Kingdom building on the Sunshine Coast

I’m currently working as a writer-in-residence at West Sechelt Elementary on the beautiful Sunshine Coast. The students are engaged in an ongoing (and ambitious!) project to create their own stories, which, as I like to think of it, is basically the same as building your own little world . . . which I why I kicked off my time there with my “Crafting Kingdoms” presentation.

I’m really pleased with the results so far. Many of the students took my . . . well, let’s just call it a “rant” . . . about brainstorming to heart. For my second weekly visit, they all arrived with their inspiration folders stuffed with sketches, drawings, and all sorts of other little ideas. A few students even came up with their own languages or codes for their worlds! And many of them also took my advice about patience, crafting some simply wonderful symbolic crests for their worlds.

There are so many students that I couldn’t photograph everything, but here are some pictures of some of the things that have caught my eye so far . . .

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This student is very organized, with labels and photocopies of interesting creatures to help inspire her!

West Sechelt Elementary - Kingdom building.

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I loved this students “checklist.” She’s got options for all sorts of details, right down to the props and types of shoes her character will wear!

West Sechelt Elementary - Kingdom building.

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This student spent a long time carefully designing his symbol, which he has not only used on his crest, but in other parts of his world.

West Sechelt Elementary - Kingdom building.

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I loved this curly tree . . . I want to visit this student’s world!

West Sechelt Elementary - Kingdom building.

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This is another tree world . . . Pinelandia!

West Sechelt Elementary - Kingdom building.

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This one isn’t quite done yet, but I loved the progress so far. This will be a kingdom of action!

West Sechelt Elementary - Kingdom building.

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I think this kingdom will be one that is both beautiful and dangerous!

West Sechelt Elementary - Kingdom building.

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This is a cute kingdom . . . though I get the sense there is an undercurrent of danger lurking somewhere!

West Sechelt Elementary - Kingdom building.

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This crest features a secret language!

West Sechelt Elementary - Kingdom building.

Doorways to creative writing

I have always been obsessed with doors and doorways. Of course, I wrote an entire book about doorways—Kendra Kandlestar and the Door to Unger. While working on that book, I built a large prop of the Door to Unger. I don’t cart it around much, as it turned out to be large, unwieldy, and heavy, but otherwise I was pretty happy with the result.

Door to Unger prop

Well, after reading the first week’s worth of stories from my current writing class, it seemed to me that most of my students had stories that either featured doorways, or certainly had the potential to. So I decided we would build our own door props. Of course, we couldn’t try to make them as big as mine, but I was determined to use wood instead of paper and cardboard.

Without too much difficulty, I was able to find some inexpensive balsam slats and some pre-cut wooden shapes for ornamentation. Not all the doorways are finished yet, but some snapshots of our work in progress are shown below. We have all manner of doorways; some are portals to magical worlds, while others hide treasure or danger. There’s a magic elevator, a doorway to Candy Land, and a doorway that is swarming with (ugh) spiders.

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Polyester Pollock

As part of my Picture Perfect workshop (a creative writing class that takes inspiration from art history), I had my students make their own Jackson Pollock-inspired T-shirts. It was a lot of fun to see the students set themselves free and express their creativity on their shirts. We have a final presentation coming up, so these shirts will serve as their costumes!

Jackson Pollock T-shirt.

Jackson Pollock T-shirt.

Jackson Pollock T-shirt.

Jackson Pollock T-shirt.

Jackson Pollock T-shirt.

How writing a story is like building a house

When I first started teaching creative writing to kids, one of the first classes I ever developed was “The Creative Carpenter.” It was more or less my way of trying to find a fun approach to teaching the formal elements of fiction.

It began with me deciding that writing a story is like building a house. After all, if you build a house, you have to make sure you construct all the parts properly. You have to start with a strong foundation, and then you have to make sure you have sturdy cornerstones. You want to make sure the house is interesting by decorating it properly. You need an exciting doorway to invite people inside. And then there’s all that stuff that you develop and sometimes carefully craft, only to go up the chimney—it doesn’t stay a part of the final house. If you want to take this metaphor even farther, you can consider how we eventually have to sell our real estate. But let’s not forget that if you don’t build your house properly, it just crumbles to the ground.

I’ve had a lot of fun and success delivering this workshop over the years. I’ve taught it to teachers and kids alike. The best part is when I get to see the results of their worksheet. You see, I have the students fill out the different parts of their house diagram as I take them on a tour of the formal elements of fiction. Inevitably, these worksheets organically morph into a brainstorming exercise.

Just check out some of the snapshots from my recent class.

Creative Carpenter - Student output.

Creative Carpenter - Student output.

