Chan, Gillian 1954-

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CHAN, Gillian 1954-

PERSONAL: Born March 29, 1954, in Cleethorpes, England; daughter of Jimmy and Patricia Durrant; married Henry Chan (an actor), 1982; children: Theo. Ethnicity: "British." Education: Orange Hill Girls Grammar School, Edgeware, Middlesex; RochesterGrammar School for Girls, Kent; Keswick Hall, University of East Anglia, B.Ed. Hobbies and other interests: Reading, traveling, cooking, calligraphy, watching baseball, playing computer games.

ADDRESSES: Home and office—41 Thornton Trail, Dundas, Ontario, Canada L9H 6Y2. E-mail—gillian. [email protected]

CAREER: English and drama teacher and librarian, 1980-90; writer, 1994—; worked variously as a mail sorter, dishwasher, bartender, bank clerk, and shop assistant.

MEMBER: Canadian Society of Children's Authors, Illustrators and Performers (CANSCAIP), Writers' Union of Canada, Canadian Children's Book Centre.

AWARDS, HONORS: Hamilton and Region Arts Council Literary Award, and Mr. Christie's Book Award finalist, Christie Brown & Co., both 1995, both for Golden Girl and Other Stories; Governor General's Literary Award finalist, Children's Literature, Canada Council, 1996, and Mr. Christie's Book Award finalist, Christie Brown & Co., 1997, both for Glory Days and Other Stories; finalist for the Shining Willow Award and the Red Maple Award, both 2002, both for The Carved Box.


Golden Girl and Other Stories, Kids Can Press (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 1994.

Glory Days and Other Stories, Kids Can Press (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 1996.

The Carved Box, Kids Can Press (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 2001.

A Foreign Field, Kids Can Press (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 2002.


SIDELIGHTS: Gillian Chan was born in England into a royal air force family that moved every few years throughout that country and Germany. One of her earliest memories is of the family's Saturday morning trips to the library. Everyone in her family liked to read to young Gillian—if only to stop her from pretending to read at the top of her lungs.

When she was five, Chan announced that she was going to write a book of her own, and from then on she wrote constantly. After graduating from college, she taught English and ran a school library in Norfolk, England. Often too tired to think about writing for herself, she compromised and completed the same writing assignments she gave her students in her classes. She never told the kids this, nor did she tell them she wrote the anonymous pieces they studied when she needed a selection to fit a lesson plan.

Life changed drastically when Chan and her husband left England for Canada in 1990. Looking for something to do together, Chan and her husband had planned to open a bookstore, but the recession put that dream on hold. She then devoted her time to writing, and her husband decided to become an actor. "Canada has been a renaissance—a rebirth—for us and we've been motivated to do something completely different," Chan told Sandy Van Harten of the Hamilton Spectator.Chan's first published book evolved from a writing course at McMaster University, where she was asked to write a short story in as alien a voice as possible. She chose to write as Dennis, a sixteen-year-old boy. At a blue-pencil workshop, she showed the story to Charis Wahl, editor of young adult fiction at Toronto-based Kids Can Press, who suggested she submit it to her. Chan, however, did not follow through. In fact, it wasn't until she took a second writing course at Humber College and was reassured by the instructor Paul Quarrington that Wahl's suggestion was probably sincere that she submitted the story.

Eventually, Kids Can Press published this story and four others as Golden Girl and Other Stories, a collection related in the first person by five different characters who attend the same high school. "I didn't set out to write a series of stories set in the same place.... I wrote 'The Buddy System' and when I'd finished it, I didn't want to let the two main characters, Dennis and Bob, go," Chan wrote in a promotional profile prepared by Kids Can Press. As a result, the characters in Golden Girl pop up in each other's stories, and some even end up telling their own stories. Elizabeth MacCallum wrote in the Toronto-based Globe and Mail that "Chan's descriptions of the tensions arising between adults and adolescents have the ring of truth"—and was a finalist for the Mr. Christie's Book Award in 1995.

Chan was so caught up in the lives of the Elmwood High students that she published a sequel two years later. Glory Days and Other Stories tells of other students there, and occasionally mentions the kids from Golden Girl. Toronto Star columnist Margot Griffin told a young reader, "I predict that you will find the characters in this book to be so real that you will find yourself thinking about them long after you finish the last story." Chris Sherman of Booklist commended the collection, commenting that the stories "are sure to touch a responsive chord" in its young readers. This book was a finalist for the Governor General's Literary Award, Children's Literature, in 1996, and for the Mr. Christie's Book Award, 1997.

Chan told the audience at Packaging Your Imagination, a workshop for children's writers, that teenagers live their lives with an intensity that frightens her. They either love something or hate it. What happens to them is all that matters at a given moment. As a result, she believes the short story is perfect for capturing the intense, episodic nature of teenage life.

A meticulous researcher, Chan reads teen magazines and makes copius notes while watching teens at high schools and hangouts. She believes that it's important to capture the voices of her narrators, using words the way she imagines they would use them and reproducing their intonation and speech patterns. This close attention to research led Chan into a new direction, with two historical novels for young adults: The Carved Box and A Foreign Field.

