A boy in an inside-out shirt, a flying tiger, and a thousand doorways: My new book series!

A boy in an inside-out shirt, a flying tiger, and a thousand doorways: My new book series!

I’m very excited to announce that I’ve signed with HarperCollins Children’s Books for a three-book middle-grade series. Book 1, The Secret of Zoone, is about a boy who stumbles through a secret door and into a magical station at a crossroad between worlds (so, as you can guess, a lot happens there).

I can’t wait to introduce readers to my cast of characters, including . . .

Ozzie, the boy in the inside-out shirt . . .

Tug, the skyger with failed wings . . .

Salamanda Smink, the inept wizard’s apprentice . . .

and Fidget of Quoxx, the princess with inappropriately purple hair.

I’ve been working on this world (worlds!) in one way or the other for ten years. It’s involved not only writing, but a lot of doodling, drawing, brainstorming, prop-building, and traveling the world.

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I’m so thrilled that the series has finally found a home. It combines many of the things I absolutely adore: doorways, keys, talking (and flying) animals, magic, and steampunk.

I want to thank my agent Rachel Letofsky with CookeMcDermid for all of her support, but in helping me get the manuscript in shape and, of course, in finding a dream publisher for it.

I also want to thank all those people who helped by preceding the book: the one and only Marcie Nestman, Paige Mitchell, Kallie George, Sarah Bagshaw, Renuka Baron, and a cast of young readers, including Nadia and Rachel.

I’m currently hard at work with my wonderful editor, Stephanie Stein, to complete final edits on Book 1 for its release in 2019.

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The thief who coveted the dragon’s scale

The thief who coveted the dragon’s scale

As a middle-grade fantasy author, a big part of my personal process is bringing my worlds to life through prop-building. It’s also something I love bringing to the classroom.

A recent project I’ve worked on with two different creative writing classes for tweens and teens is something I call “The Dragon and the Thief.” In this series of workshops, we build dragon scales then write a series of pieces about two adversarial characters.

The first set of writing is a pair of poems. The first one, “I am a Thief,” is from the perspective of a character who wants to climb the mountain to snatch a dragon’s scale.  The second one, “I am a Dragon,” is from the perspective of the fantastical beast who is being pilfered. To get the students started, I have them work on a couple of brainstorming sheets.

Of course, some students choose to do their own brainstorming in their notebooks:

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Afterwards, the students choose the perspective that they feel most connected to, and write a short story.

And, of course, along the way, we build the scales themselves. These are fairly simple to craft, though they do demand some time and patience.

The first step is to cut out some basic scale shapes from soda bottles. Then it’s a matter of using plaster to “sculpt” around them. Depending on what you want, you can just simply leave the surface flat and smooth, or sculpt in ridges.

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This is where the patience comes in; after this stage, you just have to wait for them to dry! At this stage, the scales should look like the ones below, with a gentle curve (which you get naturally from the soda bottle).

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The next stage is to texturize the scales by adding acrylic gems (though other materials could work, too). Once the gems are glued down, we then paint the scales with mod podge, which helps bind everything together.

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Then we need more patience, to let everything dry . . . but once that happens, then it’s just down to painting. I usually recommend painting the whole scale black for a base, then dry brushing metallic paint overtop to achieve the desired color and texture.

Here is a gallery of the scales that my students have produced. I think they look pretty darn amazing!

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Candy, candy, and more candy: The Ten-Year Anniversary of The Chocolatier’s Apprentice

Candy, candy, and more candy: The Ten-Year Anniversary of The Chocolatier’s Apprentice

It’s that time of year when goblins, ghosts, and ghouls are preparing to creep out and harangue us for candy, so it seems appropriate that October is the anniversary of one of the most popular books I’ve had the pleasure of being involved with.

In fact, this is the ten year anniversary of the birth of The Chocolatier’s Apprentice, written by Victoria Miles and illustrated by me.

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It seems like yesterday . . .

In 2007, I was hired by Echo Storytelling Agency (then Echo Memoirs) to illustrate a children’s book to help commemorate the 100-year anniversary of Purdy’s Chocolateir. The company wanted to do something different, something special, and so decided to produce a cute picture book that would celebrate their company and also raise funds for the Raise-a-Reader literacy project.

