Most elementary-age students don't see summer break as an opportunity to work on their next novel, but Jake Mayer is not your average fifth-grader.
Jake's book, "A Tale of Friends, Enemies and Minecraft," has sold more than 14,000 copies on Amazon.com. It tells the story of a boy, based on Jake himself, who plays the video game "Minecraft" with his friends.
How a book written by a 9-year-old Barrington boy came to be so popular is the story of a school assignment, hard work, luck -- in the form of an endorsement by an Internet personality -- and a love for a video game with more than 100 million loyal players.
Boiled to its essence, "Minecraft" players navigate a 3-D world made up entirely of blocks, where they let their creativity run wild constructing all sorts of things -- somewhat like digital Legos. In the world they create they have to stay alive, which involves exploring, combat and gathering resources.
Jake wrote his book as a fourth-grade class project for National Novel Writing Month. He and his classmates in the Extended Program at Hough Street School each cranked out 25,000-word novels in November 2012.
Rather than set his book within a fantasy game world, Jake's hero, Mike Craft, is a regular kid. Throughout the book, Mike Craft goes to school, hangs out with friends and, most importantly, plays "Minecraft."
Because the class was writing for National Novel Writing Month, the kids were invited to put their stories on CreateSpace, an Amazon.com self-publishing service that waived its fees for the students. Buyers can read the novels online or ask for hard copies, which are published on request.
Reviews are encouraged.
"My son hates reading and loves 'Minecraft.' He has worn this book ragged," reads one review of Jake's book.
"'Dad do you know if Jake will write a sequel?' ... My 10-year-old son keeps asking me every few days," reads another. "This is the first book that I saw him read cover to cover. He really could relate to the story and the fact that it was written by someone his age is just amazing."
According to his mother, Jake, now 11, has taken the book's success in stride.
"It hasn't changed Jake at all," Kris Mayer said. "It has always just surprised him that he has fans."
Georgia Nelson, Jakes's fifth-grade teacher and a founder of the Extended Program, said one of their principles behind writing a 25,000-word novel is to challenge bright students so they don't equate being smart with not having to do work.
For comparison, F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby" clocks in at around 49,000 words.
"After this, if you ask a student to write two pages, they say, 'That's nothing,'" she said.
Their novels drafted, the students set to editing their works for publication.
As part of their CreateSpace accounts, students designed their book covers, received their own ISBN numbers and set their own prices. They make a little money whenever their book is purchased.
Nelson said kids usually sell a dozen or so, mostly to family members.
And for a time in June 2012, that's what Jake's book was doing.
Book breaks big
During that first summer the book began to find an audience. Jake sold a few hundred copies to "Minecraft" fans and their parents. In November, Jake's parents, Jim and Kris, took him to MineCon, a "Minecraft" convention in Orlando, where fans gather and celebrate all things about their favorite game.
At the convention center, Jake got to mingle with famous names in the "Minecraft" community, including the game's current designer, Jens Bergensten. He also met people who make "Minecraft" videos on YouTube that routinely get hundreds of thousands of views from rabid fans.
As he met his idols one by one, Jake asked them to sign a copy of his book.
One, a YouTube personality who goes by the handle BeBopVox, was impressed that Jake brought him his novel to sign instead of the usual autograph book. He asked Jake if he could talk about "A Tale of Friends, Enemies and Minecraft" on his popular "Minecraft Monday" community news show.
The Mayers couldn't believe it.
"They lost it," BeBopVox, whose real name is Keith Steinbach, said from his home in Texas. "They were like, 'Are you serious?'"
Steinbach, who grew up in Palatine, was true to his word. He mentioned Jake on an episode soon after they met.
It is impossible to know exactly why more than 10,000 copies of the book were sold in November and December 2013, but being mentioned on a YouTube channel that has more than 490,000 subscribers has to help.
As fate would have it, MineCon started on Nov. 1, 2013, the very day Jake's fifth-grade classmates began work on that year's novel. Not surprisingly, Jake decided to set his sequel at MineCon.
Tentatively titled "A Tale of Friends, Enemies and MineCon," the story follows the adventures of the characters from the first book on a trip to a "Minecraft" convention in Orlando. Jake plans on publishing the sequel on Amazon by the end of June.
Jake clearly has embraced the adage "write about what you know," and it is definitely working for him.
Nelson, his teacher, says Jake's novel was not the best-written book that came out of his class. But it struck a nerve that any author can envy.
"I have adult friends who wish they could find their audience like Jake can," Nelson said.
Kris Mayer said she hopes her son's success inspires others to write about their own passions.
"Jake is really an unlikely author," she said. "He is interested with computers and programming but not the best with the actual writing. The fact that he was able to compose something he really loved from something he really loved doing is the real lesson here.
"He wrote this book because he loves 'Minecraft.' I hope that can inspire some kid who may not think they are a great writer to pick a subject they love and explore it and maybe write a story that other children will love, too."