Interview with Lee Edward Födi
Kendra Kandlestar and the Door to Unger
Today, Tyler R. Tichelaar of Reader Views is pleased to be joined by Lee Edward Fodi, who is here to talk about his new children’s fantasy novel, “Kendra Kandlestar and the Door to Unger,” the second book in the Kendra Kandlestar fantasy series.
Known as the “Wizard of Words,” Lee Edward Födi has been writing and illustrating stories about magic, monsters, and mystery for as long as he can remember. Födi is an engaging public speaker, specializing in presentations and workshops for elementary-aged children. He has taught programs in Canada, the US, and South Korea. In addition, he is a co-founder of “Dream Workshop,” a Vancouver-based not-for-profit program in which children's authors, illustrators, and performers help kids publish their own books. As the lead mentor for “Dream Workshop,” Födi finds continual inspiration in the enthusiasm, ingenuity, and talent of his students.
Tyler: Thank you, Lee, for joining me today. To begin, will you tell us a little bit about the heroine of your new book, Kendra Kandlestar?
Mr. Wiz: Kendra Kandlestar is a spirited eleven-year-old Een girl with these long, crazy braids that stick out from her head like the rays of a star. Eens, of course, are known for their skill in braiding. They are a tiny race that lived a long time ago—in the Land of Een, as a matter of fact, tucked between the cracks of here and there. I think Eens are rather like Elves. They’re small with pointed ears, and they can talk to animals. In fact, some people say they might even be related to Elves. But I think they are a race all to their own.
Now most Eens are shy and timid little creatures—but not Kendra Kandlestar. She has this insatiable curiosity and a tendency to follow her heart, rather than the rules or prudence recommended by her Uncle Griffinskitch and the other elders. As you can imagine, this is one of the reasons why she has so many adventures. She doesn’t always do the “right” thing, but she certainly does what she believes is right.
Tyler: Will you give us a little background from your first book, “Kendra Kandlestar and the Box of Whispers”? Is it necessary to read the first book to understand the second?
Mr. Wiz: You can certainly read the second book, “Kendra Kandlestar and the Door to Unger,” on its own. It’s quite easy to pick up and get into the story. Having said that, I think the second book will mean more to you emotionally if you have read the first book. The plots are very straightforward, but thematically, the second book builds on the first.
In the first book, Kendra is asked to be part of a group that goes in search of a fabled chest called the Box of Whispers. Kendra doesn’t really understand why she’s chosen to go at first—she is only eleven, after all, and has no unique abilities that she can think of. She doesn’t even know what is so important about the box. During her journey, she ends up saving the life of a troll-like creature called an Unger. These Ungers are the sworn enemies of Eens, but Kendra sees that this Unger, named Trooogul, is in danger, and she instinctively helps him. It’s only afterwards that she realizes she has committed a so-called crime, so she decides to keep the whole incident a secret. She continues on her journey, only to discover that the treasure she is seeking—the Box of Whispers—magically records every secret ever forged by every single Een. So now Kendra’s search for the box becomes even more significant—because she doesn’t want her precious secret falling into the wrong hands—or claws.
Tyler: Why are the Eens and Ungers enemies, and how do Kendra and Troogul overcome this racial-hatred to become friends?
Mr. Wiz: The Eens have always feared and despised creatures of the outside world. The Eens believe that these monstrous creatures are out to destroy them and they have all sorts of beliefs that these creatures—especially Ungers—would like to enslave or even eat them. Kendra and Trooogul are thrown together through circumstance, starting in “The Box of Whispers.” Their relationship continues in “The Door to Unger,” but it is not an easy one. It is a relationship fraught with mistrust and complicated feelings of prejudice, on the part of both characters. What we learn about Kendra is that she seems to have a connection with the Ungers, which becomes gravely apparent in this latest book. For her, this is a troubling notion, and she is continually forced to reconcile what she thinks she knows about Ungers and what she comes to know through her specific experiences with Trooogul.
Tyler: Kendra has to go through the door to Unger to find out the secret about her family. Why is this secret important to her?
Mr. Wiz: The only family Kendra has ever known is her Uncle Griffinskitch. All she has ever really been told about her family—her mother, father, and brother—is that they disappeared in the great frightening outside world that exists beyond the land of Een. Kendra was only a baby at the time, so she has no memory of them. Many think her family is dead, destroyed by Ungers or other wild creatures, but no one knows for sure.
Then an old and dying Unger suddenly shows up to tell Kendra that she can discover the truth of what befell her family by journeying to the Door to Unger. Well, we all know what Kendra’s going to do. She’s going to find that door!
Tyler: What is distinctive about Kendra’s fantasy world of Een?
Mr. Wiz: The most important feature of Een is that is a secret place, hidden away from the rest of the world. A magic curtain surrounds Een, making the land invisible to all non-Eens. In particular, the Eens are terrified of all the creatures that live beyond the magic curtain, creatures such as Ungers, Krakes, Goojuns, Izzards, and Orrids. Of course, that’s not to mention the more traditional creatures, such as Dwarves, Centaurs, Fauns and…er, humans.
