Linh S. Nguyễn – chat with Story Planet

Linh, an enormous congratulations on the recent publication of your first chapbook, Visiting Gales, with illustrations by Christie Wong. Some of us from Story Planet were honoured to attend your online launch party, and witnessed the beautiful collection of gentle creativity from many people looking to evoke the mood of the chapbook. We’re all incredibly grateful to witness your embarkation of a career as a writer.

Visiting Gales is a collection of two short stories that ask, through memory and fiction, what composes childhood, growth, and independence. Young characters weave within their relationships to find answers to their evolving selves and environments, where changes are shaped by commonplace occurrences alongside miraculous unknowns.

How were these stories and this chapbook dreamt into being? 

The two stories for this chapbook, “The Robins” and “Down Feathers”, were born in my creative writing class at U of T four years ago.

At the time, I was only writing creative nonfiction — not because I preferred it but because I hadn’t yet figured out my fiction voice and was still scared to admit I wanted to write stories for a living. So when the time came for us to write our final project for this class, I thought, “I’ll just stick to nonfiction.”

That’s where “The Robins” was born. It was inspired by a robin’s nest in the eaves-through of my family’s home many years ago. That summer, we saw the birds teaching their babies how to fly, and when the little ones flew away, I thought the parents’ mourning cries were the saddest thing I ever heard. It really stuck with me, so I decided to write about that. I changed all the names and POV, called it fiction, and handed it in.

Fortunately, my creative writing professor was too sharp. She read it, and said, “I know this isn’t fiction. I can tell in the writing voice.” No matter how hard I argued, she refused to let me turn in anything short of a real fictional story.

So I tabled “The Robins”. It would go through many rounds of edits and rewrites in the following years and finally return to its roots as a personal reflection on childhood and growth. I asked my trusted editor, Jasmine Gui, to review it before I submitted it to The Soap Box Press.

Instead, for class that year, I wrote “Down Feathers” on the subway to school, specifically between Runnymede and Spadina stations on the TTC in Toronto.

All I had to go off was the first line that just came to me: “Lyra was seven when her wings grew in.” And a line from Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s short story, “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings”. The line was an offhand comment in his story, mentioned briefly, about a “Portuguese man who couldn’t sleep because the noise of the stars disturbed him”. 

So those two lines informed that entire story. I had no plan. I just wrote. It came out remarkably easily, almost fully formed, and honestly, I loved it. I knew from the start it was special, and “Down Feathers” will always hold a special place in my heart, because it opened the door to my fiction writing again, which is so much of what I write now.

Linh, an Asian woman with chest-length black hair, is looking at the camera from the side. She stands by a wooden-paneled wall and is smiling with her mouth open. She's wearing a black, sleeveless shirt and red lipstick.
Credit to Albert Hoang

Then last August, I was browsing several websites in search of a home for some of my stories. I found out The Soap Box Press was publishing chapbooks and became excited at the prospect of putting together a bigger project with more creative control. 

When this idea came to mind, I approached Christie, sent her five short stories that I had floating around, and asked for her thoughts on what stood out, whether she’d be interested in illustrating, and which stories she thought would work well together. We chose these two for their similar themes and submitted!

Can you tell us a little bit about your relationship with Christie?

Christie and I have only recently met in person, after our chapbook was released! We were introduced by Jasmine Gui, founder and editor of Project 40 Collective in 2019. My personal essay, “Cracks in the Wall”, was published in LooseLeaf Magazine Volume 7, and Jasmine thought that Christie would be a good person to illustrate it. Little did she know of the creative chaos she would unleash! Or maybe she did. Jasmine is a genius.

Christie Wong sits on a stall by a table covered in cloth, holding a DSLR camera and smiling at the lens of the camera taking the photo. She is an Asian women wearing round, wooden earrings, round glasses, a green sweatshirt and grey/beige pants.
Credit to Lucy Lu

Since then, Christie and I have worked together on a number of projects, from workshops to illustrated pieces. We have a beautiful working relationship built on profound trust. She is a creative amplifier, and I always feel excited and energetic coming off a call with her. Our skills complement each other well. It’s fabulous to have that artistic push from someone so talented.

These stories evoke a lot of emotions about growing up, finding your place in the world and redefining what that world can look like, as an individual and within a family. What was your inspiration for this?

The idea of growing up has always been something I’ve struggled with, probably because I read too many fantasy adventures as a child and desperately wanted my own. I spent a long time resisting that I might not get to fight dark lords with secret magic powers. When I inevitably grew older, I began reflecting on what the idea of “growing up” actually means. I don’t have an answer, but these stories are my explorations of the feelings involved in that question, of which there are many complex ones!