Creative Carpenter - Student output.

Creative Carpenter - Student output.

Creative Carpenter - Student output.

Creative Carpenter - Student output.

Creative Carpenter - Student output.

Creative Carpenter - Student output.

Kendra Kandlestar’s New Year resolution

Uncle GriffinskitchWell, not that kind of resolution. I’m talking about the final pages of Kendra Kandlestar and the Search for Arazeen.

Back in December, I reported the important milestone of finishing my first complete draft of the book. It was at that point that I sent out the manuscript to my group of trusted others to solicit their feedback.

Mostly, the response was positive, though one comment was consistent: everyone hated the ending. The climax was fine, it was the very end, the last chapter that shows what happens after all the dust settles. I wrote this chapter very quickly, and made it short and sweet. I already felt this book was quite long (the longest in the series yet) and so just wanted to tie everything up and leave the reader wanting more.

Turns out I accomplished that goal. I left the reader wanting more, all right—just not in a good way. Every single reader felt the ending was far too abrupt, as if I had suddenly just switched off the electric.

This whole process has been interesting to me. I’ve never written a series before, so this is the first time I’ve had to tie up not one, but five stories. I found it very difficult. Perhaps it’s because I was having trouble getting excited about this chapter; after all, all the good stuff already happened in the climax. Or perhaps, it’s just been hard to bid farewell to a magical world that has consumed my attention for over a decade.

The irony here is that I always preach to my students about the importance of a resolution. In fact, I have an entire module for it. If you have ever been one of my students, chances are that you received my criticism for abruptly ending a story.

I suppose that you sometimes just have to take a sip of your own medicine. So, over the holiday season, I pondered all the criticism I received about the ending from my trusted others, and started planning how I could rewrite it. There was a lot to consider. How much do I tell about the characters? Do I show them days after the climax? Weeks? Or do I do it in the fashion of Harry Potter, and show my characters several years in the future? (Though, I must say here, that I feel like I already did that in Book 4, The Crack in Kazah; if you remember, Kendra is given a glimpse of her ancient self in that book.)

Well, after my lengthy rumination, I returned to my manuscript in earnest last week and rewrote that critical last chapter. I have to give credit here to my fiancée, Marcie, who came up with a stellar idea that I could use as a framework for this critical last scene. If this current version of the chapter sticks, you’ll be treated to a little farewell party with all of your favourite characters . . . and catch a glimmer of what they’ll get up to after the last page of this last book is turned.

Taking a cue from the Surrealists

The Persistence of Memory
The Persistence of Memory, by Salvador Dali

As part of my “Picture Perfect” class that I’m teaching (a creative writing class for kids that takes inspiration from art history) we tried some automatic writing this week. It was a good fit, as we were looking at Surrealist artwork. The Surrealists really believed in breaking the boundaries between reality and dreams, and I thought automatic writing would be a good way to shake up my students.

First, we just tried five minutes of pure automatic writing, in which the kids could not pause. Most of them found this exercise fairly easy, which surprised me somewhat. My students so often seem obsessed with outcome, so I’m glad they could just shrug and set themselves free.

Our second exercise was to try some writing after lucid dreaming. In this case, I put the students into dream state by leading them through a breathing exercise and then playing them some meditation music. This part lasted for about fifteen minutes, and I found that most of them escaped into dream state quite easily. The key to this, of course, is to have a quiet room that is free from distraction and interruption.

Once I brought them out of dream state, the students could not speak, but had to write uninterrupted for ten minutes. This writing is private; I didn’t ask to see it. Afterwards, we discussed the experience. The students all had a variety of reactions to the activity, but I think it’s safe to say that most found it quite interesting to try and find inspiration from a different angle.

I’ve led this activity (and similar ones) quite a few times and, in my experience, the younger the students the easier to put them into dream state. I suppose us adults find it much harder to shut down and shut off!

A legacy for the parliamentary cats?

Back in 2010, I blogged about my visit to the cat sanctuary on Parliament Hill in Ottawa. At that time I wondered why no one had ever written a book about these cats; it seemed the perfect fit for a children’s story. Since that time, I’ve been puttering away on this project, working with my colleague Kallie George to develop some sort of meaningful story. This project keeps getting pushed to the bottoms of our respective piles, but this week I’m reminded of it with the announcement that the last two cats from the sanctuary have been adopted.

Yep, the real Parliamentary Cats are officially history . . . but perhaps they can live on in a children’s book.  Here’s some of the sketches I did, imagining characters and personalities for the characters.

