Mary Downing Hahn writes about children with an integrity that makes her work stand out in the juvenile fiction crowd.
Her readers have long known that. Now folks who vote on awards are taking notice, too.
Ms. Hahn, who lives in Columbia, won the 1992 Scott O'Dell Award for Historical Fiction for "Stepping on the Cracks" (Clarion, $13.95, 240 pages, ages 9-12).
On Sunday, she will receive the Enoch Pratt Free Library's third Hedda Seisler Mason Award, also for "Stepping on the Cracks." The Mason award is given biennially for what is judged to be the most significant children's book by a Maryland author.
Ms. Hahn will accept the award at 2 p.m. in the Central Library's Edgar Allan Poe Room. Admission is free and copies of "Stepping on the Cracks" will be available for purchase.
"Stepping on the Cracks" is set in 1944 in a town called College Hill, which local readers will immediately recognize as College Park. The narrator is Margaret Baker, a sixth-grader whose only brother, Jimmy, is a soldier fighting the Nazis in Europe.
Margaret's voice is captivating in its honesty. As the book opens, her biggest worry is defending herself against Gordy Smith, the class bully who taunts Margaret and her best friend, Elizabeth.
Slowly, Margaret and Elizabeth discover what Gordy is trying to hide. His alcoholic father beats Gordy, his sister and his mother, who lives in denial and is too frightened to call the police.
But it is when the girls stumble upon Gordy's deepest secret that they find themselves in trouble, too. Who is he visiting in that hut in the woods? The answer leads Margaret to question the blind patriotism her parents have instilled in her.
Gordy's brother, Stuart, has gone AWOL. When the girls discover him in the hut, he has pneumonia. As they try to nurse him back to health, he explains why he objects to war. The girls know they are harboring a deserter, but they also know that Stuart could die without their help.
Margaret's courage and compassion are lost on her parents. Her mother still treats her like a little girl, and her father buries himself in news of the war. Neither has the slightest clue about the suspense Margaret is caught up in, and she knows better than to trust them with Stuart's secret.
Most middle-school students can identify with that. In addition, Ms. Hahn re-creates the World War II home front with images that will bring back memories for parents or grandparents who huddled around the radio for news of the Allies' latest advance. It makes a great read-aloud for the generations to share.
Ms. Hahn's latest novel is also her first for older readers, known in the trade as young adults: "The Wind Blows Backward" (Clarion, $13.95, 272 pages, ages 14 and up).
It is set in modern-day Adelphia, a planned community located between Baltimore and Washington. Anyone who has spent time in Columbia will get a kick out of the parallels.
The narrator is Lauren, a high school senior who doesn't belong to a clique. She is quiet and responsible, a grounding wire for the two most important people in her life. One is her mother, who works at a dead-end job and keeps expecting Mr. Right to emerge out of the series of lovers she has had since Lauren's father ran away with a woman he met in Kmart 12 years ago. THere's also Lauren's best friend, Casey, who never met a party she didn't like.
Then Spencer re-enters Lauren's world. They had been best buddies in middle school, sharing fantasy and science fiction books, trading secrets about Narnia and Middle Earth.
But when they started high school, Spencer joined the cool crowd and ignored Lauren. That's why she can't understand it when he tries to befriend her their senior year.
Ignoring his friends, he falls in love with her, and she with him. It soon becomes clear that Spencer needs Lauren to be his grounding wire, too, although his troubles are far darker than Lauren can imagine.
He is haunted by his father's suicide and the fear that he is destined for the same fate. As much as she wants to believe that her love will lift Spencer's depression, Lauren knows otherwise. The bond they share when making love is frail compared to the fear she sometimes sees in his eyes.
Ms. Hahn doesn't sugar-coat what Spencer is going through. He calls his mother the Ice Queen because she has decided to freeze out the past, but readers can empathize with her coping mechanism. It is Spencer who can't find a way to ask for help, and when he gives in to the darkness, we're not surprised.
This is a suspenseful book that doesn't pull any punches. Fans who have come to appreciate Ms. Hahn's honesty won't be surprised.