Skip to main content

Young readers 'game' for Sci-fi series

June 11, 2009

Knud-niks, Neewalkers, O-dats, Keepers and holographic rooms. Aliens with two heads, security drones and food that comes in pills.

These are some of the characters and objects that young readers will find in The Softwire series of novels by PJ Haarsma – and on the corresponding Softwire video game that is free to anyone with a computer.

What do they all mean?

Soon, all of the terms and characters in Haarsma’s novels about 13-year-old Johnny Turnbull (JT), a human "softwire" who can interact with computers and finds himself living on Orbis, a community in outer space, will be catalogued and explained – by teenagers who live on the Earth, in Chandler, Arizona.

Haarsma’s “catalogers” are students at Basha High School in Chandler, who are all fans of the author’s sci-fi books for youth. They’ve created a Wiki about the Softwire novels that soon will be open for anyone to visit and add to.

The students, their Wiki and Haarsma are linked to ASU through James Blasingame, an associate professor of English in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences who is a specialist in young-adult literature – and a Softwire fan – and Peter Goggin, a literary theory specialist and associate professor at ASU.

Blasingame and Goggin recently invited Haarsma to join the Basha students and Basha teachers Devon Adams and Kerri Mathew at ASU's Decision Theater as the students unveiled their Wiki for the first time in public.

The whole project is part of a "plot" to get students to read, said Blasingame.

"We and PJ have been working with local schools for the past two years to learn whether playing a video game would inspire young students to do more reading," Blasingame said. "We wanted find out whether students would understand their reading better if it were coupled with a video game that let the young readers actually go inside the story and become a new character of their own creation."

Based on the enthusiasm of the students from Basha High School, the idea of a book-game duo is a hit.

Taylor Collins, who will be a junior next year and is one of the Wiki developers, said, "I love the Softwire series because it is a safe, enjoyable, wondrous and incredible place for myself and my younger friends and siblings to explore, and because I know PJ Haarsma to have the best intent in their creation.

"I respect both his motives, and his writing ability, which is why I found myself beginning this Wiki with several of my friends. After PJ's visit to our high school we found the drive to delve deeper into his series, creating an catalogue of characters, events, and elements of his books. Mr. Haarsma's series is one of the few I've found that I can pick up any time, anywhere to enjoy; the same applies to the creation of the Wiki."
Corbin Averett, another of the Wiki creators, and also a junior, said, "I like the books because they create another world in my mind with amazing concepts that are well explained. The imagery is incredible, and it helps to paint the picture.

"I came to help create the Wiki when PJ came to Basha and talked of making the lexicon. Then Mr. Adams and Miss Mathews started the Wiki and I was excited."

Adams said interest in the Softwire books is high at Basha. "Almost 30 students from grades 9-12 have joined the Wiki site and have been adding to the Lexicon, but more read the series and contribute by other means. I believe the last count was 41, but I'm sure that the number has changed."

Haarsma, who began to write at age 38 after he became bored with his career as the owner of a film production company, seems as "wired up" about his books and videos -- and his future plans -- as his Softwire character JT.

He has plans to change the way kids read -- and "to change the way literature is distributed in the world."

"Kids walk into bookstores and see hundreds of books to choose from. It's not that kids don't read, but kids don't know what to read."

Haarsma wants to provide multiple points of access to books, from picking them up in libraries and bookstores to putting them online with games to entice them.

"I will give you three chapters, and you don't have to buy the whole book," he said. "I'm creating a virtual literary network disguised as a game to get kids to read. What if all my readers are on-line?"

Haarsma already has a business plan for his book distribution model, which, he says, cuts out the publishers all together. He has pitched his idea to a movie production company ("They get it, he said) and is waiting for their answer.

Meanwhile, he has invested a quarter million dollars of his own money. "Will I fall flat on my face? Maybe, but I'm having fun," he said.

Haarsma is also working on the fourth book in the Softwire series, and has ideas for comic-book versions of books five through eight.

Between creating his virtual literary network, writing more books, visiting schools and thinking of new plots for books, he lives a whirlwind life of both body and mind.

"The hard part is finding the time to sit down and write," he said.

For more information about the Wiki, go to