As an English major, I studied children’s literature in my undergrad and wrote my thesis on portal fantasies as a way of understanding maturity and responsibility. This is further informed by my experience as an immigrant. This intersection of childhood and home are central to much of my work presently and going forward.

As you touched upon, as children, we often have this sense of “growing up” as being a big discovery or fantasy in life, when in reality the realization otherwise can be challenging. What would you hope your writing could leave for others, both young and old, to deal with this notion of growing up?

Personally, the message I want to weave into my stories is one that’s helped me reframe my own relationship to fantasy. While I initially wanted to escape as a child, I later became more interested in the return to our world and how fiction allows us to see everyday occurrences in a new light. After all, magic does exist. We see it all the time in small gestures and grand phenomena; it just might look a little different than in the stories. That doesn’t mean it has any less power or ability to effect meaningful change. I wrote about this realization many years ago on my blog.

In “Down Feathers” specifically, it was important for me to show adults of all sorts who, like Lyra, keep their wings throughout their lives. I don’t want to see adulthood as the loss of any wonder or magic. We do have the ability to preserve that beauty, though of course, doing so is a privilege for many.

Illustration from 'Down Feathers' Lyra is sitting on her back with her back facing the viewer. One wing is stretched out to her side, plain, and the other falls to the floor, with feather textures. The image is in black and white.
Illustration by Christie Wong

That said, I still hope readers interpret my work in any way that speaks to them, especially in ways I can’t predict. 

What was the process of working with The Soap Box Press to release the chapbook?

It was so smooth! I loved how much creative freedom we got. All the art, from cover to illustrations, are Christie’s. None of my words were changed without my consent. We got a say in every step, including the layout. I feel a lot of ownership over the project, never once like it’d been taken from my hands.

Illustration from 'Down Feathers'. A character is seen standing atop a huge seashell, holding a large feather at its stem. Clouds and a half moon are in the background. The illustration is in black and white.
Illustration by Christie Wong

Tali Voron, the founder and publisher, has supported us wholeheartedly in our unconventional and ambitious release of this book, including our stacked launch and workshop that followed. She’s a skilled facilitator and organizer, always ready to jump in and say yes to our wild ideas.

Alongside yourself and Christie talking about your creative processes, your launch party featured people across the creative spectrum, including a dancer, painter, meditation guides, and musicians. What inspired you to set it up this way?

Honestly, Christie was a huge driving force of this event. Her wide-ranging and incredible creative connections made it so easy to gather everyone we wanted to join us in performing. We knew we wanted to share the celebration and feature other artists. At the same time, we wanted a community-like feel. It ended up being the perfect night with an amazing turnout.

Personally, I love seeing my words take on different artistic forms that I’m not skilled in, which is why working with Christie is so great. She sees things I don’t, in a whole new medium. To see my stories interpreted through dance, music, and meditation, was mind-blowing and heartwarming. It wouldn’t have been nearly so special without Alena, Anda, Rosie, Jess, Vicky, Justine, Jazmin, and Julia. We got to celebrate them all!

At Story Planet we work with students who may be at the beginning of a lifelong love or career in writing and illustration. What would your advice be for anyone starting to write, and how to improve and practice the craft?

It sounds trite, but reading and writing are the only ways to excel at this craft. There’s no shortcut! More specifically though, the practice of freewriting is essential. I’ve been intentionally honing my ability to sit down in front of a blank page and write whatever comes to mind for nine years now, without getting stumped by a need for perfection or inspiration. So much of writing is doing it badly and doing it over again; I’m on draft number four of my book right now, and the first one was awful! It’s not about talent. I wish I’d known that as a child. You are a writer if you write. That is enough.

Pursuing a career in the arts, especially for racialized youth without industry knowledge or connections, can be a tumultuous path, but it is possible and incredibly rewarding. I love the work I get to do. It’s definitely challenging, but I’ve tried to prioritize creative projects in my life (mostly because I don’t know how to live any other way), even when working minimum wage jobs for years out of school. Maybe fame and fortune will follow, but that’s definitely not how it starts and not what I’m counting on. I’m still very much in the grunt work stages yet loving it.

What’s next for yourself and your life as a writer?

I am off to the University of Cambridge to pursue graduate school! My one-year program is called Arts, Creativity, and Education, and I’ll be focusing on the role of play and storytelling in decentering whiteness in learning spaces. My last degree tied in well with my creative practices and writing, so I’m very excited for what this adventure holds.

I also have some super exciting writing news on the horizon that I can’t yet share publicly. It involves my debut novel, which is a middle-grade portal fantasy featuring an 11-year-old Vietnamese-Torontonian protagonist! I can’t wait to talk about it more, so stay tuned!

