PJ Haarsma in 2015
June 5, 1964
Georgetown, Ontario, Canada
|Citizenship||Dual citizen of Canada and United States|
|Period||2006 to the present|
|Genre||Young-adult science fiction|
|Notable works||The Softwire Series:
Virus on Orbis 1
Betrayal on Orbis 2
Wormhole Pirates on Orbis 3
|Notable awards||ABC New Voices in Children's Literature Award
2008 The Softwire
Philip-Jon Haarsma //, more commonly known as PJ Haarsma, is a Canadian born science fiction author best known for his creation of the Rings of Orbis universe, which encompasses The Softwire series of books. Haarsma created a free, online role-playing game, also called the Rings of Orbis, set in the same universe. Both the book-series and the game target young, often reluctant readers in an attempt to encourage them by rewarding them for reading.
Haarsma developed a school presentation program in which he discusses The Softwire books, astronomy, and other science fiction and science fact topics. He is also one of the co-founders of Kids Need to Read, a United States Internal Revenue Code 501(c)(3) tax exempt public charity that purchases books to donate to underfunded schools and libraries.
Philip-Jon Haarsma was born on June 5, 1964, in Georgetown, Ontario. Though he was named after his grandfathers, Philip and Jon, he went simply by "Jon" while growing up. Later, while attending McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, where he received a Bachelor of Science degree, he began to use his initials, "PJ", and his books are published under the name "PJ Haarsma".
After he moved to the United States in 1989, Haarsma worked as a fashion and commercial photographer in New York City and Miami. He received many photography awards, including an honorable mention at the Cannes Lion Awards in 1996. Haarsma owned a small production company called Redbear Films, Inc. The company produced one movie (Devious Beings, 2002), and a digital series called Con Man starring Alan Tudyk and Nathan Fillion and several corporate ads for clients such as Hewlett Packard and Nokia. For 15 years, Redbear Films focused on the production of advertisements.
Con Man (web series)
Rings of Orbis
At the age of 38, Haarsma was not satisfied with his professional life. He began to keep a daily journal, writing about anything (and everything) that came to his mind—until eventually "Johnny T came onto [his] page." Johnny T is the main character, Johnny Turnbull, of Haarsma's The Softwire series. Haarsma chose to give The Softwire a sci-fi setting due to a love of science fiction, and to target a young adult audience with his novels so that children could discover and learn to enjoy the genre.
The Softwire is actually a story that Haarsma began imagining in his childhood. As a teenager, he worked at his parents' ceramic factory during the summers, hauling fifty pound molds around in the extreme heat of a kiln room. To Haarsma, it felt similar to what the children of his books might feel as slaves. In addition to these experiences, there is a more prominent influence on the premise of The Softwire—that is, there is a mystery of a journey to a new, unknown place to start a new life. Growing up, Haarsma dreamed of moving to the United States; and in his twenties, he actually did. While there, living in New York, Miami, San Francisco and Los Angeles, Haarsma witnessed immigrants struggling to get by. He tried to imagine what caused them to risk everything, and to move to another country, and to have a chance at something better. It is this journey (and struggle) that is prevalent in The Softwire.
In The Softwire, a group of human children are orphaned in outer space. They are forced into indentured servitude on the Rings of Orbis, four planet-like rings around a wormhole. They must spend four years as slaves or knudniks before they are eligible to become Citizens. Each year they are the property of a new owner on a separate ring: Orbis 1, Orbis 2, Orbis 3, and Orbis 4. They are forced into labor to do whatever task their new owner requires.
For me, The Softwire, when I was writing it, I was really thinking about a lot of the questions I thought about as I was growing up, that I've always had. One of them was "Why are we here?" Another one is "Why are we staying here?"
When the children arrive, they soon discover that thirteen-year-old Johnny Turnbull (JT), is the first human softwire, a boy who has the ability to enter any computer with just his mind. To the older Citizens, a slave who can enter at will the massive computer which controls the Rings of Orbis makes JT very valuable and drives the Rings to the brink of war. As the central computer begins to malfunction, the Citizens connive, conspire, and even kill to own JT and his sister.
While there are other humans besides the children on the Rings, the majority of the inhabitants are of alien species. The Keepers are an intelligent species of two-headed beings who act as the overseers. Other species encountered include Belarans, Choi, Solinns, and Trefaldoors, all of which become interesting roles for young players to choose from in the game, Rings of Orbis.
Rings of Orbis game
Haarsma's novels are accompanied by a free, online, role-playing game called Rings of Orbis which acts as a visual companion to the books and is set in the same universe. Players are sometimes required to use information from the books in order to solve puzzles and to unlock areas within the game. Pairing a video game with a novel for young readers, Haarsma says, “brings the book into their world, as opposed to going the other way around.” 
