YC pages, I had probably around 110 publications in that newspaper.”
After that, she continued submitting her work to various magazines and publications, using what she had learned as a YC writer and leader to get her adult work published as well.
Over the years, as she’s met other writers, MacKay realized many of them had a similar story.
“It was funny how often we would talk and discover that we both had the same beginnings as a writer, writing into the YC pages,” she said. “We would wait for newspaper day nearly every Thursday. We’d run to the mailbox and we all kept track of our publications.”
That’s when MacKay’s inspiration for her first book came.
“For over 67 years, those pages gave young aspiring writers between the ages of 8 and 21 an outlet for their creativity,” she said. “I strongly believe it helped shape the vibrant writing community that exists in the prairie provinces today.”
The children’s picture book she wrote, with illustrations by Saskatchewan artist Val Moker, tells the simple tale of a young farm girl of about eight years old sending in a poem to the YC pages.
“It’s all about this waiting and waiting to see if it ever gets in print,” said MacKay. “It looks like it’s not going to happen and it’s how she deals with that. Does she continue to be a writer while she’s waiting? Or does she give up?”
Published on May 1, the first copy of the book was meant for a lady named Elizabeth Wheeler.
“She was the Sister Anne that rejected my first poem,” said MacKay with a laugh. “But she did it in such a nice way. And throughout the years we had corresponded and she was so encouraging, and I’ve heard this from other YC’s as well. She was so encouraging to them.”
In the past few years, MacKay and Wheeler (then living in Rosthern, Sask.) reconnected and began sending letters back and forth once more.
“She was 98 years old, and she passed away in November,” said MacKay. “And so the book… she never did get to see it. She was to get the first copy, so I donated it to the Rosthern Public Library instead.”
Asked about the effect MacKay hopes the book has on readers, she said, “I’m hoping that anybody who has any kind of dream… that they read it and get courage from it and get inspired to do what’s important to them and not give up on their dreams.”
The book is available at Chapters stores and online. MacKay will also be participating in the Local Author Bookfest at Chapters Woodgrove Centre in Nanaimo on Saturday, June 3 from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.