By Teachers, For Teachers
At 18 years old, Riley Carney shows what kids can achieve if they have enough motivation, passion and support.
She is a published author of young adult fiction, with two books of her five-book series currently in distribution, as well as a founder of a non-profit organization dedicated to supporting children's literacy worldwide.
Riley shares her secrets to success at such a young age in this exclusive TeachHUB interview.
How many books have you sold since The Fire Stone's release in January 2010?
I’m not sure of the exact number, but it’s in the many thousands and both books are selling well.
Do you have any favorite characters or passages from your books?
My favorite characters are Sam, Matt, Arden, and Galen. In some ways, I think that I am a lot like Matt, the main character of the Reign of the Elements series, in that we are both curious, loyal, and we try to do the right thing, but Matt’s curiosity often gets him into a lot of trouble.
Arden is another character who shares some qualities with me, especially her spunky personality. Sam and Galen are the most fun to write about because they always make me laugh.
What was the most memorable moment during the writing/publishing experience?
Probably the most memorable moment during the whole process was the first time that I spoke at a school. I spoke to a group of 200 fourth and fifth graders, and then signed books and conversed with them afterward. I sold 125 books in two hours, but the best part was interacting with the kids. Except for the actual first draft writing of the book, speaking to, and with, the kids is still my favorite part of the whole process.
It certainly takes a lot of confidence to get a book published and open oneself up to criticism. How do you deal with criticism from reviewers or your peers who've read your books?
I don’t have a difficult time hearing criticism if I feel like it’s constructive or justified, but the first time I heard criticism that felt unjustified and harsh, I was a bit taken aback. I quickly learned to only pay attention to constructive advice from people I respect and trust, and to try to ignore the rest of it.
Books are so subjective, and everybody has vastly different likes and dislikes, so I realize that it’s impossible to please everyone.
Have any teachers influenced or guided you in your quest to become a published author? How so?
My teachers have had a profound effect on my love of books and learning and, of course, on my ability to write well.
In the acknowledgment section of my first book, The Fire Stone, I thank seventeen teachers! In addition to the knowledge they imparted, my teachers have offered advice and encouragement, and I will always be grateful for the effort and heart they put into educating me.
How have other students treated you since you became a published author?
My friends treat me the same as they always did. Students that I didn’t know before, or who I meet when I visit schools or speak at conferences usually have many questions, and they are often very excited to meet me because I’m in their age group; they realize that it’s possible for them to achieve their dreams, too.
What made you get involved with children's literacy and start your own non-profit? Tell me a little about that experience.
I grew up surrounded by books, and the importance of education was highly emphasized by my parents. I love reading, and I always knew how important it was. When I was fourteen, the summer before going into high school, I learned that over 120 million kids around the world are denied access to a basic education, that over 126 million kids, ages 5-17, work in hazardous conditions, and that 1.3 million kids drop out of school annually in the United States.
These statistics are heartbreaking, especially since there is a direct correlation between poverty and literacy. I decided, then, that I wanted to do whatever I could to change those statistics, so I created Breaking the Chain with the goal of breaking the chains of poverty for children through education.
Breaking the Chain has built three schools in Africa and provided water purification systems and alternative income for two of those villages, and in the United States, we created a children’s literacy center at a Women in Crisis shelter in Colorado. Currently, we are focusing on our great program, Bookin’It, which has put more than 18,000 new books into classrooms in low-literacy/high-need elementary schools in the United States.
I am very excited about our Bookin’It program because it can have such a significant influence on children’s literacy. Most children in low-income neighborhoods do not have books in their homes, so it is imperative that they have books at school or they will never learn to read. We focus on elementary schools because that is the most critical time for literacy; if a child does not learn to read by the fourth or fifth grade, he/she will probably remain illiterate.
I have also been speaking to schools around the country, and I’ve spoken to more than 12,000 kids over the past nine months about literacy, risking failure to achieve dreams, the value of education, and the importance of reaching out to help others.
How do you balance the demands of school, your writing/publishing/speaking engagements, your charity work and having a social life?
I am very organized and very disciplined! Until the middle of my sophomore year, I went to traditional schools, and wrote my books and took care of my nonprofit in the evenings and on the weekends. Once I began speaking at schools, however, I changed my school situation, out of necessity, and began taking my classes online through Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth and other programs.
An average day is fairly busy for me, but I write at every opportunity I can. I do all my schoolwork in the morning and early afternoon, except on days that I’m speaking at schools or traveling to speak. After school, my day is devoted to my nonprofit and to writing. I write for two to four hours, almost every day. I also make time for reading, martial arts, running or yoga, and spending time with my family and friends.
With all your work, do you ever feel like you're missing out on your childhood?
Not at all. I had a wonderful childhood. My mom read to my brother and I all the time when we were younger and then, later, we read to ourselves. We rarely watched television. My older brother and I played Legos and Star Wars and other games where we were making up stories. Stories were an integral part of our childhood, so as you can see, it was a natural transition for me to begin writing down those stories. I also feel like I’ve had a better teenage experience than most kids because I’ve spent so much time reading and writing, instead of worrying about which clique I belong to. I’ve always enjoyed creating worlds of my own so much that standing around at the mall or playing video games for hours never appealed to me.
What are your plans for the future? Do you see yourself as a career author or is this just the first step?
I definitely see myself as a career author, but I plan to have another career, too. Right now I only spend 2-4 hours per day writing and I’ve written eight books in the past two and a half years, so I think I would get bored only being a writer. I am very interested in history and political science, so I’ll have to see what evolves as I go through college. I also hope to continue my work with Breaking the Chain and continue to promote education opportunities for at-risk children for many years in the future.
To learn more about Riley, visit her website.
Share your stories of youth who inspire you and your students to achieve their dreams, no matter what they're age in the comments section!