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!
Hard to believe the new school year is already here!
I had a very busy—and fun—2021-2022 season as an author, visiting schools, libraries, and learning institutes in Canada, USA, and Korea. Many were done virtually, but I also was thankful to see a return to in-person workshops (especially in Korea!). Many of my workshops were built off the release of my latest middle-grade book, Spell Sweeper—which meant a focus on magic potions, mysterious monsters, enchanted pets, and spell-binding shopping trips!
If I had an official resume, it would read like this for 2021-2022 . . .
World Read Aloud Day (virtual readings for schools across the US and Canada)
Canadian Children’s Book Week Tour (virtual workshops for schools in Alberta and Ontario)
Several in-person workshops for libraries and learning institutes in Korea
Several virtual author presentations for schools and libraries in Canada, in which I rolled out my trademark interactive brainstorming sessions
Vancouver School Board gifted learning program
Star of the Sea School, Grade 5
Kamloops School of the Arts (grades 8-12)
Hume Home Learning school (K-8)
I delivered activities for The Imagine in the Park festival in Hamilton, Ontario, and I even led events for adults, delivering presentations for CANSCAIP, The Writers’ Union of Canada, and WriteOnCon.
What magic will this school year hold? I’m prepping for my scheduled creative writing classes, writer-in-residencies, and school visits now, but you can still book me for an in-person or virtual author visit! Just visit my website.
At the end of June, I finished up a year-long project at an arts-based high school in Kamloops (about four hours outside of my home city of Vancouver). Over the many months, I delivered a series of world-building activities, all via Zoom, first because of the pandemic and then because the roads were cut off after our extreme flooding (and then because of covid again).
I do a lot of teaching and speaking over digital technologies, but it’s always a bit more challenging when art is involved because I simply don’t get a chance to lean over shoulders and see what everyone’s working on in the moment. Sure, people can send me photos and files, but it’s never quite the same, mostly because I find it harder to connect with the students.
Luckily, I was finally able to make the trip to Kamloops in the last week of June to deliver a keynote speech to the entire school body and to view their amazing gallery of work. The biggest surprise? The students were so engaged, asking me so many questions, and showing some genuine interest—these were things that I just didn’t pick up on during our virtual sessions. So, there was a connection, and that made the experience extremely rewarding.
As for the specifics of the project, the students were divided into teams to create five different realms: Ice, Sky, Underground, Land, and Water. The worldbuilding was applied to every course in the curriculum—not only the obvious ones such as art and writing, but also science and math.
The result was really amazing. As I wandered the gallery of their Enchanted Earth, I found sculpture, myths, recipes, maps, constellations, language systems, field guide entries for creatures, dioramas . . . pretty much every corner of these worlds was imagined and explored.
I’m showing pictures of just a fraction of the amazing pieces.
I want to extend my thank you to all the students and staff at Kamloops School of the Arts (secondary pod), in particular my partner Melanie Gilmar, who spearheaded the entire initiative. A big thank you to ArtStarts, the funding body for the project.
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.
No . . . that’s NOT the tagline for my next middle-grade book. It’s the tagline for YOURS.
Let me explain!
I am always on the hunt for new ideas to provoke, inspire, and entertain my teen-aged creative writing students. Many of them tumble down the rabbit hole of a long, epic project and I feel a big part of my job is to simply keep them motivated along the way with short and sweet writing projects.
That is where the The Best Fantasy Book Ever project comes is . . .
The pure unabashed joy of imagining
So many of us writers love imagining the package of a book. We love visualizing it on the shelf of the library or the bookshop, love picturing a reader curled up with our book in their hands. This is the type of enthusiasm I wanted to try and capture in this project. I also wanted my students to really unleash their imagination without having to worrying about actually having to . . . deliver.
The title comes first
I’d be curious to know how many authors start with a title—that is to say, they have a title before they have a first draft of the manuscript, or even a first chapter. Personally, I’m all over the map. I have baptized books very early on in the process with a title, while others it took many drafts of the manuscript before I could settle on a name. (As a side note, I’ve never had a publisher change a book title on me, though I have known many authors who have had this happen.)
There are three wheels, each producing its own word. String those words together, plonk a “the” at the beginning and—voilà! You have the title of the Best Fantasy Book Ever.
Here’s the hook
Next, I ask my students to write the back-cover copy for the book. Of course, this serves as an opportunity for me to explain the purpose of this text (NOT to summarize the book, but to sell it) and give some tips on how to write this sort of copy.
The results have been a lot of fun so far—and fantastic. I tried to use words that offer built-in story elements, words such as “last” or “apprentice” or “treason.” I also have a lot of words to suggest fantastical settings, such as “cloud” or “palace.”
