To Tucker MacBean, beans aren’t just the magical fruit, they’re a gas-powered ticket to saving his cash-strapped family.
Pretty heady stuff for a middle school kid. And pretty hilarious, too.
“The Adventures of Beanboy” is the most recent young adult book by Tonganoxie author Lisa Harkrader. Available Feb. 14 from Houghton Mifflin at bookstores around Lawrence and on Amazon.com, it’s the story of Tucker, who enters the Dark Overload Sidekick Contest while dealing with the wilds of middle school and the pressure of living in a family dealing with financial hardship.
Harkrader says she got the idea for Tucker while listening to National Public Radio one day, when famed host Garrison Keillor was telling a Lake Wobegon tale on “Prairie Home Companion.” The story was one of two high school boys who used their brains to outsmart and frighten the bullies who were making their lives horrific.
“I thought about bullying and I wanted to figure out a way for someone to overcome that, and I started sort of developing the characters,” says Harkrader, who merged the idea with one she’d had about a comic book-obsessed kid. “And, of course, it’s much different — you wouldn’t think of Garrison Keillor when you read ‘Beanboy,’ but you just kind of develop these things and they just kind of go off on their own (way).”
The book has already received a lot of interest from the young adult set, in part because Harkrader’s first mid-grade novel, “Airball: My Life in Briefs,” won a boatload of praise. Various accolades for “Airball” include a win for Bank Street College Best Book of the Year, a nomination for the Texas Lonestar Award, a Junior Library Guild Selection and a mention for New York Public Library Best book for the Teen Age.
The awards for “Airball” were huge for Harkrader, who had previously been a substitute teacher in addition to being a writer. She says now she freelances and works on her novels exclusively.
While working on “Beanboy,” Harkrader started bouncing ideas off fellow freelancer Nancy Pistorius, meaning Pistorius got to see “Beanboy” grow from seed to stalk during frequent “write-ins” at local coffee shops. She says success couldn’t have happened to a better person.
“To paraphrase E.B. White, it’s not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer. Lisa is both,” Pistorius says. “I was thrilled with Lisa’s ‘Beanboy’ plot and characters from the start and am sharing her excitement as the book finally gets out into the hands of eager young readers.”
Getting the work into the hands of the young readers was doubly complicated by the nature of the book. Not only is it a full-length young adult novel, but Harkrader, a former graphic artist, also illustrated the book in such a way that every few pages a drawing or comic book scene or Post-it note from Tucker’s mom appears. Because she was so concerned about authenticity, Harkrader even enlisted her son Austin, who is now 17, to make sure the book’s nuances were spot-on.
“I still ask him things,” says Harkrader, who also passed ideas by Austin while writing “Airball.” “Small things, like when Tucker says, ‘Oh, if I could do a cartwheel, I’d do one.’ And I said, ‘Austin, can any boys in your grade do cartwheels?’ And he’s like, ‘I doubt it.’ I’m like, ‘OK, that works.’”
Austin also made an impression on the book’s interior art, which his mother created — mostly. The teenager makes an appearance, and, again, it’s all in the name of getting it right.
“When I had Tucker forge his mother’s signature, I actually had Austin write ‘Mrs. MacBean’ on a piece of paper, so he’s an artist in my book, too,” she says, laughing. “He forged Tucker’s mom’s signature for me because I wanted to make sure it looked like a boy’s signature.”
Family also played a role in the detailing of Tucker’s younger brother, Beecher. In him, Harkrader created a character with special needs, but didn’t want that to outweigh Tucker’s own story. It’s a decision she made on behalf of her own daughter with special needs, Ashley, who is now 28.
“I’ve noticed in books that have special needs characters or movies or TV shows, the whole focus is on that character’s special needs and how you deal with it,” she says. “I don’t know if some people will be upset because I haven’t focused on Beecher’s special needs, but my point was kind of he’s just another kid in their family. Not to downplay that he has needs of his own, but he’s just part of the family and that’s just kind of what my point was in doing it that way.”
What’s up next for Harkrader and Tucker MacBean? She’s working on a possible sequel to “Beanboy” and says she may even — for the first time — dabble in having a novel driven by a female protagonist.
“I was a true Nancy Drew addict. I loved Nancy Drew. I wanted to be Nancy Drew,” she says. “And I don’t know why, exactly, I tend to gravitate toward middle-grade stories that have boys in them. Maybe it’s because I’m trying to find an alter ego. … I think at some point it might be fun to have Sam, the antagonist in ‘Beanboy,’ I think it might be fun for her to have her own books at some point. I think she’d have a completely different point of view and voice than Tucker does. I haven’t run this by my agent or editor, so that could be totally shot down, but I was thinking, ‘That would be fun.’”
— Staff writer Sarah Henning can be reached at 832-7187.