Are you a teacher, librarian or educator? I am thrilled to be participating in World Read Aloud Day 2023, and am currently booking 20-minute slots.
A typical structure for my WRAD visits looks something like this:
1-2 minutes: I introduce myself and talk a little about my books (I come with props!)
3-5 minutes: I read aloud a short excerpt from a book.
5-10 minutes: I answer a few questions from students about reading/writing.
1-2 minutes: I book-talk a couple books I love (but didn’t write!) as recommendations for your students.
I’ll be reading from either Spell Sweeper, The Secret of Zoone, or The Guardians of Zoone—or maybe I’ll give you a sneak-peek of a new work! I write middle-grade fantasy books that contain high adventure, plus some meaningful messages about how we can find our place in our communities and the world at large. Ideal for grades 4-7.
Hey, Spell Sweeper fans—you deserve a gift for all the love you’ve given this book. So, I’m releasing today a free e-book of “EXTRAS,” which you can download HERE.
(If you’re looking to get a copy of Spell Sweeper itself, then check out HarperCollins’ purchase page.)
Lots of goodies here! First, I’ve got some deleted scenes for you (some of those intervening moments where Cara talks about aspects of her life or Dragonsong Academy). It was a hard decision to cut these scenes; even though they are quite short, they slowed down the pacing of the main narrative or, in some cases, I felt the information was covered well enough elsewhere. But if you were dying to know what kids at Dragonsong like to dress up as for Halloween, you won’t have to wonder any longer!
Second, I have included two of the “wizard fairy tales” that are referenced in Spell Sweeper: The Tale of Eurybia the Eradicator and The Tale of Theradune the Betrayer. These tales present the origin stories of two important talismans that impact the plot of Spell Sweeper, but they’ll also give you a glimpse into Cara’s thinking. I never did intend to include these stories in the main book. I just often conceive these kinds of myths as part of my world-building process.
Third, are some Spell Sweeper inspired recipes and, finally, some of my own sketches of the characters (Maike Plenzke’s versions of these characters on the cover are much better than my own, but at least you can see how I was thinking of them).
Well, how many times have I been asked over the last few months: “Will there be a Spell Sweeper sequel?” I’m thankful so many people want one! But I did pitch this book as a stand-alone, so if I ever return to Cara’s story it won’t be quite yet. However, you can enjoy more of Cara’s voice and world RIGHT NOW!
Of course, if you haven’t read Spell Sweeper yet, these extras will provide you with a glimpse of Cara’s voice and, well, let’s just call it her swagger. Either way . . . enjoy!
Over the past eighteen years, I’ve met thousands of kids at school visits, library events, writing conferences, and creativity workshops—many of them while visiting overseas.
One of the things that has come up, time and time again, is how much they love books about magical schools (hello, Harry Potter!)—but what also comes up is how they can’t see themselves as a part of the story, except maybe as a periphery character.
This was something that played heavily in my mind as I wrote Spell Sweeper. I wanted the kids in my life (including my own son) to see that the “Chosen One” in this type of story can look like them—not just in another time and place where all the characters might look like them, but in the world at large. Does that make sense?
I also liked playing with this idea that you might have the most wonderful thing in the world happen to you, like being chosen to go to wizard school . . . but then you’re NOT the “Chosen One.” How many of us had dreams come true (like being published!), but then don’t become New York Times bestselling authors, and either beat ourselves up or stew in jealousy? But even if you’re not at the top of the ladder, does that mean you should devalue the fact that you made it on the rungs in the first place?
It’s a struggle that I am witness to all the time: in myself, in my friends, in my kids. So, I guess I wanted to say…welcome to the magical world. You’re in it, no matter who you are.
I’ve been posting about books that inspired my new middle-grade book, Spell Sweeper—and an important one is The Worst Witch series by Jill Murphy. I love an underdog story (obviously!), and I don’t think it’s only my book that owes a lot to this classic series, but every book about magical schools that comes since. (The first one, by the way was published in 1974.)
Mildred is the worst witch at Miss Cackle’s Academy for Witches. She can’t seem to do anything right, whether it’s casting a spell or flying a broom. If she’s going to survive witch school, she’s going to have to do it in a more . . . unconventional way.
I think this enchanting book is perfect for younger readers who aren’t quite ready for the more detailed worlds and problems of a middle-grade book, but who still want all of the magical fun. The Worst Witch includes so many of the classic elements of magic school: broom flying, cats as familiars, and potions class. I especially love all the names of the instructors: Miss Amerlia Cackle, Miss Constance Hardbroom, Miss Davina Bat, Miss Imogen Drill . . .
The books also include beautiful illustrations by the author (the edition in the photo is a special edition with full color throughout). Highly recommended!
My own book, Spell Sweeper, is available in hardbound, digital, and audiobook formats from your favorite outlet.
Here’s another book that served as inspiration for Spell Sweeper . . . The Sword in the Stone by T.H. White.
Like many, I was first introduced to this story through the animated film by Disney (one of my all-time favorite scenes is the duel between Merlyn and Madame Mim). The book includes this duel, though it’s much earlier on, so doesn’t serve as a climactic moment.
I think The Sword in the Stone is one of those foundation stones for modern fantasy books. When it comes to wizards and owls, we can’t help to think of Harry Potter, but long before Hedwig, there was Archimedes, who served as Merlyn’s familiar (and was my favorite character in both the film and the book).
