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Nina Hess's Monster Workshop
Spotlight Interview
Bart Carroll

Being an adventurer sure is hard work.

There’s so much to do. Tons of places (and things) to see. And all kinds of people to meet—like this kender I ran into the other day.

He claimed to be the greatest wizard in the world. (I don’t know if I believe him, but he could do magic, so maybe it’s true!)

I shared some of my stickyrolls with him, and he showed me the collection of books he had in his backpack.

"This is The Practical Guide series of books," he said, "on loan from the Library at Aldwyn’s Academy for Wizardry. (Impressive.) Every true adventurer should read them."

That, I believed.

In this spotlight interview, we talk with Nina Hess, editor of Wizards of the Coast young readers series, including the popular Practical Guides. Nina recently visited New York to (in part) present her Monster Workshop, and is scheduled to run another such workshop this coming week in Hood River, Oregon. So as not to be left out ourselves, we asked her to share some of her secrets of building monsters in order to build some of our own.

Wizards of the Coast: Let's start with a quick introduction—who are you, and what do you do for Wizards of the Coast?

Nina Hess: I’m Senior Editor in the publishing group, where I edit all of our books for young readers. I’ve been a children’s book editor for 13 years and I’m also a children’s book author. I’ve written many early readers for kids, including Whose Feet? published by Random House, as well as our own A Practical Guide to Monsters which was a New York Times best-selling picture book.

Wizards of the Coast: Wizards of the Coast: You recently took a trip to New York—who invited you out there and why?

Nina: I flew out to New York officially to appear as a bridesmaid in my sister’s wedding, but I had the opportunity while there to visit a private boys’ school on the Upper East Side called The Browning School. The librarian, Sarah Murphy, heard I was going to be in the city, and invited me because the 3rd and 4th graders at her school were, in her words, “obsessed” with A Practical Guide to Monsters and A Practical Guide to Dragons. So I had the chance the meet them, sign some books, and present my Monster Workshop. It was super fun!

Wizards of the Coast: Wizards of the Coast: So your Monster Workshop was inspired by A Practical Guide to Monsters—what information does this book contain, and what can you tell us about the Practical Guide series?

Nina: The book is an overview of all different kinds of Dungeons & Dragons monsters, basically a mini-Monster Manual for kids minus all the crunchy bits. It contains some of the great iconic D&D monsters like beholders and bulettes, as well as many familiar and well-loved monsters like zombies, ghosts, and ghouls. The aim of the book, and the Practical Guide series overall, is to share the lore of Dungeons & Dragons with a younger audience.

The idea first popped into my head when Susan Morris, who edits our Forgotten Realms novels (as well as being the author of some of the Practical Guide series as well as the upcoming novel The Faerie Locket) came in for her final job interview and revealed to our editing team that when she was seven years old, she used to read the Monster Manual every night before she fell asleep. With that level of dedication and loyalty, of course she got the job! But it also got me thinking: kids love monsters and so would love all the monsters of D&D. They just needed a way to access them in a way that isn’t quite as “crunchy” and gameplay-oriented as the core rulebooks. And so the Practical Guide series was born.

You Build the Monster!

Of course, we wanted to try out Nina's monster template for ourselves. The following creations are courtesy of Phil Athans' son, Richard Baker's daughter, Shelly Mazzanoble (and her cat), and Bart Carroll (and his dog, dressed up from last year's Halloween).

You can also download the monster template for your own (2.8 Mbs PDF) -- as well as the entire activity book (54.6 Mbs PDF).

Wizards of the Coast: Wizards of the Coast: All right, now let's talk about the workshop itself. Can you give us a rundown for those of us who couldn't make it to New York?

Nina: The Monster Workshop is a slideshow that takes viewers on an insider’s tour of Wizards of the Coast, and then through the process of how A Practical Guide to Monsters came to be. At the end, we talk about how monsters are designed and I have a template that I hand out to kids so that they can design their own monsters. Kids love all the pictures, and the monsters, and knowing the inside secrets of how books are made. Teacher and librarians really like how it reinforces the steps of the writing process that they’re teaching the kids in school in a fun, engaging way.

Wizards of the Coast: Wizards of the Coast: Was this your first live workshop? How did it go—what sort of monsters did the students create?

Nina: This was actually the third time I’ve done the workshop. This time I was a little nervous about keeping the attention of two large groups of 8- to 11-year-old boys for a full 45 minutes. But the moment I put up the picture of Mitzy, our resident red dragon, they fell silent, totally enraptured. And they loved getting to make their own monsters. One boy, who I swear had memorized A Practical Guide to Monsters word for word, made three different monsters in the time that the other boys did one. These boys came up with some great monster features: a multi-forked tongue that shot out fire missiles, skin that oozed poison slime sweat. But I think my favorite was the dolphin-like monster who exploded underwater. (You think it’s cute and friendly but watch out!)

Wizards of the Coast: Wizards of the Coast: Do you ever recommend other books, for readers interested in monsters? Where might they look, in either fiction or non-fiction?

Nina: I hear from a lot of parents and teachers that the A Practical Guide to Monsters and our other Practical Guides serve as gateway books, especially for reluctant readers, to all different kinds of fiction and nonfiction. Reluctant readers are drawn in by the “facts” and the cool illustrations. And then they want to read more. If they like the mythological monsters (like the chimera mentioned in the book), you could point them to D’Aulaires Greek Myths, or Norse Myths, or Rick Riordan’s The Lightning Thief. If they like the medieval voice of the book, you could give them an historical fiction book, like Avi’s Crispin. If they like the swords and other weapons, they might be interested in a nonfiction book about arms & armor. And of course, if they just like the fantasy aspect, the book can turn them on to hundreds of great fantasy titles, like our own novels based on the Practical Guides: Monster Slayers by Lukas Ritter or Red Dragon Codex by R.D. Henham.

Wizards of the Coast: Wizards of the Coast: What about you—if you could pick one favorite monster, from games, books, or movies, what would it be? And which is cooler overall: vampires, werewolves, or zombies?

Nina: Vampires are diabolically intelligent, they have expensive taste, and they get to stay up all night. What’s not to love about that? As D&D fans know, real zombies are unable to do anything without an evil wizard commanding their every move. Losers! And werewolves are a bit too hairy for my taste. My favorite D&D monster is the beholder. I love the way it looks and how totally weird and powerful it is. I even sewed a beholder dice bag once for one of our brand managers.

Anyone who loves zombies, werewolves, and vampires should be sure to check out another book we have coming up this fall: How to Trap a Zombie, Track a Vampire, and Other Hands-On Activities for Monster Hunters by A.R. Rotruck. It’s a sister book to the Practical Guide series, but instead of monster facts, it contains all sorts of step-by-step activities kids and parents can do, like making a monster-catching net, concocting a tanglefoot potion, or mapping a monster-filled dungeon. It’s a fun way to introduce D&D to kids who like to roleplay but who aren’t quite ready to sit still through an actual game session.

Wizards of the Coast: Wizards of the Coast: Finally, will you ever do another monster workshop?

Nina: I’d love to share my workshop with any schools, libraries or kids’ group that would be interested in hosting it. It’s a great way to get kids excited about storytelling, mythology, and reading all the while demonstrating how the steps they’re learning about the writing process in school actually come into play in the real world.

About the Author

A handsome head and torso sit atop Bart's snaky trunk. This author has no legs, but travels in a snakelike mode along the ground. He has huge bat wings. His tail is barbed and drips poison. Bart's arms are strong and hairy, ending in paw-like hands.

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