Canadian Society of Children’s Authors, Illustrators and Performers<br>La société canadienne des auteurs, illustrateurs et artistes pour enfants

The Mystery of Writing Mysteries for Kids with Liam O’Donnell

Monday, October 13, 2014 11:54 AM | Lena Coakley

Thanks so much to Sylvia McNicoll for writing up Wednesday’s Ontario meeting, which did NOT take place in Toronto as per usual, but at the Art Gallery of Burlington, in the Fireside Lounge.


President Bill Swan welcomed everyone to the first trial of having our Toronto meeting outside Toronto and deemed the venture a success with over 30 people attending. 

Heather Rath, a long time writing member, made it to a meeting for the first time in 15 years, as well as Diane Matich, a Friend, Caroline Freibauer, a teacher/librarian from Assumption College in Brantford, and many more.


PYI:  Lorna Poplak the co-director of Packaging Your Imagination listed five reasons to sign up for Packaging Your Imagination by the cutoff date Thursday, October 16.

1) The amazing array of workshops. 

2) The Industry Panel

3) The Networking opportunities

4) The All day Pitch Perfect on Sunday, October 19 both for authors and illustrators. The author spot is full, there are three spots for illustrators

5) The art exhibition running untill October 17th, Monday to Friday  from 10 to 5 at Humber College, Lakeshore campus.  “Capturing Imagination: The Art of Storytelling” features illustrations from such stars as Sue Todd (illustrator of the beautiful woodcut above) Brenda Clark, Michael Marchenko, and Barbara Reid.  (It will also be on display at Inspire: the Toronto International Book Fair, November 13, 14, & 15th.

Sign up today!


Congratulations to CANSCAIP member, Lesley Choyce, (East Laurencetown, N.S.) who is a nominee for the Governor General’s Award for Jeremy Stone (Red Deer Press) a young adult novel written in free verse about a First Nations teenager finding his spirits.


CANSCAIP friend since 2010, Nadia Hohn thanked CANSCAIP for its support and encouragement. The story she’s struggled with over the years, Malaika’s Costume, won the  Helen Issobel Sissons Canadian Children’s Award and will be published by Groundwood Books in 2016.  Nadia also wrote a feature  “Who Will Write Our Stories?” article for the Fall 2014 Issue of Canadian Children’s Book News.

Lana Button signed a contract for another Willow picture book with Kids Can Press for 2016, tentatively entitled  Willow’s Picture Day Smile

In April 2014, Ellen Jaffe worked with students at the Hamilton Hebrew Academy (grades 3-7) on a poetry and art project about the Holocaust, to help them understand and empathize with children of that time. Some of the students' poems and artwork will be published in the Hamilton Spectator's "OUR PULSE" page on Tuesday, Oct. 14.  This weekly section features work from students in the public and Catholic school boards and from private schools in the area.  Ellen and the teachers and principal at HHA were very impressed with the students' ability to connect with this painful time, and to express their feelings in writing and art.

PROGRAM: The Mystery of Writing Mysteries for Kids with Liam O’Donnell

Liam O’Donnell is an award-winning author, educator and literacy advocate. He has created over 35 graphic novels and books, including Max Finder Mysteries, Graphic Guide Adventures, and Geeked Out Mysteries. The first book in his upcoming series, Battle for Minecraft, will be published in November, and his new series, Tank & Fizz, comes out in Spring 2015. Liam teaches Grade 1 in Toronto, where he uses video games and other alternative sources of literacy to engage reluctant readers.

(Liam and PYI co-coordinator, Lorna Poplak, chat after the meeting.)

The Mystery Behind the Writer

Liam O’Donnell admits to being empowered by a strange inner mantra:  “I don’t know.” When he first applied for the position of editor at Owl Magazine some 20 years ago, he was instead offered another opportunity: Could he take over the writing of ‘Mighty Mites' (originally written by Emily Hearns and illustrated by Mark Thurman)? With his media writing background, he seemed a natural. Despite having no clue about whether he could do it or not, he agreed, took the Mites into outer space and gave them superpowers. Many years later, when Owl editors felt 30 years of Mighty Mites had taken them everywhere they could possibly go, they asked if Liam had any other ideas.

