Thursday, December 1, 2011

'Darwen Arkwright': A new book for middle-grade readers

Before he published his newest fantasy, Charlotte’s A.J. Hartley sought the opinion of one critic in particular: His son.

As 9-year-old Sebastian read “Darwen Arkwright and the Peregrine Pact” (Razorbill; $16.99), his dad watched his reactions closely to see passages made him laugh, which parts he found scary.

Hartley, a UNC Charlotte Shakespeare professor, is the successful author of several adult thrillers and fantasies. This new novel is his first for middle-grade readers, so Sebastian provided a valuable target audience.

He gave his dad’s novel two thumbs up, by the way. That you might expect, but Kirkus Reviews was similarly impressed, calling the book “an page turner that manages to be by turns spooky, suspenseful and touching.”

Like Hartley, Darwen Arkwright hails from a small town in Lancashire, England. (“Darwen,” by the way, is a town in Lancashire. “Arkwright” is a common local name.)

At age 11, the boy is sent to live with an investment-banker aunt and attend a posh private school in Atlanta. There, already reeling from shock, he discovers a mirror that’s the porthole to a beautiful and dangerous world. Darwen, it turns out, is a mirroculist, a who can see into other worlds through mirrors.

Over the past month, Hartley has visited fourth- and fifth-grade classrooms around the Carolinas, reading from his novel and answering “sensible, smart questions” about where he gets ideas, how he deals with rejection and whether his book could become a movie.

He has also fielded a few questions that adults seldom ask, such as: How much money do you make?

It’s different than lecturing college students, but he’s enjoying it. “Nine is about my mental age,” Hartley says. “I spend a lot of time pretending to be a professor,” but writing about Darwen “gives me the opportunity to be the kid I never grew out of.”

Look for more Darwen adventures. Hartley’s publisher has already committed to at least two more novels. And look for Sebastian to continue as his dad’s first and most important reader.

A.J. Hartley will read from and sign copies of “Darwen Arkwright and the Peregrine Pact” 6 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 8, at the Morrison Barnes and Noble, 420 Sharon Road, and 11 a.m. Saturday, Dec. 10, at Park Road Books, 4139 Park Road.