Cool creative writing activities—pirate style

Cool creative writing activities—pirate style

Last week author and colleague Kallie George and I finished up a two week creative writing camp for kids aged 9-12 through CWC. The theme was one of our faves: pirates!

Kallie and I have taught many camps before, but we wanted to try and do something a little different this time. Even though the goal of the camp was to just immerse kids in creative writing, we decided we needed to give them a goal.

So, we decided to have them produce handmade pirate “journals” that would chronicle the adventure of a character who ends up sailing the seas.

Once we had that decided, it was just a matter of developing and fine-tuning some topics . . .

Day 1: Introduction – What kind of pirate are you?

For the first day, we just warmed up the kids by introducing them to our theme, having them take a fun quiz (What kind of pirate are you?), and doing some writing warm-ups.

Day 2: Plot me a treasure!

We introduced our overall goal, to make a pirate log book and began the project by drawing treasure maps. One of my goals in all of my writing classes is to have the kids work hard on developing better ideas. To this end, I had them complete a brainstorming sheet before they began drawing.

The brainstorming sheet outlined various features they might include on their map and come up with inventive names for them. I find that many young writers will just pick the first name that pops into their head and not give it a second thought. The brainstorming sheet helped them come up with a much more imaginative and evocative world for their journal.


This was also the day the students began handwriting their journals. Many of them chose to do rough copies that they could then copy into their final booklets (after a quick edit, of course).

Day 3: Pirate Particulars

Pirates love clothes, so on Day 3 we had the students approach character design through a strong visual approach. The kids designed a complete pirate wardrobe for a character, including clothes, tools, tattoos, and the ultimate fashion accessory—a pirate pet.


Day 4: ARG! Pirate Lingo

One of the most fun things about pirates is the way they talk, so we led an activity to help students practice pirate lingo.

Day 5: Settings that Sail

This day was all about the ship and the flag. We showed the students diagrams of famous ships from film and literature (my personal favorite being The Dawn Treader), and went over the flags used by real-life pirates.

Afterwards, the students brainstormed and designed their own pirate flags. Once again, I had the students do a few thumbnail designs before committing to a final since this does always seem to turn up the best ideas.


I ended up designing my own pirate flag, too . . . one to go with a book I’m currently writing.


Day 6: Treasure Ahoy!

We had started the camp giving the kids miniature treasure chests loaded with gold, rubies, and pears. On this day, I brought in other pieces of treasure—mirrors, kaleidoscopes, ancients coins, pots, and so forth. Each student picked an object (and many of them were actual antiques) and were asked to describe it using the five senses.

Once we shared our descriptions, the next task was to invent one magical or unusual thing about the object. So, for example, one student decided that a kaleidoscope showed the true path to the pirate treasure and the other decided that the mirror had captured the soul of a wayward sailor.


Afterwards, we did a visualization activity in which the students all shut their eyes and we played the sounds of a ship at sea during a storm. Afterwards, the students wrote about the experience, concentrating on the five senses.

The purpose of this day was to just make sure the students understood the concept of show-don’t-tell and to help them invest more description into their stories.

Day 7: Sea Shanties

This was one of the most fun days in the camp, as we had the students listen to a cargo of sea shanties then craft their own. Some were ballads, some were call-and-response songs, and others were more free form. Also, most of them were about how to drop me, “Cap’n Wiz.”


Day 8: Legends & Lore

This was a day to bring on the sea serpents! We explored real legends and myths of sea creatures and then asked the students to think about their own monsters by drawing and sculpting them out of clay. Of course, afterwards, they could incorporate these creatures into their pirate journals.


Day 9: Message in a Bottle

By now, it must be obvious that we like buidling stuff in our creative writing camps! On this day, the students wrote messages and put them in bottles, which they painted to make them look like they had been adrift for awhile. The story prompt here was that the students’ characters could be sending out a cry for help.

