Tween Author Boot Camp is partnering with Utah Valley University to bring you award-winning middle grade author instructor Heather Clark, and some amazing virtual guests—Newbery winning and New York Times bestselling authors—to make all your summer camp writing dreams come true! We’ve planned two weeks of engaging lessons, fun activities, and hands-on practice to light up your writer brain and grow your skills.
With the Online Access ticket to TwABC you get ALL instruction from Weeks 1 and 2 via live, Zoom Webinar with Heather Clark plus bonus on-demand classes from other authors.
Me? I’m going to be leading some live interactive mapping from my studio to demonstrate strategies for building mood and starting scenes with a bang (and possible a dragon egg).
Okay, full disclosure: my new studio isn’t completely ready. But the dragon eggs are on display, along with other things, and I’ll get as many artifacts added to the “authoreum” as possible before my event!
Last week, when I was doing an author visit at Pemberton Secondary School, I showed the students photos of many of the books I wrote as a teenager.
The book I could NOT show them? The cringy teen romance I wrote when I was sixteen or seventeen. I can’t remember the title exactly, but I think it was “Summer Dreams” or something like that, which gives you an approximation of the cringe level.
It had been typed out on my electronic typewriter, which mean there was only one copy. Well, when I was in my early twenties, I was visiting my parents and found the manuscript tucked away in an old box or drawer.
I gave it a read.
I was so utterly mortified by it that I took it outside, into my parents’ yard, and burned it. Literally burned it. So that there wasn’t a single page left.
I now regret my moment of arson. I mean, how much fun would it be to show students that manuscript? They could instantly stop beating themselves up about the quality of their own writing, because all they would have to do is read what I wrote at their age!
Thankfully, I did NOT give up on writing. So, what’s the message? Keep going forward. You don’t have to be born a great writer, or a great anything. But if there is something you’re passionate about, you can be better at it today than you were yesterday.
Which is why, even though I don’t publish books for young adults, I often present to them because I can relate to the process of writing at their age and can talk about different approaches and craft techniques that might help them avoid all those emotional pit falls along the way.
There’s a groovy website (fairly) new to the book-review game called Shepard and one of the things that I enjoy about it is the featured lists—especially those by authors!
Inspired by the process of writing my own book, Spell Sweeper, I compiled a list of middle-grade books that feature magical brooms that aren’t Harry Potter (I’ve met more than one young reader—and some older ones, too—who assume Rowling is the inventor of flying broomsticks, as well other fantasy tropes, such as magical schools and owls as familiars)!
You can check out my list here—and, of course, if you have read Spell Sweeper, you already know that the brooms in that book are definitely not for flying!
I wrapped up a writer-in-residency at a local school, Southpointe Academy, in April. It seems like a lifetime ago because, since then, my family has moved homes for the first time in eighteen years (more on that in a future post, I imagine!).
I’ve now had time to reflect on the residency and look back at some of the photos from my week at the school. We accomplished a lot of writing and storytelling!
I was asked to develop a plan for K-5 and so came up with a different project for each grade.
Kindergarteners: Costuming a Character
Grade 1s: Magical Boxes
Grade 2s: Enchanted Trees
Grade 3s: Secret Doorways
Grade 4s: A Spellbinding Shopping Trip
Grade 5s: Lost in the Library
I kicked off the week with one general presentation to the entire school, which allowed me to introduce myself—and my philosophy—so that I didn’t have to repeat this each time I visited the specific classrooms.
The fantastic aspect of a residency is that I get to spend multiple blocks with the same class. In general, the system was the same: enter the classroom, introduce the project with some brainstorming and scene starters, then follow up in additional sessions with more specific writing advice, presentation, and an in-depth Q & A.
Of course, the format was tweaked depending on the age.
Another positive to spending an entire week at the school was that I could set up my museum of artifacts in the library and students could come view them throughout the week for extra inspiration.
Finally, the school asked me to write a story about them during my time there and I did just that. This turned out to be a lot of fun, and I ended up writing about an imagined misadventure with the Grade 5 classroom’s mascot, Yorick the skeleton.
Afterward, I was happy to receive these kind words from Southpointe’s writing coordinator:
“Everyone at our school loved having Lee as our Author-In-Residence, as he is such an engaging and inspirational writer and teacher! He connected with all our students from K to Grade 5 who loved his fun, interactive workshops, which focused on making the writing process accessible to all! I would recommend Lee without hesitation.”
Verity Pritchard Southpointe Academy
More info about my residencies can be found on my website.
I’ve been fine-tuning my plan for my writer-in-residency that I’m doing at a school next week— five straight days with students K-5! We’ll be covering a range of topics and writing approaches, but one of the main goals for the visit will be to amplify overall creativity.
