A storytelling carnival in Korea

A storytelling carnival in Korea

I recently returned from Korea where I led a week-long creative writing camp for tweens and teens with authors Stacey Matson and Dan Bar-el. We survived the heat (at one point, it was 49 degrees Celsius, with humidity!) and managed to deliver a great program for our students.

Creative approaches to writing

Our creative writing camp was delivered through the Creative Writing for Children Society of Vancouver (CWC) and was designed around the theme of a Storytelling Carnival. This gave us lots of fuel for creative ideas—including gift parcels (in old-fashioned popcorn bags) full of fun activities such as yo-yos, stickers, and circus animal erasers.

At our camps, students usually write a lot of stories and poems, illustrate their work, and build props, working towards the goal of publishing an anthology of their creations.

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Storytelling

This year, we added a whole other factor under the expert leadership of Dan Bar-el: Oral storytelling. Each evening, Dan led “campfire” sessions, in which the kids created stories and practiced telling them. The younger students wrote stories based around the idea of a carnival and did the storytelling in themes. Our older kids took on a greater challenge: their subject was taking traditional Korean myths and telling modernized versions.

Prop-building, steampunk style

One of the main projects I led at camp was helping the students to design and decorate their own steampunk style books. I did this project at local libraries in BC a couple of years ago, and decided to bring it to Korea.

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The idea is that the students not only get a cool notebook by the end of the project, but it can serve as inspiration for a short story. There are plenty of tales of dangerous or forbidden books in the fantasy genre (think of the chained books in Harry Potter), so I thought this would be a good way to stir the imagination.

Here are a few photos of some of their creations:

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Character brainstorming

One of my favorite activities that I led was an interactive brainstorming session. I had the kids brainstorm a character who might participate in the circus, including coming up with all the minute details. As a way to galvanize them, I brainstormed my own character at the front of the group, using their individual suggestions to help build my character.

Here’s my character . . . “poop boy”:

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And here’s a few of the characters the students came up with:

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Afterwards, the project was to write a short “I Am” poem about the character. I decided I would write one based on the group character we developed. Here it is . . .

I am a poop boy

I am a poop boy
Shovelling truckloads of dung
Every
Single
Day.
It never ends.

Lions, monkeys, and elephants
—which is worse?
I can’t tell you.

The monkeys swing above me
Bombarding me with feces.
Sometimes, they even fling it at me,
Forcing me to wear
A handkerchief around my head.

The lions mangle and maul me,
Snatching at me with weaponized paws;
Those razor nails scratch and scrape me
Until I look like shredded paper.

And the elephants?
They leave behind MOUNTAINS of poop.
I wear three masks around my face,
A clothespin on my nose,
Goggles across my eyes,
But nothing seems to work.
The stench always wriggles its way through,
Causing everything to run:
My eyes, my nose, even my ears.

I wish I could run.
Away.

But I can’t
—not if I want to achieve my dreams.
One day, I will stand and strut
In the glare of the bright lights
And be the star of the show
With a crack of my whip
A twirl of my cane
And a tip of my hat.
People won’t call me
Stinky Will anymore.
No, sir!

They’ll look at my fine clothes,
Not handed down to me
From some second-rate clown,
But tailored and hand-stitched
Just for me,
And they’ll call me Ringmaster Will
And all of these poopy problems
Will be just a distant memory.

~

Well, most kids came up with characters far more prestigious than a poop boy! We had a lot of ringmasters, acrobats, and knife-throwers. Having the brainstorming portion completed help them be more detailed in their poems and, also, helped me with editing their work–if, for example, I noticed a dearth of description in their poems, I could point them back to their visual brainstorming.

Many kids took the visual brainstorming to heart and did it for other stories and projects in the camp, too:

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The camp was a lot of work for Stacey, Dan, myself, and our team of counselors, but it was a giant success. No one melted in the heat (even when we made the kids go outside for certain activities) and we’ll soon be publishing our anthology.

Here’s a photo of Stacey, Dan, and I and our students at the end of the camp.

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There was no rest to be had though; immediately after the camp, Stacey, Dan, and I embarked on a tour of libraries in Korea. But more on that in a future post . . .

A galaxy of adventure at the creative writing SPACE CAMP!

A galaxy of adventure at the creative writing SPACE CAMP!

I recently returned from Korea, where, in addition to participating in an award ceremony at the Canadian embassy (read about that here), I led a creative writing camp on the theme of space, along with author Stacey Matson and playwright and actress Marcie Nestman.

