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)
Bethany Hegedus and Erin McGuire
“Alabama Spitfire” reading and signing
When: 2 p.m. Saturday
Where: BookPeople, 603 N. Lamar Blvd.
Cost: Free, but you must buy a book at the store in order to get it signed
Information: 512-472-5050; bookpeople.com/event