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Author looks to bring young readers to magical world with new book series

Published: Saturday, Oct. 16 2010 3:00 p.m. MDT

What if you were a disruptive school boy, whose antics and shenanigans have finally caused both parents and teachers to give up on you? If Julie Berry had her way, chances are very good that you'd end up at the Splurch Academy for Disruptive Boys, where the teachers really are monsters (but can brainwash parents into thinking well of them).

Hidden deep in a secluded forest, where escape is impossible, it's a place where the school nurse, Beulah Bilgewater, prefers to make boys sick; where the cafeteria lady, Griselda, is famous for her bad cooking; and where headmaster Archibald Farley believes a rat's brain is better than a boy's brain any day. And that's just the beginning.

What if you are a reluctant reader, who likes pictures better than words and doesn't much like spending time between the covers of a book? Then, you could also end up at Berry's Splurch Academy. Author Berry and her illustrator sister, Sally Faye Gardner, have created a new hybrid series that blends middle-grade fiction and comic books and is set at that very strange school.

Published by Grosset & Dunlap, Splurch Academy for Disruptive Boys series has two volumes so far: "The Rat Brain Fiasco" and "Curse of the Bizarro Beetle." There will eventually be at least two more books in the series.

The books are a bit of a departure for Berry, who broke onto the literature scene in March of 2009 with "The Amaranth Enchantment," published by Bloomsbury USA, a fantasy novel for young adult girls. The book garnered attention for Berry, who lives just outside of Boston, as what the Boston Globe called one of "the growing number of young, female LDS authors who are surging into the genre of young-adult literature with wholesome fantasy books."

She has followed "Amaranth" with the release on Oct. 12 of this year of a second fantasy book from Bloomsbury called "Secondhand Charm," wherein Evie Pomeroy sets out to study medicine on a royal scholarship, accompanied by the boy next door. But "bandits, shipwreck, a mysterious creature and the tug of friendship may tear from her what matters most."

Berry will be in Utah this week to visit schools, do book signings and talk about her newest works.

With the Splurch Academy, it was quite different to do something for boys, Berry said in a telephone interview from her home. Except that she is the mother of four boys under age 13. "People often asked me why I wrote for girls when I only had boys, and that was kind of frustration because I am a girl, after all, and I've always loved to read."

But one day while she was attempting to tidy up "the eternal, infernal mess in my house, dog-eared copies of 'Captain Underpants' littered the hallway, the bedrooms, even the bathroom. I picked up a copy and wondered, 'could I write something to make my guys laugh?' I figured that if I could, my stock value would shoot up with them pretty significantly."

She and her kids have always been fans of "anything of comic origin," and Berry's agent had seen some of her sister Sally's work and suggested they try working together on a hybrid project. It took a while for them to come up with the concept. There was a lot of back-and-forthing. "But by far," she said, "that's been the best part of this gig. With so much in common between us — a shared history, shared hometown, shared relatives, even shared gene pool with all its quirks and flaws — we had a lot to play off of."

Berry is quick to point out that none of the boys at Splurch Academy is based on her sons per se, "but I did borrow a few of their shenanigans, and I tried to channel their restless energy and mischief. And there are some Gardner inside family jokes. If I told you what they were, I'd have to adopt you into the family."

From the start, they were hoping for humor, she said. "It's so much fun to make people laugh. It's also very freeing. We know this is not great literature, but we hope it is fun."

One of her sons "has a harder time with reading and composition, so I really had reluctant readers in mind." She was tickled when she found out that her boys were sneaking in to her office to read drafts of what she had written — and that the less-excited reader was enjoying them, as well.

She's also had a lot of feedback from teachers and librarians and parents that the books are very popular with youngsters who don't like to read. "That has been a huge affirmation," said Berry. "That's the highest honor, I think, to produce someone that gets reluctant readers to read. And it's not just boys. Girls have been reading the books, too."

Being an author is satisfying, she said. "Writing children's books is work, but I feel lucky all the time that I get to play around creating the magical things I idolized as a kid. In that sense, I'm living out a fantasy. The best part is seeing kids get wide-eyed and excited about something you wrote. That's hard not to love."

But it's not only her own life that is enriched; she wants that for others. "I cannot imagine how barren and empty life would be without the richness that reading has brought me. There are so many great joys wrapped up in language and literature, whether you are reading for sacred purposes, recreation or even the daily newspaper."

She doesn't want any child to miss out on that. "It's a crime that so many kids check out so early. It seems to happen most in middle school, when they don't find as much to read. We have to compete with the lure of video games."

That's what she hopes to do with Splurch Academy. "We decided to play off some of the worst fears of childhood — being farmed off by your parents, having bad experiences at school. What if cafeteria food really was roadkill? In a perfect world, it's all smiley, but the world is far from perfect. We wanted to tap into fears and treat them with humor."

Yes, the boys at Splurch Academy are naughty. "As a mother, I don't condone naughty behavior. But what often gets called naughty is nothing more than being kids. I want to champion the kids' point of view. And along the way, the kids do learn things about truth and loyalty and other values."

The hybrid approach is a little different than anything else she's seen. There are a lot of books with illustrations, but "our illustrations don't just support the story, they carry it on. You have to read both. The pictures and text play off each other."

If the pictures make the kids read the words, so much the better, she says. "Anything that gets kids reading is important. Anything we can do to prolong a love affair with books is vital. Readers only have advantages."

If you go:

Fantasy author Julie Berry will be in Utah this week:

Tuesday, 7-8 p.m.; reading, Q&A and signing; Orem Public Library, 58 N. State Street, Orem; 801-229-7050.

Wednesday, 7 p.m.; reading, Q&A and signing with author Jessica Day George; The King's English, 1511 S. 1500 East, Salt Lake City; 801-484-9100.

Thursday, 6:30 p.m.; reading, Q&A and signing; The Purple Cow Bookstore, 992 N. Main, Tooele; 435-882-9805.

For more information, visit www.julieberrybooks.com

e-mail: carma@desnews.com

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