“Kids want a story they can sink their teeth into”: Raymond Arroyo on writing for young readers

The second book in the EWTN newsman’s “Will Wilder” series for middle-grade readers is out today.

Raymond Arroyo has worked for the Associated Press, the New York Observer, and as founding news director, managing editor, and lead anchor for EWTN News. He has interviewed cardinals, politicians, presidents, actors, authors, and more. He has also written several books, including a two-part biography of EWTN foundress Mother Angelica.

In recent years, however, he has branched out into new territory: middle-grade fiction.

This month, the second book of Arroyo’s “Will Wilder” adventure series for young readers comes out. The first book in the series came out a year ago to wide acclaim, and has rapidly grown in popularity.

The series centers around a young man named Will Wilder, whose family has a mysterious and wondrous history involving the saving and protecting of sacred relics. The first book, Will Wilder: The Relic of Perilous Falls, was published by Crown (a subsidiary of Random House) in March 2016. The second in the series, Will Wilder: The Lost Staff of Wonders, comes out on March 7, 2017.

Arroyo recently spoke with Catholic World Report about this series and his foray into fiction.

CWR: You’ve been at EWTN for a long time now; you’ve written on the life of Mother Angelica, and written columns and articles on various topics over the years. Is Will Wilder your first stab at fiction?

Raymond Arroyo: It is; it is my first work of fiction. When I was thinking about what I wanted to write and the genre I wanted to write in, I kept returning to children’s fiction and young readers. I mean, when you think back to the books that touched your life and changed you, and left a mark on you, it’s usually the books you read as a young person, as a child. For whatever reason, young readers are more available and open. Their hearts are more open to works of fiction. So when they read a book, they’re not just reading it at arm’s length, they’re really taking it into themselves. They become those lead characters, they’re identifying with them and going on this journey with them in a very personal way. And so I think that’s why the stories we’re told as younger people leave such a mark. And they can sort of set the compass for your whole life, which is why it is so important what they’re reading during that period.

And then I thought about my own children. This whole series came from telling them stories, usually during their bath time when they were very small (that’s where the characters came from). The story I grew and built elsewhere, but the characters, the basic template for these characters—Will, his brother and sister, his Great Aunt Lucille—those characters I’d been telling the kids about. Will would have these sort of wild comic adventures when I would tell the kids these stories, and it was just a way to keep them entertained and to get them through the bathing process! And then as they got older I would continue telling them some of those stories at nighttime, right before they went to bed. So it had its origins there.

CWR: Is that how you settled on middle grade [ages 8-12] for the intended age of your readers?

Arroyo: Well, I always say—and I can prove it, from the letters I’ve been getting for the last year—Will Wilder is intended for the young at heart, the young of all ages, but it’s not just young people. I have letters from 60-year-olds and 80-year-olds and 30-year-olds and kids in college. I think there’s a huge appetite in this middle-grade space, and the reason people are drawn to these tales that are obviously intended for a younger audience is because they’re filled with wonder, there’s a possibility of the supernatural, and yet you’re right on the cusp of adulthood. So all of that is happening, and I think for older readers there are lessons and there are insights here that the young eyes just won’t see. But I think that’s true of any great kids’ book.

The books I loved as a child, when I go back to them now, and I read them to my own children, I come away with a very different storyline, or I think very differently about certain characters, because I’m seeing it through different eyes, and I’m ready to see things that I wasn’t ready to see then. So I wrote this series with that in mind. I want to reach young people now—I also want to reach them again when they’re older, and come back to this with their own children, I hope. So it’s written on two levels.

CWR: Do you see the Will Wilder series, explicitly, as a way to evangelize?

Arroyo: My goal with this series is first and foremost to entertain families and children. That really is my goal. I did not write this to evangelize anybody. I wrote this to send kids on a great adventure and to acquaint them with antiquities and relics that they might have been unfamiliar with. Really, if you pin me down and ask me what the series is really about, the series is really about how the adventure we go on in life is not a solitary adventure.

One of the things that has always annoyed me about the trend in middle-grade fiction is that it’s the protagonist all alone, it’s the hero alone with his friends. I wanted to create a series and a protagonist who is surrounded by his family who went on the adventure with him. So it’s an intact family there that goes on this journey with Will. Because I think that’s all of our stories on some level. And whether that family hinders you or helps you, they are part of your adventure and you have to embrace them. And in Will’s case, as one character says in the first book, “If you don’t know your past, you’ll never really discover your future.” It is about the decisions of our parents and grandparents that shape our own path in life, and who we are and who we’re called to be. And that’s what I wrote this series about first and foremost.

CWR: Did the publisher or editors balk at all at the Catholic aspect of the series, since the Catholic milieu is so uncommon in middle-grade fiction?

Arroyo: This book was purchased by—and my publisher is—Barbara Marcus, who is the woman responsible for publishing all the Harry Potter books, the Baby-Sitters Club—she’s a legend in children’s publishing. No one at Random House asked me to soften or backpedal or do anything to my manuscript, or the characters.

Harry Potter had, as the axis on which that series spun, witchcraft and wizardry. And J.K. Rowling was very true to that. Rick Riordan is very true to the Greek mythology that drives his [Percy Jackson] series. I am very true to the antiquities and the relics that drive my series. The difference, the thing that I love about this series, is that readers of my books can actually go into museums and churches and libraries all over the world and come into contact with the items that drive the plots of my books, in most cases. And that’s a wonderful thing. I mean, I wanted to excite kids about history and pull back the veil on some of the historical figures attached to these fascinating relics and antiquities. So that was part of what I was doing here. But no, [the publishers] never at any point said, “You can’t use a finger bone of St. Thomas,” or, “You can’t use Moses’ staff”—no.

