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Don Aker
Profile by Dave Jenkinson.

Don Aker

The old joke about "Behind every successful man stands a surprised woman" has a different twist for Don Aker, but he definitely does acknowledge that several women have played significant roles in his writing career.

Born October 21, 1955 in Windsor, Nova Scotia, Don notes that "I now live only about an hour from there so I haven't gone very far. Growing up in rural Hants County, I loved going to school because it was a chance to see other kids. I also enjoyed reading and writing because they were things I could do on my own when people my own age weren't around. As a teenager, I wanted to be a writer, but I became a teacher instead because I assumed that nobody from rural Nova Scotia could ever become a writer. (At the time, I hadn't heard of Alden Nowlan, who grew up in a community twenty minutes from my parents' home, or Ernest Buckler, who lived twenty minutes from where I live now.) Ironically, it was because I went into teaching that I became a writer. After high school, I went to Acadia University where I took computer science and math in my first year, which is appropriate because I now teach math. I did well, but I knew by the end of that year that I didn't want to spend my life in front of a computer. Irony again, since I'm never far from my laptop. However, having found the programming end of computer science boring, I switched to my real love, literature and writing, and graduated with a B.A. in English in 1976. Of course, what do you do with a B.A. except go on for a Bachelor of Education? I don't think I had an innate desire to be a teacher, just an innate desire to make a living, but I consider myself very fortunate to have begun my career at a school where I was encouraged to try different things."

"My first teaching job was in 1977 in a school that included grades primary through grade 12, and one of the elementary teachers there was very current in terms of reading and writing theory. Whole language instruction was new at that time, and she lent me books and materials and talked to me about some of the things she was doing. It was a great opportunity to connect with a level of education that, teaching in a high school, I might never have connected with at all. At the 1987 Association of Teachers of English of Nova Scotia provincial conference in Halifax, Nancie Atwell, who had just published In the Middle: Writing, Reading, and Learning with Adolescents, was the keynote speaker. I attended one of her workshops, and, by the end of her session, I wanted to be the kind of teacher Nancie Atwell was. I felt she was an educator who had all of the answers to the questions that I'd been asking all along about how to teach kids to read and to write. I immediately bought her book and tried everything I could to turn my classroom into hers. Of course, there's only one Nancie Atwell. Some of the things she did worked very well for me, some failed miserably, and I had no idea how to work through others. So I sat down and wrote her what amounted to a fan letter, saying 'I just loved your book and your ideas, but I'm having a problem with this and with that. Any suggestions?' And I added a PS: 'By the way, can you suggest any courses or workshops that would support the type of approach you're using?' She actually wrote back, answering all my questions and recommending the Martha's Vineyard Summer Writing Workshops."

"I followed her advice and went to Martha's Vineyard, where I took a writing course from Lynn Bloom, an educator and author. I found the two-week experience amazing, especially having the chance to interact with educators from all over the world. Lynn required us to become the students we'd eventually be teaching, developing ideas through numerous drafts, sharing with others in small groups, and revising, revising, revising. It was a terrifying experience, and humbling when I thought back to the things I'd required my own students to do in my classroom because here we were, adults who were comfortable with one another, who respected one another, and yet we were still afraid. The final day was a culmination of the course when we had to take a finished draft and read it to the class. After the session, Lynn said, 'I really think your piece is publishable. You've got talent. If there's anything I can do to help you get published, let me know.' I was thrilled. That meant a lot coming from someone like her."

"My wife, Debbie, who's always been my best supporter, said, 'You've always wanted to write. You should just go for it.' So I bought a computer and began writing, keeping in contact with Lynn, who was then editing the third edition of The Essay Connection. When she asked if I had any pieces I could send her that might be suitable for the book, I sent her two that I'd been working on since the course, and she included both. When I received a copy of the book with my work in it, I was hooked. That was the beginning of my writing career. It's interesting when I think back to the women who were instrumental in that happening: Nancie Atwell, Lynn Bloom, my wife, just to name three. I drew a lot of comfort from the fact that Debbie and Lynn had such faith in me. Especially when the rejections came in."

"I didn't start out to be a young adult writer. My favourite form of writing is short fiction for adults. After the course at Martha's Vineyard, I took everything I'd learned, revamped what I had done wrong the previous year, and started again, looking for real audiences for my students' writing. When we got to the short story unit that year, I told my grade 12's, 'We're all going to enter a short story in the Atlantic Writing Competition. That'll be our goal, and we're going to help one another. I'll give you feedback; you give me feedback.' I don't see many members of that class now, but the few I used to see were quick to remind me that they gave me better feedback than I gave them because my story, 'The Invitation,' won the competition. It's been my most successful story, having been published three times and shortlisted for the Journey Prize Award for best short fiction published in Canada in 1990. I even received a Crossover Writer's Grant from Telefilm Canada to adapt it to a screenplay, and that screenplay won the 1998 Atlantic Film Festival Script Development Competition."

