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, the 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.