Harry Potter camp and worldbuilding 101

My son recently attended Harry Potter camp. He got a Hogwarts acceptance letter. He IMG_1886.jpgwas told to bring a broom and a companion animal. Alas, we had no Crookshanks, so Nimbus here would have to do. (His sister owns a giant stuffed owl but was not lending Owlie out for camp purposes.)

After all the campers were sorted into houses, they spent the week playing Quidditch, making wands and trying to figure out who was secretly cursing the campers and counselors. It turned out to be the headmaster, possessed by an evil spirit, which could be driven out by a coordinated water gun attack. (I’m not actually sure this was originally part of the plot for the week. The headmaster said something about the kids taking the lead.)

On the camp’s last day, we Muggle parents were invited in to judge as each house acted out a story from “The Tales of Beedle the Bard.” The house that got the most applause — Gryffindor, in this case — also won the House Cup. My son was one disappointed Slytherin, but at least his house won Quidditch.

I was secretly delighted all week by how much the kids got into the spirit of things. Many campers showed up wearing their own robes and carrying official Nimbus 2000 brooms. There were earnest discussions about how some Slytherins are good and Gryffindors can be kind of mean sometimes.

I love the books too — me and every other adult I spoke to who said, “Hey, *I* want to go to Harry Potter camp!” — and I’ve always been a little sad that I didn’t get to grow up with the books the way younger kids did. But now I’m getting to watch my own kids grow up with them, and that’s fun. We just finished reading “Sorcerer’s Stone” together and have launched into “Chamber of Secrets,” and the kids keep trying to read ahead when they think I’m not looking. Or my son sneaks peeks at “Cursed Child” on my bedside table. I warned him he’s got six other books to get through first. (Side note: I did not hate “Cursed Child” as much as the entire Internet apparently does. Yes, one scene seems out of character for Harry. Yes, the plot wobbles a little. But some scenes work very well, and I love Scorpius, and that’s good enough for me.) The downside is that the kids spent weeks playing Peeves: grabbing people by the nose and yelling, “Got your konk!” So I’m probably going to have a couple of Dobby wannabes pretty soon.



What writer-me keeps thinking is that the books are a wonderful example of world-building. Readers (of all ages, clearly) want to go to Diagon Alley, they want to visit Hogwarts, they want to hang around and explore all the little details. Part of why the books work so well is because the setting is so inventive and interesting. And it speaks to their long-term appeal that kids today, who weren’t born yet when J.K. Rowling first became a literary phenomenon, are reading them with the same passion as the kids who went to those original midnight release parties. So this is the thing to strive for, as a writer: not to accomplish what Rowling did — because that seems unlikely — but to put as much loving detail into your creation as she did, to make the story really come alive. At least that’s what I’m striving for.

Side note: It’s possible to succeed too well. I got the kids boxes of Bertie Bott’s Every Flavour Beans for fun, and they won’t touch them. They’re afraid of eating an earwax bean.


Road trips and reading


View from hotel room. The falls were extra-misty that morning. 

We recently headed up to Niagara Falls for a quick vacation. There are two things I’m willing to concede about Niagara: The falls are way more impressive on the Canadian side than on the U.S. side (just because you can see both sides of them from the Canadian side, vs. a corner-pocket view from the U.S. side), and poutine is way better than disco fries (this is a big admission for a Jersey girl). Though the nice woman at the hotel info desk seemed a bit embarrassed that we asked about poutine: “Oh yes, poutine, our contribution to cuisine, yes, that’s it, that’s all we’ve got.” Don’t be sheepish, info desk lady. My state is most famous for pork roll.

The town is a bit Vegas-ish, if Vegas were more family-friendly, so that’s either your thing or it’s not. The giant Ferris wheel offers a great view of the falls and just about the whole town, plus the slightly unsettling feeling that you’re sitting on top of a giant Ferris wheel and it’s a long way down. Highly cool.

Naturally, I bought books. As one does on vacation. I couldn’t resist this one: IMG_1881.jpg

Because I love Munsch-Martchenko books. We have the Canadian duo’s “The Paper Bag Princess” and “Smelly Socks” here and they’re both hilarious. And this one is about a moose! How much more Canadian could you get?

What I especially love is that Robert Munsch gets story ideas from kids who write to him, and then puts them in his stories. So a boy named Luke wrote to Munsch about his tree house, and Munsch wrote about a boy named Luke who finds a “large, enormous moose” next to his tree house and, after his parents fail miserably at scaring the moose away, decides he’d rather keep the moose for a pet instead. Too funny.

And then I found this one:

IMG_1882.jpgAnd had to get it. Canada has its own superhero? Is he friends with Captain America? Do the two of them meet for coffee, poutine and apple pie and then go fight intergalactic bad guys together?

