Our magical creature camp in Korea

Our magical creature camp in Korea

I’m just catching up on organizing photos after our whirlwind trip to Korea and Japan this past summer—which means I’m finally getting around to blogging about the Magical Creatures creative writing camp that I taught along with my actor/playwright wife Marcie Nestman and fellow children’s author Kallie George.

Marcie and I are used to spending time in Asia—personally, I’ve been there over thirty times, most of it to teach creative writing camps or workshops. What WAS new this time was that we took our one-year-old son, Hiro, with us. So, seasoned travelers that we are, we had a very different type of adventure!

A magical theme

Since Kallie and I both recently released books featuring magical creatures—Kallie’s Wings of Olympus and my The Secret of Zoone—we thought that would make the best theme for our camp.

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Of course, there are plenty of books and films featuring magical creatures, so this was a great way to connect with and inspire our students.

 

The magical menagerie art exhibit

In The Secret of Zoone, one of the characters references the “Multiversal Menagerie,” an art exhibit featuring paintings of different creatures from across the multiverse. I thought I would take a cue from that and have my students do a creative writing project in which they produced artwork of a creature then wrote the information card that goes with it.

You see, I have this belief that not every writing assignment has to be a proper story. I worry that my students get so focused on plot, that they forget other elements of writing—such as description, setting, character development and BEING CREATIVE. I call this “plot paralysis” because students get so caught up in that ONE part of writing that they start ignoring everything else.

Projects like the multiverses menagerie are meant to help the students wriggle free of the shackles of plot and just have fun.

Our project started with brainstorming creatures  . . .

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Afterwards, the students turned their attention to final artwork. Some students chose to draw, some students chose to sculpt, and others chose to do both.

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The Eye of the Dragon

Another project I rolled out at camp involved writing a scene in which a character finds or steals a magical gem that gives that character the power of connecting with a creature. The students got to choose the aspect of that connection—it could be transforming into the creature, controlling it, or even seeing through its eyes.

Step one, however, was painting the gem of power!

I really love this project because it is relatively simple, but produces stunning results. In fact, many of my students end up wearing their jewelry afterwards (it’s easy enough to glue the gems to a metal ring or amulet).

The gems themselves are glass cabochons, which you can get in different shapes (such as oval or round) and the paint is simple nail polish. This project is very forgiving—even those students who don’t consider themselves artistic can create abstract designs. Also, if you make a mistake, a little nail polish remover helps you start over!

Here are some of the gorgeous designs produced by my students:

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The magical market

We delivered many other projects at the camp, but there is one other event I wanted to blog about—and that is our magical market night. Our camps our long—often six or seven days, and we find we need some sort of event in the middle to help break it up and provide a “boost.”

We usually host a tournament or some other team-building exercises; this time, Marcie had the brilliant idea of putting on a magical market. This was brilliant for a few reasons—not the least of which was that we could do it outdoors and avoid the intense summer heat and humidity. Also, we corralled our older students into coming up with the ideas for the stalls, and then running them during the event itself.

So, we ended up having all sorts of fun stations consisting of games, face painting, fortune telling, and—my favorite—food! We invented a new fizzy drink by combining soda water and pop rocks and also had glow-in-the-dark cotton candy. We gave the students fake jewels to use as currency, so they got to stroll our market and decide how to spend their loot.

Marcie had led a project in which the students designed their own lanterns for a made-up magical creature holiday, so we already had some decorations ready to go.

It was a HUGE success!

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Book covers from the workshop of dreams

Book covers from the workshop of dreams

I’m just wrapping up production of the books written and illustrated by the students who took the Spring Term of my Dream Workshop program that is run through Creative Writing for Children.

In many cases, the students provided their own artwork. In others, the students chose royalty-free stock photos, but in those cases, they still had to design their cover, which meant providing instructions on how to crop the photo and which fonts to use.

I’m so proud of my students! The books will go for printing soon and will be in their hot little hands in the next few months.