Activities to connect writing with space adventure

The purpose of the camp in Korea was simple: inspire kids to write creatively. As such, Marcie, Stacey, and I tried to come up with as many inspirational activities as possible.
Since our theme was space, it wasn’t hard to generate ideas . . .

As an icebreaker, we handed out ordinary objects to kids (such as a fork or spoon) and asked the students to imagine that they had just met an alien and needed to explain the object’s purpose. There was just one hitch: they had to lie!

Intergalactic Explorer Application

In this activity, the students created a character who then had to fill out an “application” to become an astronaut and explorer. This involved a lot of creativity, since students weren’t restricted to imagining human characters!

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The Robot Catastrophe

This was one of the main projects for the camp. I brought a load of recycled junk (picked up at the wonderful Urban Source on Vancouver’s Main Street) and asked the students to choose different parts and gizmos. They then designed a robot with a very specific purpose (such as cleaning, protecting, or cooking). Afterwards, they built a physical model of the robot and did two separate writing assignments.

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The first assignment was to come up with an instruction manual for the robot. The key here was that they had to provide some warnings. This helped set up a problem for the second assignment, in which they wrote a story about a character who bought the robot, but ignored the warning, resulting in a catastrophic situation.

Here’s some pictures of some of the final models . . . they turned out really well!

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The Alien Baby

For this activity, students created their own alien “pom-pom” babies and then wrote a series of diary entries in which they imagined finding the intergalactic visitor. The fun part here, of course, was coming up with all the problems along the way!

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Alien Evidence

As you can see, we tried to weave in different styles of writing throughout the camp. We brought in newspaper writing by having the students creating a non-fiction style article about the discovery of aliens on Earth. To go along with this activity, the students drew “photos” of the evidence . . .

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Space Food

Even aliens need to eat! This activity helped us introduce the five senses to the students. Marcie prepared a box of “alien food” then had the kids sit in a circle while she handed out samples, one at a time. Along the way, the students had to record their responses according to taste, smell, sound, sight, and touch.

Afterwards, they drew on their experiences to imagine their own intergalactic space restaurant. Many of them drew menus to go along with this activity!

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Planet Obliteration, and other fun stuff . . .

Throughout the week, we had the chance to introduce many other activities, such as the visualization of a spaceship crashing, a Space News article, and a whole slew of games connected to our theme. My favorite game was one Marcie came up with: Planet Obliteration. In this game, the students had to use water guns to “destroy” a planet (a bath bomb).

* * *

The camp was a huge success and was capped by a fun ceremony in which we shared our thoughts with the parents of our kids and showed a trailer of the space movie we made. More on that later . . .

 

 

Inspiring young imaginations in Korea

Inspiring young imaginations in Korea

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I recently returned from Korea, where I taught a creative writing camp for kids and presented at the Canadian Embassy in Seoul.

creativewritingcontest_poster.jpgA contest to celebrate Canada150

The event at the embassy was an award ceremony for a creative writing competition that was held in honour of Canada’s 150th birthday. The contest was sponsored by The Korea Herald, Air Canada, the Seoul Metropolitan Government and CWC (the Creative Writing for Children Society of Vancouver, a company I co-founded in 2004).

Contest judged by Canadian authors

Over 200 students from elementary, middle, and high schools across Korea entered the contest and were reviewed and judged by three Canadian authors: myself, Stacey Matson, and Kallie George.

It was a great honour to be a judge and to read through all the diverse entries. The theme was a difficult one; in some way, the entrants had to incorporate the idea of “150.” It was quite entertaining to see how the kids wove this theme into their short stories!

A ceremony at the Canadian embassy

The award winners were announced on July 1 (Canada Day) and the ceremony was held on July 22nd at the Canadian embassy in Seoul. Joon Park, who is the CWC co-founder, Stacey Matson, Marcie Nestman, and I attended the ceremony on behalf of CWC. Unfortunately, Kallie George could not accompany us, but she was there in spirit.

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During the ceremony, we were privleged to meet the contestants and award them their prizes. There were 30 winners in various categories, with the top winner receiving a free round-trip ticket on Air Canada to travel to anywhere in Canada.

After the ceremony, Stacey and I held a Q&A session with the young writers. We were so impressed by their thoughtful and in-depth questions. I’m so proud of all the kids who entered and of their beautiful words that they dared to share.

