Karina Wiepiska and her mother, Magda, boarded a plane that would take them to the United States for the first time.
After a long flight from Poland, they arrived in Utah on a Sunday, only to discover that the Frontrunner doesn’t run on that day. Undeterred, the pair rented a car, navigated the unfamiliar roads and finally found their hotel.
The following morning, they showed up on author Brandon Mull’s doorstep at 9 a.m.
Mull, who is best known for his fantasy series Fablehaven, had just returned from a book tour, but his reaction upon seeing his visitors was one of delight and not surprise.
Karina and her mother came to the U.S. to meet Mull — a trip that had been funded by the European Union as a result of an extensive project the 13-year-old completed connected to Mull’s Five Kingdoms series.
Her research involved studying the series in Polish and English to highlight the advantages of reading a text in its original language. Karina read the four books — a fifth is expected to be published later this year — in the two languages and pointed to a variety of names, jokes and rhymes that lose meaning when translated. She stated that although she’s been learning English for 11 years, there were words she’d have to look up occasionally.
“But usually it wasn’t so bad,” she said in an interview with the Deseret News.
The contest, which was for middle school and high school students in Poland, covered a variety of subjects and only extended awards to 70 participants. Mull said that Karina’s project was a unique form of research that set her apart and granted her this prestigious award.
“She was able to make a case for how you can get a richer experience and deeper meaning by reading the text in the native tongue,” he said. “It was a very intelligent project. A lot of praise goes to Karina for coming up with an innovative project that obviously caught attention because they don’t always fund international travel to middle school students to finish their projects.”
Karina first became acquainted with Mull’s work through the Fablehaven series.
“When I read ('Fablehaven'), I was waiting for the next part of the book, and then I was waiting for another (series) like Beyonders and Five Kingdoms,” she said. “I really loved those books because they’re fantastic. They are scary, but also exciting.”
“Fablehaven” has been translated into more than 30 languages, and many of Mull’s books can be read in Polish, which has led to a supportive fan base in Poland.
“I had a chance to go over there (last year), and I was surprised at the warm reception,” Mull said. “I went and (did a book-signing), and I had hundreds of people come out. It’s hard to know how a book has caught on in a foreign country until you go there, and it’s cool and exciting for me from Utah to (see that) in foreign countries they’re liking the books.”
For Mull, Karina’s project is another indicator that his writing is achieving greater international reach, although he admits that her visit to the U.S. to meet him is an experience that is “one of a kind.”
During what was nearly a weeklong stay in the Beehive State, Karina spent much time learning about Mull’s creative writing process, but there was just as much play as there was work.
“I wanted to give her a great taste of (Utah),” Mull said. "I took her to the Dinosaur Museum because I’m always trying to absorb interesting details. I also took them on a hike because I often go hiking and daydream to straighten out my stories.”
Karina even learned how to play dragon tag — a game Mull invented and described as “a complicated form of freeze tag with capture the flag.”
Mull explained that there are events in his book “Dragonwatch,” the sequel to Fablehaven books, that directly stem from the games of dragon tag he’s played with his kids.
“At the same time as we were trying to have fun, I was also showing that sometimes it’s just weird places or weird things that we do that lead to ideas,” he said.
Karina was able to see where Mull writes his stories, as well as the behind the scenes publishing process at Deseret Book. She was also able to shadow the author’s 13-year-old daughter at school to get a glimpse of education in the U.S.
“I know that Karina is definitely an interesting kid and open to learning because not every kid would choose to go to school on their American adventure,” Mull joked.
And while the sights, tastes and sounds of Utah were new for Karina and her mother, it was also somewhat of an international experience for Mull.
”It was fun to get to meet these women from Poland and see some of the differences,” he said. “See what entertains them about America and what they find different. To learn that they find our sweets almost too sweet sometimes — that was entertaining. Of course, I took them to the Cheesecake Factory so they could have a whole knowledge of how sweet we can get.”
Mull also shared some writing tips with Karina during her visit.
“One of the main things that we talked about is how sometimes, especially as a young writer, you get a better picture in your mind than you’re able to express in words,” he said. “We talked about the value of paying attention to your favorite authors and how they’re building their scenes, and then to practice building your own scenes. And over time, as you learn to translate your stories into written scenes by reading a lot and writing a lot, your power to convey what you’re seeing in your head will increase.”
And although Karina packed a suitcase of souvenirs and advice to take back to Poland, she still has a lot of work ahead of her. She will be presenting her research to other schools in her area as well as to local newspapers.
“At least she'll be working with some cheesecake in her system," Mull joked. "She’s a really smart girl, and it’s been neat to see her project and spend some time with her."