Luis C. Gaitan grew up in East Camden knowing of few — if any — books about kids like him. Or neighborhoods like his.
So when his friend Martha Freeman, the children’s fiction writer, sought to create a character based on the vivid stories he’d told her about his childhood, Gaitan agreed to help.
The result is a mystery, adventure, and lively slice of urban life called Zap!
“I thought it would be wonderful for a brown kid in Camden to read a story about a fellow brown person,” said Gaitan, 29, a distance runner and transportation engineer who works in Cherry Hill.
Published in February by Simon & Schuster, Zap! describes how 11-year-old Luis Cardenal and his best friend, Maura, pretty much save Hampton, N.J., after a mysterious marathon power failure nearly brings the city to its knees.
The brisk and often funny novel is political without being polemical, educational without being didactic. It is aimed at middle school-age readers, but I enjoyed it, too.
I was particularly impressed by the fact that the collaboration between a skillful writer and an insightful source yielded an entertaining work of children’s fiction far more credible than some of those “Camden-is-hell” pieces by journalists.
Like the Rolling Stone piece from 2013 that still sticks in Gaitan’s craw.
“They basically said Camden is an inferno,” he said. “But I wouldn’t be the person I am without some of the [experiences] that are unique to here.”
I met Freeman and Gaitan last week during a visit to his old neighborhood.
“The bodega was right here on the corner,” he said as he and the author strolled near 24th and Howell Streets.
The corner grocery store — called Señora Alvaro’s in the book — is gone, as are a number of rowhouses he remembered.
Some of them were home to families like his. Others were vacant and dangerous; abandoned properties are essential to the plot of Zap!
(Have no fear. No spoilers ahead.)
“When I was growing up, some of the same neighbors were living here,” said Gaitan. “Even if you didn’t know their names, they watched out for all the kids on the block. I was trying to stay out of trouble, and I wanted to get out of Camden. It’s an old story.”
“You worked really hard, Luis,” said Freeman. “It says so in the book!”
A prolific and respected author of children’s fiction, Freeman, 62, hails from Whittier, Calif. She lives in South Philly and met Gaitan through a running club there.
“I used to be a reporter, and for me, it’s write or die,” she said. “I’m always casting around for the next idea. I think Luis is interesting. And there need to be more books about kids who aren’t little white kids.”
To help avoid the appearance of cultural appropriation, Gaitan wrote an afterword for the book. “I have given all my permissions,” he said. “These are my experiences. I trusted Martha enough not to have worries, and when I read the draft, I said, ‘This is true.’ ”
Freeman changed the name of the city, and the setting is contemporary, rather than the 1990s of Gaitan’s formative years. Books set in other eras are a tough sell to the middle-schooler market, she said.
But the character of Luis is very much drawn from life.
Gaitan “is tenacious,” said Freeman, a runner for 44 years. “It’s a characteristic of runners. Too stubborn to stop.”
The fictional Luis also is a smart and savvy kid who goes everywhere on his bike, knows every block (and seemingly everyone) in his community, and loves to figure our how things work. Just like his real-life counterpart.
Gaitan, whose parents, Carlos and Esperanza, emigrated from Nicaragua in 1980, loved to take apart and then attempt to reassemble household devices. Like the vacuum cleaner, as his mother discovered to her dismay.
A 2006 graduate of Camden Catholic High School, where he ran cross-country, Gaitan earned undergraduate and graduate degrees in engineering from Villanova and Rowan Universities. He also served with the Navy in Afghanistan.
After returning to civilian life, he settled in Philly. But the city he once was determined to leave kept calling to him.
Last year, he decided to buy a house in North Camden, in part because it offers good access to the Benjamin Franklin Bridge and to the emerging regional Circuit Trails network.
After coaching for the Philadelphia nonprofit Students Run Philly Style, he was asked to lead a similar program in his hometown. I Run This City: Camden NJ has about 14 middle school-age kids from his alma mater, St. Anthony’s in Cramer Hill.
The coach said he plans to give copies of the book to his runners.
“Some of them might think it’s corny that their coach is in a children’s book,” he said. “But they’ll appreciate that this person they know is the protagonist.”
Rolling Stone exposes may come and go.
But Luis Gaitan — like his fictional alter-ego — has a different Camden story to tell.