Category Archives: Alumni

Alumnus Joe Frank on Children’s Lit

Home-schooling during self-isolation has meant many people are attending to children’s literature and authors like never before. UWaterloo alumnus and picture book author Joe Frank and I had a virtual conversation about the value of children’s literature in a pandemic, what he enjoyed about UWaterloo, and the process of publishing his first book. Which is, in another timely twist, about a barber. Read on!

JLH: You’re a graduate of the now-defunct Independent Studies program–but the bulk of your courses were in English. What made you gravitate to our department?
JF: My plan applying to university was to study English Literature. I loved writing fiction and I wanted to do it myself. I entered the Independent Studies program at Waterloo, completed a number of self-directed courses, and wrote a collection of linked short stories. I gravitated to UWaterloo’s English department because, though I loved the independent work, I wanted community with fellow students, the guidance of English professors, and many of the courses related to the work I was doing on my own. The English Department’s courses were just too good to pass up. They introduced me to critical ideas on such subjects as alienation and isolation, the history of the novel, and Irish literature, to name a few that left a particularly lasting impression on me. I was lucky to find many great mentors, including Danine Farquharson, John North, and Whitney Hoth. I was like a dual citizen of the Independent Studies and English departments and recall those years as some of the most rewarding of my life.

JLH: Can you tell us a bit about how you ended up writing for children?
JF: Before I wrote I illustrated. Until I was 19 or 20, drawing was what I spent most of my time doing. I put that away, foolishly, when I began taking writing seriously as an undergrad. I focused on writing through my years at UWaterloo. I spent time at the Humber School for Writers and did a Master’s degree in Creative Writing at the University of Toronto. I tried to do a PhD, but while working on that I felt I was no longer doing the writing I wanted to do, and the absence left by my abandonment of drawing became very clear to me. What I really wanted was a life in which I could do both. By then, I was married and the father of three children, to whom I read several picture books every evening. I realized I was studying the picture books. Clear, concise short stories have always been my passion. The best picture books are clear and concise, with great illustrations to go with the prose. It seemed obvious that I should give this a try. It was while walking home, having dropped my kids off at school, that I came up with the idea for my rhyming kids book Arthur Garber the Harbor Barber. The words “harbor” and “barber” rhymed so perfectly and their cadence, said aloud, matched the pace of my footsteps. I wanted a name to go with them and I began saying the name of Canadian actor Victor Garber along with them. I couldn’t use his name in the story, so I chose the name Arthur for its phonetic similarity to the other words. At home, I quickly wrote the first draft. The book’s title, it’s premise, the rhymes, along with everything I had learned from reading so many picture books and studying the appetites of my kids’ imaginations – it all seemed to come together rather spontaneously. I allowed myself to listen to my silly ideas. I shared the subsequent drafts with my family. They were encouraging. I did some drawings to go with the words. Then I shared this rough work with a friend in publishing. I think she feared the story I begged to send her would turn out to be garbage. But when she saw it, she loved it and presented it to the publisher. It wasn’t long before I was signing a publishing contract.

JLH: What surprised you most about the process of publishing Arthur Garber the Harbor Barber?
JF: I was most surprised by my immediate desire to start writing and illustrating another book straight away. As soon as the final page of Arthur Garber the Harbor Barber was accepted, I was ready. There was no lag, no desire to not do it again, so shortage of idea number two, three, or four. I’ve published fiction for adults, and I love writing that, but that process is as torturous as it is pleasing and rewarding. I never know how serious I’m supposed to pretend I am. I’ve published academic research. That was considerably more difficult and, I’m sorry to say, not my passion, though I do reflect on that process fondly and regard the importance of research. It just wasn’t for me; I didn’t want to do it again straight away. But with the picture book it was different, a new thrill without the need to recover from the process. Perhaps this is because I get to do the two things I love most – writing and illustrating. Or maybe it’s because I have a short attention span, an inner restlessness, and the desire to do anything that impresses my kids.

