Eric Walters brings fun and authenticity to children's books
He's authored 70 books, translated internationally, and is one of the most prolific writers in Canada. From bullying to fast food, 9/11 terrorism to life in Africa, Walters' books tackle every possible topic, from the viewpoints of very different young protagonists
A teen crosses a desert
In his latest release, Just Deserts, a young troublemaker who is given tough medicine when he's dropped off in the middle of the desert and forced to trek 200 km through the desert to the city of Tunis with the help of three young people.
The whole story sounds like a fantasy for any parent of an unruly teenager, but was it based on his own experience as a father?
“No, no, my own kids are spectacular,” he says firmly, laughing. The story, it turns out, was developed when a neighbour introduced him to Ray Zahab, a famous Canadian runner who crossed the entire 7500-km Sahara Desert on foot in 2006 in order to change his lifestyle as an unhealthy “pack-a-day” smoker. Zahab and Walters immediately clicked, got talking, and came up with the story of a group of youths who have to rely on their wits and inner strength to get across the North African desert.
For Ethan, the protagonist of Just Deserts, this is no easy task: he's a slacker, a privileged rich boy with a drinking problem who has never had to cope with real hardship.
Based on real life
Speaking in a deep, story-teller voice, Walters explains that each of his characters – hundreds of them -- are based on real-life kids who he knows or taught in the past as an elementary teacher.
“I say to them, hey I've got a character in the book. Great guy, occasionally gets in trouble because he doesn't know when to shut up. I named him afteryou,” he says in a joking tone.
In Just Deserts, three of the youth are based on young athletes who crossed the desert with Walters while he was doing his research. Ethan, he says, is more an “amalgam” of children he used to work with.
Does he ever try to glamorize his characters or smooth out their flaws, to avoid offending the youth who he bases them on?
“No,” Walters said emphatically. “I try to make them realistic. I say, 'This is who I see you as.'--and they're thrilled.”
Watching, observing, consulting
Young readers are often astounded that someone like Walters can write believable stories about kids their age.
“I was born in 1957 so I'm really old,” he said. “But I spend a lot of time around young people, and I listen to them.”
A social worker by training, Walters devotes an extraordinary amount of his time to helping and interacting with youth. He runs a children's outreach program, and explains that in addition to his own children, he is responsible for 400 orphaned children through the Creation of Hope program.
Walters notices the details of young people and their mannerisms in ways that many of his contemporaries don't.
“This girl came up to me and said, 'I was reading Alexandria of Africa and I was shocked because you're male,” he recalled, “she said, 'You're writing about Sephora makeup and how to apply liner...in another life, you were a female.'"
Although he includes many details that make up a young person's universe, one thing that he is careful not to do is adopt young peoples' spoken slang.
“I try to avoid vernacular with a passion,” he said. “Vernacular is an attempt to find street cred, it drives people away. The only word I use is 'cool' because it's been cool for the last 50 years.”
Becoming a writer
For someone who has been phenomenally successful as an author, however, Walters had no inclination of becoming an author while he was growing up. He wrote his first book, “Stand Your Ground” in 1993, while teaching his Grade 5 class to be more engaged in reading and writing.
From then on, the novels kept coming. A passionate believer in authenticity, Walters took an unusual approach to ensure that books were written with as much feedback from chidren as possible.
For his book Catboy, 26 pages of manuscript were mailed out every monday to schools across the Toronto District School Board. Children would read the pages, discuss what they liked and what they didn't like, and email him back thier feedback.
"I answered 800 emails every weekend, rearragnged the book based on feedback and sent them the next 26 pages," he explained. "It's the second time I've done that kind of book."
2,000 students were later invited to a book launch, and each child received a copy of the book that they had a hand in writing.
In search of authenticity
One thing that Walters keeps in mind is to always bring a sense of reality to his stories.
In addition to watching youth closely, he researches every story carefully by experiencing their ordeals himself whenever possible -- even if it means climbing Mount Kilimanjaro or crossing a desert with his own two feet.
For Just Deserts, Walters actually flew over to the location where his novel is set in order to get a sense of what his character was going through.
“I got lost in the desert,” he recounts. “I went on a support vehicle to a route they sort of told me to go when I realized I been there for three hours. I thought... OK, I'm in trouble now.”
He said he deliberately walked apart from the other people on the trip in order to view the scenery from Ethan's point of view.
“I wanted to be like my character, an isolate, so I would often be away from the others,” he said.
For his book Caged Eagles, about the Japanese internment experience, Walters spoke with a Japanese Canadian cultural consultant to recreate the most believable story possible.
"Two things that were changed was when the father of Tadashi (the protagonist) compliments his son in public...and when the grandmother hugs him," he said.
Although Western audiences wouldn't bat an eye at such scenes, the consultant told him that such behavior was highly unlikely in a traditional Japanese Canadian family from the 1940s.
With all the sharing and consulting on storylines, doesn't Walters fear that his story ideas would be stolen or copied by other writers?
"I'm not very protective of my work -- I'm not writing the bible here," he laughs. "I want to come across with a message to people, and I love the feedback."