Writing the Mystery

While inwardly chanting his mantra, outwardly he said, “Sure.” He asked the editors for the weekend to formulate his thoughts.  While he had no idea whether he could write a mystery, he knew he liked Encyclopedia Brown. What if he did something like that in comic-book form? Owl signed him on for three trial episodes of Max Finder which ended up continuing for another 12 years.  

As Liam fumbled (his word) through 30 mysteries, he soon understood that each was a puzzle to be layered with truth, red herrings, suspects and alibis. Of course, says he, there is no murdering in middle-grade mysteries.  Theft, vandalism, sabotage, talent shows that end in disaster because things go  missing-these are the only possible crimes. Still they were fun to create, and he learned that adding elements of mystery to any genre is a great way to get a story going.

Regarding writing series, he’s learned to involve a growing cast of characters in a central location. Tank and Fizz is his new series involving a troll and goblin who live under a mountain. In it, text and comics tell a kind of diesel-punk-noir detective story about a war between technology and wizards using magic and gadgets. The Case of the Slime Stampede will be out with Orca in the spring of 2015. 

The Mystery of the Market

Fast forward through some 35+ books, (Liam wrote System Shock in 2008 and many Max Finder Mystery novels).  A lack of consistent income made him take up teaching grade 1 five years ago. In the classroom he’s known for using alternative text, comic books, graphic novels and even video games to encourage literacy. He says that while in 1999, graphic novels were not condoned as quality reading materials for the schools, today they are actively pursued. Currently, video games enjoy that same mark of disdain.

Just as he uses non-traditional avenues to get kids reading, he’s also pursuing “indie” publishing methods to get his books out there. He hates contracts (and the hit-and-miss route of pursuing them) and feels that the 25% industry standard royalty rate on ebooks is blatantly unfair. He began with Ganked, a story he intended as a 15,000 word Orca Soundings that somehow overflowed the box into a 25,000 word YA. Instead of hunting for someone to publish this stand-alone, he put on a publisher’s hat and hired editors and designers to help format the book. He says he’s never had so much fun in his life. He notes that life became too busy for him to properly market the work, and he intends to pay more attention to that aspect in the future.

When he was approached by a book packager with an offer to write a 20,000-word Minecraft book in three weeks for $2,000, he instantly declined but recognized the potential of such a project. He decided to write and publish the novel on his own. This way he can put out a series before his young readers tire of the video game. Watch for Battle for Minecraft: Descent into Overworld.

Liam loves the mystery of the new choices and opportunities and thinks CANSCAIP can potentially play a huge roll in assisting us all with these ventures.  Will his indie books succeed or will traditionally published books triumph and will both happily coincide? I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know.   As he says, this mantra charges him. “Not knowing can either fill you with fear or thrill you with opportunity.” It’s clear that Liam is thrilled.

Our next meeting topic: WAR WRITING--details to follow
Room 224, Northern District Library, 40 Orchard View Blvd., Toronto

Parking: There are several Green P's within walking distance.
Transit: Just north of the Eglinton subway stop on the Yonge line.

Interested in starting a CANSCAIP meting in your community? Contact the office about help, seed money, and more.

(Authors Anne Gray and Gillian Chan after the meeting.)


  • Thursday, October 16, 2014 6:53 AM | Sylvia McNicoll
    "Our Pulse" in Tues October 14 Hamilton Spectator published Ellen Jaffe's students stories and poetry on the Holocaust. Wow! You would swear the young writers were actual victims. What a fabulous teacher Ellen Jaffe must be. Glad she announced the work at CANSCAIP or I would have never known it was her behind all that creativity. Great that The Hamilton Spectator publishes and encourages students' work like this too.
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