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.

heartwoodhotellaunch-kalliegeorge

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.

heartwoodhotel-joanne

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.

heartwoodhotel-activity

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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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Mapping the Heartwood Hotel

heartwood_truehome.jpgAuthor (and friend) Kallie George has taken over my blog for today to talk about her fantastic new children’s book series, The Heartwood Hotel. Below, you’ll get to read Kallie’s discussion about one aspect of her process . . . but before you dive into that, I just want to say that I really love the world she has created in this series.

I was privileged to be a part of her journey as this book—and this world—came to life. As you’ll read below, I helped her map out some of her settings, but I was also lucky enough to read her various drafts of the plots and stories along the way.

When Kallie first told me about her idea (it seems so long ago now!), I instantly thought of one of my favorite childhood series, The Bedtime Story-Books by Thornton W. Burgess.

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I loved entering a world where animals were highly anthropomorphized, but still inhabited a world with all the natural dangers of the forest.

Kallie’s new Heartwood Hotel series is much the same. She has teased whimsical personalities from the natural characteristics of her animals and constructed a world where there is delight—and danger—around every bend in the forest trail. I hope you will enjoy her books—and her post about her process, below. Make sure you read all the way to the end to find the link for a chance to win your own copy of her book.

* * *

It’s my pleasure to post on this blog! Lee Edward Fodi is a good friend of mine—and we’ve co-taught many times together through CWC (Creative Writing for Children).

By the nature of spending time together, I’ve had the opportunity to learn from Lee, not only how to be a better teacher, but also how to be a better writer. He’s helped me, too—by designing my website (heartwoodhotel.com), reading early drafts of my stories, and even mapping out my settings.

I love to create fantasy worlds that are usually based in one locale. In my Magical Animal Adoption Agency, most of the action takes place in the Agency itself. In Heartwood Hotel, the same is true. The majority of conflicts take place in the hotel.

I don’t map my settings naturally. In fact, when I wrote the first Magical Animal Adoption Agency book, Clover’s Luck, I didn’t make a map at first. However, this led to some big problems. It was my editor at Disney at that time that pointed this out. She asked me if I realized that I had Clover turning a different way down a hall to get to the Small Animals Room in different parts of the story. She asked if I could make a map.

“It doesn’t have to be fancy!” she said. “It can be really rough.”

But I am a perfectionist and, although I am not good at drawing or designing, I knew Lee was, and we happened to be teaching a camp in Korea together at the time. So, I asked him if he would help me create a map for the Agency. Many drafts later, we did.

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When I was about to write the Heartwood Hotel, I decided this time I would make a map BEFORE I started, to avoid any logical issues that might arise. That’s one of the best things that a map provides—a guide for you, as a writer, so that you don’t make logical mistakes in your story.

The Heartwood Hotel was also a lot more complicated than the Magical Animal Adoption Agency. It’s a giant hotel in a giant oak, with multiple floors above and below ground.  Lee so kindly sat with me after a camp we were teaching, and although he was bone-tired, we worked together on the layout.

I remember some of our questions:

  • How to fit everything in the one tree?
  • What is the scale? (IE. How big does the door have to be if a badger is the owner)
  • Where does the staircase go?
  • Where does the fireplace go? (Of course, in reality a fireplace inside a tree is a bit crazy, but we decided it has a chimney up through the center)
  • Where are the owner, Mr. Heartwood’s quarters?
  • How can we mimic the look and feel of real fancy lodges? Are all the rooms in a fancy hotel in the Heartwood too?

These are just some of the early sketches that we created.

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I used the final map a lot while writing the four books, and it kept me on track. Plus, it also reminded me of some of the interesting rooms in the tree that I wanted to use in later books and chapters (like the salon)!

I’m so grateful to Lee for helping me visualize and create this. World building is one of the most enjoyable parts of creating a story and mapping is an essential component of that. If you are writing a story—I’d highly recommend it!

