Harper Lee, ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ inspire Bethany Hegedus’ new book

Nelle Lee broke out of the “pink penitentiary” as fast as she could.

Growing up in Depression-era Alabama, she chose overalls over dresses, and she loved nothing more than rolling tires with her brother and getting into scrapes when necessary to defend playmates being bullied.

Nothing, that is, except for words: “She loved the sounds they made, how she could string them together to appease someone or to rile them up,” Austin’s Bethany Hegedus recounts. “Words held meaning.”

Hegedus shows how young Nelle eventually channeled that passion to become a Pulitzer Prize-winning author in “Alabama Spitfire: The Story of Harper Lee and ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’” (Balzer + Bray/Harper Collins, $17.99).

Hegedus – who will be at BookPeople Saturday along with illustrator Erin McGuire to read from and sign “Spitfire” – is the author of 2014’s “Grandfather Gandhi,” which was showcased in many Austin public schools as part of a literacy program, as well as a follow-up, “Be the Change: A Grandfather Gandhi Story.”

As she explains in an afterword that also addresses Lee’s posthumously published “Go Set a Watchman,” the seeds of “Spitfire” were planted when then fifth-grader Hegedus read the title scene from “Mockingbird.” Entranced, she finished the whole book and reread it each year as she became a writer herself, as well as an educator and teacher. (Hegedus owns the Writing Barn, a writing workshop and retreat center outside of Austin that has hosted the likes of Newbery medalist Matt de la Peña amongst its faculty.)

Diving into the notoriously reclusive Lee’s background, she discovered that there were plenty of real-life roots in “Mockingbird.” Lee’s father was a trial lawyer like Atticus Finch, and like Atticus he often took views of racism and inequality that were far more progressive than the time.

Nelle and her friend Tru — aka writer and bon vivant Truman Capote, who helped Nelle when she eventually moved to New York City — spent many hours in Nelle’s treehouse back in Monroeville, Ala., spying on the neighboring houses. The Boulware residence always kept its shutters closed, and young Nelle and Tru imagined what might go on behind its walls, which eventually became the inspiration for troubled Boo Radley.

“All those years of tree house spying served her well,” Hegedus writes. “Nelle started with what she knew best, writing about a small Alabama town inspired by her Monroeville roots.”

Lee’s success brought a new kind of challenge, Hegedus notes — fame and attention. She steadfastly guarded her privacy, declining nearly all interviews until she died at 89: “Nelle is buried in Monroeville, the town she made famous in fictional form. And ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ continues to do the speaking and fighting for her.” (The book is aimed at ages 4-8, although adults who recall reading “Mockingbird” also will enjoy.)

New gem from Austin’s Liz Garton Scanlon

Celebrated Austin children’s author Liz Garton Scanlon spotlights the power of trees for her newest picture book, one that entices with its rhythmic, read-aloud text while underscoring the importance of what trees can do for our Earth.

An old man lives atop a breezy hill — too breezy, as the wind bangs his shutters, spills his tea and blows the dust around. Enter “Kate, Who Tamed the Wind” (Schwartz & Wade/Random House, $17.99), who knows that she can help if she plants saplings atop the hill. “The trees grew till the leaves fluttered and the shutters stilled and the boards bounced back,” Scanlon writes.

The alluring cadence of her prose, matched with a gentle yet persuasive environmental lesson makes “Kate” a winning read. (Ages 4-8)

Reader Comments ...

Next Up in Lifestyle

Austin’s Brett Tutor joins relaunch of TLC’s ‘Trading Spaces’
Austin’s Brett Tutor joins relaunch of TLC’s ‘Trading Spaces’

Change is in the air for Austinite Brett Tutor. Tutor, 32, is one of two new carpenters on the relaunch of the TLC show “Trading Spaces.” On April 7, when the first episode airs, he may become a household name. “The show hasn’t aired yet, so no one knows who I am,” he says. “Trading Spaces” aired from 2000...
Cat reunited with owner 14 years after hurricane disappearance
Cat reunited with owner 14 years after hurricane disappearance

Perry Martin probably can’t stop pondering about his cat. In 2004, the orange tabby Thomas 2, or simply just “T2,” disappeared. It happened when the Fort Pierce man moved into a friend’s house in Stuart after Hurricane Jeanne stormed through the area, according to TCPalm. The retired K-9 officer grieved, but then came...
What not to donate to Goodwill
What not to donate to Goodwill

Tuesday night an employee was injured when he reached his hand into a box at the Goodwill on Brodie Lane and found an artillery simulator. It made a loud boom heard throughout my neighborhood and sent the police, FBI and ATF to the area to investigate if it was another bomb. It made me think, what shouldn’t you donate...
University of Texas researcher tests app for colon cancer information
University of Texas researcher tests app for colon cancer information

Could an app help save you from colon cancer? Possibly. A researcher at Dell Medical School at the University of Texas at Austin has developed an app that can help explain to you the benefits of each type of colon cancer screening (there are many) and even help you schedule one. Dr. Michael Pignone, chairman of the department of internal medicine at...
Kerri Walsh Jennings launches volleyball, music and wellness festivals

Add Kerri Walsh Jennings to the list of celebs who landed in Austin recently during South by Southwest. The professional beach volleyball player, who has three gold and one bronze Olympic medals to her name, came to launch her new p1440 beach volleyball event series. The organization was a title sponsor of day parties at Waterloo Records. We intended...
More Stories