Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Book Nook: Silent Lee and the Adventure of the Side Door Key

Alex Hiam's new middle grade release, Silent Lee and the Adventure of the Side Door Key is giving tween readers a sneak peek at Boston's popular Back Bay area and Newbury St, known as "Boston's most enchanting street." The story visits old magical Boston as well as new contemporary Boston. With Harvard educated Hiam's backstory about the area, he weaves in exciting twists in the book that will no doubt make kids excited to visit Bean Town!

He explains, "The two Bostons of the story are both quite personal and unique to my own experiences. I recall walking up and down Newbury Street when I was in college. I fell in love with the stately old houses hiding behind the modern signs, and with the old library building and churches that hint at some deeper, hidden history and mystery. And I also have childhood memories of an old fashioned Boston from visiting my Great Grandmother when she was living on Dartmouth Street in an antique mansion. She told stories about a much earlier Boston. And my brother and I found a hidden door in her dining room to a secret staircase that led all the way up to the attic--which was full of mysterious old chests and odd items. So Silent Lee’s side door world is rooted in my memories of Boston from a Century ago as revealed by the magic of my great grandmother’s frozen-in-time house. I’d say that’s a pretty unique view of Boston’s history."

I had a chance to post this interview to learn more.

How has your personal story of adoption inspired your writing?
My twin brother and I were adopted from an orphanage in Chicago. We knew that growing up, but we didn’t know anything else. The mystery of who our birth parents were was tantalizing all through my childhood and I imagined a lot of options, but never had a way to discover anything factual until much later in life. This feeling of mystery that many adopted children have is something Silent also feels when she begins to get clues that her mother is not really her mother. It’s heightened for her because her mother doesn’t act motherly. She isn’t raising her, and she turns out to be at the center of a dastardly plot. As she solves the mystery in the book and rescues the aunt who raised her, she also gathers clues as to her real parentage. But she doesn’t solve the entire mystery of her parentage--any more than I did. It will be a series of small reveals, not all of them what she might have expected or wanted, just like it has been for me. Also, my daughter Sadie was a very sweet little toddler when I first met my wife and it’s been my great pleasure to adopt and raise her.

Are the Silent Lee characters modeled after any family members in particular?
Definitely! I have three daughters and one daughter-in-law, and all of them are strong- minded and brave and would make great lead characters in any adventure story. But my daughter Sadie is closest to Silent Lee in several ways. I always imagined Silent as looking like Sadie when I was writing, which helped me bring the character to life more fully. Sadie is turning fifteen, and Silent is turning sixteen, so I also wanted Silent to be sort of a role model for Sadie-- a slightly older, and very brave and determined character who handles all sorts of challenges and adventures. This sort of book is not only a great adventure with an exciting plot, it’s also a classic coming of age story where the teens rise to what are really quite adult and difficult challenges and they have to take the lead when the adult characters fail them. The other thing about Silent is that I envision her, just like Sadie, as a biracial teen, making her a strong lead character that is easy for a reader of color to identify with. That’s important to my daughters, who often remark on how shows, books and movies seem to under- represent them.

Oh, and Sadie is my first reader and editor for all my YA and middle-grade stories, and so it was really fun to work on the characters with her help. She gave them some of her intelligence and spirit and helped make them more like real teenagers. She gets editorial credit in the front of the book.

Why is it important for you to create strong, non-traditional female protagonists in your books?
Because those are the characters my own daughters are looking for in their reading, but still seem to be in short supply in the mainstream of storytelling (although it’s definitely getting better!). You might, if you haven’t experienced it personally, be surprised at how hard it is even to put up posters or paintings at home that represent what we’re terming non-traditional’ girls and young women. After all, the dominant culture in this country is European in origin.

Also, I’ll just say that, right now my teenager (who is most exposed to the news) senses some anger toward people of color and also a throwback attitude toward women, etc. So it’s natural that she’d need, and be drawn to, strong, non-traditional female protagonists to balance these other messages she hears.

As a child, writer and artist Alex Hiam spent holidays in the mysterious Boston mansion of his great-grandmother on Dartmouth Street. A graduate of Harvard College and UC Berkeley, Hiam was awarded the English Department’s Arnold Prize. But the honor he is most proud of was being entrusted as a student with the key to the iron gates of Mount Auburn Cemetery, where he would let himself in at dawn on Spring mornings to study the migrating birds before the rest of Cambridge awoke. Previously a teacher at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, today he teaches Making Writing Exciting! at North Star, a learning center for self-directed teens. He has sailed the Atlantic, Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean, logging thousands of nautical miles and plans someday to write a book about pirates. Hiam lives with his wife and daughters in an old farmhouse in Amherst,
Connect with Alex Hiam at alexhiam.com 
Silent Lee and the Adventure of the Side Door Key is available on Amazon, IndieBound, and
wherever books are sold.

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