While Don did write as a child and as an adolescent, he acknowledges, "What I really did was copy writers. As a youngster, I was a big dog lover, something my own children would laugh at now because we have one dog and I constantly complain about her. (I bought Maggie for them, but guess who ends up walking her?) I must have read dozens of books about collies, and then I'd write stories that involved collies in very dramatic happenings. In high school, after I saw a movie I really liked, I'd write a story that essentially was a condensed version of that movie. I never felt that any idea I might have had for a story was worthwhile because real stories had to come from somewhere else. That same idea was reflected in something one of my own students said years later. After 16 years of teaching language arts, a math position opened up and I took it, looking forward to a change. Consequently, I wasn't teaching language arts when my first novel came out. A student came to me and said, 'Mr. Aker! This book has your name on it!' When I told her that, yes, I'd written it, she said, 'I thought writers came from far away.' I think that's how I intuitively felt when I was her age, that anything I had to say in Hants County, Nova Scotia, was of very little importance to anyone else. Now I know how wrong that is. I think it was George Bernard Shaw who said that the people who write about themselves and their own time are the only ones who write about all people and about all time."

"I've since gone back to Acadia and got my Master's in 1991 with a focus in curriculum development. I was glad to be able to take courses in literacy development and ashamed to admit that I became an English teacher without ever learning how kids learn to read. I taught literature, not reading, which I now know is a ridiculous perspective. If it weren't for the fact that I've become a parent, I didn't think it would ever have occurred to me that it was important how kids make meaning of those black marks on paper. My wife and I read constantly to both our children, even before they were born. Every bedtime, I'd curl up with them and a book, and sometimes I'd be halfway through a story and stop, and Lauren or Caitlin would continue the story, having memorized all of them. I remember one night when Lauren was four, she had picked up the story after I stopped reading, and then she suddenly stopped and said, 'Daddy! I'm reading this!' I didn't catch on and responded, 'Sure you are. You've read this story to me many times.' 'No, she replied. 'I'm not reading the pictures. I'm reading the words!' It was a metacognitive moment for both of us--she was recognizing her part in the reading process, and I was recognizing for the first time how I as an educator needed to understand the processes by which people make meaning of those black marks on paper. After all, so much of what we do as teachers in terms of having students respond to literature is tied up in that."

Of Things Not Seen

Don's transition to adolescent novels came about, in part, through a classroom happening. "I'd written a number of short stories, some of which had been published in literary magazines and some in magazines like Canadian Living. The American writer Willa Cather said that most of the basic material that a writer works with is acquired by the age of 15. I feel very strongly about that, and it's obvious in the subjects I write about because every story that I'd written up to that point was about a child or had children or teenagers in it. Although I was writing for an adult audience, none of my stories were about adults. They were always about a child or a teenager, probably because it's those parts of my own life that were most traumatic and evoked the strongest feelings. Those things that we experience as we're growing up just seemed to draw me back and serve as a focus for my writing."

"As a teacher, I never planned to write a young adult novel, but I eventually did so as a result of something that involved one of my students. When I taught English, I required my students to keep journals, and I would collect them every week and respond to what they'd written. Of course, some students couldn't get beyond the 'what-I-ate-on-Tuesday' sort of entries, but there were others who tried hard to record thoughts and ideas and impressions. One year, a student over a period of time began to share things that were very disturbing. Finally, she wrote in her journal that she was being physically abused by her father. As a teacher, I was required by law to contact the authorities, but I felt bad doing so because this student had opened up to me and told me something that she didn't want anybody else to find out. Of course, in hindsight I think maybe she did want people to find out and that was her way of reaching out, but at the time I struggled with the reality of betraying a confidence. It bothered me so much that I knew that, if I ever wrote a novel, it would have in it that experience of discovery. Then one Sunday I was in church, and our minister was preaching a sermon from Hebrews 11:1, which says, 'Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.' As soon as I heard the phrase 'of things not seen,' the idea for the novel just unfolded in my head, like it had been there all along."

