Fitting in was Toten’s teen test:
Like her heroine she was immigrant outsider going to Northern in 1970’s

By Daphne Gordon
Toronto Star, October 2006

Like many of her teen readers, Teresa Toten knows what it means to fit in.

“The idea is probably in all of my books,” says Toten. “The feeling of being left out is something I really respond to.”

Toten, a 52-year-old mother of two, returns to that idea in her new novel, Me and the Blondes, from which she’ll read Thursday at 1 p.m. in the Brigantine Room as part of the International Festival of Authors youth program. The book is up for a Governor General’s Award for children’s literature.

Aimed at ages 12 and up, Me and the Blondes is set in Toronto during the early 1970s and told in the self-deprecating voice of Sophia, daughter of an immigrant mother and a father who’s in prison for murder.

Sophia has just started Grade 9 at Northern Heights, an upper crusty high school based loosely on Toten’s alma mater, Northern Secondary.

She desperately wants to fit in with a clique of blond girls who seem to epitomize all that is prototypically Canadian and popular and powerful.

Problem is, that means telling a few lies here and there. Who would accept her if they knew about her criminal father, or even her heavily accented and eccentric Bulgarian mother?

“I’m shamelessly stealing from my own life,” admits Toten, whose first book, The Onlyhouse in 1996, also explored the life of a young immigrant to Canada.

Born in Croatia in the ’50s, Toten came here as an infant. Her Canadian father died a few months later, and she and her mother moved about for years, finally settling in Toronto for Toten to attend high school.

So she knows what it’s like to having a longing for belonging. To keep abreast of teenaged life, Toten visits schools to lead writing workshops and observe young people in their element.

“Not all writers need access to kids. It doesn’t make them better writers. But I seem to need them. I need to watch them, I listen to how they speak in the halls, how they jostle about, how they reinvent themselves every five minutes.”

In those workshops, Toten shares truths about being a writer. “They find it shocking that I’m terrified to write,” she says, laughing. “It gives them permission to go ahead with their work.”

Contrary to popular belief, Toten believes young adults are enthusiastic and skilful readers.

“I think it’s a myth that kids aren’t reading…. These are interesting, intelligent, ‘in tune’ kids with a lot of pressure on them. They’re very goal-oriented across the socio-economic spectrum, and they have such fantastic things to say.”

She encourages teens she meets to stay in contact.

“They’ll ask me to comment on their blog, or they’ll Google me and email because they’re working on a book report and it’s due tomorrow. I also get regular letters in the mail. I read every single one of them.”