The kids who helped save the kids

The kids who helped save the kids

In recent blog posts, I’ve been documenting the bureaucratic nightmare that ensnared my family as we tried to get home to Canada from Japan.

Trapped in limbo by our own government

Marcie I are one of five Canadian families who are in the process of adopting children from Japan but because the Canadian Department of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) wouldn’t issue us visas, we became trapped in Tokyo, without a way to get home—unless we abandoned our babies.

After weeks of uncertainty, and being given no clarity or timeline by our own government, we felt like we had been painted into a corner, left with no choice but to tell our story publicly.

Launching a media campaign to save our kids

After five days of intense media, doing interviews with all the major Canadian news outlets, writing blog posts, sharing stories on twitter and facebook, and campaigning for fellow citizens to write to the IRCC, we finally were able to convince the government to take action and bring us home.

It happened on a Saturday—much to our surprise, because this is not a day that the embassies or any government departments are open. But there we were, feeling at one of our lowest moments, when the email from the embassy in Manila, Philippines, came in with our visas (immigration from Japan is handled by the Manila office). Manila coordinated with the local embassy in Tokyo, had them open especially for us, and we charged out into monsoon-like weather to get our paperwork finalized. (I would have trekked through blizzard or hurricane; the weather just seemed to add to the drama).

After receiving our paperwork, we booked the first available flight home—for us, that was Monday, June 25th, nine full weeks after we had first arrived in Japan to receive custody of our son.

Our story ends happily

We arrived home to be greeted at the Vancouver International airport by friends, family, and TV cameras. It was all a little overwhelming but, despite being jetlagged and emotionally exhausted from our ordeal, we were happy to do some last interviews. After all, it was the medai campaign that helped us get home.

Here’s some photos taken by our friend Carrie Bercic of our arrival:

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A big thank you

I really want to thank our friends, family, colleagues, and fellow Canadian citizens who stepped up to help us campaign for a resolution to our case.

The reporters and interviewers who covered our story were sensitive, kind, and squarely on our side.

The Canadian kid-lit community was amazing, with children’s authors coast to coast writing letters on our behalf. I’m so humbled that everyone took the time to help out my family.

The kids who championed kids

One group I especially want to draw attention to is the kids. There were many children who clambered to our cause and wrote letters to the government to help Marcie, Hiro, and I get home.

As a children’s author, I visit a lot of schools and am in contact with a lot of passionate readers. I’m always so humbled when my characters and stories connect with readers—but I never dreamed that these readers would play such an important role in my personal life.

There is a class of grade-one students at Mulgrave School who are enormous fans of my Kendra Kandlestar series. I visited their class earlier this year and got to witness their passion first-hand. At that time, they asked me if I could come back to see their assembly at the end of April—they were putting on a play of Kendra Kandlestar. At that time, I asked their teacher, the amazing Elizabeth Kok, to email me a reminder.

Alas, when I received her email, Marcie and I were already in Japan with Hiro. I explained the reason, and so I had to settle on some photos and video footage of the play. Here’s a photo of the kids in action (check out those costumes!):

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Fast-forward a few weeks. Elizabeth caught wind of our predicament via twitter and immediately launched into action, leading a project in which her class of six- and seven-year-old students wrote letters to the Minister of Immigration, Ahmed Hussen, and telling him to bring us home.

Global News did a story on their letter-writing campaign, which you can view here.

Here are some still frames from the segment, showing their wonderful letters:

globalnews04globalnews03globalnews02globalnews01There were other kids who joined the cause, too. Here’s an illustrated letter written by Joanne, one of the students enrolled in my creative writing classes, to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

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So many people supported us but, if you ask me, it was these letters by kids, in support of the five babies put in jeopardy by the Canadian government, that put us over the top. After all, no one wants to be seen being chastized by six-year-olds.

But whether you are six or sixty, there is zero doubt in mind: your support got us home. If it hadn’t been for people rallying to our cause, writing letters, expressing outrage on social media, we’d still be stuck in an endless cycle of bureaucracy. The support of our fellow citizens got us home. For that, Marcie, Hiro, and I are forever grateful.

Thank you.

Thank you.

Thank you.

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Propping up our stories: creating characters with prop-building

Propping up our stories: creating characters with prop-building

I’ve been doing a lot of prop-building lately—for example, crafting dragon eggs. Since prop-building is such an important part of my writing process, it’s something I like to bring to my students as well.