You also have the visual aesthetic of Merlyn with the long white beard, which goes on to be found with so many other wizard characters (Dumbeldore included). I tried to make fun of this trope with Cara’s master in Spell Sweeper, Trick Quibble. Instead of the long white beard, he has only a single chin hair (yes, it’s long, but singular), which kind of annoys Cara because it’s as if Quibble has never read a fantasy book.
What I also love about The Sword in the Stone is Merlyn as a teacher. He isn’t simply teaching spells or tricks, but philosophy to young would-be-king Arthur. I tried to bring in a bit of this to Spell Sweeper, especially with Headwizard Singh’s enigmatic paradoxes that she introduces to Cara.
Whether you are a reader or a writer of fantasy (or both!), I highly encourage you to read this foundational book.
Here’s another book that served as inspiration for Spell Sweeper . . . Wizard’s Hall by Jane Yolen.
While writing Spell Sweeper, I read or re-read different books about wizard schools or “magical learning.” The big one, of course, is Harry Potter, but Wizard’s Hall actually predates the creation of Hogwarts by several years.
Wizard’s Hall is about a boy named Henry with “unmanageable” hair, green eyes, and a perpetual smudge on his nose—as if the nose “led him into trouble.” Well, Henry ends off going to a school of Wizardry in the English countryside. He doesn’t fit in at first, making a mess of even simple spells—but he makes a couple of good friends and, together, they end up thwarting an evil sorcerer who is trying to take over the school and “lands beyond.”
This book obviously has the same basic premise of Harry Potter, but it’s the world-building of Hogwarts, with all the classes, spells, and creatures, that I think make it so appealing. Still, if you’re a fan of books with magical schools—or, really, children’s lit in general—then I recommend Wizard’s Hall because I think it’s always good to understand and explore the DNA of more current fantasy works.
As for Spell Sweeper, I wanted to honor many of the classic wizard school tropes, but try to provide a quirky twist, almost a gentle satire. The magical school in Spell Sweeper is called Dragonsong Academy—sorry, it’s located in Canada, not England—and it has a lot of the same fun details of those British schools: fun classes (Spellography, Oology, Wizard Yoga), intriguing creatures (squix!), and fantastical talismans (Eurybia’s Torch—but, uh, please stand back).
I wanted to write a bit about the inspirational sources for my new middle-grade book, Spell Sweeper. Most people understandably connect Spell Sweeper with Harry Potter, but there are so many other “broom” or “magical learning” books that I was thinking of when I was generating ideas for Caradine Moone and her dysfunctional crew of magical janitors (Cara’s words, not mine).
The book that served as a primary influence was The Little Broomstick by Mary Stewart. This is a classic book, originally published in 1971 (the edition in the photo is 2018 by Hodders Childrens Books).
The Little Broomstick has a voice in the spirit of C.S. Lewis’s Narnia, and what really imprinted on me was the idea of a lonely broom sitting there, waiting to spring into action. And spring it does! When young Mary finds a broomstick, she accidentally ends up investing it with magic and it instantly whisks her away across the English countryside to arrive at Endor College, school of witchcraft. But this is not a lovely school—Mary discovers a menagerie of animals being subjected to evil experiments, including her own cat. With her broomstick as her trusty companion, Mary sets out to free the animals.
This book is also the basis of the wonderful animated film Mary and the Witch’s Flower from Studio Ponoc.
Side note, I just love the use of the word “besom” in this book, which means “a broom made of twigs tied around a stick.”
My own “broom” book is out now. Spell Sweeper is available in hardbound, digital, and audiobook formats from your favorite outlet.
Introducing the official book trailer for Spell Sweeper. I’ve been involved with a few trailers in my time, and always find them challenging to “write.” Distilling a book into a few short sentences is no small feat.
A big thank you to my editor Stephanie Stein for helping me with the script, Maike Plenzke for providing such beautiful cover art, and to Marcie Nestman for the voice-over talent.
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.
I’m posting my latest activity for all of us kids big and small who are stuck at home. Today’s activity: making a moto!
What’s a moto, you ask? It’s a type of robot that wreaks havoc upon Ozzie and friends in my latest middle-grade book, The Guardians of Zoone.
The motos didn’t make it to the cover, but rest assured they play a big part, as their world, Moton, is one where our characters spend a lot of time. Here’s a look at some motos, as depicted on the vintage-style travel sticker that I created for that treacherous realm:
What you will need:
Paper to print out the template below.
Pencils and coloring supplies.
Just download the template sheet and follow the instructions. Of course, I always encourage my students to make their own creations from scratch—but sometimes a little inspiration can go a long way, and maybe this sheet will help!
These are pretty much the same pieces that I used to design the travel sticker above!
There is also a maker-space opportunity here. I love building things, so if you’re like me, and keep every lid and cap from your household products, then you will have a big store of switches and buttons. I recently used a lot of these to build my own moto probe. Admittedly, I also had to draw on some more specialized supplies from the craft store, such as brads, gears, clock hands—but otherwise, a lot of the pieces are just “junk” or bits and bobs such as thumbtacks, paperclips, and plastic lids. The “body” is just a styrofoam ball painted with metallic paint.
Have fun imagining and stay safe, stay well, and stay tuned . . .