age range: 8-12
genre : magical realism
Victoria Piontek’s website
Spirit of Cattail County teacher’s discussion guide
With gorgeous prose, an eerie historical undercurrent, and a lush, larger-than-life Florida backdrop, Piontek not only delivers a taut exploration of fractured small-town dynamics, but an entrancing, compulsively readable mystery. Sensitive readers with a yen for all things supernatural will hungrily sleuth their way through this atmospheric debut.
A moving quest for comfort, understanding, and acceptance set in the marshes of Florida. Sparrow is not like other children, she has the gift, or curse, of seeing spirits. After her mother passes from illness, Sparrow asks her best friend—a ghost no one else can see—to send a message to her mom. Sparrow is in need of friends, family, and everything else she seems to lack. Her challenges throughout the book will resonate with pre-teens and those who have ever lost a loved one or felt they were completely alone. A melancholy, but ultimately uplifting, story about overcoming sorrow and finding one’s place in the world. Hand this to readers who crave sad stories.
–School Library Journal
Wrapped in prose as mysterious and lovely as a southern breeze lies a story about loss that haunts and the ghosts that help us heal. This story is a treasure.
— Natalie Lloyd, New York Times bestselling author of A Snicker of Magic
Please tell us about your book.
The Spirit of Cattail County is about a girl named Sparrow who doesn’t have many friends. Some kids believe her house near the swamp is haunted. Others think there’s something “unusual” about her.
But Sparrow’s not lonely — she has a best friend who’s always with her. He sits with Sparrow on her porch swing. He makes her smile by playing pranks in church. Yet Sparrow is the only one who can see him . . . because the Boy is a ghost.
So when her mama passes away, Sparrow doesn’t give up hope. After all, if the Boy can linger after death, then surely Mama can return as well.
But the Boy has a secret of his own, one that Sparrow will need to uncover before the ghost will lead her to Mama. To solve the mystery, Sparrow joins forces with some unlikely allies — Maeve and Johnny, siblings from a family of town outcasts –and Elena, a visiting child fortune-teller.
What inspired you to write this story?
A brief moment with my daughter and a hearing a lot of ghost stories growing up inspired The Spirit of Cattail County.
One day, when my daughter was about four, we were taking a walk through a field in rural Virginia. The grass was knee high, and we couldn’t see any other people. We were deep in the middle of the field when she tugged at my shirt and pointed into the distance. She said, “Mommy do you see that boy over there.” I looked in the direction she indicated, and I didn’t see what she saw.
Because I was raised on superstition and ghost stories, the first fleeting thought that ran through my mind wasn’t she’s seen a rabbit or a deer. It was, she’s seen a ghost.
It was from that briefest of thoughts that I started thinking what if a girl did see a ghost and what if that ghost was not scary, but her best friend? At that moment, Sparrow sprang to life in my mind. I could see her and hear her telling me her story.
That night, I went home and started writing.
Could you share a few interesting tidbits you learned while researching?
Just a warning, this answer contains spoilers!
While writing my book, I did research on the Orphan Train Movement, a program that sent orphaned and homeless children from crowded cities to rural parts of the Midwest. I was surprised to learn that this effort also sent children to other parts of the United States, including Florida. I also discovered that this controversial program is considered the beginning of America’s foster care system.
What are some of the special challenges associated with writing a middle grade story about grief?
In middle grade fiction, sad topics are explored with hope and empathy, and that’s one of my favorite things about middle grade books. However, getting the balance just right is really hard! I wanted readers to feel Sparrow’s grief, but also her strength. Often it took a lot of revision to get it just right.
What topics does your book touch upon that would make it a perfect fit for the classroom?
The town in The Spirit of Cattail County is steeped with history. Many of the characters are historians or budding historians, and even though it is a made-up town, Sparrow relies on historical research to solve the mystery of the Boy. To find answers to her questions, she consults primary resources in the town’s archives. This fictional research can be a launch pad for talking about primary versus secondary sources and how historical accounts, when viewed through only one lens, can be misleading.
One theme of the book is acceptance. At the beginning of the book, everyone has misconceptions about each other. By the end, there is more understanding, which can be a conversation starter for a discussion about empathy. This is also a book about the need to find one’s place in the world, something we all crave in varying degrees, and can be a touchstone for awareness and compassion.
What are you working on next?
My upcoming novel, Better with Butter, (Scholastic Press, Summer 2021), is about a girl with anxiety disorder who finds an unlikely friend — an emotional support animal — in the form of an adorable fainting goat.
Twelve-year-old Marvel is afraid of absolutely everything — amusement park rides, food poisoning, earthquakes, and that big island of plastic floating through the ocean. She also obsesses about smaller worries like making friends, getting called on by the teacher, and walking home alone.
Her parents and the school therapist call her worries an anxiety disorder, but Marvel calls them armor. If something can happen, it will. She needs to be prepared.
But when Marvel stumbles on a group of older kids teasing a baby goat that has mysteriously shown up on the soccer field, she momentarily forgets to be afraid and rescues the frightened animal.
Only Butter isn’t any old goat. She’s a fainting goat. When Butter feels panic, she freezes up and falls over. Marvel knows exactly how Butter feels and precisely what Butter needs — her.
Soon, Butter and Marvel are going everywhere together, and Butter thrives under Marvel’s support. Butter also helps Marvel. Everything is easier for her with Butter by her side. But just when Marvel starts to imagine a life in which she can manage her anxiety, instead of letting it control her, Butter’s owner shows up to claim her. Will Marvel find a way to keep her friend? Or will she revert back to the anxious, lonely person she used to be?