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Visiting writers help Sea to Sky youth discover a love for storytelling

Authors in the Schools program brings acclaimed writers to local schools

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For some local students, it wasn't the urging of teachers or parents that got them to finish their very first book, but a face-to-face meeting with its author that brought the story to life.

And that's exactly the goal of Stella Harvey's Authors in the Schools program, which connects local, Canadian and First Nations writers with kids from across the Sea to Sky.

"It just makes it real for the students to be able to meet the author and hear where their book comes from and why it was so important to them," said Harvey, who has been running the program as part of the Whistler Writers Festival for three years.

Aimed at inspiring young readers and writers to tell the stories that matter the most to them, the program has previously featured a who's who of the local and national literary scene, including Governor General's Award nominee Joseph Boyden and Aboriginal author and journalist Richard Wagamese.

This year brings in prolific young fiction writer Eric Walters as well as Alberta's Patti Laboucane-Benson, author of the graphic novel The Outside Circle, which was the culmination of nearly two decades of research and counselling at-risk Aboriginal youth.

"The entire reason I wrote this graphic novel was to be able to reach a younger generation and to engage them in a story of our history and a story of our healing," Laboucane-Benson said.

The Outside Circle tells the story of Pete, a gang affiliate from Edmonton's inner city who wrestles with poverty, violence and his struggle to reclaim a positive identity as an Aboriginal man.

The story, which stems from Laboucane-Benson's PhD dissertation on historic trauma healing, eventually blossomed into a graphic novel she hopes will engage a new audience.

"I had to think about publishing a book for academics that would be read by academics but nobody else," she said. "I wanted to push this out to a broader audience. I wanted to breathe life into the findings of my dissertation and tell a story."

Now the Metis writer is bringing her graphic novel to schools for the first time, and she hopes it speaks to both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal readers alike.

"(The book) is for every Canadian to understand how our history has impacted some Aboriginal people, and the very hopeless and powerless situation they're left with as a result of our colonial history, as well as what it's going to take to heal from that," Laboucane-Benson said. "For a non-Aboriginal audience, I really hope they get an insight into a world they have no idea about, and maybe it will unpack and throw away some of those negative assumptions about who's in Canada's jails and why they're in jail."

The Authors in the Schools initiative has not only encouraged kids to pick up a book, but for the First Nations students taking part it's also deepened the connection to their own culture, according to Xet'olacw Community School teacher Joanna Hindle.

"Stella's work to bring together First Peoples writers and students in the Sea to Sky is an example of cultural responsiveness — showing students in a meaningful way that First Peoples' cultural knowledge, that First Peoples' history and life experiences, are legitimate and important and worthy of examining in our schools," she said via email.

Each participating school will also receive copies of the visiting authors' books, which are studied in class, ensuring that the program's legacy will live on for years to come.

"I'm just really happy that people have supported us to make this happen," Harvey said of the initiative, which was funded in part by the BC Arts Council, the Whistler Blackcomb Foundation and the provincial government.

On Oct. 16, students from Squamish, Pemberton and Mount Currie will be bussed to Whistler Secondary School for a presentation by Laboucane-Benson and The Outside Circle illustrator Kelly Mellings. Walters will give presentations to elementary and high school students on Oct. 19.

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