How to draw Neil Flambé – Behind the Scenes!

On a chilly afternoon in January, Ian Daffern of the ID Factory and I piled into Kevin Sylvester’s cozy attic studio to film the “How to Draw Neil Flambé” video tutorial.  A few coffees and a TON of illustrations later,  we managed to capture the magic of how Sylvester draws his fiery superchef, Neil Flambé.

Here are some behind the scenes shots! Continue reading

Downton Abbey-ize your bookshelf!

Unless you’ve been living under a rock recently, chances are you’ve heard about Downton Abbey, the British television period drama series set on the fictional estate of Downton Abbey in North Yorkshire that is breaking ratings records and capturing hearts the world over. Boasting an impressive ensemble cast that includes Maggie Smith, Hugh Bonneville, Elizabeth McGovern and Dan Stevens among others, Downton Abbey is the most successful British period drama since Brideshead Revisited.

Can’t wait until season 3 premieres in September 2012? Don’t worry, we’ve got you covered. Read on for a list of period dramas to tide you over!

#1 The Forgotten Garden by Kate Morton

An unforgettable journey through generations and across continents as two women try to uncover their family’s secret past.

A tiny girl is abandoned on a ship headed for Australia in 1913. She arrives completely alone with nothing but a small suitcase containing a few clothes and a single book—a beautiful volume of fairy tales. She is taken in by the dockmaster and his wife and raised as their own. On her twenty-fi rst birthday, they tell her the truth, and with her sense of self shattered and very little to go on, “Nell” sets out to trace her real identity. Her quest leads her to Blackhurst Manor on the Cornish coast and the secrets of the doomed Mountrachet family. But it is not until her granddaughter, Cassandra, takes up the search after Nell’s death that all the pieces of the puzzle are assembled.

Read chapter 1.

#2 Wildflower Hill by Kimberley Freeman

Wildflower Hill is a compelling, atmospheric, and romantic novel about taking risks, starting again, and believing in yourself.

Emma, a prima ballerina in London, is at a crossroads after an injured knee ruins her career. Forced to rest and take stock of her life, she finds that she’s mistaken fame and achievement for love and fulfillment. Returning home to Australia, she learns of her grandmother Beattie’s death and a strange inheritance: a sheep station in isolated rural Australia. Certain she has been saddled with an irritating burden, Emma prepares to leave for Wildflower Hill to sell the estate.

Beattie also found herself at a crossroads as a young woman, but she was pregnant and unwed. She eventually found success—but only after following an unconventional path that was often dangerous and heartbreaking. Beattie knew the lessons she learned in life would be important to Emma one day, and she wanted to make sure Emma’s heart remained open to love, no matter what life brought. She knew the magic of the Australian wilderness would show Emma the way.

See the reading group guide.

#3 The House at Riverton by Kate Morton

Grace Bradley went to work at Riverton House as a servant when she was just a girl, before the First World War. For years her life was inextricably tied up with the Hartford family, most particularly the two daughters, Hannah and Emmeline.

In the summer of 1924, at a glittering society party held at the house, a young poet shot himself. The only witnesses were Hannah and Emmeline and only they — and Grace — know the truth.

In 1999, when Grace is ninety-eight years old and living out her last days in a nursing home, she is visited by a young director who is making a film about the events of that summer. She takes Grace back to Riverton House and reawakens her memories. Told in flashback, this is the story of Grace’s youth during the last days of Edwardian aristocratic privilege shattered by war, of the vibrant twenties and the changes she witnessed as an entire way of life vanished forever.

The novel is full of secrets — some revealed, others hidden forever, reminiscent of the romantic suspense of Daphne du Maurier. It is also a meditation on memory, the devastation of war and a beautifully rendered window into a fascinating time in history.

Read chapter 1.

#4 The Cousins’ War series by Philippa Gregory


The Cousins’ War series is set amid the tumult and intrigue of the Wars of the Roses. Internationally bestselling author Philippa Gregory brings this extraordinary family drama to vivid life through its women – first through Elizabeth Woodville, then Lady Margaret Beaufort, and finally through Jacquetta, Duchess of Bedford.

More about the series. 

