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2016-03-23 / News

Author returns to county to share personal journey

By Rich Griset
STAFF WRITER


Acclaimed children’s book author Clay McLeod Chapman spoke to students at Midlothian Middle School last week. Rich Griset/Chesterfield Observer Acclaimed children’s book author Clay McLeod Chapman spoke to students at Midlothian Middle School last week. Rich Griset/Chesterfield Observer Like many of his stories, Clay McLeod Chapman’s career as a writer had an unconventional beginning: He was failing sixth grade English at Robious Middle.

Fortunately for Chapman and his fans, his teacher pulled him aside and offered a deal: If he entered a children’s writing contest, she would give him the extra credit he needed to pass. To his surprise, Chapman won the contest and has been writing ever since.

Last week, Chapman spoke to raucous sixth-grade audiences at Robious and Midlothian middle schools about his career and his children’s book trilogy “The Tribe.” Like Chapman, the books’ protagonist Spencer Pendleton isn’t exactly an ideal student. In the first book, “The Tribe: Homeroom Headhunters,” Pendleton learns of a secret society of runaway students that live inside his school.

“Going into a school like today was just seismic,” says Chapman, speaking after the readings. “I love going to visit classes because if I have an opportunity to read them part of the book, it’s a good way to get them to take it home and read it.”

The journey to publishing “Homeroom Headhunters” is almost as serendipitous as Chapman’s beginnings as a writer. While completing the book’s first draft, Chapman’s email was hacked, sending spam to all of his contacts. One of those spammed happened to be a children’s book agent, who responded by asking if Chapman had any projects he was working on. The agent loved the book and sold it to Disney- Hyperion in 2013. Kirkus and Booklist raved, with the latter calling it “a comic ‘Lord of the Flies’ for the modern era.”

“It was a bit of a fluke,” says Chapman, who now lives in Brooklyn, New York. “Thank goodness for spam email.”

Since then, Chapman has published two more “Tribe” books in addition to his other work. He has also published a collection of short stories, the novel “Miss Corpus,” and written comic books for the Spiderman and Avengers series.

Chapman also writes and co-stars in “The Pumpkin Pie Show,” an annual collection of monologues staged each fall. The show’s eerie, weird stories change with each performance, and The New York Times has favorably compared his monologues to the work of H.P. Lovecraft and O. Henry. The show will celebrate two decades of performances in the coming year.

The lectures at Midlothian and Robious were sponsored by Carytown’s bbgb books, which has backed Chapman’s readings at other local schools in the past.

“Clay has been a friend of the shop,” says co-owner Jill Stefanovich. “He’s written these terrific stories. We want to get him into more schools.”

Christy Martin, a librarian at Midlothian Middle, says she hopes to bring in more speakers like Chapman.

“We’re trying to get authors to come that are from the local area, or at least Virginia,” Martin says. She adds that while both boys and girls appreciate “The Tribe” series, it especially “targets boys that are reluctant to read.”

Looking forward, in 2017 Applause Books will publish Chapman’s “Nothing Untoward,” a new collection of his short stories. He’s also currently working on an original six-issue comic series called “Self Storage.”

“It asks the burning question, ‘What would you do if you found a zombie in a storage unit?’” Chapman explains.

When asked if he plans to write another kids’ book, Chapman says, “I would do another in a heartbeat. I’m pitching a few right now. It’s really, ‘Can I get another publisher to take a chance on these crazy stories?’”

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