One of our recommended books for 2020 is Sunnyside Plaza by Scott Simon


Wonder meets Three Times Lucky in a story of empowerment as a young woman decides to help solve the mystery of multiple suspicious deaths in her group home.

Sally Miyake can’t read, but she learns lots of things. Like bricks are made of clay and Vitamin D comes from the sun. Sally is happy working in the kitchen at Sunnyside Plaza, the community center she lives in with other adults with developmental disabilities. For Sally and her friends, Sunnyside is the only home they’ve ever known.

Everything changes the day a resident unexpectedly dies.

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Wonder meets Three Times Lucky in a story of empowerment as a young woman decides to help solve the mystery of multiple suspicious deaths in her group home.

Sally Miyake can’t read, but she learns lots of things. Like bricks are made of clay and Vitamin D comes from the sun. Sally is happy working in the kitchen at Sunnyside Plaza, the community center she lives in with other adults with developmental disabilities. For Sally and her friends, Sunnyside is the only home they’ve ever known.

Everything changes the day a resident unexpectedly dies. After a series of tragic events, detectives Esther Rivas and Lon Bridges begin asking questions. Are the incidents accidents? Or is something more disturbing happening?

The suspicious deaths spur the residents into taking the investigation into their own hands. But are people willing to listen?

Sunnyside Plaza is a human story of empowerment, empathy, hope, and generosity that shines a light on this very special world.

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  • Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
  • Hardcover
  • January 2020
  • 208 Pages
  • 9780316531207

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About Scott Simon

Scott Simon has won every major award in broadcasting for his personal essays, war reporting, and commentary. He has reported from all fifty states, scores of foreign countries, and eight wars. He hosts Weekend Edition with Scott Simon Saturday mornings on National Public Radio (which the Washington Post has called “the most literate, witty, moving, and just plain interesting news show on any dial”) and numerous public television and cable programs. He currently resides in Washington, D.C.

Twitter: @nprscottsimon

Discussion Questions

1. How does Sal Gal perceive the world around her? What examples can you think of where she takes in the world around her through the five senses?

2. How do children react to meeting Sally and the other residents of Sunnyside Plaza? Do those reactions change based on the behavior of the adults around them and if so, how?

3. At the Passover Seder, everyone discusses the destinations of the Hebrews and other refugees. Who else in the book finds a new home or life? How do different cultures come together throughout the book?

4. Conrad explains to Sally that “sometimes, much as we love them, we just aren’t the best people to be able to help the people we love” (p. 119). What different kinds of caregiving are discussed throughout the book? How does Sally think of her mother?

5. At each stop on their journey to the police station, the residents of Sunnyside Plaza encounter different types of people. How do these people engage with the residents? What behaviors do you think made Sally and her friends feel welcomed?

6. How do the residents of Sunnyside Plaza work together? What strengths do they each bring to the table?

7. What does family mean to the residents of Sunnyside Plaza? How does this definition change over the course of the book?

8. Sal Gal is confronted by death and dying several times throughout the book. How does she cope with death? How do she and the other residents of Sunnyside Plaza grapple with what comes after death?

9. Sally maintains a very open and welcoming personality. What examples can you think of where Sally makes other people feel more comfortable? What other ways does she impact the people around her?

10. Esther tells Sally that “sometimes life puts people in front of you because you’re not supposed to just walk past them” (p. 189). Which characters in the book best illustrate this idea? How can you live this in your daily life?


What’s Inside

I CAN’T READ, BUT I LEARN A LOT OF THINGS. BRICKS are made of clay. Vitamin D comes from the sun. The sun is millions of miles away. There are 8 times 4 squares of tile on the ceiling of my room. I see that 2 times 8 plus 4 are cracked, and 2 times 8 plus 1 have brown stains. Smooth, strong, and satisfying. There are 4 times 8 plus 4 stairs from the third floor to the first. Venice is in Italy, but also in Ohio and Florida. Fast, fast, fast relief! Florida has alligators and crocodiles. They’re not the same, but both bite. Snap, crackle, pop! Or your money back. Gets those hard-to-reach areas. Shirts have 8 buttons, but I button 7 because I don’t button the top. I notice things. Today is April two-four and at six-zero-four in the morning I came down the 4 times 8 plus 4 steps to work.

