An elementary school teacher living in Grande Prairie, Alberta, Aum Nicol wrote her new book The Multicultural Alphabet to teach children about Canada's wonderful diversity. Written during her treatment for breast cancer, The Multicultural Alphabet is taking Aum across the nation to share her dream and inspire others to achieve theirs.
When did you start writing stories?
I started storytelling when I was a teenager babysitting. I would tell the stories like, what would happen to Jack after the end of Jack and the Beanstalk? Mostly the writing I've done is for the curriculum in my classroom. I like to integrate a lot of my subject areas into my language arts, so I would write stories that had to do with my social studies students to make it more interesting and come alive, or I would create poems for science and math just so I could integrate content from one subject into another. I was inspired to write The Multicultural Alphabet by my family (I'm from Trinidad and my husband of 26 years is a Scottish-Welshman) and my classrooms, which I noticed were becoming very multicultural. A lot of immigration was happening in Canada, and in my classroom the dynamic changed. There were just so many cultures in my classroom, and I decided that I would put my fun-loving interest in my family and my classroom into a book.
Why an alphabet book?
It dawned on me when I was reading some alphabet books that there are none on multicultural children. There are books on one culture – such as Mexican, one book on the Swahili – but there are no alphabet books that have to do with all cultures at once. So five years ago I decided to do some research and the first thing I looked at was the Multicultural Act of Canada. I took vocabulary from that act and, from A to Z, I found words from its language. My first attempt was, to put it to rhyme because I rhyme really well for my classroom. But, it went horribly. How can you rhyme words like “multicultural” with “diversity?” It was really, really difficult, so I scrapped that. My husband gave me a simple alphabet book and I looked at how easy it flowed – a one-liner basically – so I changed the whole format of my writing, and because I had done five years of research on it, the actual book came very fast. I was finished in two strong, full days of working.
How did the illustrations come about?
When I decided to publish, I was going through chemotherapy for cancer treatment, and during my first round I said to my husband I would really like to publish what I had written. We looked all over, and because I wanted a Canadian publisher I found FriesenPress. I looked into what it would cost for a professional artist, but it was too expensive for me, so my husband said You do it! I bought some paper and used my watercolours from my classroom and I started to do it during my treatment. It was really great therapy. It really helped me focus not on the pain. The illustrations took me about five months.
What was the process of self-publishing your book like?
As a self-published author, you have to do everything yourself. Before I talked to my Book Promotions Specialist at FriesenPress, I made up a plan of the things I wanted to do for my book – I wanted it to sit in the farmer's market, I wanted to create an author presentation to go to schools, a brochure and a website. I think the hardest part of self-publishing is that you have to do the leg work. But, I've enjoyed what I've learned so far. What I like is the creativity and control because making my website, these brochures and flyers and postcards, it's all my choices, and so is where I send them across the country. That's also the fun part: creating. It's keeping me occupied because I get very tired visiting classes at schools, which my doctor has prescribed me to do. But then you have to pay for the material and the postage, website, and all that stuff up front. But, that's the price you have to pay to get your dream across the country!
Tell us about your author visits to classrooms...
When I go to classes for my one hour author visits, I talk about three things that I needed to write the book. The first was inspiration. I talk about my family, being an immigrant at age three, and about the hardship immigrants have. I talk about how we got our Constitution, Charter of Rights and Multiculturalism Act, and how wonderful it is to have the act because it declares that everyone in Canada must be treated equally no matter what culture you are, and that multiculturalism must be protected as well.
The second was passion. I talk about how Olympic gymnasts need focus and concentration, and that's what you need to write your book. But, being in cancer treatment at the time, my passion wasn't physical, it was creative.
The third thing I needed was time. I see my cancer as a gift. I also talk about, no matter how hard things got, I still worked hard on my dream. For breast cancer, a positive attitude is half the battle.
What's been the feedback?
In schools, my observation – and I'm a teacher so I like to evaluate as I go along – is that kids were riveted to my presentation and the teachers observed that, too. One little girl put up her hand and I asked what her question was, but she said, “This isn't a question, but that was inspirational!” Kids stop to talk to me after the class and teachers will talk to me after saying that my presentation fit their curriculum well and gave the kids inspiration. My age group I focused on was grade five to nine, and mostly junior high because that's the age you start to find what you do like and what you don't like. I show them that you never know where your dreams are going to take you.
For adults, I did some interviews and I have to tell you, when I was in the mall and doing a book signing at Coles bookstore, there was a lady that came by, of an interracial couple from Toronto, and she came up to me and said, “I can't believe there's multiculturalism out here!” She was so pleased to see my book. People have said, “Oh, I can't wait to buy your book for my kids!” I went to a senior lodge just to visit a good friend and one of the seniors said, “Even I'm learning something!” because at the back of the book is a glossary. So, she said, “Wow! I didn't know that about Canada!” So, I guess you're never too old to learn something about our country!
A lot of indie authors get stuck with promoting their book. What promotional strategies have been successful for you?
The first thing is that you have to have that burning fire and passion constantly because if you let your energy down you won't keep up with it. I made a plan and had to learn things on the fly, so my advice would be to have that goal of where you want your book to go, how much energy you want to put into it, and then create the steps to meet that. I look at the end product first and then I do the steps towards that.
How has your experience been with FriesenPress?
FriesenPress was really good. Everyone always supported and encouraged me because in the beginning I was very scared. When you put your creativity out there to be evaluated and looked at, it's scary. Your book is part of your heart, so I had to learn to believe in myself and the people at FriesenPress supported me, gave me advice and answered my questions. They were on top of things. It felt just right.
What is the experience of those with multicultural background in Canada?
Out here, in the prairies, I've been treated like everyone else, but I wonder about other cities like Toronto if it's the same there. To me, I think the experience of someone who is multicultural would depend on where you are. I feel, and hope, that Canadians are more accepting and tolerant than other places. I think that hope is what made me write this book because everybody in Canada, and I mean everyone in Canada, at one place in their family's history was an immigrant. And that is a true fact. Our First Nations people were the first to come to Canada, across the Bering Strait. So, Canada's history is really that of multiculturalism.
What's your message?
My book is to say that whatever country you're from, we are all in the same situation, whether we've come in 2013 or if your family came in 1851. What I like about our country – and here's me in rose-coloured glasses – is that we accept and say that these people deserve to be here, too. In Canada, we're being referred to as a mosaic, and that's true, too.
What's next for you?
In my immediate future, I'm seeking to come out to the west coast and do some author visits in Victoria and up Vancouver Island because honestly, my dream is to at least visit one end of the country to the next with my book. It's a dream! Actually, the quote I put in the book for readers when I do my author signing is, “We are given dreams with also the power to make them come true.” I want to go to Toronto and Vancouver to see what it's like in the classrooms and share the story of multiculturalism to let everybody know that we are all in the same boat – we're all the descendants of immigrants.
An Interview by James R. Stewart, Book Promotions Specialist
Visit Aum Nicol's website for more info: http://www.mccabc.com/