Try to imagine a perfect world, where pollution, cell phones and poverty do not exist. A place where world peace reigns and no one has ever heard of war. This is Atherton, and it is the setting of best-selling author Patrick Carman's new book for young readers, Atherton: The House of Power.
Carman is not a novice when it comes to creating strange new worlds. His previous series, The Elyon Trilogy, took his readers into a place filled with talking animals, mysterious beings, evil and magic. In Atherton, Carman pares the planet down to just a few inhabitants rabbits, sheep, figs, horses, people and enormous garbage-eating bugs but he tackles a monster of an issue: the destruction of our environment.
The story is set on a man-made, self-sustaining planet, created by a brilliant but mad scientist. On a quest to understand this strange homeland, a young orphaned boy named Edgar encounters interesting new people, discovers mysterious lands and uncovers a deep, dark secret about Atherton—a secret that could lead to the end of the world as he knows it.
Carman came up with the idea of a self-sustaining planet while on tour for his first book, The Dark Hills Divide, the first entry in the Elyon trilogy. "My family and I were zigzagging across the country in a 40-foot RV," the author recalls, "and every time we stopped for gas, it would really bother me that we were using so much."
At the time, he was reading Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, and over the four months that he spent on the road, the two ideas melded. "I was trying to come up with a topic that was important for young people to grapple with," he says, "and the concept of an environmentally balanced world designed by a mad scientist came to mind."
Carman, who lives with his wife and two daughters in Washington state, takes the challenge of protecting the environment seriously. "The smaller we can make our carbon footprint the better," he explains. To that end, he contributes to a carbon fund when he flies, rides his bike whenever possible and has retrofitted his house to be more green.
Most importantly, Carman makes sure that the next generation is aware of and working on the problem, too. "I talk to schools about trying to have the smallest footprint in their city," he says, "and as it turns out, a lot of young people think that's sort of cool."
Although environmental awareness plays a pretty big role in the book, Carman isn't necessarily trying to send a do-good message to his readers. "When I write, my number one focus is to engage kids to want to read." Having spent the better part of the past three years making author visits to more than 400 schools, Carman knows quite a bit about the subject. "There are a lot of kids, especially boys, who are hard to engage with a book," he explains. "Part of that is because they are surrounded by cell phones, iPods, video games, movies and television. And in the face of all of that, it's difficult to interest kids in reading."
In an effort to attract those would-be readers to his book in particular, Carman has incorporated a slew of interactive features into Atherton, including weblinks to videos, animation and voice recordings of the characters. "I wanted to reach into the world of kids today and bring them into the world of my first love, books," says the author.
In addition, Carman has filmed several behind the book segments that walk the reader through the writing process. "For one segment, I went to a climbing wall so I could get a feel for what Edgar would be going through as he climbed the walls of Atherton," he recalls.
Although Carman clearly enjoys the writing process and speaking to young people, he was not always on this path. Out of college, he started his own advertising firm, and after several years of success with that endeavor, tried his hand at creating board games, developed an online technology company, and dabbled in television production. "I guess I've always been a storyteller," he says, but it wasn't until he started telling bedtime stories to his two young daughters that the true storytelling bug emerged.
With another Atherton book scheduled for next spring, a prequel to the Elyon books coming out in the fall and a couple of new ideas brewing, it looks like he's going to be sticking with this career for a while. "I feel my calling is to go out to schools and get kids excited about reading," he says.
And if he is even half as successful in getting kids to think about their environment as he has been in getting them to read, Patrick Carman might just save this world, one reader at a time.
Heidi Henneman writes from the brave new world of New York City.