* * *

page153skunks.jpgAbout the Book:

Title:
HEARTWOOD HOTEL, A TRUE HOME (Book 1)

Author:
Kallie George, with illustrations by Stephanie Graegin

Release Date: July 3, 2017
Pages: 176
Publisher: Disney-Hyperion
Formats: Hardcover, paperback, eBook

Find it: Goodreads | Amazon | B&N | iBooks | TBD

When Mona the Mouse stumbles across the wondrous world of the Heartwood Hotel in the middle of a storm, she desperately hopes they’ll let her stay. As it turns out, Mona is precisely the maid they need at the grandest hotel in Fernwood Forest, where animals come from far and wide for safety, luxury, and comfort. But the Heartwood Hotel is not all acorn souffl and soft moss-lined beds. Danger lurks, and as it approaches, Mona finds that this hotel is more than a warm place to spend the night. It might also be a home.

This delightfully enticing start of a new chapter book series tells a tale of friendship, courage, and community, with exquisite black-and-white illustrations throughout..

kalliegeorge05About Kallie:

KALLIE GEORGE is the author of the Magical Animal Adoption Agency series. She works as an author and speaker in Vancouver, Canada, and has a master’s in children’s literature from the University of British Columbia. She also leads workshops for aspiring writers. Kallie happened across the Heartwood Hotel on a hike with her husband. Visit her online at kalliegeorge.com.

Website


StephanieAbout Stephanie:

STEPHANIE GRAEGIN received her BFA in Fine Arts from the Maryland Institute College of Art. She later attended Pratt Institute, obtaining a Master of Fine Arts in Printmaking. Stephanie now lives in Brooklyn. Visit her online at graegin.com or on Twitter @Steph_Graegin.

Website | Twitter | Instagram

Giveaway Details:

Three winners will receive a finished copy of HEARTWOOD HOTEL (US Only). Just click HERE.

FOLLOW THE TOUR:

Week One:
6/26/2017- YA Book Nerd– Author Post
6/27/2017- Seraphina Reads– Review
6/28/2017- Just Commonly– Review
6/29/2017- BookHounds YA– Author Post
6/30/2017- Once Upon a Twilight Review

Week Two:
7/3/2017- Mundie Kids– Review
7/4/2017- Word Spelunking– Author Post
7/5/2017- Mommy Ramblings– Review
7/6/2017- Batch of Books– Review
7/7/2017- Between the Cracks of Here and There– Author Post

 

Children’s books with art theme connections—rated by kids

I recently completed the latest edition of the “Picture Perfect” class I teach for CWC. Picture Perfect is a series of workshops in which we explore creative writing by taking inspiration from art history. The students ranged from age 11-14.

As part of this class, we read and discuss different books that connect, in one way or another, to art or art history. The students rated each of book out of ten. Many of these students have been in our program for a long time, so have been taught to be critical in their judments of books. That is to say, they don’t throw around nines and tens very readily!

Below are the books, ranked from lowest rating to the highest. So, keep in mind, this is NOT the order in which we read them. Special thanks to my student, Janice, for being our accountant and tabulating all the scores each week.

If you’re looking for great books connected to the theme of art that are not on the below list, then I’ve put some addition recommendations at the end of the post.

Noonie's Masterpiece16. Noonie’s Masterpiece
Written by Lisa Railsback / Illustrated by Sarajo Frieden
Average rating: 5.5/10

This book features vibrant (and coloured) illustrations, and tells the story of a young artist’s attempt to find her expression. My students didn’t really like the protagonist, whom they found to be too arrogant and self-absorbed. Personally, I think everyone feels that way from time to time . . . so I recommend this book for any young lovers of art.

*

under_the_egg15. Under the Egg
Written by Laura Marx Fitzgerald
Average rating: 6.6 /10

This book captures the intriguing legacy of art theft, drawing on the real-life Nazi plunder of art treasures during World War II. Theodora accidentally spills rubbing alcohol on her grandfather’s painting and discovers a Renaissance masterpiece underneath. I matched this book with our discussion of art theft. The students wrote a story about a modern day character finding a stolen painting.