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laurenliang_thetimekeeper

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sionahn_landofskies

jadenchung_candyrealm

tysonmattu_lost

iankim_secrets

emilylee_hoops

ellyyoo_anadventure

arisolkim_kingdomofenchantia

alexjang_possessionofadangerousmind

sarahpark_oneudonbowl

rickyyin_sixteenamazingstories

aidenlee_secretofportalstreasure

yoyozhang_thesecretflower

tristanmo_cursedcity

sussizhu_thewarbetweenupperandupper

felimwang_thebookofdeath

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charliechen_thefencingboy

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TD Book Week Tour ~ Day 5

TD Book Week Tour ~ Day 5

Well, it’s over. The final day of TD Book Week came to an end on Friday, and I managed to survive with my voice mostly intact. One more day probably would have killed it!

Mapping a story

I did two sessions of mapping a story, one at two schools that shared the same librarian (the schools are only five minutes apart).

In the planning stages of the tour, I had provided the schools and libraries with a list of my brainstorming sessions and most picked “enchanted trees” or “secret doorways.” These two schools, however, chose “mapping an adventure”—it was nice to get a little variety today. Don’t get me wrong! I LOVE designing doors, but when you are doing multiple sessions several days in a row, a change of pace is good for my creative energy.

Essentially, this type of mapping is writing with pictures—the students not only plot an adventure but create settings along the way—and, of course, characters, too! Here are some of the story-maps they came up with:

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As you can see, many elements of the story are in place. In fact, I feel like some of these look like the adventure route on a Candy Land-style board game.

Final round of door brainstorming

The very last session of the tour was done at the Woodside branch of the Toronto Public Library. They invited in a classroom of tweens for a presentation and door brainstorming. I figured it was a Friday afternoon and they might be low energy, but they really produced some great designs: Just check these out:

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Also, some of the kids started spilling into other areas, designing characters, such as this one sheet from a very talented kid:

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I was also enamored with this drawing that one student did of my artifacts:

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Speaking of my artifacts, this was the last time I unpacked and packed them back again before taking my flight home this weekend. They all survived! I didn’t break or lose a single one. Of course, kids continually asked to sell me the props, but I always say the same thing: “make your own!” Because, really, I don’t feel any of my props (other than the suitcase) is that complicated to make. Prop building is like writing—it takes mostly patience. And none of the supplies I use are that complicated.

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Doing a workshop at the Toronto Public Library was a really great way to end the tour. Sophia, the library assistant, was a great host and she had just finished reading The Secret of Zoone and gave me a glowing review. Hey, I’ll take a glowing review from anyone, but, of course, it’s always special to get a good review from a librarian, because they are the ones who really read a lot and know their stuff. So, thank you, Sophia! I really appreciate your comments about my book.

Favourite question of the day

I actually got this question a few times this week, but I decided to feature it today. It was: “What is your favourite place that you traveled to?” (REAL place—not imaginary; I had to clarify!)

It’s always hard to answer this question. There are places I go to on a regular basis for work or family reasons: Korea, Japan, and England. But I think my favourite places I visit are the ones that are new to me, the ones that can offer me a surprising or unusual experience. I love nothing more than stepping out of my hotel door and being walloped by smells, sounds, and sights!

Book signing

After my last official TD Book Week visit, I had one more stop: the local Indigo book store at Scarborough Town Centre. My publisher had asked me to stop by and sign some stock. There were six books in the store, so I signed all of them (and one sold while I was there!).

In particular, though, it was fun to walk into the store and see my book positioned face out—this is obviously a good thing, because it means the book gets more attention.

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Well, it’s time for me to go and get some grub, and some rest! I think I’ve earned it!

About Book Week

TD Canadian Children’s Book Week is the single most important national event celebrating Canadian children’s books and the importance of reading. Hundreds of schools, public libraries, bookstores and community centres host events as part of this major literary festival.

All the things worth worrying about—and the things that are not

secret_of_zoone_coverI’ve been a little anxious lately in advance of the release of my new book, The Secret of Zoone, worried about ALL THE THINGS. Will the book sell? What if it “fails?” This is my first book with a big New York house. What if this is my only shot, and I blow it?

Then, yesterday, I had an uplifting and grounding experience when I visited Meadowridge School to deliver a presentation and workshop.