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All contest winners will have their stories published in an anthology.

For more information, check out the article on The Korea Herald website.

About the Creative Writing for Children Society

CWC is a not-for-profit organization dedicated to enhancing the creativity, confidence and writing capacity of children through tailored writing programs. In CWC’s programs, students are guided by professional authors, illustrators, editors, and actors to write and illustrate their own books, which are professionally desktop published. Founded in 2004, CWC is based in Vancouver, BC.

 

 

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.

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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!

 

 

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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Dragon scales at the Magic, Monsters, and Mystery camp

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I’m currently in Korea where I’m teaching a creative writing camp with my wife, Marcie. Our theme has been magic, monsters, and mystery . . . so, needless to say, we’ve been very dragon heavy.

I decided to share my prop-building passion with the students and have them build dragon scales. I’ve only done this project for myself, so to roll this out in a classroom with over twenty students was like trekking into unknown territory!

I’m pleased to say the project—both the process and the result—turned out very well. Working on the props taught the students a lot of patience and gave them something to work on between writing their stories and poems.

Step 1 was cutting out all the plastic shapes from plastic bottles.

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Step 2 was coating the plastic shapes with the plastering material to build up the thickness and detail.

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At this stage, some students were done with the sculpting and had to just wait for their plaster to dry before painting. Others, however, decided to add extra detailing in the form of acrylic jewels or by adding a layer of leather.

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The final step was to paint. We had to do this in stages, starting with a base coat and then letting it dry before dry-brushing to add extra texture and gradation.

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As you can see, there are some other small props here. We decided to introduce a thief character who wants to pinch something from a dragon, so the students made tools for their thief characters. Some students decided that their thief characters would steal treasure from the dragon characters, while others decided that the thieves would steal part of the dragon—such as a scale!

The final scales turned out really, really well. I find them hauntingly beautiful. Here are just a few of them . . .

Telling our family stories: the box of memories

This week, I held the final workshop in my series on creative writing told through the lens of family stories.

As part of this workshop, we created “memory boxes,” a project we started way back in Class 3. Below are photos of the beautiful boxes created by the students. They are also filled with personal items, but I chose not to photograph the insides—they are personal!

 

They are theirs to keep, but we also used them as a prompt for our last assignment.

In an earlier blog post, I described my own experience of opening my own memory box for the first time in twenty years. So, taking inspiration from that, I had the students imagine a distant descendent stumbling across their own memory boxes and wondering about their original owners.

They then read these stories out loud to their parents and classmates as part of our end-of-term celebrations.

Wow! The stories, like the boxes, were incredible.

 

Telling our family stories: The Raven and the Ring

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In my most recent workshop in my series on family stories, I asked my students to imagine an ancestor who met a famous historical figure. In most cases, this meant the ancestor was completely invented—however, the students needed to make decisions that were plausible. For example, if their heritage was Celtic, it would be very unlikely for them to have met Genghis Khan.

I’ve endeavored to write these assignments myself. So, for this week, I decided to imagine that I had an ancestor who met King Matthias 1, who was the king of Hungary and Croatia in the middle ages.

There are many legends about King Matthias involving a raven and a ring.

One legend says that, one day, King Matthias removed a ring from his finger and a raven grabbed it and flew off. Matthias chased down the raven, slew it to get his ring back, then took the raven as his heraldic emblem.

Another version says that, upon the death of the current king, Matthias’s mother beckoned young Matthias from Prague, where he was at court, by sending a raven with a golden ring from Transylvania. Thus Matthias was crowned and became known as the boy king of ravens. (By the way, “Corvinus” is Latin for raven.)

The ring became his signet seal and, to this day, you can find imagery of a raven with a ring in its beak throughout Budapest. My own photograph from the gates to Budapest Castle is at the top of this post.

My story is below. I chose the name of Jakob for the main character, since that was the name of my paternal great-grandfather, pictured with his family here (my grandfather is the little child in the smock):

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* * *

Jakob stuck his grimy face over the sill of the window and gazed down at the street below. It was a typically busy day in the streets of Buda. Vendors were calling out to ply their wares, horse carts laden with goods rattled over the cobblestones, and citizens from every walk of life crisscrossed as they went about their daily affairs.

Jakob ducked back behind the window and leaned against the wall of the storeroom above the tavern. It was a good place to get out of the cold, or the heat, and to snatch a few winks. The tavern keeper let Jakob and his brother Lukas stay there in exchange for sweeping the floors and cleaning the stables out back.

