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.
What would have happened if the author of Frankenstein and the world’s first computer programmer met as girls in early 19th century London? Why, they would have joined forces and become private detectives! Follow along as Mary Shelley and Ada Lovelace sort through a false confession, eliminate some odd suspects and finally solve the mystery of a stolen necklace in The Case of the Missing Moonstone, book one of The Wollstonecraft Detective Agency series by Jordan Stratford.
Brilliant, yet socially inept Ada Bryon is not happy about the departure of her governess and the arrival of her new tutor, Peebs. However, this change does bring to Ada the first true friend she has ever known, the adventurous and kind Mary Godwin. The girls notice the newspaper contains several articles about crime so they decide to form a “private and secret constabulary for the apprehension of clever criminals.” It isn’t long after they run their advertisement for the Wollstonecraft Detective Agency that they accept their first case and begin their adventures.
A host of historical figures, including Charles Dickens and Charles Babbage, make appearances in this fun children’s book. While Stratford has admittedly taken liberties with regards to the timeline (Mary Shelley was actually 18 years older than Ada Lovelace), the setting and character behaviors are historically accurate. A humorous, action-packed story, this book features strong female characters who use math, science and deductive reasoning skills to solve the crime in a vivid, alternative historical setting. I wouldn’t be surprised to find this one on school reading lists this summer.
Wendy McClure’s newest book, On Track for Treasure, is the second installment in the Wanderville series. She has written several books for adults and children including The Wilder Life: My Adventures in the Lost World of Little House on the Prairie, which in 2011 won the Midwest Bookseller’s Choice Award for adult nonfiction. She is also a senior editor at the children’s book publisher Albert Whitman and Company, producing picture books, young adult novels and the popular Boxcar Children Mysteries. She grew up in Oak Park, Illinois, and now lives in Chicago with her husband. Between the Covers recently caught up with her over the holiday season.
Between the Covers: Wanderville ended on a very tense note! Where will we find Jack, Frances, Harold and Alexander as On Track for Treasure, the next book in the Wanderville series, begins?
Wendy McClure: They’ll be in the middle of an escape! And it won’t be just the four of them — the other kids they rescued at the end of the first book will be with them: 10 kids in all! And when trouble hits, they find it’s hard to find places where they can all hide, so they realize their best option is to hop on a freight train out of town. Then it really gets interesting!
BTC: One of the most compelling relationships in Wanderville is the connection between Frances and her little brother Harold. In researching the real orphan trains for writing the Wanderville series, did you find that siblings often stuck together? What was your inspiration for Frances’ determination to keep her brother close?
WM: When I was researching kids in the tenements of New York City, I came across a photograph showing two or three girls out on the sidewalk holding their baby siblings on their hips. The caption read “Little Mothers,” a term that described girls who had to take care of their younger brothers or sisters all day because their mothers had to work. When I saw that I knew I wanted that to be the backstory of Frances and Harold before they were in the orphanage. Frances would have pretty much raised Harold. As for the orphan trains, I imagine the circumstances of the train journeys would have compelled siblings to stick together as much as they could. But the sad reality is that they were usually encouraged to forget their old lives, including family ties. And then when the placement process began, siblings were often separated, since it was hard to find a home that could take in more than one child. Some siblings were lucky enough to be placed out together, or to at least wind up in homes in the same town, but many more were forced to be apart. In Wanderville, Frances soon realizes the danger that she and Harold are in, and that helps motivate her to escape.
BTC: In your book The Wilder Life: My Adventures in the Lost World of Little House on the Prairie, you connect deeply to the books you loved as a child and demonstrated how that love of reading can influence one's future. What do you hope the children who read Wanderville take away from this series?
WM: I hope that for kids I can capture the exhilaration of being independent — of having adventures without adults around, of creating and building things on their own. That’s a very basic but important thing. I also hope the books can nurture a curiosity about the past — not just history, but a richer sense of this different world that came before ours. That was certainly one of the things that I loved most about the Little House books.
BTC: What challenges do you find writing a series rather than just a stand-alone novel? What about writing children's books versus books for adults?
WM: Writing a series is sort of an odd way to write a long story. It’s like painting a huge mural by starting at one end and then having to paint in only one direction without going back to change or adjust anything. Book one was already published by the time I wrote the third book. It’s fun trying to make everything work, though. As for writing for kids versus adults—it’s hard to say, because the Wanderville books are the first long-form fiction I’ve ever written, whereas my adult stuff is all nonfiction. I remember when I first started working on the books I felt this giddy sense of freedom because I got to make things up. But at the same time, having that freedom can be terrifying.
BTC: What are you working on next?
