Toten, Teresa 1955-

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TOTEN, Teresa 1955-

PERSONAL: Born October 13, 1955, in Zagreb, Yugoslavia (now Croatia); immigrated to Canada, 1955; became Canadian citizen; daughter of Adam (a real estate agent) and Jan (a cook) Vukovic; married Ken Toten (a banker), September 22, 1979; children: Sasha, Nikki. Ethnicity: Croatian. Education: University of Toronto, B.A. (honors, political economy), 1978; M.A., 1979; attended writing workshops at George Brown College, Toronto, 1986-95. Politics: "Left of center." Religion: Roman Catholic. Hobbies and other interests: Working with children's groups to promote all aspects of children's literature and book production; travel; sports, especially tennis, basketball, walking.

ADDRESSES: Home—62 Lynwood Avenue, Toronto, Ontario M4V 1K4, Canada. E-mail—[email protected]

CAREER: Writer, 1995—. Radio Canada, Montreal, Quebec, Canada, freelance writer and broadcaster, 1980; Royal Commission on Conditions of Foreign Service, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, senior analyst, 1982; Canada Museum Construction Corporation, Ottawa, assistant to the chair, 1982-1984; Canadian Institute for International Peace and Security, Ottawa, corporate secretary, 1984-1985; freelance book reviewer, 1996—.

MEMBER: Canadian Society of Children's Authors, Illustrators and Performers (CANSCAIP), Canadian Children's Book Centre, Writers' Union of Canada, Artist with the Learning through the Arts Programme, International Board on Books for Young People, and the Ontario Arts Council Writers in the Schools Programme.

AWARDS, HONORS: Imperial Order of Daughters of the Empire (IODE) Book Award finalist, Municipal Chapter of Toronto IODE, 1995, Violet Downey Book Award finalist, National Chapter of Canada IODE, 1995, Ruth Schwartz Children's Book Award finalist, Ontario Arts Council, 1995, Canadian Library Association Notable Book, 1996, and Our Choice selection, Canadian Children's Book Centre, 1996-97, all for The Onlyhouse; Governor-General's Literary Award nominee, Canada Council for the Arts, 2001, for The Game; Young Adult Canadian Book Award nominee, Canadian Library Association, Children's Book of the Year, Alberta Book Publishers' Association, White Raven Citation, Voice of Youth Advocates Best List, Book of the Year Award, Bronze, ForeWord Magazine, White Pine Award Finalist, and Best Book Award for Young Adults, all 2002, for The Game; American Library Association award, (best book for young adults category), 2003, for The Game.

WRITINGS:

The Onlyhouse (Northern Lights Young Novels), Red Deer College Press (Red Deer, Alberta, Canada), 1995.

The Game, Red Deer Press (Calgary, Alberta, Canada), 2001.

A chapter of The Onlyhouse appears in Girl's Own: An Anthology of Canadian Fiction, edited by Sarah Ellis, Penguin/Viking (New York, NY), 2001.

WORK IN PROGRESS: Me and the Blondes, a novel for young adults.

SIDELIGHTS: Canadian author Teresa Toten began to write books for children and young adults in the mid-1990s, acting upon a lifelong interest in writing. The positive critical response to Toten's first novel alone speaks volumes about her arrival on the Canadian children's literature scene. Selected for the short lists of several important literary awards and included on the "best books" lists of both the Canadian Children's Book Centre and the Canadian Library Association, The Onlyhouse is a story about roots, identity, and belonging. Presented from the perspective of eleven-year-old Lucy, it tells about an immigrant child's experiences in Toronto in the 1960s. Toten's second novel also received much critical praise. The Game, which tells the story of a troubled teen struggling to piece her life together in a rehabilitation clinic, was nominated for both the Governor-General's Literary Award and the Young Adult Canadian Book Award.

Quill & Quire reviewer Kenneth Oppel described Toten's narrative voice as "so authentic and compelling it draws us with instant enthusiasm into the story." Toten's work has been compared with the popular humor-tinged, realistic fiction Brian Doyle writes for pre-teens. "The laugh-alouds are a delight," said Sarah Ellis in a review of The Onlyhouse for Resource Links. "Even better are the rueful smiles with sadness at their edges."

Toten's parents married in Croatia. Her father, a Canadian citizen with Croatian roots, met Toten's mother on one of his visits "home." After their wedding, he returned to Canada to tackle the red tape that would allow his wife to leave Croatia and join him. By the time the immigration process untangled two years later, Toten had already been born. She was an infant in 1955 when her parents finally reunited in Toronto.

Shortly after the family's reunion, however, Toten's father died. Her mother was suddenly a single parent in a new country. Like Lucy's mother in The Only-house, Toten's mother worked hard to achieve the immigrant dream of buying a home in a well-established, middle-class neighborhood. As a child, Toten called that Toronto home an "only house." There were two reasons for her description: the house was detached, and it was the first and therefore the only house she and her mother had ever lived in. The "only house" image was important to Toten as a child and its impact remained with her as an adult. When Red Deer College Press accepted her autobiographical novel for publication, Toten knew its title had to be The Onlyhouse.