Before moving into YA novels, Don says, "I'd actually done some research and found that publishers don't want to receive entire manuscripts. They don't have time. Instead, they want a couple of chapters and an outline of the plot in the form of chapter synopses. So I outlined the novel from beginning to end and wrote the first two chapters, then bundled them up and sent them off. I'd gotten a list of YA publishers and began working my way through them alphabetically, and over the next year I got a lot of rejections. Some were quite kind about it, and some definitely weren't. One editor even wrote, "Grim. No-one would ever want to read this," which devastated me. I was ready to throw the whole thing in the trash, but my wife encouraged me to keep writing the book and, in the meantime, to keep sending out the bundle, which I did. Finally it went to Leona Trainer, then president of Stoddart Kids, who called, saying, 'I really liked what I read. I'm going to be in Nova Scotia next week. Could I come see you?' At that point, I would have been willing to pay her airfare! Leona is the most gracious person you can imagine, and she came to my home and took the completed manuscript away with her. It's interesting that every male publisher I sent it to rejected it, but Leona accepted it. When it won the Ann Connor Brimer Award, we went to the celebration, during which another publisher came up and asked if I was working on another novel. When I said I was, he gave me his card and asked, 'Would you consider sending it to me?' Looking at his name, I blurted--much to Leona's enjoyment - 'But you were the first one to reject Of Things Not Seen.'"

"My children were very young when I started to write, and I've always felt that parenting was my most important job. I never felt good about writing when I could be spending time with them. It's not easy to tell a four-year-old, 'No, I can't play with you because I'm sitting here in front of this computer and it's more important,' so I got up at 5:00 each morning and wrote until it was time to get ready for school. Most mornings, I'd be lucky if I got two paragraphs that I was satisfied with. Writing's a very slow process for me. When I was teaching language arts, I'd tell my students, 'Just breeze through it. Get that first draft down as fast as you can. You can go back and make changes later.' But, as a writer, I can't. While I do go back and make changes after I've got a first draft, my first draft is actually my twenty-fifth. I've gone back and changed things all the way along."

Stranger at Bay

"I wrote Stranger at Bay during the summer of 1997. I'd previously made notes about my characters and the direction I wanted the story to take, but what I didn't do this time was make an outline, which I later regretted. When I write short stories, I begin with the first sentence, and then I write a second sentence and then a third, pushing out one piece at a time. Mind you, I might go back and change that first sentence eight times, but I work it through that way from beginning to end. Instead of telling the story, I follow it where it leads me, which is why I enjoy writing short fiction most of all. That's how I wrote Stranger at Bay, and it was a nightmare. I made change after change and threw out entire chapters. I wasn't fit to live with, and, by the end of that summer, my wife said, 'Don't ever write a book this way again.' It was very hard because I found myself pushing my character to do things he really didn't want to do. I was more than halfway through the book before I began to realize what it was really about. I thought it was about Randy accepting himself and learning he didn't have to fit in with this group of kids. Although that was an important part of it, the story was also about Norma, too. I've known a lot of Norma's in my life, and there are Norma's in my own family, women who haven't had a lot of education and are very insecure about themselves. They're salt-of-the-earth people, but the first ones to put themselves down. So here was my character, Randy, criticizing Norma all the time and making fun of her, and I suddenly realized that what I really wanted was to get Randy to like Norma and to see how wonderful a person she was. That meant rethinking the whole story and going all the way back to the beginning and making change after change after change. But that was how Stranger came to be."

"Stoddart has been waiting for another novel, and unfortunately they're still waiting. I began another book immediately after Stranger was published, and I've written half of it, but I've been unable to complete it because of my commitment to Nelson Canada, an educational publishing company in Toronto. In 1997, I joined the team that is producing the Nelson Language & Writing textbook series for junior and senior high school students. An article on educational publishing appeared recently in The Quill & Quire, saying that, whereas publishers used to have a window of about two years to produce a textbook, now it's eight months. I'm very fortunate that I have a co-author, Dave Hodgkinson. Someone said that two people trying to write a book together is like three people trying to have a baby. That certainly isn't the case with Dave, who has been terrific to work with. In fact, so has everyone associated with the series. So much of what a writer does is in isolation, so it's been a privilege to collaborate on the Nelson series with such a talented group of editors and designers and publishers. The downside is that it occupies all my non-teaching time. Every year, the success of the previous book determines if we're going to go any further with the series. The original plan was just to write books for grades 7 and 8, but both did phenomenally well and since then we've completed the grade 9 and 10 texts and are working on the grade 11 book now. Each book focuses on particular writing forms and takes students through the process of writing each by examining models that are taken from current publications. I'm very proud to have my name on these books."