It was something that I was eager to do. I remember meeting with the team: the folks at Echo, the marketing person for Purdy’s, and the writer, Victoria Miles, sometime in late spring/early summer. The book was yet to be written, but at that point there was a lot of brainstorming.

One of the fun aspects of this project was getting to go on a behind-the-scenes tour of Purdy’s chocolate factory in Vancouver. The factory is open for public tours at different times of the year, but Victoria and I were given the chance to get an extra-secret look.

This tour was really important for Victoria and I to understand the process (and science) of making chocolate. From an illustrator’s point of view, it was essential for me to gather as many photographs as possible. Even though Victoria and I didn’t know exactly what the story would be about, we knew it would involve a chocolate factory, and that I would have to illustrate many different types of equipment.

Here’s some of my original photos from my tour . . .

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Of course, as soon as you say the words “children’s book” and “chocolate factory,” people think of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Victoria’s challenge was to craft a book that was charming and compelling, while at the same time NOT deriavative.

She eventually came up with the lovely story of a character who dreamed of being a chocolatier. The story follows his progress from todler all the way to master chocolatier. My challenge was that I had to draw this character at all these different ages!

There was also the challenge of working many different stakeholders. Not only did I need to work with Victoria and the team at Echo, I also needed to make sure we had corporate approval from Purdy’s. They were great to work with—honestly—but, of course, it was one more voice to chime in on my early concept sketches.

I really had a lot of input when it came to our main character, Eli. Some of the team wanted him to be intellectual, others a sort of muscular super-hero kind of fellow, and others thought he should be more bookish. We eventually narrowed down the final design of Eli and the other characters, and I was off illustrating.

Final challenge? I had only SEVEN weeks to complete the many different spreads. Given the time factor, I’m pretty happy how everything turned out. The book became a national bestseller, selling out its print run of 20,000.

Here are some my favorite spreads from the book . . .

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Unfortunately, the book served it’s purpose—which means there was no reprint, and it is no longer available. I wish it still was; I still run into teenagers who remember that book from their childhood!

Oh! Fun fact; I currently live in a two-minute walk from the site of Purdy’s original factory. You can still find “Choklit Park” on West 7th Avenue in Vancouver.

 

 

Walking in the footsteps of the Wizard of Oz

Walking in the footsteps of the Wizard of Oz

My wife and I are currently on vacation in California and ended up visiting Coronado Island yesterday, which is just off San Diego.

I have actually been to Coronado once before, but this time around I had a little more time to explore the city and, especially, snuffle up some of the haunts of one of my all-time favourite authors and inspirations: L. Frank Baum, author of the Oz series.

Books of WonderAbout the Oz series

Most people know Oz from the 1939 movie or the book—a lot less know that L. Frank Baum actually wrote fourteen Oz books in total. As much as I love the first book, with its establishment of the iconic world, characters, and elements (yellow brick road!), some of my favourite titles are the ones later in the series. It just so happens that some of those titles were written while Baum was staying ion Coronado Island.

Getting to Coronado Island

Once you’re in San Diego, it’s quite easy to get across to the island. You can drive or take the bus, but Marcie and I opted for the ferry. We caught it at Broadway Pier, which was only about a fifteen-minute walk from our hotel (incidentally, we’re staying in the historic Horton Grand Hotel—a beautiful building with very affordable rates).

The ferry is about $5 per person, each way. After a fifteen-minute ride, we arrived at the island, where we took the free summer shuttle across to the west side of the island, where most of the restaurants, hotels, and sites are located. Also, it’s where you can hear those gorgeous waves rumbling in from the Pacific.

Baum on Coronado Island

L. Frank Baum spent many winters in California. Not only did he stay at the Hotel Del Coronado, but he rented a nearby home and it’s here where he wrote part of his second Oz book, The Marvellous Land of Oz. Subsequently, he wrote three more of his books on the island: Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz (#4 in the series), The Road to Oz (#5), and The Emerald City of Oz (#6).

The house that Baum rented while writing the three books can still be found today. It’s on 1101 Star Park Circle (aptly named!) and is only a short walk from the hotel.

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You can’t go inside the house, but you can stand on the doorstep to see the plaque commemorating Baum. Also, there’s a few fun knick-knacks decorating the front.

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After visiting the house, we went to the Coronado Museum of History and Art (1100 Orange Avenue) where you can see first editions of the three books Baum wrote on the island.

