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!)
The paperback version of The Guardians of Zoone, my most recent middlegrade book, is out now with HarperCollins Children’s Book! To celebrate this AND I Read Canadian Day, I’m gifting three autographed copies!
Giveaway closes Feb 13, 12pm PST and is available for shipping to Canadian and US addresses. I’m going to throw in some other Zoone-related goodies, such as some stickers! PLUS, the book includes one other special treats (more on that below) . . .
I had forgotten all about this until I got my own copies of the paperback version of The Guardians of Zoone and flipped through it—there is a SNEAK PEEK of my brand-new middle grade book, SPELL SWEEPER (coming out Fall, 2021). Ah! I’m so excited for Spell Sweeper and to share it with you!
What’s even more fun is that the graphic HarperCollins used in the sneak-peek section was designed by ME. I sometimes do little logos to help keep me going during the arduous writing process—and then I put them in my manuscript submissions. My editor and team at HarperCollins liked it well enough to use it for this sneak peek, which is kind of cool!
I should say that I’ve now received the “page passes” for the final design and the typography for the title looks MUCH better than mine, but it’s still neat to see that my version was here.
Well, what are you waiting for? Head on over to my twitter page and enter my contest!
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.
This past week, I wrapped up a fifteen-week creative writing program for teen writers in which they wrote their own individual novels.
This was quite the challenge! Usually our programs give 18-25 weeks for such an endeavor, but this was a special one-off term. Still, somehow, my students were able to write their books, design their covers, and create some magic along the way.
Perhaps I say this at the end of every program I teach, but I really resonated with this group. Maybe it’s because we all felt we were on the same page: shy, introverted, awkward . . . and best at expressing ourselves through writing.
As we planned for our final presentation (via Zoom, of course), there was a lot of handwringing, anxiety, and stress. (Some of it even came from the students!). I finally decided to let them off the hook, and promised that I would do all the speaking as long as they wrote the scripts to go with each of their books. But when they saw that I was going to post their biography photos on each slide along with their book covers, I was assailed by another round of stress, so I evened the playing field and made sure to start the presentation with a series of awkward photos of me as a child (I mean, that’s kind of redundant—every photo of me as a child is awkward), as well as the covers of the books I wrote when I was their age.
Their book covers look SO much better than the ones I did as a kid, that’s for sure:
Ah, I will miss them, this clever crew of creatives!
I’m posting my latest activity for all of us kids big and small who are stuck at home. Today’s activity: Designing a brochure for an imagined world.
The truth is that when I was a kid, we didn’t go on a lot of vacations. A big reason for this is that I grew up on a family farm and the summer—when most people go on vacation—was the time for us to work really hard and earn the income that would sustain us for the rest of the year.
So, most of my “vacations” were taken through books—either by reading them or writing them.
Of course, reading or writing are great ways to escape NOW, during our world COVID-19 pandemic, but I want to provide a bit more focus with this activity. Who knows, it might turn into a book—or, if you have already written a book or story, this project can be a fun way to view your “world” from a different perspective.
I’ve delivered this activity several times with students at schools or programs I’ve worked at in Canada and Korea, and it’s proven to be a lot of fun.
The imaginary travel brochure
What you will need:
Paper — you can use either blank paper or use the template I’ve provided
The goal of this project is to make a three-panel tri-fold brochure, which you can do simply by folding a letter-sized piece of paper into thirds. That gives you three panels on one side of the brochure, and three on the other. You can do your brochure double-sided on a single sheet of paper, or if you are worried about your paper being too thin, and markers bleeding through, then just do this project on two separate pieces of paper, which you could always glue together afterward.
There are no real rules to how to fill out the pages, but I recommend:
Panel 1 (the cover): Cover art and title, such as “Come Visit . . .”
Panel 6 (the back cover): Contact information.
Panel 5: More information about the world the brochure is advertising—I like doing a “did you know” section here.
Panel 2: General information about the world, showcasing key points of interest.
Panels 3&4: A bigger piece of artwork, such as a landscape of the world, or a map.
Of course, I highly recommend brainstorming the content and working on some rough copies before worrying about the final version. You can use your own blank paper folded into thirds, though if you want some content blocks to work with, then you can download my template HERE. You can also download and print out the template with the instructions, just in case you want something sitting in front of you to look at.
If you do print out my template double-sided, you may have to experiment with how your printer works—certain devices seem to flip the second page the wrong way!
Come visit these imaginary worlds:
I always have this rule in my creativity classes: If I ask YOU to do it, then I’ve also done it. So, here are two brochures that I’ve made! One is for The Land of Een, which is featured in my Kendra Kandlestar book series. The other is for the multiverse that appears in my Zoone series–because Zoone features so many different worlds, I decided to do that brochure a little bit differently!
Finally, here are some brochure examples done by past students.
Land of Cute:
I’d love to see what kids come up with! If you post them on social media, please hashtag #imaginarytravelbrochure and tag me (I’m @leefodi on Instagram and twitter).
In the meantime, stay safe, stay well, and stay tuned . . .
I’m posting my latest activity for all of us kids big and small stuck who are stuck at home. So far, I’ve posted an activity to build a shrink ray and peg figures, handouts to map a miniature person’s journey across a room in the house, and the idea to survive a critter attack!
I’m going to finish off the theme by introducing one more idea connected to this set of activities: Making a mini-movie!
With all of the activities I’ve introduced, there is the opportunity for writing, but also other kinds of storytelling—because if you have been building and/or collecting all the props (shrink rays, peg figures, miniature tools, plastic critters), then you have pretty much everything to go to film your own miniature movie.
