There’s a groovy website (fairly) new to the book-review game called Shepard and one of the things that I enjoy about it is the featured lists—especially those by authors!
Inspired by the process of writing my own book, Spell Sweeper, I compiled a list of middle-grade books that feature magical brooms that aren’t Harry Potter (I’ve met more than one young reader—and some older ones, too—who assume Rowling is the inventor of flying broomsticks, as well other fantasy tropes, such as magical schools and owls as familiars)!
You can check out my list here—and, of course, if you have read Spell Sweeper, you already know that the brooms in that book are definitely not for flying!
Today, I finished my first morning as writer-in-residence with the Vancouver School Board’s program for gifted learners. We’re going to be crafting scenes with the theme of “Magic and Monsters,” sending characters off on quests. Along the way, we’ll be designing secret doorways, building potion kits, writing in invisible ink, and mapping our way across imagined landscapes.
I’ve taught this program with VSB twice before, but this is the first time in person, which means I’m getting more hands-on editing, brainstorming, and other writing-related activities. A big thank you to my teaching partner, Ahmed Rahim, for making this amazing program happen. Also, thank you to Artstarts for their “artists in schools” program—we wouldn’t be able to roll out programs like this without their support.
The first part of today’s workshop focused on a general introduction to our philosophy and plan. I brought in my collection of handmade artifacts, hoping to inspire the students and get them to embrace the idea that writing is more than the act of sitting at a screen, but that it can involve doodling, mapping, and building.
I also brought in a stack of fantasy books. Yes, there was my own Spell Sweeper, but I also brought in a selection of other books from authors of diverse backgrounds and experiences to help them consider a broader approach in their own writing. The books included:
The Jumbies by Tracey Baptiste
Eva Evergreen: Semi-Magical Witch by Julie Abe
The Last Mapmaker by Christina Soontornvat
Lia Park and the Missing Jewel by Jenna Yoon
Rise of the Dragon Moon by Gabrielle K. Byrne
The Twelve by Cindy Lin
The Serpent’s Secret by Sayantani Dasgupta
Girl Giant and the Monkey King by Van Hoang
Frances and the Monster by Refe Tuma
The Barren Grounds by David A. Robertson
The Dragon Egg Princess by Ellen Oh
The Last Shadow Warrior by Sam Subity
Wing and Claw: Forest of Wonders by Linda Sue Park
Dragon Slippers by Jessica Day George
Witch Hat Atelier by Kamome Shirahama
The Third Eye by Mahtab Narsimhan
The Fabulous Zed Watson by Kevin Sylvester and Basil Sylvester
Of course, I could have brought in many more books from my personal library, but you have to start somewhere!
The second part of the day was about rolling up our sleeves and writing our first scene, which was about a character discovering a secret of special doorway. The first order of business was to design the doorways and generate some story building elements. I love how these students embraced this process, as you can see by some of their work below!
Are you a teacher, librarian or educator? I am thrilled to be participating in World Read Aloud Day 2023, and am currently booking 20-minute slots.
A typical structure for my WRAD visits looks something like this:
1-2 minutes: I introduce myself and talk a little about my books (I come with props!)
3-5 minutes: I read aloud a short excerpt from a book.
5-10 minutes: I answer a few questions from students about reading/writing.
1-2 minutes: I book-talk a couple books I love (but didn’t write!) as recommendations for your students.
I’ll be reading from either Spell Sweeper, The Secret of Zoone, or The Guardians of Zoone—or maybe I’ll give you a sneak-peek of a new work! I write middle-grade fantasy books that contain high adventure, plus some meaningful messages about how we can find our place in our communities and the world at large. Ideal for grades 4-7.
Hey, Spell Sweeper fans—you deserve a gift for all the love you’ve given this book. So, I’m releasing today a free e-book of “EXTRAS,” which you can download HERE.
(If you’re looking to get a copy of Spell Sweeper itself, then check out HarperCollins’ purchase page.)
Lots of goodies here! First, I’ve got some deleted scenes for you (some of those intervening moments where Cara talks about aspects of her life or Dragonsong Academy). It was a hard decision to cut these scenes; even though they are quite short, they slowed down the pacing of the main narrative or, in some cases, I felt the information was covered well enough elsewhere. But if you were dying to know what kids at Dragonsong like to dress up as for Halloween, you won’t have to wonder any longer!
Second, I have included two of the “wizard fairy tales” that are referenced in Spell Sweeper: The Tale of Eurybia the Eradicator and The Tale of Theradune the Betrayer. These tales present the origin stories of two important talismans that impact the plot of Spell Sweeper, but they’ll also give you a glimpse into Cara’s thinking. I never did intend to include these stories in the main book. I just often conceive these kinds of myths as part of my world-building process.
Third, are some Spell Sweeper inspired recipes and, finally, some of my own sketches of the characters (Maike Plenzke’s versions of these characters on the cover are much better than my own, but at least you can see how I was thinking of them).
Well, how many times have I been asked over the last few months: “Will there be a Spell Sweeper sequel?” I’m thankful so many people want one! But I did pitch this book as a stand-alone, so if I ever return to Cara’s story it won’t be quite yet. However, you can enjoy more of Cara’s voice and world RIGHT NOW!
Of course, if you haven’t read Spell Sweeper yet, these extras will provide you with a glimpse of Cara’s voice and, well, let’s just call it her swagger. Either way . . . enjoy!
Unlike Cara Moone in my latest middle-grade book, I never went to magic school as a kid—but I was in a classroom that was incredibly magical.
It started in Grade 3 when I was sent to the hall to sit at a lonely desk and fill out a piece of paper. I thought I was in trouble at first! There was a sheet of paper with rows of circles, and the instructions said to draw.