“Well?” Lukas asked Jackob. “Any sign of her?”

“Not yet,” Jakob replied. “You have to be patient.”

“It’s hard to be patient when you’re hungry.”

Jakob snorted. Like he didn’t know. The smell of fresh-baked bread was wafting up from the streets below, taunting his stomach.

Suddenly, the two boys heard the flutter of wings and a giant black bird alit on the window sill. Jakob and Lukas looked up eagerly. The raven cocked her head in their direction. She was clenching a glinting silver coin in her beak.

Jakob sprang to his feet, held out his hand, and the raven dropped the prize into his waiting palm. Then she hopped onto shoulder, cawing raucously in his ear.

“Yes, Corvina,” Jakob soothed her. “You did well. Who did you prise this treasure from, I wonder? Some careless nobleman? A distracted merchant?”

“Who cares?” Lukas interjected. “Let’s go spend it. My stomach’s growling like a dragon.”

Jakob smiled. Corvina hopped down to his scrawny forearm. She was so heavy, it took considerable strength to keep his arm held up. With his free hand, he stroked her pretty black feathers.

He had found the raven when she was just a fledgling. She had been fluttering along the cobblestone streets of Buda, one wing hanging awkwardly at her side. Jakob had known that it would only be a matter of time before a dog or cat snatched her, so he had scooped her up and taken her back to his hidey-hole. Some of the other street urchins had wanted to snap her neck, pluck her feathers, and eat her for a quick supper. But Jakob had known she wouldn’t offer much succor for the stomachs. She had been so small. So he had decided to train her and keep her as a pet.

It had turned out to be a brilliant idea, because Corvina had turned out to be muchmore than a pet. She was a master thief, filching every glittering bauble, charm, or curio she could get between her beak. Thanks to Corvina, Jakob and Lukas ate better than most orphans.

Jakob went down to the street, purchased a loaf of bread, and met Lukas and Corvina on a grassy knoll overlooking Buda Castle.

“Hey, share with Corvina,” Jakob reprimanded Lukas. The boy was gnawing on his bread like a savage animal. Jakob offered some of his own loaf to the raven, but she immediately squawked for more.

“You give her yours,” Lukas said between mouthfuls. “She’s your bird.”

“And it’s her bread,” Jakob retorted.

Once the meal was finished, the two boys sat back and gazed at the magnificent spires of the castle, reaching into the sky like ornamented fingers.

“Imagine the sorts of treasure Corvina could pluck from there,” Lukas mused.

“I won’t send her in there,” Jakob said. “There’s plenty of soldiers patrolling the walls. They have spears and pikes and arrows. Too dangerous for her.”

But Lukas couldn’t stop thinking about the riches that Corvina could pluck from the wealthy lords and ladies that dwelled within Buda Castle. He hatched a plan.

The next day, while Jakob was working in the stables, Lukas snuck out into the yard, held out his hand, and clucked his tongue, just as he had seen his brother do. It wasn’t long before Corvina fluttered down to a nearby branch and looked at the boy inquisitively. She usually only went to Jakob. But Lukas had kept a few crumbs in his pocket, and now he held them out to coax the raven to his arm.

“Good girl,” Lukas cooed once the raven had hopped down to his shoulder. He glanced over his shoulder to make sure that Jakob hadn’t wondered what he was up to, then snuck out of the yard and made his way towards the castle.

As it happened that day, King Matthias was headed into the town to deliver a speech. So Lukas had not gone very far when he encountered a grand procession leading out of the castle gates consisting of a great retinue of knights, guards, and nobility. And, of course, as part of this great fanfare was King Matthias himself. He was riding a magnificent steed and holding his chin high.

But Lukas did not notice King Matthias’ face so much as he noticed the giant, opulent ring that was on his finger. It featured an enormous gemstone that glimmered enticingly in the sun. There was quite a crowd now, but Lukas carefully worked his way through the throng with Corvina still perched on his shoulder. He eventually reached a tree and scurried up to a low-hanging branch, with Corvina sticking close to his side. From here the boy and the raven had an enviable vantage point of the procession.

Soon enough the king came marching below the branch. There was no ignoring the king’s glamorous ring—not by Lukas or the raven. Indeed, as soon as Corvina spotted the glinting jewel, she plunged down from the branch, landed on the king’s knuckles, and begin tugging fiercely at his jewel.

