Children’s Book Author tells tales of mystery at Cooper Creek
On the sunny Sunday morning on June 12, kids flocked to Cooper Creek Square to listen to children’s book author Tom Phillips tell the tale of John Boarhog, an 11-year-old aspiring Sherlock Holmes and the protagonist of “Egypt’s Fire: The Curious League of Detectives and Thieves.”
Young readers became immersed in a world of mystery as Phillips read an excerpt from his book (where John meets a mysterious magician in a jail cell). Kids got a chance to ask Phillips questions about Egypt’s Fire, then have their books signed. The event was hosted by Mountain Shire Books & Gifts.
Egypt’s Fire is the first book in a middle-grade series following John’s eccentric adventures as he solves crime alongside Detective Toadius McGee. John, an orphan living in New York’s Museum of Natural History, is framed for stealing a “cursed” ruby from the museum’s Egyptian exhibit. John teams up with Detective Toadius, who believes the ruby was stolen by a criminal mastermind, to clear his name and find the real thief. Egypt’s Fire, geared to kids ages 8-13, follows in the likes of “A Series of Unfortunate Events.”
During the event’s Q&A session, a reader asked Phillips how he came up with the idea for the book. Phillips is originally from Grand County, but once lived in New York City. The setting of Egypt’s Fire is New York’s American Museum of Natural History, which Phillips frequently visited. One day, he overheard a child visiting the museum exclaim, “I wanna live in a museum, in the ceiling!” Phillips decided, “there’s my book.”
Another reader asked Phillips, “What’s the most enjoyable part of writing a book?”
“The most enjoyable part of this whole journey has been coming here,” Phillips answered. “I know most of you, some of you (were my) teachers. I know you’re like, “Oh my gosh, that kid can read!”
He pointed out his former fourth grade teacher from Grand Lake Elementary, Jan Wharton, in the crowd. “If weren’t for her, I’d probably still be in the fourth grade,” he joked.
In an interview with Sky-Hi News, Phillips said he had a lot of fun writing the book. “It’s such a cool age range to write for. They’re so smart, so you don’t have to dumb anything down, but they’re also super silly,” Phillips said. “They’re up for anything, so it’s really fun to write a zany adventure …that pushes their reading level.”
Phillips added he wrote the book with reluctant readers in mind, so they can become immersed in the story. He explained that for kids, the crazier and more creative a story, the better. Egypt’s Fire is bizarre and inventive, keeping kids on their toes as their fingers turn the pages, eager to read what happens next.
“Once you get through the first chapter, the book doesn’t stop till the end. The kids really love that, it makes them want to finish it. … There’s an umbrella fight on the Chrysler building, there’s a car chase involving a dog, motorcycle, horse-drawn carriage and banana truck!” Phillips said, describing the book’s zaniest scenes.
Egypt’s Fire is the first in a 12-book series. Phillips has already mapped out his characters’ future adventures. Each book is a different play on the mystery genre.
“The first book is a museum jewel thief caper. The second one is a murder on a ship, the third one is like India Jones, the fourth one is a prison break. They’re classic plot lines of mystery to introduce kids to the genre,” said Phillips.
The book was published by Penguin Random House, which is part of the “big five” — the country’s five major publishers.
“Being a dyslexic boy who barely graduated high school, now having a book being published around the world by one of big five publishers is insane!” Philips said. “I’m still like, am I dreaming? It’s been amazing.”
Although his main character John isn’t dyslexic, Phillips wanted John to feel the same struggles he and other students often do, trapped in an learning environment that might not nurture them. Because John lives in the museum, he can’t attend school.
“He didn’t feel smart, and felt left out, but he really is smart,” Phillips said.
Phillips hope his book will encourage children to embrace their own reading style.
“Our ultimate goal is to get books into kids’ hands … it’s about helping kids become self-selecting readers. If you don’t like my book, you’ll like a book,” he said.
Phillips is also inspired to write by his love for libraries. “When I was growing up, I relied on the libraries. … It was really nice having librarians that cared so much,” he said. At the event, people could purchase a book, then put it in a donation box to go to local libraries.
Phillips said another person who inspired his writings is his father, who once worked as a security guard for the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, another reason Phillips chose a museum for the setting of his book. His book’s dedication reads, “For Big Tom, the greatest father who ever lived.”
Phillips explained that Detective Toadius becomes a father figure to orphaned John.
“It’s a story about found family, fathers and sons,” Phillips said. “I had a really strong father figure. My dad was literally the coolest man alive. He was like a hero in Grand County. There’s so many people that loved him.”
Phillips currently lives in Los Angeles, where he is an artist and video editor for companies such as HBO and Disney. Although Phillips has lived in the country’s biggest metropolises, his real roots are here in Grand County.
“You can take the boy out of the mountains, but you can’t take the mountains out of the boy,” Phillips said. He was born and raised in Grand Lake, where his parents owned a marina. When they sold the marina, they built the movie theater that was once in Granby.
“It’s interesting living in giant metropolis and being from a town of like 500 people,” Phillips said, recalling that were more people in his New York apartment complex than the entire town of Grand Lake.
Phillips explained that living in Grand taught him “how you treat people, how you look people in the eyes, and how far a handshake will go. The integrity that you learn in a small town builds success in other places. … I don’t think I’d be successful in my life if it weren’t for the community and the lessons I learned in Grand County.”
Phillips also reflected on Grand’s resilient response to the devastating 2020 East Troublesome Fire.
“There are phenomenal people that live in that county. They have a way of coming together when they really need it. The outpouring of support for each other…I wish the rest of the world could have that kind of value,” Phillips said.
Even though you can buy Egypt’s Fire anywhere, including Amazon.com, Phillips encourages residents to shop local and purchase their book from Mountain Shire.
“We came to Mountain Shire because we want people to spend their money in Grand County. That’s why we’re doing the library donation box too,” he said. “When I was growing up, we didn’t have a bookstore here, so it’s cool that we have one now. Yeah, you can buy a book online, but there’s something about walking into a store with shelves of books that really opens up a child’s imagination. I’m so happy that (the owner) Miriam opened this store. It’s beautiful, she has everything, all my favorite books are here.”
For people who have may missed the event, they can still purchase Egypt’s Fire to support their community bookstore. Please visit Mountain Shire’s location in Cooper Creek, or go online to BookShop.org/shop/mountainshirebooks to purchase a copy of Phillip’s book and dive into the mystery at the Museum.
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