A British Columbia Children's Writer: Joan Weir
edited: Saturday, March 02, 2002
By Charlotte M Spurrill
Posted: Saturday, March 02, 2002
Become a Fan
A research essay on an author I admire.
“‘Because I loved to read, I knew I wanted eventually to be a writer myself, but I realized it would require a long learning period before I was ready,’” (Jenkinson 1) says Joan Weir of her younger self. As with many writers, Joan Weir’s love for writing grew out of her insatiable love for reading, which teaches writers by example better than any composition teacher could hope to teach by lecturing. Herself a professor of creative writing at the University College of the Cariboo and a local writer who has also lived in many regions of Canada, Weir brings a unique perspective to fiction and non-fiction writing. Essentially, Joan Weir is an interesting woman whose popular fiction entertains and teaches young readers about life and, indirectly, about writing.
Joan Weir was born in Calgary, Alberta (Ripley 343) on April 21, 1928 (Jenkinson 1) to Bishop L. Ralph Sherman and Carolyn G. Sherman (Ripley 343). L. Ralph Sherman was later promoted to the position of Archbishop of Rupertsland (Jenkinson 1). Archbishop Sherman was “a great scholar” (White 175) who had a large, extensive library (Jenkinson 1). He taught his children to love reading by allowing them to see that loved reading alone and by reading with his children (White 175). As a child, Joan would write stories to read to her dog, and the dog’s appreciation of the stories encouraged Joan to keep writing (Jenkinson 1). Before she and her family moved to Winnipeg, she attended St. Hilda’s School in Calgary (White 173). In grade ten (Jenkinson 1), she transferred to Rupert’s Land Girls School in Winnipeg where she completed her high school years (White 173). Joan attended the University of Manitoba after high school, graduating in 1948 (Ripley 343) with an Honours (Jenkinson 1) B.A. (Ripley 343), no doubt a well-deserved degree. At the university she majored in history and English and much enjoyed learning from her history professors (Jenkinson 1). After graduating, she worked in Winnipeg, leaving the city when she married (1) Ormand Weir (Ripley 343) in 1955 (Jenkinson 1). The couple gave birth to four children: Ian, Paul, Michael, and Richard (White 173).
Before she began writing novels for young adults, Weir wrote children’s radio scripts and television scripts (“Joan Weir” CANSCAIP 1). For television, Weir wrote several scripts for Nickelodeon’s weekly sitcom Fifteen (3). While working for Eaton’s advertising, she led all advertising campaigns aimed at children; she wrote the “Good Deed Club” and all programming concerning Santa Claus, both of which she enjoyed immensely (Jenkinson 1). This experience in writing for children honed her skills for her later published novels (Jenkinson).
Weir, who “‘always wanted to write’” (Jenkinson 1), has written sixteen fiction books and six non-fiction books (White 173) for a total of twenty-one published books to her name (174). She does not write picture books for very young readers (Jenkinson 1), but enjoys writing for nine-to-sixteen-year-olds (1); thus, her most significant works appear among her young adult novels. International audiences have recognized three of these young adult novels: Sixteen is Spelled O-U-C-H, Storm Rider, and Secret at Westwind (“Joan Weir” CANSCAIP 1). Sixteen is Spelled O-U-C-H has a German translation, and Storm Rider and Secret at Westwind have Finnish, Norwegian, and Swedish translations (Ripley 243), allowing international audiences to enjoy her stories. Perhaps more of her work will be translated into further languages in the future. Other outstanding books include Maybe Tomorrow, The Space Visitor, The Principal’s Kid, The Brideship, and The Witcher (“Joan Weir” TWUC). Weir finds inspiration in history, enjoying the stories where she can create fictional characters for an historic period and having them interact with “‘real, historic people’” (White 174). She also has seven grandchildren (“Joan Weir” CANSCAIP 1) to spur her mind into creating young characters. In addition, Weir loves animals, especially dogs and horses, and sometimes includes animals she knows in her stories (1).