The Eens are tiny people, about the size of rabbits, so they have built their towns and homes to fit themselves. Of course, they are a magical people, and Een is invested with much enchantment and wonder.
The outside world, by contrast, is bigger and much more daunting to the Eens. Really, the Eens don’t know much about the outside world. They rarely leave Een. Of course, when Kendra’s family disappears after venturing to the outside world, this only serves to remind the other Eens how frightening and dangerous that world is.
Tyler: In “The Door to Unger,” Kendra meets many interesting creatures, including monsters, dwarves, and a magic-peddling faun? Do you have a favorite among these characters?
Mr. Wiz: Definitely Effryn Hagglehorn, the Faun. He is traveling sales….er, faun, who has all sorts of magical marvels for sale, including one item in particular that Kendra Kandlestar is very interested in. Effryn is a bit of a loon and his favorite express is “I’ll be shorn”—because no self-respecting Faun ever wants to shave.
Tyler: Brianne mentioned in her review of the book for Reader Views that something funny happens every few pages. What do you think is the funniest thing that happens in the book?
Mr. Wiz: I think one of the funniest inhabitants in the land of Een is Ratchet Ringtail the raccoon. You see, Ratchet fancies himself an extraordinary inventor and amateur inventor, so he is always coming up with new-fangled inventions. His latest line of inventions is a series of magical powders with names such as Dinner Thinner (to get rid of those dinners you just hate to eat), Snore Galore (to put people to sleep) and Easy Sneeze (a way to get rid of the hiccups by sneezing). My personal favorite moment is when Kendra and her friends find themselves in the underground kingdom of the Dwarves and they are served a four-course meal that consists solely of turnips. Needless to say, they use a lot of Dinner Thinner!
Tyler: I love the names of the magical powders—they are very humorous. Why do you think humor is important in children’s books, and why do you use so much of it?
Mr. Wiz: I think humor is such a great way to interest readers, and I think it’s important that fantasy books (especially for children) use a lot of humor. Many fantasy books, including Kendra’s, are quite serious and profound, and I think introducing humor makes the stories more real, and more inviting. We all know that life can be serious, but it can also be fun. And if anyone likes to have fun, it’s kids of course.
I do have to say what readers may find funny isn’t always necessarily funny to Kendra and her friends. Kendra’s best friend, Oki the mouse, seems to be afraid of everything and he always seems to end up in these situations that cause him no end of panic—but they seem to delight the readers. I know Oki is the kids’ favorite character. I think it’s because they can relate to him and laugh at him in a light-hearted way.
Tyler: Were you a big reader as a child, and if so, what were your favorite children’s books?
Mr. Wiz: I did read a lot as a child. I always loved fantasy books, in which I could disappear to another world. My favorite books as a young child were “The Wizard of Oz” books. There were fourteen books in the original series, and I read them all, many times. These books had many serious adventures and plots, but were always told with a lot of humor and whimsy. These books are probably the biggest influence on my own writing style.
Tyler: My favorite children’s books were also the Oz series, although it’s rare I meet someone who actually read all fourteen of them. What about your writing and your fantasy worlds would you say is similar to Baum’s and is there anything you think you have done better or that you purposely did differently from his depictions of a fantasy land?
Mr. Wiz: Not only did I read all fourteen Oz books, I have read them several times, even as an adult. The Oz books seem to have fallen out of fashion, which is too bad. I meet a lot of people whose children like fantasy and are whipped into a frenzy to read books such as “Harry Potter.” But really, “Harry Potter” is a book for older readers. It has some dark moments that can frighten young children. The Oz books are great for the youngest fans of fantasy. I think the Oz books are incredibly funny, and if anything I try to invest the same type of humor in the Kandlestar books. I have funny talking animals and a lot of silliness, which doesn't always amuse adults. But based on the correspondence I get from my young fans, I know they really love the silliness, and this is part of the attraction to the series.
The one thing that I've tried to do with the Kandlestar books that is different from the Oz books is try to paint a more consistent picture of my world and its characters and societies. I absolutely love the Oz books, but you can tell that L. Frank Baum had no master plan as he wrote them. There are some things that aren't quite consistent in terms of his setting and narrative—though of course, even though I recognized these consistencies as a young reader, I always forgave them because I was so highly entertained. What I really hope I've achieved with the Kandlestar books is a richly-told fantasy story that speaks to a wide range of readers. For the youngest fans, they can be purely entertained by the story's spirit of adventure. Older readers, on the other hand, may detect some more serious themes running beneath the surface of the story, and hopefully they are inspired by some of these ideas.
Tyler: Why have you decided to write children’s fantasy novels over adult novels or other types of genres?
Mr. Wiz: The fantasy genre for children is the one I feel most comfortable with. When I was younger, I tried my hand at other genres, but the truth is that I’m just a children’s writer. It’s the way my brain is wired. I have always loved the fantasy genre, but many adult fantasy novels can get a little too heavy or violent for children and they don’t allow that same quotient of silliness. In the genre of children’s fantasy, I can be as silly as I want.
Tyler: Lee, I understand you are also the illustrator for your books. What comes first, the illustrations or the words—does one inspire the other?
