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.
Hey, teachers, librarians, booksellers, and booklovers! I want to shout from the roof tops that e-ARCS (advanced reading copies) and audio ARCS of my latest middle-grade book, SPELL SWEEPER, are now available for request on NetGalley and Edelweiss. I’m particularly excited that it’s available as an audio ARC—this is a relatively new format and technology that publishers have been rolling out, and we decided to use this format instead of providing traditional print arcs (this seemed a particularly good fit during pandemic times).
An audio arc is generated by a computer voice, though it’s stunningly human-like (the future is here, folks). Rest assured, a traditional audiobook version of Spell Sweeper will be released this fall along with the hardcover format, and that version will feature a professional voice-over actor as the narrator.
I think Spell Sweeper really matches well with an audio presentation. It’s unlike any other book I’ve written: it’s first person, present tense, and features some real-world locations such as the Whistler Train Wreck.
As for what the story is about? I often like to describe Spell Sweeper as “Ghostbusters goes to Wizard School,” but my editor, the wonderful Stephanie Stein at HarperChildrens, recently tweeted a far more compelling write-up:
“I love magical school books, and this one is hilarious, messy, inventive, and full of heart, with a protagonist who’s halfway to flunking out of wizard school and has a chip on her shoulder the size of the moon!”
The official back cover text:
There’s nothing magical about wizard school . . . at least not for Cara Moone
Most wizard kids spend their days practicing spells and wielding wands, but Cara? She’s on the fast track to becoming a MOP (a.k.a. Magical Occurrence Purger). You see, when a real wizard casts a spell, it leaves behind a residue called spell dust—which, if not disposed of properly, can cause absolute chaos in the nonmagical world. It’s a MOP’s job to clean up the mess.
And no one makes more of a mess than Harlee Wu. Believed to be the Chosen One, destined to save the magical world, Harlee makes magic look easy. Which makes her Cara’s sworn nemesis. Or she would be, if she even knew Cara existed.
Then one of Harlee’s spells leaves something downright dangerous behind it: a rift in the fabric of magic itself. And when more rifts start to appear around the school, all in places Harlee has recently used magic, Cara is pretty sure the so-called “Chosen One” isn’t going to save the world. She’s going to destroy it.
It will take more than magic to clean up a mess this big. Fortunately, messes are kind of Cara’s thing.
So, if you have an account on NetGalley or Edelweiss, head on over there now to request your advanced reading copy—I look forward to your honest reviews.
Spell Sweeper is officially released in November by HarperCollins Children’s Books. You can add it to Goodreads here, and find preorder links here. (And please do add it to Goodreads and/or pre-order it; these actions really help authors!)
Today, I received a package from Quilchena School in Vancouver where I did a (virtual) writer-in-residency on the theme of family and cultural stories.
Over the course of several weeks, the students, teacher Kelly Enns, and I explored family connections through personal memories, heirlooms, old photographs, and legends passed down through the generations. We spoke of different family situations, what makes a family, and the different cultures that have contributed to our lives. Kelly is Japanese Canadian and could speak a lot about her family’s experiences during the internment of World War II. I was able to speak about how my wife and I adopted our son internationally, and what it means to embrace and incorporate a new culture into our daily lives. And, of course, the students had many stories to share.
Along the way, we produced many different writing pieces. We wrote poems or descriptive paragraphs about an item or moment in our lives. We wrote short stories inspired by family legends, and even imagined our family homes telling a story about us.
I loved seeing all of the heirlooms and photographs that the children showed me; some of them very old and beautiful, coming from all corners of the world. Along the way, I showed some of my own family heirlooms and photos.
It’s not always easy to know what kind of impact you leave as a visiting author, but it’s even more difficult in this age when everything is online. So, I am extremely touched that the teacher prepared this book of writing and artwork! I will cherish it always.
The students drew many pictures of how they connected with me. There are a lot of drawings of the characters from my books: Kendra Kandlestar, Tug the skyger, Fidget, Ozzie . . . plus many pictures of brooms, since I talked to them a lot about my forthcoming book, Spell Sweeper, and how a large part of it was inspired by my grandfather handmaking his own brooms.
You will also notice many pictures of chickens. Students are always amused to hear the stories of me being attacked by the rooster when I was a kid! So, in short, it seems that when kids think of me it goes like this: flying tigers, chickens, and brooms. Seems about right!
I’m so pleased to finally announce that I have a new middlegrade book coming out in the fall of this year: Spell Sweeper!
I originally pitched Spell Sweeper to my agent (the wonderful Rachel Letofsky), and then my editor at HarperKids (the equally as wonderful Stephanie Stein) as Ghostbusters meets wizard school.
I gave them a few sample chapters, and it was the voice of the main character that Caradine Moone that captivated them—so I was off to the races. And it really was a race, because this book was only pitched in November 2019, which gave me less than a year to deliver a final manuscript (which includes going through three intense story edits and then a round of copy edits).
This is a very different book for me: first person, present tense, set firmly in our world (don’t worry, there are still dragons and other magical critters). My editor refers to it as a “delightfully dysfunctional adventure”—I couldn’t have worded it better myself.
It’s also my most personal book. Caradine Moone is a girl failing wizard school—I was aiming to capture the yearnings of the thousands of kids I’ve worked with over my career, the ones with all the “why not me?” or “when is it my turn?” moments. This book is for them.
I’m so pleased with this book, and ESPECIALLY THE COVER, which was illustrated by the fabulous Maike Plenzke. If you’re a kid lit fan, you might recognize her style as gracing the covers of the phenomenal Front Desk series by Kelly Yang, so to have Maike as my cover illustrator was a literal dream come true.