Aurora County, Miss., the mythical setting of Deborah Wiles' new book for young readers, may not contain wizards or warlords, but it is as fantastic a place as any Harry Potter could inhabit. Here, kids spend summers playing pickup games of baseball, wander the area without adults and have plenty of time to ponder life's meaning.
"I have lived those simple summers," Wiles said in a phone interview from her Georgia home. Thanks in part to Los Altos bookstore Linden Tree Children's Recordings & Books, Wiles will visit the area next week to promote her latest book, "The Aurora County All-Stars" (Harcourt Children's Books, 2007).
Probably one of the few books simultaneously inspired by baseball great Sandy Koufax, poet Walt Whitman and the Civil Rights Act, "The Aurora County All-Stars" is part three of Wiles' award-winning southern trilogy by the same publisher that includes "Love, Ruby Lavender" and "Each Little Bird That Sings." All take place in the same Mississippi setting, but the latest is the first told from a boy's perspective.
"I tried to make a timeless feel," Wiles said. Yet timeless doesn't mean dated. "I want to rely on the story itself but not with the trappings of modern life," she added. Thus, while Wiles said she assumes her characters actually own computers and television sets, plots develop without any electronic help.
On the surface, this is the story of 12-year-old House Jackson and his attempts to make sure his ragtag baseball team plays in its one and only game of the year, scheduled July 4. Standing in the way of the self-proclaimed "All-Stars" are the town "mamas" and 14-year-old queen bee and House arch-nemesis Frances (who after studying French calls herself Finesse), who want to put on a variety show at the same time.
As the person who broke House's pitching arm before last summer's big game, Finesse is held in special disdain ("skinny and bumpy as a green bean."). Of course, House and Frances soon discover they have more in common than they had imagined. By throwing in a mysterious dead man who has left House a clue in the form of a Walt Whitman poem, betrayals, surprising friendships and racial injustices, "All-Stars" has plenty of action to keep it hopping.
Wiles' own experiences as a Southerner provide the book's special touches, right down to the dog, "Eudora Welty" (after the Mississippi Pulitzer Prize winner), renamed "YouDoggie" by House's sister Honey. But will children raised in Silicon Valley respond to such regional touches?
"You don't have to know who Eudora Welty is to appreciate the name," Wiles said. "Kids are able to say, 'That's the world she (the author) created for us' and go with it. Children are great suspenders of disbelief."
The real treat for readers is the setting of Aurora County, loosely based on Jasper County, Miss., where Wiles had "kin." The daughter of an air force pilot, Wiles grew up all over the world, but each summer she returned to Mississippi. "My stories come from the place where I was loved so truly," Wiles said. "I learned it can be all glory and grief mixed in together - and that's what I write about."
Part of that "grief" was the racial inequity Wiles witnessed. In 1964, an 11-year-old Wiles saw the local Mississippi pool close rather than allow blacks entry. "As a white child, I could do everything but just didn't realize it," Wiles said. "Why is the pool closed, I wondered? I never did get a good answer."
"All-Stars" originated as an eight-part series commissioned by the Boston Globe. Because the Globe specified that it wanted boy readers to be interested, Wiles thought back to the love she and her brother had for baseball. Soon she had multiple threads of baseball, a dead guy and the South. "Somehow Walt Whitman walked into it," she said.
Yet Whitman was a natural. "The theme in all my books is the connectedness - that we are all connected," Wiles said. "This theme came to me when reading Whitman's 'Song of Myself' in high school. I created a hodgepodge of what I loved and said 'Deb, you believe in connectedness, you put it all together.'"
Wiles is scheduled to speak at Stevens Creek Elementary School in Cupertino Sept. 19.
"She's really a rising star, and we're happy to have her," said Linden Tree owner Dennis Ronberg, who arranged Wiles' appearance.
Among Wiles' other Bay Area appearances is a scheduled stop at Hicklebee's bookstore in San Jose Sept. 20.
Wiles' books are available on Amazon.com.