JLH: Those of us social distancing with children at home have noticed how active children’s authors have been in reaching out to families at home. Do you see children’s authors as having a special role?
JF: I do think that children’s authors and artists have a special role to play during social distancing. I don’t think they’re obligated to fulfill that special role, but if they’re willing and able then they’re uniquely positioned to bring a lot of joy to kids and some relief to guardians. As an illustrator, I’ve been connecting with families online, participating in What Should I Draw campaigns. Kids propose illustration ideas and artists create them. I’ve also created and shared personalized colouring pages online and to friends and family. Other children’s literature creators are sharing rhymes, stories, illustration workshops, and recorded read-alongs. As a parent, I can say my kids have had a lot of fun with these activities. I believe it’s helped them process some anxiety they may feel being pent up at home and constantly exposed to a narrative of human vulnerability. At the very least, maybe it’s entertained them when they’ve needed a brief distraction.

JLH: Finally, because it’s fun to ask, what are you currently reading? Children’s book suggestions are especially welcome!
JF: I’m currently reading Charles Portis’ True Git. It’s a fun, succinct story full of truly engaging characters, meaningful stakes, and a lot of heart. I’m also reading – and I’m embarrassed to admit I didn’t read this as a teenager or undergraduate – Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics. When I can sneak it in, I’ve been picking away at Jeff Smith’s complete Bone comic. And to my kids I’ve been reading a lot of Curious George and William Joyce stories lately.

Evan Munday: Alumnus, Author… Publishing?

Evan Munday
This is another post where we revisit alumni we have profiled in the past, as a way of looking at how careers evolve. In this case we follow-up with Evan Munday, who we last profiled in 2014, when he had been nominated for an award for his  children’s series, The Dead Kid Detective Agency, which features episodes from Canadian history. His life has definitely changed! Thanks to Evan for participating.

JLH: It’s been six years since we chatted with you last; how has your career progressed?
EM: I’ve stuck with the whole book publishing thing. There are now two additional books in my Dead Kid Detective Agency series (Loyalist to a Fault and Connect the Scotts). I did a stint as festival director at The Word On the Street Toronto festival, and – for over two years – I’ve worked as Publicity Manager on books for young readers at Penguin Random House Canada. I’m still in the book publicity business, but have moved to a larger publishing house, and has focused on kids’ books: from picture books to young adult.

JLH: Is this a direction you anticipated? Was it a logical move, or did it just feel organic?
EM: It wasn’t one I had anticipated, but since I was writing kids’ books on the side, it did make a fair amount of sense. I was working within that children’s publishing sphere as an author, so the hiring folks at Penguin Random House – reasonably – felt I might do an okay job handling some publicity in that sphere, as well. That said, after the festival job, I wasn’t entirely sure I wanted to continue working in book publicity – it can be physically and emotionally draining, as fun as it sometimes is – but the kids’ book world presented new challenges.

JLH: Was there a steep learning curve? What do you wish you’d known beforehand?
EM: Publicity for children’s books, as you can imagine, can be very different from adult books. There are different media contacts and venues, different types of events, so there was a lot to learn. I had experienced some of these things as an author, though, so I wasn’t starting from scratch. That said, I wish I’d known how big the YA festival circuit is in the U.S. Canada has book festivals with YA programming, but only about one dedicated YA festival. But south of the border, there are a whole number of large festivals – often taking over massive high schools for a weekend – featuring the biggest names in young adult fiction. That was something of a revelation to me.

JLH: How has it been balancing your identity as a writer with your position in publishing? Do you find there are perks as a writer to being publishing?
EM: That’s hard to say as I haven’t written all that much since taking up this current position – though that has little to do with the work. More importantly, I recently became a father, which means that writing books has taken a bit of a backseat. (Sleep has somehow become more coveted than writing time.) That said, I wrote all my previous books while working full time in publishing, so it’s just a matter of setting aside some time for my own writing. Sometimes, there’s a temptation to act as your own publicist for your books – after all, you know what to do, right? But I try to make sure I’m supporting my great publicist at ECW Press, and doing what I can without stepping on anyone’s toes. Of course, there are perks to being a writer who knows how the other side of the ‘curtain’ works: you know who to suggest your publicist send books to, you know (to some degree) what works in promoting books and what’s largely a waste of time. I would say the greatest advantage is that it gives you realistic expectations about writing. If an author doesn’t know how publishing works, they may not realize how few books are reviewed in media, how difficult it is for your book to wind up on a table in a bookstore. Having realistic expectations can make everything a more pleasant, less stressful experience.

