Hi Lee! I’m delighted to be part of the cover reveal for your upcoming middle grade book SPELL SWEEPER. I absolutely love your writing and it’s an honor to help promote this book. Thank you for chatting with me today.
Thank you for hosting me. I’m really excited about this book and am over the moon with the cover.
Your last two books were part of the Zoone series, but this book looks like a magical story that will sweep us in a different direction. Can you tell us about it, please?
Even though Spell Sweeper is still a fantasy book, it’s very different from anything I’ve published before. It’s told first person, present tense, so has a very real-time intimate feel to it, which I felt was the best way to capture the voice of my main character, Caradine Moone.
Plot-wise, this book is wizard school meets Ghostbusters. Cara is a twelve-year-old kid who has recently “failed” her standardized wizardry test at Dragonsong Academy and now finds herself in the spell sweeping program. It’s her job to clean up the magical dust that’s left behind after “real” wizards cast a spell.
If you were to ask her, she’d tell you she was the Cinderella of the wizarding realm.
In terms of setting, this is my first book that is also set firmly in the real world. Even though Cara comes from Seattle, Dragonsong Academy is located on an island on the west coast of Canada. Some real locations featured in the book include the Seattle Underground and the Whistler train wreck.
I love the Canadian setting! Was there a particular character or element that inspired this story?
I wrote this book rather quickly (for me), but I think the various inspirations have been percolating for a long time.
The main inspiration has come from my years working as a creative writing teacher. In 2004, I met a like-minded dreamer named Joon 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! Reading the stories by these creative kids—and about their dreams, desires, and fears—was definitely the foundation for building Cara’s voice and perspective.
Another strand of inspiration was simply to do with brooms. I typically spend a lot of time in Asia, and a few years ago I started noticing 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 started photographing these brooms because I knew there was some nugget of an idea there that I wanted to explore. Eventually, I began imagining that these brooms contained hidden and unusual magic. Of course, you mention magic and brooms in the same sentence and people automatically think of flying. But I eventually settled on a different thought: What if brooms in the magical world were still for sweeping?
My grandfather also 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 still have one of his creations. When I last spent Christmas with 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!
The final bit of inspiration I want to mention comes from an exchange I’ve had with countless students. It happens almost exactly the same each time; I’m wrapping up a class or a school visit and a student approaches me and asks, “Are you famous?”
I always answer the same: “I think the answer is in your question!”—but what intrigues me about this question is this universal desire we have for accolades and recognition. I think we’ve all experienced those “why not me?” or “when is it my turn?” moments. These are the sorts of yearnings that I wanted to drive Cara’s character in Spell Sweeper. In many ways, this book is about how we view success and failure—or, as I’ve come to think of it, the success of failure.
I love how unique creatures are always a part of your books. Who will we meet in Spell Sweeper?
Ooh, I can’t wait for kids to meet some of these creatures. I’ve spent a lot of time travelling and teaching in Asia and one of the creatures that I became enamored with is the magical fox, so one of Cara’s main sidekicks, who you will see on the cover, is Zuki, a kyūbi no kitsune (which literally means nine-tailed fox in Japanese). I think he is destined to become a fan-favourite.
There are other magical creatures you can meet in the book, including a dragon named Dörgés, and a creature from my own imagination called a squix. You will have to look closely at the cover for Spell Sweeper—if you do, you might spy a baby squix!
I’ve watched you continue to be creative throughout the pandemic. Are writing and drawing an escape for you, and if so, how do you tune out the world and slip into a different place?
I’m an immersive person, which means my bigger problem has often been tuning IN to the world, especially when I’m soul-deep in a project. To be honest, I think turning to writing, drawing, building, or doing anything creative has always been a coping mechanism for me to deal with traumatic or difficult situations in my life. The pandemic has been no different—though, I will say it’s a lot harder to disappear into my imagined worlds with a two-year-old at home. There was no place for me to escape to (like a coffee shop) and nowhere for Hiro to go either. Thankfully, Hiro is a pretty creative kid and loves drawing and storytelling, too. We’ve built quite a few dragon eggs together during the pandemic—and I’m sure we’ll build a few more.
