Through their deep friendship, two girls – African-American Jemmie, and Cass, who is white – teach a lesson in racial tolerance to the residents of their working-class Florida town. This story, told in 2000’s Crossing Jordan, Adrian Fogelin’s debut book for young readers, sparked subsequent middle-grade novels in the writer’s Neighborhood sequence: Anna Casey’s Place in the World, My Brother’s Hero, The Big Nothing, and The Sorta Sisters. The story arc draws to a close in Some Kind of Magic, the sixth installment, which Peachtree is releasing this month. Since fall 2011, as the paperback editions of the novels come up for reprint, the publisher has been releasing them with a new, uniform cover design.
Fogelin literally found inspiration for Crossing Jordan and its follow-up novels just outside the windows of her Tallahassee, Fla., home. The author recalled how, in the late 1990s, her nine-year-old next-door-neighbor told her their family was moving because there were too many black people moving into the neighborhood. Soon after that, the child and her family did indeed move away. “I began thinking about how listening to her parents’ opinions had influenced this girl, who was trying to figure out her place in the world,” said Fogelin. “I was spontaneously moved to write a story about a white family that builds a fence when they learn their new neighbors are black, and that became Crossing Jordan.”
Though the author did not envision the novel as the first of six set in the same locale, Jemmie, Cass, and their friends and families took a firm hold on her imagination. “After writing Crossing Jordan, I started missing the characters,” she said. “I realized I wanted to go back and tell a story from another person’s perspective – almost as though I was passing a camera around the neighborhood – to discover what each kid was thinking and seeing.”
Setting the Neighborhood novels on her home turf led to a bona fide hybrid of the real and fictional. “As a writer, I mine my life all the time, and sometimes the characters in my books say and do the same thing as the kids in my neighborhood,” Fogelin said. “I take a lot of notes! That’s one of the reasons that I’m not a planner as a writer. Serendipity really guides my writing, since something will happen and I’ll decide to use it.”
A Library Offering Benefits for All
One venue that provides constant interaction with her young neighbors and fuels Fogelin’s creative muse is [the Front Porch Library]thefrontporchlibrary.com, which she and a neighbor established six years ago in the author’s late father’s home, right across the street from her own house.
“When my father died, I didn’t want to part with his house, and began collecting children’s books, some donated by authors, and displaying them there,” said Fogelin. “This is a transient neighborhood, and families do not have many resources, so I wanted to use this as an opportunity to offer kids access to books and fun learning activities. The library has been such an enlarging experience for me, and is a wonderful way to keep in touch with kids. I feel as though I give them something, and they do the same for me – which is why my books are mostly based on real kids!”
The ages of the Neighborhood characters – who in Some Kind of Magic spend their last summer together before entering high school – led Fogelin and Vicky Holifield, the author’s longtime editor at Peachtree, to recognize that this would provide a chronologically fitting send-off for Jemmie, Cass, and crew. But their legacy, and the lessons the author offers in her stories, will clearly endure.
“In her Neighborhood novels, Adrian has created a safe place for kids to be, with genuine characters readers can identify with,” said Holifield, who noted that the books have been especially successful in the institutional market. “Over the years, we’ve heard from so many teachers and librarians commenting on what marvelous teaching opportunities these novels present – on everything from race relations to class distinctions to protecting the environment. And they also appreciate that Adrian offers a view into a world where genuine kids can and do make a difference.”
Fogelin, who is currently finishing a novel for adults, said she will wait for the next creative idea to find her, noting, “I know it will come along, but it’s not here yet, so I’ll wait to see what happens!” Though sorry to leave her Neighborhood characters behind, she believes that her friendship with them will continue – as will their impact on young readers.
“I feel as though, with these novels, I am a voice for, and am giving a presence to, low-income kids who don’t see themselves in fiction very often,” she said. “At the same time, I hope to give more affluent kids a chance to enter my characters’ lives and gain a better understanding of the fact that ours is not a level playing field. It’s the old mirror and window thing – I hope my novels provide a bit of both.”
Some Kind of Magic: A Neighborhood Novel by Adrian Fogelin. Peachtree, $15.95 Apr. ISBN 978-1-56145-820-2