*

Chasing Vermeer14. Chasing Vermeer
Written by Blue Bailliet / Illustrated by Brett Helquist
Average rating: 7.0/10

This book combines an exploration of Jans Vermeer’s artwork with a mystery (fitting, since Vermeer seems to be a figure clouded in mystery himself). There are many clues and codes at work within this book, which I found hooked my immersive mind. Some of my students, however (especially the younger ones) were too frustrated by this particular aspect of the book. This book made an obvious connection to our study on the golden age of Dutch Art.

*

04-usbornebookoffamouspaintings13. The Usborne Book of Famous Paintings
Written by Rosie Dickens
Average rating: 7.1/10

This is the book I used to kick-off the workshop series. It’s nonfiction and provides an introduction to art history. It is especially good for those students who are new to the subject. I also used this book as a springboard for an activity in which each student presented a favourite painting.

*

theodosia12. Theodosia and the Serpents of Chaos
Written by R.L. LaFevers
Average rating: 7.2/10

Taking place in the early 1900s, this book tells the story of Theodosia, an expert detector of Egyptian curses. I chose this book to match up with Egyptian art. For a writing activity, we wrote a two-part story. The first part described an Egyptian character living a normal life, and ended with that character’s death. Part Two was that character going through the embalming process and entering the after life. We also made miniature mummies!

*

plain_kate.jpg11. Plain Kate
Written by Erin Bow
Average rating: 7.2 / 10

Kate is a master wood-carver who lives in a Medieval-era world and is left to look after herself after her father dies. Her cat, Taggle, pretty much steals the story—delightfully so. Once her shadow gets stolen, the adventure really picks up. I chose this book to match up with our exploration of Medieval Art, as it explores that era well, mixing in the idea of superstition.

*

elsewhere.jpg10. The Shadows (The Books of Elsewhere, Book 1)
Written by Jacqueline West
Average rating: 7.3 / 10

Eleven-year-old Olive moves into a dilapidated old mansion and finds a way to enter the paintings that are hanging on the walls. There are some wonderful side characters in this novel—a trio of cats, whom became class favoirites. I matched this book with a writing assignment in which a character enters a painting and visits a world on “the other side.”

*

Mixed-Up Files9. The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler
Written and Illustrated by E.L. Konigsburg
Average rating: 7.5 / 10

This is a classic book, and one that I really love. It tells the story of a sister and brother who decide to run away from home and live in the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art. During their stay, then become immersed in a mystery about the authenticity of a statue supposedly carved by the Renaissance master Michelangelo. I matched this book with our exploration of Renaissance Art. For a writing activity, the students wrote a first-person story that took place over a single day, from dawn to dusk, and was about an apprentice of a Renaissance Master. The key was that the apprentice is harbouring a significant secret from the master.

*

single_shard8. A Single Shard
Written by Linda Sue Park
Average rating: 7.5/10

This Newbery Medal-winning book takes place in twelth-century Korea and tells the story of Tree-Ear, a thirteen-year-old orphan who is given a quest to deliver an example of his master’s pottery to the royal court. I really loved the description of Potter Min sculpting his pottery. I chose this book as a way to broaden our discussion of Asian art (as so much of our course was focused heavily on Europe).

*

paper_house7. Paper House
Written by Lois Peterson
Average rating: 7.6 / 10

Ten-year-old Safiyah lives in the Kibera slum of Nairobi and brightens her life by making collages from pages of discarded magazines. This books was a good way to approach the subject of the healing power of art. I chose this book to match with one of our many discussion on Modern Art.

*

06-carnationlilylilyrose6. Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose: The Story of a Painting
By Hugh Brewester / Illustrated by John Singer Sargent
Average rating: 7.7/10

This book is sort of like a scrapbook, chronicling the true story of how John Singer Sargent’s famous painting, Carnation, Lily, Lily Rose, was created. It includes reproductions of the artist’s sketches and cartoons and is told from the perspective of young Kate Millet, one of the painter’s would-be models. For an activity, we tried making our own painting and then students wrote about the experience.

