Sports and musical theater may seem like an unusual pairing, but not in the hands of children's author Deborah Wiles. Her memorable new novel for middle-grade readers, The Aurora County All-Stars, artfully combines drama and baseball, friendship and loss, in a story that is by turns hilarious, poignant and poetic.
Wiles, author of two picture books and two previous novels (including the National Book Award finalist Each Little Bird That Sings), says childhood summers she spent in Mississippi were the inspiration for her characters—and her enduring love of storytelling.
As the oldest of three children in an Air Force family, Wiles says, "Mississippi was an important place for me, because we moved all the time. Having a place to call home, to go back to over and over, no matter where we lived during the year—Mississippi is so instrumental to who I am."
The author, who recently moved to Atlanta after spending many years in Maryland, says she harks back to those summers with every story she writes. "I love dialogue—it comes naturally to me. It also comes from listening to the old people tell their stories over and over again. The cadence, the rhythm, the passion, the delight in the telling, stayed with me."
Her delight is evident in The Aurora County All-Stars, where humor and mystery abound: Who is Mr. Norwood Boyd, and what's his relationship to young protagonist House Jackson? Will Frances Shotz, age 14, and her grandiose plans for a pageant derail the annual baseball game? Will Ruby play catcher, even though she's (gasp) a girl? And is that pug really wearing a tutu?
If those questions feel like dramatic cliffhangers, it's no coincidence; The Aurora County All-Stars is filled with them, thanks to its origins as a serial novel in the Boston Globe. The newspaper asked Wiles if she'd like to write it as part of a project for Newspapers in Education. The specifications: Aim for a male audience, write for grades four to seven, and use eight 2,000-word segments.
Wiles got right to work. "I decided to learn as much as I could about Victorian serial novels. They're so much like Southern stories. They're over-the-top, there's mayhem involved, secrets and all kinds of dead guys."
As for the baseball plotline, it wasn't much of a stretch. "I remember loving the Dodgers as a kid. I wanted Sandy Koufax to notice me and marry me. My brother loved the Yankees, so there was a big rivalry in our household," she recalls. Wiles says her longtime love of Walt Whitman's poetry inspired the story's poetry-centric plot elements.
The author's own writing life has followed a long arc, from an early time of struggle to a new era of discovery and satisfaction. "I married at 18 and skipped college," Wiles says. "I raised my first two kids as a single parent. Those were tough, lean years."
She adds, "I had no skills and no education. My longest job was in the Washington, D.C., subway system, in the 1970s. I spent my lunch hours at the [now closed] Tenley Circle branch of the public library."
It was at that library, Wiles says, that she began to realize her dream of becoming an author. "I scoured the library shelves and used bookstores for books on how to write." Wiles began to publish her writing—mostly essays and articles—10 years after those library days, but her children's book efforts were rejected for 10 more. Then, "on my 40th birthday, an editor said, 'I really like this one, do you want to work on it?' "
The book sold five years later. "It took decades, it was ridiculous," Wiles says. "Who would go through that craziness? But I wanted to tell these stories. They meant so much to me."
Wiles says she believes grief and sadness are important elements of storytelling. "When I wrote Each Little Bird That Sings, I was going through a lot of death: my mother, father and my marriage died," she explains. "Loss has shaped me an awful lot, but I don't mind. If [our stories] deal with joy, pain, grief, fear or contentment, we're here to help one another through."
That outlook has affected Wiles' writing. "I try to be as honest as I can," she says. "[At first] I was afraid to let my characters' hearts break, to let anything bad happen to them. Now I know I have to do that—it's a fact of life."
But joy is the predominant emotion when Wiles speaks of her career as an author. "Kids are a great audience to write for. Their hearts are ready for stories, ready to be entertained—and so is mine. I'm so fortunate to be, finally in my life, to be doing something that feels so purposeful and meaningful, the thing I wanted to do for so long."
Linda M. Castellitto writes from North Carolina, where she keeps her ears open for good stories. Copyright 2007 BookPage Reviews.
