Mapping magic: discovering the path to story success

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!


The doorway to adventure . . . and to writing!

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.

Secret doorways, spellbinding shopping trips, enchanted trees—and more!

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.

Traveling with kids—going downhill!

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?

The magic of Livraria Lello

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.

When you find a big hole . . . go down it

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.

Inspirational doors

I leave you with some of my favorite doors from Portugal.

Travelling with child—and trying to find inspiration along the way

One of the key ways I find inspiration as an author is by travelling—nothing quite stimulates my creative juices wandering through a dungeon or getting lost in a maze in a foreign country. Travels have been few and far between for my family the last few years, but we recently were gifted flights to Europe (and some free accommodation with friends and family), so we wanted to make the most of it—in other words, we wanted to do all the usual things we’ve always done on our past trips to Europe, Korea, China, and Southeast Asia. That means wall-to-wall exploring, every single day.

However . . .

One significant thing has changed since our last major trip, though: we now have a child. Before the pandemic, we actually did a major international trip to Korea and Japan with our son, but he wasn’t even walking back then, so that was enough to curtail our ambitions.

But he’s five now, so we thought we could revert to our old ways: see everything, go everywhere, and adventure it up.

Yes, we were that naïve!

The first part of our trip was in Spain and reality sank in for me when we visited the Picasso Museum in Barcelona. Hiro and I look at artwork all the time at home (I highly recommend the Daily Art app!), and we’ve visited art installations and galleries in Vancouver . . . which is all to say that I thought I had sufficiently and cleverly laid out the groundwork for a visit to the Picasso Museum.


Is this another room of boring?

As soon as we entered, our grumpy five-year-old, at the end of his late-afternoon rope, announced for all to hear: “BOR-ING.” Turning crimson red, I quickly shuffled him along, trying to find a different room to spark him. All I got was, “Is this another room of BOR-ING?” (Of course, as soon as he knew that was getting a reaction from me, he kept it up.)


The other thing that my wife and I realized? We had to do WAY more carrying than we expected. We had been building up Hiro’s stamina, but there were many times when we were on a time crunch to meet an entrance time—or to catch a train—and the easiest thing was to just plonk him on my shoulders.

My back sure paid for that halfway through the trip!

So, I didn’t get the ponder and pontification time that I’m used to. BUT . . . of course, there are so many other positives to travelling with a toddler.

The world through a five-year-old’s lens

I’m the one in the family normally accused of getting sidetracked by a detail (usually a doorknocker), but Hiro often became interested in something I wouldn’t have paid remote attention to—like the designs on the sidewalk.

Or the scale of everything—he had never seen anything quite like the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona. In some cases, I wanted him to appreciate the magic of a moment in a more profound way, but eventually realized he WAS seeing things in a profound way. His own, personal profound way. 

Mapping, mapping, mapping

Hiro has been obsessed with maps since he was old enough to understand what they were. I remember when he was barely two and I had to map out our neighbourhood for him, because he wanted to see our house in context of his world (which, for him at the time, was the neighbourhood).

So, there was a lot of looking at maps at every city and site. Marcie ended up buying him maps of the major cities we went to (even as I write this, he’s sitting near me, studying one of them). 

No photos, please!

You can never predict a kid’s mood when it comes to photos. Sometimes, he loves to pose and ham it up, especially next to my wife. Other times? Well . . . 

On the run

We tried doing a few things that we thought would appeal to Hiro’s interests—the aquarium, the zoo . . . but, really, what he wanted most was to just run around (except when we wanted him to—like, you know, to catch a train).

Barcelona is famous for Guell Park, but we decided to forgo it (Marcie and I had both been there on previous trips) and instead went to Parc del Laberint d’Horta, which featured a beautiful maze. That was something we could all get behind—and lost in. We must have spent two hours there (and not only because we got lost in the maze, but because we wanted to do it more than once).

There’s no bull here

Another favourite experience that we shared was exploring the bull ring in Mijas, the town where our friends live. I have zero desire to witness an actual bull fight, but for a couple of Euros, we could take a self-guided tour through the ring during off-hours. Hiro loved running around the arena. In particular, I loved going down the alleys behind the arena. I have been working on a middle-grade time travel book, and now I’m thinking I might have to write an extra scene to feature my characters ending up in a bull ring back in the day.

Visiting the Mijas bull ring, made me realize how similar gladiator pits and bull rings are. The father of my friend who lives in Mijas did say that bull fighting came from the Romans—I haven’t corroborated that information, but it does make sense to me.

The run of the place

Another successful experience for us was in Seville. We only had one night there, on our way to Lisbon, and because of that, we missed out entry on two of the main sites there, Royal Alcàzar and the Cathedral, because they were sold out. (The reality is that we didn’t want to prebook a lot of things because we quickly learned that we couldn’t predict Hiro’s day). 

However, we did go check out Setas de Seville on the morning of our departure. This is a site built over the old marketplace, part of a revitalization of the area, and it’s a futuristic looking walking platform that provides a 360-degree view of the city. Because we got there so early, we had the run of the place—literally. Hiro did laps around those walkways, and it was all completely safe, so we felt completely at ease. And the views were absolutely stunning.

As mentioned above, we did head to Portugal after Seville, but I leave those adventures for a future post. 

By the way, I normally blog DURING a trip . . . but I simply didn’t have time for that during this one. Once again—travelling with a toddler! I thought I would get more work done on some of the train trips—in one case in particular, I sat down to write and edit some students’ stories, but Hiro wanted me to plug my headphones in and listen in as he watched a movie (Sing).

Inspirational doors

I leave you with some of my favorite doors from Spain. (Yep. I got sidetracked a lot!)

Writer-in-residency, magic & monsters style

I recently wrapped up a writer-in-residency with a group of gifted learners through the Vancouver School Board and Artstarts. Over the course of several weeks, myself and fourteen students came together in a central location to talk writing and reading—and to create.

My teaching partner and I led students (and their characters!) in an epic journey, exploring various facets of storytelling. I had students take each week as a scene, doing my best to slow them down and take each part of their plot as an important “moment.” I wanted them to concentrate on idea-building and the process of story development, as opposed to simply the product.

As part of this approach, I had them work on many hands-on activities over the course of the program. There was plenty of visual brainstorming, but also some prop-building. Students crafted magical creature eggs, created potions from kits I prepared for them (you should have seen our house that day!), and wrote riddles in invisible ink.

I was in a gifted learning programming myself as a kid, so am always extremely grateful to work with classes like these, where we can pursue our passions and explore our imaginations. It’s hard to capture the magic of these situations, but I’ve done my best with a few photographs that I could snap along the way . . .