WM: I’m just finishing up the third Wanderville book, Escape to the World’s Fair, which comes out later this year. And now I’ve been going through old family photos from the early 1900s. They might help me with another Wanderville book if I get an idea for a fourth book, or I might use them in a new story. Or else I could write an essay about them. I know I’m going to write about them, but I just don’t know how yet!
Koji Miyamoto’s 13th birthday is quickly tarnished by the attack on Pearl Harbor. As a half-Japanese American during World War II, Koji’s life dramatically changes on that fateful day. Gaijin: American Prisoner of War is a graphic novel by Matt Faulkner which describes this ugly period in American history in heartbreaking detail.
Koji’s day begins innocently enough as he listens to the Lone Ranger on the radio while helping his mother with the dishes. When the attack is announced, he and his mother have to look up Pearl Harbor in the atlas. Koji immediately wonders if his Japanese father could have been flying one of the attack planes. His father had returned to Japan the summer before to take care of a sick family member. After a night of bad dreams, Koji heads to school only to discover he is persona non grata everywhere — at school, on the streetcar and on the street. As the government increases restriction on Japanese Americans, Koji’s innocence is lost forever when he is sent to a “relocation camp.” Outside of the camp he is ostracized for being half-Japanese, inside he is tormented for being half-white.
Faulkner’s novel is a powerful piece of historical fiction told graphically. Koji’s journey to adulthood under terrible conditions is beautifully detailed in color as he deals with discrimination, tough choices and growing up. Faulkner also neatly teaches the reader about a dark piece of American history, when over 110,000 Americans were made prisoners of war in their own country.
For more information on the subject, Faulkner has created a website - www.gaijinamericanprisonerofwar.com.
When A Medal for Leroy by Michael Morpurgo opens, the main character, Michael, is an old man trying to discover the place in Belgium where his grandfather died during World War I. As he wanders the peaceful countryside where a battle once raged, he thinks back to his childhood in London and the events that led him to this spot.
Called “Poodle” by his classmates due to his curly hair and his French mother, Michael quickly discovers ways to deal with the taunts and prejudices that he encounters throughout his childhood.
Although his father died when Michael was a baby, his mother stays in touch with his father’s family, which consists of two rather eccentric, elderly aunts. Michael wonders about his father and wants to know more about him, but no one is willing to tell him much. However, one day, Michael receives a package from one of the aunts that contains a small notebook that reveals secrets about his father and grandfather that he could have never imagined.
Morpurgo is a masterful storyteller whose past work includes the best-seller War Horse, and he is at his best when writing historical fiction. His plot for A Medal for Leroy is loosely based on the life of Walter Tull, the first black officer in the British Army. This book is a rare one for me: Not only was it suspenseful and poignant, but I could not put it down, and I read it in one sitting.
The bestselling author that brought you The Hunger Games series is showing her versatility with Year of the Jungle, a picture book about Suzanne Collins as a little girl whose dad serves in the Vietnam War. Collins collaborates with illustrator James Proimos to bring this touching picture book to young readers.
This book follows young Suzy as she sees her dad off to Vietnam without truly understanding the ramifications of his going away. While he is gone she looks forward to his postcards and feels the loss more deeply than she is able to express. Days go by and turn into months as holidays and seasons pass without her father. She can’t understand the concept of a year and has to just keep waiting for his return with no idea as to how long she will have to wait.
Collins seeks to capture the impact that serving in the military can have on the children of those brave soldiers. She reached back to remember how she felt as a 6-year-old coping with the loss of her father. Collins talks in this short video about her experience writing Year of the Jungle. This picture book is honest and heartfelt, though not too graphic or intense for young readers, especially if they have a loved one serving in the military.
For most Jewish boys, the event they must prepare for is the Bar Mitzvah at age 13. For 12-year-old Yanek Gruener, his greatest concern is where his next meal is coming from and whether he will live to see another day. In Prisoner B-3087 by Alan Gratz, young Yanek’s life is forever changed when the Nazis invade Krakow, Poland, and force him and his family to live in a ghetto. They face incredible deprivations and the constant threat of deportation to concentration camps, or being shot for no reason. It is a harrowing existence that stretches Yanek to the limits of human endurance as he plays a cat and mouse game of survival with the Nazis.
Based on the true story of Holocaust survivor Jack Gruener, Prisoner B-3087 relates in graphic detail the horrors that Yanek witnesses as he is sent from the ghetto in Krakow to work in such concentration camps as Birkenau, Auschwitz, and Dachau, and even the salt mine at Wieliczka. His family disappears one day when he is coming home from his work detail, and Yanek never hears from them again. Separated from all those he loves, Yanek spends nearly nine years as a captive trying to make sense of why the Nazis treated the Jews and the other ‘undesirables’ (ex., Gypsies, homosexuals) with such unthinkable cruelty. While Yanek’s story is a powerful one, this frank depiction of life in the ghetto and concentration camps may be disturbing to younger or sensitive readers.
