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Read local: Pittsburgh writers harvest a field of great books for kids

Rege Behe
March10/ 2017

Writing for children requires the balance of an acrobat. Writers must gauge the sophistication of their intended audiences – it’s just as easy to underestimate their reading comprehension than overestimate it – while adhering to the basic requirement of any book: To entertain with a good story and compelling characters.

In Pittsburgh, there are some writers who have successfully navigated the often tricky path of literature for young people. They’ve published books with major publishers and found favor with kids.

Here’s an introduction to some of the more successful kid’s writers in the region.

Nick Courage is a skateboarder and writer of young adult books. Photo by Rachel Ekstrom

Nick Courage

Age group Middle school through young adult

Book: “The Loudness” (Sky Pony Press)The Loudness

Nick Courage is young at heart.

The New Orleans native is an avid skateboarder and an avid fan of children’s literature. When it came time to write his first novel, there was no doubt the direction he’d take.

“I read a lot,” says Courage, who lives in Shadyside, “but the books I read when I was 10 are the ones that still mean the most to me. Young readers are so open to new ideas, to new ways of looking at the world – and on top of that, they take books and stories really seriously.”

“The Loudness” combined elements of science fiction and fantasy, featuring a boy who develops strange powers after undergoing a heart transplant. Courage says he always tries to write in the same manner as one of his idols, Daniel Pinkwater, the author of “Lizard Music” and the “Mrs.Noodlekugel” books.

“I’m most impressed by how much respect Pinkwater has for his readers,” Courage says. “It just radiates off the page.”

Courage, who also works a digital marketing consultant and web designer, and is one of the founders of the literary website Littsburgh.com, says feedback from his readers is priceless.

One young reader told him “she wanted to write a book that changed the world,” Courage says. “That’s the reaction I want to write for, now more than ever.”

Kate Dopirak is working on a new picture book called “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Car.”

Kate Dopirak

Age group: Pre-school

Books: “Snuggle Bunny” (Cartwheel Books/Scholastic), “You’re My Boo” (Beach Lane Books/Simon & Schuster)Snuggle Bunny

As an elementary school teacher, Kate Dopirak loved to read to her students, even if that sometimes resulted in unintended consequences.

“You haven’t lived until you’ve read ‘Charlotte’s Web’ aloud to a roomful of 9-year-olds,” says Dopirak, who lives in Wexford. “Pass the tissues, please.”

Dopirak’s picture books for preschoolers probably won’t make children cry – unless it’s the cries that come from wanting another story. Her books “Snuggle Bunny” and “You’re My Boo” are warm and fuzzy tales meant to entertain and comfort very young readers.

There’s another element to reading to children that Dopirak discovered while at a storytime event.

“A preschooler cheered: ‘Do it again!’ Not read it again. Do it again,” she says. “How awesome is that? It made me realize what it’s all about: an emotional connection. Make someone feel something and voila – magic! Something meaningful has been done, and it’s worth doing again. And again.”

Dopirak is working on a new picture book called “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Car” with illustrator Mary Peterson.

“I’m also excited about a new picture book my agent has out on submission,” she says. “It’s fiction with some non-fiction elements, and it’s different than anything I’ve done previously. Fingers crossed!”

Jonathan Auxier remains influenced by the classics he loved as a child. Photo by Libby Hilf

Jonathan Auxier

Age group: Middle school through young adult

Books: “Peter Nimble and His Fantastic Eyes” (Amulet) “Sophie Quire and the Last Storyguard: A Peter Nimble Adventure”Peter Nimble

As a child, Jonathan Auxier fell in love with classic children’s books including “Alice Through the Looking Glass,” “Peter Pan,” and “A Little Princess.”

As an adult children’s writer and illustrator, the Regent Square resident is still influenced by those stories.

“I write an author’s note in the back of all my books explaining all the stories that have influenced my writing,” Auxier says. “I write the sorts of books I like to read. Children’s books have always been a big part of my life, and I’ve continued to read them into and throughout adulthood. It seems like a natural fit!”

Auxier’s novels feature Peter Nimble, a 10-year-old orphan who is blind but still manages to go on fantastic adventures. His most recent book, “Sophie Quire and the Last Storyguard” adds Sophie, a young girl who is a book mender, to Nimble’s cast that includes Sir Tode, a knight who has been turned into a cat.

Auxier loves the idea that good books can open up young readers to new experiences.

“The books we read in childhood shape us for the rest of our lives,” he says. “Readers at that age come to books with so much openness and generosity — they’re willing to let a story change their lives. I’m not sure a writer could ever ask for more.”

But those young readers can be fickle – and fearless. Auxier says one of the great things about young readers is they are not afraid to express their opinions.

“More than once, I’ve had kids come up to me with hand-written sequels to my books because they didn’t like the ending,” he says.

Auxier’s next book is “The Soot Golem,” about a chimney sweep who finds a monster living in a chimney.

