A Place, A Name, A Story by Elana K. Arnold
I was a kid who frequently felt—and frequently was—displaced. Isn’t that a wonderful word—displaced? It says so exactly what it means: “dis” means “not,” or “the opposite of,” and “placed,” of course: “to put something in a particular position.”
By the age of eleven, I’d moved at least that many times. In addition to moves from one part of the state to another, we also moved from neighborhood to neighborhood within my hometown of Long Beach, California, and sometimes (for reasons still unclear to me), I was moved from school to school, often mid-year.
This resulted in displacements great and small: teachers, who served as lifelines, yanked from my grasp; friendships, which came so hard for me, broken before they’d grown roots; my sense of who I was and how I fit in fractured, again and again.
Maybe it’s because of these displacements that I fell so deeply in love with settings in stories—particularly small, knowable places. Villages and towns where characters knew the names of neighbors’ dogs, where the scooper at the ice cream shoppe knew the protagonist’s order by heart.
How I longed for such a cozy place. How I longed to know a place, and to belong to one. So I suppose it’s no surprise that when I set out to write a new series for young readers, I began first of all with setting.
And, considering when I began work on JUST HARRIET, it makes double sense that I was compelled to write about a cozy, safe location—moreover, a vacation spot. Harriet’s grandmother Nanu runs the Bric-a-Brac Bed & Breakfast on Marble Island… the closest I would come to a real vacation for a very long time. I began work on this novel in the winter of 2020.
I’ll bet you know where you were in the winter of 2020. Maybe, like me, you spent days and weeks on your couch, obsessively watching the news and the rising COVID numbers. Maybe you were in the kitchen, washing your hands, and then washing them again.
Maybe, like me, you were anxious about going outside at all, holding your breath in your own yard if you heard a neighbor speaking across the wall.
If you were in similar places, doing similar things, imagine how thrilled you would be if a new voice started talking in your ear—the voice of a matter-of-fact kid who had a lot to say.
“My name is Harriet Wermer,” the voice told me. “There are some things you should know about me before I tell you everything else. Let’s start with the worst things first.”
Almost always, my characters begin with my own self. This was absolutely true of my beloved Bixby Alexander Tam—BAT, for short—and it’s true about Harriet Wermer, as well. Harriet and I have a lot in common. Our love of animals, for one. And our shared anxiety, for another.
We differ, though, in how we deal with anxiety. Something I admire about Harriet is her ability to act out her big feelings, even if she doesn’t always choose the most mature way to do so. Where Harriet’s emotions radiate outward, mine have always been turned inward.
In the winter of 2020, the ground beneath both Harriet and me was shifting without our permission. Our worlds were changing and reforming in big and scary ways. Harriet’s problems were more individual and specific than mine; while I feared the worldwide health crisis, Harriet was stewing over a soon-to-be addition to her household in the form of an expected baby brother and fretting about her mother’s bedrest. And by the third chapter, Harriet was boarding a ferry to Marble Island, dragging along her cat Matzo Ball. Whether she liked it or not (she did not), she would be spending the summer at Nanu’s Bric-a-Brac B & B.
Adventure awaited on Marble Island. Opportunities for Harriet to go outside her comfort zone, and opportunities for me to go outside, too, even if in my own imagination. Harriet wasn’t thrilled to be leaving home, but I sure was.
Setting. Character. Now all I needed was a plot.
Finding that proved to be another story altogether.
Luckily, I had lots of time to sort it out; I wasn’t going anywhere. Marble Island turned out to be the perfect place for aninquisitive, curious kid to begin solving the small mysteries of island life (like what the big, old-fashioned key might open), and the big mysteries, too—the human mysteries that can take a lifetime to solve.
I hope that Marble Island, Nanu’s Bric-a-Brac Bed & Breakfast, and even Harriet herself will feel to readers like a comfortable homecoming, a great big hug, an opportunity to explore and grow… and meet new animal friends, too, of course.
ABOUT THE BOOK
From the award-winning author of A Boy Called Bat comes a new young middle grade series in the tradition of Ramona and Clementine, starring an unforgettable girl named Harriet.
There are a few things you should know about Harriet Wermer:
- She just finished third grade.
- She has a perfect cat named Matzo Ball.
- She doesn’t always tell the truth.
- She is very happy to be spending summer vacation away from home and her mom and dad and all the wonderful things she had been planning all year.
Okay, maybe that last one isn’t entirely the truth.
Of course, there’s nothing Harriet doesn’t like about Marble Island, the small island off the coast of California where her nanu runs a cozy little bed and breakfast. And nobody doesn’t love Moneypenny, Nanu’s old basset hound. But Harriet doesn’t like the fact that Dad made this decision without even asking her.
When Harriet arrives on Marble Island, however, she discovers that it’s full of surprises, and even a mystery. One that seems to involve her Dad, back when he was a young boy living on Marble Island. One that Harriet is absolutely going to solve. And that’s the truth.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Elana K. Arnold is the author of critically acclaimed and award-winning young adult novels and children’s books, including the Printz Honor winner Damsel and the National Book Award finalist What Girls Are Made Of. Several of her books are Junior Library Guild selections and have appeared on many best book lists, including the Amelia Bloomer Project, a catalog of feminist titles for young readers. Elana teaches in Hamline University’s MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults program and lives in Southern California with her family and menagerie of pets. You can visit her online at www.elanakarnold.com.
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