A Big Stack
By Mary Ann DeSantis. Photography courtesy of Jo Watson Hackl
Everything was one big stack of maybes for 12-year-old Cricket, the protagonist in this award-winning book by Mississippi native Jo Watson Hackl.
Readers shouldn’t be fooled into thinking “Smack Dab in the Middle of Maybe” is only for middle school readers just because it won the Southern Book Prize for Children’s Literature and has received accolades from the American Association of School Librarians.
Set in east Mississippi’s Electric Mills, a for-real abandoned lumber town, the coming-of-age book addresses some serious subjects including child abandonment and mental illness. But there’s also adventure, art, colorful characters, and, of course, hope.
“I really wanted to create a book about hope and resiliency,” says author Jo Watson Hackl, who grew up in Scooba, Miss., on land that once was part of Electric Mills in Kemper County.
Her story resonates with all ages – more than half of the book’s readers are adults – because of the vivid descriptions and a colorful mystery with intricate clues. The young girl at the center of the story charms readers with her spunk and resourcefulness.
“Middle grade readers are the smartest readers. They keep writers on their game,” Hackl says. “I knew if I could craft a story to keep them turning the page, it would be a success.”
It took Hackle 10 years to produce the book, which she says gave her time to add “layers and layers to the story.” The idea began, however, when she herself was a child roaming those same East Mississippi woods and inventing characters as she explored the remnants of what was once a thriving lumber town. Established in 1913, Electric Mills had a theater, ice cream parlor, hospital, and beautiful homes – most of which was dismantled when the lumber company pulled out at the beginning of World War II. All that remained were the sidewalks and a few pillars, which intrigued Hackl whose family moved to the area when she was 11.
In the book, 12-year-old Cricket takes readers on a journey through the overgrown ghost town to solve a 30-year-old clue trail in search of a secret bird room that may or may not have existed, all in an effort to entice her run-away mother to return home. Cricket uses her wits to live off the land during a Mississippi winter and works to solve increasingly baffling clues left by an eccentric artist with a logic all his own.
That fictional artist was inspired by Mississippi’s own Walter Anderson and his “Little Room” at the Ocean Springs museum honoring him. Born in Biloxi, Hackl grew up hearing about Anderson and he became her favorite artist. She researched his life extensively, and she’s not uncertain that he may have trekked through Electric Mills when he walked more than 1,000 miles to get home from a Pennsylvania mental hospital.
“There is some speculation he followed train tracks to get home,” she says. “If that’s true, I think there’s a possibility he may have come through the area.”
Growing up in rural Mississippi fed Hackl’s passion for connecting with nature. About seven years ago, she created Outdoorosity, a free online resource of inspirational outdoor projects. The site encourages busy professionals, students, and families to lead healthier lifestyles and get outside more often. She also takes her message about the importance of connecting with nature to schools throughout the country. A first-generation college graduate, Hackl has told more than 15,000 students the story of how writing helped her earn scholarships to both Millsaps College in Jackson, Miss., and Yale Law School in New Haven, Conn.
“Writing will take you from wherever you are to wherever you want to be,” she says. “If you need a little courage, turn to writing. It takes a dose of bravery to sit down and write.”
After receiving her law degree, Hackl considered returning to Jackson but an offer from a Greenville, S.C., law firm took her to the Palmetto state, where she now lives with her chef husband and three children. She is also a lawyer with Wyche, P.A., whose lawyers have worked to preserve over 100,000 acres of land for future generations.
Her roots and love for Mississippi still run deep, however. She visits family often, and after “Smack Dab” was published, she created a book club menu using all Mississippi products. She worked closely with her cousin Elizabeth Joiner of Jackson to produce YouTube videos making dishes such as Shrimp and Vegetables with Comeback Sauce, Smack Dab Punch, Jubilee Jalapeno Cheese Grits, and more.
Hackl is currently putting the finishing touches on another book that will feature Cricket’s cousin and will highlight places in the Mississippi Delta. And like her first book, there will be a clue trail and an inspirational message about overcoming fears.
“Sometimes it’s time to start taking chances on yourself,” says Hackl. “If there is a theme to my book, that’s it. Do the things you think you can’t, but you’ll find that you really can.”