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.
Jo Franklin’s book I’m an Alien and I Want to Go Home begins with Daniel Kendal’s sister telling him, “You’re an alien, abandoned on Earth by your alien parents.” It’s a typical nasty remark that siblings say to each other but to Daniel, the statement makes sense. He is tall and lanky with brown hair and eyes. His parents and siblings are all short and stocky blonds with blue eyes. There are no baby pictures of Daniel, and the final bit of evidence comes from a paper clipping his mother saved regarding some sort of unidentified object crashing to earth the day Daniel was born. All of these factors make Daniel feel certain that he is an alien and needs to go home.
With the help of his two best friends, Eddie and Gordon, Daniel figures out that he must be from a distant planet known as Kepler22b. The problem is how can he contact his ‘real parents’ and get back to his home planet. Through a series of hilarious misadventures including a bizarre encounter with a group of self-proclaimed alien abductees, the trio set out to find a way to send Daniel to Kepler22b.
For any young people who have ever felt like they didn’t fit in, Daniel’s quest to get back to where he thinks he really belongs is both relatable and humorous. Franklin’s short chapter punctuated with clever dialogue and Marty Kelley’s quirky illustrations make this book a great choice in particular for reluctant readers.
Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely joined forces to write All American Boys, a story about police violence and how individual acts — whether justified or unjustified — can impact everyone in the surrounding community.
All American Boys is told from two perspectives: there’s Rashad, who enjoys drawing and hanging out with his friends as he follows in his father’s footsteps through high school JROTC; and there’s Quinn, an aspiring basketball player who also enjoys chilling with his friends. Rashad and Quinn go to the same school and run with some of the same guys, but they don’t know each other. Yet.
Rashad makes a quick trip to a corner mart to grab a snack. While he’s deciding on which flavor of chips to get (anything except plain), a woman trips backwards into him. Hearing the commotion and spotting the chips on the floor, the store clerk confronts Rashad and accuses him of stealing. Rashad tries to deny the accusation, but before he gets the chance, he’s slammed face-first onto the sidewalk with his hands behind his back and the full weight of a police officer on his ribs.
Quinn and his friends happen to be in the alley beside the mart. Quinn witnesses Rashad being manhandled by the officer, who he recognizes as his friend’s older brother. Realizing the gravity of the situation, he and his friends flee the scene hoping to remain unseen.
Thanks to a smartphone video, Rashad’s incident makes the news and goes viral overnight. While Rashad is recuperating in the hospital trying to deal with manic family visits, Quinn struggles to choose a side in a polarized school environment. With a protest demonstration looming days away, will Rashad and Quinn be able to rein in their feelings and set new headings for their lives in the midst of violence?
Reynolds and Kiely had a mission from page one in All American Boys, and it was accomplished without sacrificing literary quality or becoming preachy. Quinn and Rashad could be any real boys caught in this alarmingly common scenario — read this book, hear their voices and learn from them.
All American Boys is the teen title for BC Reads. Authors Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely are appearing at the Woodlawn Branch on April 19 at 3:30 p.m.
Do you have time in your busy schedule to read a short story? Not just any short story, but a ghost story. Not just any ghost story, but a ghost story by Gillian Flynn. You may have heard of her. She is the #1 New York Times bestselling author of Sharp Objects, Dark Places and Gone Girl, one of most talked about novels of 2014 . Flynn’s latest release is a stand-alone copy of her 64-page, Edgar Awarding-winning short story, The Grownup. It made its first appearance in author George R. R. Martin's Rogues anthology.
The Grownup is about an unnamed and “barely thirty” female con artist who works at a sketchy place called Spiritual Palms that provides fortunes and illegal sex services. Viveca, her boss gives her a job promotion, which makes the con artist no longer a sex worker but a fraudulent fortune-teller. A troubled customer by the name of Susan Burke stops in to have her fortune told. The con artist learns that Susan is being terrorized by her 15-year-old stepson,Miles, and that a trickle of blood drips on the wall inside Susan’s renovated Victorian house. The con artist helps Susan by cleansing the inside of her home. During one of her house cleansing visits, the con artist meets Miles, a menacing teen who gives her an ultimatum: stay away or die. However, the con artist ignores his threat and soon finds out that she is the one being swindled. Swindled by who? You’ll just have to read it and find out.
