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.

Things I’ve learned

  1. Devoting a weekend to your craft is always worth it.

My belated thoughts on NJSCBWI: It was a fine conference and I got encouraging words on two manuscripts, which I’m certainly happy to hear. We’ll see what happens next. Ginger Clark is absolutely the agent you want to talk about contracts with, because her workshop on the topic was incredibly detailed and honest. Kurestin Armada made a great suggestion about querying: Run your query past someone who hasn’t read your book, to see how well it lands. (Blake Snyder says the same thing in “Save the Cat!” which I recommend highly.) Michelle Witte’s session on voice gave me a whole new to-read list.Wendi Silvano gets extra credit for giving us a detailed handout on how to write a picture book text to account for the eventual illustrations (for instance, using words and phrases that set up the artwork to show what happens next) — and sending the handout around ahead of time so we could follow along.

Oh, and keynote David Wiesner was funny and relatable (we’re fans of “Mr. Wuffles!” around here), and closing keynote Suzy Ismail, explaining why diversity in books matters and how to address it, was wise and occasionally heartbreaking.

2. Be careful what you wish for.

I wanted my kids to learn more about American history, since they don’t seem to be getting it in school yet, and since we live in a state that is teeming with historic sites. And yeah, okay, since I’ve been obsessively listening to the “Hamilton” soundtrack. That too. So I found this picture book at the library:51uJJMpSx5L.jpg

Which, funnily enough, cites as one of its sources the same Ron Chernow book that Lin-Manuel Miranda used to write the musical. (Side note: Must read Chernow book.) It’s well done — it doesn’t include every detail, obviously, but it does a good job of showing the parallels between Hamilton and Burr, and how the duel destroyed both their lives. The duel is handled fairly tastefully as well.

I left the book out for the kids to discover, and they were both fascinated by it, especially when they found out Hamilton and Burr were real people. And we all agreed that duels are stupid.

And then the kids took sides.

My daughter said Burr was the better guy. My son sided with Hamilton. They argued about it. I swear they came to blows in the back seat of the car.

Well, I did want them to care about history.

3. Stories matter.

This is more of a reminder to myself. I’ve been so upset and horrified by the news of the past week that it’s hard to fathom how anything I could write could make a difference amid so much sadness. But I have to think that it does. I know every story I read when I was young made a difference to me, taught me something. (Including comic books, incidentally, which taught me that with great power comes great responsibility. Not at all a bad thing to learn.) If the stories we tell ourselves determine who we are as people, then we need as many good stories as we can get. If I can be a part of that in some way, then — apologies to Eliza — that would be enough.

The writing chair

There is a black leather (but probably pleather) chair in my house. It used to live in the corner of a room downstairs and no one sat in it. It didn’t quite match anything else in the room. Occasionally it served as impromptu toy storage. Mainly it just existed there, like a sad pleather shadow.

In the course of moving some furniture around, we lugged the chair up to our bedroom to create a sitting area. And suddenly I began to use the chair every day. I’ve been writing a new project in it. My new ritual is, go upstairs at night, settle into the chair, write as long as I’m awake. I’ve been making slow but steady progress.

It’s amazing how a simple change of scenery will change things so dramatically. The chair that I used to ignore has become essential to my daily routine. All it needed was a room where it actually belonged.

I don’t know if this is feng shui, or chair karma, or just the advantage of having a chair in a room that didn’t previously offer one. But it proves that the simplest changes to your surroundings can sometimes yield the biggest results.

So here’s a suggestion, if you’re struggling with writer’s block or skipping your writing time: Move some furniture. Change your surroundings. Sit somewhere different.

And it doesn’t even have to be pleather.

At the Laundromat

Our washing machine recently went kablooey. Something about the motor burning out, or something. The new one would take a week to arrive, and since there are four of us, that would be just long enough for the piles of laundry to grow into mountains of laundry. Laundromat time!

Q: How do you do laundry, get work done and entertain your small child at the same time? A: You grab the laundry basket and your laptop, and you tell your daughter to pick out some books.

The Laundromat looked about the same as it had the last time I’d used it (when our dryer went kablooey). Mildly dingy at the edges, strangely silent except for the washers and dryers working. Not many chairs. Not overly interesting. We settled in the back.

My daughter is a really excellent bookworm-in-training. She sat politely through the wash cycle and the spin cycle, absorbed in her book. Then she looked up and discovered the fascinating things all around her. The rows of white and stainless steel machines. The sloshing whirring noises. The clothes swirling around through the glass doors. Suddenly the Laundromat was the coolest place she’d ever seen. She stood and watched one machine in motion for so long that the man using it asked me if we needed it. “No, she’s just watching,” I explained.

It was a useful reminder: Nearly anything is interesting to a child if they’ve never seen it before. So to write for children, you have to be able to see everything as interesting.

“The Laundromat is awesome!” said my daughter as we lugged the basket and detergent back to the car. And actually, it is.



Catching up on reading

It was a lovely holiday with too much food, and though we haven’t gotten around to taking down the decorations yet (we have till Valentine’s Day on that, right? Some of the lights are red!), I did get in some book time. Because anytime is book time.

I finally got my copies of Tara Lazar’s “Little Red Gliding Hood” and Josh Funk’s “Lady Pancake and Sir French Toast,” spied in a fantastic bookstore in New York State. “Gliding Hood” is hysterical — we had fun pointing out all the other random fairy tale characters swirling around the ice next to Red and her *ahem* unusual skating partner. “Lady Pancake” is the most madcap refrigerator tour I’ve ever seen, with a down-to-the-wire finish that left me … well, hungry. I like French toast. Okay, and pancakes.

I’ve been catching up on Kate DiCamillo’s books because inexplicably I had not read them before, and I finished most of “The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane” in one night, some of it through tears. I also picked up a copy of “The Tale of Despereaux,” which I already loved, and was reading it to my son until he snuck ahead and finished it without me. Well, fine then.

I also finally got to Matt de la Pena’s “Last Stop on Market Street,” which has a terrific sort of poetry to it (I love the dialogue), and Mac Barnett’s “Extra Yarn,” which has exactly the right modern-day fairy-tale feel.

And when not reading, I got some revising done. So generally, a productive break. Now that we’re all back to our regular schedules, let’s see how this month goes.