First of all, there were so many joyful faces, so many kids dressed in beautiful, colorful clothes for Lunar New Year. One of these kids was a student who took my creative writing class last year. I can’t believe I bumped into her in such a giant school! She called me from down the hall, then came and hugged me. She was with her mom, who insisted that we take a photo together.

Afterward, I delivered my presentation and workshop to some pretty enthusiastic fans of Kendra Kandlestar. One girl came with her hair in Kendra’s seven braids and a boy came as Professor Bumblebean (and he talked like him throughout our workshop session, too!).

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It was pretty overwhelming to receive their outpouring of love for Kendra. Their joy as we workshopped together was palpable. We wrote “visual stories” and were having so much fun that I lost track of the time—and I guess they did, too, because we went right through recess (there’s no bells at the school).

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Then, as I was packing up all my dragon eggs and other magical items I had brought to inspire the crew, I noticed a book on display on the library bookshelf. It was a book written a few years ago by another student under my mentorship. It was so cool to see it so prominently featured there, and I thought how it must inspire all these other kids who come to visit the library.

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As I drove home, I contemplated, not for the first time, what it means to be a children’s author, and how strange it is to release something into the world that you then completely lose control of. These kids have a relationship with Kendra Kandlestar that transcends ALL THE THINGS. They could care less how many other kids have read it, how many copies it has sold, or if it was written a kajillion years ago.

I don’t know if these kids—or any kids—will love my new characters of Ozzie, and Tug, and Fidget in the way that these kids love Kendra, Oki, and Captain Jinx. But there will probably be a few. And that is humbling.

 

 

Diving into our imaginations at Dragon Masters camp

Diving into our imaginations at Dragon Masters camp

I had the joy of starting off the new year in a fun way: by leading a “Dragon Masters” camp for tweens.

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The camp was hosted by the Creative Writing for Children Society (CWC) and involved sculpting dragon scales, painting gemstones, drawing fantastical creatures, and—of course—writing about dragons, too!

One of the best aspects of this three-day camp is that I had only 15 students, which meant that we could really immerse ourselves in the activities and I had a lot of one-on-one time with each one of the kids. Many of them had worked with me in the past, so it was a fun way to reconnect with them.

“I Am” poetry

The first activity we worked on was a pair of point-of- view poems. Students brainstormed two characters, one a thief trying to steal something from a dragon’s lair, and the other a dragon who was being threatened by the theft. The students wrote one poem from each perspective.

To help with this activity, we sculpted our own dragon scales, prompting many of the students to choose this as the item that the thief would steal from the creature. Of course, the students had to come up with a reason for the theft and the response from the dragon.

One thing about sculpting, is that it’s good thinking time for writers! While the kids sculpted, they could work out some ideas for their writing. But, of course, the sculpting project in itself was a lot of fun.

Sculpting dragon scales

Here are some photos of the scales in progress. We started with plastic shapes cut from a soda bottle, then plastered them. Some students opted to sculpt ridges or shapes into their design; others decided to do a flat surface, leaving the detailing for the next phase.

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We actually had to let the scales dry overnight, but by the next morning they were ready for the students to add more detail by bejweling them (if they chose). By using acrylic gems, the students were able to add intricate detail and give their scales texture. By using the strips of acrylic gems (available at any dollar store), you can gain some uniformity, too.

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Afterwards, we painted the scales with mod podge, to help bind everything together.

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The last step was painting. I find that painting everything with a black base provides a rich undercoat; once this coat is dry, students can dry brush on a variety of metallic colors to help achieve that dragonish feel.

Of course, each student had a very specific idea for what their dragons looked like, or the type of environment they lived in, so their scales were design to match these concepts.

Here are a few of the completed projects:

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Developing a story

After the students had explored the point-of-view poems, I had them choose one of the points of view, either the dragon or the thief, and then develop that perspective into a longer, more conventional story.

The poems were more about capturing character emotion, but the story provided the students with an opportunity to flesh out a plot.

