Karen Bass

Karen Bass

Hythe, AB

Graffiti Knight (Pajama Press, 2013)

Drummer Girl (Coteau Books, 2011)


Libraries are dangerous places and mine is a cautionary tale. For many years, my love of story was satisfied by reading. I grew up in northern Alberta, graduated from high school, worked, married, went to university (getting a B.A. in psychology from UVic), worked at home raising my three children, and all the while gave little thought to writing. Once in a while I would write a small article for the local paper, usually about a son&;s hockey team, but that was it.

When my youngest child was four years old, I went to work at the local library. A reader&;s dream job (except for the way my list of books I wanted to read got endlessly longer). After a few years, a seed was planted and, unknown to me, began to sprout. That seed was the realization that I had as much writing ability as some of the published authors whose books I shelved each day. So when a friend suggested that we give the local writing group a try, I jumped at the idea.

I had dabbled with watercolour painting for several years and thought I was fairly skilled. But from the very beginning, writing felt like settling into my own cosy armchair: it fit and I knew it was where I belonged. Now I can&;t imagine not writing, and it&;s all the fault of my local library.

In 2011 I left the library to write full-time, though in truth I love libraries too much to not return. I am always borrowing books and encourage everyone to follow suit.

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Karen loves engaging with readers of all ages, so she does very little reading and a lot of storytelling. She likes to ask questions and get students to think about things if the group&;s size permits. In general she speaks about what writers have in common, how she became a writer, why she&;s so interested in WWII, how long it took to get published, and how visiting the places changed and influenced her stories. She uses that to point out the benefits of travel. Inevitably, talking about any of her books includes the importance of editing to the writing process.

Graffiti Knight Presentation:

This is Karen&;s newest novel. After setting up the story and reading one page to give students a taste of the story, she talks about where the idea came from and what went into the writing of it. There is some overlap with her general presentation because of the WWII elements in the new story. She also has pictures from her research trip to Leipzig, Germany, where the story is set, and she enjoys relating a few of her travel research adventures. She&;s excited to be able to tell students about a different part of WWII, namely the aftermath in Germany, since it is a topic not generally covered in fiction or junior non-fiction.

General WWII presentation:

Three of Karen&;s novels deal with three different aspects of the German experience in and after the war. She introduces each story briefly, reading one page at most. Again she use pictures from her visits to places in Germany that feature in her stories, as well as pictures from WWII to discuss these experiences, why she&;s interested in them and where the story ideas came from. Overall, Karen finds that students and adults respond very well to pictorial presentations, which serve to bring the history and setting to life. Karen does have some WWII artifacts that she shows with this talk (her helmets, in particular, get a lot of interest). While students do get a heavy dose of WWII history in this talk, she works to capture their interest through storytelling rather than lecturing. One of her primary goals is to acknowledge the horror of the war but also to challenge stereotypes and help students realize that you can&;t judge a whole group of people by the actions of some of them.

Presentation type: Reading

Recommended levels: Junior (4-6), Intermediate (7-8), High school (9-12)

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Character development:

A 1-2 hour workshop. Karen starts with getting the whole group to create a character together (which almost always ends up being a stereotype), then uses that to discuss how characters impact plot, what goes into creating an interesting character and the kinds of things you need to think about (and why we don’t want stereotypes). The students break into small groups and do a fun mix-and-match exercise. She gets them to write a simple description, in paragraph or point form, of their mix-and-match characters. If time permits, the students also do a more serious exercise that includes using a character inventory (she gives the teacher a few samples). Also if time permits, a sharing time showcases what the students came up with. Again, if time permits, Karen gets the students to write a paragraph describing the characters bedroom in a way that reveals personality, and encourages a few to share their results. The sharing times often lead to good discussions of how editing is used to improve writing.

Plot development:

A 1-2 hour workshop that starts with talking about what plot is, how different characters drive different plots, how scenes need to have causality (using dominoes as a visual), and the importance and types of conflict. The group talks about the basics of the plot (inciting incident, rising action, climax, and dénouement). With elementary students Karen breaks that down into the simplest form, using Robert Munsch as an example, of the character taking three tries to solve the problem. With her help, they create a simple plot as a group. Then the students break into smaller groups and Karen hands out pictures that have children in them, and the groups brainstorm simple plots inspired by the pictures. Karen goes around during this stage and encourages students, mostly by asking a lot of questions. If time permits, a spokesperson from each group presents their plot so the group can discuss its strengths and how it could be made stronger (if applicable). For older students Karen encourages them to employ a slightly more complicated plot outline involving barriers and reversals, stressing the idea of successive barriers being more difficult with the climax involving the most difficult situation of all.

Other workshops Karen developed during the course of her writer-in-residence term, and presented as workshops to adults, include editing/revising, memoir writing, setting/description, and publishing. They are available on request.

Presentation type: Workshop

Recommended levels: Junior (4-6), Intermediate (7-8), High school (9-12)