Books for Young Readers: Author says kids offered advice on book about 'spirit animals'

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"The Last Akaway" by Gary Karton (ages 8 to 12).

What is your spirit animal? Is it a rhinoceros beetle, a bug that can lift 850 times its weight? Is it a determined and catlike spotted ocelot that will fight to the death? Or maybe a rainbow trout, with its keen sense of direction? According to the legend in Gary Karton's kids book "The Last Akaway," all kids have spirit animals that give them magical animal-like powers.

Mr. Karton's book, the first in a trilogy, follows two brothers as they seek to save the Akaway, a magical animal that helps kids connect with their spirit animal. The adventure through snowy woods includes a talking crab, but Mr. Karton drew a lot of his inspiration from real-life experiences. The main characters are named after his sons, and he sought to make the dialogue realistic, like something he would hear his children say.

"I never really thought about writing kids books until I was reading with my kids," said Mr. Karton, who lives in Arlington, Va., with his wife and sons Jake, 14, and Brody, 12. His boys, he said, wanted him to write a book that was unpredictable. So he did.

Growing up in Chicago with a learning disability, Mr. Karton didn't like to read. "My memory of school was tough," he said. "I felt stupid because I could never [read] very well."

When Mr. Karton was in college, he hated going to the library to do research. Reading was still hard for him. Instead, he would find experts on the topic that he needed to write about and call them for an interview. And when Mr. Karton was writing, rewriting and editing his book he went to the experts again: this time, kids.

"I had a group of 10 kids and ... every time I would write something, I would talk to the kids and they would say, 'This is funny,' 'This is not funny,' " he said. "I have been criticized for listening to kids too much, but I think kids are amazing and honest, and they have so much creativity."

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First Published October 13, 2013 8:00 PM


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