I have ended up swapping out a few words here and there since I first built the wheels—I suppose, I could just expand them, too, adding more words, which I might do in the future. So far, though, no two students in any one class have generated the exact same title.
One thing that I find interesting is that very few of my students have felt the need to re-spin the wheels. They could easily do this, and I wouldn’t even know, since all of my classes that I have delivered this project for have been virtually delivered. At the end of the process I always ask how many times they have spun the wheels and I’ve only had a couple of students admit to spinning twice.
There are a lot of possible extensions to this project. Some of my students wrote fake testimonials or reviews to grace their back covers. Others have written biographies of the authors they imagined wrote the books. Some have even written the opening scenes. Others have produced cover designs.
The freedom to create
I’ve now delivered this project to several different groups of teen-aged students, and I’ve had some time to reflect upon the results.
Many of my students get really caught up in creating something perfect. They are so attached to an idea that they want to write that they freeze halfway through a first chapter, petrified by their own dissatisfaction. Others peter out of steam later on in a manuscript because they get stuck on the ongoing nuances of the plot (I call this “Plot Paralysis”).
The Best Fantasy Book Ever project is aimed at helping remove that layer of self-conscious second-guessing. This is a fake book. They don’t have to deliver on it. They have no attachment to it. They just gush out their ideas, then move on.
However . . . there is some magic going on during this process. Because they are not thinking of the big picture, the big possibility, they simply do—and in doing, they are generating fresh ideas, interesting characters, premises, settings, and plot circumstances. Sure they might not write this book . . . but they’ve just bottled a bit of fuel for other projects.
Of course . . . I am waiting for one of my students to tell me they are going to write a book based on the hook they created for the Best Fantasy Book Ever project, because having read some of their back-cover copy . . . well, let’s just say there are some pretty amazing ideas out there!
By the way . . . for my upcoming book, Spell Sweeper, the title came early. I had been contemplating the ideas of magical brooms for a long time, but I wanted to do something with brooms that did NOT involve flying. I finally just asked myself this question: “What if brooms in the magical world were still for sweeping?” From there, the title seemed obvious and natural, though I had a few variations: The Secret Society of Spell Sweepers,Caradine Moone and the Secret Society of Spell Sweepers, and (my favorite): Cara Moone Definitely Does Not Want to Be A Spell Sweeper. Pretty quickly, though, I decided that the simpler Spell Sweeper was the best fit.
You can pre-order Spell Sweeper here. As you can see by the cover image, the tagline is NOT the Best Fantasy Book Ever—it’s Magic is Messy.
Whew! Just wrapped up the last of my creative writing summer camps: Galaxy, Fantasy, and Shipwreck were the three themes, so I explored many different genres and approaches to writing.
First, I’m SO proud of all my students. Look out world—there’s a wave of talented young writers coming your way! Above is a picture of the three anthologies of the students’ work, one for each camp, that we created for the kids.
Second, thank you to my teaching partners Stacey Matson and Marcie Nestman! Couldn’t have done it without you.
Finally, I’m simply grateful for the opportunities to continue teaching the thing I love most: creativity. The pandemic has been challenging, but has also given me the impetus to expand my bag of tricks, learning new ways to engage students over Zoom, and to work with students not only in my own backyard in Vancouver, but across Canada, the US, Korea, China, Singapore, Australia . . .
What’s next? A few weeks off to recharge, spend time with family, and to focus on some personal writing projects. Oh, and Spell Sweeper, my latest middle-grade books, is coming out in three and half months—in some ways, that feels like an eternity, but I know it’ll be here before I know it.
I’m just wrapping up a creative writing camp on the theme of “GALAXY.” We’ve been writing a variety of projects, including a newspaper-style article about the discovery of alien evidence, and dramatic scenes of humans having to escape from an alien’s zoo.
Probably the biggest hit, though, was my module on robots. Our camp has all been virtual, but I was determined to incorporate some sort of prop-building activity. This meant a lot of preparation, assembling “robot kits” and sending out the packages to the students in advance. Most of the pies came from household items—paper cups, lids, plastic containers, paper clips . . . yep, a whole lot of “junk” can really add up to something fun and amazing! I augmented the junk with some craft supplies such as gears, brads, and clock hands.
The students loved receiving the kits and the project turned out better than anticipated. Below are some of the amazing models that they made. Many of the pieces move—the dials spin, the heads rotate, and the propellors swivel.
Afterward, we wrote robot instruction manuals and developed communication/language systems to go with them.
The on in the bottom right-hand corner is actually the one I built as part of demo-process. I call mine a Nerd Detector, but something didn’t turn out quite right, since it kept pointing at me. Oh, well!
