Scott Simon’s voice wafted over the din of the crowds in the Exhibit Hall on Sunday in Philadelphia. But instead of relaying current news and events, as it does on NPR’s Weekend Edition Saturday every week, its distinctive timbre reminisced about working at a home for developmentally disabled adults while growing up on Chicago’s north side in the 1960s.
The revered radio broadcaster, journalist, and author joined Matthew Winner, host of The Children’s Podcast, for a live taping of the show on the Pop Top Stage before a packed crowd of Midwinter attendees. Simon has authored eight fiction and nonfiction books for adults, but his new book, Sunnyside Plaza (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, 2020) is his first work for kids. He said the time was right to tell this story, which draws heavily from his youth.
“Books you read as a middle grader stay with you the rest of your life,” he said. “I felt if I could tell this story for this age of reader, I may accomplish something.”
The book is named for the facility where Simon worked at age 19 as an overnight case aide. He said the experience was transformative. He admitted that when he first started the job, he considered it little more than a time killer that allowed him to listen to broadcasts of Cubs games and read, but that changed. He soon began to understand that the people living there lived large, challenging, engaging lives.
“They looked past things that separate us in life like race and age,” he said. “I found myself caught up in admiration for them.”
The book’s main character is a 19-year-old woman who lives and works in the home. While inspired by his experiences, Simon said he had to remove himself from the story.
“It was important for me to tell the story in the voice of someone who lived there,” he said. “I wanted them to have agency. It would be wrong to have an adolescent savior come in [and frame their story].” Instead, readers meet Sally and the residents of Sunnyside Plaza as a murder mystery unfolds around them in the facility. Simon said the device let him introduce characters from outside the home into the story and show both the good and bad ways in which they interact with the Sunnyside residents. He hoped it would show how we all need to practice kindness.
Simon elaborated further on his Chicago youth during the Q & A session. When asked about the influence of libraries on his life growing up, he was effusive with praise.
“I can’t tell you how important libraries were to my life,” he said. He recalled taking the train as a kid from his home in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood downtown to the Chicago Public Library, where he would wander in the stacks. He was particularly astonished that no one stopped him whenever he would roam into the adult section, full of questions for staffers about the new books he’d discover.
“Every librarian was so important to me,” he said. “You could ask them anything.”