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  • Shades of Simon Gray
  • Written by Joyce McDonald
  • Format: eBook | ISBN: 9780307819789
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Shades of Simon Gray

Written by Joyce McDonaldAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Joyce McDonald


List Price: $5.99


On Sale: May 16, 2012
Pages: 272 | ISBN: 978-0-307-81978-9
Published by : Laurel Leaf RH Childrens Books
Shades of Simon Gray Cover

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Simon Gray is the ideal teenager — smart, reliable, hardworking, trustworthy. Or is he? After Simon crashes his car into The Liberty Tree, another portrait starts to emerge. Soon an investigation has begun into computer hacking at Simon’s high school, for it seems tests are being printed out before they are given. Could Simon be involved?

Simon, meanwhile, is in a coma — but is this another appearance that may be deceiving? For inside his own head, Simon can walk around and talk to some people. He even seems to be having a curious conversation with a man who was hung for murder 200 years ago, in the branches of the same tree Simon crashed into. What can a 200-year-old murder have to do with Simon’s accident? And how do we know who is really innocent and who is really guilty?


Chapter 1

On the night Simon Gray ran his '92 Honda Civic into the Liberty Tree, the peepers exploded right out of the local streams, shrieking like souls of the dead disturbed from their slumber, louder and more shrill than anyone in Bellehaven could remember. Like the plague of frogs converging on ancient Egypt, they were everywhere: in window boxes, on front porch rockers, in mailboxes carelessly left open, in gutters. They even clogged a few exhaust pipes.

Most people in town were absolutely positive the peepers caused Simon's accident. With squashed frogs all over the road, their blood, like so much oil, made driving slippery. It was bound to happen to somebody. A few suspected that the sudden appearance of the peepers might be a curse. But this was an unpopular view, Bellehaven being a respectable and upright town.

When the police found no skid marks, nothing to indicate that Simon Gray had slammed on the brakes for dear life, that was no surprise. Everyone knew he would have. He was the responsible young man who baby-sat their children, walked their dogs, and watered their plants while they were on vacation. The boy who had cleaned their gutters, mowed their lawns, and run their errands since he was ten.

They were sure the slick mess on the road would have made finding any trace of tire treads impossible. Not one single person in town doubted that for a minute, and if anyone hinted otherwise, people turned away and wandered off without finishing the conversation.

Come sunrise, following the accident, what remained of the peeper population had settled back into the streams and the muddy banks of the Delaware, but for the next two weeks they continued their piercing chirps after the sun went down. By the time they finally stopped, everyone in town knew the truth about Simon Gray.

Or so they believed.

On the day before the accident, a heat wave settled over Bellehaven like a cloud of steam. It all but sucked the air out of anyone who tried to take a deep breath. Some attributed special significance to its being April Fools' Day. But most simply found it odd to have eighty-five-degree temperatures in early April, shrugged, and went on about their business, although they were inclined to move at a much slower pace. Only the Delaware River, swollen with the spring runoff and freshly stocked with brook and rainbow trout, sped along at breakneck speed, spewing white foam over rocky ridges.

When the heat wave persisted through the following day, girls dug out last year's shorts and tank tops from attic trunks in preparation for school on Monday, and threw away lipsticks that had melted in their backpacks. By nightfall, people found themselves kicking off top sheets, digging window fans out of basements and attics, and wrapping ice cubes in face towels to lay across the backs of their necks. A few even turned on air conditioners, muttering about future electric bills that were sure to leave them paupers.

But the heat wasn't all that kept Simon Gray awake as he paced his airless bedroom that night, wearing only a pair of boxer shorts. He hadn't slept in two nights, and it didn't look as if he ever would again. Unlike everyone else in town, he barely noticed the temperature creeping toward ninety. He had other things on his mind.

When he slipped on a pair of khaki cargo shorts and a black T-shirt, silently sneaked out the back door, got in his car, and headed for the river, it wasn't in search of cooler air. What he sought was a few moments of peace. A rare minute or two when something or someone besides Devin McCafferty and the others didn't monopolize his thoughts.