#5 The Distant Hours by Kate Morton

A long lost letter arrives in the post and Edie Burchill finds herself on a journey to Milderhurst Castle, a great but moldering old house, where the Blythe spinsters live and where her mother was billeted 50 years before as a 13 year old child during WW II. The elder Blythe sisters are twins and have spent most of their lives looking after the third and youngest sister, Juniper, who hasn’t been the same since her fiance jilted her in 1941.

Inside the decaying castle, Edie begins to unravel her mother’s past. But there are other secrets hidden in the stones of Milderhurst, and Edie is about to learn more than she expected. The truth of what happened in ‘the distant hours’ of the past has been waiting a long time for someone to find it.

Read an excerpt.

#6 The Kitchen House by Kathleen Grissom

Lavinia, a seven-year-old Irish orphan with no memory of her past, arrives on a tobacco plantation where she is put to work as an indentured servant. Placed with the slaves in the kitchen house under the care of Belle, the master’s illegitimate daughter, Lavinia becomes deeply bonded to her new adopted family, even though she is forever set apart from them by her white skin. As Lavinia is slowly accepted into the world of the big house, where the master is absent and the mistress battles an opium addiction, she finds herself perilously straddling two very different worlds. When Lavinia marries the master’s troubled son and takes on the role of mistress, loyalties are brought into question, dangerous truths are laid bare and lives are put at risk. The Kitchen House is a tragic story of page-turning suspense, exploring the meaning of family, where love and loyalty prevail.

Read an excerpt.

The End of Illness

What if taking multivitamins and supplements significantly increased our risk of cancer over time? Or if sitting down most of the day, despite a strenuous morning workout, was as bad as or worse than smoking?  What about if regular stretching or yoga could prevent osteoarthritis? It’s all true, according to Dr. David B. Agus, one of the world’s leading cancer doctors, researchers, and technology innovators in his revolutionary new book, The End of Illness.

The End of Illness is a bold call for all of us to become our own personal health advocates, and a dramatic departure from orthodox thinking, focusing on prevention instead of treatment. This is a seminal work that promises to revolutionize how we live. In The End of Illness, David B. Agus, MD, challenges long-held wisdoms and dismantles misperceptions about what “health” means. With a blend of storytelling, landmark research, and provocative ideas on health, Dr. Agus presents an eye-opening picture of the human body and all of the ways it works—and fails—showing us how a new perspective on our individual health will allow each of us to achieve that often elusive but now reachable goal of a long, vigorous life.

Hear more from Dr. Agus:

This year’s resolution: Count on Yourself

While weight loss and healthy eating tend to be mainstays on everyone’s new year’s resolution list, more and more of us are making resolutions about our finances. We want to be better informed and to make better decisions about our money.

Count on Yourself by Canadian expert Alison Griffiths, the host of MAXED OUT and personal finance columnist for the Toronto Star and Metro, is the perfect place to start.

Does the word “investment” make your head hurt? Are you afraid to look at your RRSPs?

Are you worried that you’ll have to eat cat food instead of caviar when you retire?

Count On Yourself gives you easy-to-follow, prescriptive advice on how to take charge of your money.

Learn how to get organized. See how fees hamstring your investments. Discover the perfect low-fee, low-maintenance portfolio that lets you sleep at night.

This book provides easy, prescriptive advice on:

  • Debt and credit
  • RRSPs, RESPs and other investment accounts
  • Your plan for the future
  • Retirement planning
  • Raising money smart kids
  • How to survive in the sandwich generation

Check out Alison’s investment tips for students, young professionals, new parents and retirees.

Tips for students:

Tips for young professionals:

Tips for new parents:

Tips for retirees:

Join Alison in Toronto and Vancouver as she shows us how to take control of our finances. She will explore our attitudes toward money and the obstacles that stop us from being our own financial boss. When it comes to YOUR money there’s no one better to count on than yourself.

Location: Indigospirit First Canadian Place
Date: Tuesday, January 24
Time: 12:30pm

Location: Toronto Reference Library in the Beeton Auditorium (789 Yonge St, Toronto)
Date: Wednesday, January 25
Time: 6:30- 8:00pm

Location: Indigo, 2505 Granville Street, Vancouver, British Columbia
Date: Saturday, January 28, 2012
Time: 12:00pm until 3:00pm

Don’t forget to enter our contest to win a personal consultation with Alison Griffiths.

