For author Roland Smith, writing the young adult novel “Elephant Run” was a decade-long endeavor.


For author Roland Smith, writing the young adult novel “Elephant Run” was a decade-long endeavor.

“Most books take me six to nine months to write, but ‘Elephant Run’ took a really long time,” he said. “I actually wrote five versions of the book, but I didn’t like the first four versions.”

Set during World War?II, “Elephant Run”  features the main character, Nick, being sent to his family’s teak plantation in Burma to avoid the blitz in London.

When Japanese soldiers invade, Nick’s father is taken prisoner and Nick is forced to work as a servant. The young protagonist and his friend, Mya, later escape on elephantback and work to free family members from a prisoner of war camp.

Students at Geneseo Middle School selected the novel as their first “community read”?book.

“(GMS?principal)?Matt DeBaene had actually heard of a similar community reading program at a principals’ workship. He asked me if I’d be interested in running the program,” said teacher Brian Hofer.

Starting last fall, approximately 25 GMS students volunteered to read books nominated for the 2009 Rebecca Caudill award. From that selection, the students narrowed their field down to just one book, “Elephant Run.”

“I think the students picked it because there’s a strong male character and a strong female character in the book, a lot of action, a little bit of romance and a lot of animals,” said Hofer. “It also takes place during?World War II, which they learn about in class.”

Using funds provided by grants from the PTA?and GEEE, 300 copies of “Elephant Run” were purchased.

Of the books, 60 were circulated throughout the middle school with the remaining copies distributed to members of the community.

Those who read the book were asked to pass it along to others, with the ultimate goal of having as many area residents read the book as possible, said Hofer.

“We gave book talks to the Kiwanis Club, the chamber, church organizations and more,” he said.

The community reading program will culminate with a presentation by Smith at 6 p.m. March 18 in the multi-purpose room at Geneseo Middle School.?The public is invited.

Using the Internet-video conferencing system Skype, Smith will chat with participants during an approximately hour-long program.

“During the first part, he’s going to talk about writing the book and the writing process. There will be time for questions and answers, and we’ll have refreshments,” said Hofer.

“It’s always a great honor and a lot of fun to have your book selected as a community read,” said Smith. “My book, ‘Peak’ has been selected as a community read a number of times, but ‘Elephant
Run’ has only been picked three or four times.

“The books that get selected are totally out of an author’s control, but I’m delighted when it happens, and?I’m thrilled Skype exists to give me the opportunity to talk to those who’ve read my book,” he said.

Though he lives in Oregon, Smith will actually be in Wisconsin the night of the presentation. “I?hope they’re not looking forward to seeing my office, because I’ll actually be in a hotel room,” he said.

Elephants are featured prominently in the novel and are the author’s favorite animal, he said. “I use to train elephants, and I’ve worked in Asia and Africa with them.

“Elephants are a lot smarter than they appear to be. When you’re working with elephants, you can’t be thinking of anything but the elephant,” said Smith. “I spent three weeks in elephant camps in Burma (now known as Myanmar).”

“The country is now a closed military dictatorship, and they don’t normally allow visitors, but because I wrote children’s books, they allowed me in with a camera to places that hadn’t been open to Westerners in 50 years,” said Smith.

By setting his novel in Burma, Smith hopes to educate students on an aspect of World War II not normally studied.

“Students tend to have a lot of background on the European war, but there are very few young adult books on the Pacific. Most books focus on the internment camps in the U.S., and few take place actually in the Pacific,”?he said.

“Burma’s not generally covered with a lot of depth in our textbooks,”?said Hofer. “This is a different way they can learn about it.”

“When I write, I’m trying to create readers. I?hope if I can write a book that someone reads, then they’ll want to read more books,” said Smith. “My goal always is to tell a story that I enjoy. My assumption is if I enjoy the story, others will as well.”

Smith said he writes seven days a week. “When?I’m on the road, I?wake up at 3 a.m. or 4 a.m. and write for three or four hours. I’m in bed by 7 p.m. or 8 p.m. Basically, I have preschoolers hours.”

When he’s not on the road, Smith said he writes “all day.” “I never turn a book in to a publisher unless I really like it,” he said.

“Elephant Run” is the first of what Hofer hopes will be a number of “community reads” in Geneseo.

“The plan is to continue to do this,” he said.