Exploring all the nooks and crannies

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Whew! Yesterday, I wrapped up my last school visit of the year. While I still have some camps and conferences coming up in the summer, I get a little break in my schedule.

It was one of my most hectic seasons in recent memory and, as I reflect, I’m very thankful that I have been given the opportunity to work with so many kids and to explore so many different parts of the world—both close to home and afar—that I may not otherwise visit.

In my home province of British Columbia, I worked as a writer-in-residence at schools in Sechelt and in Surrey, and as an artist-in-residence in Coquitlam—where we built a hatchery’s worth of dragon eggs.

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I visited many schools in my home city of Vancouver, including one where many of the students dressed up as Kendra Kandlestar . . . check out all those braids!

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At another school in West Vancouver, the classroom produced an entire “EENcyclopedia” board and booklet, build off the characters, creatures, and settings in the Kendra Kandlestar books.

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I also participated in two separate school tours this spring. The first took place in the central Okanagan Valley, with schools in Kelowna and West Kelowna. It was nine schools and a bookstore in one week! The second tour was built around my appearance at the the Vancouver Island Children’s Bookfest, which entailed visiting many different schools in the city of Nanaimo and its neighboring communities. During that trip, I was taken to the hidden gem known as Protection Island.

There are no stores or businesses on the island, except for a pub situated on the docks. I had never even heard of the island and, if not for the festival, probably never would have. It is a charming place . . . sort of reminding me of Tom Sawyer’s Island. In particular, I loved seeing the heron nesting site.

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Recently, I was also given the opportunity to present at the school in Stewart, BC. This is a very remote community on the border of the Alaskan panhandle. It’s small—in fact, I’ve presented at schools that have more people than the entire town of Stewart. But it is a gorgeous place. Getting there involved a 1.5-hour flight, followed by a four-hour drive through beautiful scenery. It was during this trip that I got to see my very first glacier.

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A big highlight of the fall was presenting at the Surrey International Writers’ Conference. This is an event of rare characteristic. Where else do you get to hang out for three solid days with so many creative people in the same hotel. A sort of culture sinks into that place. It’s exhilarating and exhausting all at once. Especially, when they introduce costume events . . . because I’m just not the sort of person who can mail it in!

Here’s a photo of myself and my buddy, kc dyer, as steampunk fairytale characters!

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As for out-of-province, I had the opportunity to speak at the Package Your Imagination conference in Toronto, which also involved doing some library visits, including at the beautiful and historic Wychwood Library. That’s my bag and coat sitting on the ledge in the photo. And, of course, in the bag, is one of my dragon eggs. In retrospect, I can’t believe I left it that far out of reach—even for a moment!

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And here’s me doing actual work at the conference itself, where I discussed world-building for the middle-grade novel:

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I also had the opportunity to teach a creative writing camp with my wife, Marcie Nestman, in Korea just after Christmas. One of our favorite moments was waking up on New Year’s Day in Seoul and going to explore the Bongeunsa Buddhist Temple, which was only a few minutes’ walk from our hotel. It was a very spiritual way to begin the year.

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I really want to thank all the people who hosted me: the teacher-librarians, the public librarians, the classroom teachers, the festival and conference organizers, the billets, the volunteers, . . . wow! Without all of you, I’d never get anything done. And, also, there are the PACs and the Canadian Council for the Arts that helps to fund all of these endeavors. I really hope I could help inspire and invigorate our children this past year.

Now, for a bit of R&R before it all starts up again in September!

 

In which I survive my most recent tour and visit a magical island

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I recently  made it back from a second tour in three weeks, in which I visited eight schools in four days, followed by a day of presentations at the Vancouver Island Children’s Bookfest. You can only get to Vancouver Island by ferry, so I opted to drive over with my car so that I could cart all my various props and supplies.

What supplies? Well, for one, that included my Tour Survival Kit. I knew it was going to be a tough slog, energy-wise, just because I had come off another recent (and hectic) tour of schools, so I prepped a kit that included:
~ throat tea
~ vitamins (echinacea, golden seal extract, vitamin C)
~ coffee
~ cereal bars
~ hand sanitizer
~ more coffee

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Unfortunately, just before heading out, I caught a bug and that really played havoc with my voice. Without the benefit of days off or rest, I had no choice but to just plow straight ahead and squeak like a teenager going through puberty.