Day 10: Seal ‘Em Shut

This was the day the kids finished up working on their journals. We had a plan to tea-stain the journals, but then were a bit worried about some of the ink smudging. In any case, this is something the kids could do at home.

The main task we wanted to focus on was making sure the covers look interesting. We procured some brown cardstock and had the kids draw on them with metallic markers. We also got some wax to drip overtop so that they could “seal” them with an impression of a skull or some other design.


I’m pretty impressed with the final products and, considering this was the first time we did this project, it turned out rather smoothly.

Well, now it’s time for me to switch gears and turn my attention to my next summer creative writing workshop series: Galaxy Camp!



How a new children’s book series reminded me about the magic of world-building

How a new children’s book series reminded me about the magic of world-building

Author (and friend!) Kallie George recently wrote a guest post on my blog in which she described her world-building process for her brand new children’s book series, The Heartwood Hotel. 

Since that post, Kallie officially launched the series with a fun and engaging event at Kidsbooks, our local bookstore that specializes in catering to young readers.


The launch was a stupendous success. Families were lined up down to block as they waited for the doors to open, clamoring to hear Kallie share her new world. For Kallie, that mean not only mesmerizing the kids with a reading of the first book in the series, but also providing amazing and tangible pieces that were completely interactive.

I was reminded, once again, about the magic that can happen when you really put the “build” into world-building.


In the earlier post on my blog, Kallie talked about using mapping as a way to construct a believable and interesting world. If you haven’t read that post yet, then I really encourage you to do so.


Mapping has long been a key technique that I use in my own writing process, and, as Kallie describes in her post, I helped her map the Heartwood Hotel, too. Personally, I map all kinds of spaces in my books, everything from entire worlds to one-room settings. I find it’s a great way to “stage” a scene and to help make it logical.

These maps don’t need to be slick and professional for the purposes of the author’s writing, but, of course, they can end up becoming the basis for something your publisher can use for the final book.


The kids who turned up to meet Kallie at her book launch were in for a real treat. Kallie and her husband Luke put in many late nights working on a model of the Heartwood hotel–a sort of doll house complete with furniture and accessories.



The only thing missing?  Well, that was the figures. But no worries! Kallie provided wooden peg figures so that the kids could make their own animal critters that were the perfect scale to roam around the Heartwood Hotel environment.


Of course, the kids got to take their peg figures home with them, but I love the idea that they could imagine that they got to stay in the hotel first.


Well, if you’re going on a vacation, you also need a suitcase. Kallie provided miniature suitcase templates that could be cut out and folded into shape.



If you weren’t so lucky as to attend the launch, you can still make your own Heartwood Hotel suitcase. Just head over to the official website to download the template.

The final activity that I wanted to mention was that the kids attending Kallie’s book launch also had the opportunity to leave behind a record of their stay at the Heartwood Hotel by filling out an entry in one of the many pages in the beautiful guestbook created specifically for the book launch.



I thought this was a fabulous idea . . . the kids could base the entry on the peg figure they created, or even put their own name (though, really, no humans are allowed at the Heartwood!). This guestbook really helped immerse the kids in Kallie’s world.

Why put the build into world-building?

If you’re a fantasy author—especially a fantasy author for kids—I think you have a really great opportunity to bring your world to life in every way you can. Maps, dioramas, really can make for a magical book launch or school visit.

Building for your readers

We live in an interactive but highly-digitized world. More than ever, there is something enchanting about kids being able to look at a tangible, three-dimensional prop and to hold it their hands. I can’t tell you the number of times a child has examined one of my dragon eggs or magical potions and asked, “Is it real?”

So, these add-ons can really help attract kids to the worlds you have created or deepen their affection for the love they already have for a story. If you ask me, they are a must for a book launch or school visit!

Building for you

So, making magical potions, building a diorama, sketching a map . . . they might be great for promotion, but what do they do for the book itself? Do they make the words better?

