A Kirkus Reviews Best Middle Grade Book of 2019
“A stirring Southern middle grade book that burns brighter than fireworks on the Fourth.” —Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
“A must for readers who appreciate a heartfelt mystery.” —Booklist (starred review)
“An intricate mix of Southern mystery, history, and a ghost story that creeps but doesn’t scare.” —School Library Journal (starred review)
Cousins Sarah and Janie unearth a tragic event in their small Southern town’s history in this witty middle grade novel that’s perfect for fans of Stella by Starlight, The Ghosts of Tupelo Landing, and As Brave as You.
Twelve-year-old Sarah is finally in charge. At last, she can spend her summer months reading her favorite science books and bossing around her younger brother, Ellis, instead of being worked to the bone by their overly strict grandmother, Mrs. Greene. But when their cousin, Janie arrives for a visit, Sarah’s plans are completely squashed.
Janie has a knack for getting into trouble and asks Sarah to take her to Creek Church: a landmark of their small town that she heard was haunted. It’s also off-limits. Janie’s sticky fingers lead Sarah, Ellis, and his best friend, Jasper, to uncover a deep-seated part of the town’s past. With a bit of luck, this foursome will heal the place they call home and the people within it they call family.
About the Author
Karen Strong was born and raised in rural Georgia. She spent most of her childhood wandering the woods, meadows, and gardens of her grandmother’s land. She now lives in Atlanta. Just South of Home is her first novel. Learn more at Karen-Strong.com.
Read an Excerpt
Just South of Home
It wasn’t a mirage but a miracle. Two thick slices of red velvet cake sat on the table in front of us.
Ellis fidgeted on the couch next to me and struggled to keep his hands in his lap. My little brother knew he shouldn’t make any sudden moves. No grabbing the fork on the linen napkin. No stuffing his face with cake. Not yet. For all we knew, it could be a trap.
Our grandma—who we addressed as Mrs. Greene—only made red velvet cake on holidays or for the Heritage Festival. Today was just a regular Sunday. This meant our grandma had baked the cake for us, which didn’t make any sense. Mrs. Greene said I acted too much like Mama, and Ellis was a mannish hellion. I never thought in a million years I would get my grandma’s county-famous cake served on her good plates for no reason.
Ellis and I sat frozen in Mrs. Greene’s parlor, afraid to even breathe. Her fancy clock above the fireplace chimed four times and broke the silence. Mrs. Greene still wore her church clothes: a pale blue dress cinched at the waist and a strand of pearls around her neck. She didn’t look like a grandma, which I guess was her intention. She was tall and slim with skin as bright as a sunrise, and her glossy black hair framed her face, which she had set in her trademark frown.
“What you two afraid of? It’s cake not a snake. You can eat it.”
Ellis jumped to the edge of the couch and grabbed his fork to take his first bite. Mrs. Greene didn’t have to tell him twice. I scooted closer to the table and reached for my fork but stopped when Aunt Gina came into the parlor.
“I can’t get over how big you two are getting! Growing like little weeds,” she squealed.
Even though Aunt Gina now lived in Chicago, she was born and raised in Warrenville, so her voice remained slow and sweet. Aunt Gina was like a fun county fair that came to town once a year. Mama called her a free spirit. Today she wore red slacks with a bright blue blouse and funky purple shoes. Her hair was a halo of bouncy brown curls.
Several gold bracelets jangled on her arms as she pinched my brother’s cheeks. Ellis grinned at her and then shoved another forkful of cake into his mouth. Red velvet crumbs fell into his lap. My brother had no worries. As long as his belly was full, he was happy. It didn’t matter if he was eating in the lion’s den. I knew better. Something weird was going on, and I had questions.
