By Virginia Dean, Standard Correspondent
Teachers Jason Tarleton and Glenna Coleman eat roasted mealworms. see more photos click here.
Rick Russell Photo
Monsters, haunted temples, mutant cave spiders, underground rivers, and Maya magic — welcome to the world of Pamela and Jon Voelkel, founders of the children’s Jaguar Stones Club and authors of the accompanying book trilogy, “The Middleworld” (2007), “The End of the World” (2010), and “The River of No Return” (2012).
On hand last week for some Woodstock Union Middle School story readings and overall presentation, the local Norwich residents, who were extended an invitation by school librarian Susan Piccoli, imparted their first-hand knowledge of the Central American sub-culture to nearly 150 seventh and eighth graders who eagerly listened and joined in on the fun of the experience.
“It was so cool,” said seventhgrader Rosey Donaldson who, along with her classmates, is studying the Mayan, Aztec and Inca Indians in global studies this year. “I really liked how the authors entwined their adventures into their books.”
Raised in Peru, Costa Rica and Columbia, Jon Voelkel is no stranger to life in the rainforest jungle, and he was quick to explain that to the students.
“I grew up in Central America,” said Jon to a hushed audience. “I hated it. I didn’t get along so well with it, and I have some horrible stories to tell.”
One, he related, had to do with a certain food he was asked to eat.
“There was a man who collected venom from poisonous snakes and sold it to local hospitals,” Jon said. “One day, he shot a monkey and threw it onto the fire. He scraped off the fur and after it had cooked put it in a tin can and I had to eat it. It was awful. The rainforest was not for me.”
Not only did Jon eat monkey stew, he was attacked by giant rats he said and even found himself in a plane crash in the middle of the rainforest. He escaped to college in Minneapolis and went on to business school in Barcelona, Spain. After working in advertising agencies in that country along with Holland and England, he started his own agency in London with four other partners — one of whom turned out to be his future wife.
Pamela Voelkel grew up in a small, seaside town in northwest England and, because all the history she learned was European, yearned to travel across the Atlantic to visit other cultures.
“I never knew that across this ocean lay an incredible civilization that I would later become a part of,” said Pamela to the middle schoolers. “I didn’t know anything about the Mayans. But I found out that they are a gift to writers.”
Eventually, Pamela moved to London where she became involved in reviewing books, writing catalogs, and penning speech bubbles for photo- romances before ending up as an advertising copywriter and awardwinning creative director.
In 2001, she and her husband Jon moved from London to Norwich and started their work on the Middleworld. Pamela focused on the characters and Jon, the action scenes. With a “great” agent who connected with New York publishers, the Voelkels published their trilogy within a five-year span.
The first book, with an initial 35,000 copies, is now in its third printing. The second two are in their first.
They have made regular appearances on TV including Fast-Forward TV, Books Alive and The Today Show. “We can’t believe how lucky we are,” said Pamela. “If we hadn’t moved to Vermont, we wouldn’t have become authors. People here have been so supportive.”
The Voelkels have just handed over a fourth volume to their publisher, Egmont USA of New York City. Editing has not yet begun.
Each book has involved traveling to different parts of the globe, Pamela said. For the first, it was Central America. For the second, to Spain, and the third, to Venice.
“We like to see how things work,” Jon told Friday’s audience members. “We like to get our hands dirty. Why? You can’t always believe the Internet, particularly when it comes to the Mayans. There’s a lot of misinformation out there.”
Aside from authoring three books, the Voelkels have created a website and various films about the Mayans, including the Maya Top Ten, interesting facts about the Central American culture. They also spend a great deal of time visiting schools to educate children. In the last six years, Pamela said, they have presented to 100 schools nationwide.
At WUMS, the Voelkels said they were most impressed with the questions students asked as well as their interest in the writing process itself.
“They were amazing,” said Pamela.
For seventh grader Isaac Emery, the hands-on approach the two authors use to write their books was most impressive.
“They visited the places that they would write about in their books,” said Emery. “They took trips to the Amazon jungle and went on some of the adventures that the characters in their books took. In a way, they experienced some of the scenes in the books. If they only used computer research, they could get false information. They chose a very active way to write their books.”
Yet to eighth grader Rory Haff, it was the writing process itself that she was most intrigued and surprised about. “Pamela mentioned in response to a question of the steps to writing a book that, before she started to write, she checked her email, her Twitter, her Facebook, and any other social media she had to procrastinate,” said Haff. “She also mentioned staying up to three in the morning some days writing to make a deadline. I always thought all book writers were always writing and always eager to jump into writing their book. Like myself, book writers don’t view writing as just fun but also as an occasional chore.”
Classmate Hailey Napier learned about the importance of the research behind the writing.
“Pamela really emphasized the importance of not just writing about what you know about,” said Napier. “She told us that even if you aren’t familiar with something, but it interests you, it is always possible to do research and get to know the topic. I think that this piece of advice was incredibly helpful. It inspired me and others to learn about things we’re interested in.”
When they are not writing or illustrating their books or visiting schools, the Voelkels are traveling to Central America, attending Mayan conferences, or studying Mayan glyphs.