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The Emerald City

As the story goes, Baum took inspiration for the conception and description of his own Emerald City from the Hotel del Coronado.

This fact is in some dispute, but it’s hard not to look at the spires of the historic building and ignore their “Oz-ness.” You will note the flag on one of the spires—it looks like an emerald crown. Coronado is known as the Crown City, but also has the nickname “Emerald City.”

Baum also designed the crown-shaped chandeliers in the Crown room at the hotel.

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I highly recommend visiting Coronado, especially if you’re already in the San Diego area. And, if you are an Oz nerd like me, then you’re in for an extra treat, discovering the historic connection between Baum and the island.

In Baum’s own words: “Those who do not find Coronado a paradise have doubtless brought with them the same conditions that would render heaven unpleasant to them did they chance to gain admittance.”

 

Picture Perfect Covers

Picture Perfect Covers

This past season, I taught a creative writing class for tweens and teens that took inspiration from art history.

I described many of those classes, activities, and inspirations on this blog. The result of all that hard work by the students was that they each were given the opportunity to make their own book. That included not only producing all the words for the book, but any illustrations and artwork—including the front covers.

Here are the final covers that the students came up with. They did the artwork and I helped them with the design and typography.

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The books are professionally printed with perfect-bound spines. Yes, I’m biased, but I think they turned out pretty well!

Hanging out with meerkats in Seoul

Hanging out with meerkats in Seoul

On my recent trip to Seoul, we noticed the sudden proliferation of “pet” cafés. Even when we were strolling through the shopping district of Myeong-dong, we noticed cat mascots advertising the cafés.

Now, in Seoul, you can find not only cat and dog cafés, but ones with sheep, raccoons, and more exotic fare . . . such as meerkats. Well, that’s the one we really wanted to visit, so one drippy morning, we set out for the Hondae area.

In my imagination, the sheep café was a place where you sipped coffee and pet wooly lambs as they wandered around. As it turned out, the sheep were kept in an enclosure outside of the cafe. In other words, it was like a petting zoo. Better for the sheep, of course, and probably the customers, but there went my pastoral imaginings!

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We knew the café didn’t open until noon, so arrived just about that time. However, the one thing we didn’t realize is that you can’t actually interact with any of the animals until about 1pm because the staff take the first or so to feed all the animals.

This wasn’t a complete loss, because as any pet owner knows, animals are most active when they know their tea is coming. We enjoyed watching the meerkats scramble around, campaigning for their breakfast, and then eating once their kibble was sprinkled into their pen.

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There are many other animals at this particular café as well: cats, foxes, genets (a slender, sort of cat-like animal), a raccoon (for some reason, tailless), and a wallaby. Most of the animals were in pens or enclosures, though the wallaby was hopping around the entire time and we were allowed to hand-feed it.

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Eventually, we were allowed to enter the meerkat enclosure. There were a lot of (understandably) rules for this. We had to empty our pockets of all items—food, coins, anything that might cause grief to the meerkats.

Then, it was just a matter of going inside the enclosure, sitting down and let the meerkats come introduce themselves!

Myself, Marcie, and our friend author Stacey Matson were the first ones allowed in for the day, along with two other visitors. The meerkats swarmed us! So much so, in fact, that Marcie only lasted a few minutes before asking to leave. The meerkats were scrambling up the backside of her dress and some were tugging at her diabetes pump, so she figured it better to get out.

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Eventually, the meerkats settled down and even began to nap on some our laps. Stacey, in particular, had one meerkat go completely comatose on her lap!

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As for me, I turned out to be a meerkat lookout point!

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By the way, can you see the sweat dripping off my forehead? It’s not from nerves of dealing with meerkat’s—that’s just Seoul’s famous humidity!

Raccoon dogs and romantic vistas at the Palace of Prospering Virtue

Raccoon dogs and romantic vistas at the Palace of Prospering Virtue

One of my favorite experiences on my recent trip to Korea was a visit to Changdeokgung, otherwise known as the Palace of Prospering Virtue. Changdeok is one of the five grand palaces in Korea, the others being Gyeongbokgung, Deoksugung, Changguyunggung, and Gyeonghuigung.

I had actually been to Changdeokgung many years ago, but that was a rain-plagued visit, so I was looking forward to a more thorough visit.