CWR: These books are 300-400 pages, and crammed with historical and archaeological details. How much research went into the books, and how much stemmed from your existing knowledge of the Church and of Judeo-Christian history?

Arroyo: I don’t trust my residual knowledge for anything, and I learned this long ago as a journalist and as a biographer: you trust your memory at your peril, because memory has a way of tricking you, and getting confused and mixed and mingled with other things. So I go back, when I start every book, and I do extensive research—on not only the relics, but at the beginning of each of these books there’s a historical flashback to Will Wilder’s great-grandfather, Jacob Wilder. Those are all historically accurate settings, times, and some of the figures there are accurate, as well as the relics.

Now, in the case of Moses’ staff, there was an article in a journal that I came across in England, and it was a professor making the case that the staff of Moses was in a museum in Birmingham, England. Well, I was fascinated by that. Now, my personal belief is it is not in a museum in Birmingham, England. In fact, there is another museum in Turkey that claims to have the staff of Moses. I think both of those are probably counterfeits. I read this years and years ago, but it lodged in the back of my creative mind and I thought that would be an interesting plot device down the road somehow. So, when I came to the Will Wilder series, it just fit. And so the staff of Moses is in the museum there in Perilous Falls. Well, then I started to do research on the staff of Moses, which is rich and fascinating. In the Jewish rabbinical literature (which is sort of a commentary on the Old Testament), the Midrash tells us that the staff of Moses is actually a sapphire staff, and it has engravings on the side about the plagues, in Hebrew letters. Fascinating.

We know from the Old Testament—and again, this is why I can’t trust my knowledge—that few people remember where the staff of Moses comes from. When Moses falls in love with Jethro’s daughter, Jethro says, “If you go in the back yard here, there’s a tree, and if you remove the staff from the tree, you can have my daughter’s hand.” Well, several suitors go out and try it, and they all die in the act. But when Moses goes out he pulls it out, and he is the chosen one and he gets the girl’s hand in marriage.

This is part of why I think familiarity with these stories is so important for children, because…these stories have a way of reverberating through our literature. And in the case of Moses’ staff, this is the archetype for King Arthur’s Excalibur, when he pulls the sword from the stone and he’s the chosen one to lead the kingdom. That all comes from Moses.

I love origin stories. I love to know where things came from. When I began to dig into the beginnings of these stories we kind of take for granted, in this case Moses’ story, I unearthed all kinds of things, and started seeing all kinds of connections. And I used those and wove those through this particular tale. But this is a wild adventure. Kids have loved this book, just because it moves so quickly, there’s so much happening in it. It’s a full-fledged adventure, and a bit of a mystery beneath the surface.

CWR: Do you already know how many Will Wilder books there will be? Or is it open-ended?

Arroyo: Nothing is open-ended in Perilous Falls! I spent seven years building this world and the background for these characters. I give myself freedom as I write, but I know how the story ends, as well as the characters. The relics are deliberately chosen to amplify Will’s story in each book. Little is left to chance, but inspiration is always heeded and welcome.

CWR: Do you have Will’s future mapped out already in a big-picture sense, or does each book come together as you go along?

Arroyo: It’s all mapped out. I have outlines that run through multiple books and story arcs‎. Some authors freestyle and just let the story unveil itself to them. I have always needed an outline, then I let it twist and turn as it desires in the writing. Some of the best moments in the second book were complete surprises to me as I wrote. Those inspired moments are often better than anything I devised beforehand. So you let it happen. But when writing a story rooted in history with such a large cast, you need a roadmap.

CWR: What if anything have you learned from your experience as a children’s author?

Arroyo: Over the last year, I have spoken to thousands and thousands of children, at something like 50 schools. What I’ve seen has been so incredible, because you realize—well, the first thing you realize is kids really do want great stories. They want a story they can sink their teeth into, and they will read if you give them material they want to read.

I think, so often, we as parents or teachers want to give them the classics, and in many cases they aren’t ready for the classics yet. So, I see Will Wilder as kind of a middle-ground. It taps into a young person’s natural sense of story, their sense of adventure, and I also think they’re looking for, they’re drawn to the supernatural as we all are. There’s something else here at play. And, to my mind, that’s what explains the success of Harry Potter and Percy Jackson—they mingled in the real world with these supernatural elements, something that was happening outside of our normal existence, but yet is explainable within it. And I loved that notion, and I think it’s what kids find appealing in this type of literature. So I did try to make that a part of Will Wilder’s DNA. The supernatural is always there.

As Aunt Lucille says in the second book, something like, “There is grave evil and wondrous miracles all around us, whether we see them or not,” and I think that’s true. And Will certainly sees it in stark relief. He has a particular gift that allows him to see this more easily than you or I, but it’s at play whether you see it or not. And the recognition of that can be its own adventure.

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About Paul Senz 113 Articles
Paul Senz has an undergraduate degree from the University of Portland in music and theology and earned a Master of Arts in Pastoral Ministry from the same university. He has contributed to Catholic World Report, Our Sunday Visitor Newsweekly, The Priest Magazine, National Catholic Register, Catholic Herald, and other outlets. Paul lives in Elk City, OK, with his wife and their four children.

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