Saturday, February 13, 2016

1st Place!

Kason, Gregory, and Jake
UPDATE: April 19, 2016: Kason, Gregory, and Jake competed and won 1st place at state competition today in Jackson, MS. Congratulations to them for a great job.

My previous blog post introduced you to Kason, Gregory, and Jake, who had just won first place at the district reading fair with their diorama based on The Night Train. This morning, they competed in the regional competition at Lafayette High School in Oxford, MS.

As you can probably guess by the picture, they won first place and will be competing at the state competition in April.


Sharon and I, along with Logan, went to Oxford this morning to show our support to these fine young men. Since Logan is homeschooled, Sharon and I thought it would be a good opportunity to expose him to something different and give him the chance to engage with kids he doesn't know.

Ole Miss Cheerleaders (Logan is 4th from right, back row)
He seemed more interested in the Ole Miss cheerleaders than anything else, though he was excited about one of his dad's books being represented at such a large event. The cheerleaders provided the entertainment while we awaited the decisions of the judges.

The competition was stiff, but Kason, Jake, and Gregory pulled out all the stops and made their diorama stand out (it even had working lights). We got a chance to meet with them before the competition began, and presented them each with a signed copy of The Night Train. They asked a few questions about the book -- things the judges might ask them.

(l-r) Kason, me, Jake and Gregory

In all honesty, I think they remembered more details about the book than I did. I've released three novels since writing The Night Train, and one thing you have to learn to do as an author is let go of a story and focus on the next project, but I was happy to answer their questions.

After the judges had met with them, they stopped by for a chat before the long wait began. It probably didn't take nearly as long as it seemed. When the staff began placing the cards on the floor (placeholders for the winners to stand when their names were called), we knew the time had come. I'll admit to being a bit nervous, though Sharon, Logan, and I were confident they would win. Part of that confidence, I think, came from the parents we met beforehand. I distinctly remember hearing the father of one of the boys say, "they've got this." Never underestimate the value of parental support.

Chatting while we waited

Gregory, Jake, and Kason were in M division, so we had to wait while A - L took their places on the floor. Each division had three winners, with the first place winner of each division advancing to state.

As exciting as it was for me, Sharon, and Logan when their names were called, I'm sure it must've been much more exciting for them (and their parents). We hurried down to the floor to congratulate them and I heard one of them say he had been nervous. They didn't show it. Their parents have every reason to be proud of them, as do the parents of every child who competed today. I think the announcer said there were three hundred kids participating. They had to win twice to get there. I'm sure they'll win at many other things before they're through.

Congratulations Kason, Jake, and Gregory. You could have picked any book for your project and the result would have been the same. Thank you for choosing The Night Train.

Friday, February 5, 2016

Reading Spotlight - Creativity On Display

Shayla Walker teaches 7th grade English Language Arts, and coaches girls basketball at Hills Chapel school in Booneville, Mississippi. Four years ago, shortly after its release, Coach Walker read my first novel, The Night Train, and decided to use it as part of her curriculum.

"I Chose The Night Train to help students understand there is a way to overcome bullying, abuse, and everyday obstacles." - Coach Walker

During the past four years, I have had the honor of speaking to a few of her classes. Meeting young people who enjoy reading is always fun. Meeting young people who enjoy reading a book I wrote is unforgettable.

In the spring semester of 2015, Coach Walker invited my wife and me to her class to judge the projects her students created based on The Night Train. It proved to be quite a task, as her students watch the video on YouTube). This year, in Mrs. Davis' class, Kason, Gregory and Jake took it one step further and created a diorama that includes not only the video, but a very detailed scene from The Night Train for the Reading Fair.
Kayson (left), Jake(right), Gregory (not pictured)
demonstrated an abundance of talent. Clearly they had paid attention to the book, because the scenes they recreated with their dioramas were very accurate. Three of her students -- Kason Whitehead, Gregory Murphy, and Jake Harris -- made a short video based on the book (

Their diorama placed 1st at Hills Chapel, then again at district. On February 13, 2016, they will participate in the regional competition in Oxford, MS.

Impressive isn't it? What if I told you they completed the project in only a week?

I'm told the train actually moves, but the rules require it to remain stationary during the competition.

Being curious by nature, I asked them why they chose The Night Train for their project instead of a book by another author. Jake said he likes the book, Kason said it is his favorite, and Gregory said because The Night Train is fascinating. Ok, I admit it was a leading question, but I love their answers.

I've been working hard to get my next novel ready for publication. The final stages of polishing and second-guessing can drain the creative juices. Seeing how creative Gregory, Jake, and Kason have been with this diorama has my brain racing again -- like when your heart beats really fast after an unexpected poke to the ribs. We all need a little nudge to keep moving in the right direction every now and then.

"We thought about it and made it happen." -- Kason

Gregory and Kason said they liked the book for its cliffhangers, while Jake liked the book's intenseness. Some of the subject matter of The Night Train is intense, but so is life.

"Students can learn to stand up for what they believe in. Don't back down, don't pity yourself, and most importantly, don't give up." -- Coach Walker

Coach Walker told me parental involvement is extremely important in a child's education. A child is more likely to become involved if he or she knows their parents are involved. Remember, your child sees you as a role model and will mimic your behavior, good and bad.

"I like to read action and mystery books." -- Gregory

Allow your child to discover their own likes and dislikes when it comes to books (as long as their selections are age appropriate). Pressuring kids to read something they don't enjoy may turn them off to reading and deny them the many benefits books provide. Reading stimulates a child's imagination and bolsters vocabulary.

"I don't read but I like books like The Night Train." -- Jake

Instead of forcing your child to read, let them see you reading. Show interest in their reading choices. Ask them to read to you from time to time.

I asked Coach Walker why she thinks reading is important. She quoted Dr. Seuss: "The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you'll go."

Jayrod Nash and Arnold Wise certainly went a lot of places throughout the pages of The Night Train. While child abuse is certainly a strong theme throughout much of the book, the main message I hope readers will take from my novel is that abuse defines the abuser, not the abused. I didn't write a book about abuse ... I wrote a book about a boy who, as I came to know him throughout the many drafts, told me he was being abused, and he wanted me to tell you.

"I have always wanted to help children the way most of my teachers helped me. Seeing the expression on a child's face when something "clicks" is a wonderful feeling." -- Coach Walker

What expression will you put on your child's face? Think about it.

I hope you will join me in wishing Jake, Kason, and Gregory the best of luck at regional. Regardless what happens there, they are already winners.