This quote by award-winning author Ali Standish aptly describes the elements that converge in her newest book, Yonder (HarperCollins 2022): the magic and wonder of being a young person in the world alongside the real-world effects of war, family violence, and prejudice on a community. We recently had the opportunity to speak to Ali about the process of researching and writing this story, and we're excited to share it with you here!
Ali, thank you so much for speaking with us about your upcoming book, Yonder. We are so happy to be featuring it on School Library Connection with an Educator Guide and to get to hear more about your process bringing this story to life.
I'd like to begin our conversation by inviting you to set the stage for our readers. Could you tell us a little more about the setting, time, and central voices in Yonder?
Ali Standish: Of course! And thank you so much for having me. Yonder is set in the fictional town of Foggy Gap, located in the North Carolina Blue Ridge Mountains. The story spans the years from the late 1930s to the early 1940s. Its narrator is Danny Timmons, an almost-thirteen-year-old boy who is coming of age during World War II. Danny's father has enlisted, his mother is pregnant, and he is surrounded by daily reminders of the war. With so much on his mind and shoulders, he leans into his budding friendship with local town hero, Jack Bailey, at the same time that he is withdrawing from his childhood best friend—a Nancy Drew-obsessed girl named Lou Maguire—for reasons we don't understand at first. When Jack suddenly goes missing, Danny is determined to find him, but his search leads him to more questions—questions about the war, justice, and small-town America that have no easy answers. His journey is guided in part by his mother, whose open-mindedness has made her a bit of an outcast, and also intersects with the Musgraves, a Black family who find themselves forced in an impossible situation.
You packed so much story into that brief summary—thank you! There is a lot at stake for Danny, but also a lot at stake in the larger world at war. What compelled you to write about this place and time?
AS: Initially, my interest in the American homefront started with reading about Japanese internment camps. I read novels, memoirs, and non-fiction accounts and even visited the site of the Rohwer Internment Camp in Arkansas. I had known about Japanese internment, but this experience really made concrete for me the terrible injustice of it. That was my entry point into thinking more critically about the way Americans generally view our country's role in World War II, and the stories that have gotten lost or been buried to serve a specific narrative about America. Don't get me wrong…so many Americans fought heroically abroad and sacrificed selflessly at home, and we should celebrate and honor that. But not at the expense of forgetting about and learning from the ways America failed to uphold the very values we were fighting for.
I decided to set this novel in the Blue Ridge because my grandfather grew up there, in a town a bit like Foggy Gap. He didn't serve in the war, but my great uncle did. Around the time I got interested in researching the war years, my mom shared a family story with me. My great grandfather was the station master in town, so he was the one who received the morse code telegraph informing him that his son had gone missing in action (his body was never recovered). That story really stuck with me, and really centered my imagination around what the war must have been like for the people in a small mountain town—so isolated from the conflict geographically, yet tangled up in the war all the same.
What a rich historical entry point to give context to your story. And thank you for sharing that family history with us; it surely fueled the setting, emotion, and relationships in the book.
Jack and Danny's friendship feels like an engine driving the narrative, even though Jack is mostly physically absent from the page. Can you talk a little more about what themes you hope Jack and this relationship between the boys draws out in this story?
AS: All kids have heroes. Often times, there is someone in their lives—a friend, mentor, or family member—whom they idolize. Jack, who is a bit older and seems to embody courage and loyalty, is that person for Danny. But when we label someone as a hero, it comes at a cost. We can easily overlook their flaws, fears, and vulnerabilities. I think many of us also have a tendency to hide behind our heroes. It can be easier to abdicate agency and moral responsibility to them rather than to take those things on for ourselves. In his search to find Jack, Danny is confronted by how his own limited perspective might have contributed to Jack's disappearance.
I see how this story, and some of your other books as well, push on the themes of personal responsibility and complicity. Flawed adults and adult decision-making, for example, appear in many of your stories in ways that are both frightening but also drawn with care and love. Can you speak to what compels you to include this perspective in middle grade literature, and how it works in Yonder?
AS: I can't imagine many people are looking around at the world today and thinking, "Wow! Look where all our great adult decision-making has brought us. I think we've got it all figured out now! Our kids will have it so easy." There's not a kid on this planet who isn't affected by the flawed decisions of adults, from presidents right down to parents. It is important to me to be upfront about that. Otherwise, kids can take on blame and guilt for things they don't have control over, which goes back to that label of "hero." For a lot of kids, parents or other important adults might seem infallible, which can make it hard to accept that they are flawed and make mistakes, too. It's all too easy for a child to assume responsibility for an adult's decision to, say, leave the family or raise a fist to them. It's also important to be transparent about our flaws so that kids know they don't have to be perfect.