Thankfully, I was billeted for the week with one of the festival volunteers. Laurie tended to me like a nurse, which helped me make it through all those school visits. One day, I headed off to my school without my thermos of tea and when I came out into the parking lot, there she was, waiting with it! Now, that’s dedication!

It’s a challenge doing this kind of tour because it not only involves during several presentations in one week, but doing them at several different schools a day. For an author such as myself, who loves his props, that means a lot of quick set up and tear down, not to mention all the driving in between. Luckily, I have all of this down to a fine art.

Throughout the week, I did a variety of brainstorming activities at the schools. We often brainstormed doors, but we also did creatures and entire worlds. I even got to spend a couple hours talking archetypes with Grade 6s and 7s at Queen Margaret School in Duncan.

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Doing so many presentations in a condensed period of time takes its toll on me physically, but mentally as well. It’s fun brainstorming with kids, but it fires up my imagination. By the time I am finished for the day, my brain is percolating like a pot on the stove and I feel the urge, despite my exhaustion, to create.

One way I tried to purge my brain of all the creative clutter was to do some character naming. I ended up generating a long list of names for background characters in a world I’m building. That seemed to be able to settle my mind down enough to get some sleep.

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By the time Saturday rolled around, the day of the Book Festival, I felt I had made it over the hump. My voice was holding out, and I could see the light at the end of the tunnel. I did two presentation/workshops at the festival, and was delighted to have my room teeming with kids and parents. For the festival day, I decided to try something I hadn’t quite done before, and that was brainstorming a magical market with the kids. I’ve done this sort of workshop before, but it’s usually with more time, and in a more classroom-style setting. This was the first time I did it with the sort of raw brainstorming approach. Thankfully, the kids (and parents) embraced the activity and we ended up with many fun and lively shelves full of all sorts of magical items, strange foods, and bizarre curios.

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One of the most fun things about going on this sort of tour is all the people you get to meet. I really enjoyed meeting my billet, Lauri. Her home has a very cool vibe to it, for it is full of treasures such as old-fashioned school desks, antique cameras, and typewriters. Laurie saw how enamored I was with her collection so bequeathed to me one of her typewriters.

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Of course, there were many other people to meet: all the librarians, book vendors, and other volunteers who helped make the festival a possibility. There were many other authors and artists to meet as well. This year’s presenters were Celestine Aleck, Scott Chandler, Eugenie Fernandes, Suzanne de Montigny, Ruth Ohi, Chieri Uegaki, Richard Van Camp,  and Cybèle Young.

I had met some of these creators at past festivals and events, so it was great to see old acquaintances again. (If you have ever met Ruth Ohi, then you know she pretty much takes the party with her. There’s a certain shake in her soda).

As a special treat, we were taken out to nearby Protection Island, which is a short ferry ride from Nanaimo. Protection Island is a real treat. I’m pretty sure it’s enchanted.

First of all, the ferry is for passengers only; no cars. So any cars on the island itself had, at one time, to be barged over. In fact, there are no stores on the island, not even a small one. The only business at all is a pub (well, I guess they got their priorities right). So, the people who live there have to bring everything over on the passenger ferry (that includes canisters of petrol for their cars).

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That means the island is quiet and peaceful; no urban noise, no cutter for the ears. The island and its views are stunning, and we had a wonderful dinner hosted by residents Dora and Jerry who founded the Children’s Book Festival many moons ago. As I said, I feel like there’s a rumbling of magic on this island. It also sort of reminded me of Tom Sawyer’s island; it just had that sort of vibe.

I especially enjoyed seeing the heron nesting site. Apparently, the herons themselves have moved on, but you can still see the evidence of their habitation.

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My deepest thanks to all the organizers, volunteers, and administrators who helped make Bookfest Nanaimo 2017 such a success. Also, my thanks to the Canada Council for the Arts, whose funding helped make my participation possible. It was a rewarding week full of adventure and inspiration!

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Designing a doorway to Storyville

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I’m just at the tail-end of a tour of schools in the cities of Kelowna and West Kelowna. The schedule has been intense, as I’ve been often delivering four workshops a day spread across two different schools.

