October 8, 2010
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
With Penny Dreadful, Laurel Snyder delivers a middle grades novel filled with credible (and incredibly diverse & interesting) characters and a story that will appeal to readers of all ages.
Abigail Halpin's line drawing illustrations add to the book's timeless charm. In an age where children's books are increasingly filled with gimmickry (vampires, magicians, and zombies come to mind), Laurel Snyder's Penny Dreadful stands out with the literary value of its well-told tale that all ages will appreciate.
Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:
"Snyder's characters are well-developed and endearing, and the author strikes an excellent balance between the reality of the Greys' financial straits and the quiet magic that everyday life has to offer."
Penny Dreadful is a book about a bored little girl named Penelope, who leaves her dull home in "The City" and moves to a tiny town called Thrush Junction, Tennessee, where she learns to be happy.
The thing is—Penelope finds her new life richer not because the place itself is so special (though it is) but because she's looking at it with the kind of eyes that want to see a richer world. Because the simple act of beginning can wake a girl up, start her on a search for adventure.
For me, this same transformation happened when I first discovered small places too—first in Tennessee, and then in Iowa. so that's how I wrote the book Of course, I understand that "small places" exist everywhere. But for me, the transformation happened in places with a twang and a river. And I've been listening to that music ever since. It affects me, and the things I write.
So, not surprisingly, as I wrote Penny Dreadful, I happened to be listening to songs that reminded me of gravel roads, open skies, and rivers. Of green spaces and unlocked doors. And most of all… of close friends. Some of these are songs by friends. Sung in small places. Where music happens on porches. And comes alive.
I've set this up as a sort of narrative, tracing the story as best I can—both my own and Penelope's—but really, these are all just songs I love, that fit somehow with the feel of the book. They were my driving music last year.
"Its Not Happening" (Be Good Tanyas)
"drivin' so fast, carving your way / through the city / well you can't tell me /you get what you want…"
I remember hearing the Be Good Tanyas for the first time in Nashville, with my (now) husband. I was absolutely mesmerized. They're ethereal, magical. They lilt. This song, as a narrative, also reminds me of the beginning of the book itself. Seemed a good place to start.
"No Depression" (Uncle Tupelo)
"I'm going where there's no depression, to a better land that's free from care…"
If ever there was an anthem about believing in a better-world-ahead, this is it. Penelope finds her world in TN, as I did. (In fact, I've come to believe that anyone truly despairing of hope should take a visit to Chattanooga.) I love the old Carter Family version too, but in my head, the song belongs to Uncle Tupelo, because that's how I first heard it.
"Country Roads" (John Denver)
"Country roads take me home to a place I belong…"
This song has been on a loop in my head for as long as I can recall. I remember it playing in the car when I was a kid. I remember punk bands covering it in college. Now I sing it to my own kids when we drive places. It was playing in my head as I wrote the driving scene through the mountains in the book.
"On A Summer Evening" (Greg Brown)
"Big boys movin' in, small farmers movin' on. The way may be goin', but the life ain't gone."
After I left TN, I moved to Iowa City, where the music of Greg Brown is everywhere, so I wanted to add him to this playlist. I chose this song because it reminds me of Penelope's arrival in Thrush Junction. As a newcomer she sees peeling paint and cracked pavement. She doesn't yet know how a town (or a person) can be a failing economy, and still bursting with life and art.
"#80" (Dave Olson)
"The miles left behind me match the miles left to go. Long ago I learned to measure without time…"
This is my ultimate driving song, and it has some of my favorite pedal steel on it. But it's on this playlist because, in addition to being twangy and lovely, it has come to represent something big for me. This is the title track off a record my friend Dave made, and it was produced by the man who made an honest woman of me. Much of it was recorded in my basement, in a house where I dug myself out of depression. It's a reminder to me that you can actually make things, and in doing so make the world into what you want it to be.
"Martha Falling Down" (Patrick Brickel)
"a dance for the charming a dance for the keen/ a dance for the handsome and unforeseen/ she lifts her heels like a young man's dream…"
Patrick is one of my very favorite musicians, another Iowan, and he was on repeat last year, as I drove around the country with my kids, touring my last book. Lyrically, most of his songs are very dark, but there was something about this one, about the twisting and turning of these lines, that got caught in a certain scene in Penny Dreadful. In the scene Penelope (now called Penny) tries dancing for the first time, like her grandmother who danced in Vaudeville.
"This Old Dress" (Pieta Brown)
"This old dress that hid the seeker, unguarded, in her dreams. This old dress my Mama made for me."
The last of the Iowa folks on this list, Pieta is also one of my dearest friends, and when I listen to her music, I feel like she's with me, in person, even though she's far away. This is a rural song, a family song, a song that pays attention to detail and to the past, which is something Penny learns to do, living in her grandmother's home.
"Going Home" (Little Country Giants)
This is the band I stumbled across after we moved to Georgia from Iowa. I was living in Atlanta (still am!) and missing small-town life (still am, some days…) and I saw these guys play, and was reminded that the twang I love is everywhere. There's something in this song that captures the winding-down hours, the slow still time of day, in a world without commutes. Penny learns to love Thrush Junction, makes it her own, and becomes afraid of losing that contentment.
"Get Down River" (Bottlerockets)
"Live in a river town. It's pretty simple. High on the sides and it sinks in the middle…"
I don't actually know the Bottlerockets, but I can't count the times I've heard people pick up a guitar and sing this song, and there's something in that. A song becomes yours if you sing it or hear it enough. Penny has to learn this lesson, as I did, that you can become from a place. But you have to live in it to do that. In the hard ways, not just the easy ways.
"Linger for Awhile" (Dan Zanes)
"There's a moon over my street, tipped back like a silver chair, and the sweet smell of dogwoods bringing summer to the springtime air…."
I'd be lying if I pretended the last years of my life weren't chock-full of Dan Zanes. I have two little boys under five, and half the songs I hear each day are their songs. But this song, I think informed the end of the book. When Penny's chances of staying in Thrush Junction appear slim, her parents try to explain that she'll take her "everything change" with her back to "The City." Zanes sings the twang (and the contentment) into that big city.
"I Love" (Tom T Hall)
"I love coffee in a cup, little fuzzy pups, bourbon in a glass, and grass and I love you too…"
This is just the best song ever. It is constant. It is simple. It makes the kid and the grownup in me terribly happy. I defy anyone to avoid a smile when they hear it. I want to think this song is inside Penny (and my reader) at the book's end.
Laurel Snyder and Penny Dreadful links:
From the Mixed-Up Files... interview with the author
Jewish Books for Children with Author Barbara Betz interview with the author
Novel Journey interview with the author
Rasco From RIF guest post by the author
also at Largehearted Boy:
other Book Notes playlists (authors create music playlists for their book)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (weekly book reviews)
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Largehearted Word (weekly new book highlights)
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
Try It Before You Buy It (mp3s and full album streams from the week's CD releases)
weekly music & DVD release lists