A Sense of Place

Last night I subbed in the children’s room at the library, and my friend who works there filled me in on the latest questions from small patrons. One that made us both laugh was, “Where are the books on how to create your own world?” My brilliant friend suggested Weslandia, but we both agreed: any work of fiction fits the criteria! Yet it got me thinking, as spending time with children/librarians always does. Some books do make place so central, it surpasses mere setting: it becomes a facet of the story so vivid and important, it’s a character in its own right. Eudora Welty, one of my idols, called a sense of place “the light that glows inside the story”. Its rays illuminate the book’s themes, and reflect the characters’ feelings.

Beyond that: in this age of urban sprawl and cultural homogenization, readers appreciate a book with an evocative setting all the more. By describing a place so vividly that readers feel they’ve breathed its air, a writer creates a deep connection. It’s that wonderful paradox of the universal in the particular. One of the on-going pleasures my book What Happened on Fox Street gives me is how many people have told me Fox Street is exactly like the neighborhood of their childhood—this from people who grew up in New York, California, Michigan…

Below are a sampling of books with a sense of place so richly textured, the story could never, ever have happened anyplace else (except in your own heart).

The Seven Wonders of Sassafras by Betty G. Birney: The pleasures, obvious and unexpected, of small town rural life are what this book is all about. You’ll swear you’ve been there. From IndieBound: When Eben McAllister reads about theSeven Wonders of the World, he longs to escape the small farming community of Sassafras Springs and do some exploring f his own. No one else ever seems to want to leave Sassafras however — not even his best pal, Jeb — and so, for now, Eben figures he’s stuck on the farm with Pa and Aunt Pretty until he grows up. All that changes when his pa, tired of Eben’s moping, challenges him to find Seven Wonders in Sassafras Springs that can stang up to the real Seven Wonders of the World. And if he does? Then Eben will get the adventure he’s been craving for — a trip out West. Eben doesn’t reckon he’ll have any luck — he can’t think of even one thing that would be called “interesting,” let along wonderous, in Sassafras, but he figures he’ll give it a try; there’s nothing else to do in Sassafras anyway.

Junebug by Alice Mead: In Junebug, the dangers and sorrows of living in the projects are ever-present. From IndieBound: Reeve McLain, Jr.–Junebug–has a big dream that keeps him going. He dreams that someday he and his younger sister and mother will move from the awful housing project where drugs, gangs, and guns are part of everyday life. Junebug’s tenth birthday is coming up, and he knows the gangs and drug dealers will be after him to join them. But he has a big birthday plan to keep his hope alive. He’s going to launch his glass-bottle collection filled with notes of his dreams and wishes. Maybe some way, somehow, Junebug’s dream will come true.

The Underneath and Keeper, both by Kathi Appelt: Appelt’s most recent MG books are very different from each other, but both weave a sense of place into every line. One takes the bayou for a story of dark cruelty, and the other, a story of immense longing, is shot through with the sounds and sights of the sea.

From IndieBound: A calico cat, about to have kittens, hears the lonely howl of a chained-up hound deep in the backwaters of the bayou. She dares to find him in the forest, and the hound dares to befriend this cat, this feline, this creature he is supposed to hate. They are an unlikely pair, about to become an unlikely family. Ranger urges the cat to hide underneath the porch, to raise her kittens there because Gar-Face, the man living inside the house, will surely use them as alligator bait should he find them. But they are safe in the Underneath…as long as they stay in the Underneath.

From IndieBound: Keeper was born in the ocean, and she believes she is part mermaid. So as a ten-year-old she goes out looking for her mother—an unpredictable and uncommonly gorgeous woman who swam away when Keeper was three—and heads right for the ocean, right for the sandbar where mermaids are known to gather. But her boat is too small for the surf—and much too small for the storm that is brewing on the horizon.

The Higher Power of Lucky (and its sequels) by Susan Patron: Patron sets her characters down in the desert, where the hardscrabble landscape echoes the human struggle to grow roots and feel safe. From IndieBound: Lucky, age ten, can’t wait another day. The meanness gland in her heart and the crevices full of questions in her brain make running away from Hard Pan,California (population 43), the rock-bottom only choice she has. It’s all Brigitte’s fault — for wanting to go back toFrance. Guardians are supposed to stay put and look after girls in their care! Instead Lucky is sure that she’ll be abandoned to some orphanage inLos Angeles where her beloved dog, HMS Beagle, won’t be allowed. She’ll have to lose her friends Miles, who lives on cookies, and Lincoln, futureU.S. president (maybe) and member of the International Guild of Knot Tyers. Lucky needs her own — and quick.

Tom’s Midnight Garden, by Philippa Pearce: This is one of my favorite middle grade books of all time. The garden where the children play is magic, literally and figuratively, and the larger world on the other side provides a premonition of growing up and leaving paradise behind. From IndieBound:: Tom is furious. His brother, Peter, has measles, so now Tom is being shipped off to stay with Aunt Gwen and Uncle Alan in their boring old apartment. There’ll be nothing to do there and no one to play with. Tom just counts the days till he can return home to Peter.Then one night the landlady’s antique grandfather clock strikes thirteen times leading Tom to a wonderful, magical discovery and marking the beginning of a secret that’s almost too amazing to be true.

Please chime in and add your own favorites to the list.

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