Willamette University

The Story Behind the Stories

Patrick Carman ’88

Prologue

The answers to the three most frequent questions writer Patrick Carman ’88 receives from his young fans:

A production company bought the film rights for his Land of Elyon books, but he doesn’t know when the stories will reach the big screen (if ever).

He’s sorry, but you can’t be in the films.

His birthday is Feb. 27, 1966.

Chapter 1: The Liberal Arts

With those mysteries unraveled, the story can follow Carman’s path to becoming a New York Times best-selling author. It was partly rooted in his time at Willamette, where the liberal arts environment made him unafraid to explore new interests — like writing children’s fantasy books.

“I took some art classes and some English classes and some film classes,” says Carman, whose major was business economics, the precursor to today’s economics degree. “The liberal arts experience really encouraged me to get out and dream big, and it gave me an open mind about what I could accomplish.”

Willamette is also where he met his wife, Karen (Wilcox) Carman ’89. The couple has two daughters whom Patrick once entertained with stories about a curious girl seeking adventure in the lands outside the walls of her town.

Fans of Carman’s books can see where this is going.

“I would write up a story on a scroll and hide it somewhere in the house,” he says. “The kids would find it and then I would read the story to them that night. Every week, the girl in the story would find a secret way to get out of this walled city and have an adventure. A lot of the characters I created for my kids are the same ones that ended up in my books.”

The stories turned into The Land of Elyon, a popular five-book series released by Scholastic, the world’s largest children’s book publisher and distributor. The first book, The Dark Hills Divide, was published in 2003; the fifth and possibly final book, Stargazer, came out last fall. The story of Alexa’s exploration of the magical land outside her city has sold more than a million copies and been printed in at least 20 languages.

Chapter 2: Reading is Cool

Carman, a Salem native, got his degree in business economics in hopes of following in his father’s entrepreneurial footsteps. A string of successful creative projects followed. Carman ran an ad agency in Portland, created movie trivia board and card games for Hollywood Video (“Applause” and “Action” were his handiwork), and started a dot-com business that compiled newspapers online. In the meantime he became serious about his sideline passion of writing.

After the success of the first Elyon book, Carman followed up with a series for older youths, Atherton, based on a boy climber exploring the mysteries of his land. His newest series, Elliot’s Park, is for younger children and features the adventures of a squirrel and his friends.

With Elliot’s Park, Carman’s daughters inspired him again. The setting is based on Pioneer Park in Walla Walla, Wash., his current home.

“I was walking in the park with my youngest daughter, Reece, and we saw a lot of squirrels. She told me I ought to write a book where all the characters are squirrels, and together we came up with a story.”

Youths across Oregon explored Elyon and Atherton this year after two of Carman’s books were placed on the reading list for the Oregon Battle of the Books. The annual event asks schoolchildren to read a prescribed set of books and later compete on their knowledge of the stories. Carman’s inclusion on the list meant it was a bit tougher to find The Dark Hills Divide and Atherton: The House of Power on the shelves at the local library — kids were checking them out faster than the librarians could re-shelve them.

The competition encourages a love and understanding of reading among youths — one of Carman’s goals. He spends months on the road visiting schools and sharing amusing tales about his childhood — sometimes illustrated with action figure toys — in hopes of inspiring the students to be storytellers. “For me, the magic of a school visit is having an adult tell a story about getting into trouble as a kid. It’s funny, and it connects you to the students. It’s kind of like a stand-up comedy act, but it gives good solid lessons about the joy of writing and reading.”

Carman also promotes literacy abroad. For a decade he and his wife have supported Agros International, a Seattle-based non-profit that builds sustainable villages in Central American countries, helping rural families escape poverty.

Carman convinced Scholastic to help him bring libraries to the villages. The publisher chooses a selection of Spanish-language books, and Carman purchases and donates them. They have opened 38 libraries to date.

Chapter 3: Beyond the Page

Authors are finding it tougher to capture readers’ attention in recent years as books compete with cell phones, video games and computers. So for his latest writing projects, Carman winds his tales into the world of multimedia storytelling. Skeleton Creek, a ghost story packaged as a boy’s journal, asks children to read entries in the journal and then go online to view videos that reveal more elements of the tale. The movie portions were filmed in Sumpter, Ore., at a 1934 gold dredge, a large machine once used for gold harvesting. Carman says the machine’s spookiness inspired the setting for the two-book project.

Scholastic also invited Carman to write the fifth book in a series titled The 39 Clues, a multimedia adventure program launched last fall that will include 10 books, 355 collectible cards and an online game where young readers compete to solve a mystery for a $10,000 grand prize. The series has millions of books already in print, and DreamWorks has acquired the film rights. Carman’s book will be out in September.

Carman’s work on these multimedia projects piqued a new interest: movie production. “Writing provides a lot of freedom, and the creative aspect of it is very appealing,” he says. “Writing a big novel means being alone in your room with the computer for many hours a day, many days in a row, which can get boring. I like the new direction of presenting stories in an interactive format, and I might do more producing. But writing remains the foundation for whatever I do.”

Epilogue

Good stories often end where they begin, which returns us to the most frequent fan questions. The queries about turning Carman’s books into films are understandable. But what about the third question — why are children so curious about Carman’s birthday?

Carman’s theory: “I think kids are writing school reports and that’s a question they have to answer.”

Learn more about Patrick Carman’s work at www.patrickcarman.com.

— Sarah Evans


Additional Reading

The Land of Elyon series

  • The Dark Hills Divide
  • Beyond the Valley of Thorns
  • The Tenth City Into the Mist
  • Stargazer

Atherton series

  • The House of Power
  • Rivers of Fire
  • The Dark Planet

Elliot’s Park series

  • Saving Mister Nibbles!
  • Haunted Hike
  • The Walnut Cup

Other projects

  • Skeleton Creek (two-book series; part two, Ghost in the Machine, out in October)
  • The 39 Clues: Book 5
  • The Black Circle (out in September)