I think so. The writing process can be arduous and taking a break from the screen to build something connected to your world can really help you examine your story from a different angle. I like to think of it as getting to play in my world, but in a different way than using words.

I can recall so many times in which I’ve imagined a magical item, written about it, then built a prop of it, only to realize that the final prop is vastly different than the way I originally imagined it—in a much better way. So, in essence, prop building helps enrich the ideas in my story. When you’re a fantasy writer, that’s critical.

Building for teachers

Kallie and I have worked as creative writing teachers, often in tandem, for many years and we have always taken the philosophy of putting the “build” into world building seriously. We often encourage our students, young and old to draw maps of their worlds, build diorama of key settings, create costume designs for characters, and to find or fashion important props.

Of course, these techniques can also be used to help kids connect to books as readers. In my time as an author, I’ve seen pictures of kids connecting to my worlds through costume, dioramas, and figurines. Recently, one student even made her own history book or “EEN-cyclopedia” of my worlds!

What do you think? If you’re a teacher, do use these techniques? If you’re an author, do you use them? If so, which ones?

More Kendra Peg Figures






Mapping the Heartwood Hotel

heartwood_truehome.jpgAuthor (and friend) Kallie George has taken over my blog for today to talk about her fantastic new children’s book series, The Heartwood Hotel. Below, you’ll get to read Kallie’s discussion about one aspect of her process . . . but before you dive into that, I just want to say that I really love the world she has created in this series.

I was privileged to be a part of her journey as this book—and this world—came to life. As you’ll read below, I helped her map out some of her settings, but I was also lucky enough to read her various drafts of the plots and stories along the way.

When Kallie first told me about her idea (it seems so long ago now!), I instantly thought of one of my favorite childhood series, The Bedtime Story-Books by Thornton W. Burgess.


I loved entering a world where animals were highly anthropomorphized, but still inhabited a world with all the natural dangers of the forest.

Kallie’s new Heartwood Hotel series is much the same. She has teased whimsical personalities from the natural characteristics of her animals and constructed a world where there is delight—and danger—around every bend in the forest trail. I hope you will enjoy her books—and her post about her process, below. Make sure you read all the way to the end to find the link for a chance to win your own copy of her book.

* * *

It’s my pleasure to post on this blog! Lee Edward Fodi is a good friend of mine—and we’ve co-taught many times together through CWC (Creative Writing for Children).

By the nature of spending time together, I’ve had the opportunity to learn from Lee, not only how to be a better teacher, but also how to be a better writer. He’s helped me, too—by designing my website (, reading early drafts of my stories, and even mapping out my settings.

I love to create fantasy worlds that are usually based in one locale. In my Magical Animal Adoption Agency, most of the action takes place in the Agency itself. In Heartwood Hotel, the same is true. The majority of conflicts take place in the hotel.

I don’t map my settings naturally. In fact, when I wrote the first Magical Animal Adoption Agency book, Clover’s Luck, I didn’t make a map at first. However, this led to some big problems. It was my editor at Disney at that time that pointed this out. She asked me if I realized that I had Clover turning a different way down a hall to get to the Small Animals Room in different parts of the story. She asked if I could make a map.

“It doesn’t have to be fancy!” she said. “It can be really rough.”

But I am a perfectionist and, although I am not good at drawing or designing, I knew Lee was, and we happened to be teaching a camp in Korea together at the time. So, I asked him if he would help me create a map for the Agency. Many drafts later, we did.




When I was about to write the Heartwood Hotel, I decided this time I would make a map BEFORE I started, to avoid any logical issues that might arise. That’s one of the best things that a map provides—a guide for you, as a writer, so that you don’t make logical mistakes in your story.

The Heartwood Hotel was also a lot more complicated than the Magical Animal Adoption Agency. It’s a giant hotel in a giant oak, with multiple floors above and below ground.  Lee so kindly sat with me after a camp we were teaching, and although he was bone-tired, we worked together on the layout.