This morning Mama had told us we needed to come over to say good-bye to Aunt Gina and my cousin Janie. They visited every summer but never stayed long. A few days at most. This year wasn’t any different. During every visit, Janie would constantly talk about Chicago. Bragging about the tall buildings and the bright lights. She called me backward country, but I didn’t care. Who wanted to live in a place with so much concrete and not a stitch of grass? Janie claimed Chicago had plenty of grass, but that didn’t matter to me. With all those city lights, I knew it would never get truly dark. I felt sorry for Janie. Nothing was more beautiful than a night sky so full of stars, you never felt alone.
Mama came out of the hall bathroom and stepped into the parlor. Her hair had puffed out from the humidity. Last night after she had flat-ironed it, she let me brush it in long strokes. I loved how some of her brown strands turned red in the sun. I wished I had Mama’s dark skin, but I inherited Daddy’s light tone, which got Mrs. Greene’s approval. Ellis had Mama’s deep complexion, but at least I had her brown-red hair.
In the parlor, Mrs. Greene, Aunt Gina, and Mama exchanged long and meaningful glances. Secret grown folks language. I couldn’t tell if it was good or bad news.
“What’s going on?” I finally asked.
Mama sat on the couch next to me. “Your aunt is taking a trip out west.”
“You’re not going back to Chicago?” I asked.
“No, pumpkin!” Aunt Gina was giddy with excitement. “I’m headed to California to do some more commercials.”
“The ones where you play the fake dentist?” Ellis asked through his jam-packed-with-cake mouth.
Aunt Gina had filmed several commercials for Fresh Now! toothpaste. She played a dentist in a white coat who smiled too much and talked about tartar control and gingivitis. We even saw a couple of her commercials play down here on local TV. But Ellis was right—she wasn’t a dentist. In the real world, she was a nurse.
“Yes, I’ll be doing more of those but also some screen tests, too,” Aunt Gina said.
“What’s a screen test?” I asked.
“A bunch of mess,” Mrs. Greene said. “Gina, you know nothing good is going to happen out there in Hollywood. You got too many stars in your eyes.”
“I think it’s great.” Mama paused and touched my knee. “A screen test is like an audition for actors and actresses.”
“You know California is where all the earthquakes happen,” Ellis said.
Aunt Gina furrowed her brow. “That’s true, but there haven’t been any of those in a while.”
“It only takes a big one to push everything into the ocean.” Ellis wiped his mouth, leaving a trail of frosting across his cheek. “I once saw this movie where buildings crashed and people were out in the streets screaming—”
“Ellis,” Mama interrupted. “Be quiet.”
“Yes, ma’am.” My brother went back to devouring his cake.
“Is Janie excited?” I asked.
Aunt Gina pulled a piece of imaginary lint from her pants, and her bracelets clinked together. She wouldn’t look at me.
Mama cleared her throat. “Janie is going to stay here in Warrenville.”
“Here at Mrs. Greene’s house?” I asked.
“No,” Mama said. “Janie will be staying with us.”
“You know I still don’t like this, Delilah,” Mrs. Greene said. “These children need supervision. Especially Janie. Maybe if you stayed home instead of hemmed up at the Fairfield County courthouse, you could raise these children properly.”
Mama took a deep breath. I knew she was counting to three in her head. Sometimes she did this before speaking to Mrs. Greene.
“Sarah is quite capable of taking care of things while I’m at work,” she said.
This summer Mama had agreed to put me in charge and let me and Ellis stay at home by ourselves. I was tired of staying at Mrs. Greene’s house. I would be turning thirteen at the end of September. I was mature and responsible. If my hair caught on fire or if Ellis broke a leg, I could get help from Mrs. Taylor, who lived next door. Our neighbor mostly stayed inside, watching game shows or her favorite housewives on reality TV. Mama probably knew this, but she agreed to let us stay home anyway, and it had been an easy summer so far. Nothing bad had happened, but that could all change if Janie stayed with us. Janie liked to get into trouble.
Mrs. Greene said an idle mind is the devil’s workshop, and Janie would have a lot of free time. It didn’t help she loved using her five-finger discount to take what she wanted. Janie carried what she called a purse, but it was just a pink backpack full of her snoop prizes. Today at church I saw her stash away an MLK church fan. If Mrs. Greene found out that her citified granddaughter had stolen an image of Martin Luther King Jr. from the Lord’s house, she would put a switch to Janie’s legs.