Most of Weir’s writing is for children, and therefore is simply written and easy to follow, so few could consider her a literary writer comparable to Zsuzsi Gartner or George Bowering. However, segments of the cultural elite have taken notice of her work; for example, both The Principal’s Kid and The Brideship received recognition for various awards (“Joan Weir” CANSCAIP 2). Specifically, The Principal’s Kid was short listed for the Silver Birch Award in 2000 and the CNIB Talking Book of the Year Award, The Brideship was short listed for the Manitoba Reader’s Choice Award in 2001 and the Geoffrey Bilson Historical Fiction Award in 1999. The Principal’s Kid won the B.C.Centennial Book Award in 2000 (2). Varied opinions abound, but the prevailing attitude of Weir’s peers and readers is one of admiration; colleges praise her for her “‘commitment to book writing and the community’” (White 181) and for her “‘spare, swift-moving style that will encourage reluctant readers’” (181).
Reviewers generally appreciate Weir’s young adult novels, though some cite limitations and express reservations. One reviewer, Lucinda Lockwood, praises The Brideship for its vivid characters and their “youthful dreams and hopes” (1) that keep them, and the plot, going forward to a satisfying conclusion. Another view of this book comes form Kate Clarke who comments that “the book's ending is not realistic, but it is satisfying” (1) and says the relatively shallow characterization does not deter from the overall enjoyment of the interesting and quickly-paced book (1). Another reviewer reviewing another novel, Darteen Golke, likewise recommends The Witcher, giving it three stars out of the four stars available (1). This exploration of the life of a gifted orphan who can find “water, gold, uranium” (Elzinga 1) and those who may want to exploit her gift for their own gains begin the mystery which will leave some readers “biting their nails until the last three pages” (2). In contrast, Maybe Tomorrow received more reviews that are negative. Betsy Fraser recommends the book “with reservations” (2) and gives it only two of the four available stars, complaining that none of the characters grow during the story and claiming that “the characters, usually representing one point of view don’t present a historical viewpoint so much as a pastiche of earlier cardboard melodramas” (1). Other reviewers disagreed with Fraser, even choosing it as the most worthy of recommendation in a list of current young adult novels (“Maybe Tomorrow”).
Joan Weir’s work deserves reading by the young, teaching by teachers, and buying for children by anyone else. An excerpt from her recent book Maybe Tomorrow: “It seems only yesterday that we arrived at this school, each of us alone, each of us searching, each of us a little afraid” (“Maybe Tomorrow”). This novel, like all of Weir’s writing for young adults, captures feelings adolescents in every culture and every class feel. This universality is the appeal of Weir’s stories. In much the same way, Sixteen is Spelled O-U-C-H is an entertaining and sensitive look into the fumbling life of a British Columbia teen who spends a summer on a ranch in Ashcroft trying to prove himself. It is very well paced, appealing even to students who normally would not choose to read for pleasure and think they hate reading before opening this book.
In conclusion, both Joan Weir’s interesting background and her vibrant writing engage the curious. While her novels are aimed at the elementary to early secondary school reading levels, some more-advanced readers may enjoy relaxing with a simply-written, also well-written, novel by Joan Weir once in a while, or one could pick up one of her historical non-fiction titles for a more informative read. Joan Weir may not be as exceptionally well known as J. K. Rowling, but she is certainly a talented children’s author whose unique style, plots, and characters could possess tremendous “staying-power” in generations to come.
Clarke, Kate. “The Brideship (Book Review).” Book Report 18.3 (November/December 1999) (November 26, 2001).
Jenkinson, Dave. “Joan Weir.” Canadian Review of Materials. (November 21, 2001).
Elzinga, Melinda. “Reviews Fiction.” Book Report 17.5 (March/April 1999) (November 21, 2001).
Fraser, Betsy. “Maybe Tomorrow.” CM Magazine. (November 21, 2001).
Golke, Darteen. “The Witcher.” CM Magazine. (November 21, 2001).
“Joan Weir.” CANSCAIP Members. (November 21, 2001).
“Joan Weir.” TWUC Membership Pages. (November 21, 2001).
Lockwood, Lucinda. “Grades 5 & Up: Fiction.” School Library Journal 45. 10 (October 1999) (November 21, 2001).
“Maybe Tomorrow.” Stoddart Kids: Themed List. (November 21, 2001).
Ripley, Gordon. Who’s Who in Canadian Literature 1997-1998. Teeswater: Reference Press, 1997
Weir, Joan. Maybe Tomorrow. Toronto: Stoddart Kids, 2000.
Weir, Joan. Sixteen is Spelled O-U-C-H. Toronto: Stoddart, 1988.
White, Heather. “Joan Weir.” Exposing Culture. Eddy Henczel et al Eds. UCC: University College of the Cariboo Print Shop, 2001.