“What is this? The devil himself!” King Matthias roared. He waved his hand in the air, trying to shake the bird loose, but Corvina would not be denied.

She finally wriggled the ring from the king’s finger and, with the prize secured, fluttered into the sky.

But King Matthias was not to be so easily defeated. He snatched a spear from the nearest guard and with careful aim, hurled the weapon at the escaping bird. It pierced her straight through the torso. With a screech of agony, the raven plummeted downwards, smashing into the street in an explosion of black feathers.

It was at that very moment that Jakob, having just noticed his brother’s absence, came rushing onto the scene. He scooped up the dead raven and watched the glorious ring roll out of her gaping beak.

Suddenly, a shadow loomed over him. Jakob looked up to see none other than King Matthias himself, glaring at him with his steely countenance. His chin was square and strong, and his eyes were the color of burnished armor.

“Is this your bird, boy?” King Matthias demanded.

“Y-yes, sir,” Jakob stammered in response. At first he thought of telling the king that he had not sent the raven to snatch his ring—which was the truth. But another truth was that he had taught the bird to steal. So what was the difference?

King Matthias reached down and picked his ring from the cobblestones and considered it a moment before returning it to his finger. “She was a fierce fighter,” the king said. “And certainly very clever.”

Jakob slowly nodded, cradling the dead bird in his arms. He didn’t care about the treasures anymore; he was in despair over poor Corvina. Then he felt a heavy hand on his shoulder. King Matthias had knelt alongside the boy and looked him directly in the eye.

“Such spirit should be recognized and admired,” the king informed Jakob. “So I tell you this, boy: As you mourn your pet, know that it will be remembered forever more. For I will make it a symbol of my house.”

This was little comfort to Jakob, but he had already learned that life could be tough and unfair. The king rose to his feet and Jakob watched the royal retinue continued its march through the city.

Jakob returned to his life, now without the help of his beloved bird. Eventually he grew up, became a cobbler, and had a family of his own.

True to his word, King Matthias took the symbol of the raven and the ring for his own. One could see depictions of the symbol throughout the entire city. Whenever Jakob’s children and grandchildren asked him about the curious bird, Jakob would simply smile and say, “Did you know she has a name? It is Corvina. And she is the most fierce and clever of all birds.”

 

 

Telling our family stories: Bone soup

chickenbroth.jpg

As I continue to teach my creative writing class through the lens of family stories, I’ve come to realize a certain characteristic about these types of tales: they often exist in a vacuum, completely separate from historical context.

This is the case with the stories my students are telling me from their families and, I realize, it was the same case with my family stories. When I was a kid and my grandparents regaled me with tales about growing up in Austria-Hungary, they never fit those stories into a larger historical perspective. Their tales weren’t connected to a timeline—they were singular, personal events.

Case in point: One story my grandmother liked to tell was about the time she and her brother both had the “bad sickness”. It was just after the War and, as she told it, everyone was sick. Of course, this was part of the great influenza pandemic that swept across the globe post World War I, but I didn’t realize that was what my grandmother was talking about until many years later when I was able to connect her personal narrative with historical fact. That pandemic killed more people than the War itself—and my grandmother could have been one of them.

Here’s my retelling of her story . . .

* * *

Franzeika trudged across the yard, navigating her way around the humble flock of geese, as she made her way back into the house from the chicken coop. The gander hissed at her as she passed—he was an ornery fellow and liked to make sure that everyone—including Franzeika—knew who was boss.

And maybe you are the boss, Franzeika thought begrudgingly.

Her world had been turned upside down. The Great War had come—and been lost. Her beloved Georg had been lost, too, his lungs poisoned in the trenches. Now, it was just her and the children, Petr and Maria, left to eke out a living on their scrap of land.

“And lorded over by a goose,” Franzeika grumbled as she set her basket of eggs down on the kitchen table.

There was her other son, John, of course—but he had left for Canada before the War. He kept writing, pressing her to leave behind war-torn Europe and start a new life in a new land. But it was the last thing Franzeika could consider now. Petr and Maria were at Death’s door. They couldn’t get out of bed, let alone cross an ocean.

As if to underscore this, a cough, sharp as a knife, came from the other room.

Maria.

Franzeika hurried to attend to her. People were dying all through Valla from this sickness. The neighbors had lost their infant son just this past week.

