SFU Writer’s Studio grad named Governor General’s Award finalist

November 07, 2023

For a new author, Vancouver’s Kim Spencer has had one remarkable year. After graduating from the Writer’s Studio creative writing program at SFU in 2020, the Ts’msyen writer published her first book just two years later, and it became an instant B.C. bestseller. A fictionalized account of her childhood in Prince Rupert, Weird Rules to Follow has now been shortlisted for one of Canada’s most prestigious cultural prizes: the 2023 Governor General’s Literary Award, in the category of young people’s literature.

“I’m just in awe—it’s been a thrilling journey and such a whirlwind,” says Spencer. “The GG was a total surprise.” In fact, she laughs, she first learned she’d been shortlisted from an Instagram post.

Then again, this latest honour shouldn’t have come completely unexpected. Since Orca Book Publishers released Weird Rules to Follow a year ago, it has already received 13 prize nominations and commendations and won four awards. This past October, it swept the Canadian Children’s Book Centre Awards with three wins, including the $50,000 TD Canadian Children’s Literature Award, Canada’s highest award for a children’s book. It’s been selected by Canadian School Libraries as a diversity and inclusion teaching resource, and it also made the top 10 list of highest-selling B.C. books for 2022.

Not bad for an “alternate-school dropout,” chuckles Spencer. Of course, the urge to write has long been in her blood. She recalls how she loved to read from an early age, sometimes reading Judy Blume books together with her mother. As a preteen, she hoped to become a newspaper columnist someday and would visit her school library to type her made-up columns on a borrowed computer.

But when she became a mom in her teens, Spencer was forced to put her writing ambitions on hold. While she would eventually finish school, she didn’t take up writing seriously for a number of years, though she continued to dabble in poetry and short stories. Then one day she signed up at a Vancouver library for a free manuscript consultation offered by the Writer’s Studio.

The positive feedback on her writing gave Spencer a much-needed boost and eventually she applied to the Writer’s Studio program, submitting vignettes about her early years in Prince Rupert as her writing sample. Those pieces would later serve as the basis for Weird Rules to Follow, which she wrote as a series of slice-of-life moments about a young Indigenous girl and her non-Indigenous best friend growing up in 1980s Prince Rupert.

While Spencer had written the vignettes as a memoir, her publishers encouraged her to fictionalize them for a younger audience. Still, most of the stories are drawn directly from her life. In fact, she says, her family and friends back in Prince Rupert have enjoyed seeing themselves in the stories’ characters and strolling down memory lane with them.

But when the book received quite a different reaction from literary reviewers, Spencer says she was unprepared. Book reviewers immediately latched onto the racism that the book’s narrator, Mia, encounters in everyday situations.

“At one point, it became the No. 1 Canadian book on racism and prejudice on,” she says. “I wasn’t expecting that. I wrote a book that I wanted to be full of heart and that showed how we were like everyone else—Indigenous people own their own homes, we vacation in Hawaii and Disneyland… So it’s been very interesting seeing this reaction.”

Although she hadn’t intended to write a book about racism, Spencer appreciates the way her story has resonated with readers: “I’m just so grateful people are learning from it and that schools are studying it.”

Spencer says she also remains grateful to her classmates during her year in the Writer’s Studio. In their first class together, she recalls the lavish praise and encouraging feedback others gave her. “After the class, I could barely get my head out the door,” she laughs. “They were just fabulous and so supportive.”

Even after graduating, she returned to the program for a graduate workshop where she hammered out her next book, a young adult novel in verse form. She now also has a picture book in the works to be published in 2025. Having left her accounting job three years ago, she’s finally living her dream of a full-time writing career.

“Without the Writer’s Studio, I never would have had the confidence to even pursue writing or think I could write a novel,” says Spencer. “It really gave me the courage.”