If you are a Gillian Flynn fan or you just want to read an entertaining short story, I encourage you to check out a copy of The Grownup at a BCPL branch near you. And whatever you do, avoid a place called Spiritual Palms.
Patrick deWitt is gaining a reputation as a risk-taking young author, cleverly parodying a different genre with each new work. Undermajordomo Minor is an old-world kind of folk tale at first glance, but readers will soon be delighted by how the author toys with our expectations in the vein of Monty Python and the Holy Grail or The Princess Bride. Having made the comparison, it is necessary to add that deWitt is in a category completely to himself and unlike anything I have come across. His humor is quirky, pitch black and surprisingly thoughtful.
Lucy Minor is sickly and near death when he is visited by a mysterious stranger who spares his life after the young man admits he just wants something to happen to him before he dies.
Since he isn’t liked much by anyone in his village, including his mother, he sets off to find his fortune working as the undermajordomo at a far off castle. Thus begins an epic tale of romance, adventure and intrigue in a somewhat fairy tale setting. There is a castle, some loveable thieves, a crazy baron, a damsel in distress. However, there is also a train. So, expect the unexpected at any given moment.
From the moment his life is spared, Lucy’s life begins to careen down the most unexpected paths. Before his first day of work at the castle, he gets tremendously drunk with a couple of pickpockets he met on the train and falls helplessly in love with the daughter of one. Unfortunately, Klara is engaged to a devastatingly handsome soldier. His new boss, the majordomo, refuses to reveal exactly what Lucy’s job is or when he might be paid. When his job is in jeopardy, Lucy takes it upon himself to intercede on behalf of the Baron in his bizarre pursuit of his own wife, the Baroness.
In each strange, new situation readers revel in observing these delightfully weird characters interact with one another. The book is fast paced and compulsively readable.
There are manga, and there are sports. If the next thought in your head is “never the twain shall meet,” you might be surprised to learn that there’s actually an entire sub-genre of manga focusing exclusively on sports. Wataru Watanabe’s Yowamushi Pedal, (or “Wimp/Sissy” Pedal) does the most poetic job yet of bringing this delightful literary paradox to life.
To start with, Yowamushi Pedal does not at first seem to be about sports at all. Our protagonist is high school freshman and Otaku (anime fanatic) Onoda Sakamichi, who pours his passion into anime and manga and could never get along with sports or jocks. He sings anime theme songs on his way to school and while shopping for merchandise, he collects capsule toys obsessively and hopes to form an anime club. He doesn’t even realize that his weekly trips to Akihabara by bicycle are actually a grueling feat that have developed his unusual talent for biking.
While he might not have realized, he keeps getting noticed by skilled athletes at his school, whether it’s kind Kanzaki who thinks him a diamond in the rough, cold-tempered Imaizumi who is looking to test his recent training or wild Naruko who ropes him into chasing down a car. Eventually his dream of reviving the anime club seems to have been dashed — but in the process of meeting his new friends he unexpectedly develops an otaku-like passion for bikes and a new type of confidence. Onoda instead joins the biking team and finds himself on a path to discovering teamwork, exhaustion, victory and friendship like he’s never experienced before.
Watanabe’s storytelling and style are head and shoulders above the rest when it comes to new manga. His characters are as diverse in personality as they are in looks, and he weaves exciting tales of growing friendships and loving rivalries that are both thrilling and heart-warming. Although his artwork appears awkward at first, his fresh choices when stylizing his characters are consistent, lively and unique, allowing for a perfect range of emotion and movement as he shows us these high-speed races. If you enjoy Yowamushi Pedal make sure to check out similar titles like The Prince of Tennis, Big Windup, Cross Game and Fantasy Sports.
“Say nothing. Not a word to anyone.” So begins the painful odyssey of a frightened child in Andrew Taylor’s The Silent Boy. It is 1792 in Paris, and The Terror has begun. Turmoil grips the city. As the violence spins out of control, it overtakes anyone in its path. Terrified and covered in blood, the boy races through the streets of Paris to find an old servant who worked for his mother. She takes him to Monsieur Fournier, who believes the boy is his son. Together they escape to England to stay at desolate Charnwood Court.
