The enthusiasm was palpable in the multi-purpose room at Lincoln Elementary School March 9. As Elmhurst author John Keilman entered the room, students sitting cross-legged on the floor rose up on their knees for a better view before a classmate behind them tapped their shoulder to remind them to sit back down.
This is unchartered territory for Keilman, longtime reporter for the Chicago Tribune’s Metro section. Accustomed to asking the tough questions and writing news stories and features about education, health matters and reporting on a local news items, Keilman finds himself holding a copy of his new book, Spies Inc.: The Adventures of Dash Danger, in front of a room of second- through fifth-graders.
The book is published by Storybuilders, a new e-commerce company based in Crystal Lake that specializes in interactive books for tweens. This time, Keilman was on the receiving end of the questions, in rapid-fire succession:
“How long did it take you to write this book?”
“Do you like Barack Obama?”
“Why do you like spies?”
“Do you like pie?”
Keilman smiled easily, and his voice didn’t falter, perhaps the result of years of high-pressure reporting, or due to the fact that he, himself, is father to two kids. At any rate, this is exactly his readership: bright, curious minds who want to know more.
And when Keilman read from his book, the story of Dash Danger, who is sent on a sinister mission by a school bully to uncover the highly guarded recipe of the lunch lady’s prize-winning cupcakes, he drew in his audience by asking them for help in developing a proper spy name. Hands flew up, offering name suggestions.
Finding the Niche
Off to one side, Carolyn Starks, publisher and founder of Storybuilders, was enjoying the crowd’s enthusiasm. Starks, who reported for the Chicago Tribune’s Crystal Lake bureau for 12 years, got laid off last year. It came as a surprise; Starks thought the layoffs were over. She enjoyed her work, especially her five minute commute from her Crystal Lake home.
“The layoff became that cliché, a blessing in disguise,” Starks said. “It was the push I needed to make my work life fulfilling, and a situation where I looked forward to going to work every Monday. Gosh, who can say that nowadays?”
Out from under the constant pressure of deadlines and editors, Starks found her mind freed up to fulfill her secret desire: starting her own company. And inspiration hit when she observed one of her daughters enjoying an interactive book.
“She had this book where she could write alongside the story—and was encouraged to write in it," she said. "There were these writing prompts, and she was laughing and writing, laughing and writing. I just thought, ‘That’s it! That’s what I’m going to do!’ ”
Building the Business
Starting a business, though exciting, was a bit of trial and error for Starks. One day, Starks confided to her friend, Desiree Chen, that she wished she had planned more for marketing. Chen, the managing director of public affairs at Elmhurst College, suggested she contact the business administration department of the college. Through Gary Wilson, Starks built a partnership with Elmhurst College seniors and marketing majors Elizabeth McAllister and Emily Salzman.
“They have been absolutely awesome,” said Starks of her two interns. “I’ve been inspired by their energy and their youth and their willingness to work so hard for me.”
Salzman and McAllister started last October working with Starks on short-term goals to boost sales at Christmas. Now, Salzman said she and McAllister are looking to set long-term business goals so Starks has a formula to follow once the two graduate in May.
Salzman said events like Keilman’s author appearance are key to getting the word out to the target market: tweens.
“The pre-teens, they can tell you exactly if they like a book, if they don’t like a book, if they want a book or not,” Salzman said. “To put it in front of them, for them to be able to see it, see the author, have friends that have read it and be able to talk to people at school about it is important to us.”
“Our philosophy is to encourage reading and writing in a fun format,” Starks said. “So that’s what we’re working on now.”
Building the story
Drawing on her vast network of colleagues and acquaintances, Starks collaborated with Keilman, and illustrators Stephen Ravenscraft and Rick Tuma for Spies Inc. (and author Jessica Reaves for an earlier book Bark. Run. Nap. Repeat.) In addition to the interactive nature of the books—encouraging the reader to add to the story line or write their own story—they also can be personalized with a photo, making it an ideal gift item for a budding young author.
Starks couldn’t be happier with the result.
“John did such a great job, and [Ravenscraft’s illustrations] truly brought John’s words to life,” Starks said. “I don’t know if you have a 'tween in your house, but they just love to laugh. They want a sense of humor that’s beyond baby, just approaching adulthood."
Keilman said writing Spies, Inc. used an entirely different set of muscles than he uses for writing news stories.
“There was a lot of staring at the wall, trying to will things to come into my brain,” he said, joking about the writing process. “It was hard, but it was a good experience.”
In fact, Keilman said the second time around has been easier. He already has submitted the first draft of a second Dash Danger adventure, to be published by Storybuilders later this year.
Keilman really believes the idea behind Storybuilders is hitting the target.
“The availability of video games and the ability to participate in these imaginary worlds has never been more available to kids,” he said. “At the same time, there will always be a desire for a story where you sort of jump in and let it carry you away. We try to hit that balance.”
Starks said kids today almost demand an interactive experience.
"I wanted to create books that satisfy that need, but also have that pure quality of holding a book and a pencil in your hands,” she said.