Getting away from the screen

One of the great things about prop-building is that it allows me to work on my book without staring at the screen. Let’s face it: Writing is hard and often exhausting. Sometimes, I feel like I have no words left in my brain, but I still have the desire to playin my world.

I’ve found that prop-building is a way to accomplish that. Working with tangible objects, working with my hands, has helped me to sort out plot problems. It’s kind of like doing the dishes and being suddenly struck by a eureka moment. Of course, when you wash dishes, all you get is clean dishes. When you build a prop, you get a tangible item from an imaginary world.

Nightmare Bottles

I’ve been working with a group of tween and teen writers this spring and one of the things I’ve tried to do is bring in the prop-building angle.

One of our first projects was to build “nightmare bottles.” This involves creating a character and metaphorically putting their fears in a bottle. Of course, this could provide fuel for a story in its own right, but the main purpose here was just to coax the kids into some brainstorming time.

Here’s some of their creations . . .

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Character Kits

The main prop-building project I introduced this term was to create a personal kit for each character. This could also be metaphorical or could actually appear in the students’ stories. I’m big on inventing interesting “tools” for my characters and, especially if you are writing a fantasy book, I think you have a lot of opportunities to add extra sizzle to your story.

For this project, the students get to decorate and paint the kits themselves, then fill them with a variety of mini-props that fit their specific characters’ journeys.

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This project has also tasked my students with a different approach to creativity. I’ve been trying to make sure they solve some of the problems they face.For example, one of my students wanted to build a spy kit with a gun. I looked around for toy guns and felt the creativity being sapped right out of me. I decided we could do something more original and unique. So, instead of buying a pre-made toy pistol, I bought tiny water guns and told the student to use it as a base for building something more unique.

He took one look at the brightly colored water guns and scoffed. I couldn’t convince him what a little paint a few cannibalized odds and ends could do. There was nothing I could do to change his mind, so I went home and built my own gun.

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Admittedly, my gadget turned out part steampunk, part alien ray gun, but I hope I’ve made my point! And, now, I have something more unique and interesting that I can use—yep, I decided this can belong to a character who’s currently running around causing havoc in one of my own stories.

That’s the power of prop-building!

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!

 

 

How a new children’s book series reminded me about the magic of world-building

How a new children’s book series reminded me about the magic of world-building

Author (and friend!) Kallie George recently wrote a guest post on my blog in which she described her world-building process for her brand new children’s book series, The Heartwood Hotel. 

Since that post, Kallie officially launched the series with a fun and engaging event at Kidsbooks, our local bookstore that specializes in catering to young readers.

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The launch was a stupendous success. Families were lined up down to block as they waited for the doors to open, clamoring to hear Kallie share her new world. For Kallie, that mean not only mesmerizing the kids with a reading of the first book in the series, but also providing amazing and tangible pieces that were completely interactive.

I was reminded, once again, about the magic that can happen when you really put the “build” into world-building.

Mapping

In the earlier post on my blog, Kallie talked about using mapping as a way to construct a believable and interesting world. If you haven’t read that post yet, then I really encourage you to do so.

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Mapping has long been a key technique that I use in my own writing process, and, as Kallie describes in her post, I helped her map the Heartwood Hotel, too. Personally, I map all kinds of spaces in my books, everything from entire worlds to one-room settings. I find it’s a great way to “stage” a scene and to help make it logical.

These maps don’t need to be slick and professional for the purposes of the author’s writing, but, of course, they can end up becoming the basis for something your publisher can use for the final book.

Dioramas

The kids who turned up to meet Kallie at her book launch were in for a real treat. Kallie and her husband Luke put in many late nights working on a model of the Heartwood hotel–a sort of doll house complete with furniture and accessories.

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The only thing missing?  Well, that was the figures. But no worries! Kallie provided wooden peg figures so that the kids could make their own animal critters that were the perfect scale to roam around the Heartwood Hotel environment.

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Of course, the kids got to take their peg figures home with them, but I love the idea that they could imagine that they got to stay in the hotel first.

Props

Well, if you’re going on a vacation, you also need a suitcase. Kallie provided miniature suitcase templates that could be cut out and folded into shape.

