When fifth-grade teacher Scott Starkey set out to write his first of three novels for students, he took a trip down memory lane with his 11-year-old self.
"I knew I wanted to create the kind of book that would appeal to me as an 11-year-old," Starkey, 43, said. "I wanted to include the witty heroes and nasty villains kids crave."
Starkey said numerous failed attempts to find books "funny and full of action" with the suspense, adventure, humor and a dash of irreverence that students like inspired his trio of books: "How to Beat the Bully Without Really Trying," "The Call of the Bully" and "Revenge of the Bully."
Tackling a real-life issue
His novels -- written over the past three years -- revolve around the exploits of Rodney Rathbone, a fifth-grader who constantly faces crises trying to evade two bullies, Josh and Toby, at his school.
Rodney is a self-described coward, but through lucky coincidences, he gains a reputation as a tough guy who emerges a hero from all the pitfalls the bullies devise.
Sales indicate the books -- published by Simon & Schuster and priced from $5.99 to $16.99 -- stimulate reading among students. The most popular and first book in the series, "How to Beat the Bully," has sold 100,000 copies, Starkey said.
"I hope I've given them a character they can relate to and identify with," he said.
Starkey, who lives in Centerport, has taught at the East Street Elementary School in Hicksville for the past 17 years. Even though he is an avid anti-bullying advocate, Starkey said his aim initially was just to encourage young people to read. Then he had another idea.
"I thought I could do something more, and that's where the bullying idea came in," Starkey says in his blog, "Writing for Reluctant Readers."
One of his students, Dylan Holm, read the first and second books and declared them "excellent. I like the characters," he said. "Rodney is definitely a coward, but he always slips through problems. I like the adventure part."
Lisa Holm, Dylan's mother, said the books are having the effect Starkey hoped for.
"Ever since he started reading these books he's been more interested in reading," she said of Dylan. "This is the first time in a while a book has caught his attention. He read it quickly and couldn't wait to get to the next book."
And he picked up the series' message along the way.
"Bullying is very bad," Dylan said. "You should always tell a teacher or parent; other people may not be as lucky as Rodney."
In several classroom sessions in October, which is national Bullying Prevention Awareness Month, Starkey prepared his students to prevent or cope with bullying situations. On Oct. 20, several of them role-played characters in his books.
Twenty percent of students in grades six through 12 experienced bullying nationwide, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's 2011 Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System. The U.S. Department of Justice says 160,000 kids a day do not attend school for fear of being bullied.
"Children cannot get a quality education if they don't feel safe at school," said Arne Duncan, U.S. secretary of education.
Starkey, who had some childhood run-ins with a bully, said it's an experience best avoided.
"Every child should have a bully-free existence," he said. "The fear, the sadness and depression, it's all negative; it stays with you. I thought it was important to do something to try to stop it."
As a husband, father of three, and coach of the Hicksville High School boys soccer team, how does Starkey find time to write? Usually when everyone else -- wife Judy, a nurse; and children Brooke, 13; Jake, 11; and Brent, 9 -- is asleep.
"I write best early in the morning," said Starkey, who said he rises about 5:45 a.m., with his English bulldog, Fred, at his feet, and works at the dining room table until 6:45 a.m.
A continuing effort
Another book in the bullying series is unlikely, Starkey said, adding that he plans to write more children's books.
In addition to the series, Starkey lectures on bullying and participates in anti-bullying events at school districts on Long Island and in Connecticut.
One of the schools he visits is William DeLuca Elementary School in North Babylon. Jayne Garvin, a teacher and reading specialist there, said Starkey has gotten some students to read more.
"Most of my students are reluctant readers, but a lot of the boys come in looking for his books," Garvin said. "They like the story line. They can really relate to the characters. They fight over who's going to get the books next."
Sue Simon, a social worker in the Hicksville school district, said children gravitate toward Starkey's books.
In his blog, Starkey credits his father, Armstrong Starkey, reading to him as the catalyst for creating a good story. Armstrong Starkey, an author and historian, wrote several scholarly books. Starkey's mother, Joanne Starkey, is a longtime food critic for The New York Times.
"I guess it's because of this early appreciation of a good story that my main goal as a fifth-grade teacher is to get my students to love reading," he said. "In my experience, finding the right book can make all the difference."