Helping Neighborhoods, One Book at a Time

by DyAnne DiSalvo

"I have to sell the grocery store.” That’s what I told my agent as I slugged away on another rewrite of
Grandpa’s Corner Store. The more I thought about it, the more I decided that it was impossible for my character, an eight-year-old girl named Lucy, to fix such a huge problem. The supermarket that was opening up a few blocks away from Grandpa’s little store would certainly put him out of business. That was the truth of the way things worked in the world, and I needed to be honest with my readers.

“But I don’t want to wait in line at the supermarket to buy milk,” my agent told me. “You have to do something.”

I do? Wait a minute! The blurry lines of fiction and nonfiction had begun to cross. “This story is not real,” I reminded her. “I made it all up. These characters don’t exist. There is no Grandpa, no Lucy, no corner store.” “Well, then look for one,” she said. “And then you’ll know how to save it.”

A friend of mine suggested that I visit a little corner grocery store in Haddon Heights, New Jersey. It was owned and run by an 87-year-old man named John Johnson. “Have a sandwich,” Mr. Johnson said when I first asked him if I could sketch his store and take some photos. I smiled at this cheerful grocer who wore a bright red jacket with “The Boss” stitched in white cursive above his top pocket. He was sitting in a comfy swivel chair in the middle of the cookie aisle with a newspaperon his lap. The store was busy for such a small space. People seemed to know each other. They chatted and bantered across the deli counter. I poured myself a cup of coffee and hung around. This wasn’t just a place to come for eggs or diapers. It was an outing for a senior. A good place to get a muffin after school.

I took a seat next to Mr. Johnson and asked him if he ever felt threatened when the new supermarket opened up just three blocks away. “At first I did,” Mr. Johnson said. “But then something good happened. The roof of my store caved in.” Curious to know how this was a good thing, I asked to hear more. Mr. Johnson told me that roofers and painters and floor tile workers in his neighborhood all rallied around to help him fix his store for free. “They said that I helped everybody over the years, and now it was their turn to help me,” he said. “That convinced me not to lose hope.”

Mr. John Johnson wasn’t my first neighborhood hero. Mr. William Hearne, who lived in Brooklyn, New York, inspired
Uncle Willie and the Soup Kitchen, the first picture book I wrote and illustrated. “Call me Uncle Willie already,” the 71-year-old senior would say as he’d welcome each hungry person into the local soup kitchen on Fourth Avenue. It was easy to see the genuine compassion that Uncle Willie had for the people who came in for a meal. He’d tell a joke or help ith a lunch tray or listen to stories. As I began to write
Uncle Willie and the Soup Kitchen, I struggled for the noble and extraordinary reason why anyone would want to work at a soup kitchen. I myself had decided to volunteer once a week after feeling the need to get out of my studio for a while. There was nothing noble or extraordinary about that. "I want to help,” was the answer I received over and over again. “Too simple,” I said. “There has to be more.” But there wasn’t. It was through Uncle Willie’s inspiration that I was able to create the heroic characters in my other picture books. Their common trait is one simple thing—they want to help. Although the young heroes in my books are able to plough through their struggles and follow their dreams, there is always a secondary character to help them along. In
City Green, Marcy would have never been able to start a city garden in an empty lot if it wasn’t for the encouragement of her neighbor, Miss Rosa. Marcy also relies on her mother’s belief that her idea will work. “Marcy, you’re making something happen here,” she says as the neighborhood begins to take an interest in her plan. It is the same genuine simplicity Uncle Willie has in the soup kitchen that guides Marcy through her heroic project.

Helping a neighbor, helping your mother, helping a friend or a stranger: whenever we do our bit to help each other, we strengthen a little corner of our world, our community. We help make someone else’s day a little less troublesome. If you were a character in my story, your one act of kindness could rattle off a chain reaction in a whole neighborhood. When I visit schools, I tell my listeners that I mix my stories with two ingredients—“a little bit f fiction and a little bit of nonfiction.” I have walked my way through each of my books, whether it was renovating a rundown house on Viola Street in Camden, New Jersey (as happens in
A Castle on Viola Street), or wanting to recapture my childhood memories of the “old-timers” playing bocce under the elevated train on Thirteenth Avenue.

Spaghetti Park, my “bocce story,” took me seven years to publish. I wrote and rewrote piles of revisions. When my editor at Holiday House read the story, she liked it. But she thought it was too nostalgic. “You need a bigger issue around the bocce ball game,” she told me. Later that week she sent me a newspaper article about a mostly Italian neighborhood in Corona Heights, Queens, that “took back their park from mischief-makers by putting in a bocce ball court.” Through my visits to that park I saw the heroes of another neighborhood born. Our children can empathize when someone feels hungry. They like to help plant vegetables in gardens, or learn how to play an “old-time” game. These are the gentle and watchful young citizens of our neighborhoods, the ones who are willing to help make a difference.

In the end, it is the simple and genuine compassion of people that helps build the corners of our world. In the same way, the heroes in my picture books help empower readers with the belief that when they help somebody, somebody else will help them, and then somebody else will help that other person, and that other person will help the next one, and on and on like that . . .

Sampling DiSalvo

A Castle on Viola Street. 2001. 32p. HarperCollins, $16.99 (0-688-17690-9). K–Gr. 3.

City Green. 1994. 32p. HarperCollins, $16.99 (0-688-12786-X). K–Gr. 3.

Grandpa’s Corner Store. 2000. 40p. HarperCollins, $15.99 (0-688-16716-0). K–Gr. 3.

Spaghetti Park. 2002. 32p. Holiday, $16.95 (0-8234-1682-8). K–Gr. 2.

Uncle Willie and the Soup Kitchen. 1991. 32p. HarperTrophy, paper, $5.99 (0-688-15285-6). Gr. 1–3.

DyAnne DiSalvo’s first chapter book, Brian Higman’s (Outstanding and Exceptional) Sloppy Copy, will be published later this year. To learn more, visit her Web site at