I remember some of our questions:

  • How to fit everything in the one tree?
  • What is the scale? (IE. How big does the door have to be if a badger is the owner)
  • Where does the staircase go?
  • Where does the fireplace go? (Of course, in reality a fireplace inside a tree is a bit crazy, but we decided it has a chimney up through the center)
  • Where are the owner, Mr. Heartwood’s quarters?
  • How can we mimic the look and feel of real fancy lodges? Are all the rooms in a fancy hotel in the Heartwood too?

These are just some of the early sketches that we created.







I used the final map a lot while writing the four books, and it kept me on track. Plus, it also reminded me of some of the interesting rooms in the tree that I wanted to use in later books and chapters (like the salon)!

I’m so grateful to Lee for helping me visualize and create this. World building is one of the most enjoyable parts of creating a story and mapping is an essential component of that. If you are writing a story—I’d highly recommend it!

* * *

page153skunks.jpgAbout the Book:


Kallie George, with illustrations by Stephanie Graegin

Release Date: July 3, 2017
Pages: 176
Publisher: Disney-Hyperion
Formats: Hardcover, paperback, eBook

Find it: Goodreads | Amazon | B&N | iBooks | TBD

When Mona the Mouse stumbles across the wondrous world of the Heartwood Hotel in the middle of a storm, she desperately hopes they’ll let her stay. As it turns out, Mona is precisely the maid they need at the grandest hotel in Fernwood Forest, where animals come from far and wide for safety, luxury, and comfort. But the Heartwood Hotel is not all acorn souffl and soft moss-lined beds. Danger lurks, and as it approaches, Mona finds that this hotel is more than a warm place to spend the night. It might also be a home.

This delightfully enticing start of a new chapter book series tells a tale of friendship, courage, and community, with exquisite black-and-white illustrations throughout..

kalliegeorge05About Kallie:

KALLIE GEORGE is the author of the Magical Animal Adoption Agency series. She works as an author and speaker in Vancouver, Canada, and has a master’s in children’s literature from the University of British Columbia. She also leads workshops for aspiring writers. Kallie happened across the Heartwood Hotel on a hike with her husband. Visit her online at


StephanieAbout Stephanie:

STEPHANIE GRAEGIN received her BFA in Fine Arts from the Maryland Institute College of Art. She later attended Pratt Institute, obtaining a Master of Fine Arts in Printmaking. Stephanie now lives in Brooklyn. Visit her online at or on Twitter @Steph_Graegin.

Website | Twitter | Instagram

Giveaway Details:

Three winners will receive a finished copy of HEARTWOOD HOTEL (US Only). Just click HERE.


Week One:
6/26/2017- YA Book Nerd– Author Post
6/27/2017- Seraphina Reads– Review
6/28/2017- Just Commonly– Review
6/29/2017- BookHounds YA– Author Post
6/30/2017- Once Upon a Twilight Review

Week Two:
7/3/2017- Mundie Kids– Review
7/4/2017- Word Spelunking– Author Post
7/5/2017- Mommy Ramblings– Review
7/6/2017- Batch of Books– Review
7/7/2017- Between the Cracks of Here and There– Author Post


Children’s books with art theme connections—rated by kids

I recently completed the latest edition of the “Picture Perfect” class I teach for CWC. Picture Perfect is a series of workshops in which we explore creative writing by taking inspiration from art history. The students ranged from age 11-14.

As part of this class, we read and discuss different books that connect, in one way or another, to art or art history. The students rated each of book out of ten. Many of these students have been in our program for a long time, so have been taught to be critical in their judments of books. That is to say, they don’t throw around nines and tens very readily!

Below are the books, ranked from lowest rating to the highest. So, keep in mind, this is NOT the order in which we read them. Special thanks to my student, Janice, for being our accountant and tabulating all the scores each week.

