MIDWAY DISTRICT — With books in their hands, a group of excited middle school students eagerly waited to meet the author Alan Gratz. The wordsmith smiled as he cracked open copies of work to add his signature.
“The number one thing I want to do is entertain,” Gratz said during a visit to Midway Middle School (MMS). “I want to write a book that you can’t put down.”
A lot of students at MMS have been picking up his books. Sixth-grader Matthew Montgomery is one of the students who enjoyed one of his page-turners, “Prisoner B-3087,” a story about Jack Gruener, a Jewish youth who survived concentration camps. It’s based on a true story.
“I can’t wait to read his other books,” Matthew said. “The story about Jack was so interesting.”
For Matthew, each chapter in the book became more interesting. He’s one of many students who enjoy reading. Although entertaining youths such as Matthew is Gratz’s main goal, his books also include lessons about humanity and history.
“What I try to do is get all my facts straight and try to teach you something at the same time,” he said.
The stop at the middle school was one of several in Sampson County. Some of the others included Union Intermediate School, Union Middle School and Hobbton Elementary. During the visits, he spoke with students about the writing process which also includes research, editing and publishing.
“When you’re writing the first draft of a book, it doesn’t come out perfect, but you try your best,” he said. “Sometimes you nail it. Some chapters you get totally right, but the others need work.”
One of the processes involved interviewing Gruener, the Holocaust survivor featured in “Prisoner B-3087.” He conducted several interviews through telephone and traveled to New York to meet the man in his 80s. He was proud to write the book and brought up how the last generation of Holocaust survivors are passing away. Gruener was just 10 during World War I.
“It’s more important now than ever to get their stories down so we don’t forget what happened to them,” he said.
While speaking to students in a classroom, he stressed the importance of treating everyone equally. It’s a story he tied in with lessons about WWII.
“We’re all humans,” he said. “One of things that I hope you take away from that is to treat everyone with respect and love,” Gratz said.
Gratz grew up in Knoxville, Tenn., and studied creative writing at the University of Tennessee. At a young age, he knew that writing was in his future. After earning a master’s degree, he had several writing jobs, but they weren’t what he wanted to do — write stories for a younger audience. In 2002, his daughter Jo was born and he became a stay-at-home dad. The decision made by Gratz and his wife led to him being a full-time writer. He now resides in Bakersville, a town in western North Carolina.
“I’ve been really lucky to keep selling and publishing books ever since and haven’t looked back,” Gratz said.
The first novel he wrote was “Samurai Shortstop,” a story about a youth from Japan who mixes the bushido — the samurai way of the warrior — with his baseball lessons, following the suicide of a beloved uncle. In the story, the athlete wants to prevent his father from doing the same.
He continued to write books for elementary, middle and high-school students. Some of his other popular works include “Projekt 1065,” “Code of Honor” and “The Brooklyn Nine.”
He has not written books for adults yet, but it’s something he may do in the future. But for right now, catering to middle school readers is his favorite thing to do.
“I feel like my home is in middle school,” said the former eighth-grade middle school teacher, who enjoyed teaching at that level.
“I like middle school and I love writing for middle school,” Gratz said. “I love that they can still get enthusiastic about books.”
Gratz added that in high school the excitement level for books drops because of the many hours of studying that comes with college and academic preparation.
“You’re not reading for fun — you’re reading to analyze,” he said. “I like middle school because it’s like that last age where you are reading for fun.”
He also enjoyed the middle school years as a youth and said he was oblivious to peer pressure or other uncomfortable social issues.
“I was just a crazy kid and geek that didn’t know better,” he said.
Chris Senger, an English language arts teacher, said she was pleased with the visit that allowed the students to meet Gratz after reading Prisoner B-3087.
“It just hooked them from the very beginning and they just loved the book,” Senger said. “It really hooked the kids with reading and that’s what it’s all about.”
Reach Chase Jordan at 910-249-4617. Follow us on Twitter at @SampsonInd and like us on Facebook.