Kristy Jackson turns tween indignity into a quirky tale of empowerment

Books · Jorge Ignacio Castillo

Mortified Book Launch
McNally Robinson
Thursday 23, 7 p.m

For a scene so rich in writing talent, it’s depressing so few Saskatchewan authors get the national exposure they deserve.

Kristy Jackson is bucking the odds. The author’s new middle-grade novel Mortified (out Tuesday) is published by book behemoth HarperCollins — a tremendous coup for a previously unpublished author.

Getting published wasn’t an act of fate — Jackson went to Toronto and intently pursued a literary agent, who in turn got her manuscript in front of the publisher.

An official launch takes place tonight at McNally Robinson.

Mortified chronicles the misadventures of Belinda Houle, a happily unnoticed seventh grader. Belinda’s life of contented obscurity abruptly ends when someone signs her up to audition for a stage version of The Little Mermaid.

In desperation, Belinda asks her best friend and wannabe wiccan Sally Spence for a confidence spell. But instead of a personality boost, the middle schooler is struck by an improbable series of catastrophes. It’s enough to make her wonder if she was cursed instead.

Each chapter of the book starts with a comic by Métis artist Rhael McGregor (Mixed Feelings, The Woman in the Woods and Other North American Stories). Jackson and McGregor worked separately with a buffer go-between, but they’ve since reached out to each other by e-mail.

As children’s literature goes, Mortified is wholesome and easily relatable. The novel successfully walks the line between the universal — the dawn of teenage anxiety — and local: the setting, the fictitious community of Ekosi, SK stands in for every Prairie town.

To no one’s surprise, a good chunk of Mortified was inspired by Jackson’s most embarrassing experiences growing up, as well as others she collected for the book. Jackson channeled her inner 12-year-old to shape Belinda’s voice and used her two kids to test the story’s verisimilitude.

Because Belinda, like the author, has Cree background, Jackson sought to represent the biracial experience accurately. To that effect, she had sensitivity readers and reached out to the SK Indigenous Cultural Centre (SICC).

Planet S spoke to Jackson ahead of tonight’s launch.

You incorporated autobiographical elements into Mortified. Were Belinda’s tribulations hard to put on paper?

It took me a little while to get there. I’m a bit on the shy side. The inspiration was one of my sons having an embarrassing experience at school and he was quite upset. I started telling him about my embarrassing moments and that cheered him up immensely because mine were much worse. My other son got interested and kept asking for more. They ended up saying, “it’s like you’re cursed or something.” A seed was planted. When I was a kid, I thought my life was over. That’s the mentality at that age. I thought if I could share these stories, maybe that would help kids in a funny way.

Not long ago, I interviewed a Sask. filmmaker who left the province due to lack of infrastructure and financial support. Her main concern was local stories not being told because there wasn’t an outlet. While there are more opportunities to publish at a local level, have you experienced a similar situation?

I’ve gotten to know the writing community around Saskatchewan. They’re incredibly supporting. I’ve been blown away by how helpful some of the more established authors have been with me and my many questions. Every writer needs a community, no book is written entirely by one person.

Pen To Paper

Along with her budding writing career, Jackson spearheads a program that brings indigenous authors’ books to Athabasca community children around Christmas. It’s been a mission for her since 2018.

I imagine you were raised a reader. What did the adults in your life do to foster your love for literature?

I was lucky to grow up in an era in which we had two and a half channels and no Internet. Having access to my parents’ books and the school library helped me nurture this love. I read The Chronicles of Narnia to literal pieces and for a long time I wrote like C.S. Lewis. I’ve always been a Stephen King fan, probably a bit odd for a middle grade writer.

As someone with a toddler and a 9-to-5 job who sacrifices sleep to be creative, I’m curious about your writing habits.

I would love to be one of those writers who write every single day, but with my schedule that’s impossible. I’ve a full-time job, two children, a husband, I do volunteer work and I need time for me. I try to find a chunk of time where I can sit quietly, contemplate, and plan a novel. I spend as much time doing that as I do writing. Having a map lets me to write for 10 minutes if that’s all I have. It’s all bit and pieces, but when I’m into it, I’m quick.

What was the best writing advice you ever received?

There’s two. One, learn structure. I was good at writing a paragraph, a scene, a character, but I couldn’t finish a story and didn’t know why. I took a creative writing class with a local author, Judy McCrosky, and she told me. Once I did, I was able to finish writing books in a way I was happy with.

The other advice is to keep going. I started querying one book and that wasn’t the one that got me published. It was the subsequent book that got there.

Kristy Jackson has finished a draft of another middle grade novel for her two-book HarperCollins deal. An adult thriller and a YA book are in various stages of development.