Joshua David Bellin’s next outer space adventure, “Freefall,” will be published in September.

Joshua David Bellin

Age group: Young adult

Books: “Survival Colony Nine” (Margaret K. McElderry Books/Simon & Schuster), “Scavenger of Souls” (Margaret K. McElderry Books/Simon & Schuster)Survival Colony 9

In addition to writing for kids, Joshua David Bellin occasionally has to comfort his readers, too. Bellin once met a young fan upset about the fate of one of his characters.

“We had a long conversation about why authors make the choices they make, how authors become attached to their characters the same way readers do and how hard it can be to let them go,” says Bellin, of Regent Square. “It was a difficult conversation to have in some ways, but at the same time, it was a great opportunity to connect with a person who saw my stories as more than just words on a page.”

Bellin’s futuristic stories appeal to young readers who love escapist/futuristic fare. Both “Survival Colony Nine” and “Scavenger of Souls” feature teen protagonists. Bellin’s goal is to recreate the feelings he had as a kid when reading J. R. R. Tolkien, Terry Brooks or Anne McCaffrey.

“I remember how incredibly important it was to me when I was younger to have really good, imaginative, inspiring stories to read,” says Bellin, who was a college teacher for 20 years before concentrating on writing. “When I write YA, I feel as if I’m reaching back to my younger self in order to reach out to young readers today, and that’s an amazing connection to make.”

Bellin’s next young adult outer space adventure, “Freefall,” will be published in September. He’s also working on “Deep-Six,” about an alien invasion, and “Polar,” a historical novel about exploration at the North Pole in the early 20th century.

Caroline Carlson’s series of books for middle schoolers covers the adventures of pirates.

Caroline Carlson

Age group: Middle school

Books: “Magic Marks the Spot,” (HarperCollins), “The Terror of the Southlands,” (HarperCollins)Magic Marks the Spot

Pirates, it seems, have an international appeal. Caroline Carlson’s “The Very Nearly Honorable League of Pirates” series has piqued the interest of young readers from around the world.

“I occasionally get emails from readers in other countries, and that’s always fascinating to me,” says Carlson, who lives in the East End. “I love hearing how my books are received by kids in different cultures. And I’m a little jealous of my books for being so well traveled–they’ve been to lots of places I haven’t gotten to visit yet!”

Carlson first caught the writing bug as a young reader through the books of Diana Wynne Jones, a British fantasy novelist who wrote “Howl’s Moving Castle” and other books for children.

“I own most of her books, and I pull them off the shelf whenever I’m having a tough writing day,” she says. “They’re imaginative and funny, and they remind me why I became a writer in the first place: to create stories that kids will love for a lifetime.”

When Carlson was 9, she wrote a poem about a rat named Sam. The poem was published in a magazine, and her course was set. After working as a textbook editor, the Massachusetts native moved to Pittsburgh with her husband. Now, she concentrates on writing and meeting students at workshops and schools.

“The students I meet are incredibly smart and imaginative, and they always ask great questions,” Carlson says. “They don’t have many preconceptions about what a book should be like. They’re just looking for a good story. And that’s the kind of reader I try to be, too. I hope kids find the same joy in my books that I found in the books I read when I was their age.”

Carlson’s next book, “The World’s Greatest Detective,” about a boy who is an assistant at his uncle’s detective agency, will be published in May.

Heather Terrell’s  “Relics” series features a dystopian society reminiscent of the “Hunger Games.”

Heather Terrell

Age group: Middle school through young adult

Books: “Fallen Angel” (HarperCollins), “Relic: The Book of Eva I” (Soho Press)Relic

Heather Terrell learned about historical fiction from her aunt, a nun who was an English professor at Carlow College.

“She introduced me to these alternative voices and viewpoints, alternate histories that lie beneath the stories we are told,” says Terrell, of Sewickley. “That passion started for me in my middle school years. To tap back into the early days of my interest and write for kids is really exciting for me.”

Her “Relics” series features a dystopian society reminiscent of the “Hunger Games.” Teens with supernatural powers inhabit her “Fallen Angel” series. While the settings are atypical, Terrell’s goal is to spur discussion.

“The most meaningful remarks I’ve gotten are from kids who say it’s made them think twice about the stories they are told,” she says. “Whether they are nonfiction, fiction, news or history, it made them examine the lens through which they’re told these stories and ask what the truth is.”

Growing up, Terrell was a fan of C. S. Lewis’  “The Chronicles of Narnia,” Agatha Christie mysteries, and “The Mists of Avalon” by Marion Zimmer Bradley.

“I never realized at that age, other voices were so powerful and could completely change the story,” she says.

Terrell is currently working on a young adult book that takes place in the Revolutionary War period and from the perspective of women and young girls.

Rege Behe

Rege Behe writes about books and authors, music and musicians, in Pittsburgh and beyond.