“Not my children,” Franzeika promised herself. “I have to do something.”

“Mama,” Maria gasped. Her face was as pale as the walls, and her sheets soaked through with sweat.

Franzeika held her hand to the girl’s forehead, and felt her fever. “I’ll make your favorite for dinner tonight,” Franzeika promised her daughter. “Cabbage rolls.” The truth was that pork was scarce, and she’d have to go heavy on the cabbage.

Maria looked blankly at her mother for a moment, like she didn’t even recognize her. Then she promptly threw up.

~

The doctor from Vienna was a tall and imposing man, with a thick beard that hid most of his face. Add to that his round pair of glasses and you had a man that was more than just a little mysterious. When he sat down alongside Maria’s bed, she couldn’t be sure if it was an entirely real situation, or if she had finally succumbed to delusion and it was all some sort of strange dream.

Her mother roused her to reality. “Maria,” she said, “the doctor is talking to you.”

Maria tried to sit up, but erupted in another round of coughing.

“It’s fine, child,” the doctor soothed. “Relax, relax. Maria isn’t it?”

Maria sat still as stone as the doctor examined her. He touched her forehead, held her palms, and produced strange and unfamiliar instruments from a small leather bag to use in his examination. When he was done he moved on to Petr, and did the same.

“Well?” Franzeika asked, hovering about like a mother goose. “Is there something to be done, doctor?”

“You keep chickens, yes?” the doctor asked. “I can hear them in the yard.”

Franzeika nodded.

“Follow my instructions, and I shall pull your children through the sickness,” the doctor assured her. “The most important thing is nutrition to help your children ride out the infection. Butcher one of your hens and boil it to make a broth. Save the bones, and have your children suck on them, for the marrow is rich in protein and nutrients. When the bones are done, then butcher another hen. This is the best thing you can do for them. Do you understand?”

“Yes, doctor,” Franzeika replied. “I’ll do as you say.”

“I’ll come back this evening and check on their condition,” the doctor said. Then, just before leaving, he smiled at Maria and Petr and said, “Take heart, children. Get lots of rest and you will be running around again, good as new, soon enough.”

“He’s a Jew, you know,” Petr whispered to Maria after the doctor had departed. “I don’t know how we’re going to afford his bill.”

“That is not for you to worry about,” Franzeika scolded, overhearing his remark. “And I don’t care who he is—as long as he makes you better.”

The truth was that Franzeika was worried about how to pay the doctor. But she tried to put it out of her mind for now. She returned back to the yard, scuttled past the hissing gander, and fetched the plumpest hen she could find.

The doctor came twice a day for two weeks, checking on the progress of the two children. Franzeika was diligent, following the doctor’s instructions. Every meal, Maria and Petr drank their broth and sucked on the chicken bones.

“Is this is what life has come to?” Petr complained wearily from his bed. “I’m down to eating broth and bones. It’s like eating bone soup.”

Maria didn’t like the taste if the bone marrow either—it definitely wasn’t cabbage rolls—but she held her tongue. Partly, it was because she was too exhausted and sick to muster any complaint. But it was also because she could tell her mother was worried. That made her not want to say anything.

Slowly, the children showed signs of improvement. One day, after his evening examination, the doctor announced, “Well, I think it’s safe to say this will be my last visit. Petr and Maria are well on the road to recovery.”

“Thank you, doctor,” Franzeika said as she saw him to the door. “I am forever indebted to you. And I will pay your fee, no matter what it might be—though I may not be able to give it to you all at once.”

“There is no need to fret for the payment,” the doctor assured her. “I will take whatever you can offer. How about a hen?”

Franzeika looked at him blankly for a moment. “But surely, doctor . . . a hen?” The truth was that hens had become a rather scarce commodity in the backyard. And it seemed such a meagre payment. Then something occurred to her. “Doctor, a hen is too humble. But I would like to offer you something else.”

“Oh?” the doctor wondered, putting on his hat. “And what is that?”

“My largest and plumpest gander.”

The doctor tipped his hat and smiled. “Ah. That will be just the thing.”

* * *

grandma-fodey-austria-1919
My grandmother, born Maria Thuringer, as a child in Austria, 1919.

Well, that is a fairly accurate retelling of my grandmother’s story. According to her, the only fee the doctor would accept was a goose!

I decided to make this week’s theme for the family stories class to be “food.” And I guess this story applies to that theme. The only thing I asked my students to do was to incorporate a family recipe as part of their story.

