I have the pleasure of hosting author Ronald Crouch on the blog. I recently read his first book, a middle grade adventure book titled Beyond Belief: The Adventure Begins.
The book truly is the beginning of an adventure for people of all ages and has an educational aspect to it.
Read on to know more about Ron and his experiences with writing this book.
Tell us a little about yourself.
I am a child psychologist, married 22 years, and I am the father of a little critical thinker who constantly fact-checks me and asks for evidence. That’s both wonderful and a lot of work. He keeps me on my toes. We are Americans but we live in Germany, where I work at a hospital. We live in a tiny little village on the edge of the black forest, which can be pretty spooky. We bought an old church and we are rehabbing it into a house, which can also be pretty spooky. It is a good thing that we like spooky.
What prompted you to start writing?
For my son’s tenth birthday I looked for a fun adventure story that had the themes he loved and which we often talked about in our family. Themes like critical thinking, cognitive biases, psychology, and being skeptical. It is something we have really emphasized for our son because the world seems to have transitioned from an information age into a misinformation age, and as parents we felt we have to prepare our kid for that. But when I looked for middle reader books with these themes there wasn’t anything that I could find that really dug into these topics and talked about them directly in the context of a fun story. I had a good idea of what an age-appropriate adventure story with those themes would be like. So I thought it would be fun to write one. I always wanted to write for kids, and so this was the perfect excuse to pursue that dream while meeting what I think is an important need.
How did the book “Beyond Belief: The Adventure Begins” happen?
Because the book was originally a birthday gift for my son, I thought about what would be fun for him to read; what would make him excited. I remembered that before moving to Germany, when we lived in Washington, one of our favorite things to do was take what we called “critical thinking field trips.” We had this book, Weird Washington, and he would look up places where strange things were happening, choose a place, and then we would go on a road trip to investigate it. He absolutely loved it. For example, we visited a place called “gravity hill” just outside Prosser, Washington. It is one of those hills where cars are supposed to run uphill. And you know what? It worked! It really seemed like the car was rolling up the hill. But he figured out that the hill was very slight and that the wind was blowing strongly up the hill. We tested his idea by opening the car doors and using them like sails. If it was the wind, we thought, then the car would roll faster with the doors open. And it turned out it did. Afterward, we had lunch in Prosser and he told the story of that adventure to folks at the pizza parlor with so much excitement and pride. I kept thinking of that excitement and pride when I was coming up with the scenes and places in the book. I wanted the main character to feel that, and hopefully, the reader might catch a little of that too.
Why did you choose to write middle-grade fiction?
I primarily work with children ages 6 to 13. I really enjoy the way their imaginations work and the things that fascinate that age group. Thanks to my work I also have a good sense of what they wish for and what developmental conflicts they have. So writing for that age group felt like a natural choice for me.
What is the ideal target age group for this book?
I think that most children from 8 to 12 will enjoy this book. But it isn’t too scary, so precocious young readers can enjoy it too. But to be totally honest, my ideal target group is actually adults! That is because I really want parents to read this book to their children so that they can have conversations about critical thinking, cognitive biases, and deeper things like how we know what is true. So sprinkled throughout the book are scenes and characters that I hope adults will love and find funny.
Why choose to write about paranormal investigation?
A paranormal investigation is a perfect thing for middle-grade readers because they have one foot in the world of a child and one foot in the world of an adolescent. For them, ghosts and scary things might still be real, but reality is coming into focus with each passing day. Part of the developmental task for this age group is to make that transition from the spooky world of magical thinking into a world that is grounded in reality. It is a hard transition to make. A big part of it is investigating, asking questions, testing assumptions, and finding how the world really works. So a paranormal investigation team seemed like a natural choice. Plus, I thought it was a lot of fun to write about.
How important do you think it is for children to start to relate to and understand psychology?