Haarsma and a team of artists also created many different alien races specifically for the game. The team includes Haarsma's wife Marisa Grieco, Igor Knezevic, Stephan Martinière, Dwayne Harris, and Neil Blevins.
The game works to encourage reluctant readers, especially boys, by giving them an interactive game through which to relate to the mysteries found within the books themselves. Players complete quests and earn in-game currency which they can then spend on in-game items designed by Haarsma, all the while they compete to become the best Citizen of the Rings of Orbis. In 2008, the game was featured in a front page New York Times article about encouraging reluctant readers with video games.
Promotion of literacy
Kids Need to Read
While speaking at schools across the United States, Haarsma noticed how some school librarians were having trouble finding funds to purchase The Softwire books after a demand had been created by Haarsma's visit. Many of the librarians were struggling to fill their shelves with books. In June 2007, Haarsma and a friend, actor Nathan Fillion, approached a group of Fillion's fans with the idea for a project that would work to purchase books for underfunded schools, as well as nonprofit institutions which gave books directly to children. The group took to the idea and focused their energies into getting the project off the ground. The Kids Need to Read project went public in August 2007.
In January 2008, the process to transform the project into a legal foundation began, and the fan group was separated from the developing organization. On May 22, 2008, The Kids Need to Read Foundation (KNTR) was incorporated in the state of California. KNTR became an Internal Revenue Code 501(c)(3) tax exempt public charity on September 18, 2008, with a retroactive exemption date of May 22, 2008. The organization is supported by a global volunteer base.
Funds were initially raised through eBay auctions of Firefly and Serenity autographed memorabilia, and The Softwire books and items, and other science fiction and literary themed items. Fundraising efforts have since expanded and all funds are used to purchase books from the foundation's official book list, a list which is continually updated by a professional children's book buyer. The titles chosen are well-reviewed and many are recommended for children who are reluctant readers.
KNTR has made book donations to forty-one schools and libraries in addition to three multiple library systems. KNTR facilitated a substantial donation of three thousand books by the Phoenix Book Company to the Friends of the New Orleans Public Library, to help with recuperation after Hurricane Katrina. The Odessa Brown Children's Clinic in Seattle was the recipient of a donation amounting to four hundred forty books in February 2008. This clinic, as well as the North Public Health Clinic in Seattle, have received recurring donations from KNTR.
Haarsma remains on the KNTR Advisory Board as founder and consultant for literacy-based activities. By using his position as a young-adult fiction author, Haarsma helps bring attention, support, and funds to the organization.
PJ captures any audience with his energy. He begins a presentation on Earth and everyone in the audience lands on Orbis with him. Students and teachers continue to ask questions long afterwards. Priceless reading motivation!
Haarsma takes part in school visits to promote his book and encourage imagination and reading in the school children. His presentation lasts fifty minutes, and discussions center around space travel, exploration, The Rings of Orbis universe, and other interactive topics, thus allowing for questions from the students at the conclusion. To help illustrate the scientific topics, NASA supplied Haarsma with space related information to present. "PJ Haarsma was inspirational. He visited my school and made my imagination soar. I've already filled up a couple notebooks of stories thanks to him!" Says one child whose school Haarsma visited.
During his presentation, Haarsma involves the children in various interactive activities. These include a Hollywood-style acting audition, an alien ghost story, and a demonstration of the vast distances in space. The activities are designed to engage the children's imaginations and to make them feel a part of the presentation.
The responses to his visits from both students and teachers are positive. The majority of the feedback involves praise and thanks. Haarsma has received many stories of previously reluctant readers being observed reading The Softwire books during school recess.
The author visit by PJ Haarsma was a lot of fun. He knows astronomy, technology, and how to get young adults interested in what he’s talking about. Librarians, a warning — you’ll need to order more books. Mine are all checked out and on hold.
- The Softwire series: ABC (Association of Booksellers for Children) New Voices in Children's Literature Award 2008
- Virus on Orbis 1: 2006 Cybil Award nominee, Flamingnet Top Choice Award, SCASL Junior Book Award nominee, ALA (American Library Association) Quick Picks for Reluctant Young Adult Readers Nomination 2008, Great Stone Face Children’s Book Award Nomination (Children's Librarians of New Hampshire) 2008-2009, Hal Clement Award for Young Adult Finalist 2007
- Betrayal on Orbis 2: 2008 Cybil Award nominee, ALA (American Library Association) Quick Picks for Reluctant Young Adult Readers Nomination 2009
Books in The Softwire series scheduled for publication by Candlewick Press (Each book corresponds to one year on each ring that the children must endure as slaves).