In Yonder, Danny starts to see how great societal wrongs are made up of many small ones. It's this ability to recognize the flaws of the adults around him that makes him determined to break free of them, and to right his own wrongs.
Yes, and to bring those realistic flaws into children's literature is so important, so they can see their own worlds reflected there. At the same time, against this backdrop of real-world loss and violence, your stories often explore the magical and fantastic. Can you share more about integrating these elements, and how you hope this tension/blending speaks to your middle grade readers?
AS: There's a quote I love, which has variously been attributed to William Butler Yeats and Paul Élaurd: "There is another world, but it is in this one." This is an idea that fascinates me. As I grew into adolescence, I had to reconcile the small, safe existence that I had always known with the troubled world I started seeing on the news and experiencing for myself as I left childhood behind. There was no Hogwarts letter coming for me, and no magical wardrobe that would transport me to another realm. But I started to wonder, was there room inside a deeply flawed world for a charmed one? Can we find pockets of unexpected possibility and even magic within our world and ourselves? I think we can. I actually think it's a crucial skill to have, particularly when we are going through dark times. I hope that in blending real-world adversities with touches of magic, kids see that they can hold onto both things at once: darkness and light; fear and hope; sorrow and salvation.
I think many of our readers will relate to this sentiment—and perhaps even see literature as one of the ways students get to experience and explore all these multiplicities of life.
Finally, could you share with us some of the books that inspired you as you were creating this story, or that you used as preparation to build the world of Yonder?
AS: Of course. Part of the reason I was excited to write a book set on the American homefront is because there are so few across any category you look at really. Lauren Wolk's incredible Wolf Hollow is one of the only children's books I can think of that is set in the U.S. during the war years (I am so excited to read the sequel later this spring!). And that's a shame, because there's so much young people can learn from understanding how those who aren't directly involved in conflict, violence or war can still play a crucial part in fighting for justice. Kimberly Brubaker Bradley's The War that Saved my Life and The War I Finally Won (set in England) are also excellent novels that highlight the power one individual can have, even in a time of vast suffering.
One book that was tremendously helpful with research was Alistair Cooke's The American Homefront 1941-1942. Cooke traveled the country during these years, creating intimate little sketches of daily life in different communities. Listening to broadcasts by Edward R. Murrow and President Roosevelt's Fireside Chats was also very illuminating. But the most important source of research for me was the oral histories I collected from folks who were children and teenagers during the war. They painted a complex and poignant picture of what it was like to be young during this time of great upheaval and moral reckoning.
Is there anything else that you would like to share with our librarian community?
AS: Really, I just want to pass on my thanks to you all for connecting young readers with the books and stories they need and deserve. I am even more grateful for your work during these difficult times. I'm sure nobody becomes a librarian because they want to be in politics, and yet the profession has now become so politicized. I can only imagine the pressure and difficult position many of you have found yourselves in. I'm preaching to the choir when I say that when you give a child a book, you're giving them so much more. Empathy, courage, friendship, self-acceptance…the list goes on. Thank you, thank you, thank you for these invaluable gifts you give to our young people.
Thank you so much for speaking with us, Ali!
To help you make the most of this title in the library and classroom, SLC has an Educator Guide on Yonder, complete with curriculum ideas, classroom-ready activities, and book pairings. For more about Ali Standish, visit https://www.alistandish.com/, and don't forget to read our review of Yonder.
Books that Inspired Ali Standish when Working on Yonder
Dear Miss Breed: True Stories of the Japanese American Incarceration During World War II and a Librarian Who Made a Difference by Joanne Oppenheim (Scholastic 2006 )
Farewell to Manzanar: A True Story of Japanese American Experience During and After the World War II Internment by Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston, James D. Houston (Houghton Mifflin 2002)
Infamy: The Shocking Story of the Japanese American Internment in World War II by Richard Reeves (Henry Holt and Company 2015)
The American Homefront 1941-1942 by Alistair Cooke (Grove Press 2006)
The War that Saved my Life Kimberly Brubaker Bradley (Puffin Books 2016)
The War I Finally Won by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley (Puffin Books 2018)
Wolf Hollow by Lauren Wolk (Puffin Books 2018)