With its abundance of natural beauty, its easy access to the ocean and the bay, and its no-shoes lifestyle, South Mission Beach was a great place to grow up back in the day. Even if that day was during the early 1940s, when World War II was raging and San Diego was a big part of the wartime action.
Comfort and escape during a scary time. That’s what author Karen Cushman visualized when she thought about the joys of a San Diego childhood. Even if that childhood wasn’t hers.
For 50-plus years, Cushman’s husband, Philip, had been telling her stories about the barefoot joys of growing up in South Mission Beach. About fishing for perch and floating in a rowboat in the middle of the bay with a good book and a perpetual sunburn. Cushman liked the sound of it. All of it.
“I wanted to write about it, so I started thinking about who I could put there who would benefit from the solace and comfort that the bay brought to Phil,” Cushman said during a phone interview from the couple’s home on Vashon Island, near Seattle.
“I thought about someone who is anxious and fearful and worried. Someone who had a good reason to be anxious and fearful and worried because of the war. That was how Millie was born.”
Millie is the 12-year-old heroine of “War and Millie McGonigle,” the latest novel for young readers from Cushman, the author of the Newbery Medal-winning “The Midwife’s Apprentice” and the Newbery Honor-winning “Catherine, Called Birdy.”
Millie lives with her parents and her younger brother and sister in a small cottage in South Mission Beach. When the book opens, it is September of 1941. Millie’s father is out of work, her mother is trying to keep Millie and her siblings fed and clothed on a slip of a shoestring budget, and Millie is mourning the loss of her beloved grandmother.
Then there is the war, which comes to Millie through frightening newsreels, alarming radio broadcasts and the sound of planes flying overheard. They are U.S. planes, but still.
In “War and Millie McGonigle,” Millie is in the tight grip of larger forces that she can’t control. But exploring the mudflats and communing with pelicans, seagulls and the occasional blue heron help Millie cope with the many challenges facing her and her family, not to mention the rest of the world. Cushman thought maybe the young readers of today might be able to relate.
“I thought that what I would like the book to do was to speak to young people in this time when they might understandingly be anxious and worried like Millie, but for different reasons,” said Cushman, who is doing a virtual discussion of the book through the Mysterious Galaxy bookstore on Tuesday. “Maybe the process of her finding comfort and solace will help them believe that there is comfort for them also.”
When she was growing up in Tarzana, where the tract houses looked the same and the subdivision streets were tidy, safe and so, so boring, Cushman found her escape through books. She was particularly intrigued by author and artist Lois Lenski, whose “regional” collection — which included “Houseboat Girl,” “Coal Camp Girl” and “Strawberry Girl” — created vivid portraits of life along the Mississippi River, in the coal country of West Virginia and in the backwoods of rural Florida.
The settings were very far from suburbia, and the heroines were not at all like Cushman. Which made them perfect.
“I wanted a different life from what I saw in the suburbs. I didn’t know what I wanted, but I knew I didn’t want that,” the 79-year-old author said. “These were realistic books about girls growing up in other places. I could see what their challenges were and what their joys were, and I think that helped me a lot.”
It took her awhile, but after years of doing other things — working for a community-arts organization when she and Philip lived in San Diego, teaching in the Museum Studies department at John F. Kennedy University — Cushman finally began creating her own collection of smart, high-spirited heroines. She did not start writing books until she was nearly 50, but the results were well worth the wait.
Cushman’s first book, 1994’s “Catherine, Called Birdy,” won a Newbery Honor,which goes to runners-up for the Newbery Medal, the American Library Association’s award for most distinguished children’s book in America. Cushman’s second book, “The Midwife’s Apprentice,” won the Newbery Medal in 1996.
Eight more novels followed, including “War and Millie McGonigal,” which comes out on Tuesday. It is Karen Cushman’s latest literary gift to the discerning young readers of today from someone who will never forget what it’s like to find the person you want to be in the pages of a book.
“With my first book, Catherine was pretty much the way I wish I had been at that age,” Cushman said. “I was very quiet, and I always thought it would have been important for me to see kids who were spunky, feisty and strong in themselves. After I wrote Catherine, I decided I wanted them all to be strong, courageous young women.”
The Mysterious Galaxy bookstore’s free virtual event with Karen Cushman kicks off at 6 p.m. on Tuesday. Go to mystgalaxy.com to register.