He parked his Honda near the boat ramp and headed down to his favorite spot a few feet from the Delaware. For the next half hour he watched the moonlight glimmer off the rush of water heading downriver, letting his mind flow along with it. People, he realized, were a lot like drops of water caught up in the spring runoff, shuttled into fast-moving streams that collided into rivers and rushed to join the ocean. If you got caught in the current there was no turning back. The only way out of that racing water was to evaporate into the night air.

Evaporate. Disappear.

He wondered what it would feel like to be as light as mist, to no longer be weighted down with a human body filled with leaden fears, in constant dread of being discovered, exposed, humiliated.

Simon turned his face toward the sky so thick with stars he could almost taste them on his tongue, metallic, like biting into aluminum foil. Moonlight glinted off his thick glasses, and anyone looking at his face would have thought his eyes had melted into two pools of pure light.

Sitting with his back against the base of a huge white pine, eyes closed, he listened to the gentle hush-hush, the whisper of the wind through the soft needles. For just the tiniest moment Simon thought he might float up into the night air and beyond. Until the piercing shrieks of two raccoons, probably males hell-bent on killing each other over a female, forced him to remember why he was here, why he hadn't been able to sleep.

He did not want to think about what would happen to him, to all of them, if they were caught. But then, maybe it was time he was caught, because he'd been fooling everyone for so long he'd started to fool himself. Simon the Eagle Scout. Simon the Responsible. Squeaky clean Simon. Hell, he was Bellehaven's very own Dudley Do-Right. Who was he kidding?

Even when he was caught stealing a computer game the previous fall from CompUSA, the manager, who turned out to be his old second-grade teacher, Mr. Grabowski--the upgraded Mr. Grabowski, ex-teacher, now a hotshot manager--had merely given him a friendly pat on the back and said, "Guess you had your head in the clouds, there, Simon." He had pointed to the box Simon had tucked inside his jacket. "I think you forgot to pay for that."

Yeah, right. Was the guy that dense?

Simon had lifted the box from its hiding place and said, "Oh, yeah. Sorry." And that was all there was to it. Later he realized that Mr. Grabowski hadn't wanted to believe Simon would stoop to stealing from his store. Simon himself still had no idea why he'd done it. It was the only thing he'd ever tried to steal in his life, and now he couldn't even remember the name of the computer game.

What was it with people anyway? Why did they trust him? Especially with their kids? Lately he'd taken to letting the kids do exactly what they wanted, eat Oreos and fistfuls of Froot Loops and Cocoa Puffs until they spun like twirling tops from all that sugar. He let them watch cartoons until their eyes popped right out of their heads. He liked to see the kids happy. It made him feel good.

When that didn't work, he would sometimes set them in their cribs or their playpens and let them cry until their throats were hoarse and their noses so clogged they could barely breathe. Their sobs brought him much too close to the edge, much too close to his own tears, tears he'd worked hard to control. That was when he would walk right out the back door, sit under the nearest tree, and wait for the silence, because he couldn't bear to listen to their cries. Because he didn't know how to take away their pain.

Simon folded his arms and tucked his hands beneath them. He stared out over the river. If those same moms had followed him around this past year, they would have been horrified. They would have locked their children in their rooms for safekeeping, kept their pets in their basement, shuttered their windows, pulled down their shades, and shunned the very sight of him. He imagined that even his own mother, if she had still been alive, would have turned away from him.

Sometimes, on nights when the sky had just begun to turn violet, and strange shadows seemed to hover along the edge of his backyard where it ran into the neighbor's field and to the cemetery beyond, Simon thought he saw his mother rising from her restful place beneath the pines, where she had been buried more than a year earlier, to shake her head in disapproval. On such nights, he would see her at the edge of the field, and if he stared long and hard enough, squinting into the thin line of muted orange on the horizon, if he blurred his vision ever so slightly, he could almost make out the disappointment on her face.

On these nights, he was convinced she knew everything he had ever done and considered him beyond redemption. On other nights, when he was willing to cut himself a little slack, he told himself such notions were childish fantasy. Still, despite this rationale, he had discovered he preferred the shadowy form of disapproval, hovering beyond the edge of his yard, to nothing at all.

