Toronto prosecutor wins book award

The 20 book publishers who rejected Lisa Joyal’s manuscript may consider being a little less hasty the next time she approaches them.

The 45-year-old Toronto lawyer recently won a Nautilus Book Award (silver 2008) for children’s fiction for her novel Swahili for Beginners (Sumach Press).

The Nautilus Awards were created to recognize world-changing books, and to celebrate their contribution to positive social change, spiritual growth, conscious living, and responsible leadership. Awards are given in 20 categories, in both adult trade and children’s publishing.

Swahili for Beginners is about a year in the life of a 13-year-old girl named Georgie who resides in the High Park neighbourhood of Toronto and her pen-pal friendship with a girl named Ellie who lives in a small village in Tanzania.

Joyal, an assistant Crown attorney, says it took her about three years to find a publisher willing to take a chance on a first-time author.
“One thinks the hard part is writing, and that’s true it is, but it’s also hard to find a publisher to publish the book,” she tells Law Times.

During the arduous process, she consulted another Toronto lawyer, Manjusha Pawagi, whose children’s book The Girl Who Hated Books (Second Story Press) was featured in Law Times several years ago. “She followed the same process and said there weren’t any shortcuts. She told me not to give up and keep writing those letters.”

Despite the fact that Joyal’s novel has been out since October, the author says she continues to receive rejection letters. One had arrived just a week before an interview with Law Times.

“I wrote to that publisher two years ago and they sent me a standard form letter saying they weren’t interested but wished me luck. I’m grateful that Sumach took a chance,” says Joyal.

Toronto-based Sumach Press, which bills itself as a publisher of “dynamic feminist writing,” also has a line of books for young adults, and found Joyal’s novel to be a perfect fit.

“We have an interest in girls as a main protagonist, doing interesting things. That appealed to us and it was a story that combined urban downtown plus the outreach to international issues that are of interest to a lot of teens in North America,” says Lois Pike, marketing co-ordinator at Sumach Press.

Joyal’s impetus for writing the novel was based, in part, on a desire to see strong female characters in a work of fiction.

“As a kid, my friends and I never felt there were a lot books about girls as the lead character. We were reading a lot of stories about boys,” she recollects. “It’s all different now; bookstores are filled with books about strong girls and I wanted to contribute to those sorts of books.”

In creating the character of Ellie, Joyal was inspired by a visit to Africa.
‘My husband and I . . . spent months [going] through Namibia, Zimbabwe, Tanzania and a bit in Kenya and travelling in Africa touched me very deeply,” she says.

“The people and the places were so fascinating but the lack of resources in some regions to meet basic human needs, like food, water, and shelter was sometimes overwhelming to see first-hand.”

Joyal, a mother of two, says she’s planning to donate money from book royalties to various African aid projects.
Prior to joining the Crown’s office, where she’s been for the past nine years, Joyal worked with children as trial Crown in Peel Region for six years.

“When it comes to the criminal justice system, we as criminal lawyers tend to observe the vulnerability of children. We encounter children as witnesses, complainants, or defendants,” she explains. “Children’s fiction writing is a wonderful escape from that world. It allows me to focus on the strength and power of children.”

Encouraged by an award and four positive reviews, Joyal says she hopes to publish more books in the future.
“I’ve already written another one - for babies and toddlers. I need to begin the process all over again to find a publisher and I don’t expect it to be any easier. It’s a different genre and so I have to research the market all over again.”

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