Isaiah Campbell: Writing the Forgotten Heroes of History

Some ideas are worth fighting for—just ask Isaiah Campbell. More than a decade ago, he set out to write his first book, a story about a kid who gets caught up in the events of the Cuban Missile Crisis.

“I was not a fast writer,” laughs Isaiah. “I’ve been writing and telling stories since I was a kid, but I didn’t have the skills back then to refine and revise my ideas.”

Seeking a better understanding of craft, Isaiah enrolled in Full Sail’s Creative Writing MFA program. Suddenly, he found tools at his disposal that made writing less of a struggle and more of a linear process.

“I learned that it’s helpful to know your story structure before you start writing—beyond a simple beginning, middle, and end. I used to get lost in my own writing. Now, I understand the elements of storytelling and how they are going to play out before I write my first line,” he says.

Something else the program instilled in Isaiah was the importance of constructive feedback. After finishing a first draft of the novel, he decided to post the opening chapter on an online writing forum as a way to facilitate more collaborative input. The chapter caught the attention of Marietta Zacker, a literary agent who represents the likes of Rick Riordan (Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief) among others. Using her contacts, Marietta was able to land Isaiah a contract with major publishing house Simon & Schuster.

“That was very fortunate for me,” says Isaiah. “But Marietta has always said that you have to have good writing up front. Good writing attracts good agents, and a good agent can sell your stuff to good publishers. I didn’t want to be lazy about my writing. I was willing to put myself out there and take critique, and that’s what ultimately lead to my book deal.”

Isaiah’s first book, The Troubles of Johnny Cannon, dropped in October of 2014. With his newfound arsenal of tools, Isaiah was able to complete his second book, The Struggles of Johnny Cannon, in just three months. A third novel, Abrakapow, is set to be released in November.

Set in 1961, the Johnny Cannon series follows the trials and tribulations of Johnny, a sixth grader living in rural Alabama during the height of the Cold War. Johnny’s older brother is an Air Force pilot who goes missing during a secret mission to Cuba. To complicate matters, the appearance of an old family friend sends Johnny’s father spiraling down a path that may or may not lead to treason.

Though they are written for children, the books don’t shy away from some of the heavier themes that marked the 1960’s, mostly war and civil rights. Isaiah says he’s always been drawn to stories that give a voice to the disenfranchised. He’s interested in telling stories that might otherwise be forgotten or overshadowed by more prevalent or widely known historical events. This proclivity for giving a voice to the forgotten heroes of history is also a motivating factor in his decision to write for a middle grade audience.

“Kids are full of belief and wonder, especially when it comes to heroes. An adult might read a story about the Bay of Pigs Invasion and view it as a failed military maneuver. But there were many brave men and women behind that event who exhibited heroism, and that deserves to be honored. Kids see past the success or failure to that heroism.”

“So many of the books that changed my life were stories I read as a kid,” he continues. “Things like The Wizard of Oz, To Kill a Mockingbird, and Huckleberry Finn all featured child protagonists and were deeply impactful to my development. That’s why I’ve always seen YA as the most valuable genre of literature—because a book can actually change the direction of a kid’s life.”

Despite his success (or maybe because of it), Isaiah continues seeking new opportunities to broaden his horizons. In addition to pitching new ideas for children’s books, he’s currently writing for a few web series and game projects. He says it’s important to diversify output wherever you can in order to stay sharp and competitive in a growing market. He also enjoys spending time with his family, and reading as much as he can in his down time.

“It’s easy to get discouraged as a writer,” he says. “Writing by nature is a very lonely venture. That’s why it’s important to expose yourself to the work of others and cultivate a life outside of writing. To me, that’s the best way I’ve found to beat discouragement.”