When I was a kid, I LOVED making movies . . . but all those thousands of years ago, we didn’t have the technology we do now! These days, it’s simple to film a few scenes and edit them in a program like iMovie.
However, what I always tell my students, is that filming and editing are the LAST parts of the process. Even though my kids so often want to jump into filming right away, I encourage them to sit down and consider STORY and what they want to tell.
It’s just like writing a book! My students have tons of energy when they sit down to write, but without a plan, they often get stuck and frustrated, then give up. My advice is to do some simple planning!
To be clear, I am NOT a filmmaker. But I have filmmaker friends and I have dabbled with making my own book trailers. Even for a thirty-second trailer, I spend a long time creating scripts and storyboards. So, if you’re going to take on this project, that’s what I really encourage you to do, too!
The Mini-Movie project
What you will need:
Things to film (like shrink ray guns, peg figures, action figures, plastic bugs, and any number of household items!)
A script and a storyboard
A camera to film video
A program to edit the video (like iMovie—but there are all kinds of apps available).
And here is an example project! Several years ago, there was the “ice bucket” challenge to promote awareness for ALS. Everyone seemed to be making a movie—and harassing me to make one, too! I did want to support, but I am always loathe to just follow the crowd, so I decided to make a different sort of movie using the peg-figure version of myself and the various action figures in my studio.
Here is the storyboard I created first. This was helpful, because in some cases, I needed my wife to help with the filming. By looking at the storyboard, she knew what I wanted to achieve.
And here is the video itself . . . All the effects were practical—just tricks of perspective and angle to achieve the desired shot.
Have fun, everyone. I’ll post some other activities in the coming days. Stay safe, stay well, and stay tuned . . .
I’m posting my latest activity for all us of kids big and small stuck at home. So far, I’ve posted an activity to build a shrink ray and peg figures, along with the handouts to map a miniature person’s trek across a room in the house. It’s my attempt to make us perceive our current confined settings as bigger than they actually are!
Continuing the theme, I’m introducing another angle to this set of activities.
Whenever I’ve asked my students to map out an epic journey across a single room in the house, I then surprise them by springing a new challenge upon their characters: an attack by a deadly creature!
Well, it’s not SO deadly if you are normal sized, but for miniature characters, beetles, centipedes, and frogs are quite perilous!
What you will need:
Paper and writing supplies
Plastic critters (available at any dollar store, or also in your nearby toybox!)—spiders, snakes, beetles, grasshoppers, frogs, cockroaches—you name it!
Spools of thread
In other words, anything you have lying around the home that a miniature character could “repurpose”
I like to begin this activity by putting all the critters in “Bag #1” then having the students picking one out “blindly.” This introduces an extra element of fun and surprise.
Then, I put all the “tools” into Bag #2 and ask the students to pick out two or three of them.
Now, we’ve got the problem (the critter) and the solution (the tool), and we just have to figure out how the character can use the tools to escape and survive. This is fun problem-solving!
If you’ve been following along with these activities and already mapped out the setting, then this confrontation with the critter can take place in that epic landscape (like in the middle of a shag-rug forest)!
At the very bottom, I’ve posted a handout so that kids can brainstorm some solutions. And here are some photos from some of the past classes where I’ve rolled out this project.
If you have writers in your family, this set of activities provides a lot of inspiration! But I have one other creative output that you can do with this set of projects, which I will post in the coming days. Stay safe, stay well, and stay tuned . . .
It sure feels like our world is shrinking with the covid-19 crisis. We’re stuck at home, can’t gather, can’t visit.
Personally, I’m reverting to my age-old survival tactic: Disappearing as much as possible into my imagination.
As a children’s author and specialized arts and creative writing teacher, I’d like to help kids do the same, so I’m presenting some of my favorite activities.
Recently, I posted about building a shrink ray with household items. The bonus project was to imagine that every member of the family was shrunk by the device by building peg-figure versions of everyone!
Well, if you can imagine you’ve an inch or two high, then your world is now suddenly BIGGER. So, I invite you take the next (tiny) step . . .
Map your GIANT world
I’ve done this project with schools I’ve worked with in Canada, Korea, and Thailand, and will be posting some examples of my students’ past projects.
What you will need:
Drawing supplies: pencils, colored pencils, markers, crayons, fine-liners—whatever you like to use.
Hey, I’m not going to stop you from using stickers or glitter either . . . but you know: the CLEAN-UP!
A BIG imagination!
In this activity, you’re asked to imagine a single room in your house as an epic landscape that you have to cross as a miniaturized person. So, for example, a pile of dirty laundry might become “Mount Clothes” or a tipped-over soda can might become “Fizzy Falls.”
This is a fun way to think about perspective—and, also, to just imagine a bigger, vaster world.
Here are some examples of past maps—and at the bottom of this post, I’ve posted links to handouts that you can use to help with this project. I always find a bit of brainstorming helps at the beginning of every project!
Of course, you can do it on blank paper, but a whimsical frame makes everything more fun, if you ask me. (Also, I want to point out that this is the exact same frame I used for the map in Kendra Kandlestar and the Box of Whispers, which, by the way, is also about tiny people).
If you’re looking to add a writing project to do this—NO problem! Just imagine you have to navigate your way across this vast—and possibly dangerous—landscape! (Also, I’ll post a nice little wrinkle for you in a couple of days to make this epic journey even MORE fun!)