JLH: Finally, because I do like to ask, what are you reading for fun?
EM: Probably not the answer you’re expecting, but I am finally reading Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte. I’ve listened to the Kate Bush song for years, so I figured now is time to hear what all this fuss is about! (It’s really great – a real page-turner! I don’t know why I waited so long.) But I can recommend few more recent books, as well. The Cursed Hermit, the second Hobtown Mystery Story by Kris Bertin and Alexander Forbes, is one of the best, weirdest comic series in a long time. Like The Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew written by David Lynch and directed by Guy Maddin. And Andre Alexis’s Days by Moonlight is a wild, mind-altering road trip into rural Ontario unlike anything you’ve ever read. Finally, Amanda Leduc’s Disfigured looks at fairy and folktales (some you know well, some you’ve never heard of) through the lens of disability, and if you – like me – like nothing more than analyzing stories, figuring out what they’re telling us and why – you will love this book.


Alumna Sarasvathi Kannan wins HeForShe Contest

Congratulations to UWaterloo English alumna Sarasvathi Kannan, who participated in the HeForShe writing contest, winning not one but two categories! In Poetry, her piece “The Student and the Goose” was awarded; in fiction, it was “Divine Intervention.” You can read her award-winning pieces on the HeForShe website. The HeForShe competition is open to students, faculty, staff, and alumni. Other English Department people contributed to the anthology this year, from undergraduates Juliana Suderman, Nadia Formisano, and Julia Cowderoy to PhD alumnus Morteza Dehghani.

Alumna Kate Nichols: From Co-op to IBM

Co-op to IBM
Alumna Kate Nichols gives some of the best arguments for co-op I have seen! Her experience clearly led her to where she is today–read on to find out how it happened. –JLH

JLH: Can you tell us a bit about how you came to select UWaterloo English? Was it an obvious choice?
KN: I remember considering several schools. After researching the programs and taking a few campus tours, Waterloo was the top school on my list. I liked the size of the school — not too big, not too small. It felt like a University that was pushing the envelope and doing things a little bit differently with a greater variety of program options than several other schools. I didn’t seek out co-op, but once I became aware of the program and its benefits I was all in. I had a wonderful meeting with an Academic Advisor (thank you, Eric Breugst!) who helped me to select the Honours Arts & Business co-op program. From there, I found that the English Rhetoric and Professional Writing program was perfectly geared to my interest in communication, argumentation, visual design, and semiotics. Ultimately, the choice of Waterloo and English was obvious for me.

JLH: Some admit they found the idea of co-op intimidating. How did you find the transition from classroom to co-op?
KN: Apart from selecting my program, choosing co-op was the best decision I made for my undergrad. I remember the first round of interviews feeling quite stressful as I learned about the process and deadlines. Not to mention feeling a bit intimidated during my first round of interviews! Once I got the hang of it, co-op interview season was much less stressful. I was able to work at several amazing companies: Open Text, CIBC, Slipstream (startup), and IBM. Being able to rotate between school and work helped me to pay for my undergrad degree without going into debt. I was able to apply what I learned at school to work and vise versa. And school in the summer is the best! If you haven’t done it before, trust me, it is awesome.

JLH: What made you decide to pursue a Masters at UWaterloo as well?
KN: During my final semesters at school, I started to seriously consider a Masters. I really enjoyed my courses and felt like I wanted to go deeper. I had also developed connections with several of the amazing professors in the Faculty of English who encouraged me to apply. I ended up starting a full-time job at IBM after completing my undergrad and working for a year before starting a full-time Masters degree. I was able to work part-time at IBM and take on a really interesting Research Assistant position with Professor Randy Harris and Professor Sarah Tolmie. Looking back, I’m not sure how I managed full-time school and two part-time jobs but somehow I made it work and had a really great year. My Major Research Project on multi-touch tabletop computing with Professor Neil Randall was a highlight of the year, as were the connections I made with my classmates.

Like my undergrad, I considered and was accepted to several different MA programs, but Waterloo again felt like the right fit. I did not take co-op during my Masters degree since I already had that experience from undergrad.

