Shawn Stout takes a break from her popular Penelope Crumb series to introduce young readers to Frankie Baum in her engaging new middle grade novel A Tiny Piece of Sky. It is 1939 in Hagerstown, Maryland, and Frankie Baum, the youngest of three sisters, is wondering if her German-born father really is a spy. Newbery Honor and National Book Award-winner, Kathi Appelt raves about this captivating coming-of-age story, “At turns hilarious, at turns heartbreaking, Shawn Stout’s story shows us the damage that a whisper campaign can do to a family and a community, and at the same time shows us, each of us, a way to find our hearts.”
Between the Covers: What was the inspiration behind A Tiny Piece of Sky?
Shawn Stout: A Tiny Piece of Sky was inspired by the lives of my grandparents, Albert and Mildred Beck, and their three daughters, in the 1930s. My grandfather, the son of German parents, was a restaurant owner and businessman in Hagerstown, Maryland, and amidst the post-WWI anti-German hysteria, he was falsely accused of being a Nazi spy. Following those accusations, there was an organized boycott of his restaurant, which sent him and my grandmother into a financial crisis and contributed to my grandfather’s early death.
I grew up listening to my mother’s stories about her family’s restaurant, about the rumors of espionage and about the boycott. Many decades later, after my grandmother died, we were cleaning out her apartment and found letters dated 1939 from local civic organizations, which voiced their support for my grandfather and his restaurant, and denounced the accusations that he was a German spy. I held onto those letters and knew that one day I would write about their story.
BTC: Frankie is Number Three, the youngest of three sisters and yet she is spunky and fun. Is her character autobiographical in any way? The sisterly relationships are so real. Did you draw on real life experience from your own family?
SS: Like Frankie, I’m a Number Three, so I do know what it feels like to be the last to do everything. (It doesn’t feel so great, let me tell you.) I certainly heard a lot of “No, you’re not old enough,” when I was a kid, so I can relate to Frankie’s frustrations. But that’s where our similarities end, I think. Frankie is much more adventurous than I was at her age, and she has a lot more gumption. Gumption. I love that word.
The relationship between the Baum sisters was really fun to write. I don’t think I consciously drew on any experiences from my own life, but it’s hard to say where things come from when I’m writing. Having an older brother and sister, though, has definitely helped shape who I am and made me sensitive to the dynamics between siblings.
BTC: You did an amazing job of capturing the feeling of life in a small city during the war. What kind of research did you do to create this authentic setting? What is your writing process like?
SS: Before I wrote a single word, I read a lot of books about pre-WWII era in the United States, and about anti-German sentiment and the super-patriotism of the time. I listened to radio broadcasts from the 1930s like “The Shadow” and dug up newsreels and local newspaper articles. I also interviewed family members and those few still living who worked at my grandparents’ restaurant in the 1930s. To get a feel for the place, I was able to find photographs dated 1938 of the restaurant and staff, as well as advertising postcards, matchbooks and an original menu.
My writing process is different for each book. For this one, I started out with the research and tried to immerse myself in the period. Then, once I felt as though I had enough of a handle on the time and place, I started writing. I knew I wanted to tell the story mostly through the youngest Baum’s eyes — Frankie’s — so I started with her character until I could find her voice. When I found it, the story started to take off.
BTC: One of the most impressive feats in this book is your ability to address injustice through Frankie’s eyes without preaching. So many children’s books seem to feel a need to teach a lesson and become didactic. How do you let the reader come to his/her own conclusion and avoid lecturing?
SS: That’s a great question. I try to stay inside my characters’ head as much as I can and let them react to what happens in the story as it unfolds. Honestly, as I’m writing, I’m rarely thinking about the reader — my focus is on the story and the characters — so the idea of teaching lessons or morals doesn’t ever occur to me. I learn so much about the world through my characters as I’m writing, so there’s no place for me, as the author, to preach to anyone.
BTC: What were some of your favorite books as a child and what do you tell children who ask for advice on how to be a writer?
SS: My favorite book as a child was The Secret Garden, but I read everything I could get my hands on. I was also in love with Beverly Cleary’s Ramona series. I still am, actually.
BTC: Will you share with our readers some of your favorite things about living in Maryland?
SS: I grew up in Maryland and continue to love living here for many reasons — watching the seasons change, being close to both the mountains and the ocean and the Chesapeake Bay, and enjoying its eclectic cities. Maryland has so much to offer. I’ve lived here all my life and still haven’t explored everything.
BTC: What can your fans look forward to next?
SS: I’m working on a new middle grade novel, but it’s too early in the process to talk about it in very much detail. I will say that it has to do with a lonely girl, an unkindness of ravens and a bit of old magic.