Horn Book Magazine Reviews 2007 #5
Before she died, House Jackson's mother gave him this advice: "Swallow your toads early in the day, and get the hardest things over with first." This summer, House finds himself swallowing a lot of toads, the most notable of which is young Miss Frances Schotz. The year before, Frances pirouetted into House and broke his elbow, thus eliminating him from the baseball game his team plays every Fourth of July. Now Frances is staging a town pageant on the Fourth, once again threatening to deny House and his teammates their game. The ensuing compromise -- combining the pageant with the game -- involves a multitude of characters, including: a dead recluse; Walt Whitman (making an appearance through his poetry); a soap opera actor; Ruby Lavender and Comfort Snowberger from other Wiles books; a disenfranchised former baseball player; and a dog named Eudora Welty. Readers may need a scorecard to keep up with the constant parade of characters, who, except for House and Frances, come and go as quickly as a string of struggling relief pitchers. Still, Wiles's talent for chapter-ending cliffhangers (the story was first serialized in the Boston Globe), keeps the reader continually engaged. Copyright 2007 Horn Book Magazine Reviews.
Kirkus Reviews 2007 July #1
In Aurora County, Miss., only one baseball game matters: the annual contest between the All-Stars and the Raleigh Redbugs, scheduled this year at the same time as the once-in-a-lifetime pageant celebrating Aurora County's. Worse, Frances Schotz, the girl who broke pitcher House Jackson's elbow last year, is directing the pageant and their mamas have signed up all the other players. Already upset about witnessing the death of elderly recluse Norwood Boyd, a man somehow associated with his own dead mother, the quiet 12-year-old needs to find a way to save his team's game and placate the Mamas in spite of his weakened arm. Wiles connects all these elements with snippets of Walt Whitman, quotes from baseball greats and the historical fact of segregation to forge a poignant and humorous coming-of-age story. Parts of House's story first appeared as a serial in the Boston Globe. Although some characters appeared in previous novels, this one stands on its own, and with each iteration Aurora County becomes more real. (Fiction. 10-14) Copyright Kirkus 2007 Kirkus/BPI Communications. All rights reserved.
Publishers Weekly Reviews 2007 July #1
Batter up! National Book Award finalist Wiles (Each Little Bird That Sings ) delivers the third book set in her fictional Aurora County--a more boy-friendly read than its predecessors, with plenty of talk about baseball and what constitutes a stalwart team. Twelve-year-old House Jackson, the Aurora County All-Stars captain and star pitcher, has slogged through the preceding year with an out-of-commission elbow. Instead of playing baseball, he's spent most of his time indoors, reading the classics to an old recluse, Mr. Norwood Rhinehart Beauregard Boyd. But when Mr. Boyd dies, House is reminded of his itch to play. Unfortunately, the All-Stars' only game of the year is scheduled for the same day as Aurora County's 200th anniversary pageant, an event directed by pesky 14-year-old Frances Shotz, the girl who broke House's elbow. After a series of minor mishaps, betrayals and bouts of miscommunication, House and Frances work out a hilarious compromise that all readers can root for. In the spirit of Ernest Thayer's poem, "Casey at the Bat," the energy during the game mounts, and sports fans will be on the edge of their seats to see which team triumphs. Quotations from Walt Whitman's poetry, baseball players and Aurora County news dispatches pepper the story and add color; Love, Ruby Lavender fans will enjoy Ruby's fortuitous cameo. A home run for Wiles. Ages 10-up. (Aug.)[Page 54]. Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information.
Gr 5-9-- Wiles revisits the rural Mississippi setting of Love, Ruby Lavender (2001) and Each Little Bird That Sings (2005, both Harcourt). House Jackson, 12, lives to pitch and still mourns the death of his mother six years earlier. "Swallow your toads early in the day," she would say. Now, House's "toads" include the death of a mysterious 88-year-old neighbor, the town's bicentennial pageant, and, worst of all, Frances Shotz. The previous summer, a collision with the 14-year-old left House with a broken elbow and canceled his baseball season. Frances, who styles herself Finesse and flavors her speech with French, is the artistic director of the pageant, which threatens to cancel his team's annual July Fourth game. House sorts his way through a thicket of problems while surrounded by colorful characters, many from the earlier books (Ruby has a key role). There's a graceful air of nostalgia as children scuff along dusty roads, trailed by an old dog named Eudora Welty. Wiles's prose is keenly observant and not to be read hurriedly. This is a slow-simmering stew of friendship and betrayal, family love and loyalty, and finding oneself. At times, it threatens to get out of hand, but the author keeps things in check with down-home humor. In this moving homage to the power of words, House eventually finds a way to resolve his problems in the stirring example of his baseball hero, Sandy Koufax; Whitman's Leaves of Grass ; and his mother's voice reminding him to "listen for the symphony true."--Marilyn Taniguchi, Beverly Hills Public Library, CA[Page 166]. Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information.