Middlebury writer Phoebe Stone has just published a new young-adult novel, "The Romeo and Juliet Code." Set in 1941, eleven year-old Felicity Bathburn Budwig has just left the only home she’s ever known in London and been left by her glamorous parents with relatives in coastal Maine. The book contains mystery, code-cracking, spy-stuff, and a first crush. Vermont Edition host Jane Lindholm learned more about the book, and Phoebe Stone’s young fans, at a book signing in Middlebury.
(Stone) “Okay, so, I guess I’ll sign this one here. Shall I do a rose in this one or a swan? Which do you prefer… (dip under tracks after “swan”)
(Lindholm) When Phoebe Stone signs a book she’s not just jotting down a name and scrawling her signature across the title page. No, each dedication includes a hand-drawn doodle of sorts: a butterfly, a swan, a bird, and lots and lots of stars. Stone spends time with each of the children, or parents, in line, discovering what they like to read and entreating them to get back to her once they’ve read the book.
(Stone) “Well, I’d love to know what you think of this. It’s fun to hear comments. So I’d love to hear what you have to say.” (Child) “Okay.” (Stone) “Thank you.”
(Lindholm) Eleven-year old Charlie Buckles was excited to meet one of her favorite authors when she heard about the event.
(Buckles) “Um, well, I read about it in the Addison Independent and I said, ‘Oh, I know that author.’ And my dad said, ‘yeah, she’s from Middlebury.’ And I said, ‘oh, well, can I go and check it out?’ So I just came down here and I was kind of nervous at first. I’ve actually never gotten anything signed by anybody so I was excited to come here.”
(Lindholm) Buckles hasn’t read “The Romeo and Juliet Code” yet, but she’s read another book by Phoebe Stone and the writing really spoke to her.
(Buckles) “I’ve read “Deep Down Popular”. I thought it was kind of relatable because how the main character was really more of, like, a tomboy and I just could relate to that. I just thought a lot of the characters were interesting. I thought it was original writing.”
(Lindholm) The characters in Stone’s books are often struggling to fit in to their communities, and working out how to be different without feeling uncomfortable or isolated. Stone says she can relate.
(Stone) “My family was a bit eccentric, different. And it was wonderful that it was different. But it’s difficult for children to feel a little different—even my name seemed different. And we didn’t have a television and everyone else did. I was always aware of wanting to feel like I belonged.”
(Lindholm) That longing infuses her new novel. It’s 1941 and eleven-year-old Felicity Bathburn Budwig has just left the only home she’s ever known, in London. It’s war-time in Europe, so Felicity and her parents cross to America in an ocean liner that’s been covered in gray paint. Even the windows are painted—to avoid detection by U-boats and torpedoes.
(Stone) “She comes to America to this great big Victorian house on the ocean, inhabited by her grandmother, her uncle, and her aunt. She’s never met any of these people. Her parents are rather glamorous and they sort of deposit her there. And the minute they all get together she realizes there’s some secrets that are going on and things that she doesn’t understand. And the whole time she’s there she begins to assemble what’s been going on and why. It’s a bit of a mystery.”
(Lindholm) There’s spy-stuff and code breaking and some very light romance—and several ties to Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet—as Felicity quietly investigates why her parents have mysteriously left her with these quirky relatives in Maine.
These themes appealed to twelve year-old Sophie Saunders, from Middlebury, who stopped in to buy a copy.
(Saunders) “I’ve read a lot about World War II and it’s really amazing. And I’m Jewish, so I find it really interesting to read about.”
(Lindholm) And to Bruce McNally, from North Chittenden, who said you certainly don’t have to be a kid to enjoy this book!
(McNally) “I really liked it. It took me back to my childhood reading the Hardy Boy and Nancy Drew mysteries. It also had a lot of gothic elements in it, the strange person in the upstairs room and all the mist and rain coming down. It’s good for kids but adults can enjoy it too. And it’s so beautifully written.”
(Lindholm) The book actually took Phoebe Stone back to her childhood too. In 1959 her family traveled from the US to Great Britain for what was supposed to be her father’s one year sabbatical from Vassar College. But while there, Walter Stone died and the family had to return, by ship, to the United States. It was winter, so the portholes were blocked up and the ship pitched and heaved in the cold water. That experience not only colors the plotline of “The Romeo and Juliet Code,” but, Stone says, it’s allowed her to connect to her intended audience.
(Stone) “My childhood was the most intense, most wonderful, most difficult, most delightful, most painful, most everything, for me. So naturally I most like to write about it. I’m drawn to it. I mean, psychologically you could say well, you were eleven when your father died, and I was. And I don’t know whether, on the happy side, maybe I’m a little bit caught at that point but it works out beautifully for writing because I’m quite able to access all the feelings of an eleven year old as it’s there for me. Which is nice.”
(Lindholm) And a special gift to the many young readers eagerly reading “The Romeo and Juliet Code.” We have a link to more information at vpr.net. Just click on Vermont Edition.