In award-winning author Laurel Snyder’s middle-grade novels, setting plays an important role. And her newest novel, “My Jasper June,” follows suit. In fact, it reads like a Valentine to Snyder’s own neighborhood, Ormewood Park.
Wedged between Grant Park and East Atlanta Village, Ormewood Park is a family-friendly neighborhood of Craftsman bungalows and brick cottages in southeast Atlanta famous for its over-the-top Halloween celebration. Local landmarks Joe’s East Atlanta Coffee Shop, Morelli’s Gourmet Ice Cream and the Grant Park pool figure prominently in the new book.
Originally from Baltimore, Snyder, 45, and her family — husband Chris Poma, 44, and sons Mose, 13, and Lewis, 12 — wound up in Ormewood Park by design.
The family was living in nearby East Lake Terrace in 2007. “We had no money. I couldn’t afford to do anything. I was in the house all day with the baby with no one to talk to and nothing to do,” Snyder recalled.
She began to hear about a church basement where parents gathered to socialize while their kids played together.
“I put the kids in the car and started driving around looking for this mythical playroom, and I saw these two women with strollers walking, and I followed them in my car,” Snyder said. “I walked in, and there was this group of smiling women in an air-conditioned room that smelled like coffee. It was exactly what I needed.”
The place was Ormewood Church, and there Snyder found her tribe. (The “mythical playground” in the basement has since been consumed by the church’s pre-school program, but there are an outdoor playground and dog park on the grounds today.)
It was there that Snyder began writing again after becoming a mother, and the family moved to the neighborhood in 2010.
RELATED: Pakistani retelling of ‘Pride and Prejudice’
Ormewood Park is significant to “My Jasper June” because, “very few things are working in the lives of the people in this book, and the neighborhood is a solid and stabilizing and sane thing,” said Snyder, who shares her characters’ sentiment. “When other parts of my life aren’t working,” she said, “living here does.”
“My Jasper June” unfolds over the course of a single summer month when Leah, whose family is grappling with the aftermath of a tragedy, befriends a free-spirited girl named Jasper whose independent nature belies the fact she is in over her head with a difficult family situation.
The book deals with serious subject matter like death, depression and negligent parents, all topics Snyder says kids in her target age range of 12 and 13 are experiencing in real life.
“Death is not something kids don’t experience. Financial insecurity is not something kids don’t experience. Unfit parenting is not something kids don’t experience. These are things in the world,” Snyder said. “Books are a safe way to engage with something that is scary to you.”
One of the book’s major themes is kids keeping secrets from their parents.
“I was struck by the difference between kids today and kids when we were kids,” she said about her inspiration for the novel. “I found myself thinking that if something dramatic were happening in my son’s life, certainly as a parent I would hope that he would come talk to me. Kids today are different in that way. When I was a kid, the things that were happening in my life were secrets.”
In the novel, Snyder set out to explore whether “kids today feel that push and pull in the same way between knowing they’re supposed to tell their parents things and, because they’re adolescents and they’re starting to get ready to be independent, wanting to manage it and handle it on their own.”
“My Jasper June” was published Sept. 3, the same day Snyder’s children’s picture book, “Hungry Jim,” illustrated by Chuck Groenink, came out. Both books are follow-ups to Snyder’s biggest professional successes to date: middle-grade novel “Orphan Island,” which was long-listed for the National Book Award, and children’s picture book “Charlie & Mouse,” which won the Theodor Seuss Geisel Award. Both were published in 2017.
For her own well-being, Snyder said she’s striving to keep the pressure to match or surpass those successes in check.
“I’ve decided to treat ‘Orphan Island’ like my peak,” she said. And not just ‘Orphan Island,’ but ‘Charlie & Mouse,’ too. Like, 2017 was a special year for me, and if nothing else ever rises to that level, then I’m totally OK with that. I’m going to keep writing the work that I’m writing, and I hope that it finds its readers.
“There are lots of ways to measure success,” she continued. “When I get an email from a kid about a book they’ve read that touched them, that is success in a totally different way but an equal way.”
Earlier this year Snyder became a target of Twitter trolls after she was invited to speak at a private school in Los Angeles attended by the child of actor Scott Baio, a vocal Trump supporter with a history of stirring Twitter storms. Unprompted, Baio dug deep through Snyder’s Twitter posts and reposted some of her tweets that criticized Trump’s state of the union address, including one that likened his speech to “echoes of the Holocaust.”
“There was nothing (political) about my books or the promotional materials,” said Snyder. “I am a very political creature like a lot of people, but my political stuff doesn’t come into the classroom. So I think what happened is he spent a bunch of time Googling me and he found these tweets and then reposted them.”
Baio’s many followers jumped in the fray and attacked Snyder on Twitter, some of them making threats including one that posted a picture of a body bag. Snyder’s supporters came to her defense, but she refused to engage, choosing instead to shut down her account until it blew over.
In retrospect, Snyder said, “I stand by my tweets.” But, she admitted, “There were a few lines that I looked back and thought, did I need that language in that moment? Where I sort of asked myself as a public voice, did I need that language? I’m not sure. We’re in strange days.” She paused, and then continued: “But I’m sorry, if you look around, I don’t know how you can say that those echoes aren’t in our world today.”
Up next for Snyder is a graphic memoir about her childhood in Baltimore and another middle-grade novel that’s set, once again, in her favorite Atlanta neighborhood, Ormewood Park.
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.