Alan Gratz has been entertaining and inspiring young readers since his first novel, Samurai Shortstop, was published in 2006. Booklist described Samurai Shortstop, which features a 16-year-old protagonist confronting cultural upheaval in late-19th-century Japan, as “a testament to enduring values in a time of social change.” In a 2013 interview, Gratz told Chapter 16, “I think we do a disservice to kids when we shy away from the heavy-hitting topics with them,” and he’s put that philosophy to work in stories about a wide range of subjects, including baseball, censorship, and the World War II Battle of Okinawa. Gratz’s bestselling 2017 novel, Refugee, follows the lives of three young protagonists in different times and places as they flee violence and persecution.
Gratz’s most recent novel, Allies, is another story of World War II, this time centered around the D-Day invasion. A companion novella, Resist, was offered by Scholastic as a book club giveaway but never made available for sale. In response to popular demand, it will be released as an ebook and audiobook on September 1. A new full-length novel, Ground Zero, is due in February 2021.
Gratz, a Knoxville native, answered a few questions from our Glorious Pastime questionnaire via email.
Chapter 16: What book are you currently reading and what led you to choose it?
Alan Gratz: I’m one of the judges for a middle-grade book award this year, and I’ve been reading my way through a stack of kids’ books sent to me by various publishers. The one I’m currently reading is great — it’s Ways to Make Sunshine by Renée Watson. It’s the story of Ryan Hart, a fourth-grade girl in Portland, Oregon, who is dealing with all the usual troubles of grade school life while her family struggles with the loss of her father’s job. Ryan is a wonderfully real and multi-layered character, at the same time curious and shy, hesitant and confident, but always empathetic and kind. Ways to Make Sunshine also works as a modern counterpoint to the classic Ramona Quimby books, which were also set in Portland, this time showing us how Black families like Ryan’s experience life in the same city in a very different way.
Chapter 16: What book have you been recommending recently and why?
Gratz: I’m a great lover of mystery and detective fiction, and I’ve been on a Spenser kick lately. These books are hardly new — Robert B. Parker wrote 40 Spenser novels between 1973 and 2011 — but I’m reading my way through the series for the first time and loving them. They’re short and punchy. Fast-paced, no-nonsense, and often funny, they’ve been the perfect antidote to my post-COVID reading blues. If you love mysteries and missed these the first time around, I recommend circling back to them.
Gratz: I have Jonathan Eig’s biography of Muhammad Ali, Ali: A Life, in my To Be Read pile, and I keep skipping it. It’s got all kinds of plaudits and I love Muhammad Ali and really, really want to read this book, but I can’t get over the fact that it weighs in at 640 pages. I’m already a slow reader, and I fear this book will take me months to read, wearing me down like one of Ali’s famous rope-a-dopes!
Chapter 16: Have you ever read a book you liked far more than you expected?
Gratz: Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policeman’s Union was another book I kept skipping — not because of its size, but because I had read a couple of other Chabon books I was lukewarm about. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay is one of my all-time favorite books, though, so I keep coming back, hoping for more of the same magic. For me, The Yiddish Policeman’s Union recaptured that magic wonderfully, and now I regret not having read it sooner!
Chapter 16: Is there an author or a book you’d like to see become better known?
Gratz: For kids, Philip Reeve’s Mortal Engines Quartet is woefully under-read and underappreciated here in the United States. It won lots of big awards in England but never really caught the attention or affection of American readers. I absolutely love it. It’s hard to say the books are unknown when the first book in the series got a 2018 feature film adaptation by Peter Jackson, but apparently nobody saw that either. Forget the movie; read the books. They’re terrific.
For adult mysteries, again, since I’m a fan, I highly recommend the Dr. Siri Paiboun mysteries of Colin Cotterill. Seventy-two-year-old Paiboun is the one and only coroner in communist Laos in 1976, and therefore the reluctant investigator of any particularly suspicious deaths. Great mysteries that are darkly funny, full of fantastic characters and unique situations. The first book in the series is The Coroner’s Lunch.
Chapter 16: What’s the next book on your “to read” list?
Gratz: The Bridge Home by Padma Venkatraman, the middle-grade story of four homeless children surviving on the streets of Chennai, India.
Maria Browning is a fifth-generation Tennessean who grew up in Erin and Nashville. Her work has appeared in Guernica, The Los Angeles Review of Books, and The New York Times. She’s the editor of Chapter 16.