Sugar is a spunky 10-year-old living on the Wills’ River Road Plantation in Reconstruction Mississippi. She is named after the cane she toils in and despises. Her father was sold when she was a baby, and her mother died two years earlier after years of brutal labor finally took its toll. It is 1870, and while slavery has been abolished for five years, questions and economic concerns remain for these freed men, women and children. Coretta Scott King Honor Winner Jewell Parker Rhodes brings this tenuous time to life in Sugar.
The Beales, fellow sugar workers, have become her surrogate grandparents, and the other workers are protective of Sugar as the only child in their midst, yet barely tolerant of her rambunctious ways. As the community dwindles in number, Mr. Wills, the owner, needs more help and brings laborers in from China which initially concerns Sugar and her friends. But Sugar is quickly intrigued by these men and longs to make new friends from a foreign land outside of River Road.
As Sugar develops friendships with Billy Wills, the owner’s son, and the Chinese workers, she is exposed to worlds far different from her own. Billy lives a life of luxury, but is just a boy looking for adventures and a friend in Sugar. The Chinese men work hard but also share their traditional tales, food and toys. Rhodes deftly describes all of Sugar’s sensory experiences, while offering a realistic portrait of her hard realities and the unique cross-cultural community created for a time on this Mississippi plantation. Sugar is a most appealing and memorable heroine who manages to muster enough courage to step away from the only world she’s ever known in an effort to live her mother’s dying words of: Do. See. Feel.
Gingersnap, by Patricia Reilly Giff, introduces Jayna and her brother, Rob, who are living in upstate New York in 1944. Their parents were killed in a car accident, and Rob, a Navy man, was able to remove Jayna from foster care to create their little family. Both are wonderful cooks, with Jayna specializing in soups, and they dream of owning a restaurant of their own one day.
But World War II is still raging in the Pacific and Rob gets called to duty, leaving Jayna in the care of their landlady, Celine. Between Celine’s falling hairpieces and constant harping on good manners, Jayna can’t imagine a worse guardian. When a telegram arrives informing her that Rob’s ship has sunk and he is missing, a distraught Jayna decides to run away. She needs to get to Brooklyn to find a woman named Elise, who may just be her grandmother. Elise operates a bakery named Gingersnap--which is coincidentally Jayna’s nickname. Jayna packs her bag, an old recipe book, and her turtle named Theresa. She is guided on the journey by the helping hand of a partially visible girl ghost who first appeared when Rob shipped out.
Jayna meets Elise and becomes part of the fabric of her Brooklyn neighborhood. As Jayna gets to know Elise, she longs for this wonderful, gentle woman to be her grandmother. The two work together and Jayna’s soups become a popular fixture at the bakery. These simple, yet yummy sounding soup recipes appear between each chapter and reflect Jayna’s mood and situation. Jayna’s voice is real and while the setting is historical, the separation of families and feelings of displacement are easily understood today. As Jayna struggles to maintain hope for her brother and find a family, readers rooting for this spirited little girl will be delighted with the last recipe in the book - Welcome Home Soup.
Newbery Award-winning author Karen Cushman has returned to children’s literature with an exceptionally well-crafted tale. In Will Sparrow’s Road, Cushman departs from her characteristically self-sufficient heroines, instead casting a young boy into the role of survivor/protagonist. Will’s is a story of survival, of unlikely friendships and self-discovery and what it means to find one’s place in the world. Runaway Will Sparrow wasn’t always a liar and a thief. There’d been a time when he’d been the village schoolmaster’s son, with a mother who smelled of lavender. That was before his mother abandoned him and his drunken father traded him to an innkeeper for ale. Escaping the innkeeper and his threats, Will finds himself on the road, penniless, hungry and alone. But the road, as life, is not a solitary one and Will soon finds himself in the mixed company of scoundrels and tricksters, the marginally honest and the roughly kind.
When chance brings him to the Oddities and Prodigies tent at a local fair, Will finds himself in a most peculiar company. A disgruntled dwarf, a girl with the face of a cat, a pig named Duchess, and other individuals strange to Will’s experience round out the motley band. Things are not always as they seem however, and soon Will finds himself discerning villains and friends from the most unlikely of quarters.
Devotees of Cushman’s previous historical fiction for children, such as Matilda Bone and The Midwife’s Apprentice, will not be disappointed in this spirited new coming of age story set in Elizabethan England. With her keen eye for detail and meticulous historical research, Cushman paints a realistic depiction of that world, never attempting to sugarcoat the hard-won lot of her characters. Recommended for readers who have enjoyed Avi’s Crispin series, and similar historical tales.