At each school, I delivered a different brainstorming project, depending on the age of the audience and my allotted time. For the youngest students (the kindergartens and Grade 1s) I led a round of Monster Design 101, while for the older students we either mapped a hero’s journey across a fantastical landscape or designed a magical doorway. Any of these activities serve as an excellent springboard into a story. In each case, the students complete their own individual brainstorming sheet while simultaneously contributing to an overall group one.

The result is always distinctive and unique . . . and always a concoction of wonderful ideas.

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Even though part of my brain was exhausted by week’s end, another part was percolating with ideas. In my very last visit of the week, the students and I group-designed this particular door:

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I decided to take inspiration from it and write my own story, which I present below. It doesn’t match the door design exactly, but, as I always tell my workshop participants, brainstorming isn’t your boss. It’s just your guide and you need to feel free to veer off in different (and hopefully better) directions.

* * *


Time for Dinner

Tom raced down the street, school bag clattering on his back as he headed home. Coach had kept them behind for extra time and now he was going to be late for dinner. Again. And tonight Mom was making his favourite: spaghetti.

He was salivating over the thought of those home-made meatballs when he passed by the alley and came to a screeching halt. His older brother Daniel had warned him to never go down there, but that was Daniel for you. He thought he was the Boss of Everything. Besides, the alley was a shortcut home. Tom didn’t hesitate—meatballs were waiting for him!

He scampered into the alley and found himself in a narrow space with moody shadows clutching at him from either side. But other than that, it really wasn’t that scary. It was even pleasantly—and surprisingly—warm.

He was halfway through when he came upon the door.

That brought him to another stop. Because this wasn’t the type of door you encounter in everyday life. To begin with, it had a peculiar shape. The bottom was normal enough, starting in a rectangle, but at the top it branched off into different directions before tapering into five distinct points. Taking a step back to gain a better view, Tom realized it looked just like a claw. The door’s slats of wood appeared as if they had been once painted a bright red, though now very little of the color was left—just a tattered and peeling curl here and there. Otherwise, the door was mostly bare and grey, though two ornamental hinges danced whimsically across the wood in the curling shapes of dragon tails. They looked like they had once been a bright and proud black, though now they were so corroded by rain and time that long streaks of green dripped from them like poison tears.

There was a small doorknocker set in the middle of the door. It was in the shape of a face and was clenching a heavy ring of metal in its teeth. It had a wide-eyed expression; Tom decided that it looked surprised to see him. Then he looked down at the door handle. It had a round knob with a curlicue pattern.

Tom reached out for the knob, only to hear, “Mrumphff rumff rphray!”

Tom dropped his school bag and leapt backwards, eyes darting. Who had said that? The alley was completely deserted. Then Tom’s eyes wandered back to the door and he saw the doorknocker quivering, its lips contorting desperately around the heavy metal ring its mouth.

“Mrumphff rumff rphray!”

It was as if it was trying to talk—though all too ineffectually.

Tom tugged at one of his ears. This can’t be happening, he thought. He stared down towards the end of the alley, where he could see the sun beginning to set overtop the rooftops in his neighborhood. Just around the corner and down the street was his house. And spaghetti and meatballs.

Better to just go home, he thought.

“Mrphymmmhhh . . .” the doorknocker said with a sigh.

Then again, spaghetti and meatballs happened every week. A talking door? That could be a once-in-a-lifetime event.

No wonder Daniel warned me to stay away from here, Tom told himself. Maybe he wanted to keep this magical door to himself.

He reached for the handle again. The doorknocker grunted and grimaced, still trying to talk, still making no sense. Tom turned the doorknob and yanked. It screeched in complaint and held fast; no one had surely opened the door in ages. That’s when he noticed the keyhole below the knob.

“Hmm,” Tom murmured.

He stepped back and contemplated the door anew.

Suddenly, there was a metallic creak. It came from a metal letter slot that Tom had not yet noticed, set a few inches below the doorknocker. Something was working its way through the narrow flap. Tom furled his brow and watched in curiosity as a piece of paper edged out. When it was all the way through, it fluttered to the ground.

Tom stooped to pick it up. It was old and thin, scorched and torn around the edges. In ragged writing, someone had scrawled in dark red ink: HELP ME.

