Leslie Connor has never shied away from tackling tough topics in her books for young readers—including issues that seem strictly grown-up, such as incarceration, depression and economic instability. Integrating such real-world problems into her fiction requires a deep understanding of a child’s point of view.
“My sense with middle grade books is that life is really being done to these kids—the adults are in charge,” Connor says during a call to her home in Connecticut. “But maybe for that reason, [kids] can sort of deal with it. You only know what you know. . . . You don’t fully know what’s wrong, and so you cope with what’s there.” Connor is the author of several books for middle schoolers and teens, and has even authored a picture book. In her latest novel, The Truth as Told by Mason Buttle, Mason Buttle is doing his best to cope. Ever since Mason lost his mom and grandpa six years ago, his grandma and uncle haven’t had as much energy to maintain their “crumbledown” farmhouse, and the beautiful family apple orchard has been gradually sold off to developers. Mason’s biggest tragedy, though, was the death of his best friend, Benny, in an accident for which he fears he is blamed by Benny’s dads—and by police investigator Lieutenant Baird.
Mason desperately wants to tell the truth about what happened that day in the tree house, but his brain doesn’t work like most people’s; when he tries to tell a story, his mind gets all tangled up. “My story is mixed,” he says. “Some things are past things. Some are right now.” He has trouble with reading and writing, too. Mason knows he’s not stupid—despite what his bullying neighbor might say—but how can he make other people believe the truth that’s in his heart?
Even though it’s firmly grounded in a child’s hopeful perspective, The Truth as Told by Mason Buttle could’ve been a dark, heavy tale. Fortunately, it is lightened by Mason’s distinctive, honest voice. Mason is buoyed by the important people in his life, including his grandma, who’s always happy to make him banana milkshakes; Ms. Blinny, the school social worker who introduces him to new technology that helps him overcome his fear of storytelling; and his new friend Calvin Chumsky. Calvin and Mason are opposites in many ways, but their individual skills and different ways of viewing the world balance one another perfectly.
“Calvin and Mason both have something to offer each other. I think that can happen for real,” Connor says. “I remember hearing two kids playing on the beach, and one of them knew the physics about waves and everything, and the other one was just pretending to dive with sea monsters—seeing and understanding the world in two totally different ways, but being friends regardless.”
“A lot of kids could be learning more or better outside. . . . It is who they are.”
Connor also views her novel as participating in the “No Child Left Inside” movement, which encourages environmental education for children; while Calvin may be perfectly happy to play indoors and work on his tablet, Mason only comes into his own and thrives when he’s outdoors. “I do feel that a lot of kids could be learning more or better outside, because it just suits them better,” Connor says. “It is who they are.”
Mason and Calvin’s complementary talents are most on display when they solve problems and tackle challenges together, whether that means outsmarting neighborhood bullies or transforming the crumbledown’s derelict root cellar into a cozy hideaway inspired by the prehistoric caves of Lascaux in France. Sanctuaries are important in Connor’s novel, whether it’s a tree house, an underground den or the safe haven of Ms. Blinny’s office.
“I was constantly making those types of spaces for myself,” Connor says of her own childhood. “There were always kids building forts and linking them together. I love that sense of building things and creating spaces, and I know that these days, kids mostly are doing that only at the computer. I sense a little bit of a loss there; building things with your hands is really important. I think we’re all fort-builders at heart.” Now, Connor says, she creates her “forts” by building worlds and characters in her novels.
Along with everything else that’s happening in this rich, rewarding story of friendship, loyalty, justice and new beginnings, it’s also a wonderful dog novel. Mason absolutely adores Moonie Drinker, the dog next door (who happens to belong to Mason’s nemesis), and Moonie loves Mason right back. Mason’s bond with Moonie Drinker—along with his intimate knowledge of the family apple orchard and his facility for building things with his hands—helps Mason gain confidence and courage when he needs it most. Connor, who has three rescue dogs of her own, modeled Moonie Drinker after her dog Atticus: “He’s just a really happy dog. Dogs are just like people, in that they come with different personalities—serious, moody—and he’s just a really happy dog. He seems to know when to offer comfort, too.”
Moonie Drinker, Calvin and Mason will remain in readers’ hearts long after they finish The Truth as Told by Mason Buttle. Even Connor admits that she’s particularly fond of her protagonist: “He’s very close to my heart somehow.” Readers lucky enough to get to know Mason will certainly feel the same.
Norah Piehl writes from Belmont, Massachusetts. Her childhood hideaway was a walk-in closet so big that, rumor has it, a previous owner rented it out to college students as a bedroom.
Author photo by J.F. Connor