It is so much more important than most people understand. Psychology is all about knowing why we feel, think, and act the way that we do. If you listen to the kinds of questions that kids ask their parents and teachers, many of them are about exactly these things. The nice thing about psychology is that it actually has some answers to these questions that make sense and are rooted in science. If you give those to your kids then they can better understand themselves and others.
How old would you say the main character is?
I purposely left that vague in the book so that kids could make the character the age that want him to be. I know that most young readers like to follow the adventures of a kid who is slightly older than themselves. But in my mind, he is ten because that is the age of my son and that is who that character really is to me.
How much research went into the writing of this book?
Most of the research went into studying the places and scenes where the book takes place. For example, there is a scene that takes place at the McMinnville UFO festival in Oregon. This is a festival that takes place once a year. Even though I have been to McMinnville, I have not been to the festival. So for my research, I got to watch hours of hijinks from the festival online. It was actually a lot of fun.
How easy or difficult was it to write this book and create the characters for it?
I found that it was surprisingly easy, and I think that is because these characters are all people that I know already, and they are either close family or famous people who inspire me. For instance, I based the character of Uncle Freeman on James “The Amazing” Randi, who sadly just passed away. I have read so much about him, watched hours of his magic acts and TED talks, and so when I wrote that character it was simple to do. Uncle Freeman was already a character in my life, so to speak.
How much does your day to day life inspire your characters?
It has a big effect on my characters. The things that I hear my son say, the kinds of questions children ask in my work, the research I read on psychology for my job each day, all these things come together to make my characters come to life.
How much time do you spend on your writing on average per day?
It varies considerably. I find that if I don’t write for at least half an hour a day then I begin to lose momentum in my writing and it starts to get hard to get back into the story when I return to it. But when I’m in the thick of writing I can spend five or six hours at a time really digging in. As a parent that is hard to do, and it means a lot of negotiating with my wife. Luckily, after 22 years of marriage, I have a lot of support from her.
What do you like best about writing a story?
This is the first book I’ve written, and what I have discovered is that, although writing is work and you have to discipline yourself to do it, I actually have a lot of fun coming up with the twists and turns in the story. That sense of fun is the thing I enjoyed the most and it is one of the things I look for now when I’m writing. I’m almost finished with the next book in the series and I used that emotional sense of whether I’m having fun writing it as a kind of north star guiding my process.
What kind of impact do your stories have on you?
This story brought me a lot of joy because it connected me to a lot of new people. Since publishing it I have heard from children that have read it that they love the book and can’t wait for the next one. One parent reached out and said that her son couldn’t stop talking about the book. Another said that her teenage son had “his mind blown” by how fun psychology could be. I laughed a lot at that one. I had a teacher in the states contact me because she wanted the children in her class to read the book and talk about its themes. We are trying to set up an online book reading for them, which I’m really excited about. I didn’t know how much those connections would mean to me, but I have really cherished them. For the next book in the series, I’ve reached out to these young fans and offered them a look at the next book. I’ve even had some of them become early readers, giving me their feedback. I think the value of that connection, and that chance it gives me to foster confidence and a love of reading in children, has been the most important thing for me.
What do you do when you aren’t writing?
I am working on turning a former church into a proper home. That is a big job. When I’m not writing I’m often fixing old doors, building bookshelves, installing plumbing, or trying to get fifty-year-old lights to work. I also do a lot of hiking around the black forest, and I have a feeling that at least one book in this series is going to happen there.
Finally, what message do you want to share with us readers?
My message to readers, especially parents reading to their children, is don’t stop the conversation when you reach the end of the book. Use it as a springboard to learn more about critical thinking, psychology, and science. I know that children are naturally hungry to learn more about these things if they learn them through a story or with a parent. Keep the discussion going. That is really important because there is no sign that the misinformation out there is going to let up anytime soon. This book can be a chance to start the process of protecting your kids from it by teaching them to stay skeptical and think critically. And that is my final message: stay skeptical and think critically!