Strange Beauty

“Best Books for Kids & Teens” – Canadian Children’s Book Centre 2008

Was there a real-life Queen of Sheba in my life? Well, actually, yes there was. And she was called that too, although I have no idea why. As in the book, this Queen of Sheba had long reddish hair and long thin fingers with sharp nails. Or at least in my mind she did. I don’t think I ever got that close to her in real life. I used to see her from afar, walking the streets of Park Extension, wearing long skirts in bright colours that were so exotic at the time. She did once come very close to me in a park, peering into my eyes the way she does to Penelope in the book, and I think my reaction was much the same – she scared the #!*% out of me and I ran faster than I’d ever run in my life down the back lanes into my shed, panting like mad from fear and exhaustion. However, my own grandmother never really knew this woman. I don’t know if anyone did. She was always alone. When she died, her house was torn down almost immediately and a concrete park was put in its place. I don’t think it was called “parc des reines” but maybe it should have been.

I think even as a child I was full of curiosity about this woman. Who was she and where was she from? What was she doing in Park Extension? Everyone in that neighbourhood had a story to tell about coming to Canada from elsewhere, or else their parents did. I wondered whether we were right to be so afraid of her, just because she looked and acted so differently. I suppose this book is my attempt to give her a life and turn her into a real person with a real past. Most importantly, a person with real feelings who is aware of the effect she has on others, mainly children.

I decided to make her Roma, or gypsy, because that’s what we always believed her to be, in her exoticness. I had to do quite a bit of research on the Roma for the book and, of course, the persecution that the Roma everywhere suffer and have suffered fit very well with the story. The
connection between her and Penelope’s grandmother comes as a surprise to Penny and she is quite eager to cover it up, at first. It just isn’t cool to have any kind of personal connection to the most-persecuted and maligned person in the neighbourhood. After a while though, as Penelope questions the nature of beauty and popularity through her stuck-up friend Cindy, she begins to see the Queen of Sheba differently.

In this book, I was able to use different parts of the city of Montreal, mainly in the east end, near the Jacques Cartier Bridge. My own grandmother did grow up in that area and talked about it quite a bit. She did eventually end up in a nursing home at the end of Saint-Catherine Street too, so describing such a setting was not too difficult. Capturing the various attitudes that young people have toward the elderly was challenging, as I suppose I am at the mid-way people of these extremes in my own life. I was only twenty-nine when my granny entered such a home and on visits would really observe and take notes on the elderly around me and how they were treated. These visits were most often very difficult.

Writing this book really put me back in time to the streets of my own youth. I felt as though the Queen of Sheba, the real one, was very much alive and present as I was writing. I have no idea if any of the life I invented for her even came close to the truth, but I like to think she would have appreciated the respect I tried to show her in the writing.

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