age group: 8-12 years
genre: ghost mystery
setting: rural South
Karen Strong’s website
Strong’s prose pours from her pen like iced sweet tea on an August afternoon—it’s refreshing, steeped in tradition, and mixed with love. A stirring Southern middle-grade book that burns brighter than fireworks on the Fourth.
— Kirkus Reviews, STARRED REVIEW
Strong’s prose presents a world so real readers will feel the warm Georgia breeze, or the haints’ chilling breath down your neck….Readers will need a sweet tea to calm their nerves after this emotional adventure. First purchase for all collections.
— School Library Journal, STARRED REVIEW
Strong packs a lot of heart into this vivid debut about love, family, forgiveness, and the kinds of horrors few can scarcely conceive….Free-flowing dialogue, a rich story line, and warm characters nicely ground the more supernatural elements. This is a must for readers who appreciate a heartfelt mystery.
— Booklist, STARRED REVIEW
Readers of Turnage’s Three Times Lucky will appreciate this well-wrought, atmospheric mystery.
— Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books
Karen and I met a good ten years ago through blogging. I’m thrilled to be able to share her debut novel with you today! Welcome, Karen. Please tell us about your book.
Just South of Home is a middle-grade ghost mystery that centers around cousins Sarah and Janie who uncover a tragic event in their small town’s history. They team up with Sarah’s brother Ellis and his best friend Jasper to free the trapped spirits and help heal the town from its traumatic past.
What inspired you to write this story?
This story is inspired by my girlhood of growing up in the rural South where I heard stories of curses, haints, and secrets.
How did you conduct research for the book?
I didn’t have to do much research since the book was primarily inspired by my own upbringing and Black Southern culture, but I did have to delve into some historical aspects of the 1940’s. My focus included sharecropping and the landscape of the segregated South during Jim Crow. I also read books from that period and interviewed relatives who were children and/or young adults during the 1940’s-1950’s.
What are some challenges associated with fictionalizing difficult topics and events?
I think the biggest challenge was to figure out a way to write about racial terrorism without it becoming a high-level history lesson or to focus solely on Black pain. I knew I wanted to focus on a specific family and how the unacknowledged past was literally haunting them. I know some people may be concerned that middle-grade readers won’t be able to handle some of these details. While writing this novel, I wanted to present this information in a way that was accessible to this age group while also not glossing over the truth. We need to give middle-school readers more credit because they can handle reading about the darker history of our nation.
What themes does your book touch upon that would make it a perfect fit for the classroom?
There are many themes in Just South of Home that would make it a great addition to the classroom:
The theme of relationships between friends and family. How do you forgive a friend? How do you deal with difficult relatives? Are blood relatives the only form of family?
The theme of social justice. What does it mean to honor victims? How do you find the courage to do the right thing? What can a community do to deal with tragic events? What are some of the things we can do to heal from trauma?
The themes of empathy and vulnerability. What do you do when someone disappoints you? How can we relate with those who are different from us? How can we overcome our own personal bias in our relationships to others?
The theme of science vs the supernatural. Do you believe in the spirit world? How does the scientific method prove or disprove the existence of ghosts? Do you think a person’s beliefs in the supernatural can be changed with the proof of science? Can science and the supernatural exist in the same world?