Barbara Nickel

Illustrations by Gillian Newland (

Announcing…A Boy Asked the Wind

A new picture book by Barbara Nickel
Illustrations by Gillian Newland


To _____, an Arrow


Of Silken Speech and Specious Shoe
A Traitor is the Bee
His service to the newest Grace
Present continually

The Yarrow Graces—magnolia, forsythia, peach, even the bleeding heart–have been serviced lately. Town abloom on the first day of Poetry Month; thank you Emily Dickinson for getting it right—spring always seems—at least in this part of the world, not on the prairies where I grew up—somehow too gorgeous, masking the inevitable sting; the other day a violist died.

I opened a gallery of a book yesterday for the first time—The Gorgeous Nothings by Emily Dickinson. It was a gift (thank you, S.!) and contains Emily’s envelope writings, lines written on flaps and seals and envelopes folded and cut into pointed arrows and pointless arrows, and from senders like Otis Lord and Abigail Cooper and Josiah Gilbert Holland. There are several indexes at the back that read litany-like:

Index of Envelopes with Columns
Index of Envelopes with Multidirectional Text
Index of Envelopes with Pencilled Divisions

They are pictorial indexes so to turn a page is to find a new room in the gallery arrayed with her small envelopes. What grabbed my attention was one envelope in the shape of an arrow, with this at the top in her sloping hand:

A Pang is more
Conspicuous in Spring

Which exactly is, in a way I can’t explain, spring here.

Emily’s dress had a large pocket where she stashed her jottings and poems and notes. Also she rejected print publication of her poems. Which helps to make insubstantial those little pangs that tend to come in Spring–a shortlist not made or the crisp rejection card I received the other night, now lying around on my desk.

I found a poem in it and cut it into an arrow. Sending Happy Po Month from Yarrow.



in letting us

an egret.

You form
you know

have found
a place

for it.


(Which pub rejected? Tell me your answer and I might buy you a beer.)



The Missing Vivian Marple


He understood so much now…why Time in the garden had sometimes jumped far ahead, and sometimes gone backwards.

The quote is in the mind of Tom Long from Philippa Pearce’s novel Tom’s Midnight Garden. To read this book, even for the umpteenth time, even in snatches, is to escape Time but also to delight in its unraveling. There’s a scene when Tom, gone back to 1895 from the mid-twentieth century by means of a garden, finds himself without skates. His friend Hatty promises, in 1895, to hide her skates, when she grows too old for them or leaves the house, in a secret space under the floorboards of her room (Tom’s room in the present). Back in his present, Tom finds her skates and enters the 1895 garden with them in hand. There’s a brilliant moment when Hatty and Tom, children of different centuries, both hold the same pair of skates; they’ve tricked Time. “Time No Longer” says Tom near the book’s close.

Four months ago (four!) Time seemed to steal the whole morning as I searched in vain for Vivian Marple’s book of poetry, I Mention the Garden for Clarity. I wanted a garden quote to end the last post and nothing else would do. Where had Vivian gone? Her only book, published about twenty years ago by Quarry Press (long gone), not readily available and my only copy (signed I think) was mysteriously missing.

Now, months later, another copy (stamped by the National Library of Canada) finally in my hands, I’m searching again, this time for a quote that I might have used if I’d ended the last post in Vivian’s garden instead of Tom’s. Perhaps this, from “The Lamb”:

Imagine a woman in a blue dress

with a scar in the palm of her hand

who sings canticles on Wednesday

mornings as the magpies lift the

brown sky above the careful houses

of the suburb where you live…

Why does the woman have a scar in her palm? Why canticles? Why Wednesday mornings and magpies and why are the houses careful?

I love canticles, just as, several pages later, I rejoice to come upon the word chalice in “statements about Margaretha and the cosmos”. The opening:

She is Margaretha, marigold, marry gold woman on the front porch. On the step is the mustard seed and the cook book. It is 1966.

I ask, “Why marry gold woman?” even as I savour the mustard seed and the cook book on the step. I ask “Why 1966?” Still after all these years new questions arise from her strange and fierce and original poems, reminding me of another poet. Who was it that wrote–

Of Silken Speech and Specious Shoe

A Traitor is the Bee…?


The capitals should give her

away but I’ll leave it here

anyway as twenty minutes

elapsed a long, long time ago.



