Raymond Arroyo has an impressive resume.
He’s a New York Times bestselling author several times over. He’s an award-winning journalist and producer. And his weekly EWTN show, The World Over Live, reaches more than 350 million global households and 500 U.S. radio affiliates.
So when Arroyo says his Will Wilder series of books for young readers just might be “the most important work I’ve ever done,” it’s quite a statement.
What makes these books so important, in his view? The lifelong impact that they can have on kids.
“When an adult reads your works, they hold it at an arm’s length, even if they may be moved by it,” Arroyo told CNA.
“But a child enters that world with abandon. There are no limitations. The journey they go on is more profound, and because of how impressionable they are in that age, this book is helping them make sense of the world, and it becomes the language they’ll use to interpret that world.”
Reaching these young readers at a critical age is Arroyo’s goal with the second installment in his best-selling series, Will Wilder: The Lost Staff of Wonders (Random House Crown), which arrived in bookstores earlier this month.
The importance of childhood literacy is what led Arroyo to found Storyented a few years ago. The initiative, a project of DP Studios, works to connect best-selling authors with their readers, discussing the canon of work, allowing kids to ask questions, and creating online videos that parents and teachers can use to help excite kids about reading.
Arroyo said he hoped to be a sort of “passport agency” to literacy. And his Will Wilder books are doing just that.
St. Stephen’s Catholic School in uptown New Orleans serves many at-risk students. According to the school’s principal, Rosie Kendrick, some of the students don’t even own books, and it has been an immense struggle to encourage them to read.
But that all changed a year ago, when Arroyo visited the school and gave copies of the first Will Wilder book to the students.
“All they wanted to do was talk about the book,” Kendrick said. There were some students whom she had never seen read a book, now reading in the hallways, unable to put it down. “Will Wilder changed their reading habits by making them want to read.”
Arroyo said he was astounded by the book’s impact. Asked why he thought it was so successful, he pointed to two pieces of positive feedback that he was repeatedly given.
The first was that readers loved the idea that Will made mistakes, and that those mistakes had consequences, but that there were ways for him to go back and repair the damage that he had caused.
“That gave them a sense of hope,” Arroyo commented. He added that readers – especially kids from at-risk backgrounds – were reading about the demons that Will battles in the book and projecting onto these demons their challenges and battle of their own lives.
“The real world impact of how they project themselves into the story has really amazed me,” he said, explaining that numerous readers had told him, “Will gave me hope that I could conquer my own demons, that I could overcome the things that I’m struggling with.”
With some 67 percent of fourth graders reading beneath proficiency at the national level – and studies showing a correlation between illiteracy and jail or welfare later in life – the ability to excite kids about reading is no small feat.
“Kids really want to go on a fun adventure,” Arroyo said. If a book is exciting and has a protagonist that kids can identify with, “they want to go on a journey and find out how it ends.”
In the second installment of his young reader series, 12-year-old Will Wilder must find the Staff of Moses, which has vanished from a local museum, before supernatural terrors are unleashed upon his town.
Arroyo said the idea for the story originated after he read piece in the London Times claiming that the Staff of Moses was actually in a museum in Birmingham, England. While he did not find the argument convincing, it started him thinking: What would happen if the staff was in a museum, and it went missing?
The Will Wilder books have been hailed as containing the excitement of the Indiana Jones and Percy Jackson series. But Arroyo noted that there are a few components that set his series apart.
“All the antiquities and relics mentioned in these books can be found in libraries, museums or churches throughout the world. So that grounds it in a certain reality that other series don’t have.”
In writing the books, he tried to be “excruciatingly accurate” with the descriptions of relics and other antiquities, spending extensive time researching to ensure that the details were correct.
And kids love this accuracy, Arroyo said. He has received numerous letters and pictures from readers who have gone to museums and found the actual objects and artifacts from his books.
There’s another key point that sets the Will Wilder books apart. Will is not an orphan or an abandoned child. He goes on adventures with his entire intact family, along with his friends.
This was an intentional decision, stemming from Arroyo’s frustrations with was he described as an “orphan trope in middle school books.”
But it also served to give the book a wider appeal. The cast is multi-generational, and so, it turns out, are its readers.
Arroyo said he has heard from children, college students, parents and grandparents who have all enjoyed the first book. He said that while he wrote the series for middle grade students, he included deeper reflections and subplots that adults would appreciate.
Ultimately, there’s a universal sense of wonder at the supernatural world that draws all ages to the story, and makes it great for parents and children to read together, he said.
For parents who want to encourage a reluctant reader, Arroyo offered advice. “The most important thing is to read to your child as early as you can, from the time they’re toddlers.” He also stressed the importance of children seeing their parents read books for pleasure.
“Kids are great mimics,” he remarked, adding that reading fiction is particularly important because “fiction enlarges the imagination and puts them not only in the shoes but in the hearts and soul of characters and people they’ll never meet. And the lessons they’ll draw from that are lessons you can’t repeat.”
Finally, Arroyo suggested, parents can take their library or bookstore and give them a chance to browse and find the topics and ideas that fascinate them.
As your children discover their natural interests, feed those interests regularly with good books, he said. “It’s a beautiful thing to see a kid get lost in reading.”