“How long is Janie going to stay with us?” I asked.
“Just for two weeks,” Mama said. “Until your aunt wraps up her commercials and screen tests.”
Maybe I could make this work, and my summer wouldn’t be totally ruined after all. Plenty of time to recover from this ordeal. All I had to do was keep my cousin out of trouble.
“Okay. It’ll be fun, Mama,” I lied.
Mrs. Greene sucked her teeth but remained silent. Even she knew raising a child was a group activity in Warrenville. Grown folks took action first and asked questions later. Our town was small enough for word to travel fast about any trouble, but I knew there wouldn’t be any. There hadn’t been any kind of trouble in our town in a long time. I wasn’t going to let Janie mess that up.
“Great!” Aunt Gina clapped her hands in celebration. “Janie is so looking forward to this.”
“Where is she anyway?” Ellis finally finished his cake. His plate was spotless, as if he had licked it clean.
“Good question,” Mrs. Greene said. “Sarah, go find that meddling girl. She’s been too quiet.”
Reading Group Guide
A Reading Group Guide to
Just South of Home
by Karen Strong
About the Book
Sarah and her younger brother, Ellis, along with their cousin Janie and Ellis’s friend Jasper, decide to investigate the hauntings at the old Creek Church. After carelessly awakening restless spirits that cause strange and otherworldly occurrences, the group has no idea how to lead these earthbound souls to rest. Motivated by compassion and a determination to bring peace to one of their own kin, the children discover the power of conviction and the belief in a purpose much greater than themselves. With the help of an eccentric local woman and a young boy from a very different time, this brave group finds the courage to heal a small southern town haunted by a dark history of racial injustice. As the people of Warrenville eventually bear witness to the fear and hatred that provoked unspeakable past cruelties, their respect, love, and hope allow other spirits to fully cross over and finally rest in peace. Just South of Home is more than a ghost story; it challenges readers to look at the fear found at the core of racially motivated hatred and violence, to recognize conflicting ideas, and to speak out against prejudice in order to shape a better future.
1. Can you predict any of the story’s plot from the cover? What did it suggest to you, or what kind of emotions did it evoke? Did it make you want to read the book?
2. Sarah’s first-person narrative creates the story’s tone. Can you relate to her voice? How might the story have differed if it were told from another character’s point of view?
3. Describe the community of Warrenville. How does its dark history contribute to the unfolding story? How does the community react?
4. At the beginning of the novel, Sarah is a cautious, mature, and responsible small-town girl living “inside her head” while Janie is the adventurous city-girl governed by her own rules and risk-taking impulses. It’s in Janie’s nature “to want to explore and get into trouble.” What do the cousins learn from each other by the end of the story? What do they learn about themselves?
5. Why don’t the children tell an adult about the strange happenings? Do you agree or disagree with this choice? What would you have done under those circumstances? Explain your answers. What are the consequences for Sarah and her friends?
6. Ellis wants nothing to do with Sarah’s and Janie’s plans, but the girls insist they all explore Creek Church further. Describe Ellis’s response. Do you think his fears are justified? Have you ever been asked to go along with something you didn’t want to do? How did it make you feel?
7. What do you think about Janie’s habit of stealing things? What is the difference between finding things and taking things? Is it ever right to take something that doesn’t belong to you? What is the significance of the cameo Janie takes from the graveyard?
8. Mrs. Whitney tells Sarah and Janie, “‘Haints are trapped. This earthly plane is not their home any more. They will always seek refuge until they are released to their true place of belonging.’” What do the haints need in order to be released and finally rest in peace? What does it mean to belong?
9. Mrs. Whitney is isolated by her community, suffering prejudices over her beliefs and folk practices. Why do you think people are so quick to judge her? What do the items she sells in her gift shop reveal about her? Explain your answers.