In the meantime, I have two creative non-fiction stories to be released later this year! “Death and a Wind Farm” will be published in the next issue of Living Hyphen magazine, and “The Christmas Lamp” will be published in The Soap Box Press’s anthology, “The Hyphenated Generation”.

Thanks so much for taking the time to chat with us. We’re so fortunate to be able to work with you at Story Planet and can’t wait to celebrate Visiting Gales even more, and all your future projects!

You can buy a physical copy or e-book of Visiting Gales from The Soap Box Press.


Writing as healing for children, by Zaima Ahmed

Writing is a great way of expressing what is in your heart. Little minds have plenty of imagination and thoughts going on in their minds, but they don’t know how to talk about it always, especially if they are going through something traumatic.

Below are 5 ways in which you can encourage your child to write, and Story Planet available in our Alien Art Market which can help you do so :  

  1. Encourage your child to write a journal every day and reward them with a treat to keep them motivated. Let them pick their journal book and a special pen to write. When it comes to writing, children can get bored easily, so including fun stuff can motivate them – like our Character Zine! 

2. Inspire them to write stories. Sometimes kids portray themselves through their story characters or express their feelings through the story they are writing. There is plenty of free story writing worksheets available on the internet that you can download and print. These worksheets make it easy to form a story.

3. Be their role model. If you write a journal every day, your child will follow you and do the same.

4. Fun crafts and games that involve writing. For instance, you could create a fun DIY papercraft box for 3 emotions, “happy,” “sad”, and “angry.” Then you could put a notepad beside the boxes and tell your child to write about their feelings whenever they are going through any of the difficult emotions and then put the paper in the appropriate box. Our Flash Card Fiction game is in the making and will be sure to get kids thinking!

5. Turn your child’s writing into books. This can be very exciting for your child and it will give your child a sense of accomplishment and will improve their self-esteem. You could compile all of your child’s writings into a book every year and create an amazing cover every time. This way you can find all the stories in one place and you won’t lose them. 

Coping with COVID-19 as a graduate student, by Zaima Ahmed

“Very thankful to experience these enchanting trees on my everyday walks” – Zaima Ahmed

COVID -19 entered all of our lives without any notice. Our everyday normal lifestyle has been disrupted and there is a lot of uncertainty about what the future holds. It can be quite difficult when this is the first time you have experienced being at home all day and trying to get everything done from home. Quarantine has come with a lot of pain of not being able to meet friends and family and doing the things we love doing.

I am a student who recently graduated from a Graduate certification program in Marketing at  York University. COVID-19 entered my life when I reached almost the end of my program where there were many project deadlines. It became really challenging for me when all of my classes switched from in person to online. I no longer had in class activities or detailed lectures that I used to have before, no in person group meetings and everything had to be sorted online which was a big challenge for me. Apart from that, managing my groceries, observing proper safety measures, finding essential items that were out of stock and  the non-stop news and social media coverage on the pandemic were adding to my challenges. 

My mental health kept deteriorating and I realized that my mindset needed some change. 

I reminded myself that it was normal to have challenges in life and I have to accept that and face it with a positive mindset. If I didn’t help myself, I wouldn’t be able to help my loved ones, too. So I decided to find some resources online to help myself cope with this pandemic. 

I really liked the Child Mind Institute’s online blog post, “Anxiety and Coping with the Coronavirus,” by Rachel Ehmke. In this Blog post, Rachel shares some tips on dealing with anxiety in a healthy way.  The first tip that was super helpful to me was about tolerating uncertainty: the treatment for anxiety was not to make fear go away but to manage fear and tolerate uncertainty.  Anxiety and fear are both a part of our lives and there is nothing that exists that will make them fully vanish from our lives. From time to time they will appear and we need to accept them and face them with courage. This tip helped me to take my first step towards a positive mindset. 

“Lovely orange tulips brightens my day whenever I see them”

The second tip was to start regularly practising meditation, which is a tool to help people stay calm and grounded in the present moment by not getting caught up in the future or the past.  This was something that really helped me focus on my daily tasks instead of getting caught up in my thoughts about things I was worried about. I started practising meditation using the “Headspace” app. I did a few free sessions before buying the full premium version. At first it was very difficult for me to stay calm, but slowly I began to master this skill after doing a couple of sessions. 

Along with meditation, exercising for at least 30 minutes at home regularly has really made me feel more active and energetic and has also helped my mood stay more positive throughout the day. Since I was at home all day I was moving less so I realized that exercising more frequently was really important for my health. I did some Cardio workouts using my home elliptical machine and also did many HIIT workouts watching Fitness Blender workout videos on YouTube. 