Captain Canuck, apparently, has been around since the mid-’70s, but it’s an indie comic and hasn’t always been published regularly. This is a rebooted version, and there’s an animated series and supposedly a film in the works somewhere. This particular issue, as you can see, is from 2014 but was still for sale in the souvenir shop I was in. I don’t know if that means the regular series is defunct again, or what (didn’t see a comics store downtown, though I wasn’t looking too closely). I hope it’s still going strong. Every country deserves its own superhero.

So I thought these two were cooler than the usual sort of souvenir, and the kids seemed to agree, because they immediately got to reading.

It was a great trip, even though I didn’t have time to read the book I’d brought with me: “American Gods.” Irony!

Two announcements

*taps mike* *readjusts* Good morning! I just thought you should know that the submissions of all the finalists and alternates for the first-ever FicFest contest (okay, including me) have been officially posted for the next round. Check it out here. I like a lot of these submissions and hope to be buying the books someday. FicFest has been a good experience — in revising my submission per my (extremely nice) mentor’s suggestions, I even went a little bit further, and ended up with a much-improved manuscript. Revising has been a difficult thing for me to get a handle on, so getting a revision to work well is kinda empowering.

Also, Kidlit Summer Schoolbadge-final-4x4-brighter-heart.jpg officially starts tomorrow. I signed up for this online series last summer and really enjoyed it — the Nerdy Chicks, who are all fabulous writers and/or illustrators, offer really useful, in-depth writing advice, plus writing exercises, Twitter writing prompts, webinars and giveaways. I was even reading these posts during vacation so I could keep up (don’t tell my husband). If you write kidlit, come and be my “classmate.” Also: signing up is free. Also again: How cute is this chick?

This concludes our announcements. Please enjoy your Sunday.

What we’re reading

I’m one of those people who reads multiple books at once. One is on my bedside table, one is on the couch, one is in the kitchen, and I grab the closest one and continue. Bookmarks are never around when I need them. Occasionally I use scraps of paper or random store receipts.

Of course a good chunk of my daily reading consists of reading to my kids. We’ve developed a pattern in which they read picture books on their own, and we save the chapter books for bedtime stories. It works well. So here’s our current reading list:

“Circus Mirandus,” by Cassie Beasley – It’s her first novel and it’s great. I pre-read it myself before starting it with my son, and he’s enjoying it as much as I did. It’s about a magic circus, and also the magic of two offbeat people discovering a friendship, as well as the sad truth that magic can’t fix everything.

“Prince Caspian,” by C.S. Lewis – Well, the Narnia books really are a requirement. The kids liked “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” so much that we went right on to the next one. (Yes, I know there is some dispute about what order to read the books in. I think whatever order you pick is the right order.) Now they’re dragging a plush lion around the house and calling it Aslan.

“Flora & Ulysses,” by Kate DiCamillo – Because I’m going through all of her books now in sheer disbelief that I hadn’t discovered them sooner. This one’s hilarious and heartwarming in an oddball way, which I’m pretty sure is a good way to describe most of her books. Also, the squirrel writes lovely poems.

“Goldilocks and the Three Dinosaurs,” by Mo Willems and “Wolfie the Bunny,” by Ame Dyckman – I’m just practicing those. I’m bringing them to school for Read Across America Day, and I’ve learned the hard way, if you’re going to read a book aloud to kids, you’re basically reading the words upside down. Pre-reading is helpful.

On reading them everything

My daughter and I are reading “Ballet Shoes,” by Noel Streatfeild. This was one of the few genuinely girly books I loved when I was a kid, since my taste ran more toward spaceships, hobbits, and superheroes (I couldn’t abide “Sweet Valley High,” I avoided “Babysitters Club” like the plague, and I never did get around to “Little House on the Prairie,” which I freely admit was my own fault). I couldn’t wait to pass on that love to my daughter.

I’d forgotten, of course, that the book was originally published in 1937. In England. This means that periodically I have to stop and translate. I’m not completely sure my daughter understands what “boarders” are. “Muslin,” “tartalan,” and “frock” especially puzzled her. So did “phonograph.” “It’s like a record player,” I said, realizing later that she doesn’t know what that is either. I should’ve said, “It’s like Mommy’s phone, except bigger and no camera.”

Ballet Shoes

And yet my daughter is fascinated by the book. Maybe it’s the inside glimpse into the ballet world – she does gymnastics class these days, but I’m sure we’ll try dance at some point. Maybe it’s hearing the story of these poor orphaned sisters who are determined to make a name for themselves and make their adoptive family proud. Every time we get to an illustration, she wants to know which character is which, and what they’re doing, and she admires the dancers’ graceful poses.

