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Playing with words: Author leads a romp with language — helping kids spark their brains

By on April 22, 2019 in Arts with 1 Comment
Amy Carlson: She has thought about quitting the camps, “But then the kids get to me and I think, okay, I’ll do it another year. Honestly, they keep me laughing.” Photo by Reed Carlson

By Marlene Farrell

They call her Dr. Fu.

Every summer for the past 15 years, Amy Carlson dons this new identity to lead her summer book camps in Leavenworth.

New names help launch Dr. Fu and the campers on adventures of the imagination. 

Going through a “camper only” entrance, each kid also gets a new name, a mash-up of random nouns and verbs, picked from the “Universe Bag of Wisdom.” Some gems from past camps include “Songful Teabag,” “Spooky Humpback” and “Cavernous Grace.”

Once inside, the magic of literary creation abounds. 

Camp days are loosely organized around writing in the morning, followed by lunch and outdoor run-around time. Then the campers get busy working on elaborate crafts, ranging from runes and calligraphy to masks and puppets. 

The day ends with refreshment in the form of popsicles and games like Dribble, Dribble, Drench. 

The camp has roamed from its origins at A Book for All Seasons (begun by owner Pat Rutledge), to a church and the Wenatchee River Institute. Now it’s settled happily at the Cascade School District’s Discovery School, equipped with air conditioning, big tables for sprawling art projects and a shady backyard oasis.

Each year new activities, connected to the themes of a book, spring forth from Dr. Fu’s brain. She picks beloved books, with classics like The Hobbit and modern fantasies such as The Mysterious Benedict Society and The Lightning Thief.

Over several sessions per summer, Amy has figured out how to engage eight-year-olds to 14-year-olds alike. “The camp attracts readers, both boys and girls,” Amy said. “We roll around in language together.” 

Many like it so much that they attend four or five years in a row.

Amy’s Yessence poetry is standard fare for the writing portion. With a big stack of magazines to choose from, she tells the campers, “Cut out words that you like the sounds of, or the rhythm of.” Then they arrange the words to make a poem, adding the necessary connecting words. 

Yessence is the opposite of nonsense. “Making random collisions with words — it makes the brain spark and draw connections,” Amy explained. “It helps exercise the right brain.” 

In fact, she’s noticed that younger kids, who’ve had less formal education, take to such wordplay easier. 

Each year, Dr. Fu and her teenage assistants sprinkle in dashes of silliness. The kids usually ask to do such things again and again. 

One example is the jelly belly taste test, now a tradition. “We go around the circle, one at a time, choosing one jelly belly, and we all watch the person’s expression.” There’s a thrill in seeing the taster gag and go for Dr. Fu’s trashcan if he or she just tasted the flavor of earthworm, rotten egg or boogers.

Playing with language and plumbing its depths is something Amy does naturally. As a poet, haiku is one of her favorite forms. 

“Haiku seems simple, but there must be two images, juxtaposed. The connection can’t be obvious; rather they rub against each other and imply.” It comes from the heart of Japanese culture, of which Amy’s been a longtime student. 

When discussing haiku, Amy held her arm out. “It’s never direct.” Then she curved her arm. “It’s tatemae, coming from the side.”

Her life has also not followed a straight line. Amy’s had success as a contributor to Travelers’ Tales with travel essays, and could have continued her wanderings and musings. 

But she’s been pulled back, again and again, to Leavenworth, which has been her home with her husband Reed since 1993. She loves teaching college students too, which she does through composition classes at Wenatchee Valley College.

Amy completed a Masters in Fine Arts from the Northwest Institute of Literary Arts in 2015. The MFA required a book-length project, and Amy found it her greatest challenge to write a children’s novel. But she did it. 

Brother Beast, published in 2018, brought together Amy’s love of mythology — in this case, Chinese — with a fast-paced adventure story about loss and redemption of the main character and his brother.

Last summer Dr. Fu focused on Brother Beast for the camps. “With it, we romped in Asia, practicing Chinese characters, creating scrolls and storytelling Chinese myths.”

Amy also expresses herself through music. She’s been a flautist since she was five, and now plays at her church, jams with husband Reed on bass, and gets to sub at the Wenatchee Valley Symphony. 

Working with kids definitely fuels Amy’s creative fire. There have been a few times when she thought of calling it quits with the camps. It takes a lot of work and energy with little monetary reward. 

“But then the kids get to me and I think, okay, I’ll do it another year. Honestly, they keep me laughing.”

To some, book camp might seem a bit loony. To Amy, that is part of its joy. 

“The success of these camps takes an adult who can play.” With a twinkle in her eye, she added, “I think I have the magic.”

More info about Amy’s book camps, called Avra Kedavra Kamps, can be found at: www.bearrunantics.com.

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  1. Miriam Dakutak says:

    Thank you Amy! You are sewing much life and love into those children.
    What a delight for them!

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