Wednesday, 18 April 2018

OCULUM is in the house! 5 middle grade dystopia questions answered ...

OCULUM, from Dancing Cat Books
Available April 22/2018

It never gets old! Holding my newest book is a thrill that I'll always love, which I guess means that I'm still in the right business. 

WELCOME OCULUM

My new middle grade, science fiction dystopia publishes on Earth Day, April 22/2018 (seems fitting)! My author copies have arrived in the house, and to celebrate I thought I'd answer "5 questions people are probably going to ask me about this book." (If you have a question that I haven't answered, please ask. I'll answer it in another post.) Enjoy!

Q: Elevator pitch: what is Oculum about?

A: Humanity is recovering from environmental collapse, and two sets of children, one living a life of luxury inside an insular domed world and one living in the rubble outside, must somehow combine the best of both their worlds.

Q. What does Oculum mean? 

A: Oculum (noun) is Latin for "eye." In architecture, a circular oculus allows light and air into domed structures like the ancient Roman Pantheon. Some modern domes use an oculus, too.

Q: Why did you choose "Oculum" for the title?

A: I chose "Oculum" as the title because I wanted a word that sounded slightly weighty and ancient, as well as modern and futuristic. Latin words do that well!

Half of the story takes place in a domed world, known as "Oculum" to its inhabitants. Similar to the ancient Roman Pantheon and other structures (like Rogers Centre in modern day Toronto for example), the robot keepers in Oculum open the circular top of their dome to the sun and stars, using a simple but impressive mechanism.

Also, this story takes place as humanity begins to recover from a plague, environmental disaster and general collapse. The words, "Oculum aperui" mean "I opened an eye." While the book isn't didactic, I like the idea that we need to "open an eye" to what we're doing to the planet. Generations past and future will be watching (keeping an "eye" on us, if you like), to see what we do to save and preserve our world now, and when we rise from the rubble.

Q: What made you want to write a middle grade dystopia? 

A: The idea for this book started with a vivid dream I had many years ago, of a mother with robot arms as she tucks a human child into bed. They weren't my arms (or my child), but the sweetness of the robot Mother's love for her human charge really stayed with me. I've always wanted to explore the idea of a middle grade dystopia, since they are quite rare, and here was the kernel of the idea: a robot Mother's love.

Who is she? Who made her? Why is she in charge of a human child? What's the child like who has only had cool, metallic arms to tuck her in every night? Do they talk of love? What kinds of love might survive the end of the world, anyway ...

Q: What challenges did you face writing a middle grade dystopia, and how is it different from young adult dystopia?

A: When I started to look around the modern dystopia genre, I didn't find that much written for a middle grade audience. There's plenty of great YA dystopia though, and while there's lots of overlap, there are also some subtle differences between YA and MG, mostly in the slightly gentler, more hopeful tone.

Could that be the reason for the relative lack of modern MG dystopia? It's hard to get the right dystopian message across in a gentler tone? I guess it's possible. Of course, if you know of good recent MG dystopias that I've missed, please let me know!


I read a few MG dystopias for younger readers as a kid, though, most notably John Christopher's "White Mountains Trilogy" from the '70s and John Wyndham's "The Chrysalids."

I think the shining example of middle grade dystopia is Lois Lowry's "The Giver," which is an astonishing book and I urge you to read it asap if you haven't! Monica Hughes' "Invitation to the Game" is another great book in the genre (she was also a Canadian author).

There was the challenge. As a middle grade author (Oculum is my 10th book for middle grade readers), I wanted to see if I could explore a dystopia in a meaningful way with younger kids.

So, I set out to write Oculum. I wanted to touch on environmental ruin, collapse, how society might restructure itself as it renews, and what would we lose and what would we value in the new world? What would happen to books, art, literacy, music? Who would raise the children? What fragile symbol could I use to represent what we stand to lose if the planet dies forever? (A peach.) And finally, how to do this all in a slightly hopeful way?

It WAS a challenge!

In the end, I created a dystopia with two first-person voices. The first voice is Miranda1 inside the dome (at 13, the oldest girl in Oculum). The second voice is Mannfred (12), a boy living rough outside the dome in the rubble, with his friends.

In Miranda's isolated world inside the dome with the robots and the younger children, the world is picture perfect, but there is no love or freedom. In the ruined City outside the dome, Mannfred and the other children know death, disease, hunger, but they are fairly isolated without much social interaction. So that was one way to get into a middle grade dystopia: with two voices from younger characters who have both been quite isolated.

And a few other MG tactics I used...

Violence: I wrote a gun into the story, but it plays a different role than it might in a YA dystopia (barter instead of destruction).

Language: Cranker, one of the main characters outside the domed world of Oculum, does swear but in a humorous way: "Festering gobs" and such (along the same lines as "sufferin' succotash" as my editor said). He was fun to write!

