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A job he had at age 19 inspired Scott Simon’s new ‘Sunnyside Place’

By Mary Quattlebaum Special to the Washington Post

Hot dogs, peanuts, an orderly green field: Sal Miyake loves everything about her first baseball game – a love shared by author Scott Simon as a kid at Wrigley Field in Chicago.

Sal is the main character in Simon’s first middle-grade novel, “Sunnyside Plaza.” To create her world, Simon drew upon his job at a halfway house when he was 19 years old. He cared for adults with mental disabilities. Working the evening shift, he made sure they brushed their teeth and took their medication before bedtime.

“All my life I’ve wanted to write about that experience,” said Simon, a journalist who hosts Weekend Edition Saturday for National Public Radio. He said the job changed his life.

Like Simon’s long-ago clients, Sal lives in a home for adults with mental challenges. It’s called Sunnyside Plaza. Sal is kind and hardworking, and she helps the cook in the kitchen every day.

She is also very observant. Sal may not be able to read, but she notices details that others often miss. When some of her Sunnyside friends begin to die, Sal tries to figure out why. Because of her disability, people don’t always take her seriously, but others help, sometimes in surprising ways.

At the halfway house, “I enjoyed getting to know people who at first blush seemed a world away from me,” said Simon by phone from Normandy, France, where he and his family celebrated the holidays. “Then I realized how much we had in common. We talked and joked. I liked spending time with them.”

One of Simon’s favorite memories: taking 12 of the residents to a Chicago Cubs game, where their amazement mirrors Sal’s in the book.

Simon based Sal on several people he knew, and he did additional research to make sure her voice and perspective are believable.

But he had a big challenge. Sal is 19 years old – whereas most main characters in kids’ books are about the same age as their readers. So Simon decided to rewrite the novel from the point of view of the 12-year-old daughter of a detective who befriends Sal.

He then showed the new draft to three insightful critics: his daughters, Paulina, 13, and Elise, 16, and Elise’s friend Adelaide Machado-Ulm, 16.

Their verdict: It’s good but not as interesting.

When Simon shared their feedback with his editor, she agreed with the girls, and he returned to Sal as his first-person narrator.

“I wanted to get all this right,” said Simon. “The books you read when you’re young really stay with you.”

For him, this meant the classics his mother steered him to, including favorites “Black Beauty” by Anna Sewell and “A Tale of Two Cities” by Charles Dickens.

Simon, who lives in Washington, D.C., also writes books for adults, and he just finished a play. How does a busy journalist and father find time for all these projects?

“I get up at 5 in the morning and write until 6:45,” when the family wakes up, said Simon. He wants to give himself quiet time before his fast-paced job begins. He wants to inhabit his characters, to put himself into “another mind, another heart.”

And with Sal, that meant the mind and heart of a fellow baseball fan.

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