During our recent family vacation, we ended up revisiting the train wreck, just south of the Whistler mountain resort.
Rusty carriages are strewn throughout the woods, the result of a catastrophic derailment in 1956. Over the years, the cars have been brightened up with graffiti, adding an eerie aspect to the site.
When we first discovered this place back in 2019, I was just hatching the idea for my next book, Spell Sweeper. The site made such an impression on me that it the location of a major event in Spell Sweeper’s plot (one of the chapters is even called “My Day is a Train Wreck”).
It was fun to revisit the site and to discover how it had changed (one thing was that it was a lot busier than the last time we were there) and to see the new artwork and further degradation of the train carriages (which makes sense, given what I did to them in Spell Sweeper!).
My latest middle-grade book is called Spell Sweeper, published by HarperCollins Children’s Books.
You can add Spell Sweeper to Goodreads HERE or preorder it HERE. You can also request a digital or audio advanced reading copy via NetGalley or Edelweiss.
Release feels like a long way off (the book is coming out as hardcover, ebook, and audio book in November 2021), but I wanted to provide some insights into my inspirations. Spell Sweeper is very different from anything else I’ve had published. It’s written in first-person present-tense and is set firmly in this world (as opposed to my other books, which take place in completely made-up worlds).
So here’s a little background . . .
Who in their right mind writes a book about wizard school?
What a dangerous enterprise! To the masses, the Harry Potter books are so popular and authoritative that many give J.K. Rowling credit for single-handedly inventing the concepts of wands, wizards with long white beards, owls as familiars, the Chosen One and many other fantasy tropes. (This is a testimony to the power of her characters, settings, and world building.)
Instead of trying to ignore this behemoth of a series, I tried to play upon it, giving my main character Cara Moone a slightly satirical tone as she confronts certain tropes in her adventures and, depending on her mood, is either impressed by them being fulfilled or miffed that they have been contradicted.
Of course, I wasn’t thinking only of Harry Potter, but of the long line of fantasy books, movies, and TV shows that populate this genre (though at the same time understanding that for many of my readers, their own references may go no further than Rowling’s books). I was thinking about Jane Yolen’s Wizard’s Hall, The Little Broomstick by Mary Stewart, The Worst Witch by Jilli Murphy, Kiki’s Delivery Service by Eiko Kadono, T.H. White’s The Once and Future King, The Chronicles of Narnia, Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books, Star Wars,Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Firefly . . . the list goes on. I was thinking of how often we find these common (and cherished) tropes of a mentor, a magical talisman used to finish the quest, a prophecy of a chosen one.
Side note: I am particularly fascinated by the concept of the Chosen One. If you’re interested in exploring the roots of this archetypal character, then I suggest you check out the excellent two-part series from the IDEAS podcast:
In 2004, I met a like-minded dreamer named Joon-hyoung Park who was seeking a writing program for his daughters to take. He couldn’t find the right type of workshop, so he decided to invent one—and he wanted my help. The next thing you know, Joon and I had started a creative writing program in Vancouver for immigrant kids from Asia (our own school of magic!).
Our workshops blossomed and bloomed, and now we host many programs for kids from all walks of life. We write stories, draw pictures, brew potions, build dragon eggs—you name it!
My wife and I have enjoyed an additional privilege—the opportunity to visit Asia to teach creative writing at schools, libraries, and education centers (I’ve been to Korea over twenty times!). Reading the stories by these creative kids—and about their dreams, desires, and fears—has definitely played a role in the creation of Dragonsong Academy. (By the way, it’s no exaggeration to say that our teaching experiences led us to Japan, and our son Hiro, in 2018.)
Over the years, I’ve met a lot of Harry Potter fans, but my students, being largely from an Asian background, always had trouble finding themselves in the books. (Yes, there’s Cho Chang, but as far as I’m concerned, she doesn’t get to do any of the fun stuff.) So, one thing I wanted to do was to populate my school with characters that represent and reflect my students (and, for that matter, my son). These aren’t just side characters, but ones who are talented and powerful and often get to lead the charge.
The other common feeling I’ve observed in my students is a yearning to be popular and famous, whether it be in their families, at their schools, or on the Internet. Cara is like so many of us; she feels inadequate and is constantly pestered by those “why not me?” or “when is it my turn?” moments. The thing is that Cara has actually already “made it”, being one of the lucky few who gets to go to wizard school. The catch is that she views herself at the bottom of the pecking order. As a MOP (Magical Occurrence Purger), she’s left to clean up the magical residue left behind by “real” wizards.
This concept of how we view ourselves—our luck, our privilege, our role—is something that I really wanted to investigate in this book, and it’s my hope that Cara’s journey rings true for readers.
My fascination with brooms
Speaking of being lucky, I’ve had the good fortune to visit the castle in England where they filmed many of the scenes for the Harry Potter movies. My wife and I went to Alnwick Castle way back in 2014 and we took “broom flying” lessons.
For the record, I did poorly:
After that trip, I began seeing brooms. Everywhere. There was always one leaning against a park bench or in the corner of a temple, as if impatiently waiting for its owner to return. I wasn’t sure why exactly, but I felt there was a hint of magic happening with these brooms. Maybe they belong to a wizard who had just plonked down and darted off to fetch a tea. Or maybe they were abandoned during a scuffle with a dark adversary!
Truth is, I didn’t contemplate these broom encounters too deeply at the time. Instead, I just made sure to note them, take photographs, and make notes in my brainstorming journal, mostly because that’s what I’ve trained myself to do: pay attention to the things that spark me.