Can you tell me about your involvement in the cover, and who the illustrator is? Is it challenging, as an artist, to leave that role to someone else?
I’m really grateful that HarperCollins and my editor, Stephanie Stein, allowed me to participate in the cover design process.
It started with Stephanie asking me to submit a gallery of the types of covers I thought were representative of the direction I thought would be good for Spell Sweeper. We agreed on the type of approach and, a few months down the road, Stephanie revealed to me that the fabulous Maike Plenzke had been chosen to illustrate the cover. I was thrilled—I have loved Maike’s art ever since I saw it adorn the cover of Front Desk by Kelly Yang. My students and I have dissected all the details and elements of that cover so many times, so I was very excited to see what Maike would come up with for Spell Sweeper.
At that point, I submitted all of my own character sketches and character profiles, so that Maike could have a clear idea of how I perceived the cast. Of course, artists need to put their own spin on things, but my concepts showed the costume and hair details that are mentioned in the text.
When I saw the first black-and-white concept for Spell Sweeper, I was completely swept away (pun intended)! It checked every one of my boxes, perfectly capturing the characters and the magic of Dragonsong Academy. I had a few notes to provide, for example some specific details to do with Cara’s broom.
So, even though I have worked as an illustrator myself, it wasn’t challenging at all to leave this process to someone else, mostly because I felt I played such an integral role. I long ago decided that I did not want to illustrate my own book covers because I realized that even though drawing is an integral part of my writing process, it’s not something I actually need to do as part of the final product.
It’s time to reveal the cover, drumroll please!
Wow, that is fantastic! What are some of your favorite elements?
Where to start? The composition is perfect—there is a lot of energy and movement here, with Cara sweeping straight toward the viewer. I adore how the title block is a part of that motion, and I feel it’s as if the viewer is going to be sucked right into the adventure. And, while Cara is the main focus of the cover, our eye can wander off to visit the other main characters: Zuki, Harlee, Nova, and Gusto, who all get their own places of prominence.
The colors are vibrant and strong and Maike expertly captured the details of the school that are described in the text: the wardrobe-style lockers, the crookedly-hung paintings on the wall (it’s a wizard thing), and the toxic spell-slime leaking from the rafters at the top.
Look closely at Cara and Gusto’s belts and you will see all sorts of wonderful details, such as the “cleaners” and “neutralizers” they use as part of their role as spell sweepers (you won’t find these ingredients at home!). Maike even included Gusto’s stash of candy (it’s called witch’s delight). And then, of course, there’s Cara’s secret squix pet! It’s so adorable, much cuter than my own concept drawing.
I could keep gushing, but I will just say that this cover is my favorite of any of my books.
What is the release date for Spell Sweeper, and is there anything else you’d like our readers to know about your book?
The release date is Fall 2021! I hope kids fall in love with it, and I want to add that the design of Cara’s broom (which you can see on the cover) comes from the actual broom that I purchased at Granville Island Broom co.
One of the owners, Mary Schwieger, allowed me to watch her build a broom while I interviewed her on the process and traditions of broom-making.
Where should people go if they want to know more about you and your writing?
They can head on over to leefodi.com. There is a lot of information there about my books, my school visits, and my activities for kids. And I want to say you can check out more of Maike Plenzke’s artwork at cargocollective.com/maikeplenzke.
Thanks again for letting us be part of your cover reveal, Lee, and I can’t wait to read it.
It has been my pleasure!
Lee Edward Födi is an author, illustrator, and specialized arts educator—or, as he likes to think of himself, a daydreaming expert. He is the author of several books for children, including Spell Sweeper, The Secret of Zoone,and The Guardians of Zoone. He is a co-founder of the Creative Writing for Children Society (CWC), a not-for-profit program that helps kids write their own books. He has the joy of leading workshops for kids in Canada, the US, Korea, China, Thailand, and other places here and there. Lee lives in Vancouver, where he shares a creative life with his wife Marcie and son Hiro. You can visit him at http://www.leefodi.com.