If anyone has ever sat you down to watch The Wizard of Oz while listening to Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, then you probably understand how a piece of music can transform a story into something…more. Something bigger and more lively than what is was before (and it may have been very imaginative to begin with!).
That’s kind of the same experience to be found with the children’s book Heroes in a World Reborn, by Nathan Ritter, which is meant to be read while listening to Asia’s 1983 album Alpha. (You can find the full album for free on YouTube here.) The book is aimed at preteens but I think it would be suitable for kids eight and older, as long as they can handle a bit of scary monster-fighting and fantasy violence. Read on below for the full review, plus an interview with the author!
Heroes in a World Reborn concerns two seventh-graders, Rob and Max, who find an ancient record player and a box of records in the garage of Max’s uncle while on house-sitting duty. When the boys decide to listen to one of the old albums, they’re transported to a fantasy world where they must fight evil and rescue a trapped Goddess to restore peace to the land. Readers follow their adventures while listening in sync to the album.
If you line up the book and the music, it should take a little under an hour to read. I speed-read, so I got through the story well ahead of the album–but that’s okay, because it’s a great adventure even without the backing music. (And obviously, most kids will read much more slowly than I do!) However, at the start of chapter one, when the story and the music was still synced up, I definitely felt like everything was more vivid and colorful thanks to the power of the music. (And that’s saying something, because the writing is very descriptive all on it’s own.)
Obviously I’m a huge story junkie and a music lover as well, so the concept behind this book really intrigued me. Nathan was kind enough to answer a few questions about inspiration, plotting, and what’s up next for Rob and Max!
IRBR: Obviously the first question is: why Alpha? Was this a fave album already, or did you listen to it one day and think, “Hey, that sounds like a story…”
NR: Actually, it all started with the concept. There is so much good music out there—I think the phrase I’ve heard is, “The more you love music, the more music you love.” That’s very true with me. I love every genre! And I want other people to love the music I love, but most don’t even know about it. Their music libraries don’t go farther back than the 1990s. And the kids of today don’t even have the 1990s. To me, that’s sad.
So I started with the question, “How can I get people to listen to the older stuff?” I realized that just sitting someone down in a chair and making them listen was an impossible endeavor; very few people have the attention span for it. Even I need to be fiddling around with something while listening; I can’t just sit there. So, I started thinking about fusing music with something else—there are all kinds of possibilities, but my talents lie in writing, so that’s what I decided to try. That’s when an episode from the Adult Swim show The Venture Bros. popped into my head—the one where one of the boys is first introduced to his dad’s collection of progressive rock. As he sits there with the headphones on, the camera goes straight into his eyeball and looks at his mind while “on” progressive rock. All kinds of fantastical things are imagined, and even though he’s not actually listening to the band Asia, that scene reminded me of that band the most.
So I figured, well, if that’s what is inspiring me right now, then just go with that. And yes, to answer your first question, I like the album Alpha a lot. And it has really great artwork on its cover. That inspired me too.
IRBR: Would you say it’s very difficult to plot to music?
NR: No, I think it is an exercise that people should be encouraged to do, especially children. The human imagination is an awesome tool, and we don’t have enough ways to exercise it. This is just one more way—a fun way, I want to add. I was encouraged to do it in my music class in elementary school. Our teacher would make us sit there and listen to 30 minutes-worth of classical composers. Most of us were bored to tears, but our teacher kept reminding us what the theme or story behind the music was and she wanted us to try to hear it.
I have to be honest. Back then, I thought that exercise was the worst. I thought classical music was so boring! But I couldn’t leave; I was forced to sit there, so I might as well try. And I started really “getting” the feeling or story behind the music. My imagination started opening up the world behind the music. I think music is the language of the soul, and unlocking the “meaning” of the music—or making a story to go with the music—is actually revealing more of our own soul. That’s something everyone should be practicing, I feel. Good for the imagination; good for the soul. Especially parents—you should get your old music out and make a game out of it with your kids. Something like, “Let’s create a cool story to go along with this music. Listen to this…what do you think is happening right now in our story?” It’s a really great activity that I encourage parents and their kids to try out.
In the “How to read this book” section at the front of my book, I even invite the kids who are reading this to get inspired by what I did and try it for themselves. I even ask for them to email it to me so I can read what they wrote.
IRBR: Did you develop the story while listening to the album, or did you already have a rough outline in your head when you started?
NR: Ooh, now I’m giving away my secrets. Haha. What I did was listen to the album and write down notes—how it made me feel, what I’m picturing in my mind, what I think the song is about, etc. I might do that several times before I’m satisfied, and I also check the lyrics online to see if there are any themes or important moments in the lyrics that could also inspire me. For example, I think the words “black horizon” appear only once in the entire album, but that really stuck with me, so I used it as a major part of my plot.
Okay, so then I go through my notes—while listening to the album again—and start shaping a plot. For my first book, that was really easy. It just came together immediately. But for the second book I’ve been working on, it took a lot more effort. I even almost scrapped the plot and searched for a different album at one point. So once the script is done—and it’s a very loose script—I then listen to the music yet again and start trying to write it out as an actual story. The difficulty is getting the right flow—I want this said right when the first chorus hits or I want a tragic moment to happen here when the violins come in. That sort of thing. It means the script I originally wrote out is changed quite a bit; which is fine with me. I think of it more as a guide rather than exactly what I have to do with the story. As many readers have pointed out, the hardest part is pacing. Everyone reads at a different rate, and it was even hard for me as the author to maintain the same reading rate throughout a single read-through, even in a single chapter.
So as the author, that was one of the hardest parts for me—writing a chapter and then reading it at a steady pace so that the plot lines up with the music. It’s an impossible task, really, but I still try. I’ve noticed that I read slower in emotional parts and read faster in action parts if I don’t control myself. One thing I might do in the future is create an app or program that puts the words on the screen at precisely the right rate so that the reader gets the full experience of reading and listening. Sort of like a sing-along song, but with a book instead. But that idea is a long way off, I think.
IRBR: What are some of your favorite authors? Any that have inspired your writing?
NR: Oh, wow! I’m inspired by so much, probably way more than I’m even aware of. But I would say a major inspiration is The Neverending Story, both the book and the movie. Also, I love J.R.R Tolkien: The Silmarillion, The Hobbit, and The Lord of the Rings. I really like The Dresden Files by Jim Butcher as well as his Codex Alera series. Also HP Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard and all those pulp magazine authors from the early 1900s. The Foundation Series by Asimov. Dr. Seuss. Shel Silverstein. That’s all I can think of right now. But I know there’s lots more. Oh, one more is Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and its sequel Through the Looking Glass.
Another major source of inspiration is video games. I play tons of games. I think readers will notice how much like a video game the plot of my story is. It’s not accidental. But if I talked about all the inspiring video games, I could go on forever.
IRBR: Finally: will we see another adventure with Max and Rob sometime soon?
NR: Yes! I just finished book two this week. It’s in the editing and publishing process right now. It should be on Amazon.com by the end of this month. It’s tentatively titled “Specters in a City of Ruin.” I hope you will like it.