“What the!?” Tom gasped. He let the paper dropped back to the littered ground of the alley. “Who is me?

He tried to open the mail slot with his finger, but it didn’t offer any view of what lay beyond. He put his ear to the surface of the door and felt heat radiating from the wood. But he could hear nothing except for the desperate pleading coming from the doorknocker.

I guess it’s asking for help—that’s what it’s trying to say, Tom thought. He could see a very intense look in that doorknocker’s eyes—well as intense as you could get for something that wasn’t exactly . . . alive.

Tom began to pace the alley. What to do . . . what to do . . .

He was just about to give up on the whole venture when he noticed the oddly-colored brick in the wall, next to the door. Most of the other bricks were grey and rough. But this one was blueish. Upon closer scrutiny, Tom decided that it was even glowing slightly. He reached out, hesitantly, and touched the brick.

“Mrumphff rumff rphray!”

The brick slid outwards, coughing with dust as it did so. Tom had to stand on his tip-toes to see the top of it. There, nestled in a perfect coffin-like hollow, was a large brass key.

“Cool,” Tom murmured as he reached in and tugged the key loose. It was heavy and old-fashioned, and felt cool in his hands. Tom decided to not waste another moment. He plugged the key into the door and cranked the knob, allowing himself a self-congratulatory smile as he did so.

Yes, he was very clever, he decided. He had discovered the hidden key in the bricks. Could Daniel have done that? Well, he hadn’t, because otherwise Tom would have heard about it. For once, Tom was going to be the hero. For once, he was going to reap the reward.

Slowly, the door groaned inward. Craning his neck, Tom peered inside. All he could see was a murky black tunnel.

It did not look inviting—certainly not as inviting as spaghetti and meatballs.

“Mrumphff rumff rphray!” came the muffled cry from the doorknocker from what was now the other side of the open door.

Tom took a step backwards. Maybe this wasn’t a good idea after all. Then, from the depths of the tunnel, came an unearthly, sibilating rumble. A sharp and stinging odour reached his nostrils; it smelled like soot or burning metal, like a car trying to screech to a halt with warn-out brake pads. Tom took another step back, only to suddenly feel the door whack him in the back as it slammed shut. Tom tumbled forward, into the pitch black, and landed roughly on ground littered with what felt like pebbles and sharp sticks. He could feel the tiny shards digging into his skin. He clutched one of the sticks and held it up to his face for closer inspection, but he couldn’t discern any detail in the darkness.

Then he heard the growl again. It came thundering through the tunnel, so loud and ominous it was like being grabbed by the pit of the stomach and turned inside out. Tom quickly scrambled to his feet and pressed himself against the now-shut door. He was still clutching the stick in one hand, but with his other, he reached behind him and fumbled for the doorknob. His hand found it, jiggled it, but it was locked shut.

Then, out of the blackness, a pair of amber eyes, appeared. They were shot through with red veins and punctuated by two knife-blade irises. Tom gulped. He may have even tried to scream, but no sound left his throat. Those eyes grew larger, closer. They cast a dim light in the cavern. Tom slowly lifted the stick he was clutching in his hand, as if it might somehow protect him.

It was only then he realized that it was a sliver of bone.

* * *

A few moments later, a wet and satisfied belch reverberated out of the alleyway and through the streets of the neighborhood. It was so loud it could be heard all the way to Tom’s house.

“What was that?” Tom’s mother wondered as she sat down at the dinner table.

“Who knows in this town,” Daniel replied as he plowed into his heaping plate of spaghetti and meatballs. “The better question is: What happened to Tommy this time?”

Tom’s mother sighed. “Late for dinner. AGAIN.”

Though, from a certain point of view—and, for the sake of argument, let’s just call that the point of view of a certain doorway lurking in a certain alleyway—Tom wasn’t late at all.

He was right on time.

In which we take a field trip to the art gallery

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I’m now knee-deep in my series of workshops through CWC called Picture Perfect: Exploring Creative Writing through the Lens of Art History. We’ve made it through the Medieval Ages, explored the Renaissance, and finished off Mannerism just before the start of Spring Break.