Parliamentary cat sketch

Parliamentary cat sketch

Parliamentary cat sketch

Parliamentary cat sketch

My favourite children’s and YA books from 2012

This isn’t a list of books necessarily published in 2012—it’s just a list of my favourite books that I read last year. They are all over the map in terms of age range and genre, but I recommend them all. I ranked them from bottom to top, but that was pretty hard work; they are all amazing!

The Blackhope Engima10. The Blackhope Enigma, by Teresa Flavin

When fourteen-year-old Sunni sees her stepbrother Dean disappear inside a painting, she follows after him, only to find herself being sucked deeper and deeper into the art’s hidden layers—and hidden worlds. Fans of magic and mystery are sure to love this book by debut author Teresa Flavin. This tale has a strong art history connection and makes a great read before a trip to the local art museum.

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The Secret of the Fortune Wookie9. The Secret of the Fortune Wookie, by Tom Angleberger

The third book in the Origami Yoda series, this book introduces my favourite Star Wars character—Chewbacca—in paper form. This is not just a book for fans of Star Wars, for it perfectly captures middle school life and all the problems that go with it. Told from several different points of view and filled with interesting cartoon illustrations, this book has something to offer for a wide range of readers.

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Peter Nimble and his Fantastic Eyes8. Peter Nimble and his Fantastic Eyes, by Jonathan Auxier

“Now, for those of you who know anything about blind children, you are aware that they make the very best thieves.” So begins this captivating tale of a blind ten-year-old orphan who steals a box of magical eyes, sparking a marvelous adventure full of swashbuckling action. Told in a classical style, this story is for those who love fairytales and fantasy, but with an enchanting depth of detail and description.

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Kenny and the Dragon7. Kenny and the Dragon, by Tony DiTerlizzi

Kenny is a rabbit who must figure out a way to save his best friend—who just so happens to be a dragon! This wonderfully illustrated book rifts off the classic Kenneth Graeme book, The Wind in the Willows, using strongly-developed animal characters to tell a light-hearted story that deals with the serious subject of prejudice.

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The Flask6. The Flask, by Nicky Singer

The cover of this book kept calling me every time I walked into my local bookstore, so I finally just picked it up without bothering to read the flap. I was not disappointed. The emotional readiness of this book and its touch of fantasy make this a great candidate for more advanced readers who are looking to sink their teeth into something a bit deeper. This book captures a moment in the life of twelve-year-old Jess, when her beloved aunt has just passed away and her mother is about to give birth to conjoined step-brothers. It’s truly a remarkable book, filled with gentle wisdom and spirituality.

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The Considine Curse5. The Considine Curse, by Gareth P. Jones

This book breathes some life into the otherwise tired-genre of lycanthropy. When fourteen-year-old Mariel visits her family in England she discovers some surprising secrets about her family. What really makes this book stay with the reader is the ending. As I asked my students, is it satisfying and sad, or disappointing and happy?

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The Fault in Our Stars4. The Fault in Our Stars, by John Green

Because I’ve been doing more workshops for teens, I’ve been reading more YA books recently. This one is at the top of the pile. It tackles the heavy subject of cancer, but does so with compelling characters that ooze raw and realistic honesty. Sixteen-year-old Heather has terminal cancer, but gains a new lease on life when she meets Augustus at her support group. Together the two share a romance that takes an unlikely twist.

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The Search for Wondla3. The Search for WondLa, by Tony DiTerlizzi

Eva Nine is not your usual twelve-year-old girl. She’s been raised by a robot—Muthr—and has never seen another human. However, when Eva’s sanctuary is destroyed by a marauder, Eva is forced to enter the outside world, where she embarks on a quest to find more of her own kind. Along the way she meets both friend and foe and learns hard lessons about growing up. A combination of fairytale and science fiction, this book is beautifully illustrated, featuring bizarre and interesting characters. It is sure to attract young readers who are fans of Star Wars and other fantasy stories.

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This Dark Endeavor2. This Dark Endeavor, by Kenneth Oppel

This book chronicles the youth of Victor Frankenstein, laying the foundation of his compulsion to build his famous monster as told in the Mary Shelley classic. The book has one of the best first chapters I’ve ever read—it instantly hooks the reader and lures them into the dark labyrinth of Frankenstein’s psyche. Sprinkled with the right amount of fantasy and romance, this is sure bet for teen and advanced readers.

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Liesl & Po1. Liesl & Po, by Lauren Oliver

When an alchemist’s apprentice named Will accidentally loses a box holding great magic, he is forced to flee his wicked master. He soon finds himself in the company of a peculiar pair, the grieving girl Liesl and the mysterious ghost named Po. This beautiful book, told in a classical style, deals with the delicate subject of death. Golden language and compelling characters help separate this book from the rest.