This book has legs! An Interview with Monique Polak


By Anita Daher

I was blinded in a beautiful way when the whirlwind that is Monique Polak blew into my life more than a dozen years ago. MoniquePpicWe were at Book Expo Canada in Toronto, and she was barely contained energy, smiling even when her face pretended she wasn’t. This same spark, this joie de vivre, infuses many of her works, even those that take on difficult issues.

In Leggings Revolt (Orca, 2016) seventh grader Eric, along with chums Rory and Phil, have transferred from an all-boys school to Lajoie High School—named after real-life nineteenth century feminist and social activist Marie Gérin-Lajoie. It is an honourable namesake, however Eric and friends are present because there are GIRLS. Lots of them. And for Eric, one in particular: Daisy. She’s beautiful, strong and creative, and they have history—they’d met years earlier at a library Reading Circle their parents had signed them up for.

Eric is quickly made aware of the school’s dress code, a problem for Daisy and friends who find it unjustly directed primarily towards female students. While trying not to stare at Daisy’s midriff, Eric blurts out his agreement with: “Girls are not objects!” He joins the Student Life Committee to effect change. Instead, he finds himself in direct conflict with Daisy, when—under the authoritative eyes of his fellow committee members—he is forced to turn her in.

The topic of how women dress, and if they wear clothing judged too revealing or in any way suggestive that they are somehow deserving of disrespect by men —or worse—needs discussion. Unfortunately, it is a discussion we repeat over and over again every few years as some horror or another comes to light and is picked up by the media. Through novels like this, where readers live in the skin of others affected by this issue, ideas niggle in and take root, perhaps inciting opportunity for discussion at younger ages. As school assistant administrator Miss Aubin says, “There is always a way. It’s just a matter of finding it.”

Leggings Revolt is one of three new books Monique has out this spring. Two of them—this one and Forensics Squad—were launched during Montreal’s Blue Metropolis International Literary Festival.  On the weekend of her launch Monique dashed between her own events and others, enjoying readings by Carmen Aguirre, Joseph Boyden and Thomas King. And yet, in the middle of everything, she found time to answer our questions.


You are a novelist, a journalist, a teacher, also the CBC Montreal/Quebec Writers’ Federation’s inaugural writer-in-residence (Congratulations!). Since 2004 you’ve had 20 books published, sometimes 2 and 3 in a year. One question: how? Give us a little sense of how you organize your day.

Well I admit, I work a lot. I also teach full time at Marianopolis College, but luckily I’ve been able to take self-financed sabbaticals for the last ten years (I’m off one in four terms).

I do try to write every single day and truth is, I feel a little lost if I am NOT working on a book. I write three pages in a journal every morning, then I go for a run or a swim, and then I sit down and do my book-writing stuff. It can get harder to find time during the school term, but I still try to check in with the story I am working on. I get most of my fresh writing done during the summer holidays.

Okay, come on… three books? You’re making me dizzy! It is not usual for publishers to take on more than one work by the same author in a season, and yet this year you have launched three new books with Orca and the tulips aren’t even up. Well, not on the prairies, anyhow. Can you tell us how this came to be, and what it was like to write, edit, and plan launches for all three?

It is kind of unusual. I had a tough year last year for personal reasons — and I turned my trouble into another book. Writing helps me keep my balance!

Orca never seemed to think juggling the three books was a problem. Also they were all quite different — one non-fiction (edited by Sarah Harvey), Forensics which is middle grade (Sarah edited that too), and Leggings which was edited by Melanie.

For the launches, I did the two novels together today, and the Passover book [Passover, Festival of Freedom, Orca] at the Montreal Holocaust Memorial Centre two weeks ago. I told my “peeps” to try and come to at least one of the two launches. And all three new titles were available at both launches. The only down side is that I’m partied out! The good news is that I can only think of one way to re-group: get started on a new book project!

I don’t actually believe that you have free time, but if you did, what sort of activities would you enjoy?

Well… I work out daily. I box once a week with a private trainer. And I cook a lot. I also love gardening. And believe it or not, I am blessed with wonderful friends, most of them great storytellers – which makes hanging out with them extra fun.

You have said you draw story ideas from life. I know you travel extensively. Do you think of a story first, then travel to research, or research wherever your travels happen to take you and find your story later? Both? I am thinking in particular of your novel Middle of Everywhere, set in George River.

I got that idea once while I was visiting George River.*

I have had some travel grants to do research (for instance to return to Holland in the Czech Republic for the book What World Is Left, based on my mum’s experience in a concentration camp), but mostly the travel comes first, then I get the story ideas.

Chocolate, jube-jubes or veggies?

Chocolate. Let’s say it’s one of the hobbies I have time for!

You write on so many topics and themes including tough issues like prejudice, sexuality, abuse, and addiction. What has been your most difficult story to research and write? Why?

The one about my mom. She had kept her story secret for more than 60 years. I love getting secrets out of people – but my mom was reluctant to share her experience. Also because she was already close to 80 when she finally agreed to be interviewed, she had forgotten a lot. That’s one of the reasons why I turned the project into fiction – so I could have the freedom to make things up.

As a young reader, what was your favourite kind of reading to get lost in?

Poetry. When I misbehaved (which I did a lot) my parents sent me to my room to memorize a poem. Robert Louis Stevenson was one of my favourites. Also A.A. Milne’s poetry.

What inspired you to write Leggings Revolt?

During a school visit to Centennial Regional High School on the south shore of Montreal, the students told me that they had staged a leggings revolution to protest the school dress code. The story gave me shivers. When I get shivers, I know it’s my body telling me to use the story in a book.

What’s next for you?

I’ve been “playing” with a novel for early readers — it’s aimed at kids aged nine or so. It’s about a girl who can’t help telling lies.

I’m hoping it’ll lead to a little series. I got the idea because when I was a kid, I told the girls in my bunk that I was a princess — and they believed me.


* Monique has journeyed to Nunavik nine times to work with kids through a program of the Blue Metropolis Literary Foundation. She is part of a team of writers and photographers who work with elementary and high school students across the province to help them to “capture their communities in words and photographs.”

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Youthful Appetite

Anita Daher

Anita Daher has lived in Summerside, PEI, Yellowknife, NT, Churchill, MB, Baker Lake, NU and Sault Ste. Marie, ON, making her an expert on the geographic location of YA writers. She is a prolific and successful YA author herself and the associate teen book editor at Great Plains Publications in Winnipeg.