Edward Savill, employed as an agent in London for a wealthy American, is informed that his estranged wife has been murdered in Paris. She has left behind Charles, a 10-year-old boy suffering from hysterical muteness. The boy cannot possibly be Savill’s, but he is still married to Charles’ mother and legally responsible for his welfare. Charles also has a half-sister, Lizzie, who is anxious to bring him home.
These conflicting interests clash to create an unrelentingly suspenseful tale. Savill, the wronged husband, is fiercely determined to provide for the boy; Fournier, the former lover, holds onto him as a talisman. Behind the scenes, political interests far more powerful than these two men pull the strings. Taylor has drawn such achingly real characters that the desire to rescue the boy is palpable. With characters reminiscent of Dickens, this tale creates a level of insecurity in the reader that mirrors Charles predicament.
Andrew Taylor is the author of several thrillers, including The Office of the Dead and The American Boy, both of which won Britain’s Ellis Peters Historical Dagger award, making Taylor the only author to receive the prize twice. With The Silent Boy he surely has another winner.
In his lifetime, Alexander von Humboldt was a superstar — a fearless adventurer, penniless aristocrat and brilliant polymath. He befriended and collaborated with many of his illustrious contemporaries, including Thomas Jefferson, Simón Bolívar and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. He was the personal hero of Charles Darwin, Henry David Thoreau and John Muir, and his work was the basis for their great achievements. But he is largely forgotten in the English-speaking world, despite lending his name to numerous places and even species. In her latest book, The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World, author Andrea Wulf seeks to reestablish Humboldt’s celebrity and pay homage to his genius.
In keeping with a biography of a man whose curiosity knew no limits, Wulf’s take on Humboldt’s life is multi-faceted and includes detailed, interwoven narratives of the scientific fields his work impacted. She examines how his personal relationships, politics and ethics were formed and how he used his beliefs, in turn, to enact change in the turbulent world around him. Humboldt undertook two major expeditions — one to South America and another stretching across Southern Russia into the Mongolian steppes. The product of these voyages emerged as theories he developed about the interconnectedness of the natural systems that are the foundation of our understanding of biology today. His major work Cosmos can easily be seen as the precursor to the major documentary phenomena of 2006, Planet Earth. And yet Humboldt also famously brought a sense of wonder and poetry to his work that helped to form the Romantic and Transcendental movements in the arts. Reading about Humboldt’s remarkable achievements and the fantastic experiences of his journeys instill one with a sense of wonder and curiosity about what is outside.
This book has been released alongside a spate of literature on the natural world, including the 2015 edition of The Best of American Science and Nature Writing (edited by Rebecca Skloot), and many of these new titles will be make for good pairings alongside this denser read. The Curious Nature Guide and Cabinet of Curiosities will be particularly useful to any budding naturalists inspired to get out and explore the world around you, like Humboldt did.
Vulnerable, shimmering and desirable. Oh, to be a soul in David Mitchell's disturbing and fun new novel Slade House. Here horror meets plain old weirdness in a Faustian-like brew, stirred up by creepy twin siblings, Norah and Jonah Grayer. The two house residents must refuel in order to “live” out their immortal existence. But it's their energy of choice that is the stunner for those who enter their seductive property through their garden’s small iron black door.
Spanning 36 years starting in 1979, the story’s epicenter is the enigmatic haunted mansion that only appears once every nine years. One by one, Mitchell’s five “engifted” narrators are tricked by the twins into visiting the house, allured by a theatrical setting that conjures up images they want to believe in, images that make their lacking lives better. They end up in a precarious situation, trapped and doomed, while the unthinkable happens.
Mitchell, whose previous novels Cloud Atlas and The Bone Clocks received critical acclaim, started this latest work out of a series of tweets. It is a narrative that hints of larger life questions for which there are no answers. And while Mitchell deftly nods to his heftier previous works and the universe therein, it is not necessary to start there. In fact, Mitchell’s latest effort is a nimble and accessible stand-alone. It may be the perfect introduction to this author’s thought-provoking, imaginatively clever writing whose style blends mind-control and the supernatural with the essence of time, beguiling it might be. Mitchell fans have come to expect nothing less while newcomers will hopefully get what all the fuss is about.