When it comes to my own writing process, one of my favourite ways to attack this is by mapping, and it’s something I bring to schools as well, either guiding students through a process on chart paper, a white board, or—if I’m presenting via Zoom or to a large audience in an auditorium—through a document camera.
This is a great way to generate ideas or for a writer to simply understand a space. Many of my young students (or even my teens) often craft scenes but leave the reader completely in the dark as to where it takes place (sometimes I don’t even know if the scene is inside or outside)! Mapping out a world, a building, or even a moment can make a real difference! More information about my author presentation, craft workshops, and residencies on my website.
By the way, if you’re looking for an excellent book on mapping, writing, and creativity, then I highly suggest The Writers’ Map, edited by Huw Lewis-Jones!
I’m prepping for a week at a school next week and will be rolling out one of my favourite workshops: The Doorway to Adventure! I’ll be doing this one for Grade 4s, but it’s easily adjusted to fit any age (I’ve done it for grades K-9).
For a typical school visit, I deliver a hybrid “presentation-workshop,” which combines my author introduction and writing approach with a hands-on activity for the students. In “The Doorway to Adventure,” I showcase the doors I’ve “collected” from around the world (some of my favourites picture here) and explain how they’ve inspired my books (especially The Secret of Zoone)! Next, I lead students in an interactive brainstorming session, helping them design their own doors as they consider storytelling questions. Students then use this brainstorming as a scene or story starter.
More information about my author presentation, craft workshops, and residencies on my website.
Later this month, I’ll be doing an intensive one-week writing residency at a school. I’ve led many of these before, but this is my first one going to the school every day for a week since before the pandemic. Needless to say, I’m looking forward to it!
I’ve been fine-tuning my planning and programming for the various groups. I’ll be doing multiple sessions with each of the grades, K-5, and I’ve arranged a specific topic for each of the groups that we can sustain over the week.
Many of these topics I do as part of a single school visit—I like to do a regular author introduction combined with a specific brainstorming activity. The follow-ups allow me to dig into some more detailed writing approaches. The programs with the younger grades (Ks and 1s) will concentrate on visual literacy and oral storytelling, while my workshops with the older kids will deal with some more in-depth scene building and story writing.
Here are the topics I’m rolling out this week:
It will be a wild week, and I’m looking forward to seeing what the students come up!
More information about my author presentation, craft workshops, and residencies on my website.
Have you ever gone on a sled ride where there was NO snow involved?
I’ve been posting about my family trip to Europe and the experiences of two veteran travellers adjusting to adventuring with a five-year-old. There were a lot of ups and downs. The experience we had on the island of Madeira was definitely a “down” experience!
We spent a week on the island with our extended family, and my in-laws kept talking about the Madeira toboggan run. I couldn’t quite understand what they were talking about, so I did some research and, yep, people go down asphalt roads on sleds. The strange way of traveling originated in the 1800s as a way for locals to quickly get from the village of Monte at the top of the hill down to Funchal by the water.
Here’s my photo of the classic Portuguese tile art that depicts this in years gone by:
Doesn’t it look like a gentle, courtly activity?
It’s not quite like that these days! The journey is now primarily for tourists. The sleds are made out of wicker and are powered by two “carreiros”, dressed in white and wearing straw hats. They also wear rubber soled boots, which they use as brakes.
Things go downhill . . .
Well, we had to try it. After all, we had taken a lot of public transport on our trip (subways, trains, tuk-tuks, donkeys), so why not this? During my previous travels, I’ve ridden horses, camels, and elephants—not to mention that, being a good Canadian kid, I’ve done my fair share of tobogganing down icy slopes.
On the day we went, we had a particularly long wait because a cruise trip had pulled into Madeira and the island was swelling with extra tourists. Still the wait—and the cost—was worth it. Sledding into Funchal was one of those tourist trap activities that you just have to do. I’m all about the unique experiences . . . and this was it!
Well, down we wait, shrieking in delight all the way down (all three of us!).
The route is about two kilometers and takes many twists and turns. It even crosses traffic intersections patrolled by attendants with stop signs to halt the cars. I’m not sure how fast we ever went, though official literature says you can go up to 38 km/hour!
The route ends at a souvenir stand (no surprise) where you can purchase a photo that they’ve taken of you along the way. Once again, that was another one of those tourist trap things that we fell for—because, well, you kind have to.
Afterward, the carreiros are bussed back to the top of the mountain, and the sleds are carted up on flatbed trucks. As for us, it was a one-kilometer walk down the steep slope to where we were staying. As it happened, we were on the same road. I imagine, back in the day, the sleds would have gone right past that house!
Well, what’s the strangest ride YOU’ve ever taken?