I work in the kitchen of Sunnyside Plaza and live upstairs, too, on floor 3. There are 4 other people in my room—Mary, Pilar, Trish, and Shaaran—and Ray, Julius, and Tony next door. There are 5 people in the room next to us and 4 people in the room next to them. There are 5 rooms, too, on floor 2.

When I get downstairs in the morning, I always take 8 paper bowls at a time from the kitchen to the dining room. I do this 8 times, so there is a bowl for everybody and a few left over.

Conrad, the cook, was already in the kitchen. He has a big soft red face and a singsong voice.

“G’morning, Sal,” he called. “Check the spoons, too, please.”

The white plastic spoons were in a small steel tub. I counted 8 spoons 7 times, and then 6 more spoons.

“There is 1 for everybody,” I told Conrad, “and 1, 2, 3, 4 extra.” He sipped coffee and looked over at stacks of sliced bread.

“Ham sandwich lunch today,” he told me. “I’ll see if we have enough slices of cheddar, too. You like mustard or mayonnaise on yours?”

I made a face.

“I remember.” Conrad laughed. “Nothing on yours, Sal Gal. Have some breakfast, dear, before they all come down. It’s the most peaceful time of the day. Not a problem in the world can’t be brightened by sunrise.”

I live here because my mother got sick when I was in her stomach and then she couldn’t take care of me. She went somewhere and hasn’t come back. I lived in a few different homes and finally got here, to Sunnyside Plaza.

I’m 8 times 2 plus 3. My mother will be back when she can take care of me.

Sometimes at night, I wake and think I hear my mother in the hallway. I hear her voice—or hear someone’s voice, and I’m sure it’s her. I hear someone take a step and think it’s her. I think she’s just about to throw open the door. I hear her say, “Hey, Sal, let’s get out of here!”

It’s hard to get back to sleep. So I sing to myself, a song she sang to me and I still hear: Hush, little baby, don’t say a word.… I hear that song in my mother’s voice.

My name is Sally. Sometimes Sal Gal, Sal Pal, or Sallie Pallie. It helps me feel like different people when I want.

Someday, I want to go to the North Pole, too. I want to know how to swim. I want a dog.

“Picture on the box,” I told him.

“Love my Cheerios,” he said. “Little bitty wheels roll down my throat. Roll around in my belly.” Darnell had a big belly, and he patted it like a drum to a tune only he knew. “Dah-dah-dah-da-dee, Cheerios going into me!”

And then Mary, my best friend, and David came down soon and poured some cornflakes. Then Julius and Tony and Pilar. There were 2 cartons of milk and 3 cartons of orange juice, and Tony shook cornflakes into a bowl and poured orange juice over them.

“Eeeew!” said Pilar.

“You’re crazy!” went David, but Tony just said, “I like them that way. Corn and orange. Corn is orange. Orange corn.”

“You are crazy,” Darnell agreed. “Can I try?”

A red light from outside flashed and blinked over our tables. Dorothy, a nurse who worked all night, stepped out quickly.

“Just eat your breakfast, folks. I have to let in some people. No problem. Just enjoy your cereal.”

The front door buzzed. Dorothy opened it. There was 1 man and 1 woman in dark blue who pushed in a small bed on wheels. Dorothy said the elevator was in the back, and the woman said, “That’s okay. We can carry this. Let’s just get up there.”

We heard their heavy boots on the stairs. They whispered, but we couldn’t hear what they said.

“I’m drawing a cat today,” Darnell told everyone. “Like the cat I have with my mom.”

“Bunnies better,” said Pilar.

“People eat bunnies,” said Isaac. He had come down to breakfast but just stood to watch the blinking red light outside turn around and around.

“Nobody eat my bunnies!” said Pilar. “I’ll bite people who bite my bunnies!”

“I’m gonna make bunny Cheerios!” said Darnell.

Jimmy, who always wore an old brown army coat, always said “birdie” even inside where we could see no birds. He heard “bunny” and said “birdie” for the first time I heard that day.

We heard the elevator in the back of the house wheeze and grumble. A little while later the red light stopped blinking over the room. We heard voices of men and women outside, and then a car—what sounded like a big car—drove away.

A while later Mrs. Byrne, the nurse who ran everything at the home, came into the room where we had breakfast. Dorothy, too. And Bob, a nurse with a beard and glasses.