If you’re looking for big and expansive, then I highly recommend heading up the road to Gyeongbokgung. However, in my opinion, what Changdeokgung offers is a more intimate and romantic experience. The fee is only 3,000 won (less than three US dollars).

Some history

Now a UNESCO world heritage site, Changdeokgung was originally built in the 1400s by King Taejong, during the Joseon dynasty. It was the site where rulers and ministers hammered out affairs of state, and where the royal family lived. Changdeokgung was burnt down, like all palaces in Seoul, during the Japanese invasion of 1592, but was rebuilt in the 1600s.

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Go early!

Changdeokgung features a “secret garden” tour, so we booked spots for the first English version tour of the day, which was around 10:30 am. We arrived in advance of that to do some exploring of the rest of the grounds and that was definitely the right decision; there were hardly any visitors at the palace, which gave us beautiful views, uninterrupted by the hordes of people you usually find at tourist sites.

Take water

You’ll know this anyway if you visit Korea in the summer, but definitely make sure you buy a bottle (or two) from the onsite store before you embark on the Secret Garden tour. You’ll need it!

An impressive main gate

This is Donhwamun Gate, the main palace gate. It’s a two-story structure and is the largest of all palace gates in Korea. It once houses a giant bell and drum. The gate was destroyed in the 16th-century Japanese invasion.

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Below, are pictures of the main courtyard and Injeongjeon, the main hall. As I mentioned above, the courtyard was mostly empty and we were treated to one of those awe-inspiring moments where you can slip into your imagination and wonder what it might have been like to tread these stones in a bygone era.

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You can also get photo-bombed by your own wife!

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So many doorways

As my friends and students know, I love doors and details—and there’s no shortage of them to be found at Changdeokgung.

An ornate access panel to a chimney:

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Decorate roof tile:

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I loved coming across doorway views like this during my maundering:

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Traditional (and weathered) door:

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Happy tiger sculpture:

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The traditional Korean buildings were heated from underneath. This opening shows where servants would have placed fuel below the floor, accessed from the outside of the quarters:

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I adored the many shapes, patterns, and colors that could be found as we explored the labyrinthian network of buildings:

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I never tire of the swooping rooflines you see at the Korean palaces:

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Doorway with sign written in traditional Chinese characters above (can you see the sweat dripping off of me?):

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Another doorway:

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Stunning detail and color on the roof beams:

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Window shutters:

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Magnificent doorways:

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Not that secret garden

After exploring the main grounds, we headed to the starting point of our tour of the Secret Garden. Obviously, it is a very evocative name, reminiscent of the famous children’s book, but the true explanation of why the garden has that name is far less magical. As our tour guide explained, the name in Korean is “Biwon” and comes from the office of the same name that existed in the 1800s.

The garden has actually had many names, but during the Joseon period, was mostly called “Huwon.” The garden was originally developed for use by the royal family. It offers stunning views, featuring a lotus pond, pavilions, and meandering pathways.

The Lotus Pond

The first place we arrived at on the tour was the gorgeous Lotus Pond. You can see the gate on the far side of the pond. The main doorway is for the king; the two flanking it are for his ministers. These doors are lower, forcing the ministers to crouch (bow) as they enter, emphasizing their servitude to the king.

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I loved this face peering over the water. The last time I visited the garden, water was streaming out of its mouth.

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Raccoon Dog

While I was off taking photos of the pond, my friend Stacey was at the other end and got to see an animal I’ve never heard of: a raccoon dog. Here’s her photo:

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The tour guide told her that the animal is “not cute” and that she preferred cats. She also warned Stacey to keep her distance; the raccoon dog is wild and could have rabies. It seems to resemble a fox more than a dog, but gets its name from the distinctive mask.

Nature by design

The rest of the tour took us through different portions of the garden, though some areas were closed. Along the way, we were treated to many scenic views, all purposely designed.

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And I thought I was old

The tour ended with a stop by the Hyangnamu (aromatic) tree, which is believed to be over 700 years old. As you can see in the photo, it is propped up in places, but you certainly can’t blame it. Many visitors see different shapes and creatures in the curving branches of the tree, the most common being an elephant.

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As I mentioned off the top, Changdeokgung is well worth the visit. It may hover in the shadow of Gyeokbokgung, but you can easily see both palaces, as they are within walking distance of each other.