I led the students in some brainstorming exercises and provided them with some vocabulary words to help invigorate their stories. (Honestly, I’m tired of my students overusing the word “run” so we worked hard on developing a list of alternate ways to describe how characters such as dragons and thieves might move.)

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Gems of sorcery

One of the other projects that we worked on was painting glass cabochons to look like magical gems. The idea here was that these gems could be found in a dragon’s lair or a character could already be in possession of them and use them to train or communicate with a dragon.

The project is pretty simple; all you have to do is paint on the backside of the cabochons with fingernail paint. Abstract designs work well and are easy to do, though some of my students tried their hand at painting dragon eyes.

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Welcome to the Dragon Races

One of the challenges of teaching a camp is making sure students always have something to work on. Everyone creates at a different pace, and I like to have everyone work organically, which means instead of developing a checklist of projects that MUST be completed, I just have a cauldron of projects to choose from once we start getting close to the end.

For the final day of our camp, I brought in my own custom-made dragon eggs to inspire extra stories about dragon’s hatching.

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And, finally, for those students who had written, sculpted, and painted everything I had them finish off by imagining there was a dragon race coming up and had them illustrate posters.

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This turned out to be a really successful camp. I want to thank the organizers and my two assistants, Jamie and Chelsea, who helped the kids work on their art projects and did a lot of the clean up. Jamie and Chelsea have been students of mine in the past and it’s really gratifying to see them step into a different role.

Next step? We’ve collected all the students’ writing and drawings and we’ll be publishing them in a short anthology.

Jewelry, wands, and masks: creating characters through costume

Jewelry, wands, and masks: creating characters through costume

I spent the last few weeks as an artist-in-residence at a school for particularly awesome teens. It’s a specialized school with only fifty students and, since this is my third or fourth stint there, I’ve had the opportunity to really get to know the kids.

For this term, I decided to embrace the Halloween season and have the students imagine character through intensive costume and prop-building. As an instructor, this is a challenge because no one is doing the same thing. That means there’s not a lot of demonstrations on my part, but a whole lot of problem-solving.

This means finding the right type of material for each student’s individual project and then helping them build what’s in their imaginations.

The Theme

We loosely chose the theme of superheroes, though many students decided to lean towards a fantasy or steampunk design.

Over the last few weeks, they drew, painted, sculpted, and built!  Here’s some photos of some of the many projects they created.

Jewelry Design

One of the main projects I introduced was jewelry design and creation. Using glass cabochons and fingernail paint, the students came up with different designs. These make fantastic accoutrements for superheroes, wizards, magical thieves .  .  . you name it.

I think they are all beautiful, but I will admit I’m partial to the ones that look like dragon eyes!

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Masks and Goggles

Every good superhero needs a mask, right? Many of the students chose to build masks or decorate goggles to help bring their characters to life.

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Enchanted Bottles

I brought so many containers of supplies to the school that I wasn’t even sure what I had there half the time. But one of my students found the “bottle box” and from then on many of them became obsessed with building enchanted bottles. Using colored sand, acrylic gems, beads, moss, feathers, and other material, they created a veritable wizard’s den!

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Wands and other magical props

Many of my students chose to build props that you can hold and carry.

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One of my friends showed up at my house one day with a box of sticks that he had pruned from some trees on Vancouver Island. “I figure these will make great wands,” he said. (I guess I have a reputation as a prop-builder.)

I decided to share the sticks with my students, and many of them made some cool items with them.

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Drawing, painting and multimedia

A significant part of the project was drawing, designing, and conceptualizing characters.

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Many of my students combined these drawings and brainstorming notes with their props to submit final “character design” projects.

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Wrapping up and saying good-bye

It’s always a bittersweet moment for me to wrap up a term at this school. These kids are so FABULOUS. They come to class each week, often thinking of themselves as less-than, and all I ever think is how I wish more people were like THEM: introspective, caring, creative, and community-minded.

We built a lot of amazing props over the course of the last nine weeks, but we hopefully we also built a lot more.

Touring libraries in Korea

Touring libraries in Korea

In a previous post, I described the “Storytelling Carnival Camp” that in taught in South Korea with Stacey Matson and Dan Bar-el. There was no rest for the weary after this camp—we immediately whisked off on a short tour of libraries.