10. Mrs. Whitney makes amulets for the children and their family members to wear for protection. What is an amulet? She also gives Sarah a talisman for her windowsill. What is the difference between an amulet and a talisman?
11. What does Mrs. Whitney mean when she says to Sarah, “‘You can use whatever you like, child. Its power is in your belief’”? What do you think she means when she says, “‘Money is just one form of energy, child’”? Do you think Sarah finds this advice helpful? Explain your answers.
12. The author presents many recognizable themes. Cite examples of peer pressure, bullying, snobbery, loneliness, loss, disappointment, vulnerability, resilience, compassion, and friendship. What part does fear play in each of your examples? What are you most afraid of? How do you manage your fears?
13. What is Jasper’s role in the story? Describe his relationship with the other characters. Does Jasper remind you of someone you know or would like to know? Explain your answer.
14. Sarah narrates, “I hated that my brother’s stupid haint story had gotten inside my head. I didn’t believe in stuff like this. I believed in atoms and molecules. Not ghosts and curses.” What does Sarah’s fascination with the cosmos reveal about her? At what point is she able to put aside her need for scientific explanations? What changes her perceptions and her belief in the supernatural world? Have you ever believed in something as strongly as Sarah?
15. Which character do you relate to most? What makes you identify or connect with them? Which character is most unlike you? Who do you most admire in this story? Explain your answers.
16. Consider Sarah’s and Jovita’s friendship. How do the Jonas Girls impact this friendship? Are you surprised by any of the girls’ actions? What would you have done if you had been in Sarah’s place? Sarah narrates, “Mama always told me forgiveness was not for the other person but for yourself.” What do you think Sarah’s mother meant by this?
17. What is the significance of the dead oak tree in the graveyard? What effect does it have on Sarah? What is the significance of Sophie’s diary? What effects does it have on Mrs. Greene and Abner?
18. The author explores instances of historical racism, hatred, violence, prejudice, discrimination, and white supremacy. She also examines bias, intolerance, and other tensions that haunt present-day life in Warrenville and Alton. How do those historical themes relate to current-day issues? How do bias and prejudices affect characters’ relationships? Consider Janie’s personal bias against Sarah’s academic curiosity and her views on small, country towns. Consider negative judgements toward Mrs. Whitney. Cite other examples from the story, and explain your findings.
19. How might a community begin to address some of the issues discussed in the above question? Think about characters’ actions at the beginning and end of the story, and how their perspectives evolved. How might someone work to grow and better understand their surroundings?
20. Mrs. Greene is highly critical and full of bitterness. She insists on strict discipline and supervision for her grandchildren. What was your response to reading about such treatment? How did you feel after realizing the type of grief Mrs. Greene was carrying? Did it affect the way you viewed Mrs. Greene and her choices?
21. The Creek Church scenes are filled with imagery that conjures up intense feelings in Sarah’s group. Describe your favorite details from these scenes. What did they add to your understanding of what was happening there?
22. Sarah narrates, “The Creek Church boy stood in a sliver of porch light without casting a shadow . . . I squinted as his mouth moved. He was trying to say something, but I couldn’t understand him—I was too afraid to focus on anything.” What do you think Abner was trying to say to Sarah? What do you think Sarah might have said to him if she hadn’t been so afraid? If you could have spoken to him, what might you have said?
23. It’s no secret that there are restless spirits haunting Warrenville. What do these spirits represent to the townspeople? Why had so many of them refused to address the issue and free their blood kin’s spirits? What does it take to set things right and heal the town?
24. What parts of the story most held your interest? For what reasons? What scenes were the most suspenseful, surprising, disturbing, confusing, fascinating, heartwarming, inspiring, or humorous? Explain your answers.
25. In your opinion, what was Sarah’s greatest moment? What was Janie’s or Jasper’s? Do you think Ellis had a greatest moment? How were these moments important to the story? Explain your answers.
