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.

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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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The Prehistoric Painter

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

I’ve delivered this program several times before, but it continues to evolve. This time around, I was given more weeks than usual to deliver workshop series, so I ended up adding some units. Despite this, I still feel like we are zooming through history and hardly doing anything justice.

For our first project, we explored the very first recorded art that we know of: cave paintings. After viewing images and videos of some of the famous sites from around the world, I introduced a project in which the students could create cave-painting style images on rocks. Afterwards, they were assigned to write a short story about a character who is the first member of a society to paint on a cave wall.

Doing the activity helped them put their minds in the right framework. One of the interesting things about this course has been trying to put everything into context for the young students. For example, they simply weren’t aware that prehistoric and ancient artists (not to mention Medieval ones) had a limited color palette available to them.

Here are some photos of our project in progress . . .

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The dragon hatchery expands

I’m continuing my work as an artist-in-residence with a group of teens at a local specialized learning center. A key goal of the residency is to provide a safe and fun place where the participants can create and do some art therapy.

In the first few weeks, we worked on building and sculpting dragon scales. This quickly migrated into the creation of dragon eggs—a far more ambitious project, and one that requires a great deal of patience.

The students have shown that patience and have enjoyed coming up with the styles, textures, and shapes to go with their eggs. There are many different approaches to this project, as is shown in the photos below . . .

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Many of the students have ambitious ideas and plans for their eggs, so there has been a lot of problem-solving required. Depending on the student’s plan, I’ve had to go and fetch very specific materials or tools to help them achieve their vision. As part of this process, we’ve decided that we should now build “nests” for these eggs. That’s going to be tricky, since I’m sure everyone is going to have a completely different plan . . . but oh, well! That’s what I’m here for.

Quiet moments as a writer-in-residence

Whew! It’s been quite a week, weather-wise. I’m not sure what that groundhog was doing, but I’m convinced Jadis the white witch had wormed her way into our world to spread winter strife. I can’t remember ever having to postpone or cancel a school visit due to weather, and this week I had to do it twice.

That’s turned what was supposed to be a busy week of hustle-bustle into one of hunkering down in the studio to catch up on some personal writing and blogging.

Even though I was supposed to spend today at the inner-city school for my third session as writer-in-residence, instead I’ll show some of the work that my kids did last week.

With my grades 6 and 7 groups, we continued working on our main project based on the idea of a character visiting a market in search of a specific object. I was pleased to see that they had worked on their brainstorming in earnest in the time between my visits.

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This one detail particularly amused me:

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Pesky trolls, always causing problems in the kitchen. Though, I guess the food still smells good, so maybe I’m doing trolls a disservice.

My meager brainstorming worksheet wasn’t enough for some students. They had to gleefully expand into their notebooks to develop their ideas. Whenever I see that, I’m greatly pleased.

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My next phase with the grade 6 and 7 group was to work on world-building. I delivered a workshop on some of the key aspects of creating a world from scratch and, specifically, had them design symbols for the world in which their markets appear.

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The overall goal is that the students will ultimately write a story based on this project, but, truthfully, my main desire is to see them trek carefully through the creative process so that they can understand how a story is developed. It’s not simply a lightning strike of inspiration and then you have a book. You have to take that lightning strike, find many more bolts, then develop, develop, develop.

Of course, I do want the students to do some writing as well, so I gave them the specific assignment of writing a scene in which their character finds their desired object in the market. This is also a new concept to many of them—writing out of order. By concentrating on this one scene, I hope they won’t be distracted by the overall plot and will just focus on good description of their objects, and how it makes their characters feel.

For the grade 4 and 5 group, we are working on a project about doorways. I’ve done this project several times with much success. It’s a fun way for young writers to feel invigorated by an idea. Here is some of the brainstorming that they produced last week . . .

One of my students knew we would be talking doors, so she brought in a key as an inspirational prop. (This girl gets my process!)

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This student leafed through my personal brainstorming book, with my blessing, to steal some ideas for character and place names.

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So, this week is an unexpected break from the school and I’ll head back next week.

I do really love having the opportunity to do repeated visits at the same school. It gives me time to really connect with the students and develop a rapport. I’ve been spending my lunches in the library instead of the staff room, which also gives some students the opportunity to come sit with me and work on whatever they please. This hasn’t been an official part of my residency, but I know there are always those kids who just want to be in a creative space and doodle, brainstorm, and write alongside someone else. In many ways, these times are my favorite part of a residency—those quiet moments working with one or two kids and not really doing anything other than creating.

To cap off, here’s a couple of snapshots of my own brainstorming from this week. I didn’t expect to have so much writing time this week! But when the opportunity arrived, I seized it.

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