Mrs. Byrne’s dark face was shiny, and she thumped her hand just below her neck a few times, as if that would help her get words out of her mouth.

“Is everyone here?” she finally asked. We all looked around. We saw the cereal, the milk cartons, and the calendar on the wall with pictures of kittens. I wanted 1 page to stay up all the time. It was a little orange kitten with white paws and a pink nose, asleep in a heart-shaped candy box. But then they had to flip the page.

Sometimes, when no one else was nearby, I flipped to that page and looked at that kitten.

I looked for Matt, Keesha, and Vy, who don’t talk or move much but eat with spoons and look out wherever they are at whatever is in front of them. They were there. I didn’t see Stu, Dennis, Laurence, or Charlene. But they usually came a little late because they got to the bathroom later.

Mary said, “Talia is still upstairs. She said she doesn’t like cereal. She said she wants toast. She says—”

“I’ll have to talk to her after this,” said Mrs. Byrne. “And I don’t see Marcus.”

“Still in the bathroom,” said Isaac, and a few people began to giggle. “We could hear him. He was going, ‘Oh, wow, yeow—’”

“Marcus, too,” said Mrs. Byrne. “I’ll talk to everyone when I can. But I have some sad news, I’m afraid. It’s Laurence. Laurence won’t be here anymore.”

There was a silence.

“His mother brought him home?” I asked.

“No,” said Mrs. Byrne. “Not quite, dear, but in a way. You see, God brought Laurence home.”

“God brought him to his momma?” asked Darnell.

“That red light—I thought it was God,” said Mary. But I could see Conrad take off the white cap he wore in the kitchen and come around the serving table to put a hand on Mary’s shoulder.

“Maybe I better start again,” said Mrs. Byrne. “Laurence—he’s dead. He died last night. In his sleep. The paramedics were just here and say it looks like what they call a stroke in his head, but Laurence was asleep. It was very peaceful, I’m sure. That nice man and woman in blue took him away. But Laurence—I’m afraid Laurence is gone. He’s dead.”

“Will he be back for lunch?” asked Darnell. “Should we save his cookie?”

AFTER BREAKFAST, WE TALKED ABOUT LAURENCE being dead while Tony and Mary and Pilar and Darnell and I worked in the kitchen with Conrad. I’d put down 4 slices of bread and plop a plastic spoon of mayonnaise on each slice and slide it around until the bread was wet and white to the edges. Mary pulled off a slice of ham and put 1 down each on 2 slices of bread. Tony would pull off a slice of orange cheese and lay it down on the other 2 slices. Then I’d flip the slice with ham over the slice with cheese and slide them back and forth until the edges matched. After 4 sandwiches were done, Conrad would put a hand on the top of a sandwich and slice the bread with a long knife.

“Why do you cut it across instead of up and down?”

Conrad thought for a moment.

“Because I think it shows a little extra care, Sal Gal,” he told me. “Don’t do just the least you can do. Put some extra care in it. But you always do,” he told me. “You spread that mayo right to the edge. People get a little in every bite. You even up the slices. That’s why I like working with you, Sal. You do things right.”

I liked working with Conrad, too. Sometimes he told us stories about when he was the cook on a submarine.

“They had to like my cooking down there,” he said. “What they gonna do—swim out to a hot dog stand?”

“I know lots of dead people,” said Tony. Tony always knew a lot about everything.

“No big thing,” he told us. “Some people are alive, some people are dead.”

“But you don’t see dead people, right?” asked Mary.

“They see us,” said Tony. “They look over us all the time.”

“Ewww,” I told him. “All the time? In the bathroom?”

“They don’t care,” said Tony. “They’re dead.”

Mary pulled a slice of ham away from the pile and asked, “But where do dead people go?”

“Heaven,” said Tony. “Up there.”

“Up where?” asked Mary.

“In the sky,” I told her. “Above—way above—the sky.”

“Like… outer space?”

“Above that, even,” I told her.

“Heaven is a place all with clouds,” said Tony. “People sit on clouds, sleep on clouds, eat clouds. They look down at us and laugh, because down here, we need food, clothes, shoes. Up there, only clouds.”

“I don’t think I’d like that,” said Mary. “I’d get cold.”

“I’d like it,” said Darnell. “Swimming through clouds. Looking down. Just floating along.”

“Mrs. Byrne says we won’t see Laurence ’cause he’s dead,” said Tony. “Someone else will take his bed and clothes.”