If you’re looking for great books connected to the theme of art that are not on the below list, then I’ve put some addition recommendations at the end of the post.

Noonie's Masterpiece16. Noonie’s Masterpiece
Written by Lisa Railsback / Illustrated by Sarajo Frieden
Average rating: 5.5/10

This book features vibrant (and coloured) illustrations, and tells the story of a young artist’s attempt to find her expression. My students didn’t really like the protagonist, whom they found to be too arrogant and self-absorbed. Personally, I think everyone feels that way from time to time . . . so I recommend this book for any young lovers of art.


under_the_egg15. Under the Egg
Written by Laura Marx Fitzgerald
Average rating: 6.6 /10

This book captures the intriguing legacy of art theft, drawing on the real-life Nazi plunder of art treasures during World War II. Theodora accidentally spills rubbing alcohol on her grandfather’s painting and discovers a Renaissance masterpiece underneath. I matched this book with our discussion of art theft. The students wrote a story about a modern day character finding a stolen painting.


Chasing Vermeer14. Chasing Vermeer
Written by Blue Bailliet / Illustrated by Brett Helquist
Average rating: 7.0/10

This book combines an exploration of Jans Vermeer’s artwork with a mystery (fitting, since Vermeer seems to be a figure clouded in mystery himself). There are many clues and codes at work within this book, which I found hooked my immersive mind. Some of my students, however (especially the younger ones) were too frustrated by this particular aspect of the book. This book made an obvious connection to our study on the golden age of Dutch Art.


04-usbornebookoffamouspaintings13. The Usborne Book of Famous Paintings
Written by Rosie Dickens
Average rating: 7.1/10

This is the book I used to kick-off the workshop series. It’s nonfiction and provides an introduction to art history. It is especially good for those students who are new to the subject. I also used this book as a springboard for an activity in which each student presented a favourite painting.


theodosia12. Theodosia and the Serpents of Chaos
Written by R.L. LaFevers
Average rating: 7.2/10

Taking place in the early 1900s, this book tells the story of Theodosia, an expert detector of Egyptian curses. I chose this book to match up with Egyptian art. For a writing activity, we wrote a two-part story. The first part described an Egyptian character living a normal life, and ended with that character’s death. Part Two was that character going through the embalming process and entering the after life. We also made miniature mummies!


plain_kate.jpg11. Plain Kate
Written by Erin Bow
Average rating: 7.2 / 10

Kate is a master wood-carver who lives in a Medieval-era world and is left to look after herself after her father dies. Her cat, Taggle, pretty much steals the story—delightfully so. Once her shadow gets stolen, the adventure really picks up. I chose this book to match up with our exploration of Medieval Art, as it explores that era well, mixing in the idea of superstition.


elsewhere.jpg10. The Shadows (The Books of Elsewhere, Book 1)
Written by Jacqueline West
Average rating: 7.3 / 10

Eleven-year-old Olive moves into a dilapidated old mansion and finds a way to enter the paintings that are hanging on the walls. There are some wonderful side characters in this novel—a trio of cats, whom became class favoirites. I matched this book with a writing assignment in which a character enters a painting and visits a world on “the other side.”


Mixed-Up Files9. The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler
Written and Illustrated by E.L. Konigsburg
Average rating: 7.5 / 10

This is a classic book, and one that I really love. It tells the story of a sister and brother who decide to run away from home and live in the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art. During their stay, then become immersed in a mystery about the authenticity of a statue supposedly carved by the Renaissance master Michelangelo. I matched this book with our exploration of Renaissance Art. For a writing activity, the students wrote a first-person story that took place over a single day, from dawn to dusk, and was about an apprentice of a Renaissance Master. The key was that the apprentice is harbouring a significant secret from the master.


single_shard8. A Single Shard
Written by Linda Sue Park
Average rating: 7.5/10

This Newbery Medal-winning book takes place in twelth-century Korea and tells the story of Tree-Ear, a thirteen-year-old orphan who is given a quest to deliver an example of his master’s pottery to the royal court. I really loved the description of Potter Min sculpting his pottery. I chose this book as a way to broaden our discussion of Asian art (as so much of our course was focused heavily on Europe).


paper_house7. Paper House
Written by Lois Peterson
Average rating: 7.6 / 10

Ten-year-old Safiyah lives in the Kibera slum of Nairobi and brightens her life by making collages from pages of discarded magazines. This books was a good way to approach the subject of the healing power of art. I chose this book to match with one of our many discussion on Modern Art.


