Our Stories

The Story Behind the Stories

The story of Patrick Carman's path to becoming a New York Times best-selling author is 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 '88, 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.

"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 in 2008. The story of Alexa's exploration of the magical land outside her city has sold more than a million copies and has been printed in at least 20 languages.

Lately Carman also is gaining attention for his work on multimedia stories. He recently appeared on both The Martha Stewart Show and the Today show to discuss his book The Black Circle, the fifth book in a Scholastic series titled The 39 Clues. The series is a multimedia adventure program 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. DreamWorks has already acquired the film rights for the series.

Authors are finding it tougher to capture readers' attention in recent years as books compete with cell phones, video games and computers, Carman says. Besides The Black Circle, Carman also has his own multimedia project, Skeleton Creek, a ghost story packaged like a boy's journal. The project asks children to read parts of the journal and then go online to view videos that reveal more elements of the tale. The second book in this project, Ghost in the Machine, was released this month.

When Carman graduated from Willamette, he first followed in his father's entrepreneurial footsteps by leading a string of successful creative projects. He 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. Carman's third series, Elliot's Park, is for younger children and features the adventures of a squirrel and his friends.

Carman uses his success to encourage a love and understanding of reading among youths. 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.

He also promotes literacy abroad. For a decade he and his wife have supported Agros International, a Seattle-based nonprofit that builds sustainable villages in Central American countries, helping rural families escape poverty. Carman convinced Scholastic to help him bring libraries to these villages. The publisher chooses a selection of Spanish-language books, and Carman purchases and donates them. They have opened 38 libraries to date.

His latest work on multimedia projects also piqued a new interest: movie production. “I like the new direction of presenting stories in an interactive format, and I might do more producing,” he says. “But writing remains the foundation for whatever I do.”