The Last Akaway

by Gary Karton.

Ages 8 to 12. 288 pages.

What is your spirit animal? Is it a rhinoceros beetle, a bug that can lift 850 times its weight? Is it a determined and catlike spotted ocelot that will fight to the death? Or maybe a rainbow trout, with its keen sense of direction? According to the legend in Gary Karton’s kids book “The Last Akaway,” all kids have spirit animals that give them magical animal-like powers.

Inspired by his kids

Karton’s book, the first in a trilogy, (that’s a series of three books), follows two brothers as they seek to save the Akaway, a magical animal that helps kids connect with their spirit animal. The adventure through snowy woods includes a talking crab, but Karton drew a lot of his inspiration from real-life experiences. The main characters are named after his sons, and Karton sought to make the dialogue realistic, like something he would hear his children say.

“I never really thought about writing kids books until I was reading with my kids,” said Karton, who lives in Arlington with his wife and sons Jake, 14, and Brody, 12. His boys, he said, wanted him to write a book that was unpredictable. So he did.

“I’m just going to write a book that I would really like,” Karton recalled thinking. “I love animals. I love special powers and I love having fun.” He wrote the first draft of “The Last Akaway” in about four months.

“I was just trying to type as fast I could to figure out where my imagination was going,” he said.

Reading as a challenge

Growing up in Chicago, Illinois, with a learning disability, Karton didn’t like to read. “My memory of school was tough,” he said. “I felt stupid because I could never [read] very well.”

What Karton lacked in natural ability, he made up for in determination and creativity. As a kid he liked to make up games with his best friend, such as a Ping Pong obstacle course.

“I was a big daydreamer,” he said. “I dreamed all the time.”

When Karton was in college, he hated going to the library to do research. Reading was still hard for him. Instead, he would find experts on the topic that he needed to write about and call them for an interview. (He later used those interview skills while working as a sports reporter at The Washington Post.) And when Karton was writing, rewriting and editing his book — which took two years after that first draft — he went to the experts again: this time, kids.

“I had a group of 10 kids and . . . every time I would write something, I would talk to the kids and they would say, ‘This is funny,’ ‘This is not funny,’ ” he said. “I have been criticized for listening to kids too much, but I think kids are amazing and honest, and they have so much creativity.”

Karton was rejected by 12 publishers, or companies that get books out to the public. But he never got discouraged.

“I’m a big believer in perseverance,” said Karton, who is writing the second book in his series while working for Safe Kids, a nonprofit organization dedicated to keeping kids safe around the world.

Special powers

When Karton was a kid, he used to try to get spiders to bite him in hopes that it would give him special powers, like Spider-Man’s. That trick never worked. But as an adult, he realized that everyone has special powers.

“It’s hard to be different, but so good to be different,” Karton said. “Everyone has at least one special power that makes them extraordinary.”

Like the characters in his book, Brody and Jake, you just have to figure out what your special power is, he said.

— Moira E. McLaughlin