- The Softwire Series
- Virus on Orbis 1, Candlewick Press, 2006 hardcover ISBN 978-0-7636-2709-6 paperback ISBN 978-0-7636-3638-8
- Betrayal on Orbis 2, Candlewick Press, 2008 hardcover ISBN 978-0-7636-2710-2
- Wormhole Pirates on Orbis 3, Candlewick Press, 2009 hardcover ISBN 978-0-7636-2711-9
- Awakening on Orbis 4, Candlewick Press, March 2010 hardcover ISBN 978-0-7636-2712-6
- Rich, Motoko (5 October 2008). "Using Video Games as Bait to Hook Readers". The New York Times. Retrieved 21 November 2008.
- "PJ Haarsma: Author of The Softwire Series.". 2008. Retrieved 28 November 2008.
- ""The Softwire: Virus on Orbis 1" Discussion Guide" (PDF). Candlewick Press. 2006. p. 5. Retrieved 28 November 2008.
- "Devious Beings". Internet Movie Database. Retrieved 26 November 2008.
- "Marisa Grieco: Sci-fi Fantasy Artist". www.marisagrieco.com. Retrieved 2009-01-30.
- Horn, Steven (4 October 2006). "Interview: PJ Haarsma". IGN Entertainment. pp. 1–2. Retrieved 26 November 2008.
- "Video Games as Literature Bait" (mp3). Radio New Zealand National. 21 November 2008. Retrieved 27 November 2008.
- Horn, Steven (2007-08-11). "Exclusive: Nathan Fillion Interviews PJ Haarsma". IGN Entertainment. p. 2. Retrieved 26 November 2008.
- "The Softwire's Rings of Orbis: A sci-fi role playing game based on the novel. Meet Friends. Play Games". www.ringsoforbis.com. Retrieved 2009-01-30.
- "Rings of Orbis profile chooser". Redbear Films, Inc. Retrieved 28 November 2008.
- "The Softwire's Rings of Orbis: A sci-fi role playing game based on the novel. Meet Friends. Play Games". www.ringsoforbis.com. Retrieved 2009-01-03.
- Bernick-Steele, Phil, Rhonda, and Galen (November 2007). "Interview With P. J . Haarsma". Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literature. Retrieved 27 November 2008.
- "Flare Group - Gallery of Computer Graphics and Illustration by Igor Knezevic". www.flaregroup.com. Retrieved 2009-01-30.
- "dwayneharris.com". www.dwayneharris.com. Retrieved 2009-01-30.
- "NeilBlevins.com". www.neilblevins.com. Retrieved 2009-01-30.
- "Rings of Orbis: About". November 2008. Retrieved 27 November 2008.
- Kemp, Kym (October 2007). "Fillion "Fills In" Empty Library Shelves with the Help of Friend and Author, PJ Haarsma" (PDF). Big Damn Zine (4): 3, 5. Retrieved 2008-11-27.
- "Kids Need to Read - Giving Children's Books to Libraries in Need". www.kidsneedtoread.org. Retrieved 2009-01-30.
- "Kids Need to Read Foundation official book list". Kids Need to Read Foundation. 2008. Archived from the original on 22 October 2008. Retrieved 28 November 2008.
- "Kids Need to Read Assists in Giving 3,000 Books to New Orleans". The Kids Need to Read Foundation. 1 February 2008. Retrieved 6 December 2008.
- "The Odessa Brown Children’s Clinic Donation". The Kids Need to Read Foundation. 1 May 2008. Retrieved 6 December 2008.
- "KNTR FAQ". The Kids Need to Read Foundation. Retrieved 3 February 2009.
- "KNTR Board of Directors". The Kids Need to Read Foundation. Retrieved 4 February 2009.
- "PJ Haarsma Author Visits". 2008. Retrieved 27 November 2008.
- "School Visit Testimonials". I am a Softwire.com. November 2007. Archived from the original on 1 August 2008. Retrieved 27 November 2008.
- "The Cybils 2006:The Children's and Young Adult Blogger's Literary Awards". 6 November 2006. Retrieved 21 November 2008.
- "Flamingnet New Book Review: The Softwire". Flamingnet Book Reviews. 2006. Retrieved 25 November 2008.
- "2008-2009 SCASL Book Award Nominees" (PDF). South Carolina Associate of School Libraries. 2008. Retrieved 25 November 2008.
- "Great Stone Face Children’s Book Award". Children's Librarians of New Hampshire. 2008. Retrieved 26 November 2008.
- "Hal Clement Award for Young Adult". Golden Duck Awards. 2007. Archived from the original on 27 September 2008. Retrieved 26 November 2008.
- "The Cybils 2008:The Children's and Young Adult Blogger's Literary Awards". 20 October 2008. Retrieved 21 November 2008.