*

02-chroniclesofharrisburdick5. The Chronicles of Harris Burdick
Written by 14 different authors / Illustrated by Chris Van Allsburg
Average rating: 7.7/10

With a foreward by Lemony Snickett and stories crafted by many stalwarts of the children’s literature scene, there’s hard not to find something to like in this book. Many teachers use this book as a basis for creative writing activities. In this workshop, we actually didn’t, but we did discuss what illustrations we liked the best, and which ones we thought offered the most fuel for a writer. For our actual activity, we experimented with lucid dreaming; I induced a sleep-state in the students, then, afterwards, they free-wrote for fifteen minutes.

*

01-gatheringblue4. Gathering Blue
Written by Lois Lowry
Average rating: 7.9 / 10

Left orphaned and crippled in a dystopian future that shuns and discards the weak, Kira is faced with an uncertain future. But when her talent as a weaver is discovered, she is offered a new hope—and a frightening glimpse at the workings of her society. We discussed this book towards the end of our program, to match with our explorations of future directions of art.

*

mangoshapedspace3. A Mango-Shaped Space
Written by Wendy Mass
Average rating: 8.1/10

This is a coming-of-age novel, but with a twist. Mia has synesthesia, a condition in which her perceptions are intermingled so that she can see sounds, smell colors, and taste shapes. The problem is that she has kept the condition hidden—even from her parents—for her entire life. We discussed this book towards the end of our workshop series. It was a good match with our explorations of Modern Art.

*

wolf_brother2. Wolf Brother
Written by Michelle Paver
Average rating: 8.2 / 10

Set 6,000 years ago, this story chronicles the journey of twelve-year-old Torak and his wolf companion as they set about to restore balance to their world after dark forces encroach. I chose this book to help put the students in the mindset of prehistoric times. For an activity, we painted on rocks with basic pigments and wrote stories in which we imagined the first person to paint on a cave wall in his or her society.

*

with_malice1. With Malice
Written by Eileen Cook
Average rating: 8.4 / 10

This book had the least connection to art out of our entire collection, but I included it because I knew my students would love it. Eighteen-year-old Jill visits Italy for an exploration of art and culture, only to experience a deadly accident that leaves the reader guessing the real truth behind the event. My students and I successfully identified the city that is featured on the cover (Vernazza) and had it confirmed via twitter by the author!

*

Well, there you have it! I have some hard reviewers, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t like (or in some cases, LOVE) these books. Of course, I encourage you to check them out.

Other books on the theme of art and art history that we didn’t read in this workshop, but which I have taught in the past:

The Hound of Rowan: Book One of The Tapestry
By Henry H. Neff

The Blackhope Enigma
Written by Teresa Flavin

Lunch Money
Written by Brian Clements

A Nest for Celeste
Written and Illustrated by Henry Cole

Masterpiece
Written by Elise Broach

The Medici Curse
Written by Matt Chamings

 

 

 

 

 

Designing a doorway to Storyville

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I’m just at the tail-end of a tour of schools in the cities of Kelowna and West Kelowna. The schedule has been intense, as I’ve been often delivering four workshops a day spread across two different schools.

At each school, I delivered a different brainstorming project, depending on the age of the audience and my allotted time. For the youngest students (the kindergartens and Grade 1s) I led a round of Monster Design 101, while for the older students we either mapped a hero’s journey across a fantastical landscape or designed a magical doorway. Any of these activities serve as an excellent springboard into a story. In each case, the students complete their own individual brainstorming sheet while simultaneously contributing to an overall group one.

The result is always distinctive and unique . . . and always a concoction of wonderful ideas.

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Even though part of my brain was exhausted by week’s end, another part was percolating with ideas. In my very last visit of the week, the students and I group-designed this particular door:

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I decided to take inspiration from it and write my own story, which I present below. It doesn’t match the door design exactly, but, as I always tell my workshop participants, brainstorming isn’t your boss. It’s just your guide and you need to feel free to veer off in different (and hopefully better) directions.