Romance: There is love in the story, but it's the love of friendship. The main characters in the dome, Miranda1 and William1, do hold hands and know that they will be together always, but romance is for the future.

Hope: Mannfred (Mann for short) is the main character outside the dome. He has the last word, and I loved writing the final chapter from his POV. He's a great character anyway, a big, gentle 12-year-old who is happy to carry the family's baby (and who has no stomach for fighting, although he always wins since he is so big). As for a hopeful ending ... you'll just have to read it to find out how I handled that!

Oculum is available everywhere APRIL 22, 2018.
Order your copy now
Read more about Oculum at Dancing Cat Books 
Read the very first Goodreads Reviews
More about OCULUM on this BLOG

Monday, 16 April 2018

Introducing OCULUM, a middle grade dystopia

AVAIL. APRIL 22/2018 from
Dancing Cat Books | PRE-ORDER NOW

Oculum (noun): Latin for eye; in architecture, a circular
oculus allows light through the top of the Roman
Pantheon and similar ancient domed structures.

Oculum aperui: I opened an eye.

I could NOT be more honoured to announce that my
middle grade dystopia, Oculum, is coming out soon from Dancing Cat Books


Here's the synopsis:

"I'm Mann, just Mann."

The world is slowly recovering after environmental collapse, and the children of the automated, domed city of Oculum have begun to awaken. Miranda, William and the 998 other children wake to tend the fruit trees and gardens behind the thick, opaque walls of their world. Some speak quietly of Outside, which is forbidden. Until William finds a door ...

The children outside the dome of Oculum — Mann, Cranker and others raised by Grannie — live in the rubble of the old destroyed city. They live with hunger, hard work, and stories about a time before the fall, of buggies without horses, light without fire and magical fruit called "peaches." But it must be lies, until one day Mann and Cranker get close enough to the ancient dome to find a door...."

I absolutely love the amazing cover of Mother of Miranda1 holding out a peach, by Emma Dolan. Thank you Emma! 

Thank you also to Barry Jowett and Marc Cote at Dancing Cat Books for inviting me in. And thanks once again to my intrepid editor, Allister Thompson, who was there from beginning to end (and that's eleven books we've created together now). 

More to come about Oculum in the weeks ahead, but for now ... love and peaches.

Oculum is available APRIL 22/2018 
For Media and Preview Copy Contact 
PRE-ORDER a copy now

Thursday, 12 April 2018

Writing Tips and Middle Grade Series Secrets from an Author and Illustrator ...

The award-winning Weird Stories Gone Wrong series, 2014-2018

"If you could give ten-year-old Philippa advice about writing, what would it be?..."

My new book, Alex and The Other, is now out! It's book four in the award-winning Weird Stories Gone Wrong series, horror stories for ages 8-12.

To celebrate, publisher Dundurn Press has a two part blog-post on their website this week, featuring two Q&A posts between the series illustrator, Shawna Daigle, and me.




In PART ONE I ask Shawna questions about her work as an illustrator, like this one:

"Philippa Dowding: Which book of the four books so far in the series has been the most fun for you to illustrate, and why?
Fog Monster, by Shawna Daigle
Shawna Daigle: I’d have to say Myles and the Monster Outside was still one of my favourite books to work on. I really enjoyed getting to create the fog monster who could look like anything I wanted. I tried to make him look a bit different every time I drew him, because fog is always changing and moving. It was a really fun challenge!"

And in PART TWO, Shawna asks me some great questions,
like this one:


"Shawna Daigle: If you could give ten-year-old Philippa advice about writing, what would it be?


Philippa Dowding: I guess I’d say this to myself as a ten-year-old, writer-in-waiting: don’t stop writing, even when people tell you can’t do it, or you shouldn’t do it, or you’re wasting your time (sadly, you’re going to hear all of those things). And don’t stop reading and losing yourself in stories, either. One day it’ll make sense why you’ve read The Hobbit ten times: you’re a writer!"
Shawna (left) and Philippa on stage at Forest of Reading
award-ceremony, May 2017, Toronto (we won honour book!)
Photo Courtesy Riley Murray

We pick our favourite scenes, illustrations and book in the series (they aren't the same). Plus, I talk about my favourite character (who is based on Mr. Atoz from original Star Trek), the theme of the evil twin as inspiration for Alex and The Other, and much more.
Read On! Both full Q&A posts are here: 
Secrets from an Author & Illustrator, 
PART ONE (Shawna's answers to Philippa's questions)
Secrets from an Author and Illustrator, 
PART TWO
(Philippa's answers to Shawna's Questions) 

Order ALEX AND THE OTHER online
CM Magazine REVIEW
Goodreads Reviews
Alex and The Other Book trailer featuring Shawna's illustrations
More about the Weird Stories Gone Wrong series on this blog