It was almost midnight and Simon's eyelids felt heavy. The lack of sleep was catching up with him, and now it seemed his mind was beginning to play tricks, because suddenly tiny frogs were springing out of the weeds, leaping off rocks, and sending their shrill calls into the night. They flew into Simon's lap, landed in his hair, crawled into the pockets of his cargo shorts.

Frantic, he jumped to his feet, beating the frogs from his head, all the while trying not to step on any of them as he made a dash for his Honda. Dozens of frogs crawled over his car. Fortunately he had left the windows up. Still, the peepers clung to the windshield like tiny suction-cup toys. Simon pounded his fist at them from the inside, but they refused to budge. If he turned on the windshield wipers he could launch the peepers right into outer space. Then again, maybe not. Maybe he would end up with a windshield smeared with frog guts, making it even harder to see. Forget the windshield wipers.

The rearview mirror was useless. The entire rear window was coated with frogs. So were the side windows. The only way he could see to back out was to roll down his window and risk letting the frogs inside the car. He rolled the window down a few inches, enough to peer out, then pulled out of the parking lot, hoping that once he was away from the river the frogs would disappear. But to his amazement, they were everywhere. They rose out of neatly manicured lawns and bounced along the tops of boxwood hedges; they were all over the road. And the sound, as he drove over them--hundreds, maybe thousands--was the sound of tar bubbles popping on a sun-scorched road.

He had never seen anything like this before--not in all the years he'd lived in Bellehaven--not in his entire life.

As Simon approached the community park with its fifteen-mile-an-hour speed limit, the car continued to speed along--fast, then faster. With any luck at all, the frogs would blow right off the windshield. But they hung on. The faster Simon went, the louder the popping noises from beneath his tires. Desperate, he turned the radio up full blast to drown out the horrible sound.

As he passed the park--a perfect square surrounded on three sides by stately Victorian homes and the county courthouse on the fourth--he had the bizarre sensation of being in a dream. Maybe all this was a hallucination brought on by lack of sleep. He'd heard of such things. Or maybe the hallucination was the result of the heat.

As he squinted through a clear space of glass in between the frogs, Simon's eyes fell on the huge white oak up ahead. It was the oldest tree in the county, dating back to the Revolutionary War. A battle-scarred soldier. The road had been lovingly built to curve around its thick roots. Beneath its sprawling branches a tarnished bronze plaque proclaimed this the Liberty Tree.

But Simon and the other kids at school called it the Hanging Tree because more than two hundred years before, a drifter named Jessup Wildemere was hanged from its branches for murdering Cornelius Dobbler right in his own bed while he slept, stabbing him so many times the blood formed a pool on the floor, seeped through the crevices, and stained the ceiling of the parlor below.

Up ahead, a dark shadow seemed to rise out of the damp earth in front of the bronze plaque. The shadow shifted, grew filmier in the glare of Simon's headlights, but he could see it had a form--the shape of a man.

Simon's breath caught in his throat. He was so startled by the shifting figure in front of him, he didn't realize he was still flying along at fifty miles an hour. And when he did notice, it was too late. In his panic his foot slammed down on the gas pedal instead of the brake. The car's engine roared in response. The Honda hydroplaned over the slick surface, going so fast Simon thought the car had sprouted wings. His fear was replaced with a sense of wonder, a sense of absolute freedom. He felt himself being lifted right into the air. Like a drop of water evaporating, he was out of the river. Yes!

The sirens didn't wake Danny Giannetti because he hadn't yet gone to bed. He sat on the porch roof outside his bedroom window, watching in wonder as, below, thousands of peepers converged on the front lawn. If he lay on his stomach and leaned carefully over the edge, his fingers clamped on the rusting gutter guards, he could see the frogs on the steps, on the porch railing, on the pillars. Their green bodies, almost black in the moonlight, were dark splotches on the white paint.

His first thought, when the emergency siren sounded, was that the town had declared war on the frogs. He half expected to see fire trucks tear down the street, firefighters blasting holes in the blanket of frogs with their hoses, half expected a cavalcade of police cars, with sharpshooter cops hanging from the windows, firing nonstop as peepers sprang into the air, looking like clay pigeons as they leaped for their lives. But the emergency siren stopped. And the distant moan of police car and ambulance sirens didn't seem to be coming anywhere near Maple Avenue, where Danny lay on the porch roof, listening carefully.

