Cape Cod Times article

After many tries, Centerville author finds appreciative audience

Mick Carlon’s children’s book, “Riding on Duke’s Train,” is on its way to publication via a contest he entered.Cape Cod Times/Rachel S. O’Hara
August 15, 2010

As Mick Carlon puts it, he’s been writing children’s novels since Moses was a baby. He also had had about as much success as the ’62 Mets (a notoriously bad team), he jokes, until a fiction writing contest in June changed his luck.

Carlon, 51, of Centerville, had submitted his children’s book, “Riding on Duke’s Train,” to several agents and heard only criticisms and rejections. His novel chronicles the fictitious journey of a boy who joins Duke Ellington’s band as an assistant and travels with it through America and Europe in the 1930s. The book addresses the serious issues of race in the South and the rise of Nazism in Europe, with a voice perfect for middle-school students.

Then, like the Mets after their losing streak, Carlon eventually started winning.

First came an article by journalist Nat Hentoff, who writes about jazz for The Wall Street Journal and JazzTimes magazine. Hentoff, a friend of Carlon’s, devoted his June column in JazzTimes to the way Carlon’s children’s books reflect a unique mix of education and music.

Carlon taught journalism at Barnstable High School for nearly 20 years before making the switch to teaching English at Barnstable Intermediate School seven years ago. Once a week in his classroom, Carlon incorporates jazz by using his favorite tunes to explore American culture of the 20th century.

He devotes one class to Duke Ellington and has found his students respond positively to the music, often downloading the songs later. Hentoff, who knew Ellington personally, told Carlon that “Riding on Duke’s Train” captured the jazz great just the way he was in person, although Carlon was only 15 when Ellington died in 1974.

Carlon’s second success occurred in June. He entered the Leapfrog Press Fiction Contest in the children’s fiction category and won the grand prize out of a field of 153 manuscripts: a publishing contract. The book will be published in October 2011.

Lisa Graziano, managing editor of Leapfrog, which has headquarters in East Falmouth, shared judging responsibilities for this category with two others, Leapfrog Press author B.B. Wurge and author Alexandria LaFaye. The contest also had an adult fiction category, in which 448 authors submitted manuscripts. The contest drew entrants from 22 countries. Graziano thinks a writer’s contest is a terrific way to accept a new client and for new, unpublished authors to be recognized.

“Whether it’s a famous writer or a beginner, it doesn’t matter, and that’s unusual from the normal submission process,” she says.

The three judged blindly, with no regard for the author’s past experience or context of the story. When Graziano finally learned Carlon’s name and where he lived, she was pleased to find that he was local.

She chose the book partly because of its historical context.

“We love music, we love history,” she says, “and to present the history of this type of music that really came from the black community in America at a time when that community was really on the fringes, (to) bring that forward into the 21st century for kids is a really good thing.”

When submitting to children’s writing contests, Graziano suggests knowing your audience and steering clear of themes that are too mature. In her contest, she encountered seven or eight children’s fiction manuscripts that dealt with the death of a twin. The theme was not handled in a way that was appropriate for children, she says. She also warns against the attitude that publication is the end-all, be-all for writers; instead, a love of writing should be the motivation.

Carlon would agree that a love of writing and jazz is his motivation.

“I think jazz is like a buried treasure in every American’s backyard, but they just don’t know to ‘dig it,'” he says.

“If I could make young people want to explore Ellington’s music because of this book, that would make me very happy.”