One thing that has kept coming up is that very few of my students have visited an actual art gallery. I’ve been fortunate enough to visit many in my time, including heavyweights such as the National Gallery in London, the Uffizi in Florence, The Louvre and Orsay in Paris, and the Chicago Art Institute. Well, we don’t have the budget to whisk my students off to of those vibrant centers of art and culture, but I decided we could arrange a trip to the local Vancouver Art Gallery.

In comparison to some of the galleries I mentioned above, the Vancouver Art Gallery is small and humble. They have plans to move to a new location that will enable them to massively expand their offerings, but for now, what we have is the current location in the former provincial court house. Personally, I love the building and its old-school architecture.

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So, I suggested the extracurricular trip to my program coordinator and she offered it to the parents of my students. Many of them (and their siblings) decided to sign up and then I was suddenly faced with the quandary of how to make the experience a successful one.

First off, I thought I could use the small footprint of the Vancouver Art Gallery to my advantage. It would allow me to introduce my students to the art gallery experience without overwhelming them.

So, good—I could contain the experience, and not worry about losing anyone in a cavernous gallery. But the more pressing problem I dwelled upon had to do with technology. Most of my students can barely go three minutes without checking their phones. To me, that type of addled behavior is not conducive to immersing oneself in art.

So, my first instinct was to ban their devices. Then, after some contemplation, I decided to take the exact opposite approach and structure the visit in such a way to allow them to embrace technology—specifically social media.

Most of my students are heavy Instagram users. They even set up a group tag for the class on their own, without my prompting. So, I decided to leverage this and came up with a series of hashtags. I then asked the students to try and find shots to fill these categories as they went through the gallery. These hashtags ranged from sentiments such as #mademefeellikesinging to simple gut reactions such as #wow.

Of course, I provided the students with a few other guidelines, too: Don’t rush, or if you feel the need to rush, don’t pester others to keep up with you. Go at your own pace. And, besides your phone, bring a notebook and a pen so you can make some notes or do some writing if you feel so inclined.

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Now that all is said and done, I feel the trip was ultimately a success. I was able to interact with my students in an environment outside of the classroom and engage in some interesting conversations about the different art we experienced. The gallery featured some traditional West Coast Salish art, some modern installation pieces and, of course, what it is best known for—the beautiful dreamlike canvases of Emily Carr. (Incidentally, that’s the part of the gallery I hunkered down in and did some of my own writing.) There was something for everyone.

The hashtag experiment worked pretty well. It gave the students something to chew on, and a bit of a quest. Many of them did in fact post their pictures on Instagram with the hashtags and, of course, my wife Marcie and I made sure to play along, too.

Most of all, it was joyous to see kids making some connections and finding inspiration. After all, what more could you want from a field trip?

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In which a girl with pointed ears and crazy hair gets her own plaque

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Last year I received the exciting news that the first book in my Kendra Kandlestar series, The Box of Whispers, would be a part of the Reading Lights literacy initiative, in which plaques featuring children’s books by BC authors and illustrators  are installed on lamp posts near parks, playgrounds, schools, and libraries throughout the city of Vancouver. This week, the actual plaque was installed at Alma Park near 12th & Dunbar on the west side of the city.

The Reading Lights program represents an exciting collaboration between the Vancouver Public Library and the Children’s Writers and Illustrators of B.C. Society. The first set of twenty Reading Lights plaques were installed in January 2016 and another wave is set to come out in 2018.

Check out the official Reading Lights website, where you can view an interactive map of all the plaques installed for both Phase 1 and 2 of the project. You can even download the map to take with you as you go on a kid-lit hunt!

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The Unexpected Mummy: combining creative writing with art history

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I’m continuing to lead a series of workshops through CWC called Picture Perfect: Exploring Creative Writing through the Lens of Art History.

We started with prehistoric cave art and moved on to ancient Egyptian art. The students built miniature mummies out of clay. Then, after letting them dry for a week, they “embalmed” them with plaster and decorated them with paint and jewels.

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These props inspired the students to write short stories about characters who die unexpectedly and go through the mummification process. The hitch was that they had to write the story from the first person point of view, which meant describing what it feels like to die and enter the Egyptian afterlife.

Here are the final version of their props. In addition to many human mummies, we ended up with a falcon and a couple of cats. Some students chose to do mummies with luxurious decoration, while others took a more humble approach. It all depended on the character situation in the individual story.

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