I’ve been blogging about the inspirational trip my family and I took to Europe in March—and the challenges of travelling with a five-year-old!
I love galleries, museums, castles—you know, all things historical! But for our son, unless it’s a place where he can run around with impunity, he’s not a fan.
Still, we tried to incorporate as much of these things as possible during our trip and one of the places I was really looking forward to visiting was the Livraria Lello & Irmão in Porto.
I first heard about Livraria Lello from my in-laws, who brought back a picture book for Hiro a couple years ago. It mentions how the store served as inspiration for J.K. Rowling’s world-building. Once we knew we were heading to Portugal, we did more research on the store and realized it was a must-see destination. During my author visits to schools, one of my favourite story starters with students is something called “Lost in the Library,” in which I lead the students in a brainstorming activity to map out a massive magical library, filled with wonder and danger. I show images from many of the libraries and stores I have visited around the world—so I simply needed to experience Livraria Lello.
The store is so popular that you have to buy tickets for entry. I believe they were five euros each, but you can use these toward book purchases once you’re inside. So we purchased our tickets the day before and headed to the store for our entry time.
I was definitely surprised by the length of the line-up to get in.
My expectations were now heightened! I was super excited, and then . . .
Well, if you’re a parent of a toddler, you know you can ask your child 7,648 times before leaving anywhere if they have to go to the bathroom and they will say no 7,647 out of those 7,648 occasions. Then, the moment when it’s most convenient, there’s the most urgent need to answer Mother Nature’s beckoning.
The moment we crossed the threshold of Livraria Lello, Hiro announced for all to hear that he needed to go (and he was very, uh . . . specific in his proclamation). So, instead of having that romantic moment of gaping in wander, breathing in the aroma of books—you know, all the things—we had to deal with a panicked plea. I was having flashbacks to earlier on in the trip when I tried to take Hiro to the Picasso Museum.
Marcie said she’d take care of the situation, and whipped into action. (Byt the way, it’s no surprise, but there’s no bathroom in Livraria Lello, which meant Marcie and Hiro had to negotiate an exit with the guard at the gates, then go on a bit of an odyssey to find facilities.)
It all worked out, and Hiro was in a much better mood by the time they met back up with me.
In a way, they timed it perfectly. I entered the shop with a swarm of people, and it wasn’t until twenty minutes later that I realized the crowd had thinned. So my recommendation is if you visit and find yourself in the same situation, wait it out at bit. The visitors come in waves, as is suggested by the staged ticketing—I assumed most people would be like me and spend at least an hour in the store, but many cleared out within fifteen minutes.
There are many things to marvel at in Livraria Lello. It’s famous for its gorgeous red staircase—and it’s definitely wonderful. I even liked the underbelly of the steps, where you can find carved lion heads and—in the case of Hiro—a place to hunker down in relative solitude.
There were many different details that Marcie and I noticed and photographed; the cabinets and (Narnia-like?) lamppost on the top floor, the ceiling . . . well, it’s just one of those magical realms you have to experience for yourself.
Hiro’s favourite part was definitely the book bin. This is a bin that travels along built in rails along the bottom floor—kind of like a mine cart. My favourite part was the architecture—and, of course, the books! They came in many shapes, sizes, ages, languages, and genres.
Yep, we cashed in all the vouchers that came with our tickets! Afterward, we headed to a nearby park, sat underneath a tree at an outdoor cafe and mooned over our wares. Here’s what we ended up with (Hiro got two books, and I’ll let you guess which ones).
Oh, by the way, there’s a vending machine outside—a vending machine for books . . . just in case you get caught late at night and needing your fix.
It’s kind of a rule when you’re an author seeking inspiration. And not only did I recently descend into the cavernous, spiralling pit that I found . . . I took the five-year-old.
But first things first! This is Part 2 of a recap of the big family trip we took in March to Europe. My wife and I are accustomed to going on long, exploratory trips to build inspiration for our writing (me), acting (Marcie), and teaching careers (both of us), but this is the first sort of epic journey we’ve taken with our son.
Ups and downs—literally and metaphorically
After spending time in Spain, we made our way to Portugal. It was a long travel day that involved a car ride to the airport, then the flight itself, followed by subway hopping to arrive at our hotel, which was just on the outskirts of Lisbon’s main quarter.
Hiro was exhausted by the time we arrived—not just from the travel day, but from all the unceasing days of adventure we had spent so far. Did that make us pause and take a day off for rest?
Our first full day out, we were charging around the city, checking out Elevador de Santa Justa, which is a 19th century elevator that transports you up from the Baixa district in Lisbon to the Largo do Carmo, where you can visit the Museu Arqueológico do Carmo. Hiro was already showing signs of fatigue here, so I went into the archaeological site by myself while Marcie and Hiro rested in the square outside.