Toten grew up and went to school in a neighborhood much like the one in her book. She completed high school and earned two academic degrees at the University of Toronto. In 1979, she married Ken Toten, moved to Montreal, and worked as a writer and broadcaster. A year later, the couple moved to Ottawa. During their five years in Canada's capital, Toten worked for a variety of government-affiliated organizations.

In 1985, the Totens returned to Toronto. After the birth of their first child in 1986, Toten began to pursue her lifelong interest in writing. She attended a series of writing workshops at George Brown College. An exercise in one of the workshops required her to write a scene about being ten years old. The Onlyhouse, based on Toten's own childhood, grew out of that assignment.

The Onlyhouse relives much of Toten's experience of moving from Toronto's lively, mixed Kensington Market district to the quiet, homogeneous Davisville neighborhood. As she wrote The Onlyhouse, she worked hard at portraying the diverse and distinctive communities that characterized Toronto in the 1960s and continue to characterize it today.

"Most of all, I wanted to tell the story of a child who feels quite different from the norm and wants very much to belong, to be part of the inside group," Toten once commented. "Lucy, the main character, and I have a lot in common and the other characters are a combination of real people I've known." Toten's Lucy impressed author Sarah Ellis. In a Quill & Quire article on great books for girls, Ellis included Lucy in a discussion of characters "who show passion, imagination, and humor in the face of oppression." She described Lucy specifically as "gregarious, optimistic, articulate and a bit of a goof."

The central character of Toten's second novel, The Game, faces a different set of challenges and obstacles. The reader meets Danielle Webster in Riverwood Youth Center, an institute for troubled teens; placed there by her mother after attempting suicide, Dani is struggling to make sense of her troubled past. Abused by her father and neglected by her mother, Dani slowly becomes friends with her roommate Scratch, a self-mutilator, and his friend Kevin, who also attempted suicide after his family refused to accept his homosexuality. Bev Greenberg, a contributor to Herizons, noted that Toten's "excellent use of dialogue lends credibility to the story by showing the slow development of a rapport between Danielle and the others at the Center." These budding friendships provide a supportive network for Dani as she tries to confront her problems.

Toten builds a sense of mystery surrounding Dani's past, revealing it in excerpts from her parents' letters and samples from Dani's sessions with her therapist. Most compelling, however, are the series of brief memories and flashbacks that punctuate the narrative. These memories revolve around the mysterious "game" that Dani had played with her younger sister Kelly. Although Dani originally tries to escape these painful memories, she later learns that she must confront them in order to find the truth.

Toten handles her difficult subject matter skillfully, using well-developed characters to bring humanity to the story. "The Game treats both its characters and its readers with great respect," Margaret Mackey commented in Resource Links. Toten crafts her characters "with consummate skill and a fine radar for current teen culture and language," noted CM reviewer Anne Letain.

Toten is a passionate reader and admires the work of Canadian authors for children such as Brian Doyle, Sarah Ellis, and Tim Wynne-Jones. During Canadian Children's Book Week in 1996, she had the opportunity to revisit the greater Toronto area as one of the Canadian Children's Book Centre's touring authors. She is an energetic advocate for children's literature and particularly enjoys working with groups of children; she also serves as Program Chair for the Canadian Society of Children's Authors, Illustrators, and Performers.

Toten lives in Toronto, where she teaches creative writing workshops and tutors English-as-a-Second-Language students as a volunteer. She once remarked, "I want to continue to write about the theme of belonging, what it is that motivates our need for this very human desire, and how we go about achieving it. I hope my writing will reach children who will feel less alone when they read it."

BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:

PERIODICALS

Booklist, February 15, 2002, Michael Cart, review of The Game, p. 1010.

Children's Book News, spring, 1996, pp. 13-14; winter, 1997, pp. 7-12.

Herizons, summer, 2002, Bev Greenberg, review of The Game, p. 32.

Quill & Quire, December, 1995, Kenneth Oppel, review of The Onlyhouse, p. 12; July, 1997, Sarah Ellis, "Great Canadian Books for Girls," p. 51; July, 2001, p. 48.

Resource Links, February, 1996, Sarah Ellis, review of The Onlyhouse, p. 118; October, 2001, Margaret Mackey, review of The Game, p. 43.

School Library Journal, July, 1996, pp. 86-87.

ONLINE

CANSCAIP,http://www.canscaip.org/ (February 18, 2003), biography of Teresa Toten.

CM: Canadian Review of Materials,http://www.umanitoba.ca/outreach/cm/ (November 16, 2001), Anne Letain, review of The Game.

Red Deer Press,http://www.reddeerpress.com/ (February 18, 2003), review of The Game.