My mother suggested that I pick some of my hobbies and start planning out some activities in my routine to make my days enjoyable. Now that summer has come, it’s the perfect weather to take beautiful photographs outside, so I started taking photographs of beautiful trees, flowers and birds. I love taking photographs and it made me feel great and calm. I also started baking new cake recipes I never tried before for my family. I am not someone who is great at cooking so when the cakes turned out great, I felt great. 

I am a Muslim who prays 5 times a day. My daily prayers and my faith and hope in God has given me the strength to keep going during this painful time. I believe that storms don’t last forever and soon better days are coming. Every suffering that we all go through in life is designed to help us learn, grow and become better individuals. 

We all need to strive towards a positive and healthy mindset during this pandemic so that we can support each other and survive this together. Human beings have been blessed with a lot of potential and are capable of doing so many things. I believe that we can stay strong and go through this too.

“Chini observing her new toy”

Online StoryMakers

Previously, we shared with you the characters our online StoryMaker students have developed, but every character needs a setting for the story!

Breaking the usual 3 hour workshop into more bite-size one hour online workshops, the second sessions of these have seen some fantastical settings developed and come to life by our Story Planet artists.

Drago’s Enchanted Forest

Squidson Washington III’s Cloud World

Doughnut City

Hakuna’s Spacious Jungle

The success of these workshops has even spurred us to develop a new workshop, which we are excited to be unveiling publicly soon!

A few more words on our StoryMaker from teachers and students:

“Story Maker gave my grade 5 students the opportunity to further utilize their own creativeness and broaden their understanding towards nonfiction and fiction stories.” –  Ms. Darote

“My opinion about Story Planet is terrific…..that’s because it’s like acting but you aren’t acting in a sense this makes me feel like I can just feel free and say whatever comes to mind because I know that they’ll accept it.” – Treshauna (student)

What has Story Planet been up to recently?

We have been working with four different classes to bring the magic of the StoryMaker workshop live to Zoom! Breaking up each workshop into three weekly one-hour meetings, these workshops allow the kids involved to momentarily leave behind the confines of their houses – some of whom have not left since the lock-down began – and indulge in their imaginations. For others, it’s a rare chance to log online and see their friends face to face. Although still far removed from the normality of a classroom and face-to-face meetings, being able to connect and bridge our worlds through Zoom has sparked dozens of embers we are excited to watch grow into bigger stories.

What the teachers are saying

I have had the immense pleasure of working with Story Planet several times over the last few years but I have never appreciated them as much as I do now during these challenging times.” Heidi Seibert (teacher)

This is the first time since the lock-down started that it feels like school!” – Mr Ahmad

The writing has been great, the kids are loving it! I’m so excited and proud of my kids for what they’ve done” – Ms Kent

And here are the characters over 40 students have collectively imagined:

Four-eyed Willy, Thunderhorn, and Snowy

Blake III and Hakuna

Sicky The Germ Monster

Zord – a half human, half T-Rex!

Squidson Washington III and Drago

To ensure we can keep supporting more students during the lock-down and beyond, donate to Story Planet here: https://www.canadahelps.org/en/dn/13205 or via the link at the top of this page.

You can also follow us on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter or subscribe to our newsletter (link below) to ensure you stay up to date with more virtual events in the making!

What are Story Seeds?

Story Seeds: Story Starter Packets for Budding Writers

Whether they’re accomplished authors or just starting to put ideas to paper, Story Seeds gives children ages 6 plus everything they need to conceive of and write a unique story every month.

Inside each Story Seeds packet they’ll find:

  •    A written story prompt by a prominent children’s author, created especially for Story Seeds
  •    A visual story prompt created by a Story Planet artist
  •    A creative writing activity sheet
  •    A writing utensil
  •    Trinkets, such as pins and stickers, in the theme of that month’s prompts

Share their stories with us on social media or email, and they’ll have the pleasure of watching their garden of stories grow!

A subscription to Story Seeds is a gift for your recurring monthly donation of $20 or more.

Once you make your donation, please send the name and address of the child the gift is for to storyseeds@storyplanet.ca

Donate and subscribe today!

Want To Be Our New Social Media Volunteer?

Come And Help Us Shout Out!

The Social Media Volunteer will manage Story Planet’s social media by keeping content up-to-date and on-brand. We want to develop a dynamic online presence to share information about Story Planet to a wider community.

The Social Media Volunteer will participate in the development of a social media plan that includes detailed strategies to:

  • tell our story
  • celebrate kid’s voices and the creative work that we’re doing together
  • connect with influential groups online (partners, individuals, parenting groups, etc.) who can help spread our message
  • Promote corporate and school workshops
  • Boost relevant content
  • Join and lead conversations relevant to the work we do

Contact: lisa@storyplanet.ca