* * *


Time for Dinner

Tom raced down the street, school bag clattering on his back as he headed home. Coach had kept them behind for extra time and now he was going to be late for dinner. Again. And tonight Mom was making his favourite: spaghetti.

He was salivating over the thought of those home-made meatballs when he passed by the alley and came to a screeching halt. His older brother Daniel had warned him to never go down there, but that was Daniel for you. He thought he was the Boss of Everything. Besides, the alley was a shortcut home. Tom didn’t hesitate—meatballs were waiting for him!

He scampered into the alley and found himself in a narrow space with moody shadows clutching at him from either side. But other than that, it really wasn’t that scary. It was even pleasantly—and surprisingly—warm.

He was halfway through when he came upon the door.

That brought him to another stop. Because this wasn’t the type of door you encounter in everyday life. To begin with, it had a peculiar shape. The bottom was normal enough, starting in a rectangle, but at the top it branched off into different directions before tapering into five distinct points. Taking a step back to gain a better view, Tom realized it looked just like a claw. The door’s slats of wood appeared as if they had been once painted a bright red, though now very little of the color was left—just a tattered and peeling curl here and there. Otherwise, the door was mostly bare and grey, though two ornamental hinges danced whimsically across the wood in the curling shapes of dragon tails. They looked like they had once been a bright and proud black, though now they were so corroded by rain and time that long streaks of green dripped from them like poison tears.

There was a small doorknocker set in the middle of the door. It was in the shape of a face and was clenching a heavy ring of metal in its teeth. It had a wide-eyed expression; Tom decided that it looked surprised to see him. Then he looked down at the door handle. It had a round knob with a curlicue pattern.

Tom reached out for the knob, only to hear, “Mrumphff rumff rphray!”

Tom dropped his school bag and leapt backwards, eyes darting. Who had said that? The alley was completely deserted. Then Tom’s eyes wandered back to the door and he saw the doorknocker quivering, its lips contorting desperately around the heavy metal ring its mouth.

“Mrumphff rumff rphray!”

It was as if it was trying to talk—though all too ineffectually.

Tom tugged at one of his ears. This can’t be happening, he thought. He stared down towards the end of the alley, where he could see the sun beginning to set overtop the rooftops in his neighborhood. Just around the corner and down the street was his house. And spaghetti and meatballs.

Better to just go home, he thought.

“Mrphymmmhhh . . .” the doorknocker said with a sigh.

Then again, spaghetti and meatballs happened every week. A talking door? That could be a once-in-a-lifetime event.

No wonder Daniel warned me to stay away from here, Tom told himself. Maybe he wanted to keep this magical door to himself.

He reached for the handle again. The doorknocker grunted and grimaced, still trying to talk, still making no sense. Tom turned the doorknob and yanked. It screeched in complaint and held fast; no one had surely opened the door in ages. That’s when he noticed the keyhole below the knob.

“Hmm,” Tom murmured.

He stepped back and contemplated the door anew.

Suddenly, there was a metallic creak. It came from a metal letter slot that Tom had not yet noticed, set a few inches below the doorknocker. Something was working its way through the narrow flap. Tom furled his brow and watched in curiosity as a piece of paper edged out. When it was all the way through, it fluttered to the ground.

Tom stooped to pick it up. It was old and thin, scorched and torn around the edges. In ragged writing, someone had scrawled in dark red ink: HELP ME.

“What the!?” Tom gasped. He let the paper dropped back to the littered ground of the alley. “Who is me?

He tried to open the mail slot with his finger, but it didn’t offer any view of what lay beyond. He put his ear to the surface of the door and felt heat radiating from the wood. But he could hear nothing except for the desperate pleading coming from the doorknocker.

I guess it’s asking for help—that’s what it’s trying to say, Tom thought. He could see a very intense look in that doorknocker’s eyes—well as intense as you could get for something that wasn’t exactly . . . alive.

Tom began to pace the alley. What to do . . . what to do . . .

