Sharon E. McKay, Y/A writer and Canadian War Artist

Sharon E. McKay




" A person who won't read has no advantage over one who can't read. "
Mark Twain


I live in PEI but commute regularly to Ontario. To book a school, you are welcome to call me directly for details on the presentations. 902 367-6020 or contact:
Authors' Booking Service - Connecting Canadian Creators and Educators

General Literary inquiries: Barbara Berson

or author directly

with subtitles



Sharon E. McKay, Y/A writer and Canadian War Artist

     Montreal born author Sharon E. McKay is well-known for her novels for young adults including Charlie Wilcox, Charlie Wilcox’s Great War, Esther and four novels in Penguin’s “Our Canadian Girl” historical fiction series.

     Her most recent works for young adults include War Brothers, a story of child soldiers in Uganda and the winner of the Arthur Ellis Award.

Thunder Over Kandahar is the heart-stopping story of two girls making their way across the most dangerous territory on earth.

     Whispers from the Ghetto, Whispers from the Camps and Whispers from Hiding, are all short stories dealing with the Holocaust and written with Kathy Kacer, a multi-award winning writer and a child of survivors.

In January 2008 Sharon was accepted into the Canadian Forces (War) Artists Program or CFAP. She is the first children’s writer to hold the title. In      March 2009 she went to Afghanistan to, in the words of the program description, “capture the daily operations, personnel, and spirit of the Canadian Forces.”


Questions posed by School Libraries in Canada magazine and students across Canada.


What was it like in Afghanistan?

     Amazing. Eye-opening. Bridging the great divide between the civilian and military world was harder than I expected. I do understand why people volunteer for second and third tours however. I would go back in a heartbeat.


What was your most memorable experience there?

     Rides – rides in planes (Hercules), helicopters (Griffons and Chinooks), tanks, LAV’s. Oh to be a nine-year old boy. But no, my most memorable experience happened at Camp Mirage, Canada’s now-defunct staging area, the leaping off point to Kandahar Airfield (KAF). Being in Mirage felt like taking an exotic vacation. There were camels outside the gate, the food was great, weather was divine, as was the shopping. And then it all changed. A soldier said, “There’s a ramp ceremony at O-200 hours. You’re invited.”

     I stood on an airfield under the black wing of a Hercules aircraft and listened as a Padre said a prayer over the transfer case (not coffin) of a fallen solder. Then came the command, “Soldiers, salute your comrade.” Three hundred hands cut the air. It is a sound that I will remember forever.


Were you able to get much of an impression of the every day lives of Afghan people?

     While I did get out on a foot patrol in Taliban territory close to the Pakistan boarder, I did not get into the city of Kandahar. (Think of Kandahar Airfield (KAF) as being Pearson Airport and Toronto as being Kandahar.) The security was very tight and when a war artist (WA) goes outside the wire, soldiers provide the security. I don’t think anyone wants to put soldiers in harms way because a WA wants to see the sights.

     I did visit a school and meet village children. I have one regret. It was that I did not spend much time with children. Keep in mind too, that some teachers (males especially) do not want foreigners to have a great deal of contact with their children.



Did your involvement in the program change your perspective on the conflict in Afghanistan or war in general?

     Not really. I am careful not to give my opinions on the war to children in the classroom. Should we have entered into this conflict?” is a question that a teacher may want to have in his or her political science class. I am not prepared to discuss this question in primary or middle schools.

     Canadian war artists interpret war, not (necessarily) support it. When I accepted the gig it was because no one (in the CFAP program) asked me my opinion of our role in Afghanistan. No one has told me what to write, requested to preview my material, and no money has exchanged hands.

     But I am mindful that I’m on the heels of a long line of renowned and celebrated artists such as Alex Sorrell, Alex Coville and a personal fave, Gertrude Kearnes. These are all people that whose artistic efforts are hard to live up to. More recently the list boasts Ken Steacy, a cartoonist and Althea Thauberger, an amazing and gifted photographer who was with me on the trip. The point is that there is not a propagandist in the bunch; no glorious, flag-waving, blank-eyed soldiers marching to drums or pre-approved narratives.



How and why did you become involved in the war artist program?

     Thing is, I thought everyone knew about it. I have been aware of it since I was twelve years-old and standing on the deck of the QEII. My grandma and I made the ocean crossing to Belfast via Liverpool every summer. We travelled third class but always ate in the second class restaurants.

     My grandma came to Canada as an indentured servant and nearly starved through the Depression. Leaving fresh buns on the dinner table was hard so every night she put them in her purse. Every morning I snuck them out of our tiny cabin and walked up to the very top of the ship (First Class) and fed the fishes. There, standing by the rail, was a well dressed, dignified, senior man named Mr. Silver. He and I became friends and as I left a trail of bread crumbs across the Atlantic, he told me stories of The Great War (WW1) and how war artists like George Plante, A.R. Thompson, Arthur Lismer brought the war home to Canadians. And while the CFAP program as come and gone and been reinvented a few times, I have known about it for forty years.