I had the time to trek beneath the roofless arches and explore the different corners of the site. The medieval convent was ruined in the earthquake of 1755, and some of it has been restored for visitors to explore. It was a fantastic experience, and the cost to enter was only five euros!
By the time I got out, we could tell that Hiro was fading fast. We headed back to the hotel, and for the next two days his fever bounced around, going up and down and causing us a lot of anxiety. Thankfully, we had a really good farmacia nearby and their English was excellent. I was able to get the right combination of fever medication for Hiro.
A maze, a castle, and some vainglorious chickens
Well, we were forced to hunker down while he recovered. Marcie and I spent shifts looking after him, while the other one of us went out and did our own exploring. I took the opportunity in the morning to visit the nearby Parque Eduardo VII, which featured a long set of decorative mazes. They only went to my knees—so not really that tricky, but I had my notebook with me and it was a good place to sit in the sun and do a bit of writing.
Afterward, I decided to train into the heart of Lisbon and trek up the hill to visit Castelo de São Jorge. It was quite the hike up there, but I enjoyed the switchback streets and all the old sights along the way—including the main weathered and storied doors.
The castle itself was a marvellous experience, offering many breathtaking views. I enjoyed climbing up to the various turrets and rampart walkways. I’m not the best with heights, and the stones of this castle are worn and weathered to smoothness, but there are plenty of railings. Still, I was amazed to see people perching between the crenellations, taking selfies. All I could think of was how simple it would be to plummet off the edges.
I was also thankful Hiro wasn’t with me. He bounces around so much, and has NO fear of heights. My imagination would have been going wild if he had been with me, charging along those narrow walkways and trying to lean out for a view.
After exploring the walls, I made my way back to safety and weaved my way past the peacocks (or as I like to think of them, gradiose chickens) who populate the castle grounds.
Next it was time to relieve Marcie and take some time with Hiro.
A place of palaces
Eventually, after two days of rest and sleep, our little explorer had recovered and we set off for some day trips. The first trip was to Porto, but I’m going to leave that for another post! The second trip was to Sintra, where you can visit palaces and castles.
We had grand ambitions of visiting all the sites there, but we quickly realized that wasn’t going to happen, especially with Hiro (we started to realize that we needed to slow down!). So we decided to focus on two sites: Palácio da Pena and Quinta da Regaleira.
Sintra, like so much of Portugal, is situated in the hills, which means it’s not entirely easy to navigate to the different sites. We opted on getting a bus pass, but found this to be a bit inefficient and quickly realized why so people opted for the motorized tuk-tuks. I will say that Hiro loved the bus rides though—the dramatic winding roads made for a lot of fun, kind of like a rollercoaster ride. His “oohs” and “ahs” definitely entertained our fellow passengers.
Still, busses can only take you so far to the sites. Climbing is inevitable!
Still no photos, please!
Palácio da Pena is branded as a fairytale palace—and we saw why, firsthand.
The brightly coloured spires and turrets and the lavish interiors offer many photo opportunities—though Hiro still fought us on the poses. Marcie managed to capture one great photo with Hiro and I, but when we tried to get a family photo . . . well!
Speaking of “well” . . .
Our next stop at Sintra was Quinta da Regaleira, which features the famous Initiation Well, which was built for ceremonial purposes, to conduct rituals based upon arcane or esoteric beliefs. Really, it’s like a subterranean tower, with a set of stone steps spiralling every downward into the dark and damp. In other words, it looks like a set straight out of Star Wars or Game of Thrones, and I desperately wanted to go down it.
Marcie was straggling, so Hiro and I headed into the well without her. I immediately wondered if I was making the wisest of decisions because it wasn’t immediately apparent how to exit the pit, since it was a one-way flow. This worry was underscored by the woman right behind us who had her baby on her front carrier. She asked me, “Should I take my baby down here?” I pointed out that maybe I wasn’t the best one to follow.
But follow us, she did! Downward we spiralled and the way grew darker and damper. I kept expecting Hiro to panic, but he didn’t—in fact, he was having the time of his life. When the woman behind us bumped into us at one point, Hiro laughed and said, “I just got kicked in the head by a baby’s foot!”
Eventually, we ended up in the labyrinth of tunnels at the bottom of the well and had additional fun exploring them. Eventually, we found Marcie down there and we all exited at the same time, through a cozy grotto patrolled by a guard. I asked the guard if they ever had to go into the cave to find lost stragglers and she admitted “sometimes.”
I have to say that well was one of the absolute highlights of my trips. I’m definitely going to take inspiration from this place in my writing.
I leave you with some of my favorite doors from Portugal.