He was just about to give up on the whole venture when he noticed the oddly-colored brick in the wall, next to the door. Most of the other bricks were grey and rough. But this one was blueish. Upon closer scrutiny, Tom decided that it was even glowing slightly. He reached out, hesitantly, and touched the brick.

“Mrumphff rumff rphray!”

The brick slid outwards, coughing with dust as it did so. Tom had to stand on his tip-toes to see the top of it. There, nestled in a perfect coffin-like hollow, was a large brass key.

“Cool,” Tom murmured as he reached in and tugged the key loose. It was heavy and old-fashioned, and felt cool in his hands. Tom decided to not waste another moment. He plugged the key into the door and cranked the knob, allowing himself a self-congratulatory smile as he did so.

Yes, he was very clever, he decided. He had discovered the hidden key in the bricks. Could Daniel have done that? Well, he hadn’t, because otherwise Tom would have heard about it. For once, Tom was going to be the hero. For once, he was going to reap the reward.

Slowly, the door groaned inward. Craning his neck, Tom peered inside. All he could see was a murky black tunnel.

It did not look inviting—certainly not as inviting as spaghetti and meatballs.

“Mrumphff rumff rphray!” came the muffled cry from the doorknocker from what was now the other side of the open door.

Tom took a step backwards. Maybe this wasn’t a good idea after all. Then, from the depths of the tunnel, came an unearthly, sibilating rumble. A sharp and stinging odour reached his nostrils; it smelled like soot or burning metal, like a car trying to screech to a halt with warn-out brake pads. Tom took another step back, only to suddenly feel the door whack him in the back as it slammed shut. Tom tumbled forward, into the pitch black, and landed roughly on ground littered with what felt like pebbles and sharp sticks. He could feel the tiny shards digging into his skin. He clutched one of the sticks and held it up to his face for closer inspection, but he couldn’t discern any detail in the darkness.

Then he heard the growl again. It came thundering through the tunnel, so loud and ominous it was like being grabbed by the pit of the stomach and turned inside out. Tom quickly scrambled to his feet and pressed himself against the now-shut door. He was still clutching the stick in one hand, but with his other, he reached behind him and fumbled for the doorknob. His hand found it, jiggled it, but it was locked shut.

Then, out of the blackness, a pair of amber eyes, appeared. They were shot through with red veins and punctuated by two knife-blade irises. Tom gulped. He may have even tried to scream, but no sound left his throat. Those eyes grew larger, closer. They cast a dim light in the cavern. Tom slowly lifted the stick he was clutching in his hand, as if it might somehow protect him.

It was only then he realized that it was a sliver of bone.

* * *

A few moments later, a wet and satisfied belch reverberated out of the alleyway and through the streets of the neighborhood. It was so loud it could be heard all the way to Tom’s house.

“What was that?” Tom’s mother wondered as she sat down at the dinner table.

“Who knows in this town,” Daniel replied as he plowed into his heaping plate of spaghetti and meatballs. “The better question is: What happened to Tommy this time?”

Tom’s mother sighed. “Late for dinner. AGAIN.”

Though, from a certain point of view—and, for the sake of argument, let’s just call that the point of view of a certain doorway lurking in a certain alleyway—Tom wasn’t late at all.

He was right on time.

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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Telling our family stories: The House with the Secret Cellar

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I’m nearing the end of my series of creative writing workshops told through the lens of family stories. In one way, it’s been challenging to come up with a different subject for each class because there’s so many pathways to explore. So many topics to cover in only twelve classes!

This most recent week, we decided to explore family homes. Most of us, of course, have a sentimental attachment to the place(s) we grew up. I find it especially amusing how annoyed we get when a child draws on a wall, or causes a dent, bump, or scratch somewhere in the house—only to look upon those same “wounds” with a sentimental eye years later. Those scars eventually serve as a visual record of our family life.

Then there’s the marks that we purposely put in our homes, like the lines etched into the doorframe to measure the heights of children, or the paintings and murals that we might paint purposely on the walls.