     Likely I got the war artist gig because of my novels, Charlie Wilcox and Charlie Wilcox’s Great War. And having spent six summers in a house between two warring areas in Belfast, Northern Ireland in a nasty skirmish dubbed The Troubles, I have had my share of conflict. Then there are the three books on the Holocaust and of course War Brothers, the book on child soldiers.



How do you envision yourself sharing your experience in Afghanistan with your young adult readers? What form would the story take? Are there any particular difficulties involved with writing about contemporary events?

     The book is called Thunder Over Kandahar and published by Annick Press. It is the tale of Yasmine and Tamanna, two girls from different backgrounds, who make a run for it over the mountains. One girl will not make it. (I lie.)

     I write for Canadian children about any number of topics. God is in the details and so I am careful to have lots of readers – people from the culture I am writing about review my story as I go along. I write slowly. I interview, I read and I listen. Then I have the entire book fact checked all over again. All of my books are read by teacher/librarians after the first edit. I take their comments very seriously.

How did you become a writer?

     I pitched a non-fiction book idea on parenting after my first son was born and had it accepted by a publisher. I immediately spent the advance and had no choice but to write the book. I was terrified. When I wasn’t writing, I was anxious, upset, and convinced that I could not write. Worse was listening to irritating pep-talks from my husband. I finished the book, it was well received. Many more non-fiction books followed.

And then I took the scary leap into fiction. I’d always been a story-teller and I found a home in writing fiction for young adults.



Your writing seems to reflect a great interest in history?  

Going back in time is just, well, fun. I don’t have the guts to write about North American kids today.



What are the origins of that interest?  

     Really, I have no idea. I have never taken a history class and did not do well in it in school but my husband and sons love history so maybe it has rubbed off.



Military conflict has been a central feature in many of your most successful novels. Why? 

     I have no idea why I write about conflict but over the years I have learned to tell the story that honors the victims without giving (too many) librarians heart attacks. It’s a difficult balance and I don’t always get it right.



What is the attraction of war for you as a writer?

Drama. But look again, my books are about running. The settings tend to be in a war zone.



What do you like best about writing for young people?

     It is the hardest writing there is. Kids don’t give a book a second chance. Maybe they will forgive a writer one boring bit, but that’s it. Stay on the game or your out. It’s also the writing that has the most impact. The books kids read at this age will stay with them forever – funny how that works.



What is the biggest challenge in writing for young people?

     Keeping history honest without getting the book bounced out of the library. That sounds too flippant. Librarians have lives (I was one once). A teacher/librarian has bills to pay, hockey practice to get to and a house to keep. Fighting an irate parent because he/or she wants a book out of the library can be very upsetting – an understatement if there ever was one. I don’t want to put librarians in that position. On the other-hand if young adults don’t know what their counterparts of the same age are experiencing (i.e. child soldiers) how will they ever grow into caring adults? A knowledgeable, compassionate, thoughtful, pro-active adult does not suddenly blossom at twenty.

     At the ripe old age of 57, I am now in a position of seeing what happens to children who are put in hothouses and kept there by over-involved parents. It’s not pretty. Most teachers know this. No one wants to send children into conflict for the experience but to the best of our ability, we can give them enough information to care.



Most of your historical fiction has focused on the experiences of young Canadians. What prompted you to shift your attention to the holocaust in the Whispers series and to the experiences of child soldiers in War Brothers?

     I have been a volunteer member of the Christian/Jewish Dialogue Holocaust Remembrance Committee (terrible name!) for 18 years. The Whispers series was a simple outgrowth of that work. (I place Holocaust Survivors in churches and schools during Holocaust Education week.) I can count many Survivors as friends and I was particular proud to work with co-writer Kathy Kacer.

     War Brothers is a different story. On a beautiful fall Friday afternoon I heard an interview on CBC radio about the work Adrian Bradbury was doing in Northern Uganda. By Monday I had read a small mountain of material and had written a sample chapter. The following Friday I had a publisher and was planning a trip to Uganda. Oh-god-what-have-I-gotten-myself-into? Julia Bell, intrepid traveler and brilliant illustrator, made me braver than I am. When she agreed to go I simply could not back down. I was scared stiff.

     I know War Brothers is a hard read, it was a hard write, but my hopes are that it informs, plants a seed, makes a connection and at the very least, entertains.



The book Good to Go, A Practical Guide to Adulthood, that you wrote with Kim Zarzour, seems a radical change from your other recent work. What inspired this change?

