On a sunny Thursday afternoon in Parramore, students from the Academic Center for Excellence’s book club are eating Gringos Locos tacos in the school’s pavilion with author Matthew Laurence ‘07 . In his novel, Freya, a reference to the taco shop’s large moustache logo is one of several nods to Laurence’s time attending UCF’s Florida Interactive Entertainment Academy in downtown Orlando.
Laurence, who is a creative manager for Ubisoft Abu Dhabi Studio, is fresh off his 16-hour flight from the Middle East. An avid reader himself, he felt the trip was worth it to share his story and a message of hope with the book club’s students.
“I love Orlando, and the fact that someone would actually want to talk about the book is incredibly flattering,” Laurence said. “It can be a really long road before you get anything that you really want. And that’s a great lesson for them, even if they never want to write a word.”
In August 2017, ACE opened adjacent to the Center for Emerging Media, which houses the Florida Interactive Entertainment Academy, one of the nation’s top video gaming graduate schools. Looking for ways to connect with the PreK – 8 school, FIEA reached out to donate several dozen copies of Laurence’s book and offered to have the author speak at the school. Librarian Kelly Delaney ’02 jumped at the opportunity.
“One of my aspirations here is to really build a culture of reading,” Delaney said at the event. “In this community, sometimes it’s hard to get [the students] off-site. So, if [partners are] willing to come here … it opens up their world to other opportunities.”
The book club was formed for middle schoolers at ACE, but Delaney has noticed some 5th graders who snuck into the club – a positive sign that the students have a growing interest in reading. The school is already working closely with Page 15, an Orlando nonprofit dedicated to growing and enriching educational and literary arts programs. Page 15 hosts an after-school Young Writers Society at the Downtown Recreation Complex in Parramore and held a Young Writers Camp  at the Center for Emerging Media this past summer.
As the book club moves into the library, students eagerly show Laurence their own creative work. One student opens his notebook and points to a sketch.
“I just had my 35th birthday and you’re already a better artist than I am,” Laurence replies. The student smiles widely as he finds his seat.
Laurence sits towards to the front of the room and explains the process of writing his book.
“Freya took six years from actually writing to showing up on a shelf,” he tells the young readers.
The students’ eyes grow large, shocked at the timeline. Mary, a 6th grader at ACE, quickly raises her hand. Laurence calls on her. “Why did it take you so long?” she asks.
“I worked on it and it got better,” he replies.
Laurence fields several questions from the audience – some about the plot for the story and his references to Disney princesses. Others suggest to Laurence that he write more books about his main character Freya.
“The best writers can take a lot of feedback,” Laurence tells the group. “You can’t have a big ego about it.”
After the group breaks up, Mary shares that she, too, wants to become an author. “I’m already writing [a book],” she said. When asked what she likes about book club, she replies “We get to read different types of books. And more books can give you ideas about what you want to write.”
As the time with Laurence draws to a close, the students leap from their chairs, yearning to be first in line for the book signing. He asks each of them for their name and encourages the students to keep reading and writing, improving their work along the way.
The students depart, thanking Delaney and Laurence for a fun afternoon. As Delaney cleans up the room and puts chairs back into place, she shares why events like these are important.
“Schools succeed in communities where the community feels a part of their school,” Delaney said. “We’re not just a big building in this community – a separate entity. We want families, churches, and other partners in here building relationships. It helps kids see that they’re a part of a bigger community and that there are other resources available to them.”