The first series chronologically featuring my Atlantic City people wasn’t the first series I wrote with them. I first wrote the WTCOAC series, which at the time contained 8 books (it now has 7, minus the dreadful Proud to Be a Smart), then thought it would be really fun to jump back and write the story of their pre-pre-teen years (as I termed it). There was an assignment in my 7th grade English class (which I actually took at the 8th grade honors level, since I tested ahead in English at the end of elementary school), to write a story in a style similar to one of the stories we’d recently read. I chose John Steinbeck’s “The Affair at 7 Rue de M______” (which for some reason I’ve always misremembered as having been written by Edgar Allan Poe). It’s about a boy who’s chewing possessed bubblegum, and it uses very fancy, pretentious language. I decided to use my then-relatively-new characters, and to write the first chapter in a prequel series set in 1938. It was the story of how Sparky (real name Katherine) and her parents and brothers came to settle in Atlantic City.
Written sometime in the fall of 1992, it was chock full of thousand-dollar thesaurus words, a number of which were hilariously misused. At the end of the story, Cinni tells Sparky she thinks she can drop the ornamental talk now, and is going to teach her a thing or two. When doing a significant rewrite recently, I changed it to just Cinni talking like a fop, not to everyone having been ordered to talk fancy to impress the new people and hide what their town is really all about. I liked this story so much I decided to expand it into an entire book, and an entire prequel series. I made a table of contents to go along with the assignment and everything, and in June of ’93 I jumped back to start that series.
There are four books (up from the initially planned three):
The Very First (August-November 1938):
When Katherine Brandt, newly nicknamed Sparky, comes to America in 1938, her dearest wish is to become a real American girl. Before she can realize her dream, though, she’s going to have to learn the ins and outs of the unusual town and group of friends she’s joined.
Sparky is taken under the wing of Cinnimin Filliard, the youngest child of the man who helped the Brandts immigrate. Cinni teaches Sparky a thing or two not only about American life, but also the strange town she’s come to. Cinni and her friends look, act, and talk like they’re about five years older, all because of an esoteric, radical quasi-religion and secret society of sorts that have been passed down for over a thousand years.
Sparky and Cinni quickly become best friends, not least because they’re living together. Sparky wants to believe Cinni is steering her right in her lessons about how to become an American girl, but is a bit taken aback by her conflicting attitudes. How is it possible that this nice, intelligent girl is the same person who often cops a superior attitude to her so-called friends just because she was voted Most Popular Girl?
Sparky will do almost anything, as she navigates her way through American life, to become a real American girl and stop giving herself away as a greenhorn. Anything, that is, but compromise her faith. Will she ever be able to pull off being Sparky to her friends while remaining Kätchen to her family and staying true to her values?
The Very Next (March-December 1939):
1939 is sure going to be a difficult year for Cinni and Sparky as they deal with some unwanted long-term houseguests and worry about scary things happening in the world. In spite of their fears and trying situation, though, the girls manage to carry on with their normal lives as best they can.
The arrival of the insufferable Smarts from Washington, D.C., makes it seventeen people in the house. The girls might’ve been able to deal with the three new residents if the mother and daughter didn’t deliberately try their every last nerve. Mrs. Smart, who insists she be called Urma because she’s only twenty-four, and eight-year-old Samantha believe everything but breathing and reading the Bible their way is a sin, and never miss an opportunity to let everyone know it. When Sam is moved into Cinni and Sparky’s room, things get even more tense.
Then, in the fall, Sparky’s world is further shaken when Poland is invaded. Though she gives thanks she and her family are safe in America, she feels horrible guilt because her sweetheart Lazarus and his family were visiting friends in Poland when it happened and probably won’t be able to leave the country to go home to Holland. The invasion also calls into question whether Mr. Filliard will be able to save a large family whom he has been working on bringing to America.
The Very Last (January-December 1940):
1940 proves to be the most historic and emotional year Cinni and her friends have lived through in their young lives. Cinni’s beloved President Roosevelt is up for a historic third term, but she’s afraid her adored father, whose sickness has been getting worse, won’t be around that long. The lines are clearly drawn between the town Democrats and Republicans during this very heated election year.
Besides the election, Cinni and her friends are also looking forward to graduating third grade and being promoted to upper elementary school. Sparky is particularly excited by the school pictures, graduation and awards ceremonies, and school-wide picnic at the amusement park. Now she feels she’s really arrived as a real American girl and established herself as part of her group of friends.
Things aren’t so good for Sparky’s sweetheart Lazarus von Hinderburg, his siblings, or her old friends when Holland is invaded soon after the von Hinderburg children are smuggled back home. She wants to believe things will work out for them as well as they’ve worked out for the other family Mr. Filliard has saved this year, little knowing their lives are about to take radically different trajectories.
And then there’s the matter of Barry, Sparky’s favorite brother. Cinni and Barry have been attracted to one another since they met two years ago. Is Cinni about to get the boy of her dreams, religious differences be damned?
Almost As an Afterthought: The First Six Months of 1941:
During the second half of their fourth grade year, Cinni and her friends experience the excitement of slowly getting older, along with challenges from their family lives, school days, and alarming world events. In the aftermath of Mr. Filliard’s death, Cinni’s mother struggles to take charge of the household, while Cinni and Barry struggle to keep their interfaith relationship a secret. As the year proceeds, Max’s parents’ farce of a marriage continues to unravel, Kit lets down her guard about keeping her relationship with the older, Catholic Jerry a secret, and the situation in Europe intensifies. Will the sole member of the Polansky family left in Europe, Emma Symborska, be able to be saved in time? And will Cinni ever let down her guard and admit she’s afraid of anything?