Our home is no different. We have a dent in the wooden floor upstairs; I’m pretty sure that happened when Marcie put on her tap shoes at our annual Yoda Yulefest party and decided to perform for our friends. There’s a gash in the wall from when we were heaving our entertainment stand up the stairs and it slipped from our hands. Then there’s the hidden cubby hole, hidden at the back of the bedroom closet; the walls are covered top to bottom with children’s drawings. Most of these came from our goddaughter, Charlotte. When she discovered that the children from the previous tenant had drawn in there, she asked for permission to do the same. And so I granted it to her and off she went. This year, when she came to visit as a fifteen-year-old, she crawled inside the cubby hole and reminisced. She’s pretty insistent that we never paint over those walls.

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So, for this week’s assignment, I decided to ask my students to write a poem about a family home from the first-person perspective of the home. I asked them to think about the age of their home; would it talk as an old person or a new person? How would the home feel about the life burbling inside of it?

As with all the work I’ve assigned for this course, I did the assignment as well. I decided to choose a home from my childhood—sort of. Below, is a page from my mom’s photo album showing the first orchard my parents owned, and the house we lived in. It’s the first home I remember living in.

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It was quite old and humble and, eventually, my parents knocked it down and built a new one in its place. As you can see by the photo in the bottom right, there was another house on the same piece of property, just a stone’s throw away.

It was even older and in more disrepair. It had no plumbing and I remember it always had a certain pungent odor. Many people lived there: sometimes people who came to work on our farm for the summer, and one time my aunt and uncle for a season. Otherwise, the house stood empty and my brother and I would play inside of it.

When we knocked down our old white house, we knocked this one down, too. That’s when we found the secret cellar. Hidden underneath the linoleum was an old trap door. We pried it open to find a set of stairs disappearing down into the murk.

So, with a bit of trepidation, down we went.

No one had clearly been there in a very long time. It wasn’t very big, but it was stuffed with long-forgotten items. Newspapers. Bottles. A pair of woman’s shoes. Or, you might say, junk—though, not me. I love old treasures, for they are tellers of stories.

Now, when I look back on the photo of the old house, and remember the hidden cellar, I imagine that there were all kinds of secret and enchanted things squirreled away down there. Most likely there were canisters of magical ingredients waiting to be consumed by a witch’s cauldron. Or perhaps the skeleton of a fairy. The coffin of a vampire. Hmm . . . I probably just wasn’t looking properly at the time. That’s what I tell myself now, anyway.

However, for the purposes of my assignment, I decided to keep magical whimsy to a minimum and focus on fact.

Here is my poem about the house with the secret cellar . . .

I am so very old.
Some would say ancient.
The skin is hanging
from my bones,
peeling, sliding away.
I creak and bend towards the ground.

My eyes are weary
and bleary;
I can barely gaze through them
to see the chickens pecking
at my doorstep
where the weeds are overgrown.

My insides are deteriorating;
you can whiff the pungent odour,
for my ribs are dripping
rancid ooze and poison spores;
The walls of my stomach are
curling, peeling, rotting.

I bear many scars,
earned from all my years.
Here’s a dent—
a dog once crashed into my frame;
there’s a scratch—
a child poked me with a fork;
this is a burn—
A candle held against my joint;
and this tattoo,
I tell you, is permanent—
Auntie painted me with flowers.

But all those things
happened long ago.
Now I brood in somber silence,
alone and abandoned.           

But while, on the surface,
I am frail and falling to pieces,
there is one thing that remains strong;
the secret place that dwells deep within,
one long forgotten
by everyone . . .
everyone except for me.

No one knows about the hatch,
the hidden handle that leads below
to a realm of damp and darkness,
where I harbor a trove of treasure,
curios and charms,
relics and remnants,
memories from distant times.

The place is dusty now,
sagging, draped with cobwebs,
creatures scurrying and scuttling
between the artifacts of time.
Soon I shall collapse,
and they will haul me away.
Only then,
you might discover
my secrets.

And then I know what will happen;
I will be dwelled upon no more,
except, perhaps,
when someone
chances upon my brooding countenance
in a photograph,
old, discoloured, and faint.