When Ann Martin was growing up in Princeton, one of her favorite places was the public library.
“When I was very young, my parents took me to Bainbridge House on Nassau Street. They were both avid readers and I remember going every week and coming home with an armful of books to read,” recalled Ms. Martin, who now lives in Woodstock, New York.
One summer, Ms. Martin and her friends set up their own library in her room with books that could be checked out by neighborhood children. It even had due dates and fines.
The best-selling children’s book author, famous for her Baby Sitters Club series, which has sold some 176 million copies, returns to Princeton and the Princeton Public Library this evening at 7 p.m. to discuss the new paperback series, Main Street, written for young readers in grades 3 to 6.
The author of more than a dozen other books for children, including Newberry Honor Book A Corner of the World, will sign copies of the first book of the series, Welcome to Camden Falls. The second title, Needle and Thread, will be released in August.
Welcome to Camden Falls begins with Flora and Ruby getting ready to move from their own home to live with their maternal grandmother in the row home in which their mother was raised. Eleven-year old Flora is on the brink of becoming a teenager. Her sister Ruby has just turned nine.
In addition to Flora and Ruby, the row homes, as well as the town and Camden Falls’ colorful residents, feature prominently in the story that begins just after the sisters are orphaned because of an auto accident one frosty Friday evening in January as the family drove out for pizza through a light fall of snow.
In a telephone interview with Town Topics, Ms. Martin — daughter of renowned New Yorker cartoonist Henry Martin — said that there is usually one character like her in most of her books.
In the Main Street series, that character is Flora. “Ruby is most like my sister, Jane, who was much more outgoing than I was as a child, performing in McCarter theatre productions and playing lacrosse and soccer.”
Ms. Martin and her sister grew up on Dodds Lane during the 1950s and 1960s with their parents and a lot of pets. The Martin family was very fond of cats — at one time they had nine — and also had hamsters, mice, turtles, guinea pigs, and fish. Their home was always filled with paint and paper and craft supplies.
Ms. Martin’s childhood hobbies included sewing, and needlework. In addition to the library, her favorite Princeton places included the Hobby Shop on Nassau Street and H.P. Clayton’s Yarn Shop.
One of her first projects was a set of curtains for her father’s art studio, where they hung for years until he retired. Nowadays, she enjoys making clothes for children.
Her love of sewing prompted her publisher to suggest that she incorporate sewing into a story. In Welcome to Camden Falls, Flora and Ruby’s grandmother is part owner of the Needle and Thread sewing supply store where much of the action takes place. Sewing is Flora’s passion, too.
“I was also inspired by the British author Dora Saint, who wrote under the pen name Miss Read,” said the author. Flora and Ruby’s grandmother, Mindy Read, is named for one of Ms. Martin’s mother’s favorite authors.
Originally the book started with Ruby and Flora already living with the grandmother in Camden Falls. It was her publisher’s idea to orphan the sisters in order to provide a rationale for their being there. “At first I was a little taken aback by the idea but I soon became tantalized and realized that it was just what the story needed,” commented Ms. Martin.
The device has allowed the author to add depth to the book’s character, as when Flora, for example, begins to discover her mother’s childhood home and the relationships between the town’s residents past and present.
Since Ms. Martin’s own parents moved about ten years ago to a continuing care retirement community, Pennswood Village in Newtown, Pa., she said that she returns less often to Princeton. Her new book includes characters drawn from experience after her mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.
After attending Princeton High School, Ms. Martin graduated from Smith College and then trained as a teacher. She worked as an editor of children’s books in New York City before becoming a full-time writer.
Ms. Martin writes for preteens and keeps up with the preteen mind-set though her nine-year old nephew Henry and children of friends and contact with her readers. “I also have a very detailed memory of what it was like at that age, and that’s the voice that comes most naturally,” she said.
An avid reader and writer since childhood — even when she was too young to write herself, Ms. Martin dictated stories for her mother to write down — her favorite childhood authors included Lewis Carroll, P. L. Travers, Hugh Lofting, Astrid Lindgren, and Roald Dahl. Nowadays, she admits to enjoying scary books such as those written by Stephen King.
Besides bearing a resemblance to Woodstock, Camden Falls has much in common with Princeton.
Young readers might spot some local connections: a town named Lawrence, a character named Mr. Pennington, Verbeyst’s — the dry cleaners that was a Princeton fixture for decades until just last year — as well as a Dodds Lane and Aiken Avenue.
While children might not see a Princeton connection in the character of Sonny Sutphen, their parents might.
He’s based on the real life Princeton personality Sonny Perrine, of whom Ms. Martin has vivid memories. “Sonny was a fixture in downtown Princeton when I was growing up. When I was at the high school I remember Sonny selling candy from a tray on his wheelchair in the school parking lot,” she said. “Because of Sonny, I became addicted to Sky Bars in high school.”
At the library tonight, she will be talking about her childhood, about becoming a writer, about individual books such as the evolution of A Dog’s Life, as well as her passion for sewing, smocking, and knitting.
Her advice to young aspiring authors is to be eclectic readers and consume as many different forms of writing as possible — fiction, non-fiction, journalism — and to keep a journal for writing experience and as a source of story ideas.
“The library is grateful to Ann Martin for generously rearranging her schedule to appear at her hometown library,” said Jan Johnson, manager of the library’s Youth Services Department, who expects the new series to generate a lot of interest in young readers. “We are very excited to provide this opportunity for young people to meet the author,” she said.
Ms. Martin will sign copies of her new book, Welcome to Camden Falls — which will be available for purchase — tonight, Wednesday, May 2, at 7 p.m., at the Princeton Public Library, prior to her presentation at 7:30 p.m. in the first floor community room.
All Princeton Public Library programs are free and open to the public. For more information, call (609) 924-9529 or visit www.princetonlibrary.org.
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