We’ll see if they’re all willing to do that—because, as many of us know, a family recipe can be a closely guarded secret.

My own family, like so many, has its share of cultural and family recipes. I spent many a Sunday at my grandmother’s house, and she always cooked a grand feast for our midday meal: cabbage rolls, ham and sauerkraut, or sometimes even a duck. Though, perhaps strangely, never a goose!

My grandmother was not one to share her recipes willingly. Part of this might have had to do with the fact that she wasn’t very literate and she did most things by memory. But here’s the recipe for cabbage rolls that I obtained from my grandma’s daughter-in-law (my mom) . . .

cabbagerolls.jpg

CABBAGE ROLLS

Ingredients:

  • 1 pound ground beef
  • 1 pound ground pork
  • ½ to 1 tsp salt (to taste)
  • ½ tsp black pepper approximately
  • Cayenne pepper to taste
  • 1 cup uncooked long grain rice
  • 1 large head of cabbage

Directions:

  • Freeze cabbage overnight as when thawed it makes it easy to remove the individual leaves.
  • Remove some of the thickness of the rib of each leaf with a sharp knife (for easier rolling).
  • Mix first six ingredients together very well.
  • Roll a small piece of meat into a sausage shape and place at the thick end of a cabbage leaf. Roll leaf folding in the edges as you go.
  • Place in crock pot with folded side down. Continue until all the meat and cabbage leafs have been rolled and placed in pot.
  • Add 1 liter of tomato juice and a half liter of sauerkraut to the crock pot.
  • Throw in a left over ham bone or some bacon and cook on low all day. They can also be boiled on the stove.
  • You may need to add additional tomato juice and sauerkraut as the rice absorbs the liquid.

 

The Cobbler and the Soldier

I’m continuing to teach my class on creative writing through the lens of family stories. This week’s assignment was for the students to choose an old family photo and then tell a story from the perspective of one of the people in the photo.

I thought this would be a good method for my teens to explore a bit about their past, while at the same time practicing point of view. The purpose of the assignment is not to accurately convey the events that are captured by the photo, but to find a story in it. So, there is a bit of embellishment and historical fiction involved . . . but don’t all family stories involve those things?

I decided to do this assignment myself, choosing the photo below for my inspiration:

georg-thuringer-right-and-local-cobbler-austria

The photo came from my grandmother. It was taken in Valla, Austria, sometime near the beginning of the Great War—my family’s best guess is 1915. The man on the right is my grandmother’s father, my great-grandfather, Georg Thuringer, in his soldier’s uniform. The man on the left is a local cobbler and friend to my great-grandfather.

Here is the story I chose to tell, from the perspective and point of view of my great-great grandfather. Some things, such as the names of the cobbler and the photographer, and the circumstances of the photograph are inventions of my imagination. The facts of the story (such as my great-grandfather’s illness) are true.

* * *

I watch in sorrow and agony as my Maria, only seven years old, lifts the bucket by my bed and lugs it out of the room to empty it of the blood and mucus that I burdened it with throughout the night. The bucket is so heavy because of the gravel and sand Maria fills it with each day. It’s meant to help absorb the poison I retch out every few minutes. Now I think there is more of me in that bucket than there is sand.

But at least I was able to find the bucket in the darkness, able to control my bout enough to not soil the entire room. Not like two days ago, when I coughed so violently that I splattered the bloody contents of my lungs all over the sheets, the floor, and even the walls. Franzeika did not let Maria help with that clean up. My daughter has seen so much, but there are some things her mother still tries to keep from her.

grandma-fodey-austria-1919
Maria, as a child in Austria.

Now Franzeika trudges into the room, her expression somber and unrevealing. My wife is ever the stoic one. She pulls the stool alongside my comfortable coffin, a bowl of steaming soup in her hands.

I struggle to sit up and greet her, which only increases the sharp whistling emanating from my chest. I sound like a machine. That is what I have come to, now, just a bag of slowly deteriorating parts, and a fleeing soul. I’m more mechanical than human.

As a soldier, I dug trenches twelve hours a day, ate slop, and slept on cold cement floors with no blankets to warm my body—and I still managed to plow forward like a horse. I withstood the bombardment of enemy armaments upon my unit’s fortifications and watched in horror as my comrades collapsed around me—and still I trudged on. But the one thing I could not overcome was the gas. That wretched vile fog besieged my lungs and now slowly gnaws away at them, bit by bit.