JLH: In what ways do you think your career trajectory has been shaped by your UWaterloo experience?
KN: I can’t tell you how often I connect with colleagues at the IBM Canada Lab in Toronto who are fellow UWaterloo grads, several who are also from the English Rhetoric and Professional Writing Program. I think my experience at Waterloo taught me many things that serve me daily in my current role — communications strategies, basic visual design, writing and editing skills, speech communications, to name a few. It also taught me how to collaborate with others, juggle many different priorities (remember co-op season!), ask the right questions, and to be curious about the people and the world around me.

At IBM, I am part of a team of talented Content Designers working on our Data & AI portfolio. We are constantly looking for ways to help our clients use our newest technology to solve problems. This involves writing content, of course, but it also working with the Design team to provide design and content recommendations for the product UI, collaborating with the Development teams to understand what we are building and why, and educating people about the importance and relevance of content for our clients. In 2017, I was able to take on a management role and really enjoy working with my team and am learning how to be a good manager.

Outside of my core role, my passion project at IBM is the IBMSTEM4Girls program. Our mission is to inspire girls who want to make a difference in the world and encourage them to consider opportunities provided by STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) careers. We hold events throughout the year, with our most significant event being a technology camp we run each summer (2020 will be the 21st year we have run a camp at the IBM Canada Lab in Toronto!). We often have our student interns volunteer for IBMSTEM4Girls — some of them from UWaterloo!

JLH: And finally, the fun question! Can you tell us about your favorite books of the last few years?
KN: From a personal perspective, I could not stop reading North of Normal and Nearly Normal, written by Canadian Cea Sunrise Pearson. From a professional perspective, I have recently started reading Designing Connected Content: Plan and Model Digital Products for Today and Tomorrow, by Carrie Hane and Mike Atherton. I can’t provide a review yet but it looks really interesting. And for reading to my children, I have to give a shout out to fellow grad Laura Baker and her books The Colour of Happy and My Friend Sleep.



Alumna Meredith Wagler on Making the Most of Co-op

Meredith Wagler
We hear this time and time again–the co-op program is a real draw for undergraduates. Here Alumna Meredith Wagler talks about co-op, as well as how she got the most out of it. Thanks to Meredith for participating! –JLH

JLH: Did you select UWaterloo English primarily because of co-op, or did you have other reasons as well?
MW: When I was choosing a university, UWaterloo’s co-op program was a huge draw for me. I knew I wanted to study English and work with words, so it was important for me to find a school with a solid English program. But I also wanted the chance to explore potential careers in English. When I told people that I was planning to study English, most would assume, “Oh, so you want to be a teacher?” I would explain that I wanted to be a writer, and I believed I had the chance to figure out what that meant through UW.

I also liked that UW offered two different streams for English students: Literature and Rhetoric & Professional Writing. When I first started at UW, I planned to take the Literature stream. But after I learned more about each stream, RPW felt like the better fit for me: a bit of lit, a lot of writing, and some very interesting courses.

JLH: How do you think co-op contributed to your career trajectory?
MW: With co-op, I could try out different kinds of work and discover what resonated with me. I worked at a summer camp (where I met my future spouse, incidentally), I tutored English at a college, and I tried both tech writing and marketing writing. This breadth of experience was key when I started to apply for jobs after graduation. I quickly found work drafting proposals for a local software company. And when I was ready for a change from that, I knew I had the skills, experience, and connections to move into another writing role. Throughout career changes, I’ve been able to adapt to new systems, procedures, and cultures easily, and I think that’s largely due to co-op.

JLH: What advice do you have for students about their co-op terms? Is there something you wish someone had told you?
MW: Talk with other students in your program, and find out which companies are giving students meaningful work. I had a couple of co-op jobs where most of my job involved copying and pasting. These experiences can be good opportunities to demonstrate initiative, but usually aren’t the best work experiences. Find out which companies are treating their co-ops like full-time employees, and make extra effort with those ones.

I’m now in the position where I mentor co-op students who come to work on our technical writing team at Oracle NetSuite. Our team aims to give co-ops a feel for what it means to be a full-time technical writer. Our co-ops are assigned to development teams and given full responsibility for a set of documentation during their time with us. I know how important this kind of experience is, so I want to help make sure the current generation of UW co-ops is getting the most out of their time with us.

