This summer, like most summers, I spent in Boston, visiting family. I took walks, met with friends, and went to the bookstore with my kids. One day a nice bookseller and I got to talking about children’s novels, and he pulled out one for me. “I loved this,” he said. “And it’s local.”
It was the word “local” that intrigued me. I’d never had a bookseller tell me that before.
Anyone who knows me knows that I love Boston. If you read my stuff, you’ll see that most of what I write about happens somewhere there. It might be because I studied writing in Boston. Or that the area has been home to many famous writers (Louisa May Alcott, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Edgar Allen Poe to name a few), and I’m picking up on their vibe. Or it could be the ducks.
Whatever the reason might be, I hold Beantown accountable for many of the writerly experiences in my life. So I took the book from the bookseller, and decided to give it a try.
Meanwhile, I was emailing with my editor about interior art for my middle grade novel set in Arlington, a suburb of Boston. I sent her a picture I’d taken of a beautiful church door that I thought could be used as a model for one of the illustrations. In my email, I wrote: The door is very Boston.
Later, I thought about what I’d written.
I began to wonder, what made a book “very Boston”? Was it the names of streets and landmarks? Was it the kind of plants growing in the characters’ yards? Was it the way they spoke to each other, or that funny accent they had with the missing r’s?
I decided to do some detective work.
I rounded up as many children’s novels set in Boston as I could. Everywhere I went, booksellers and librarians were initially stumped by my request: books set in Boston…for kids? Had anyone asked such a thing before? But they were curious, too – and got involved in the detective game along with me.
Eventually I amassed a pretty bundle of books. I wasn’t exactly sure what I was looking for. I was hoping to zero in on the ingredients that made these books distinctly Boston. But maybe I was also trying to figure out if my book was “local” enough, too.
When I finished going through them, I discovered a few things:
In a place like Boston, history runs long and deep, in the stories of the Colonialists, of the American Revolution and the battles waged and the lives lost. But history lives everywhere and if you dig far enough, any place will offer unique stories and circumstances that force characters to make choices, and to grow as people.
In Ann Rinaldi’s FIFTH OF MARCH, Rinaldi creates the compelling character of Rachel, an indentured maid to John and Abigail Adams, who stands in support of her friend, a British soldier tried for murder during the Boston Massacre. Rinaldi fashioned Rachel after reading through accounts of a real girl working for the Adams family. But in Rinaldi’s work of fiction, Rachel is not just a working girl, but someone who is struggling with the complexity of shifting loyalties between Colonial America and the Crown of England.
Similarly, Marissa Moss creates a completely fictionalized journal, EMMA’S JOURNAL, based on the real diaries of girls living in the 1770s, who helped to spy for the American rebels against the British. The choices Emma describes making in her journal, are modeled by the real-life decisions girls made when coding secret information that they passed on to the American rebels.
Both of these books are utterly fascinating and gripping without being history lessons. But the history of real places is a great place to mine for fiction.
HISTORY AND FANTASY – NOT OXYMORONS!
Jane Langton’s gem of a book, THE FLEDGLING, is set at the famous Walden Pond in Concord, MA, the home of Henry Thoreau and the birthplace of transcendentalism. The book not only pays homage to Thoreau and his teachings in kid-friendly form, but it’s also about a girl who learns to fly! From a goose prince, no less! THE FLEDGLING , which won the Newbery Honor in 1981, is actually part of a series of books all set in the same place, alternating between different sets of related characters. In these books, Langton shows us how it’s possible to take real locations and characters from history and blend them together artfully with fantasy elements.
SETTING IS IN THE NAMES OF THINGS
When I was growing up, reading books set in real locations held a thrill for me. It was as if I were given a special lens that allowed me to experience a story as if I were really there.
That’s how I felt when I read HOW I NICKY FLYNN FINALLY GET A LIFE (AND A DOG) by Art Courriveau (Abrams). A recent move takes eleven-year old Nicky and his newly-adopted dog on an adventure through the streets of Boston’s North End. Through Nicky’s eyes, you see Italian restaurants and cafes where “little old ladies are out front playing dominoes” and an old-fashioned butcher shop. You see real street names like Hanover Street and Parementer Street, and read about the bronze plaque in front of Paul Revere’s house, where the famous silversmith and freedom fighter worked his ware. Only the names of these real places aren’t from some distant past, but part of the present and Nicky’s quest to uncover the mystery behind his dog’s life with his previous owner.
Not just that, but my daughter, or myself, or any kid today can take this book and like a map, trace over these same places and know for a moment what it might be like to be Nicky Flynn.
YOU CAN LEARN A LOT FROM THE DUCKS
I’ll bring up one last children’s book, which is quintessentially Boston if not (forgive me) strictly middle grade. Robert McCloskey’s beloved MAKE WAY FOR DUCKLINGS (Viking) literally gives you a birds-eye view of some of the important streets landmarks of Boston, when a family of mallard ducks finally makes their home in the Public Garden. McCloskey’s charming book made such an impression on the “locals,” it was eventually designated as Massachusetts’s official children’s book (the official children’s author is apparently Dr. Seuss). And several years later, a bronze replica of the duck family was installed in the Public Garden.
I’m so glad I undertook this summer project. In many ways it was a writing project as well as a reading one. I’m not sure why Boston holds such significance for me, or why as writers, we are drawn to write about certain places above others. I do think that a city’s history, the people who lived there, and the customs and manners that become unique to it are all ingredients, that make us feel at home, and allow us to find our authentic voices there.
And as readers, maybe it’s as simple as saying, sometimes you want to read about places you’ve never seen. And sometimes you want to read about what you already know. But the greatness in books is that by reading, what you’ve never seen, can turn into something you begin to know.
Here’s a larger list of the books I looked at this summer. Asterisks indicate authors who live or have lived in the Boston area. Special thanks to the booksellers and librarians at Porter Square Books, The Children’s Bookshop, and the children’s department at the Arlington Robbins Library. I couldn’t have done this project without your patience and expertise. And it goes without saying to the rest of us: please support your local bookstores and libraries.
♦ THE FIFTH OF MARCH (Graphia) – Ann Rinaldi
♦ EMMA’S JOURNAL (Harcourt, Brace &Co). – Marissa Moss
♦ THE FLEDGLING (HarperCollins – paperback) – Jane Langton*
♦ MR. REVERE AND I (Little, Brown) – Robert Lawson
♦ JUDY MOODY DECLARES INDEPENDENCE (Candlewick) – Megan McDonald
♦ HOW I NICKY FLYNN FINALLY GET A LIFE (AND A DOG) (Abrams) – Art Corriveau*
♦ ALVIN HO- Lenora Look*
♦ THE ANASTASIA KRUPNIK SERIES (Yearling) – Lois Lowry*
♦ The CLEMENTINE SERIES (Disney*Hyperion) – Sara Pennypacker*
♦ MAKE WAY FOR DUCKLINGS! (Viking) – Robert McCloskey*
Sheela Chari’s debut novel, VANISHED (Disney*Hyperion), is set in a suburb of Boston and features a historic stone church, an exciting bus ride down Massachusetts Avenue (that’s “Mass Ave” to the locals) and a foray into Harvard Square. And um, yes, a cursed string instrument from India. Still, she thinks her book will be local enough when it comes out next summer.