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This month, I'd like to introduce to you The Berenice Bell, a junior fiction novel that I published in 2020 and a great summer read for middle graders. Though the book came out last year, it was actually born 20 years ago. Let me tell you the story: once upon a time, long ago, and far, far away . . .

How The Berenice Bell came to be

When my daughter, Maddy, was just a little thing, she and I used to spend quite a lot of time toodling around our tiny town. We would go on wonder walks to seek out the charming and mysterious and unusual quarters. Downtown Guelph (where we lived) has old limestone buildings and small streets at odd angles and a fair few interesting things to discover.

The main road went pretty much straight from downtown to our house over mostly flat ground. That was the easy way home—not an inconsequential consideration when lugging groceries and a sturdy four-year-old who claimed her legs were so tired they were about to fall off. But we were in search of magic. So usually, we’d walk a roundabout way that took us past more interesting things.

Maddy, at the age she was when she listened to the bell (with her beloved, long-departed Bella).

Often, we’d go up the hill to the Church of Our Lady and then behind, which led us past a boxy school. What we loved about that school was the bell. It sat out front on a squat block that was mismatched with the bell’s grace. Who would put a beautiful bell on a chunk of cement like that—and why? Every time we went past, we wondered about it and stopped for a moment to appreciate the bell.

One time, Maddy asked me to lift her up to the bell so she could touch it. She put her chubby arms around its big belly and held tight. Then—I suppose because bells have voices—she put her ear to it and listened.

“I can hear the children, Mamma!” she said, “I can hear the children from the school.”

The bell that started it all . . .

What a strange and chilling idea!

I don’t remember what I said to her in response, because in that moment, the story came to me. I guess I’ll never again be hit on the head by the muse in quite that way. I say hit, because that’s what it felt like—something entering my brain from outside. I rushed us home. Feed the child, start writing. Time to take the wee one to her dad’s. Keep going. I wrote the entire first draft in a weekend.

Afterwards, with visits to the local archives, and of course, lots of rewriting, I filled in more details. But it’s a mystery how the story came to me or why. Over the years, I’ve edited and tweaked and added some things based on feedback from Maddy and her friends when they were older (and very good feedback it was). I went through the obligatory rounds of rejections from publishers and wondered how the story would ever see the light of day. But I was never willing to let it go, because it was given to me. I felt responsible to give it life.

The Berenice Bell lay dormant for years while I was too busy and didn’t know what to do next . . . until I decided to just do it. I took courses on indie publishing. I hired an editor. I’ve long since moved away from Guelph, but was back there for a short time one November and, by happenstance, walked right past the bell and was able to snap some photos. It was a gloomy, wet day, which was perfect for capturing the inspiration for the story.

Now that The Berenice Bell is finished and out in the world, I still have that sense of responsibility. It feels important to me that I give a portion of my earnings from the book to Paul Hansell Foundation, an organization that I support. If the story can not only be enjoyed, but also do some good in the world . . . well, I'll feel I'm honouring the muse.

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