26. Sarah’s group faced multiple fears, sensing a purpose much greater than themselves. Have you ever had to confront your fears to do something you thought you lacked the courage to do? What was the result? What advice would you have for others in similar situations? Explain your answers.
27. What do you think is at the heart of this story? Has the novel changed your perspective about anything? What have you learned about yourself? Do you think you might do things differently in the future as a result of reading this book? Explain your answers.
Extension Activities and Further Reading
1. Choose a moment from the story and create a sense response to that scene. Think about your immediate thoughts, feelings, and emotions after reading the passage. Does any imagery come to mind? In your response, reflect on your visceral sense of experience; don’t worry about remaining completely accurate to the text. Your response could be in the form of a painting, a collage, musical playlist, or any other form of expression that is meaningful to you.
2. Jasper says, “‘Mrs. Whitney says we can’t change the past, but we need to remember it. We need to acknowledge it and not hide it.’” The idea of bearing witness is important to all victims of prejudice and injustice. By bearing witness, others can stand up for those who aren’t able to tell their own stories, empowering movements to fight against injustices.
Sometimes, to bear witness means using our own personal or cultural stories to speak out against wrong-doing. Write a poem, essay, short play, song, or a dance to tell your family’s or your community’s story. Pick an impactful experience to begin, and explain how that has affected other moments or people. How might you express yourself with the hope of encouraging others to make the world a better place? Is there an experience you might want others to replicate, or something you’ve gone through that you’d like them to learn from and improve upon for the future?
3. Read Astrophysics for Young People in a Hurry by Neil deGrasse Tyson and Gregory Mone (2019). This guide to the cosmos invites readers to explore the mysteries of the universe and includes forty full-color illustrations, infographics, and principles of scientific inquiry. How do you think Sarah would have felt reading this book? What about Janie? What parts most excite you, and what would you like to learn more about?
4. Watch episodes of Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, an Emmy and Peabody Award-winner for educational content; this documentary television series explores the wonders of outer space with host and astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson. Does it change your perspective on the world around you?
5. Read Leon’s Story by Leon Walter Tillage, the son of a sharecropper growing up in rural North Carolina in the 1940s (2000). As a young boy, Leon remembers hiding in terror from the Klansmen as they made their night raids. This autobiography is based on a speech he gives at a school in Baltimore, Maryland, where he works as a custodian. He wanted to bear witness to, as he says, “the uselessness of hatred and the senselessness of racism.”
6. Read A Wreath for Emmett Till by Newbery-winning author and poet Marilyn Nelson, illustrated by Philippe Lardy. By honoring a young fourteen-year-old African American boy brutally murdered in Mississippi in 1955, Nelson draws attention to the story that helped fuel the civil rights movement of the late 1950s and 1960s. Nelson uses an intricate form of poetry that she refers to as a heroic crown of Italian sonnets, in which she encourages readers to speak out against violence and brutality and all modern-day injustices. Think about poetry as a form of storytelling. How does it compare to reading a novel-length text? How does it capture emotions?
7. Consider reading other fiction and nonfiction with similar themes, settings, and characters:
The Undefeated by Kwame Alexander, Illustrated by Kadir Nelson
Ghost Boys by Jewell Parker Rhodes
Stella by Starlight by Sharon M. Draper
Midnight without a Moon by Linda Williams Jackson
This Is the Rope: A Story from the Great Migration by Jacqueline Woodson, illustrated by James Ransome
Witness by Karen Hesse
Freedom Over Me: Eleven Slaves, Their Lives and Dreams Brought to Life by Ashley Bryan
Getting Away with Murder: The True Story of the Emmett Till Case by Chris Crowe
They Called Themselves the K.K.K: The Birth of an American Terrorist Group by Susan Campbell Bartoletti
This guide was written in 2019 by Judith Clifton, M.Ed, MS, Educational and Youth Literary Consultant, Chatham, MA.
This guide has been provided by Simon & Schuster for classroom, library, and reading group use. It may be reproduced in its entirety or excerpted for these purposes.
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