An Idea Was Born

The idea for my first book started in one of my 7th grade classrooms, where I was teaching my students about the Fantasy genre. We got into this fun debate about what the best mythological creature was, and my choice was the unicorn. I've been infatuated with them since I was a child. In fact, the only tangible remnants I possess from my toddler days are a small pink bear with a rattle in its belly and flowers in its ear, and a small golden charm of a unicorn's head.

Anyway, as with all things I feel passionate about our silly classroom debate got deep as I shared all the reasons I felt unicorns were best, and as I listed to the kids rattle off about minotaurs and mermaids and griffins. The kids got concerned and said, "But Ms. Cullen, unicorns aren't real...". I felt very much like Bastian in The Neverending Story in that moment, and had to choose between keeping my feet on the ground or letting my head float off into the clouds. These kids, children today, they have few chances to be children– to imagine, to create, to get lost in fantasy. So I accepted their indirect challenge and replied, "Yes, they are. You just can't see them because you don't believe!". Some kids giggled, some went wide-eyed, and naturally one of them said "Oh yeah, then where do unicorns come from?". And that is where my story was born.

Right there, on the fly, I had to weave a tale so rich and thick and beautiful that at least for a moment, they too could get lost in the fantasy and walk with me through the magical world of the unicorn. When I finished, they were all smiling, some had their jaws hanging open, and others blushed. I was able to enrapture them for a few moments, to make them believe before we all had to go back to reality and move on to our 8th period classes. One of the kids poked her hand up and said "Did you just make that up?" And I said, "Yes". They looked around at each other and back at me, and together they said "You should totally write that book." And, well, I did.

I took all of 8th period trying to recapture my tale, adding details and images where I could. I went home that night and read through my quick scribbled notes, and started making changes, revising bits and pieces. Then, my sister got pregnant, and I decided that I would make this storybook for her and for my nephew to enjoy together.

I became so in love with my story that I applied for a scholarship to a writing retreat in Italy, and I got it. I went to Tuscany for two weeks, where I continued revising my tale, and creating illustration after illustration, trying to bring all the images in my mind to life. And I came home, and bought a beautiful hardbound blank book, and I grabbed my colored pencils and calligraphy pens and went to work. I'm about halfway done with the handwritten version of my story for my nephew and my sister.

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  • Michelle Cullen

    Aw, thank you Karen. I do miss teaching a bit, the kids especially. Yeah, grammar is more like the mathematics of writing, and never interested me. The more I read, the better I was able to read and write, and I had the same philosophy with my students. I tricked them into learning, so it was fun for all of us, LOL.

  • I wish I had a teacher like you when I was in 7th grade (or any of the other grades...) All I remember from English class was worksheet after worksheet of spelling and grammar exercises.  I love to read but hated English (as a class).  No one ever told me there was a connection between the two! I'll bet there are a lot of inspired students thanks to your creativity.