Once in a while, if you paid close attention, Bellehaven might give up one of its secrets. Somewhere in town behind one of these closed doors, maybe a life-and-death emergency was unfolding. Or maybe a crime, a robbery, or even a murder. Danny was hopeful, beside himself with anticipation.
Joyce McDonald|Author Q&A

About Joyce McDonald

Joyce McDonald - Shades of Simon Gray

Photo © Mac McDonald

“I can’t remember a time when books and reading weren’t a part of my life. My mother used to read to me every night before I went to bed. I still read every night.”—Joyce McDonald

Shades of Simon Gray by Joyce McDonald, is an ALA Best Book for Young Adults and an Edgar Allan Poe Award nominee.


“I’ve always been a little off balance when it comes to books. I love everything about them. Not just the words on the page, but the way books feel in my hands and the way they smell. I grew up in Chatham, New Jersey, in a house where books lined shelves in almost every room. Most of my life has been devoted to them through one means or another. Over the years, I have worked in the publishing industry, run my own small press, owned and managed a bookstore, edited and published a children’s literary magazine, and taught literature and writing courses at local universities.

“Living in a quiet rural setting in New Jersey, with my husband, Mac, I’ve discovered how much a sense of place inspires the imagination of a writer. For the setting of Shadow People, I used the wild, often haunting, natural world of northwestern New Jersey and the Kittatinny Mountains as a backdrop for a disturbing look at teen violence. In my novel, Shades of Simon Gray, the setting is similar to some of the small, rural towns in this area.”

For more information on Joyce McDonald, visit her Web site at www.joycemcdonald.net



—2002 Edgar Allan Poe Award Nominee
—A 2002 ALA Best Book for Young Adults

“Written with considerable narrative skill, the supernatural elements are so cleverly integrated that the ending is both satisfying and convincing. A page-turning plot, good characterization, and very convincing setting will have this suspenseful thriller driving up library circulation.”—Kirkus Reviews


—A New York Public Library Book for the Teen Age

“The characters are well drawn and the surprise ending is true to our justice system today. This look behind today’s headlines . . . could well be a topic for discussion.”—School Library Journal


—An ALA Top Ten Best Book for Young Adults
—A YALSA Best of the Best 100
—A VOYA Outstanding Title of the Year
—A New York Public Library Book for the Teen Age

“Readers will quickly become absorbed in this electrifying portrayal of fear and deception.”—Publishers Weekly