“Eat, you must eat,” Franzeika says, lifting a spoon to my lips.

It is what she always says and I find myself beginning to wonder why. There is no purpose to it. Even the hospital in Nagykaniza gave up on me and had the grace to send me home to die. Or perhaps they just needed the bed for some other poor soul. Whatever the case, my life is spent. Eating will not save me. It will only prolong my days of watching my wife and daughter mopping up bits of me.

franzeika-haschek-thuringer-austria
Franzeika Thuringer, Austria.

Franzeika forces a spoonful of broth between my lips and, as much as I want to protest, I accept her nourishment. It’s the least I can do for her. As I let her feed me, like the invalid I am, my eyes wander the walls and I notice something new in my grim surroundings. A sepia photograph is pinned crookedly to the wall—certainly by a child’s hand, because Franzeika is far too fastidious to permit something so askew. But she notices my recognition of the photo and says, “Andris brought it to the house after you left. Maria thought it might cheer you up.”

I contemplate the photo. Standing there in the frame, rigid and unsure, is myself and my best friend, Petr, and I am reminded of the day I went to war . . .

The day I leave for the front is crystal clear in my mind. It is a cold spring day, 1915, but I do not mind the temperature—I have my sharp and comfortable uniform, with its long coat and double rows of buttons. The truth is that I do not want to go to war; it has taken conscription to get me there, but today, as I march through the streets of Valla, everyone seems to be looking at me in a new way, regarding me with a sense of pride. I tip my soldier’s cap in response, slightly embarrassed by the attention.

When I reach Petr’s shop, I pause and peer through the window to see him stooped over his bench, mallet in one hand, a shoe in the other, and his mouth full of hobnails. How I wish he was coming with me, my oldest friend. My best friend. But he has not yet been conscripted—and he is not about to enlist.

“You think too highly of the empire,” he is fond of berating me. “They demand your service. But will they look after you when this terrible affair is done?”

Yet Petr does not launch into sermon or lecture on this morning. When he realizes I’ve arrived, he simply stands and wanders into the street to greet me.

“So today has come, Georg,” he says simply.

“I take the train to Liberec in an hour,” I inform him. I offer him my hand, only to realize that his are full; he is still holding his mallet and shoe.

“Hey, there, George! Petr!” someone calls.

We turn to see Andris standing across the lane, in the doorway of his shop. “How about a photograph? It’s not every day you go to war.”

“And not often that you come back,” I hear Petr grumble under his breath.

“There is not enough time,” I tell Andris, thinking that he means for us to come inside and to pose in his studio. I say this partially because it is true—there is little time—but also because I know Petr will refuse to participate in making this occasion seem momentous.

“Come, come, let’s capture two friends together on this fine morning,” Andris persists. “We will do it here. On the street. Alida! Fetch me the camera.”

I stand there awkwardly as Andris and his deferent wife set up the apparatus. It is a complicated device and takes a moment—a moment in which I’m left to linger with Petr while passersby pause to stare at us. It’s an unusual event for someone to have his picture taken so informally.

At last, Andris is ready. “Stand still,” he tells us, though in truth Andris has the latest in camera equipment and we do not have to pose like statues, like my father might have had to do in the old days.

The photo is taken and Andris is disassembling his equipment when little Maria comes skipping down the lane.

“Papa,” she says, “Mama says time to come. We must go to the station.”

She leaps into my arms and I lift her up. Then, turning to Petr, I offer him a smile. His hands are still full and, now, so are mine.

“Farewell, Petr,” I tell him before turning to trek down the road, towards my fate.

*

I can’t imagine lifting Maria in my arms now. She is two years older, but that is not why. I simply don’t have the strength. She returns to the room with the bucket cleaned and refilled with fresh gravel. She sets it by my bed then lingers by her mother, watching the slow and agonizing enterprise of me being fed.

“Maria,” Franzeika chides, “go find your brother and help him with his chores.”

Maria nods, her large brown eyes staring at me, hopeful and frightened at the same time.

I return my attention to the photo on the wall, gazing upon the face of my old friend. That moment captured by the photo was the last time I ever saw him. He had not eluded conscription for very long. Shortly after I left he, too, went to war. Franzeika told me he was killed only after three months, shot through the chest. At least he died quickly. At least he does not suffer, like I do.

For that, I am thankful.