Southeast recognized in book award nominations

By: Jordan Ross

Angeline Schellenberg’s debut volume of poetry, Tell Them It Was Mozart, has been nominated for three Manitoba Book Awards. Schellenberg says her poetry was inspired by her experiences as a parent of two children with autism.


Angeline Schellenberg’s debut volume of poetry, Tell Them It Was Mozart, has been nominated for three Manitoba Book Awards. Schellenberg says her poetry was inspired by her experiences as a parent of two children with autism.

Two Steinbach school teachers, a local Mennonite historian, and a poet who grew up near Niverville are among the nominees for the 2017 Manitoba Book Awards.

Triple nominee and poet Angeline Schellenberg said she was honoured see her debut volume, Tell Them It Was Mozart, shortlisted alongside the work of veteran poets who have taught and published extensively.

“I’ve been attending the Manitoba Book Awards for the past seven years, cheering for my friends, whose books were nominated, and dreaming of the day my own book would be out in the world,” said Schellenberg. “Seeing Tell Them It Was Mozart on the shortlists and seeing my friends so happy for me is a lot of fun.”

Schellenberg will compete for the Lansdowne Prize for Poetry, the Eileen McTavish Sykes Award for Best First Book, and the John Hirsch Award for Most Promising Manitoba Writer.

She grew up near Niverville, attended Providence University College, and now lives in Winnipeg with her husband and two teenaged children. Her roots in southeastern Manitoba produced a supportive writing environment, she said, while the scenic prairie landscape provided inspiration.

“I love where I’m from, and whenever I travel to promote my book, I’m a bit of an evangelist for how wonderful Manitoba is,” she said.

Tell Them It Was Mozart revolves around the birth and upbringing of Schellenberg’s son and daughter, both of whom are on the autism spectrum. She described a process of “coming to terms with my expectations” and “dealing with doctors, therapists, and teachers,” while also building bonds with her children.

Schellenberg settled on the intensely personal theme while enrolled in a Manitoba Writer’s Guild mentoring program.

“I had a few different poems on different themes, and we decided that it would be good to focus on my poems about raising my kids…It’s not just individual poems. They form a story.”

Schellenberg said she was conscious of the emotional subject matter, which she desired to capture both trying and happy moments.

“I majored on the joy,” she explained, and included passages characterized by “humour and lightness, relationship and connection.”

Parents of children with a disability may realize that someone understands their journey, she explained, while others may gain a new perspective on people who live with a disability.

“I think it can be a book for anybody, because we all have to face our own imperfections and the uncertainty of life,” she said. “Even if your family doesn’t have a disability, everyone’s family turns out differently than the way they expected.”

The poems benefitted their author, too. Schellenberg said she has learned to overcome parenting messages that seemed designed to make her feel anxious or inadequate. “My kids are great they way they are,” she said.

Schellenberg’s advice to other first-time authors is to become embedded in a writing community: join a writer’s guild, approach a mentor, and attend open mic nights and author readings.

“Expose yourself to great writing, and talk to other writers. I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for all of the other writers who encouraged me to keep going,” she said.

Schellenberg is just one of several local authors to be nominated for a 2017 Manitoba Book Award. Also in the running at the Apr. 22 gala is University of Winnipeg historian Royden Loewen. The Mennonite Studies professor has been nominated for the McNally Robinson Book of the Year award for Horse-and-Buggy Genius: Listening to Mennonites Contest the Modern World. The book, which involved three years of research in 35 Mennonite communities across the Americas, has also been nominated for the Manuela Dias Book Design and Illustration award.

Rudiger and the Painted Door, the debut collaboration between author Jonathan Toews and illustrator Ryan Polinsky, two Steinbach Christian School teachers, will compete in the children’s illustrated category.

Winnipeg novelist David Bergen, who grew up in Niverville, was also recognized. His most recent novel, Stranger, received a nod for the Margaret Laurence Award for Fiction.


Ability matters: Poet hopes to educate others about autism

Interview/Reading with Angeline Schellenberg
February 2, 2017 , by Quentin Mills-Fenn

Tell Them It Was Mozart is a poetry collection rooted in life, the life of its author and her family. Winnipeg poet Angeline Schellenberg is the mother of two teenagers on the autism spectrum and this book, her first, is a frank, informed, and often funny, look at one family’s life.

Schellenberg is forthright about why she wrote this book.

“News stories about autism often use words like tragedy, epidemic, crisis,” she says. “Parenting books hold out one more exhausting therapy that could make all the difference (but probably won’t). I wanted to say, ‘Enough! They are who they are. Let’s just enjoy each other.’

“I hope literary types enjoy the poetry,” she adds, “but my primary targets are people who are intimately affected by autism and those who have never encountered it. I hope people on the spectrum and their families will read it and think, ‘I’m not alone in feeling this way.’ And I hope people who are inexperienced with or fearful of disability will realize we’re not that different.”

Throughout, Schellenberg performs eraser on found texts and tells short narratives. She deftly combines descriptions of meetings with therapists, excerpts from parenting books, and callous quotations from teachers. The result is both warmly human and acutely critical.

“Sometimes in an exasperating moment with my kid,” she says, “I’d start to laugh, thinking, ‘This will make a great poem!’ Seeing the humour gave me more grace for myself and for them. Other times, I’d look back on a painful meeting with a psychiatrist and, by poking fun, exact my playful revenge.”

Schellenberg makes it clear that this isn’t a book of poetry inspired by autism, but a book about autism written i poetry. She wants people to come away with a deeper empathy for families with disabilities.

“I’ve had people say, ‘I don’t get poetry, but I like yours,’ so I’m confident readers won’t get lost,” she says. “I do fear being misunderstood, but the emotional ‘pow’ of poetry is worth the risk. Sometimes getting people to ask questions effects more change than straight facts ever could.”

Some of the best poems in the collection — the warmest and most humorous — relate episodes of parents and children, whether encountering unfamiliar toilets or imaginary wildlife.

“There are hard things about autism I want Walmart shoppers and education ministers to understand,” Schellenberg says. “But I also really want people to know about purple squirrels. Laughing together bonds people. When readers or listeners open their mouths to laugh with me about finding by kid slathered in lipstick and Anusol, their hearts open too.

“[My children] are proud of hte book — and their mom!” she adds. At her Winnipeg launch, she and her son wowed the audience with a dramatic reading of “Echolalia (the Sibling Rivalry),” and her daughter acted out most of hte poems from the front row.

“I considered masking their identity,” says Schellenberg, “but for this book to do what I wanted it to do — to show the value of every individual — I had to base it on real children, rather than composites of symptoms and interests. Each child with autism is unique.”

From the Fall / Winter 2016 issue of Prairie books Now.