     I returned to my roots. I have written ten-plus non-fiction books. Most of my early books were how-to books. They can be surprisingly hard to write. Kim Zazour is an amazing writer. When she agreed to co-write, I thought why not? I could take a break, still work and have a great time with Kim. We laughed our way through 700-plus pages.



What is your next project?

     I spent the fall of 2010 in Israel and The West Bank. The result will be a book called One Night in Jerusalem. It is the story of two boys who escape the confines of the Hadassah hospital to have a night on the town. Needless to say things do not go as planned.


What’s the best part about writing?

     It sure isn’t the self-doubt, the nagging feeling that at any moment someone is going to say, “Who do you think you are?” Or, the long days writing only to delete all but one sentence the very next day.

     The best part is when I am with kids, really. I like being in the classroom. I remember meeting an author when I was ten years old. The book was called Apples Everyday. She wanted to sign the book and I wouldn’t let her ‘deface’ it. Today kids have great access to writers. Last year alone I answered hundreds of letters and e-mails. The children today are fearless and I love that. (I still have Apples Everyday.)

     Often I am in remote or small towns or villages and visit every classroom from K to grade 12. Here are some questions I have received from students:

Are those your real teeth?” Yes

Is that your real hair?” Yes.

Are you rich?” No

Do you write your own books or does someone else do it for you?” Ahhhhhhhhhh. I wish.




The United States Board on Books for Young People lists Thunder Over Kandahar as one of the top 40 international books for its 2011 honor list.






Sharon E. McKay



Canadian War Artist, January 2008 – 09.



Thunder Over Kandahar, Annick Books, 2011.

  • Nominated for the Saskatchewan Young Readers Choice Awards (SYRCA Willows)

  • Amelia Bloomer Project 2011 List, ALA

  • 2011 USBBY Outstanding International Books Honor List (see above)

  • 2011 Notable Books for a Global Society

  • 2011 Next Generation Indie Book Award, winner.

  • Cybils, Blogger Literary Award nomination

Honorable Mention in the Young Adult category of the Eric Hoffer Award.

Red Maple, 2011. Whispers from the Ghettos (with Kathy Kacer) Honour Book


Published 2010

Thunder over Kandahar, Annick Press. Afghanistan.

Thunder Over Kandahar, Random House, US. CD.

The Story of Penelope, Our Canada Girl, Penguin. (re-released)

Historical fiction. Ages 8-12.

Whispers from Hiding, Co-write with Kathy Kacer, Penguin

Stories of Holocaust survivors. Short stories, poems, plays. Ages 9-14.

Published 2009

Whispers from the Camps. Co-write with Kathy Kacer, Penguin

Stories of Holocaust survivors. Short stories, poems, plays. Ages 9-14.

Whispers from the Ghetto, Co-write with Kathy Kacer, Penguin

Stories of Holocaust survivors. Short stories, poems, plays. Ages 9-14.

Published 2008

Good to Go, non-fiction. Co-written with Kim Zazour, Penguin, 2008.

Non-fiction, adult. # 8 September 2008.

War Brothers Gulu, Uganda. Penguin, 2008.

Published Works: Historical Fiction:

Esther, Penguin Books. Fall 2004.

Charlie Wilcox’s Great War, Y/A, Book 2. Penguin Books. Spring 2003

Charlie Wilcox. Penguin, 2003. Y/A historical fiction.

Originally published by Stoddart, 2000.

Italian translation 2002. Romanian translation 2003.

Series: Historical Fiction:
Christmas Reunion, Our Canadian Girl, Book 4, Penguin Books. Fall 2004
An Irish Penny, Our Canadian Girl, Book 3, Spring 2003

Glass Castle, Our Canadian Girl, Book 2, Fall 2002

Terror in the Harbour, Our Canadian Girl, Book 1. Fall 2001.

Children’s Non-Fiction:

Time Capsule, (packaged book or PB) Somerville House. l998

Have a Heart, (PB) Somerville House. 1997

Pat-A-Cake, The Little Dough Book, (PB) Somerville House. 1997

Kick The Can, (PB) Somerville House. l996

Take A Hike, (PB) Scholastic. 1995

Halloween, (PB) Somerville House. 1995

Chalk Around The Block, (PB) Somerville House. 1994

All above titles listed in the Canadian Children’s Book Centre – Our Choice Selection,

Awards: (by date)

Arthur Ellis Award, 2009. Best in crime fiction, (War Brothers)

Hamilton Literary Award. 2004. (Charlie Wilcox’s Great War)

IBBY, International Board on Books for Young People, Honour List, 2002.

