The heroine of Adam B. Ford’s latest middle-grade novel, South Side of the Sea, is a thoroughly modern girl named Kalea. Kalea, who is Black, lives in Chicago. The story takes place in the year 2019, when Kalea is 14 years old and trying her best to juggle school (which is complicated by her undiagnosed dyslexia), her parents’ disapproval of her friends, and, of course, the ever present shadow of harassment from racist police officers.
But Kalea keeps getting pulled away from her day-to-day life in Chicago—literally. She experiences strange, nautical-based hallucinations. Before Kalea even has a chance to start worrying, they prove to be all too real:
She stared at the angled ceiling above her and listened to the ever-present noises, then that woozy feeling started again, but she wasn’t particularly hot and she wasn’t at all thirsty. Maybe she was getting sick. The ceiling started to waver and sway, and she felt like she was in a boat, being tossed by ceaseless waves. Then the sounds came. The wind howling around ropes and sails, the lashing of the straining wood by the endless beats of the waves, the frantic yells in the distance—all in French—as if a gallant crew were fighting the weather to maintain this unknown ship in a storm. But for all she heard, and as real as it sounded, it was muted—as if she was closed off from the action behind a heavy door. This wasn’t her imagination though. This was real. This was happening….She was immersed in this world and she didn’t know where it was or why she was hearing it.
Somehow, Kalea’s mind is linked with the mind of Analicia DuMont, another 14-year-old girl, who sailed for America in the year 1686. Analicia can feel Kalea’s presence in her own mind, and the two girls are able to build a friendship that spans the centuries in what Kirkus Reviews calls “a heartwarming fantasy tale that should appeal to young and old readers alike.”
Ford, who lives in Vermont and works as a certified snowboarding instructor, hasn’t always aspired to publishing books. Despite being an avid reader and occasional hobby writer, he didn’t try to take writing seriously until his 30s. After penning a screenplay that he describes as “horrible,” he instead tried his hand at children’s books.
Ford says that he writes, in general, because “nobody told me I couldn’t,” but when it comes to writing specifically for kids, it all started with his first picture book, Stinkalope Tex and His Stomp-n-Glo Boots, which was based on a joke that sprang from a game of Boggle he played with his brother. From there he just kept writing more picture books until around 2009, when he tried his hand at creating longer books for older kids.
South Side of the Sea is Ford’s second middle-grade novel, and that longer word count carried with it a huge amount of research about the pirate captain Joseph Bannister. “This book basically sprang out of reading historian Robert Kurson’s book Pirate Hunters: Treasure, Obsession, and the Search for a Legendary Pirate Ship, which is about finding Bannister’s ship, the Golden Fleece,” says Ford. “That book spent a lot of time figuring out who Bannister was and why he might have done what he did.”
Inspired by Kurson’s use of factual timelines and details to speculate on who Bannister might have been as a person, Ford used the knowledge he gained from his research to create an entire world where Analicia and her father could exist as characters.
“The characters of Analicia, Jean-Louie, and the other pirates are complete fiction, and how they interacted with Capt. Bannister is, of course, invented as well,” says Ford. “I owe a debt of gratitude to historians John Chatterton, John Mattera, and Robert Kurson for planting the seeds of this story in my head and bringing me along on the idea that Joseph Bannister was a wily pirate to the end, slipping away to live a life of freedom.”
Ford used historical context to create Analicia’s world, but Kalea’s life is rooted in the familiar, complicated present. He used to live in Chicago, so he decided to make that Kalea’s home. Much like how he used historical facts to build Analicia’s world, he was careful to reference real events and issues happening around Chicago in 2019 that would be on Kalea’s mind, especially thorny debates around racial and gender discrimination.
But whatever is creating the strange connection between Analicia and Kalea, the friendship between the two girls makes perfect sense despite the massive gap in time. “They both have their issues,” he says. “Analica has lost her mother, and her father is pretty much a jerk. Kalea is in this family that doesn’t have a high regard for education or a lot of expectations for her. So she’s in a world where she doesn’t see a way out. But when she experiences the kinds of hardship people like Analicia had in the past, she’s inspired to do better for herself.”
An adventure story filled with time travel, pirates, and relatable modern-day problems seems to check every box for what a kid could want in a book. But most of all, Ford says he hopes his young readers take away that “education is a good thing. Curiosity is a good thing. Searching for answers and finding yourself, that will always lead to good things.”
Right now, Ford is writing a novel based on a spooky short story he wrote for a competition for the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators a few years ago that stayed “stuck in my head.” He also has a YA duology that he’s hoping to release this coming summer. Eagle-eyed readers waiting for those novels to come out might want to pursue Ford’s backlist to read about something he includes in almost all of them—a dog.
Chelsea Ennen is a writer living in Brooklyn.