Author Q&A

Q. You have had careers in publishing, academia, and writing. Which is the most fulfilling?
A. Writing fiction has been an important part of my life since I was six years old and the most fulfilling of my careers. All of my careers, however, have been connected to or have contributed to my writing, whether I was teaching the works of other writers in a literature class, teaching students how to write short stories, or editing someone else’s work. Having experienced all aspects of the field: writing, editing, production, promotion, teaching, and of course, the pleasure of reading, I’m able to look at my work from many different perspectives. Teaching literature gave me a critical eye with which to evaluate my own work. Teaching also gave me the opportunity to be around older teens. They kept me in tune with current trends and attitudes.
Q. Who are the young adult authors you enjoy reading?
There are many whose work I admire. David Almond, Laurie Halse Anderson, Robert Cormier, Annette Curtis Klause, Han Nolan, and Ellen Wittlinger, to name a few. Alice Hoffman, although primarily a writer of adult fiction, has created several memorable teens in her work.
Q. Tell us about the title. When and how did you develop it?
The phrase shades of gray crept into my head one night just as I was falling asleep. For some reason, I felt the need to add a person’s name. The name that came to me almost immediately was Simon. A few weeks earlier I had read a newspaper article about a group of teens who had stolen a teacher’s password to download a test. I sensed that somehow the phrase shades of gray was connected in my mind to what I’d read in an article. (Newspaper articles are often the impetus for my books.)
This particular news story was also about a local teen, a boy with a reputation for being a great kid, an Eagle Scout, top student, college bound, respected in his community, who had gone out to the woods behind his house and shot himself. The suicide appeared to be linked to the computer incident at school. He and the other boys had been suspended, with hearings pending. This boy’s story haunted me. I wondered why he chose such a drastic way out of his situation. To all outward appearances, he was the perfect student, son, brother, and friend.
I wrote the book to answer the questions that arose both from the article and from the phrase shades of gray that had come to me in the night. When I was done, I understood that the phrase worked on several levels. It captured the main theme of the book–the elusiveness of truth and the way individual perceptions blur the borders of reality–in all its shades of gray. Simon, too, is connected to the phrase. Like all of us, he is many things to many people. Almost all the characters, with the exception of Devin, choose to see him in one-dimensional terms. But there are many shades to his personality. I also liked the other implications behind the word shades. It suggests those things that haunt Simon–literally and figuratively.
Q. Shades of Simon Gray is told in a nonlinear fashion. How did you keep track of all the elements? Did you write the stories about the individual characters and then integrate them or did the story flow continuously?
A. The interconnected stories seemed to flow naturally in and out of each other. My writing tends to be organic. I don’t use an outline, although I usually have a vague sense of how the story might end. This gives me something to move toward, even if I don’t know how I’m going to get there. Often the ending I originally envisioned doesn’t come about. One of the ways that I keep track of the events in the story is to create a calendar. But I don’t do this until I begin the revision process.
My first draft is always the heart and soul of the book–the spirit of which doesn’t change, even through several revisions. I live the story along with my characters. In the revisions that follow I attempt to bring some coherent order to the book, to determine my main theme and subthemes and then enhance them. It’s not unusual for me to cut a hundred or more pages and numerous characters, or to do massive rewriting. Initially, in Shades of Simon Gray, I had two other characters in Kyle’s group. After I’d written the first sixty pages, I cut one of the characters. Later, my editor suggested cutting yet another. So the group of teens went from six to four.
Q. Some people say cheating has become more common in high school. Was part of your reason in writing Shades of Simon Gray to shed new light on the issue and to get your readers to think about it?
A. My reasons for writing this book (and all my books) are first and foremost to entertain my readers and second, to explore and attempt to understand human nature. I hope my readers find pleasure through escaping into the fictional world I’ve created. If, while reading the story, they discover something of value to themselves personally, through the actions or behavior of the characters–something that moves them or inspires them (or even offers topics for discussion)–that’s extra fruit on the tree.
Q. Most towns in the United States have kept their names since their founding, yet the town’s name in your book is changed from Havenhill to Bellehaven. Was there any significance in that name change?
I grew up in Chatham, New Jersey, an area steeped in pre-Revolutionary and Revolutionary War history. An area a few blocks from my family home was once called Bonnell Town, after a prominent family who owned a mill near the Passaic River. It wasn’t until after the Revolutionary War that the town was named Chatham. The neighboring town of Madison, where I also lived for a few years, was originally called Bottle Hill. It wasn’t named Madison until the mid-1800s. So it seemed perfectly natural to me that a town’s name might change. My choice to change the name from Havenhill to Bellehaven wasn’t a conscious decision at the time. But after I’d completed the first draft of the book, I realized this change was connected to one of my themes: hiding truth by creating illusions of reality. The word belle in French means beautiful. That was how the people of Bellehaven wanted their town to be perceived, even though, like most towns, it had its share of dark secrets.
