The first book I ever loved was The Fab Five: Basketball, Trash Talk, the American Dream by Mitch Albom. My grandma gave it to me for Christmas when I was in the fifth grade. Looking back, I'm not so sure that this gritty, real-life account of Michigan's Fab Five was something that an 11 year old should have been reading. But I do know that it was the first book I truly connected with as I read it cover to cover so many times that the cover fell off.
Up until then, basketball was the only thing I had ever really cared about, but soon, books began to mean something to me too. This was likely my grandma’s plan all along. Perhaps some uncanny-sixth-sense-grandparent-insight led her to believe that I was better suited for books than a career in the NBA—no matter how many three-pointers I heaved up in the backyard.
When I first read the synopsis of Jennifer Robin Barr’s middle grade debut, Goodbye, Mr. Spalding, it reminded me of those days when my love of sports directly led to my love of books. It’s easy to imagine a young reader picking up Goodbye, Mr. Spalding and connecting with it like they never had with a book before.
Over the past few weeks, I've been fortunate to exchange a few emails with Jennifer as we discussed some of her favorite sports memories, her advice for new writers, and her shocker of a Super Bowl pick.
Our conversation follows:
Dane wrote on 1/2/18 at 11:06am:
Jennifer, you started your writing career with a few how-to style guides (The Complete Idiot's Guide to Bridal Showers in 1999 and The Everything Scrapbooking Book in 2002). How did you come to writing for children? Was there a specific event or influence that lead you in that direction?
Jennifer wrote on 1/8/18 at 11:05am:
I don't think there was a specific event, and I see them both as a great introduction to the publishing industry. Writing aside, I learned about contracts, agents, editors, timing, and so on. As a reader I had always gravitated towards YA books, but as my children grew I began to read middle grade books and fell in love with the genre. It all happened very gradually.
Both of these early books were essential to where I am today for various reasons. They required research and high level of detail, and so from a technical standpoint they were important in honing these skills, especially for my current historical fiction novel. On the business side, the editor of my first book, Jessica Faust, now runs the literary agency BookEnds, Inc. When I queried her last year, she connected me with Moe Ferrara, who connected me with Tracy Marchini, who became my agent and sold my first novel. Without that first experience almost twenty years ago, I may never have met Tracy.
Dane wrote on 1/9/18 at 10:48am
Wow, it’s really cool how those early books led to you working with Tracy Marchini. It’s awesome when life works out like that. Tracy is the best.
In October, the sale of your middle grade debut, GOODBYE, MR. SPALDING, to Carolyn Yoder at Calkins Creek was announced. The Publishers Weekly blurb that accompanied the sale read: “Goodbye, Mr. Spalding is the story of a boy and his best friend who need to stop the Philadelphia A’s from building the 'Spite Fence' along right field in Shibe Park and prevent the loss of income from the families’ rooftop bleachers across the street. The book is set against the backdrop of baseball’s Golden Era and the Great Depression.”
This premise intrigued me so I researched (ie: Googled) some more info about the Spite Fence in Shibe Park in the 1930’s. It’s a pretty interesting story. You’re from the Philadelphia area and an avid baseball fan so is this a story that you heard about at a young age or is this something that you discovered about Philadelphia’s history through some research? Was there anything that surprised you in your research for writing Goodbye, Mr. Spalding?
And then real quick, because it may not be relevant, but I’m a big NBA fan so I have to know do you and your family Trust the Process at all with the 76ers or do you all just stick with baseball when it comes to Philly sports?
In a follow up email on 1/9/18 at 8:18pm, Jennifer wrote:
Ha! I’ll answer the last question first. We are fully invested (ie, trusting the process with the 76ers)! Baseball is our favorite but we love all Philly sports (go Eagles!)
Then Jennifer wrote on 1/17/18 at 8:22am:
In Philadelphia the story of the rooftop bleachers is generally known among diehard baseball fans, especially those who went to Shibe Park (Connie Mack Stadium) as children, or who heard stories from their parents or grandparents. In fact, there are currently bleachers in right field of Citizen's Bank Park — where the Phillies play — that pay tribute to the right field rooftop bleacher seats on 20th Street at Shibe Park.