Poetry in the Garden

O little bird, what wild
journey, what storm and sand
gave you so still
into my hand?

You’re right if you guessed the quote is by me. It’s from a poem that hasn’t been written yet – who knows what and when the rest of it will be? The sand/hand rhyme came suddenly, but the whole poem might take months or years.

Here’s another poem that uses “sand” on the end of a line:

I’m a lettuce seed,
small as a grain of sand.

My home is underground.

I can see the earthy ground,
see the distant shadows of worms,
and hear the water dripping.

I dream to see my home outside.

I like the way seed and sand (grain) are drawn together not only by their actual size but by their sound, the opening “s” and closing “d”. And although sand and seed are equally miniscule, each lives in a vastly different home; this contrast draws you in.

The poem is by Song-ah*, who was in Grade Three when she wrote it last May, sitting on a stump with others of us by the newly planted garden at Yarrow Community School. We studied the seeds, planted them, wrote poems, waited, watched, and then after weeks measured the seedlings and wrote more poems about the lettuce teenagers.


In June when the lettuce was grown, we made a salad lunch, picked lettuce and chocolate mint and edible pansies, added local berries and a raspberry vinaigrette I’d brought from home. Kids on lunch recess stopped by, grabbed a plate and loaded up until we ran out of plates and used napkins instead. It was a wonderful celebration.


Now in late September, lettuce long gone, we might gather around the pumpkins and make more poems and maybe some soup. Like a poem, the garden grows and bears gifts in its own time, deliciously oblivious to our bells and schedules and instant click phones:

“He understood so much now…why Time in the garden had sometimes jumped far ahead, and sometimes gone backwards.”


*Thanks to Song-ah for permission to post her poem.

Gift in the Dunes

In case you haven’t noticed from previous posts (all two of them), each one ends with a mystery quote, its writer revealed at the start of the next post. I’m sure it’s been a difficult four months for my numerous followers to wait to discover the writer of April’s quote—here it is revealed at last:

…and should some limb of the Devil/Destroy the view by cutting down an ash: Yeats, “A Prayer On Going Into My House,” 1919.

Summer of fire and ash, of brown lawns and berries ripening before their time; I saw bear scat on the dyke the other day, they said on the news that bears have run out of food and are coming into town. Summer of the campfire ban – I imagine my kids telling theirs,

“Now when I was small, we used to sit in a circle around a fire, and make these things called s’mores.”

“Really? Tell me more, Dad, what were s’mores?”

“Well, you take a marshmallow…

Rustling stalks of dried peas, shriveled tomato leaves, promises of rain, it keeps wanting to but doesn’t. The eeriness of it; tell me again, what’s rain?


In Quebec last month it was just as hot the day we visited the dunes by Tadoussac, overlooking the St. Lawrence. I had been sitting on the beach absently digging a hole while my kids sand-skied down the steep dunes behind and above me, again and again. I decided I needed sunscreen and water from the parking lot above so began scaling up the hot sand like an insect, digging my hands in, feeling the scalding scrape-i-ness of it. And then there was something, down in the sand under my hands.

A bird. A hummingbird. How long dead? Where from? What forest? What flower? How did it die and how did it happen, in that enormous space of dune, to find its final resting place exactly in my meandering path? My son cradled it, sun playing on its green iridescence.

We placed it in the hole I’d dug, gave it a burial there.

“O little bird, what wild/ journey, what storm and sand/gave you so still/into my hand?”


Thyme & Time & Ash

Twenty minutes is an ocean of time: Richard Scrimger, quoted by Kathy Stinson to a small gathering of us (including a writerly dog) in the front room of Peter Carver’s old, family farmhouse at the Seaside Writing Retreat/Workshop ( the September before last.

You could smell the Atlantic. Hours every day to write. It was easy to believe in time with no end, or at least to forget, for a time, time’s constraints. Twenty minutes…she said a day or two before our departure, and already I felt the gnawing return to the land of parceled time when I would wonder at those words. What, really, can I accomplish in twenty minutes?

Write a blog post (ha!)

Think about a character; write notes toward a setting; read what I’ve already written (Kathy’s wisdom, I think)

Watch crows congregate in the mountain ash outside my office window

Last week when I was swimming in the Pacific off the coast of Costa Rica, time opened again and also when I walked the trail from the beach with Freddy, our wise guide, who (tour over, tips already paid) stopped suddenly on his own time to fix his scope on a violet-crowned woodnymph hummingbird to give me this:


Its stillness seemed outside of time.