Mr. Wiz: I get so much of my inspiration from artwork, so I’d have to say that the art comes first, and plants the seed for a story. With the case of “Kendra Kandlestar,” the whole series began with a single painting of these tiny characters sneaking past a great red dragon. I wasn’t trying to write a story at all. I was just trying to paint this picture…but when I had completed that painting, I realized that I had a whole world sitting before me, just waiting for me to enter it.
That first painting actually is very close to the cover of the first book, “Kendra Kandlestar and the Box of Whispers.” So I would have to say that the craft of writing, for me, is very much connected to my art. Kendra is featured very prominently on the first book, “The Box of Whispers,” but I thought I’d try something different with book two, “The Door to Unger,” and have you only see the top of Kendra’s head and her trademark braids sticking out of this sack that is being carried on the back of an Unger. There’s a lot of mystery in this second book, and I think this visual image really helps speak to that element. And, of course, there’s another eye this time, but instead of a dragon’s eye, it’s the eye glaring down from the fabled Door to Unger.
Tyler: Did you start out wanting to illustrate children’s books, and fell into writing, or was it the other way around?
Mr. Wiz: They both developed at the same time, actually. I always wanted to make books, from the time I was a very small boy. I wrote and illustrated my first book when I was quite young, probably five or six years old. I didn’t write stories; I have to be very clear about that. I wrote books. And each book had a cover, a table of contents, a dedication, chapters, illustrations, and teaser text on the back cover. I even had copyright pages in my books. I just thought that’s what one did when one wrote a story. And of course I didn’t have all those people at my disposal that a publishing house has. I didn’t have editors, graphic designers, and illustrators. When I was really young, I probably didn’t even realize that a book has several people working on it. So I just did it all myself. So, in a nutshell, I’d say that I didn’t fall into writing or illustration, but into the love of producing books.
Tyler: That’s funny, Lee. I remember making my own books too. And I mentioned above that you are the co-founder of “Dream Workshop” which helps children publish their own books. Will you tell us a little bit about where the inspiration for “Dream Workshop” came from and how it got started?
Mr. Wiz: Dream Workshop started just over four years ago when a fellow named Joon Park emailed me through my website and asked me to help start a program that would help kids publish their own stories. So I decided to meet with this person for coffee and hear about his ideas. It seemed pretty ambitious: a program dedicated to book publishing for kids. I knew there were classes and workshops out there that helped kids do this, but these were generally shorter week-long camps. I had never heard of a program that would be this focused. So, of course, I was interested. When Joon and I started it, was just the two of us, he as the administrator and I as the only teacher. We kind of just started on a wing and a prayer. The early days were a bit rough, but I just tried to think of how much I would have loved such a program when I was a kid. I would have absolutely relished a structured program in which I could write and produce my stories.
Well, now, four years later, Dream Workshop has four dedicated teachers, and over one hundred students being taught throughout the greater area of Vancouver (where I live). Because Joon comes from a Korean background, we've even had the opportunity to take our program to Korea for a specialized camp in the summer of 2007, which was really exciting.
Tyler: Tell me more about how you help children get their books published? Why do you think “Dream Workshop” is providing an important service to children?
Mr. Wiz: Our course is a dedicated series of fifteen classes in which kids write each week. We help our kids revise their work and get it as polished as possible. We help them design book covers and even write the "teaser" text for the back cover. Really, we help them really put together a professional product. I think our class is so great for young writers. If you think about it, if you are interested in athletics, there is so much for you out there in terms of organized activities. There are teams, coaches, practices, tournaments, and all sorts of structure. But if you are a kid interested in writing, there's not much out there for you. Dream Workshop is a way to help young writers focus on their craft. We take our writers seriously. We don't pat them on the head and say, "Isn't that cute that you wrote a story." We help them become better writers, better presenters, better thinkers. As you can tell, I really believe in this program and I just know that some of our kids are going to become published writers.
Tyler: Lee, what will your next project be? Will Kendra Kandlestar have more adventures, or do you have plans to create new fantasy worlds?
Mr. Wiz: I'm hard at work on the next Kendra book. I don't have a title yet, so I can't really release any details other than to say that this next installment will really see Kendra evolve as a character and have a challenge unlike any she's experienced so far. For those readers who really loved the creatures and characters in the first two books, get ready for some really wonderful situations and events!
Tyler: Lee, before we go, will you tell us about your website and what information we can find there?
Mr. Wiz: By all means, visit my website at www.kendrakandlestar.com where you yourself can enter the Door to Unger by reading the first chapter of the new book online, get introduced to the characters, and tour the illustration gallery. Best of all, you can watch a 90-second book trailer for the Door to Unger, which will really give you the sense of what my books are all about. Afterwards, be sure to click the link to www.leefodi.com, where you can learn more about me and find out about upcoming events. There’s even a “just for kids” section there too. And of course, I invite all my fans to submit reviews and comments about my books through my website.
Tyler: Thank you for joining me today, Lee. I’m sure readers will enjoy “Kendra Kandlestar and the Door to Unger.” It’ll make a great Christmas present.