Eventually, another memory was resurrected in my mind: my grandfather used to make his own brooms! He grew the broomcorn, harvested it, and bound them to broomsticks. I never saw my grandfather build a broom (I really wish I had), but I realized I had one of his creations in the dusty corner of my closet. On a subsequent visit to my parents, I scavenged their house to find they had their own collection of my grandfather’s handmade brooms. They all have the same humble construction—and, if you ask me, their own type of magic. Clearly, these brooms have been lingering in my subconscious all these years, waiting for me to tell their story.
But one thing I knew is that I did not want to write a story in which brooms were used for flying. I kept wondering what brooms could do in a magical world if they weren’t for zipping wizards and witches from Point A to Point B.
Of course, the answer eventually became obvious . . . and Spell Sweeper was born.
It sure feels like our world is shrinking with the covid-19 crisis. We’re stuck at home, can’t gather, can’t visit.
Personally, I’m reverting to my age-old survival tactic: Disappearing as much as possible into my imagination.
As a children’s author and specialized arts and creative writing teacher, I’d like to help kids do the same, so I’m presenting some of my favorite activities.
Recently, I posted about building a shrink ray with household items. The bonus project was to imagine that every member of the family was shrunk by the device by building peg-figure versions of everyone!
Well, if you can imagine you’ve an inch or two high, then your world is now suddenly BIGGER. So, I invite you take the next (tiny) step . . .
Map your GIANT world
I’ve done this project with schools I’ve worked with in Canada, Korea, and Thailand, and will be posting some examples of my students’ past projects.
What you will need:
Drawing supplies: pencils, colored pencils, markers, crayons, fine-liners—whatever you like to use.
Hey, I’m not going to stop you from using stickers or glitter either . . . but you know: the CLEAN-UP!
A BIG imagination!
In this activity, you’re asked to imagine a single room in your house as an epic landscape that you have to cross as a miniaturized person. So, for example, a pile of dirty laundry might become “Mount Clothes” or a tipped-over soda can might become “Fizzy Falls.”
This is a fun way to think about perspective—and, also, to just imagine a bigger, vaster world.
Here are some examples of past maps—and at the bottom of this post, I’ve posted links to handouts that you can use to help with this project. I always find a bit of brainstorming helps at the beginning of every project!
Of course, you can do it on blank paper, but a whimsical frame makes everything more fun, if you ask me. (Also, I want to point out that this is the exact same frame I used for the map in Kendra Kandlestar and the Box of Whispers, which, by the way, is also about tiny people).
If you’re looking to add a writing project to do this—NO problem! Just imagine you have to navigate your way across this vast—and possibly dangerous—landscape! (Also, I’ll post a nice little wrinkle for you in a couple of days to make this epic journey even MORE fun!)
This Medieval-style door is from Koyko Gaien Park in Tokyo, Japan. We visited these stunning grounds in 2018, when we adopted our son. This door features a door within a door, with the smaller gate set within the bottom quarter.
Nearby, is the magnificent Tokyo Station, which was just one of many places that served as inspiration for Zoone Station, located at the nexus of the multiverse, where a thousand doors lead to a thousand worlds.
I’m posting my door inspirations from around the world to celebrate the release of The Guardians of Zoone on Feb25!
You can find order links for the books of Zoone HERE.
This is a door from Gyeongbok palace in Korea, with a traditional lock to secure its weathered wood. I have walked the grounds here a few times, and have never tired of its beauty!
I especially love the haetae guarding the gates and entrances to different buildings with the complex—haetae is a famous creature from Korean mythology. It is a protective creature, said to guard against natural disasters.
I’m posting my door inspirations from around the world to celebrate the release of The Guardians of Zoone on Feb25! There are no haetae in Zoone but there is, of course, one very unique skyger named Tug!
You can find order links for the books of Zoone HERE.
This is a door I found in Vernazza, Italy, in 2013—knock if you dare, but the disembodied hand may never release you!
I have noticed a few hand-shaped doorknockers throughout my travels, and they always strike me as creepy and clingy! Vernazza itself is a sweet town, part of Cinque Terre, a string of five beautiful cities on the west coast of Italy. We stayed there during our honeymoon!
I’m posting my door inspirations from around the world to celebrate the releases of The Secret of Zoone (it was released in paperback on January 28) and The Guardians of Zoone on February 25! There are many doors throughout the multiverse of Zoone that you dare not knock on either!
You can find order links for the books of Zoone HERE.
Today, the paperback version of The Secret of Zoone launches, so I’m posting the “door to nowhere” from Exeter England.
If you’ve read Zoone (or are going to), then this door will mean something to you!
I found the Exeter door just while walking down the street and it’s really just an archway that has been bricked over, but it sure looked like a secret door to me. I imagined that I would just have to find the right stone to press (or the combination of stones), and then the portal would open and lead me (hopefully) to Narnia. Alas, I could not discover the right stones (at least not before my wife wandered back down the street where I had lingered and told me to stop being weird).
You can find order links for The Secret of ZooneHERE.
Door of the day: The paint is peeling, the handle is rusting, and the keyhole is encrusted with cobwebs—what sort of adventure awaits? I came across this at the back of Moulin Church in Pitlochry, Scotland in 2014.
The churchyard at Moulin also features a Kirk Bell (first cast in 1749), a crusader’s grave from the twelfth century (look closely, and you will see the etching of a sword in the stone), and an ash tree that is growing on the site of the old “joug” tree—it was as the joug tree where offenders of crimes were shackled with a hinged metal collar for public display (and shame) until the requisite amount of time was passed for their atonement to be completed.
I’m posting my door inspirations from around the world to celebrate releases of The Secret of Zoone (paperback – January 28) and The Guardians of Zoone (February 25).
Zoone might be the nexus of the multiverse, with a thousand doors leading to a thousand worlds, but not all are easily opened and, sometimes, little critters come scuttling out of those keyholes!