Presented biennially in Switzerland. (Charlie Wilcox)

IODE, National Chapter of Canada, Violet Downey Book Award. 2001. (Charlie Wilcox)

Geoffery Bilson Award for Historical Fiction. 2001. (Charlie Wilcox)

UNESCO International Youth Library – White Raven Award, Europe. 2002 (Charlie Wilcox)

Hackmatack Children’s Choice Book Awards, Atlantic Provinces. 2002. (Charlie Wilcox)

Red Maple, 2011. Whispers from the Ghettos (with Kathy Kacer) Honour Book

The Snow Willow (War Brothers) 2010

Red Maple (War Brothers) 2009

Best Book, The Canadian Children’s Book Centre (Thunder Over Kandahar, 2011,

War Brothers, 2009. Esther, 2002. Charlie Wilcox, 2000.)

Sydney Taylor Book Award, U.S. Notable Children’s Book of Jewish Content. Association of Jewish Libraries. 2004. (Esther)

IODE, National Chapter of Canada, Violet Downey Book Award (War Brothers)

Canadian Library Association (CLA/YA) Best Book of the Year, Award (War Brothers)

MYCRA, Manitoba Children’s Choice. (War Brothers)

The Rocky Mountain Award (War Brothers)

Shortlist (past)

Governor General’s Award, 2004. Y/A novel. (Esther)

Governor General’s Award, 2000. Y/A novel. (Charlie Wilcox)

Red Maple Award, Ontario. 2000. (Charlie Wilcox)

Ruth Schwartz Children’s Book Award, Ontario Arts Council, 2001. (Charlie Wilcox)

Mr. Christie Award. 2001. (Charlie Wilcox)

MYCRA, Manitoba Children’s Choice. 2002. (Charlie Wilcox)

Red Cedar Book Award, Young Readers’ Choice Awards Society of BC. 2002-2003 (Charlie Wilcox)

The Willow Awards, Snow Willow (grades 7 to 12) Saskatchewan Choice Awards, 2002. (Charlie Wilcox)

Red Maple, Ontario. 2004 (Charlie Wilcox)

MYCRA, Manitoba Children’s Choice. 2005. (Charlie Wilcox’s Great War)

The Willow Award, Snow Willow (grades 7 to 12) Saskatchewan Choice Awards, 2005.

(Charlie Wilcox’s Great War)

Canadian Library Association (CLA) 2005 (Esther)

Geoffery Bilson Award for Historical Fiction. 2005 (Esther)

Red Cedar Book Award, British Columbia. 2005-2006. (Charlie Wilcox’s Great War)

The Willow Award, Snow Willow, Saskatchewan Choice Awards, 2006 (Esther)

Biographical and Critical Sources, 2011

  • My Shelf To Yours, Blog

The United States Board on Books for Young People lists Thunder Over Kandahar as one of the top 40 international books for its 2011 honor list.

  • 21/3/11

Periodicals (not updated)


  • Atlantic Books Today, summer, 2000, review of Charlie Wilcox.

  • Bookbird, annual, 2001, review of Charlie Wilcox, p. 59.

  • Books in Canada, September, 2001, review of Penelope: Terror in the Harbour, p. 35; summer, 2003, review of Charlie Wilcox's Great War, p. 47.

  • Canadian Book Review (annual), 2000, review of Charlie Wilcox, p. 494; 2001, review of Penelope: Terror in the Harbour, p. 504.

  • Canadian Children's Literature, spring, 2001, review of Charlie Wilcox, p. 184.

  • Canadian Review of Materials, September 22, 2000, review of Charlie Wilcox; June, 22, 2001, review of Timothy Tweedle, the First Christmas Elf; December 14, 2001, review of Penelope: Terror in the Harbour; April 25, 2003, review of Penelope: The Glass Castle; June 20, 2003, review of Charlie Wilcox's Great War.

  • Maclean's, April 30, 2001, review of Charlie Wilcox, p. 54.

  • Quill and Quire, July, 1990, review of The New Parent Survival Handbook, p. 58; June, 1993, review of Picky Eater: Recipes and Survival Tips for Parents of Fussy Eaters, p. 29; February, 2000, review of Charlie Wilcox, p. 48.

  • Resource Links, February, 1999, review of Time Capsule for the Twenty-first Century, p. 15; October, 2000, review of Charlie Wilcox, p. 28; October, 2001, review of Penelope: Terror in the Harbour, p. 18; February, 2003, Connie Frost, review of Penelope: The Glass Castle, p. 12; April, 2003, Joan Marshall, review of Charlie Wilcox's Great War, p. 35; December, 2004, Brendan White, review of Esther, p. 37; December, 2004, David Ward, review of Penelope: Christmas Reunion, p. 21.

  • School Library Journal, November, 2000, Nancy P. Reeder, review of Charlie Wilcox, p. 159.