06-carnationlilylilyrose6. Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose: The Story of a Painting
By Hugh Brewester / Illustrated by John Singer Sargent
Average rating: 7.7/10

This book is sort of like a scrapbook, chronicling the true story of how John Singer Sargent’s famous painting, Carnation, Lily, Lily Rose, was created. It includes reproductions of the artist’s sketches and cartoons and is told from the perspective of young Kate Millet, one of the painter’s would-be models. For an activity, we tried making our own painting and then students wrote about the experience.


02-chroniclesofharrisburdick5. The Chronicles of Harris Burdick
Written by 14 different authors / Illustrated by Chris Van Allsburg
Average rating: 7.7/10

With a foreward by Lemony Snickett and stories crafted by many stalwarts of the children’s literature scene, there’s hard not to find something to like in this book. Many teachers use this book as a basis for creative writing activities. In this workshop, we actually didn’t, but we did discuss what illustrations we liked the best, and which ones we thought offered the most fuel for a writer. For our actual activity, we experimented with lucid dreaming; I induced a sleep-state in the students, then, afterwards, they free-wrote for fifteen minutes.


01-gatheringblue4. Gathering Blue
Written by Lois Lowry
Average rating: 7.9 / 10

Left orphaned and crippled in a dystopian future that shuns and discards the weak, Kira is faced with an uncertain future. But when her talent as a weaver is discovered, she is offered a new hope—and a frightening glimpse at the workings of her society. We discussed this book towards the end of our program, to match with our explorations of future directions of art.


mangoshapedspace3. A Mango-Shaped Space
Written by Wendy Mass
Average rating: 8.1/10

This is a coming-of-age novel, but with a twist. Mia has synesthesia, a condition in which her perceptions are intermingled so that she can see sounds, smell colors, and taste shapes. The problem is that she has kept the condition hidden—even from her parents—for her entire life. We discussed this book towards the end of our workshop series. It was a good match with our explorations of Modern Art.


wolf_brother2. Wolf Brother
Written by Michelle Paver
Average rating: 8.2 / 10

Set 6,000 years ago, this story chronicles the journey of twelve-year-old Torak and his wolf companion as they set about to restore balance to their world after dark forces encroach. I chose this book to help put the students in the mindset of prehistoric times. For an activity, we painted on rocks with basic pigments and wrote stories in which we imagined the first person to paint on a cave wall in his or her society.


with_malice1. With Malice
Written by Eileen Cook
Average rating: 8.4 / 10

This book had the least connection to art out of our entire collection, but I included it because I knew my students would love it. Eighteen-year-old Jill visits Italy for an exploration of art and culture, only to experience a deadly accident that leaves the reader guessing the real truth behind the event. My students and I successfully identified the city that is featured on the cover (Vernazza) and had it confirmed via twitter by the author!


Well, there you have it! I have some hard reviewers, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t like (or in some cases, LOVE) these books. Of course, I encourage you to check them out.

Other books on the theme of art and art history that we didn’t read in this workshop, but which I have taught in the past:

The Hound of Rowan: Book One of The Tapestry
By Henry H. Neff

The Blackhope Enigma
Written by Teresa Flavin

Lunch Money
Written by Brian Clements

A Nest for Celeste
Written and Illustrated by Henry Cole

Written by Elise Broach

The Medici Curse
Written by Matt Chamings