Living a writer’s life: Ottawa’s Kate Jaimet’s children’s book series is a lesson in innovation

Kate Jaimet. Photo: Chris Mikula

Ottawa writer Kate Jaimet has learned a lesson or two as she has advanced her career as a children’s author.

Lesson No. 1: There ain’t much money in it.

Lesson No. 2: It’s still fun, creative and very worthwhile.

Jaimet is a former reporter with the Ottawa Citizen. She left the newspaper in 2010 when her children were two and five and  started a freelancing career that helped pay some bills. But Jaimet came to children’s writing out of her natural curiosity.

“I was working on Parliament Hill. I found that reporting work very intense and I was looking for something else to do” on the side to ease the stress.

One day, on the way to work, she stumbled across a poster advertising a children’s writing conference at the National Library building on Wellington Street and thought to herself, “I’ll go to that. It sounds like fun.”

In so doing she fell in with a group of writers who belonged to the Eastern Canadian chapter of The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators.

“I met a bunch of people, mostly women, who were writing or trying to write kid’s books. They asked me to join the group.”

They told Jaimet they shared their writing with each other; critiqued each other and helped each other out. They would have conferences and bring in editors, publishers and published writers to talk about the business of children’s literature.

It was at about this same time that Jaimet got the idea for her first book which came to be called Dunces Anonymous (Orca Book Publishers), a comedy written for children in Grades 4 to 6.

“The book features a group of kids whose parents are all over-achievers. And these parents have ambitious goals for their children. But the kids have other things they are interested in.

“They really don’t want pressure from their parents, but they are 10 or 11 and they have trouble rebelling and saying No to their moms and dads. So they form this secret group called Dunces Anonymous whose goal is to figure out ways to avoid doing what their parents wanted them to do.

“They come up with crazy schemes that all back fire, but it all comes out OK in the end.”

She found a publisher at another writing conference.

“I met an editor from Orca books and I told her had this manuscript.”

So, long story short, she sent the book in and they agreed to publish it. Turns out Orca was also on the lookout for writers for books in a sports series that they published. The first Dunces book was published in the fall of 2009 and was pretty successful. Sales were reasonably strong and it was a finalist for an Ottawa book award in 2010. She also wrote a couple of the sports books too.

After the first book was published Jaimet started to get busy with the other side of her writing career which involved freelance work for clients such as uOttawa and Parks Canada.

When her daughter Zoe was older and reading, she picked up the Dunces book.

“She asked, ‘Mommy when are you writing the sequel?’ I hadn’t thought about one, but that got me started.”

It took awhile but Dunces Rock came out in 2014.

“Kids writing is great fun. I have done a ton of stuff with it. I have gotten to go on school  visits. I did a TD Canada book tour. which sends children’s authors to schools in a different province. Last October I went to Alberta. I’ve been on a Writers Union of Canada tour of Northern Ontario schools and into schools in Ottawa.

“I am working on the third book in the series.”

But sadly all this effort doesn’t bring monetary rewards.

“It honestly does not pay well. I could not live off of this. What’s really hard is getting Canadian books into Canadian schools. Most of them are American.”

Jaimet has had some success getting her Dunces books into schools. The first, Dunces Anonymous, was nominated for an Ontario Library Association award. They have book clubs in libraries and schools. And the nomination gets the books into the clubs and drives sales, she says. Her first book has sold more than 8,000 copies. She was also helped immensely by Kaleidoscope Kids’ Books a children’s bookstore in Ottawa, but it has closed.

So she is now thinking outside the box.

And Dunces Rock is the starting point. It features the same gang of children. In the book, the school principal cancels the drama and music program to start a junior hockey team.

The principal is also a country music fan and the children decide to start a band and write song about the principal to help him believe in the power of drama and music.

Jaimet has a song in the book called The Ballad of Principal Hale. her daughter was taking guitar lessons and Jaime asked the teacher to put the ballad to music so she’d have something interactive to do with students during school visits. It was a popular thing. And she started thinking bigger.

“What if I made the whole thing into a musical that kids could perform themselves in school. It might help sell books.”

So for more than a year, she’s been in script development. She’s even hired a professional songwriter to provide some material for the piece.

She’s worked with Amanda West Lewis, the artistic director of the Ottawa Children’s Theatre, who has critiqued it and organized a reading. More people have become involved including Kathy MacLellan of Ottawa’s Rag and Bone Puppet Theatre and Rachel Eugster, of Bear and Co., a local theatre company.

She has applied for grants and has reached out to the Ottawa-Carleton public school board to see if the drama and music program in a high school might pick up the project and help develop it further.

Advances on her books have been about $2,000. There are royalties that follow sales. But Jaimet is hoping for more.

“Maybe I can repurpose it.” The theatre script is one option; another is to develop a TV series.

Pursuing these options has also opened another door. Jaimet took a sketch writing workshop at The Ottawa Acting Company on Second Avenue. Out of this emerged a 10-minute script called Workplace Wellness.

She wrote it for fun and then submitted it, on a lark, to the Short+Sweet theatre festival which headquartered in Australia.

Short+Sweet shares scripts to affiliated short play festivals around the world and surprise surprise Jaimet’s was picked up for production by Short+Sweet Hollywood. A second script has been produced in a festival in Australia.

Meanwhile the other side of her writing life has been bubbling along. And it has produced a book. She is the ghost writer of the autobiography about the rags-to-riches life of Dr. Ruey Yu, who is a distinguished scientist, a founder of the skin-care company NeoStrata and an alumnus of uOttawa. The book will be published this fall.

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.