Visit Alison at,  on Facebook or follow her on Twitter 

Kevin Sylvester &The Neil Flambé Capers


2012 is set to be a very exciting year for Toronto author and illustrator Kevin Sylvester and his middle grade series The Neil Flambé Capers.  Not only is the second book in the series, Neil Flambé and the Aztec Abduction nominated for the 2011 Silver Birch Award (Book #1 won last year!), but book #3, Neil Flambé and the Crusader’s Curse is set to hit stores in May!

We caught up with Kevin to talk about the inspiration for Neil Flambé, writing for kids, and what it’s like to be nominated (AGAIN!) for the Silver Birch Award.

1)   Your character Neil Flambé  originally made his debut on CBC in Neil Flambé and the Case of the Caustic Cumin as part of an ongoing summer morning broadcast.  How long had you been thinking of this character or story or was it almost more of a choose your own adventure where the story and character took on a life of their own?

In some ways Neil is a character I’d been playing around with for years, and in some ways he was a completely new creation. He’s a smart young man with attitude… kind of like a Bugs Bunny or Spiderman in the kitchen. I love the cockiness and the ability of those types of characters. Neil is less self-aware than these guys, but he is confident and good at what he does.

I also like making up stories where kids have to deal with adults on their level and be better than they are. I think a lot of kids see themselves this way anyway. Adults keep messing up their plans and then lecturing them. If kids could just be left alone the world would be great! (That’s what they think, anyway).

          Once I set Neil in the very adult world of haute cuisine he started to take specific shape. His backstory (watching Julia Child instead of the teletubbies, reading cookbooks instead of Robert Munsch) started to pop into my brain.

          I love to cook myself and chefs have become rock stars, or celebrity artists. Neil wants that so badly he can (pun intended) taste it and that’s something we all have to deal with. How far will any of us go to be great at the thing we care about most?

          Having said all that, the radio play was really an adult story, and Neil had to become younger, less mature, less “in control” of himself.

2)  How did you develop the look of Neil Flambé?

Neil sort of popped into my head when I was thinking up the original story, even before I’d written a word. He was a gangly kid in a chef’s hat and chef’s coat. After I wrote the first installment of the work I sat down at my cousin Shauna’s kitchen table, where I was staying, and started drawing a picture for the website we set up.

          Essentially I drew an oval and a triangle. The triangle is his big nose, and the oval is his head. I originally wanted to make his hair blue, like the flame in an actual Flambé, but my cousin’s daughter Rowan was sitting next to me and said I had to make it red. Good call.

          I’ve made Neil a little younger looking since that original picture (which is still on the web in some places) but that also fits with the rewriting of the story.

3)  What made you want to write for this age group (Grades 3-6)?  How do you have such a good understanding of not only what kids want to read, but how they interact with the material of a story, from the characters to the illustrations?

I don’t set out to write for a specific age group. I write the kinds of stories I like to read and liked to read when I was a kid. I have always loved fast-paced narratives that have humour mixed in to keep things light. (See earlier reference to Spiderman!)

          Having said that, if I were only writing for an older audience I might dabble in more experimental plot lines and would certainly have more obscure food references. That was how the Caustic Cumin developed and I had to streamline it for a younger audience.

          I have to say that I have had amazing editors along the way who helped me hone and shape the books for this age group. My wife Laura and Charis Wahl were the first to see that the Neil stories needed to be less food-heavy, for example.

          Neil needed a foil for the non-foodie kids to have a way to connect to the cooking without knowing the terminology. Voila, Larry! (Larry wasn’t in the radio play.) Larry has become much more than that, of course, but that was his reason for being “born” into Neil’s life.

          Linda Pruessen and now Ariel Coletti constantly challenge me to defend the plotting, dialogue and references.

          But I’ve also been very edified to see that many adults, and adult bloggers who don’t even have kids, have enjoyed the books as well.

4)                  Kids obviously love not just your books, but your whole “multi-media” presentations, with you drawing illustrations, reading the books, and wearing the chef’s jacket and hat. Do they ever give you input for the next book or how they think Neil should be developing as a character (though maybe not in so many words!)?

I sometimes tell the kids that I set the series in a kitchen because there are so many possible murder plots involving food (just wait until you see the deadly duels in Book #4!). Then I ask them if they can think of some possibilities themselves. Let’s just say that kids have very active imaginations… think blenders and meat tenderizers.