I can’t remember what I drew exactly, but it definitely wasn’t confined to within those circles. In the weeks ahead, there were a few other tests, and at least one interview with some old guy that came across as very scientific. In my imagination, he hooked me up to electrodes and tested my brain patterns (but I actually think he just asked me complicated questions).
Grade 4 . . . everything changed. I was put into a “creative learning” class with Mrs. Clough. We had a giant room with a small number of students. Some of the students came and went, but as for me, I was in that same classroom with the same teacher for three years.
During those three years, my creativity was nurtured and enflamed. I was given permission to be me. (I grew up on a farm in a small rural town and let’s just say that painting pictures or writing stories did not have many practical applications).
Being in Mrs. Clough classroom was a foundational experience in my life. That room was my haven, a place where I could write, draw, build and explore. Many stories and ideas blossomed within those walls. I became a critical thinker, a dreamer, an enactor.
Mrs. Clough’s classroom helped make me who I am today, both as a writer and arts educator.
How can you ever repay those teachers in your life? It’s impossible, but I’m doing my best today by sending Mrs. Clough signed copies of my books.
Incidentally, that classroom still exists. Eventually our school was turned into a town center and our classroom was converted to become part of the public library . . . so, yep . . . my books are sitting on shelves in the place where I learned how to embrace my creativity.
Last week, I was a guest at a book club (MGLitBC) and had a question from one of the participants about the audiobook version of Spell Sweeper (yes, there’s an audiobook!), and what that process was like.
The book is narrated by Sandy Rustin, and the excerpts I’ve listened to are amazing. When I was listening to samples of other books Sandy had narrated, I knew she could capture the voice of main character Cara perfectly.
However, full disclosure: I haven’t listened to the entire audio book of Spell Sweeper yet. This is partly because I already know the book inside out and the various (and towering) TRB stacks located throughout my house are forever calling to me. But I plan to rectify this situation soon; the audio book is cued up and ready to go!
One final note of interest . . . I didn’t actually know Spell Sweeper would get an audio book when I was writing it; otherwise, I might have changed some of those names (like Dörgés!). It wasn’t just Sandy’s job to pronounce those names; I had to record audio samples of all the character names and made-up terms in advance of audio book production. During that process, I fell into this whole trap of thinking how Cara would pronounce certain names and words. The book is first-person narration and I’m not sure how accurate she would be—she’s not exactly obsessed with the finer points of politeness. So, there’s this line between getting things right while trying to remain true and authentic to Cara’s voice. Ultimately, I pronounced everything as accurately and authentically as I could and advised that we let Cara’s voice shine.
I can’t wait to read the stories that accompany these brooms!
As for the book discussion itself, well I really work hard on my students to be honest in their appraisals of books. It’s especially hard to do when the creator is standing in front of you, so in previous years I never led lit circles on my own books for that reason. But then I decided that it’s a better idea that they read their instructor’s work, so now we tackle it as best we can. We rate our books out of ten, and I’m happy to report that my book received an average score of 8.15/10. (Actually, I’m extremely happy with that because it proves that they were indeed honest).
I will mention that Zuki, the magical fox creature (kitsune) was by far the favourite character.
I’ve been seeing a lot of posts for Spell Sweeper (thank you so much, Intraweb) and every time there are comments about how amazing the cover is—no kidding!
I feel like I won the cover lottery, with artwork done by the amazing Maike Plenzke and some incredible design and typography by Jessie Gang.
Here are a few notes pointing out details and aspects of the cover:
Early sketches of the cover showed the picture frames hanging straight, so that was one detail that was amended in the final. There was no advice offered for the portraits in those frames, but in my mind they definitely represent some of the characters from wizard history that Cara references throughout the book.
Below are some of my own sketches and the photo of the broom reference!
Over the past eighteen years, I’ve met thousands of kids at school visits, library events, writing conferences, and creativity workshops—many of them while visiting overseas.
One of the things that has come up, time and time again, is how much they love books about magical schools (hello, Harry Potter!)—but what also comes up is how they can’t see themselves as a part of the story, except maybe as a periphery character.
This was something that played heavily in my mind as I wrote Spell Sweeper. I wanted the kids in my life (including my own son) to see that the “Chosen One” in this type of story can look like them—not just in another time and place where all the characters might look like them, but in the world at large. Does that make sense?
I also liked playing with this idea that you might have the most wonderful thing in the world happen to you, like being chosen to go to wizard school . . . but then you’re NOT the “Chosen One.” How many of us had dreams come true (like being published!), but then don’t become New York Times bestselling authors, and either beat ourselves up or stew in jealousy? But even if you’re not at the top of the ladder, does that mean you should devalue the fact that you made it on the rungs in the first place?
It’s a struggle that I am witness to all the time: in myself, in my friends, in my kids. So, I guess I wanted to say…welcome to the magical world. You’re in it, no matter who you are.
Here is the next rule from the Code of Conduct, as described in Spell Sweeper, my latest middle-grade novel, with commentary by the main character Cara Moone.
THE SPELL SWEEPER CODE OF CONDUCT
(Doas I say, not as I bespell)
All magical entities, or traces of magical entities, must be immediately turned over to the proper authorities. Do not attempt to keep these creatures as pets.
(I take this rule as more of a suggested guideline.)
Readers of Spell Sweeper will know that this is the rule that Cara wholeheartedly breaks by adopting a baby squix. I really wanted this creature to be something that was so ugly it was cute. Below, is my concept drawing.
Yep, I definitely nailed “ugly.” Thankfully, cover artist Maike Plenzke came up with a MUCH better alternative . . . something that was ADORABLE.
I definitely want a stuffy version of this critter! Maybe I’ll figure out how to do that eventually, but I have had fun making squix eggs (when Cara first encounters her illegal pet, she’s still in the shell).