Stories Are Everywhere, a guest post by Kate Albus
When I have the opportunity to talk to young readers about writing, I like to start by confessing something: I’m not sure I’m particularly good at making up stories.
What I do seem to be able to manage, though, is finding them. Which is good news for me, because stories are everywhere.
I found the story behind Nothing Else But Miracles in a 1952 New Yorker essay called Up in the Old Hotel. In it, the late, great Joseph Mitchell tells the real-life tale of how he and his friend, Louis Morino, braved a nearly century-old hand-pull elevator to explore the upper floors of the New York City building that housed Morino’s Sloppy Louie’s restaurant. The human dumbwaiter had been unused for decades, and because it was the only way to get to the building’s third, fourth, and fifth floors, the contents of those floors were a mystery. While Mitchell and Morino were disappointed when they emerged from the dumbwaiter to find only the ruins of a 19th century hotel, I couldn’t have been more delighted.
An abandoned hotel?
A secret space in New York City?
A creaky old dumbwaiter?
To me, that sounded like the makings of a million stories.
In Nothing Else But Miracles, it’s 1944, and it’s twelve-year-old Dory Byrne who hears about that creaky old dumbwaiter. Like Mitchell and Morino, she braves it, hoping the mysterious floors above contain riches. Pirate treasure, perhaps… or maybe a mobster’s stash. Also like Mitchell and Morino, Dory is disappointed to find nothing but an old hotel up there. But when she and her brothers – managing on their own while their pop is off fighting Hitler – need a place to hide, the old hotel turns out to be more valuable than any of them could have imagined.
Joseph Mitchell’s old hotel gave Dory and her brothers a hideout. And it gave me a story. Not just a story, but a playground from which to explore World War II New York City. Which, as it turned out, offered more stories on every corner.
There’s the Statue of Liberty, her iconic flame dimmed for the duration of the war to keep the Nazis from using her torch as a target. Dory treats ‘Libby’ as a confidante, because “the way she figured, the Green Goddess had been the last one to see Pop’s navy ship go, and she’d be the first to see it return. With him on it. Safe and sound.” So when Libby is illuminated on the night of the Normandy invasions, and her lights flash on and off in a repeating pattern, Dory takes it as a personal message from the statue. In reality, the flashing lights were Morse code: V for victory.
There’s Coney Island, summer playground to millions in the 1940s, including Dory and her brothers. The rides and attractions Coney Island’s Steeplechase theme park boasted back then sound preposterous today. Like the ‘Blowhole Theater,’ for example, where patrons exiting the Steeplechase ride were hurried along by erratic gusts of wind designed to blow women’s skirts up to their elbows, as well as a clown who chased exiting riders with an electrical wand. It was a bizarre and terrifying sort of crowd control. And the sort of story I couldn’t make up if I tried.
And there are bits and pieces, here and there, of my own real-life family lore embedded in the story as well. Dory recalls a childhood incident, for example, in which she complimented a friend on her ringlet curls and the friend promptly cut one off and handed it over as a gift. That story came directly from my own grandmother (she was the recipient of the curl). Likewise, Dory recounts how she once received detention for penciling an ‘i’ between the words ‘to’ and ‘let’ on the assistant principal’s sign-in sheet, yielding the word ‘toilet.’ At the risk of portraying my beloved grandmother as a hooligan, I’ll confess that that one came from her as well.
The real-life inspiration behind Nothing Else But Miracles – Joseph Mitchell’s old hotel – still exists, lovingly preserved and maintained by New York’s South Street Seaport Museum. Peeling wallpaper. Exposed beams. Bedsteads. Washtubs. The dumbwaiter itself is gone, but the elevator shaft that housed it remains. It’s all still there for visitors to see. It’s all still there, waiting to fire our imaginations. It’s all still there, offering up its stories to anybody who wants them.
How lucky we are. So many stories out there, hiding in plain sight. Just waiting to be found.
Meet the author
Kate Albus writes historical fiction for young readers. Her first novel, A Place to Hang the Moon (2021, Margaret Ferguson Books at Holiday House), was a New York Public Library Best Book for Kids, A Kids Indie Next List pick, an SCBWI Crystal Kite Award winner, an ALSC Notable Children’s Book, a CCBC Choice, and a JLG Gold Standard Selection. Her second book, Nothing Else But Miracles, also a JLG Gold Standard Selection, was just released from Margaret Ferguson Books at Holiday House. Kate lives with her family in rural Maryland.
About Nothing Else But Miracles
From the author of A Place to Hang the Moon comes a hopeful World War II story about three scrappy siblings on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.
When 12-year-old Dory Byrne’s pop left New York City’s Lower East Side to fight Hitler, he promised her and her brothers that they’d be safe. Like he always said, “the neighborhood will give you what you need.”
There’s the lady from the bakery, who saves them leftover crullers. The kind landlord who checks in on them. And every Thursday night, the Byrnes enjoy a free bowl of seafood stew at Mr. Caputo’s restaurant. . . which is where Dory learns about the abandoned hand-pulled elevator that is the only way to get to Caputo’s upper floors.
But when a new landlord threatens their home in the community that’s raised them and kept them safe, the secret elevator—and the abandoned hotel it leads to—provides just the solution they need.
Based on a very real place in old New York and steeped in the history of World War II, Nothing Else but Miracles is a warm and inviting story of resilience, the tight-knit community of the Lower East Side, and the miracles that await in unexpected places.
Kate Albus is the award-winning author of A Place to Hang the Moon, a JLG Gold Standard Selection, An Indie Pick, An ALSC Notable Children’s Book, A CCBC Choice book, and an SCBWI Crystal Kite Award Winner. Nothing Else But Miracles is rich with details from her grandparents’ stories of Coney Island and the Fulton Fish Market.
A Junior Library Guild Gold Standard Selection
Publisher: Holiday House
Publication date: 09/05/2023
Age Range: 9 – 12 Years
Filed under: Guest Post
About Amanda MacGregor
Amanda MacGregor works in an elementary library, loves dogs, and can be found on Twitter @CiteSomething.
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