Supporting literacy

The tour was put together with the help of the Canadian Embassy in Seoul and The Creative Writing for Children society. It is part of an ongoing effort to help build a cultural bridge between Canada and Korea and to help support literacy initiatives there.

Day 1: Yongin International Library

First stop of the tour was this palatial library in the city of Yongin. Actually, perhaps palatial isn’t quite the right word—the brand-new building is more like a stadium, and I mean that in terms of not only how it looks, but in its size.

In fact, at first we thought we must have the wrong place. How could we be visiting a library in a sports arena?

Turns out, it is just a magnificent and cavernous recreation and community center. There are all sorts of facilities in this facility—including a massive library.

When we first arrived, the place was empty, leaving me with a lonely, hollow feeling. All those unattended books! We were escorted to our presentation room and began setting up our computers and slideshows. Soon, families began streaming in.

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This turned out to be the most ostentatious of our events, with even local dignitaries attending. We could never quite figure out if it was the mayor of Yongin or the premier of the province.

We delivered our introductory presentations, then afterwards broke into three groups to deliver focused writing workshops. I decided that the focus of my tour would be to lead brainstorming sessions inspired by my book Kendra Kandlestar and the Box of Whispers. I discussed with the students different enchanted vessels in mythology, such as Pandora’s box from Greek mythology and Urashima Tarō’s box from Japanese lore. Then I led an interactive session in which we designed our own boxes, imagining what each of them held, how they were opened, and who would find them.

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After the workshops, the library held a book sale. Even though the attendees were well versed in English, many of the kids asked me to sign their books in Hangul, the Korean alphabet. Here’s a photo of the sheet showing the kid’s writing down their names, so I would have something to copy. (In truth, I do this no matter the language I’m signing in, because even the most innocuous-sounding names can sometimes have surprising spellings).

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When we finally exited our rooms, it was to find the library simply teeming with families. What an awesome sight. There were kids draped on stools and cushions, reading, playing, and basically enjoying the library.

Day 2: Mapo Community Library

The next day took us into the heart of Seoul, to a quieter, humbler library found on an unassuming street. This library is sponsored by a local university and we found the kids here to be quite tightknit, coming from the same neighborhood within the city.

They had pre-read my book Kendra Kandlestar series, which made it a lot of fun to talk and work with them.

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Since the kids were a little shy in asking questions, I took a poll to determine their favourite characters from the books.

Here are the official results:
Kendra: 5
Oki: 4
Jinx: 2
Uncle Griffinskitch: 2
Rumor: 1
Ratchet: 1
Undecided: 4

Poor Trooogul. Never got a sniff.

Mapo Community Library had a real cozy feel to it; you can tell it’s a type of haven, full of quiet nooks and corners for the neighborhood kids to come hang out in and talk with the warm and friendly staff. I wasn’t able to get many pictures here, just because of how the schedule went, but it was definitely a memorable environment.

Day 3: Sonpa English Library

The final day of our tur took us south of the Han River to a more distant neighborhood. This library is in an old water management system building that has been converted for community use. It is a beautiful space, however, with workshop rooms and a main presentation area.

Dan, Stacey, and I each delivered introductory presentations and then were lined up for a group Q&A. This was really quite fun. The library organizers had been worried that the kids would be too shy to ask questions, but they weren’t. I remember one question in particular: “What is your ultimate goal?”

That one made me think on my feet. I came up with what I thought was a pretty good answer at the time, but I actually can’t remember what it is now. (I just know I resisted the temptation to shout out “WORLD DOMINATION!”)

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After the Q&A, we each delivered short writing workshops again. In my room there was a board of questions specifically about my Kendra Kandlestar books.

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By the way, this library had the best bathroom I’ve ever visited. Just check out this urinal:

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A real success

All the audiences were super-engaged, despite the fact that English was the second language for most of them. I want to give a big thank you to CWC and the Canadian Embassy in Seoul for arranging and assisting in the tour and another giant shout out to the staff at each library for their warm and generous hearts. Their love of literature and children really shone in each of their spaces.

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