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’ve had a lot of queries and questions about author visits lately, so thought I would write a little bit about how I’m currently approaching them.
First thing: I’m still doing them! I’ve delivered single “get-to-know-the-author” type of visits, and I’ve been able to do all the things I would do in a “live” situation. That means sharing the visuals of my writing process (which includes character sketches and props that I build), taking questions, and leading interactive brainstorming sessions.
The interactive brainstorming entails me helping students design a story building element, such as a character’s suitcase, a magical market, or the contents of a monster’s fridge. I am still doing these “old-school” setting up an easel in front of my camera so that the students can see what I’m working on. The students then either call out or ideas or they type them in the chat feature and the teacher calls them out to me. So far, it’s been really successful!
I’ve also been doing several writer-in-residencies, including one for the Vancouver School Board gifted program. In this series of workshops, I’ve been working with the students to create their own wizard schools. Even though I’ve been delivering the classes over a digital platform, we have still been able to do some hands-on activities, such as making potions. I assembled all the spell kits in advance, and had them delivered to the students. Then, on the designated day, I led the live prop-building activity, which then led directly into a writing project. Here are some photos that the students have been sending in—so far the props look AMAZING! (And so are the writing projects that have been inspired by these props.)
I’m also working with another class on a series of writing projects that build off the students’ personal cultural and family stories. This one has been a lot of fun, because I have been hearing all kinds of interesting and fascinating stories. One of the benefits of this theme is that all the hands-on stuff can be found right at home, because it involves the kids finding old family photos and heirlooms.
Finally, I’m leading a residency with a third school, in which I provide regular writing prompts and activities to inspire and engage the students. It’s been a great experience to do these repeat engagements, because it has allowed me to really get to know the students.
Working in the digital realm means I’ve been able to add some extra elements, such as using interactive “character choosing” wheels that provide students with a quick writing prompt and allows them to “play.”
However, the most important thing I’ve learned about this transition to teaching and presenting virtually is that you still have to be YOU. Never mind the digital platforms and all the tricks and tools that might come with them. What kids are looking for (perhaps more than ever) is someone who is engaged, present, and sincere. And, yes, many readers want to hear me talk about the books I’ve written, but they also want to explore their OWN ideas. They want to know how I create so that they can apply it to their own process—which is why I’ve still kept the interactive brainstorming as an integral part of my presentation/workshops.
I’m used to traveling to different places to do school visits and, thankfully, I can still do that virtually. I’ve been able to deliver presentations and workshops for students located across Canada and in other places around the world such as Singapore, Australia, China, and Korea. It’s not quite the same as being there in person, and the time differences can be tricky, but at least we can still connect.
If you’re a teacher or librarian looking for visits, check out my own website, or explore cwillbc.org (The Children’s Writers’ and Illustrators of BC), where you can search the database for a speaker that is perfect for your situation. (You can perform a search using various criteria—for example, you can search for creators who deliver presentations virtually). Another great organization is CANSCAIP, which also has a directory of authors and illustrators across Canada.
I’m so proud of the kids! Despite all the extra challenges this past term, everyone finished up a book in my two creative writing classes that I teach through CWC.
Like so many classes, we were forced to transition to teaching through online platforms halfway through the term due to COVID. Teaching anything creative is hard to do on screen, but we muddled through. The hardest part, though? Designing and illustrating covers for our books.
Usually, when I’m in class, I can literally lean over the student’s workspace and help them sketch or tidy up a design. I often have them work on “thumbnail” sketches first so that they can fine-tune a design before investing a lot of time on a final illustration. I still asked the students take this approach so that I could at least look at their designs—this time, though, I just couldn’t literally get in there and make amendments.
Still, many students succeeded in coming up with excellent designs and/or illustrations. Of course, I have many kids who are fabulous illustrators. For those who aren’t comfortable with their artistic abilities, they decided to draw on the stock photo libraries available through pexels.com and pixabay.com. In these cases, though, the students still had to design their cover, which including deciding upon the right placement of the photo, choosing the font, and thinking about overall impact.
So, here are some of the great covers designed by my students. We’ve got mysteries, science fiction, fantasy quests, and thrillers . . . quite the collection!
The books will go for printing this summer (we print our books perfect-bound, so that they even have proper spines) and they will arrive in our students’ hands in the next couple of months. For them, it feels like forever, I know!
The Creative Writing for Children Society (CWC) is a not-for-profit organization dedicated to enhancing the creativity, confidence and writing capacity of children through well-tailored writing programs, delivered in-class and through digital platforms. In our programs, students from around the world write and illustrate their own books, which are professionally desktop published. Founded in 2004, CWC is based in Vancouver, BC.