Ryan Mayer's original plan was to write a mystery novel for adults influenced, in part, by his experience as a police officer in New Jersey.
Mayer got to work on the book when he was on leave from his job in 2008 to recuperate from a serious arm injury. He'd spend 10 to 12 hours a day with his laptop, punching away at his book. His three daughters, all six and under at the time, wanted in on the fun too. So he put them to work on their own book.
It started with colored paper and crayons until one of his daughters complained they wanted to make a real book - not one with construction paper pages.
So they decided to take it another step and make writing a book a family project. The family, including mom Nicole, a substitute teacher, talked about the important parts of a story and started writing it together.
They contacted an old friend, Russ Simmons, who had done graphic design work for the couple when they owned a nutrition store. He created colorful, cartoony pictures for the book, which personalized the letters of the alphabet. The Mayers printed four copies of that first book as a keepsake for their kids. They expected it would end there.
But during a trip through a New Jersey mall to give one of the books to Simmons, a woman stopped Mayer and asked him where he got the book. She flipped through the pages, complimenting the story and illustrations. That's when Ryan wondered if maybe the family wasn't on to something.
That moment was the unofficial beginning of Alphabetown USA, a series of books that focus on letter recognition, early reading skills and life lessons and published by the couple, who now live in Rolesville.
Nicole sat down and edited the original book, sharing it with teachers and staff at children's bookstores for critiques. They made a lot of changes, but also got a lot of positive feedback for what became "Where is Ziggy." The couple even sent it to the New York Book Festival where it received an honorable mention in 2009 for best new children's book.
The Mayers looked for somebody to publish the book but, as they say, got "a million rejection letters." Then Ryan was laid off from his job as a police officer in June 2010.
Hoping to make book writing a business, on their own, the couple printed copies of "Where is Ziggy," which tells the story of Ziggy, the missing letter Z and why he's so important. They traveled to festivals and other events to get the word out about the book. But, the family, like so many in the last few years, struggled.
They eventually moved to Rolesville, hoping for a fresh start and a job for Ryan though, so far, one hasn't come. Ryan and Nicole hope the book series will take off.
Last Christmas, they got a big boost. A family friend and business owner took a look at "Where is Ziggy" and agreed to invest in the business. The money has allowed the Mayers to print three more books - "Hannah's Homework" and "Catena Goes Camping." A fourth book - "Madison's Magical Adventure" - will come out next month.
Their three daughters - nine-year-old Hannah, seven-year-old Madison and six-year-old Ava - help come up with story ideas and write. They also participate in book readings. The Mayers also have an 18-year-old son.
It's been fun," Mayer said. "It's created a lot of grays. It's stressful, but it's been fun. Especially for the kids to be involved."
The book is now sold at some Barnes & Noble locations and its online store, along with specialty stores in New Jersey and North Carolina. And the Mayers have teamed up with charities, including Alex's Lemonade Stand, to donate some proceeds from their books.
The Mayers have more to come, including a possible spin-off. They've formed their own publishing company, Beaner Books, and are considering helping other writers.
For the family, writing the stories together is the part they most look forward too.
"The writing - that's the fun part," Nicole said.
For more about the series, go to Alphabetown's website and watch my video interview with Ryan and Nicole Mayer.
The Mayers also have launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise $7,000 to publish additional books. Click here for details.
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