The starting place for most of her stories is the main character, Chan told Packaging Your Imagination. The characters come to her first, and she spends days thinking about them before worrying about a plot. She creates detailed character sketches, including things like family history, background, appearance, personality, idiosyncrasies, academic performance, friends, interests, and weaknesses, dreams, fears and ambitions. She even includes a time line of their lives and those of other family members and, in some cases, diagrams of their homes and rooms. "My feeling is that the plot has to derive from the character, she asks herself questions such as, 'What would be the worst thing that could happen to this character? The best thing?'" As she does this, she finds that the plot evolves naturally.

The Carved Box set in Upper Canada (now southern Ontario) during the late 1700s, is the story of a Scottish orphan boy, fifteen-year-old Callum Murdoch. Callum is sent to live with his uncle Rory and and his family, Canadian pioneers, after the death of both of his parents. On his arrival in the New World, Callum buys an abused black dog from a stranger, giving him the only money he has brought from Scotland. The stranger also gives Callum a mysterious carved wooden box, saying the dog will stay with him only as long as Callum keeps the box with him and it remains unopened. Callum must work hard on his uncle's farm, with only "Dog" for companionship. One day, after numerous adventures that create a deepening friendship between boy and dog, the box accidentally breaks open and leads Callum to a surprising awareness about his canine companion. Akin to old Scotch-Irish myths about the "selkies," this story has an unusual twist at the end, showing that friendship can survice even a dramatic personal change. A contributor to Kirkus Reviews found the book "a well-knit, outdoorsy tale." Crystal Faris of School Library Journal, however, wrote, "This mystical ending seems contrived . . . and adds a jarring element" to a story she otherwise enjoyed. Gail Lennon of Resource Linkscalled the book a "delightful tale of life in Upper Canada" during pioneer times. Lennon highly recommended The Carved Box for junior or intermediate elementary students. The book was a finalist for the Shining Willow Award and the Red Maple Award, both in 2002.

In A Foreign Field, Ellen Logan and British pilot Stephen Dearborn develop a deep friendship during World War II. Their friendship develops into love over time, and the two continue to write after Stephen is sent to the front lines, where his plane is shot down. Carolyn Phelan in Booklist observed, "Chan beautifully captures the particular tensions and intensity of wartime relationships in this quiet, absorbing novel." Phelan noted that the violent subject sometimes calls for strong language, but it is "true to the [novel's] characters and events." Paula J. LaRue, writing in School Library Journal, commented on Chan's skillful use of "homey details, such as the teen overcooking the potatoes," and thought the book presented a story that would thoroughly engage its readers. Victoria Pennell commented in Resource Links that "this book presents a vivid glimpse into the way of life for many young Canadians during the years of World War II....Young adults will be able to relate to Ellen and Stephen, their day-to-day experiences, their hopes and fears and the uncertainty of the times."

Chan begins her stories by writing longhand in a spiral-bound notebook, using only the right-hand side of the page. "I leave the left for notes to myself, for questions, instructions, diagrams, things that occur to me as I write and which need further work," she told the audience at Packaging Your Imagination.

Her final question is, Does the story end too neatly? Chan believes a short story is one moment in someone's life. "There has to be a sense that life continues," she once commented.

Her stories project this. Discussing one of them in the Globe and Mail, MacCallum wrote, "This denouement, like the others in Golden Girl, produces a thought-provoking, surprising ending that leaves the reader pondering the peculiarities and vagaries of human nature. Now that's a good story."



Booklist, September 15, 1997, review of Golden Girl and Other Stories, p. 220; January 1, 1998, Chris Sherman, review of Glory Days and Other Stories, p. 794; October 1, 2001, review of The Carved Box, p. 312; September 15, 2002, Carolyn Phelan, review of A Foreign Field, p. 226.

Books in Canada, April, 1997, review of Glory Days, p. 34.

Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, January, 1998, reviews of Golden Girl and Glory Days, p. 156.

Canadian Book Review Annual, 1994, review of Golden Girl, p. 477; 1996, review of Glory Days, p. 468

Canadian Children's Literature, winter, 1996, review of Golden Girl, p. 106; summer, 1997, review of Glory Days, p. 83.

Children's Book News, winter, 1997, review of Glory Days, p. 27.

Children's Book Review Service, November, 1997, review of Golden Girl, p. 33.

CM: Canadian Review of Materials, November 16, 2001, review of The Carved Box.

Emergency Librarian, November, 1995, review of Golden Girl, p. 25.

Globe and Mail (Toronto), October 15, 1994, Elizabeth MacCallum, review of Golden Girl; October 20, 2001, review of The Carved Box, p. D22.

Hamilton Spectator, September 17, 1994, Sandy Van Harten.

Kirkus Reviews, August 1, 1997, review of Golden Girl, p.1219; August 15, 1997, review of Glory Days, p. 1303; August 15, 2001, review of The Carved Box, p. 1208.

Quill & Quire, September, 1994, review of Golden Girl, p. 73; October, 1996, review of Glory Days, p. 51; July, 2001, review of The Carved Box, p. 51.

Resource Links, February, 1997, review of Glory Days, p. 136; October, 2001, Gail Lennon, review of The Carved Box, p. 9; December, 2002, Victoria Pennell, review of A Foreign Field, p. 44.

School Library Journal, November, 1997, review of Golden Girl, p. 114; October, 2001, Crystal Faris, review of The Carved Box, p. 152; November, 2002, Paula J. LaRue, review of A Foreign Field, p. 159.

Toronto Star, January 12, 1997, Margot Griffin, review of Glory Days.


Gillian Chan Home Page, (May 15, 2003).