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The City Journals

Best-selling author uses fantastical imagination to guide students into good reading, writing habits

Nov 29, 2021 02:32PM ● By Julie Slama

A Union Middle student gives New York Times best-selling author Brandon Mull a creative answer during The Imagination Game during his presentation to the school. (Christina Kelly/Union)

By Julie Slama | [email protected]

New York Times best-selling author Brandon Mull admits he has to do hard things.

“When a character dies, it kills me,” he said. “I’ve put so much into developing the character, but if the story needs it, I have to do it.”

Mull has recently been touring middle schools and upper-level elementary schools that allow assemblies in conjunction with the Oct. 26 release of “Dragonwatch: Return of the Dragon Slayers.” In Sandy, he stopped at Union and Eastmont middle schools and in South Jordan, Elk Ridge Middle School and Eastmont Elementary.

At the assemblies, which he provides schools for free, he interweaves his background, his writing and some examples of other popular authors in this age group, with writing tips and experiences for his mostly pre-teen and young teen audience.

“He’s very engaging and personable,” Union Middle librarian Elaine Zhang said. “He made them laugh; he helped them understand the importance of creativity and imagination.”

Union Middle eighth-grader Senya Walker added she appreciated that he was relatable, not “that far away person” as he autographed his books and took a number of selfies with students at schools.

The assembly opens with Mull sharing about his personal background from what he was like growing up to photos of the family dog. He also includes an embarrassing moment of falling downstairs and some goofy pictures of himself. His children embrace their dad’s imagination, Mull said, and even showed a clip of them helping with the video releases of his book.

Mull then moves into the series of books he’s written: the five-book “Fablehaven” series; “Pingo;” “Smarter than a Monster: A Survival Guide;” “Candy Shop War;” three-book “Beyonders” series; five-book “Five Kingdoms” series; and now the fifth and final book of the “Dragonwatch” series. He also coordinated the series “Spirit Animals” with other well-known authors. 

Mull has had 17 bestsellers on the New York Times list. 

Of the best known is “Fablehaven,” which took Mull, then age 30, five months to write. It is published in more than 30 languages, and he has traveled as far as Singapore to promote it. He has visited more than 2,000 schools promoting his young readers’ fantasy books.

“I wished I had these kinds of books when I was a kid,” he told students, saying they could strengthen their imaginations by reading more and watching movies or television less and practicing their creativity through various means such as dance or art.

Mull demonstrated with students how they could share the same experience through “The Imagination Game,” an opportunity for three students to come up on stage and share creative ideas for a passageway into another world, or what it smelled like, or what was happening in it.

For example, at Union Middle, students entered through a dark spooky alley where at Elk Ridge, a student suggested an entry through a toilet. At Elk Ridge, it smelled like cotton candy, but at Eastmont, it smelled “like my brother’s bed.” Apple juice was raining down at one school while dragons were on trees at another.

Together, at each school, “you made up a world you never heard of before. You get the details and descriptions and suddenly, this whole room full of people can talk to me about it, what it looks like and smells like because some ideas have been introduced to our minds. This is my job as a writer; I’m trying with details and descriptions to bring people to life. Imagination can take you places,” he said.

Union Middle eighth-grader Emily Whipple, appreciated this interaction, saying she better understood when students were helping imagine their own world with him on stage.

Within a story, readers can imagine the characters based on the descriptions and while they may look differently than another reader’s vision, neither is wrong, whereas actors who portray the characters on film eliminate the need for imagination, he said.

Eastmont librarian Sonya Miles appreciated Mull’s point that it was important for students to see and understand that writing process firsthand.

“It was very inspiring for student to learn how to use their imagination and creative process,” she said. “He said it’s important to them to pay attention to how other authors set up their stories as a way to learn how to become successful in coming up with your own world, not having one be given to you if you were watching something. This helps your brain develop and is more active as you imagine characters and a setting. Reading helps brain growth and development and is so impactful.”

Sometimes, though, Mull admits writing doesn’t come easy.

“I’ve always loved to daydream. I’ve always loved to write stories. I’ve always liked to read a good story, but sometimes the stories in my mind seem really awesome, but it was frustrating when I first tried to write my stories down. It takes time and effort to communicate the stuff I see in my head,” he said, adding that his first novel attempt has never been published.

Then, he shared with students his “four secrets to becoming an author.” He advised them to be good observers; exercise their imaginations; read a lot and pay attention to how authors tell their stories; and then write their stories and share them with others.

Elk Ridge eighth-grader Sophia Scott was one of those who were called up onto stage, who said it was both exciting and nerve-wracking, but she was grateful to be chosen. She said she admires Mull and his writing and found the experience helpful in learning how to become a better writer.

Writing, Mull said, is both a pleasure and work.

“It’s a mix of fun and hard, but it’s something I love to do and feel fortunate I can do,” he said. “It takes time to be good at it, to develop the craft, just like any other profession.”