Once again Don can cite another woman's role in advancing his writing career. "My involvement in this series came about because of Tara Steele, a former publisher at Nelson Canada. My wife, who literally gleans The Quill & Quire and The Globe and Mail for publishing-related news, happened to see an ad in the Globe for educators to review materials. I reviewed some manuscripts for Tara, and one day she called to say that Nelson was doing an anthology called Landmarks and invited me to send her a couple of my short stories. She eventually included my story 'Scars' in the anthology, and then invited me to take part in the Language & Writing series Nelson was developing at that time. I told her 'Thanks, but no thanks' because I had no experience whatsoever in textbook writing, but she persisted: "Why don't you come to Toronto, spend a few days with the team, go through the project, and at the end of that, if you still want to say "No," then no big deal.' So I went. And I'm glad I did."

Prior to this, Don had authored a book on assessment called Hitting the Mark, published by Pembroke. "It, too, came about because of my wife. I'd been doing a lot of research into assessment and evaluation and had been trying a lot of things in my classroom that I was pleased with - as well as lots of things that I wasn't pleased with and had to change. Often, teachers would ask, 'How do you do this, or what are you doing about that?' so Debbie suggested, 'Why don't you just put everything into a book?' When I asked her who'd want to publish a book like that, she said, 'I bet there are plenty of educational publishers who would'. Then she found Pembroke, where I half-heartedly sent an introduction and an outline of the chapters. To be honest, I didn't put a lot of effort into my proposal because I was convinced nothing would come of it. Almost by return mail I got a contract and a letter saying, 'When can you get it to us?'"

Looking ahead, Don says, "I want to finish my third young adult novel. I've made a deadline for myself. If I don't have it done by the end of summer 2001, I'll probably just tear it up because my story ideas have a shelf life. If I don't write it by such and such a time, the energy dissipates and I end up forcing it. I'd also love to finish the collection of short stories that I began this past summer after receiving a Creation Grant from the Nova Scotia Arts Council. Working on textbooks can be satisfying, but you don't get that same sense of emotional release when you finish one. When you finish a story, you feel as though you've peeled the skin off someone's life and looked inside, and your reader can peel that same skin back and see maybe a different story, but it's still an important one. I'd like to write an adult novel, but not because I don't want to be a young adult writer. I get annoyed when I hear people complain about being labelled young adult because I think that some of the best things that are happening in literature in Canada are happening at the young adult level. A lot of adult fiction is so bleak whereas young adult fiction, not that it doesn't deal with issues, is more hopeful."

"My secret passion is screenwriting. I've written two screenplays and had an opportunity to work with some wonderful script editors, one in Halifax and two in Toronto. I took a screenwriting course in 1998 at the International Film and Television Workshops in Rockport, Maine, taught by a screenwriter from Los Angeles. I love the medium. If you don't have an agent, there's no point in even thinking about doing anything in this area, but I would love to see my story 'The Invitation' filmed. Students often ask me, "Do you think Of Things Not Seen will ever be made into a movie?' and I used to say, "I hope so," but not anymore. I now understand that what works between the covers of a novel does not necessarily work on the screen. Although I love its characters and story, Of Things Not Seen isn't really suited for film because of its interior structure. Like many victims of abuse, Ben puts all his energy into hiding his abuse. He reacts to events rather than enacting their outcome. Basically, he wants to run away; he doesn't consciously decide, 'I'm going to stand up to my stepfather and not take this any more.' I've learned that film audiences don't want that. They need to see someone take control of their own story. It wasn't until I finished writing the screen adaptation of the novel that I realized this. And so when students ask me, 'Would you ever want to see it filmed?' I tell them, 'Knowing now what I know about film, no, because in order for that to happen, the story would have to be changed. Ben would have to become a different sort of person, and I really wouldn't want to do that to him or to his story. At some point, though, I'd love to see a story of mine become a film. That's my dream."

Books by Don Aker.


  • Of Things Not Seen. Stoddart, 1995. Grades 6-10.
  • Stranger at Bay. Stoddart, 1997. Grades 6-10.

Professional Materials.

  • Hitting the Mark: Assessment Tools for Teachers. Pembroke, 1995.
  • Nelson Language & Writing 8, ITP Nelson, 1998.
  • Nelson Language & Writing 9, ITP Nelson, 1999. (Co-authored with Dave Hodgkinson.)
  • Nelson Language & Writing 10, ITP Nelson, 2000. (Co-authored with Dave Hodgkinson.)
  • Nelson Language & Writing 11, ITP Nelson, 2001. (Co-authored with Dave Hodgkinson.)
    Scheduled for 2002: Nelson Language & Writing 12, ITP Nelson. (To be co-authored with Dave Hodgkinson.)

This article is based on an interview conducted in St. John's, NF, on October. 21, 2000.

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