by Scott Simon

Wonder meets Three Times Lucky in a story of empowerment as a young woman decides to help solve the mystery of multiple suspicious deaths in her group home.

New York Times: A Compassionate Children’s Book From the NPR Host Scott Simon

Sally Miyake is a bold choice to narrate SUNNYSIDE PLAZA (Little, Brown, 208 pp., $16.99; ages 8 and up), Scott Simon’s debut as a middle-grade novelist. She’s funny, observant and perceptive. She’s also a 19-year-old with a developmental disability who lives in a group home where two residents have died unexpectedly. When police detectives recognize Sally’s capabilities and ask for her help investigating the deaths, she makes her first outside friends.

Some readers may question the choice to put a 19-year-old like Sally at the center of a novel for younger readers. Having a cognitive disability doesn’t make anyone an eternal child. But Sally’s pitch-perfect, brilliantly meandering voice reminded me that I first read (and adored) “Flowers for Algernon,” the story of an adult man with cognitive and developmental disabilities navigating similarly dark issues, when I was probably too young. Children are captivated by differences in others. In many ways, an overprotected young adult living in a group home faces the same challenges as a child testing the waters of independence. Can a fourth grader walk to school, or into a store, alone? Sally, like many of this book’s presumed readers, has never done these things.

Simon, best known as the host for NPR’s “Weekend Edition,” based the story on his experience working in a group home when he was in college in the 1970s. He remembers — with hilarious accuracy — how conversations with this crowd can boomerang between outrageous comments and remarks that poignantly hit a nail on its head. In fact, I wish he had set this story back in the time he remembers so well. As it is, there are unfortunate anachronisms.

Today’s children have been educated in classes alongside peers with every developmental disability under the sun, since it was mandated by law in 1990. Though Sally is bright enough to measure the world in mathematical equations (she tells us her age is “8 times 2 plus 3”), she has never attended school, never learned to read, never ventured too far outside the confines of Sunnyside Plaza, her group home. Most children have seen their peers with intellectual disabilities not just in the classroom but on a bus, at a sporting event, just walking up the street.

It’s important for all of us — especially we parents who sometimes question the strict laws that have been enacted around disabilities — to understand what life was like before mainstream schooling and community inclusion became the norm for people with special needs. Many were unnecessarily isolated. They, like Sally, could live on the same block as a Chinese restaurant and never have been inside it, or even eaten Chinese food. A group home for the intellectually disabled could mean, as it does at Sunnyside Plaza, five residents share a bedroom and 20 share a house. But now because of changes to federal law most are not larger than six people.

Simon describes beautifully the toll of Sally’s isolation. On her first bus ride, Sally imagines herself inside the buildings she sees. “When we rolled past a restaurant I could almost see myself sitting there. What would I order? What would I eat?” When Sally and a fellow resident are invited to a Passover Seder, where traditional stories are told about an outcast group in search of a place to belong, it’s easy to make a connection to Sally herself.

The staff at Sunnyside Plaza work hard to take good care of their charges, yet the kind house manager admits that “history doesn’t really happen here. … Who is president or mayor, what’s the new music, basketball shoes or hairstyles.” It’s not clear why these people have to live in a world so apart from ours.

Still, Simon has given young readers a rare chance to celebrate the extraordinary courage of someone like Sally, and a chance to understand where it comes from. When Sally identifies the likely culprit in her friends’ deaths, she brings three fellow residents along and ventures out unescorted for the first time, to find the detectives and tell them what she knows. Children will recognize the breath-catching bravery: “We were all by ourselves in the world outside. I was scared. I was excited. I took a step.”