Q. Why did it take 200 years for justice to catch up to the town of Bellehaven?
In relation to the universe (meaning in the ultimate scheme of things) there is no “time limit” on justice. In fact, I intentionally play with our perceptions of time in this book. Jessup Wildemere continues to wait beneath the tree for his beloved Hannah. For him, time has practically stopped altogether. Likewise, Simon has no sense of time while he is in a coma or experiencing journeys beyond his physical body. When the two characters are together, their present times, although two hundred years apart, coexist in the same place. As for justice, I like to think that, humans aside, the natural world seeks balance in its own way. Time is irrelevant. Simon’s actions the night his car crashes into the Liberty Tree set in motion the events that will right an old wrong and bring things into balance once again. Jessup and Simon share a common bond, not the least of which is the tree itself.
Q. The punishment the town receives in the form of plagues is biblical–or mythical–in its proportions, yet you allow Kyle to get away with it. Why?
A. It’s an unfortunate fact of life that many who commit crimes are never caught or punished–at least not by the judicial system. That’s just the way it is. All of the characters in Kyle’s group “get away with” their crime, if you consider that none are ever accused of the breech of security of the school’s computers. All of them, with the exception of Kyle, however, deal with the consequences of their actions in some way. The difference lies in the choices each character makes at the end of the book, regarding his or her actions and involvement in “the project.” Devin, for example, chooses to accept that what she has done is wrong and then changes the direction of her life. Kyle doesn’t believe he has done anything wrong, or if he does, he manages to justify his actions in his own mind. Just because he doesn’t get caught by the end of the book doesn’t mean that Kyle will never pay a price for what he has done. Consider Jessup’s story and the descendants of the men who hanged him in connection with the strange events that are visited on Bellehaven. The consequences of the actions of one individual affect us all.
Q. Which character is the most sympathetic? Which is the most evil?
For me, the most sympathetic character is Simon. He has risked it all for love. On the night of the car accident, he believes that he is about to lose everything. His struggles are not only physical–his battle with death–but emotional and psychological. He must fight his way out of the dark coma and back into the light.
I don’t see any of the characters as truly evil, but I do see some as having made wrong choices. The closest I’ve come to writing about an evil person was the character of Hollis Feeney in Shadow People. He is devious, manipulative, vengeful, and without remorse. He feels no compassion for or connection to the people whose lives he has helped to destroy. Creating his character–attempting to get inside his head–was extremely difficult and emotionally draining. Kyle, while self-centered and ambitious, is flawed but not necessarily evil.
Q. Why did you portray the computer teacher as a corrupt person? Is he just someone who is trying to be one of the guys with the jocks, or are you telling us that unethical acts extend into the adult population of our schools?
I wasn’t making any judgments or statements about the adult population in our school system. George McCabe’s character (the computer science teacher) evolved from another newspaper article I had read about a teacher in New Jersey who had committed a similar offense. As I mentioned earlier, one of the reasons I write books is to better understand human nature. I do this through the characters I create. There is no age limit on making bad choices. George McCabe, like most of the characters in the story, does just that. His motivations aren’t spelled out for the reader, but his decision to allow the football team to use the computers in the manner they do suggests he’s fulfilling some need to “fit in,” to be “one of the guys.” His basic motivation isn’t that different from Simon’s desire to be a part of Kyle’s group.
Q. Simon and Liz seem to have a spiritual connection. Do you believe that people can communicate on that level?
I do think people–especially those who are close to one another, as are Simon and Liz–communicate in ways that go beyond language. Most of the time we chalk these moments up to coincidence and keep on rolling without giving them much thought.
Q. Do you mean the out-of-body experiences that Simon has to be sheer fantasy or do you want your readers to believe they happened? What do you believe about near-death experiences and visions?
Readers are free to interpret Simon’s experience in any way they choose–as a dream, a supernatural occurrence, or something else. For me, reading is a creative collaboration between reader and writer. As a writer, I intentionally leave much to the reader’s imagination. Every reader will experience my book in a different way. Once I’ve sent a manuscript to my editor, the book no longer belongs to me. It takes on a life of its own. It is a living thing in the sense that it shifts and changes to fit the creative imagination of the person who is reading it.
I’ve read about near-death experiences, and I’ve read the scientific explanations behind them. What appeals to my imagination is the mystery itself. When Simon’s character (during an out-of-body experience) first showed up on Stanley Isaacson’s hospital bed, no one was more surprised than I was. Until that moment, I thought I was going to develop Simon’s character solely through the perceptions of the other characters. And I was equally surprised when he showed up at the Liberty Tree. At that point I decided to let Simon take me on his journey, even though I hadn’t planned it. It was fascinating to travel with him through this experience. I might have been driving the car, but, as often happens, it was the characters who were navigating.



“A page-turning plot, good characterization, and very convincing setting will have this suspenseful thriller driving up library circulation.”–Kirkus Reviews

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