I think there can be a big emphasis on the new when it comes to children’s books, and obviously that makes sense from a publishing and marketing standpoint (I’m hoping to get published myself, after all). But older books are just as valuable, and just as much fun to read, and they can offer a glimpse into a world today’s children would never experience otherwise.

So I’m going to keep reading my kids everything I can think of, new and old, everything we can get our hands on. It expands their minds, it shows them endless different examples of good writing, it gives them a different way of looking at the world. Which is the whole point of reading.

I’m looking forward to storytime tonight. I haven’t read “Ballet Shoes” in a long time, and I can’t wait to find out what happens next.

Books for my niece

I’m an auntie-to-be! We held my sister’s baby shower yesterday and books were quite the theme.

We’d asked guests to attach a book to the gift instead of a card, to help build the baby’s library. Some etiquette sites frown on this because it’s an extra gift and a gift grab and blah blah, but I’m all in favor of giving kids books whenever possible. Plenty of guests seemed to agree. Among the books my sister received: “Giraffes Don’t Dance,” “Dragons Love Tacos,” “Where the Wild Things Are” (all faves of mine). My contribution: “Wherever You Go,” because I think it’s lovely.

I also concocted a “Guess the Book” game for the guests, in which I read a line from a famous children’s book and they had to guess the title and/or author. I didn’t think the game was that hard; I was wrong. But I know you’ll all ace it, won’t you? (Especially because Google.) The game is below if you’re interested.

The funny thing is, I pulled the game together based almost entirely on books we have at home. I guess our home library is well stocked. Even funnier: My 5-year-old read the test over my shoulder and got most of the answers right. I told her she wasn’t allowed to play, because of the unfair advantage.


  1. And an ocean tumbled by

With a private boat for Max

And he sailed off

Through night and day

And in and out of weeks

And almost over a year

  1. “Twinkle, twinkle, little bat!

How I wonder what you’re at!

Up above the world you fly

Like a tea-tray in the sky.”

  1. This is what

you must never do.

Now let this be

a lesson to you.

  1. Then those Things ran about

With big bumps, jumps and kicks

And with hops and big thumps

And all kinds of bad tricks.

  1. The kids in Room 207 were misbehaving again.

Spitballs stuck to the ceiling.

Paper planes whizzed through the air.

They were the worst-behaved class in the whole school.

  1. “You won’t let me do anything

I want to do,” I said.

“I guess I’ll run away.”

That’s how mad I was.

  1. On Saturday

he ate through

one piece of

chocolate cake, one ice-cream cone, one pickle, one slice of Swiss cheese, one slice of salami, one lollipop, one piece of cherry pie, one sausage, one cupcake, and one slice of watermelon.

  1. “Oh no, my dear; I’m really a very good man; but I’m a very bad Wizard, I must admit.”
  1. “I’ll be your best friend!

How about I give you five bucks?

What’s the big deal?

It’s just a bus!!!”

  1. When he got to the middle of the ring he saw the flowers in all the lovely ladies’ hair and he just sat down quietly and smelled.

Our summer of reading

Tonight my son wanted to do bedtime reading with a flashlight, which seemed like a summer-ish thing to do, so I clicked my phone light on (because what did people do before smartphones?) and we started “The One in the Middle Is the Green Kangaroo.” Technically I suppose you should read a scary story by flashlight, but scary stories are not his thing. I’m not foreseeing any Goosebumps books in his future.

“Green Kangaroo” is the second Judy Blume book this summer, the first being “Freckle Juice,” and both of which are big hits here. We’re taking a break from Roald Dahl, having just finished “Danny the Champion of the World,” and also I think having finished all the Dahl books we own. For “Matilda,” we’ll have to hit up the library.

My daughter, deep in princess-land, likes the Very Fairy Princess books, and there have been repeat readings of “The Day the Crayons Quit” (Drew Daywalt), “The Monstore” (Tara Lazar) and “Baby Penguins Love Their Mama” (Melissa Guion). I keep wondering whether my soon-to-be-kindergartner — who insists on reading to me, these days, instead of the other way around — is ready for chapter books. Because if she is, I found a copy of “The Velveteen Rabbit” at a flea market recently and it’s in terrific condition, just waiting to be read to someone.

Me, I’ve been reading “Boy Without Instructions” by Penny Williams, about the author’s struggles to raise her son with ADHD. (I can relate.) Though I think the next book will deal in less weighty subjects. Sitting on my nightstand is “The Bridesmaid” by Hailey Abbott, which is kinda sorta research for me, since I like to see how my wedding book would stack up against other wedding books. All research should be this fun.

So I’d call this a pretty productive summer, and I’m looking forward to the flashlight reading session tomorrow.