Dark Hills Divide enchanting Scholastic - 2005

Scholastic, the U.S. publisher of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, is betting that a breakout Walla Walla author can energize its children’s book lineup at a time when fantasy submissions are a dime a dozen.Author Patrick Carman, 38, is a former media and advertising entrepreneur who parlayed a bedtime fantasy for his two daughters into a self-published book titled “The Dark Hills Divide,” for ages 9 to 12. Conceived as part of a trilogy called “The Land of Elyon,” the book generated so much buzz — thanks in part to Carman’s tireless promotion — that Scholastic bought it at auction last March. Now it’s the publisher’s lead title for spring 2005, backed by a $200,000 marketing campaign that will take Carman and his family to 22 cities — Scholastic’s largest-ever tour for a first-time author. “What are you looking for in today’s market? You’re looking for ‘different,’ ” said Craig Walker, Scholastic vice president and editorial director, “because the market is so flooded right now. You can imagine how many fantasy submissions we’ve gotten since ‘Harry Potter.’ ” Carman, known as an earnest, sunny guy with bottomless enthusiasm, said, “I’m just happy to get published, like anyone would be.” Judith Chandler of Third Place Books helped bring Carman to national attention on the strength of his story and his ability to draw hundreds of kids to book signings. “He is just completely charming and disarming,” she said. “He has an Alan Alda quality. You trust the guy.” Which is not incidental, since Scholastic took on the project largely on the strength of Carman’s personal kid-appeal. “I think it’s very much more about Pat Carman, in a way, than it is about the story,” Walker said. “He is the piece that makes it all come together.” It was Carman, in fact, who proposed the audacious road trip that will launch the series. Later this month, Carman will pack his wife, Karen, and daughters Reese, 7, and Sierra, 9, into a 39-foot-long RV for a four-month tour that will take them to schools and bookstores around the country. “It’s kind of like a little apartment,” Carman said. “It’s got a fireplace and a TV.” Carman proposed the trek as an alternative to the standard author tour, in which a writer spends several weeks at a time ping-ponging between home and a handful of cities. “I love the idea,” he said, “because I don’t have to leave my family behind. Karen is busy setting up all the RV parks we’re going to stay at. She’s kind of excited about driving this big rig.” Scholastic is excited, meanwhile, about the promotional aspects of carting around this personable, all-American family in a coach wrapped with the book’s cover design. Kids can follow the tour through video and narrative blogs that Carman and his daughters will post at scholastic.com/elyon. Said Walker: “It’ll change the way children’s books are launched. It’s so personal and related to the personality of the writer — like the way (R.L.) Bob Stine was connected to ‘Goosebumps’ — a very kid-author relationship thing.” While there always will be a place for quiet, literary masterpieces, Walker said mass-market children’s books will come to depend more heavily on this kind of media-driven event. “You can’t really be so quiet anymore and expect the readers to come,” he said, “They won’t do it. We’ve got to get ourselves more into the 21st century here.” Rowling’s Harry Potter series, which Walker said is “in a league of its own,” carried that principle right into the stratosphere. “Part of the hype of ‘Harry’ is it’s such a huge event,” Walker said. With an affable chuckle that would curdle the hearts of librarians, he said some kids who lugged around their heavy Harry Potters probably never even cracked the books. “Kids respond very much to what’s happening in the moment.” As for “The Dark Hills Divide,” several young Seattle-area readers who met Carman at school visits last spring praised the book and the author. The plot revolves around 12-year-old Alexa Daley, who explores the forbidden mysteries beyond her walled kingdom and stumbles on a plot to destroy the Land of Elyon from within. Having a female lead character was a selling point, said Walker, because “fantasy is so hot, and it’s really hard to find a main character that’s a girl, oddly.” Unlike the conventional fantasy hero, Alexa is not an orphan, and she doesn’t have any child sidekicks of the Ron and Hermione variety. When she’s not alone, which is much of the time, her companions are aging men or talking animals. But kids respond. Kieran McKeon, 11, a fifth-grader at Briarcrest Elementary in Shoreline, was impressed when he saw Carman speak at a school assembly last year. “He really made me excited to read his book,” said Kieran, who found the book “well-written and very explaining — it puts you right in the story.” Parker Pepin, 10, another Briarcrest fifth-grader, ventured, “I’d say out of the books I’ve read, it would probably be the best.” But he added, “I haven’t really read that many books.”

Patrick Carman