The hummingbird in Elise Partridge’s poem “Hummingbird Koan”, from her book The Exiles’ Gallery to be released this month ( is still for us for oceans of time because fixed on a page but also fleeting because of the poem’s brevity and the swiftness of her onomatopoeic word choices, wish-rush and Dzzz dzzz dzzz whirring by your ear. Elise told me on January 24 that she was hoping to live to see the release of her book in April. She died on January 31.

Last summer I was throwing extra kale (anti-oxidant) and thyme into a soup for her, as if time could somehow be released by its twin sound in a scent that might escape the measures of our minutes and teaspoons, thyme for her, I threw it in, time for her, thyme, thyme…how could a woman who gave so lavishly of her time run out of time?

The bright morning of her memorial I was sitting in my office pondering these things only to be interrupted by a chainsaw’s drone; the neighbours had decided to chop their mountain ash. My view bereft of leaping squirrels and bunches of red berries that ferment and get the crows drunk; now crowded with Little Tykes toys – blue and yellow plastic picnic table, green and yellow plastic tractor, turquoise and yellow plastic slide. Elise would have mourned, too. Also would have known, in a snap I think, the answer to who was it that said “…and should some limb of the devil/Destroy the view by cutting down an ash…”?


About Text & Image & the Wonderful Gillian Newland

I set out initially wanting to write about Maurice Sendak, maybe a few ideas from a lecture that he gave – “Sources of Inspiration” – back in 1983. It had been many years since I read that lecture in preparation for a course I was to give on Writing Children’s Literature at UBC. Now I found myself, for reasons I won’t go into, at UBC again, in a carrel in Koerner Library, skimming the lecture and trying to write a blog post in 20 minutes, impossible task. On the first page is not, as you might expect, a reference to Where the Wild Things Are (that comes hilariously and brilliantly later), but a mention of Ezra Jack Keats. Which reminded me of The Snowy Day, which I had just a few days previously read three times over to a bunch of preschoolers at story time. One of my favourite parts – and theirs, too—is when Peter trails a stick in the snow and you can see the single new track beside his boot tracks.


From The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats

The illustration pinpoints where he picks up the stick and begins to drag it along (you get the feeling he’s dawdling), but you don’t get the word “stick” until the page is turned. This is the true brilliance of an illustrated book – when pictures and text lean on each other to fill in the missing information. Remember Pat Hutchins’ magnificent Rosie’s Walk? No mention at all is made of the fox in the text, but there he is, under a dump of flour and chased by a hive of angry bees as Rosie (the hen, his prey) strolls blissfully on. The marriage of text and image in the hands of a single artist/writer like Sendak, Keats, Hutchins and Brett is of course ideal.

I’m often asked, when I tell people about my forthcoming picture book, if I’m drawing the pictures, too. I laugh. No, I tell them, you wouldn’t ever want to buy a book with any visual art by me! What many people don’t realize is that when a publisher accepts a picture book text (unless the author is one of the lucky handful who can successfully do both), they need to find a professional illustrator to do the rest. I’m thrilled with Red Deer Press’s choice for my forthcoming book, A Boy Asked the Wind – Gillian Newland. You can view her exquisite illustration of the wind churning the sea on this website. I’m so grateful to Gillian for generously giving me permission to feature it, since the cover image of the book isn’t yet available. I love the swell of the wave and the fish carried along and within it, the tiny details of froth and marbling on the sea’s surface that somehow also convey hugeness, and all of this super-realism juxtaposed with the hint of a magic wind in the background; this is no ordinary wind, no ordinary ocean.

And…speaking of oceans, who was it that said, “Twenty minutes is an ocean of time…”?


A Boy Asked the Wind has been shortlisted for the Ruth and Sylvia Schwartz Children’s Book Award in the Picture Book Category! The winner will be announced on June 22, 2016. Check out details here:

A Boy Asked the Wind.

Trailer by Rascal Media

A Boy Asked the Wind was recently reviewed in Quill & Quire:


Barbara speaks about A Boy Asked the Wind on CBC’s North by Northwest.



Video by Shaw TV of Barbara presenting and talking about A Boy Asked the Wind.

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