JLH: When you think back to your classroom time, what stands out?
MW: I think of excellent, passionate professors. One of my favourites was Gary Draper, who taught Arts Writing. For that class, I wrote copy for a fictional Jane Austen festival–probably one of my favourite projects. Gary is now a neighbour of mine (the KW world can be very small), and he is as warm in real life as he was in the classroom. Aimée Morrison and Neil Randall were favourites on the RPW side. They had us designing websites, thinking about the relationships between text and image, and generally teaching us that the written word is still so very relevant.

Another highlight for me was summer terms. When I first started co-op, I thought that summer terms would be rough–who wants to be in school during the summer? But it turned out that those were some of my best times at UW. The feel around the campus was relaxed. My courses had fewer students in them, which made them more engaging. The walks to class were warm. You were more likely to find students studying on the ML patio than in the library. Some of my best connections at UW were made during those summer terms.

JLH: Finally, can you tell us about what is currently on your to-read list? 
MW: Oh, there are so many titles on my to-read list! I have a journal to track the books I want to read and rate the books I finish. I also listen to a podcast called “What Should I Read Next?“, and I’m always adding to the list based on that (it’s a bit of a problem). I usually have one fiction and one non-fiction book on the go. For fiction, I just finished reading Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie, and I would highly recommend it. A beautiful, heart-breaking, and powerful novel. For non-fiction, I recently finished the memoir Miracles and Other Reasonable Things by Sarah Bessey. Another five-star read. Up next, I’ve got Nemesis Games by James S.A. Corey (The fifth book in the sci-fi series The Expanse. I didn’t know I liked sci-fi books until I started this series.) and The Book of Joy by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, His Holiness the Dalai Lama, and Douglas Abrams. The order in which I read books depends on when a book is available from the library and whether someone else has put a hold on it. If there’s another hold on a book, you better believe I’m reading it fast.

Photo Credit: Camille Marie Photography

Alumna Kristin Larion on Why Waterloo

Kristin Larion

Alumna Kristin Larion has great memories of UWaterloo English. Find out how she ended up here, and which professors were her favorites! Thanks to Kristin for participating in Words in Place! –JLH

JLH: Many of us remember that process of choosing universities–there were so many factors at play! What made you select UWaterloo?
KL: Oh yes; I remember so clearly flipping through all the university booklets and reading through all the options. I always had Waterloo in mind, because I liked the Arts program and knew the path I wanted to take to reach my career goals. I came for a tour of the campus with my mom when I was in high school, and I just fell in love with it. I loved the layout of the campus and how close the Arts buildings were. I just felt safe and comfortable with both the school and the city. It can be a scary experience leaving home for the first time, but once I got home from the tour, I knew that Waterloo was my #1 choice and I never looked back.

JLH: Can you tell us a bit about how you decided what stream you wanted to pursue in English? Were there classes or professors that influenced your direction?
KL: Leaving high school, I actually wanted to pursue a major in Sociology. I loved my high school Soc classes and knew that it would help me out on my path to becoming an elementary teacher. But I took a few English courses in first year and absolutely loved them so much. I declared English Literature my major after my first year and just invested myself into as many courses as I could in this field. Katherine Acheson and Kate Lawson were two professors whose courses I took a few times. Their passion and love for all things Literature were inspiring and I looked forward to their classes every day. I actually still read some of the books I read in their classes, 15 years after graduating from UW!

JLH: Our degrees often shape us in ways we don’t anticipate–are there things you find yourself drawing on that surprise you? Or does it just feel organic?
KL: I did not see myself majoring in English, as I previously stated, but it just felt “right.” I don’t know how else to explain it. I think part of it is that these courses, professors and curriculum taught me that there are so many ways of looking at things; English Lit is not black and white, and neither is the world. We would have class discussions/ debates on various stories or books, and these made me appreciate the thoughts or opinions of others in ways that I never thought of before. Sometimes you have to look at the world through other people’s eyes to really understand.

JLH: Was it a clear line from your degree to where you are now professionally?
KL: Oh yes, most definitely. From a young age, I only ever wanted to be a teacher. I knew I wanted to teach Elementary, so some might think that my English Lit degree doesn’t come in handy when teaching young children, but I argue that immensely. My experiences, classes and time at Waterloo shaped me into the person and teacher that I am today. I have no regrets and I’m so thankful for the experiences and life that UW built for me.

