Richard Lena knows a thing or two about the publishing world. The Highland Park resident has headed instructional technology and curriculum departments at top-of-the-heap publishing company Houghton Mifflin, for instance, and worked in the industry for more than two decades.
Now he’s running Brattle, his own educational-publishing outfit, and offering a range of digital and hard-copy products that include math and textbooks for children in Africa — some of whom he’s made a point of meeting in person.
These days, Lena and his family are celebrating the recent launch of Brattle’s first fiction title, The Last Akaway — a fantasy-adventure story for children and young adults by Virginia-based author and journalist Gary Karton.
After so much time spent researching the many things that make young learners tick — including a given textbook’s syntax and tone — “I really wanted to create a series of books that would inspire kids to pick them up,” explained the father of twins. The 9-to-13 age range is an especially ideal target, he added, because “that’s when students start to really drop off [in terms of] motivation.”
But The Last Akaway could easily appeal to sci-fi buffs of any age, he added, and even his 72-year-old mother is tearing through a copy.
One look at the manuscript, and Lena saw the potential for a series (which Karton already had in mind) that would grip readers and also shake them from the blandness of consumer culture.
In Karton’s world, children connect with spirit animals that transmit magical powers. The story’s villain, a purveyor of video games, is symbolic and also true-to-life in some ways.
Lena’s 8-year-old twins, Elijah and Simone, usually don’t hesitate to give their two cents about their dad’s endeavor. Kay Jones, Simone’s second-grade teacher at Bradfield Elementary, even began reading The Last Akaway to her class after the twins’ mother, Barbra, popped in one day and shared a few chapters.
“The kids kept saying, ‘Noooo, don’t go,’ ” when Barbra finally made her way toward the door, Jones remembers. “It is absolutely one of those books that you cannot put down. I think it’s going to rank right up there with the Percy Jackson and Harry Potter books.”
For Lena, a maiden voyage into the fiction world was “a very conscious decision.” In short, he wants to impact children’s literacy rates.
“If we can’t motivate a child to pick up a book,” he said gently, “they’re over.”