My latest middle-grade book is called Spell Sweeper, published by HarperCollins Children’s Books.
Release feels like a long way off (the book is coming out as hardcover, ebook, and audio book in November 2021), but I wanted to provide some insights into my inspirations. Spell Sweeper is very different from anything else I’ve had published. It’s written in first-person present-tense and is set firmly in this world (as opposed to my other books, which take place in completely made-up worlds).
So here’s a little background . . .
Who in their right mind writes a book about wizard school?
What a dangerous enterprise! To the masses, the Harry Potter books are so popular and authoritative that many give J.K. Rowling credit for single-handedly inventing the concepts of wands, wizards with long white beards, owls as familiars, the Chosen One and many other fantasy tropes. (This is a testimony to the power of her characters, settings, and world building.)
Instead of trying to ignore this behemoth of a series, I tried to play upon it, giving my main character Cara Moone a slightly satirical tone as she confronts certain tropes in her adventures and, depending on her mood, is either impressed by them being fulfilled or miffed that they have been contradicted.
Of course, I wasn’t thinking only of Harry Potter, but of the long line of fantasy books, movies, and TV shows that populate this genre (though at the same time understanding that for many of my readers, their own references may go no further than Rowling’s books). I was thinking about Jane Yolen’s Wizard’s Hall, The Little Broomstick by Mary Stewart, The Worst Witch by Jilli Murphy, Kiki’s Delivery Service by Eiko Kadono, T.H. White’s The Once and Future King, The Chronicles of Narnia, Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books, Star Wars, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Firefly . . . the list goes on. I was thinking of how often we find these common (and cherished) tropes of a mentor, a magical talisman used to finish the quest, a prophecy of a chosen one.
I am particularly fascinated by the concept of the Chosen One. If you’re interested in exploring the roots of this archetypal character, then I suggest you check out the excellent two-part series from the IDEAS podcast:
The Chosen, Part 1
The Chosen, Part 2
Now, onto my specific inspirations . . .
My own experience of a magical school
In 2004, I met a like-minded dreamer named Joon-hyoung Park who was seeking a writing program for his daughters to take. He couldn’t find the right type of workshop, so he decided to invent one—and he wanted my help. The next thing you know, Joon and I had started a creative writing program in Vancouver for immigrant kids from Asia (our own school of magic!).
Our workshops blossomed and bloomed, and now we host many programs for kids from all walks of life. We write stories, draw pictures, brew potions, build dragon eggs—you name it!
My wife and I have enjoyed an additional privilege—the opportunity to visit Asia to teach creative writing at schools, libraries, and education centers (I’ve been to Korea over twenty times!). Reading the stories by these creative kids—and about their dreams, desires, and fears—has definitely played a role in the creation of Dragonsong Academy. (By the way, it’s no exaggeration to say that our teaching experiences led us to Japan, and our son Hiro, in 2018.)
Over the years, I’ve met a lot of Harry Potter fans, but my students, being largely from an Asian background, always had trouble finding themselves in the books. (Yes, there’s Cho Chang, but as far as I’m concerned, she doesn’t get to do any of the fun stuff.) So, one thing I wanted to do was to populate my school with characters that represent and reflect my students (and, for that matter, my son). These aren’t just side characters, but ones who are talented and powerful and often get to lead the charge.
The other common feeling I’ve observed in my students is a yearning to be popular and famous, whether it be in their families, at their schools, or on the Internet. Cara is like so many of us; she feels inadequate and is constantly pestered by those “why not me?” or “when is it my turn?” moments. The thing is that Cara has actually already “made it”, being one of the lucky few who gets to go to wizard school. The catch is that she views herself at the bottom of the pecking order. As a MOP (Magical Occurrence Purger), she’s left to clean up the magical residue left behind by “real” wizards.
This concept of how we view ourselves—our luck, our privilege, our role—is something that I really wanted to investigate in this book, and it’s my hope that Cara’s journey rings true for readers.
My fascination with brooms
Speaking of being lucky, I’ve had the good fortune to visit the castle in England where they filmed many of the scenes for the Harry Potter movies. My wife and I went to Alnwick Castle way back in 2014 and we took “broom flying” lessons.
For the record, I did poorly:
After that trip, I began seeing brooms. Everywhere. There was always one leaning against a park bench or in the corner of a temple, as if impatiently waiting for its owner to return. I wasn’t sure why exactly, but I felt there was a hint of magic happening with these brooms. Maybe they belong to a wizard who had just plonked down and darted off to fetch a tea. Or maybe they were abandoned during a scuffle with a dark adversary!
Truth is, I didn’t contemplate these broom encounters too deeply at the time. Instead, I just made sure to note them, take photographs, and make notes in my brainstorming journal, mostly because that’s what I’ve trained myself to do: pay attention to the things that spark me.
Eventually, another memory was resurrected in my mind: my grandfather used to make his own brooms! He grew the broomcorn, harvested it, and bound them to broomsticks. I never saw my grandfather build a broom (I really wish I had), but I realized I had one of his creations in the dusty corner of my closet. On a subsequent visit to my parents, I scavenged their house to find they had their own collection of my grandfather’s handmade brooms. They all have the same humble construction—and, if you ask me, their own type of magic. Clearly, these brooms have been lingering in my subconscious all these years, waiting for me to tell their story.
But one thing I knew is that I did not want to write a story in which brooms were used for flying. I kept wondering what brooms could do in a magical world if they weren’t for zipping wizards and witches from Point A to Point B.
Of course, the answer eventually became obvious . . . and Spell Sweeper was born.