JLH: Finally, because book questions are always popular, what books have you been enjoying recently?
KL: You mean besides books written for grade 5 students?? I love anything written by Jodi Picoult. The Silent Patient was a wild read, and Educated by Tara Westover. Plus, re-reading those favourite university books when I’m not marking math tests or stories written by 10-year olds 🙂

Alumna Sarah-Beth Bianchi: Co-op and Careers

Sarah-Beth BianchiSarah-Beth Bianchi made the most of the UWaterloo English co-op program. Read on to find out how she went from co-op at RIM to where she is now–Manager, Digital Transformation & Strategy, City of Kitchener–and how her UWaterloo experience helped her along the way. Thanks to Sarah-Beth for contributing to Words in Place!

JLH: I know it’s been a while, but I’m wondering if you can share why you decided on UWaterloo English?
S-BB: English class was always a favorite of mine in high school. So it seemed like the right thing to pursue in university. My Dad always gave me the advice to pursue a marketable skill, to make sure I had strong job prospects after graduation. When I discovered that University of Waterloo had such a strong co-op program, my choice was obvious. I could continue to study something I enjoyed, and also explore how to make a career out of it. It ended up being a perfect combo for me.

JLH: How do you think your degree prepared you for what you are doing now?
S-BB: Once I arrived on campus, I discovered the Rhetoric and Professional Writing stream for English. And the Digital Arts Communications specialization was launched shortly after I arrived, too. I’ve drawn on what I’ve learned time and time again – from argumentation (ethos, logos, pathos!) to information design, to the accounting and computer science foundations – it’s served me well during co-op terms and now in my career. Most of all, the variety and the mix of theory and practical studies have prepared me to be creative, empathetic, and adaptable.

JLH: In what ways did co-op shape your career trajectory?
S-BB: Co-op was critical to helping me launch and shape my career. While it felt overwhelming at times, interviewing a dozen or more times each term made it so much easier to tackle interviews when the stakes were even higher throughout my career. And being able to try out a few types of roles helped me figure out what I enjoyed doing, what I could develop into a career, and what I was really not interested in and wouldn’t succeed at. And not least of all, my first career position came as a direct result of a co-op position. I worked at RIM (what BlackBerry used to be called) and was able to work part-time and eventually take on a full-time position before I graduated. It was the career launchpad that allowed me to put down roots in Kitchener-Waterloo.

JLH: What was the pathway to where you are now? Is this where you imagined yourself?
S-BB: My career has been really varied. When I look back at everything I’ve done, I marvel at all the great opportunities I’ve had and all the ways I’ve been able to grow and challenge myself. I started in the Software Document team at RIM and took on running their single-sourcing content management system – everything from developing and delivering training for writers on the team and writing internal help docs, to troubleshooting the software and performing software upgrades. After several years with a rapidly growing team (we started as a group of about 20 and were over 100 when I moved roles!) I moved to the IT department as a system administrator for the internal social networking site. (Sort of Facebook meets Google Drive for the corporation.) RIM was nearly 20,000 employees, so running the software was no small feat. I quickly realized that software administration wasn’t my thing, so a year later I moved to the Global Learning department as a Program Manager for IT and other technical training. RIM was in the downturn by then, so when I went on maternity leave, I found a new role as a Technical Community Manager for the API Platform at Desire2Learn. I discovered that role thanks to a referral by a friend and former colleague from my Software Documentation days. (Networking and keeping in touch with people you enjoy working with is so important!) I moved positions a few times at D2L, finally becoming Product Manager of the Data & Analytics products. I then discovered a really unique opportunity and made the leap into the public sector doing business relationship management and technology strategy at the City of Kitchener, first as a Digital Transformation Associate and now as the Manager Digital Transformation & Strategy. The work I do now combines my technology aptitude, my IT background, my product & community management experience, and my communication & information design skills – all while making an impact on the community I’m raising my family in!

JLH: Finally, the fun question! Can you share what you are reading now?
S-BB: I just started The Ninja Daughter by Tori Eldridge. Before that, I finished reading Haben—an autobiography of a woman who shares her experience and insight as a deafblind person navigating her education, career, family, and social life in a sighted world.