The mellifluous voice of Scott Simon can be heard every Saturday morning on NPR’s Weekend Edition and, come January, the award-winning host will also share his storytelling talents with a younger audience: Sunnyside Plaza, Simon’s debut middle grade novel, will be published by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers on January 21, 2020. The cover is revealed here for the first time.
Simon, who has won an Emmy, a Peabody, and every other major award in broadcasting for his personal essays, war reporting, and commentary, is already the author of eight books for adults, a mix of memoirs and novels. “My wife and I were talking about what to write next. ‘Do I write another memoir?,’ which I didn’t want to do. ‘Do I want to write a novel?’ Our children overheard us and from that came the idea to make this a father-daughter project,” he said. Simon has two daughters, Elise, 15, and Paulina, 12. He wrote about their adoption in Baby, We Were Meant for Each Other (Random House, 2010).
The result focuses on a group Simon had long wanted to write about: intellectually disabled adults. The novel’s title, Sunnyside Plaza, is the name of a fictionalized group home on the north side of Chicago, based on the center where Simon worked while attending the University of Chicago.
“I remember the first time I had walked in there being a little bit staggered. ‘How will I communicate with these folks? What I am doing here?’ ” he recalled. He figured it out. “It’s an overworked phrase, but it was a transformative experience for me.”
His night shift left him free to attend classes during the day and eventually pursue a career as a reporter. “I was charged with putting the people in my caseload to bed, helping them brush their teeth and wash their faces, lining them up to take their medications,” he said. “I loved it while knowing I didn’t want to do it for the rest of my life. I felt so blessed to have learned from them to be humble about looking into the lives of other people, and about not making judgments too quickly.”
In a departure from the conventions of children’s literature, the main character, Sally, is not a child. She is 19 and something of a savant. Her powers of observation come into play when fellow residents die in succession, and detectives from the Chicago police department start investigating. Simon’s manuscript consultants—Elise, Paulina, and Elise’s school friend, Adelaide Machado-Ulm—persuaded him it was okay to break with tradition.
“As an experiment, I tried three or four chapters in the voice of Miriam (the adolescent daughter of one of the detectives) and my readers were emphatic about it being a mistake,” Simon said. “The girls told me with Miriam narrating, it felt like every other middle grade book. Having Sal-Gal narrate opened up Sal’s mind to them.”
But writing in the voice of a developmentally disabled person was a challenge. “Writing is never easy but I am used to writing as myself,” he said. “This was altogether different but that was the value in doing it: to put myself in a position to recognize the features of the world around her that would mean something to her.”
Simon hopes that by shining a light on a population that is underrepresented in fiction, young readers will gain some understanding about the mentally disabled and the special gifts they have to offer.
“Having become a father, I’m in a position to know about the long-range power that middle grade literature can have on people,” he said. “I’ve looked for years for the right way to tell this story, but it took having daughters for me to understand how to do it.”
Sunnyside Plaza by Scott Simon. Little, Brown, $16.99 Jan. 21 ISBN 978-0-316-53120-7