Targeted to kids who sometimes feel invisible or afraid, Baldwin’s prose challenges them to be the bravest and wisest versions of themselves, delivering the message that it is our brokenness that makes us beautiful, not our perfection.
— School Library Journal (starred review)
Genuine and hopeful, Annie Lee’s story is one of finding courage in tough circumstances, of love and vulnerability, and of the power of music, despite one’s imperfections.
Intermingling themes of grief and loss with moments of unexpected, joyful connection, Baldwin depicts character growth with particular grace.
— Publishers Weekly
Please tell us about your book.
Beginners Welcome is the story of eleven-year-old Annie Lee, who’s starting school a few months after her beloved daddy unexpectedly died and her two best friends drifted away. Annie Lee is determined to stay invisible this year, because invisible people can’t be hurt—but when she meets Mitch, a tough skater girl who may need a friend as much as Annie Lee does, and Ray, an elderly pianist at a local mall whose music creates magic only Annie Lee can see, she starts to wonder if maybe opening herself up to love really is worth it, after all.
What inspired you to write this story?
There were a couple of threads that came together to form this book. The first was one day when my husband had forgotten to rinse the shaving cream out of the bathroom sink after he shaved. The whole bathroom smelled like his shaving cream, and I suddenly started wondering what it would be like if somebody you loved died, but the visceral reminders of their presence—the scents, the sounds, the things that make you know they’re near—stuck around.
I also had this striking image of an old man playing the piano and creating magical lights above it, set in a mall I used to visit in my hometown, which is housed in two old tobacco warehouses and so has a really unique feel.
And finally, I wanted to explore the tension between experiencing loss and deciding to connect with others, even knowing that it makes you vulnerable. Although I didn’t lose a parent like Annie Lee, I was a young teenager when I learned that my disease, cystic fibrosis, was fatal. At the time, it carried a life expectancy of 34 years. I spent much of my teen years wrestling with the question of how a person can fully invest themselves in life, knowing that it will probably end early. Although Annie Lee’s situation is different, it gave me a chance to delve into that dynamic, which I think is a real hallmark of the human condition.
Could you share with readers how you conducted your research or share a few interesting tidbits you learned while researching?
Beginners Welcome is the only book I’ve ever written (so far) that’s set in a real town—my hometown of Durham, North Carolina. Because it’s a real place, I wanted to get details as accurate and realistic as I could. Although I grew up there, I haven’t lived there in many years, and so I spent a LOT of time on Google Maps! I plotted distances from one location to another, looked at lots of satellite pictures, and even spent a long time “driving” through Google Street View on all the routes Annie Lee takes on her scooter, so that I could accurately describe what she sees as she scooters and how it changes from one area to the next. It was such a bittersweet, nostalgic experience to spend all that time “driving” the streets I used to travel all the time as a kid and teen, but now only get to visit once a year or so in non-pandemic times. It made me very grateful for the incredible tools that writers have at their fingertips these days!
What are some special challenges associated with writing middle grade fiction about heavy topics?
Both my debut novel, Where the Watermelons Grow, and Beginners Welcome focus on kids who are going through extraordinarily difficult experiences—in Watermelons, it’s a parent’s schizophrenia, and in Beginners it’s the loss of a father. As a writer, I find myself drawn toward stories like this a lot, because I spent my tween and teen years wrestling with problems that felt very adult and very different from those of my friends. Tween me felt so isolated and alone in her experiences, and whenever I sit down, I think about all the eleven-year-olds out there who feel equally isolated in their lives and need a reminder that they’re not the only one going through something big and tough.
However, that kind of writing definitely takes a toll! Especially with Beginners Welcome, because it was my second published book and second books are hard, I really struggled with the emotional heaviness of the topic as I wrote. I had to focus a lot on the initial ideas that had sparked the book and the excitement I’d felt to write it. I also worked hard on giving Annie Lee some lighthearted side plot lines, like the egg drop experiment she and Mitch are working on for science class, to help the book avoid getting bogged down in sadness.
What topics does your book touch upon that would make it a perfect fit for the classroom?
Besides the always-needed issues of loss, grief, and healing, Beginners Welcome is very connected to school! One of the main subplots concerns Annie Lee’s science class, and how she and Mitch are discovering the scientific method through an egg drop project. I’ve always felt like it would be so cool to see students read the book and try their own egg drop contraptions as well!
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