          That shows me that they can make the connection to the danger of the stories without taking it too seriously and that gives me some leeway to explore some of the darker areas of life.

          I’m also a big believer in matching words and images. Everything from comic books, to The Hardy Boys and even Charles Dickens is a combo of words and pictures. I don’t understand people who think that pictures “dumb down” real literature.

Those are the books that made me love reading. I think they give a lot more people a chance to enjoy the book. I’m not saying all books have to have pictures, but don’t criticize books that do.

As for wearing my chef’s outfit, I like authors who demystify the process and don’t take themselves too seriously. It’s fun to write and I hope people have fun reading my books.

5)                  I know you have daughters, do they influence your stories? Do they ever read them or give any suggestions?

My daughters are two of the most voracious readers that I have ever known, and they are very critical. They read my stories long before I ever gain the confidence to send them to an editor. Once they sign off I also know that the books don’t stink….

          They introduced me to many of my heroes – Ken Oppel, Eoin Colfer, Jean Little, Eva Ibbotson… so many others.

          I’d already many of those authors, but seeing what my girls enjoyed allowed me to be more conscious of the elements that I wanted to include in my stories.

          Reading to them when they were younger – everything from Goodnight Gorilla to The Hobbit – gave me a sense of the rhythms and cadence of good writing.

6)                  How has your career as a radio broadcaster influenced you as a writer?

It’s been huge, for so many reasons. For one thing, I think the approach I take to telling a story on the air is perfectly suited for the way I write my books. Simplicity is a key value of both mediums.

          I use simple language and tell my stories in a straightforward way. On the radio you have to do that because you can’t rewind live story-telling. My books are laid out in the same way. I always imagine my books being read out loud by someone next to a fireplace, in an old rocking chair… sort of a mixture of the Friendly Giant and Jim Henson’s Storyteller.

          The other advantage of my radio work is that I’ve been able to visit and experience the flavours of some amazing places – Torino, Mexico City, Athens, Sydney, Moscow… and all those elements sneak into my books one way or another.

7)                  The Silver Birch Awards are really neat because they are like a combination of the Librarians’ and the Kids’ Choice Awards. How did it feel to win for Neil Flambé and the Marco Polo Murders last year?

It was amazing. Authors know that just being nominated for the award is the real prize – and that’s totally true. Just seeing all those young readers holding onto your book like some magic talisman is overwhelming. To be on stage with so many amazing authors was great. I read the other nominated titles and let’s just say the kids had a tough choice to make. Canadian writers are the best in the world right now… let’s put it that way.

          Winning was like the whipped cream on a banana split. It means more to have kids pick your book than to have critics pick the book. After all, we all write for those kids.

          It had a special resonance for me last year because the books were in serious danger of dying. The original publisher had gone bankrupt, so it was very emotional for me. And a huge thanks to S&S for riding in and saving Neil!

7a) You are nominated again, this time for Neil Flambé and the Aztec Abductions. Is it as exciting as the first time?

Hecks ya! It’s an honour and the ceremony itself is a blast – win or lose (and I’ve been on both sides of that and still had a great time).

And one of the great side benefits of the nomination is that I get asked to visit a lot of schools. Kids love to read, if they are excited about the books. The Silver Birch committees pick titles that do this. To have a chance to meet the readers and to get them interested in the books is amazing. If they already know the books it’s a different thrill. Kids have made me some amazing artwork based on Neil and it’s all up in my attic studio.

8)                  What are your plans for Neil Flambé? Will you continue with the series, especially now that you have such a great following, or do you want to move onto something new? And either way, will you continue to write for the same age group or will your characters get older as your readers get older?

Neil and Larry are very real to me. I hear them talking together at night – not even stuff for the books but just the minutiae of their lives. So they will be with me for a long time.

          I don’t have an “end” in mind for the series. I could write a hundred books (a la The Hardy Boys) or stop at six or seven. I think I’ll stop once the stories themselves feel thin or tired to me. Nothing is as disappointing as reading a series that’s gone on too long.

          Of course I also have a number of other books in the works. I have a couple of non-fiction books due in 2012 on show business and the economy. I have also started at least four other books that I’m just waiting for the right time to finish. Look for Medieval Mark, Mr. Green, Cicatrice and MINrS sometime in the future. 

Coming May 2012:

Find out more about The Neil Flambé Capers.