I first learned about the Spite Fence through Bruce Kuklick's book TO EVERY THING A SEASON. The wall, built in the Spring of 1935, and the reasons behind it, is really a fascinating nugget of baseball history. I started to then do my own research and realized that for the most part, everything I read was from an adult perspective. I began to think about what it would have been like for a 12-year-old living on that street, where baseball is something they lived and breathed everyday. More importantly, what would it would have been like for that to be taken away - along with a daily reminder every time they walked outside or opened their bedroom windows. That's basically where this story began - with, what would it have been like for the kids?
While researching the history, I really was surprised just about every day while researching this novel! The level of economic hardship for families was eye opening. Depression-era stories are often from a broad perspective, or generalized about soup lines. Seeing it with a daily lens, where every dime literally made a difference, was remarkable. On a lighter note, the freedom that the kids had in the neighborhood, and the stories of access - to the field and to the players - is almost hard to believe by today's standards. Most surprising was probably how building that Spite Fence created such a high level of friction and animosity among the homeowners. Shibe Park had been so well regarded, and there really was a sense of community, loyalty, and pride. Once the wall was built, the relationship between the Athletics and the neighborhood never fully recovered. While my story is fiction, all of this made for a great historical backdrop and setting.
Dane replied on 1/21/18 at 12:27pm:
Just reading your reply really puts things into perspective and helps to paint a picture of how important baseball must have been to the community back then—not just as a momentary escape from their problems, but also as a means to unify people together.
On a simpler note, it also calls to mind the countless afternoons I watched Cardinals baseball with my Grandpa growing up. When I watch the Cardinals now, even though it’s a different team of players, a newer stadium, different world, it still takes me back to those summer days at my grandparents’ house.
Sports have a way of bridging the gaps between generations, of linking the past with the present. In that way, and many others, I feel like Goodbye, Mr. Spalding will connect with readers both young and old.
Were there any personal baseball memories from your youth or more recent times that also inspired GOODBYE, MR. SPALDING? (Even if they didn’t make it into the book itself)
Jennifer replied on 1/24/18 at 7:24pm:
I hope! I'd love for Grandparents to be excited to share it with their grandchildren. At its heart, GOODBYE, MR. SPALDING is very much a story about friendship, and so I hope that everyone who comes to it for baseball will leave with much more.
My family talked about Shibe Park a little, but I don't have any personal baseball memories that made it into the book. I do distinctly remember watching the final out of the 1980 World Series on an old TV Console. I was eight years old and it's my first baseball memory. One of my favorite baseball memories was Kevin Millwood's no-hitter at Veteran's Stadium in 2003. It was my youngest daughter's first game - she was seven months old and it was the Phillie Phanatic's birthday. And of course, several years of post-season play starting in 2007 and the 2008 World Series are all great memories.
Dane replied on 1/25/18 at 5:01pm:
Thank you for sharing those memories. Hopefully, you'll have another Philadelphia sports memory to add to that list in the next couple of weeks.
This will be my second to last question.
Do you have any advice for writers who are just starting out?
Jennifer replied on 1/25/18 at 5:48pm:
The best thing I ever did was join the Society of Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI), and start to regularly attend their Pocono retreat. It's such a supportive environment and helped me find my writing group - three really incredible writers who have been instrumental in every step of my writing career. We meet often and consistently check in on one another, and that kind of support is essential to my own success. Another benefit of SCBWI - I first met my editor Carolyn Yoder when I attended her Historical Fiction intensive at the 2010 New Jersey conference. Seven years later she bought my debut novel!
Dane replied on 1/26/18 at 10:27am:
That's really great advice. Finding a group of writing peers is so important.
My last question comes in two parts (and in that way I'm cheating, because it's really just two questions).
1.) What's something that has inspired you lately? (It could be a book, movie, song, event, family, anything)
2.) Who will be the winner of the upcoming Super Bowl?
Jennifer replied on 1/27/18 at 2:44pm:
My family always inspire me! Everyday things that happen — I think about how that scene might work in what I am currently writing. I am finishing up a fun picture book whose subject matter was inspired by one of my favorite authors, and plan to turn that in (to our wonderful agent Tracy Marchini!) by the end of February.
Winner? Need you even ask?
Thank you so much for interviewing me. That was fun!
Jennifer Robin Barr is a picture book and middle grade author represented by Tracy Marchini of BookEnds Literary Agency. Be on the lookout for GOODBYE, MR. SPALDING in the Spring of 2019 from Calkins Creek. In the mean time, you can follow Jennifer on Twitter @JenniferRBarr and visit her website, here.