“Doesn’t Laurence need them?” asked Darnell. “He’s gonna wear clouds?”

Conrad began to pick up sandwiches, 2 at a time, and put them on trays.

“Heaven is your reward,” he told us. “A reward for a life well-lived. It’s eternal life. Life forever.”

“I told you, dead people come back,” said Darnell.

“Not exactly, Darnell,” Conrad told him. “Dead people have lives up there. With God.”

“I don’t know God,” Darnell pointed out. “Why can’t I just stay here, with my friends?”

Conrad smiled and told him, “Well, my friend, I guess we’re not the ones who get to decide when we go to our reward.”

“A reward,” said Mary, as if she was hearing the word all over again. “I can’t wait for a reward.”

But Conrad turned around with his arms filled with sandwiches, blew some hairs from his forehead, and said, “No need to hurry, Mary Berry. Make the most of what we have right in front of us.”

When we finished the sandwiches for Conrad and he put them on the big table in the back of the room, next to the paper plates and bags of potato chips, I told him I had to go upstairs and use the bathroom. Mrs. Byrne was at our table and waved her hand for me to come over.

“You’ll pass Laurence’s room. Next to yours,” she reminded me. “We have to keep it closed until some people can look at it. Okay, Sal?”

So when I got upstairs, I walked down the hall 8 times 5 plus 3 steps until I was in front of the room next to ours. Laurence, Isaac, Pam, and Terri slept there. Marc and Vy were on the other side. It was strange to see the blue door closed—nobody ever really closed the door at Sunnyside Plaza—and for a moment I wondered if I turned the knob and looked in, I’d catch Laurence, hiding. Maybe he’d be in bed, under the covers, playing a joke. Maybe he’d pop out his head. “Surprise, Sal Gal! Surprise, everybody! Surprise! Look who’s here!”

But I was scared to turn the knob. I just stood in front of the blue door.

When I came back downstairs, Mrs. Byrne sat at the table with a lady who smelled like flowers. I began to walk by, but Mrs. Byrne put out her hand.

“Sally, do you think you could get a couple of cups of coffee from Conrad for us? This is—officer?”

“Detective Rivas. Esther Rivas,” said the lady.

“You smell like flowers,” I told her, and the lady named Esther let laughs burst out of her mouth. She wore black pants and a bright blue jacket. She had beautiful shiny black hair, like a bird.

“Well, thank you,” she said. “It says, ‘notes of rose and jasmine’ on the cologne bottle. I didn’t get your name.”

“This is Sally,” Mrs. Byrne told her. “Sal Gal, Sal Pal. Sally Miyake. Just next door in the hall from Laurence.”

The lady put out her hand to shake mine. She smiled.

“Nobody says I smell like roses,” said a man with a deep voice and who had a head that gleamed like a glass. He walked to the table from the hallway. “I’m her partner, Detective Bridges. London Bridges.”

“Really?” asked Mrs. Byrne.

“Really. But Lon, usually.” He held out his hand. “Nice to meet you, Ms. Miyake.”

“What happened to your hair?”

“Sal!” said Mrs. Byrne, but the detectives laughed.

“I wonder, too. It just left me, a little bit at a time. Now I shave it all off, so my hats fit better.”

“So where is your hat?” I asked, and Lon slapped the top of his head and said, “Darn, how did I forget my top hat again?”

Conrad kept a pot of coffee hot in the kitchen. I went through the door behind the table and fumbled to get 2 paper cups from a stack and put them down as I poured and listened to the voices outside.

“We have to ask some questions when someone dies alone,” I heard Esther say.

“Of course.”

“How did Mr. Fuller wind up here?”

“A birth defect,” said Mrs. Byrne, then her voice got a little quiet. “Like most everyone else here. Oxygen cut off to his brain during delivery. He was born with his disability.”

“And he came here…?”

“About nine years ago. He lived at home, but as his parents got older and had to take care of themselves more and more…”

I stopped pouring coffee when I heard Mrs. Byrne hold up on whatever words she had thought she would say. She finally told them, “Well, it’s hard to care for a grown-up child at home, too.”

“The parents are…?” asked Esther Rivas.

“Gone now. Both.”

“Anyone to contact?”

“An older brother. We left a message.”

I finished pouring coffee into the first paper cup and began to pour more into the other one.