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If you weren’t so lucky as to attend the launch, you can still make your own Heartwood Hotel suitcase. Just head over to the official website to download the template.

The final activity that I wanted to mention was that the kids attending Kallie’s book launch also had the opportunity to leave behind a record of their stay at the Heartwood Hotel by filling out an entry in one of the many pages in the beautiful guestbook created specifically for the book launch.

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I thought this was a fabulous idea . . . the kids could base the entry on the peg figure they created, or even put their own name (though, really, no humans are allowed at the Heartwood!). This guestbook really helped immerse the kids in Kallie’s world.

Why put the build into world-building?

If you’re a fantasy author—especially a fantasy author for kids—I think you have a really great opportunity to bring your world to life in every way you can. Maps, dioramas, really can make for a magical book launch or school visit.

Building for your readers

We live in an interactive but highly-digitized world. More than ever, there is something enchanting about kids being able to look at a tangible, three-dimensional prop and to hold it their hands. I can’t tell you the number of times a child has examined one of my dragon eggs or magical potions and asked, “Is it real?”

So, these add-ons can really help attract kids to the worlds you have created or deepen their affection for the love they already have for a story. If you ask me, they are a must for a book launch or school visit!

Building for you

So, making magical potions, building a diorama, sketching a map . . . they might be great for promotion, but what do they do for the book itself? Do they make the words better?

I think so. The writing process can be arduous and taking a break from the screen to build something connected to your world can really help you examine your story from a different angle. I like to think of it as getting to play in my world, but in a different way than using words.

I can recall so many times in which I’ve imagined a magical item, written about it, then built a prop of it, only to realize that the final prop is vastly different than the way I originally imagined it—in a much better way. So, in essence, prop building helps enrich the ideas in my story. When you’re a fantasy writer, that’s critical.

Building for teachers

Kallie and I have worked as creative writing teachers, often in tandem, for many years and we have always taken the philosophy of putting the “build” into world building seriously. We often encourage our students, young and old to draw maps of their worlds, build diorama of key settings, create costume designs for characters, and to find or fashion important props.

Of course, these techniques can also be used to help kids connect to books as readers. In my time as an author, I’ve seen pictures of kids connecting to my worlds through costume, dioramas, and figurines. Recently, one student even made her own history book or “EEN-cyclopedia” of my worlds!

What do you think? If you’re a teacher, do use these techniques? If you’re an author, do you use them? If so, which ones?

More Kendra Peg Figures

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Quiet moments as a writer-in-residence

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

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

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

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

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This one detail particularly amused me:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A unicorn, a gladiator bunny, and an epic adventure

This week, I started my work as a writer-in-residence at an inner city school. The school was awarded a grant to bring in two authors, and chose me to work with the intermediate grades (4-7) and my friend and colleague Kallie George to work with the primary grades.

I’ll be going to the school one day a week until the end of February. It’s a great opportunity for me as writing mentor. I do many writer-in-residencies, but often times they are compacted into a short period of time. When the school is in my proverbial backyard, it allows me to go over a sustained period, allowing me to really help the kids practice patience and percolate on the process.

I started today by leading my entire group in an introductory presentation, telling them about my own desire to write and create when I was their age, then described my current process. Finally, I engaged them in a visual plotting exercise. This can be quite the challenge, especially when you have 200-plus kids in a cavernous and echoing gymnasium, but they were amazing! Their enthusiasm and creativity lifted me up and we ended up producing a wonderful story map that included a winged unicorn, a gladiator bunny, and a quest for a missing brainstorming book.

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Each of the students also created an individual visual plot. The purpose of this activity was to introduce them to my process and to get them to approach writing in a way that was different and unexpected for them.

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Afterwards, I led two sessions, one with the Grade 6s and one with the Grade 7s. In each session I set them up to write a story based on the idea of “Mischief in the Market.” In this writing prompt, a character enters a magical market to buy a certain something, but doesn’t have enough money to do so. And, so, the story begins . . .

They began brainstorming ideas for their market settings and the characters and objects found within. Of course, they already had their story maps from the morning session, so just within one day, we’re already beginning to build a catalogue of ideas.

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To further inspire them about their market, I brought in many of my own props and magical items.

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Next week, I will be working with the Grade 4s and 5s, but we’ll do a different topic: Secret Doorways!

 

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 . . .