During National Volunteer Week, we chatted with author LS Stone about her recent middle-grade novel What’s in it for ME? (Rebel Mountain Press), which is a perfect fit for entertaining young readers while introducing them to important themes of global activism and volunteering, female empowerment, animal rights, and the controversial topic of elephant captivity.
All Lit Up: Why did you choose children’s writing? And what was the process like for writing your debut novel?LS Stone: I’ve always loved writing and reading books and my favourite genre is middle-grade and young adult novels. I like the way Canadian author Susan Juby explained it when asked why she writes children’s/YA novels: “because I have unfinished business there!”I got serious about writing when I moved to the Island about ten years ago and enrolled in the Creative Writing B.A. program at Vancouver Island University. That’s where the idea for this book was born. I was able to workshop, hone, and rework the manuscript like crazy during those four years with the help of my peers and the expert guidance of some pretty amazing instructor/authors, like Susan Juby and Kathy Page, and instructor Joy Gugeler who actually edited the book. ALU: What made you choose this theme—volunteering—and what kind of research did you do for the book?LSS: I’m very passionate about animals and elephants in particular, and global activism and volunteering is something that is important to me. Actually, my wife has always been a hard-core volunteer-type person, and so my involvement with that was ramped up through her. My goal is to write books that empower females, and though the protagonist of this story is a 15-year-old somewhat self-absorbed male, there is a very strong and self-assured secondary female character, Camila, who is determined to be a mahout even though local tradition won’t allow it. Camila keeps Nick in check, and inadvertently helps him to grow into a better version of himself.In addition, as a gay woman it is also important for me to include positive LGBTQIA+ content in my writing. In this book, some of the supporting characters are members of the LGBTQIA+ community.Though I did a lot of research about the issue of elephant captivity and tourism, the bulk of my research for the book was experientialI was fortunate to have the incredible opportunity of volunteering at an ethical elephant refuge in Thailand. I also spent some time in Tanzania, Africa, so I was able to draw on my notes and memory of those visits. ALU: Elephant captivity and tourism seems to be a pretty controversial hot topic right now. How do you present the topic in your book? And where do you stand on the issue?LSS: I am a proponent for the elephants, all the way! But yes, elephant captivity and tourism is a very complex and controversial topic—there are many pros and cons on all sides of the issue. I encourage readers, young and old, to do their own research to become informed about the issue.The problem is that due to dwindling space in Thailand, wild elephants have no place to live. What’s in it for Me? is set at Elephant Zion, a fictitious elephant refuge in Thailand for retired and injured and/or abused elephants. Elephant Zion is a volunteer work camp, where people volunteer to work for weeks or months at a time. It is not part of the elephant tourism industry where elephants wear large baskets on their backs to give rides to several tourists at a time, nor are they beaten into submission at a young age in order to learn tricks to perform for tourists. Sadly, situations such as these do sometimes occur at some elephant camps around the world. The good news is that ethical elephant sanctuaries do exist where elephants are treated well. Ideal refuges with plentiful funding and space that allow the elephants to roam free do exist, but for some ethical refuges where space and funds are limited (elephant proof walls are very expensive), chaining for part of the day is sometimes the only option. There is a lot of talk in What’s in it for Me? about how their captive elephants are handled and the controversy surrounding the use of chains—which Elephant Zion, a small sanctuary and elephant breeding facility, has no other option but to use when the mahout is not with the elephant.Thankfully, there are many animal rights and welfare support groups around the world who work tirelessly to make sure all animals are treated fairly. As a result, many substandard, unethical elephant camps have been shut down, and the elephants relocated to ethical sanctuaries where they are treated well.ALU: What books have influenced you and your writing?LSS: One of the first books to have an impact on me was Horton Hears a Who by Dr. Suess. I was five, and that book sparked my love for elephants, and also opened my eyes to other perspectives and ways of seeing in the world. To Kill a Mocking Bird by Harper Lee is also an all-time favourite, as is Jonathan Livingston Seagull by Richard Bach, and the Bone graphic novel series by Jeff Smith.Some favourite current middle-grade/YA authors are Susin Nielsen, Robin Stevenson, W.C. Mack, Julie Burtinshaw, Alex Lyttle, Gail Anderson-Dargatz, and of course, Susan Juby. Yay, Canadian authors—you rock! ALU: Tell us a bit about your adventure travels. Do you choose where to travel based upon stories you want to write?LSS: Yes and no. I usually realize after an adventure trip, that the place would make a great setting/story for a novel. I always take a journal or two with me when I travel to make extensive notes about the place and what happens each day, and my feelings along the way.I love climbing mountains (though not technical climbing because I’m afraid of heights!), and I love animals, so odds are I will pick an adventure that involves some mountain, or an animal, like elephants, or horses, or maybe even gorillas!ALU: Any more middle-grade novels up your sleeve?LSS: I knew early on that I wanted to write a series of middle-grade and/or YA novels about kids that are changemakers. Hence the title: Changemaker series. I’m working on the next book now. I don’t have a title yet, but it follows the characters of the first novel to a school for orphaned children in Nepal, and a mountain trek in the Himalayas. ALU: What advice do you give readers who would like to help elephants, but aren’t able to volunteer at an elephant refuge?LSS: This pandemic has been especially hard on elephant refuges and other wild animal sanctuaries because people haven’t been allowed to travel to visit and volunteer. Many organizations are having a tough time staying afloat, with not many options available for the animals if they do have to close down. If you would like to donate to elephants in Thailand, I would suggest donating through the Asian Elephant Support organization at: www.AsianElephantSupport.orgOr if you want to keep it local, support your local wildlife recovery centre.
Summer is only a month away, but things aren’t going according to plan for 15-year-old Nick Bannerman. Nick dreams of making it big in music, but his best friend, Trevor, wants them to volunteer in Africa building a school with a changemaker organization. Nick, however, isn’t at all interested. So how does Nick end up in Thailand volunteering at an elephant refuge with Camila, a self-assured local girl who want to be a mahout even though local tradition won’t allow it?With glimpses of Trevor in Africa learning about Kenyan culture and confronting child soldiers, Nick in Thailand encounters an extreme animal rights activist, drugged tigers, and rampaging elephants. Will Nick have the courage to act and care about more than just himself?
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LS Stone has loved animals since childhood and is passionate about animal rights and welfare, and social justice. She also loves exciting adventure travel and has trekked the Himalayas in Nepal, climbed Mount Kilimanjaro in Africa, and volunteered at an elephant refuge in Thailand. She received a B.A. in Creative Writing at Vancouver Island University, and won the Bill Juby Award (2016) and Meadowlarks Award (2014) for outstanding writing. Previous publications include Breaking Boundaries: LGBTQ2 Writers On Coming Out and Into Canada. This is her first novel. LS Stone lives in Canada on Vancouver Island with her partner and three dogs, and is planning her next big adventure. More at www.lsstone.weebly.com