Tuesday, November 14, 2023

Read With Us: Heaven & Earth Grocery Store

Last week, Kym gave you an introduction to our current Read With Us selection, The Heaven & Earth Grocery Store. This week I'm going to tell you a little bit about who and what inspired James McBride to write this novel.

When McBride was 19, he saw an ad for a dishwasher at a sleepaway camp for children with disabilities. He worked for four summers at the Variety Club Camp for Handicapped Children in Worcester, Pa., and out of this experience came the idea for The Heaven & Earth Grocery Store. He started writing the book about 15 years ago and originally set it in a summer camp but “like many works of fiction, it morphed into something else." The book is set in the real-life town of Pottstown, Pa., in a Black, Jewish, and immigrant neighborhood called Chicken Hill. Even though the setting is changed from the Variety Club Camp, the book still contains the “lessons of inclusivity, love and acceptance” that he learned at the camp. 

The book is dedicated to the retired director of the Variety Club Camp: To Sy Friend, who taught us all the meaning of Tikkun Olam (literally "repairing of the world", it is a concept in Judaism, which refers to various forms of action intended to repair and improve the world.) 

Here are James McBride's words about what made the camp so special to him and to this book: "I worked there for four summers, and what Sy really taught us, and what the children taught us, was equality. Love was the dominant force.

Camp taught me to question what is “normal.” Those kids were from all different races and religions, many of them from working-class backgrounds. They did not get caught up with a lot of the differences that most of us get caught up with. Sy was responsible for that. What Sy did for this book was he implanted the seed of equality and justice and fairness. That notion guides the entire book.

I fell in love with those kids. I’m still in touch with many of those campers. They gave me so much. Their philosophy, their ability to negotiate life with so much less than what I had — without complaint, and with a sense of joy — was something that I never forgot.

Sy will tell you that it was the campers who made the experience for all of us, and I would agree. But Sy was the conductor of the orchestra. The life affirmation that you come away with after an experience like that is life-changing. You get so much more back than you give."

Much of what I've written about came from this Washington Post article. There are many more details in it if you'd like to read it and be even more inspired while you read The Heaven & Earth Grocery Store.

The Heaven & Earth Grocery Store is currently available from Amazon in hardcover ($16.99), paperback ($20.85), Kindle ($14.99), or from Audible. You can check your local bookstores for a copy — and, of course, the book should also be available at most libraries. I know that many of you are in long hold lines for the book at your library, and I can sympathize because that is also my situation. Libby keeps telling me that my library has acquired additional copies and I am moving up in the queue, so hopefully, your libraries are the same and we'll all get our hands on a copy long before January. If you've got a Little Free Library nearby maybe you'll be lucky enough to find a copy like Sarah did!  :-)

Our book discussion day for The Heaven and Earth Grocery Store will be Tuesday, January 9, 2024. Carole, Kym, and I will each post discussion questions on our blogs that day, and then at 7:00 pm Eastern time we’ll be hosting the always educational and fun live book discussion on Zoom.

We do hope you'll come along and Read With Us about equality, justice, and fairness!


  1. I'm in the queue, but moving steadily! Last week on Kym's blog I noted that I was #214 out of 452. Today I am #179 out of 450. So a bit of progress. The Variety Club in Worcester is just up the road from where I live - I pass it when I drive to Dee's! I'm looking forward to this read for sure.

  2. I've only managed to read a couple of chapters, but I'm very interested in seeing where it goes. Knowing that the book was informed by McBride's own experiences only adds to my interest. I certainly think we need more stories about people from very different backgrounds coming together!

  3. I am still about 5 weeks out before I get the book (but I have an audible credit and after reading this I am seriously thinking of using it!) I agree with Sarah... more stories about people coming together which I believe will encourage *more people from divergent backgrounds* coming together!

  4. I've always said that we need a year of service for kids coming out of high school before they go to college. We live in our little community bubbles and it tends to be the root of a lot of issues we are seeing today. I taught in a highly diverse elementary school near Wash DC for 25 years. We had parents who were college professors, rocket scientists from NASA, recent refugees fleeing genocide and single mothers who lived in their cars in our parking lot. What I learned from them changed my life.

    1. Now there's a brilliant idea! The schools in our district are the opposite of diverse, and the teachers, administration, and school board have trouble realizing that there is a whole wide world of people and ideas out there.

  5. I got goosebumps when I read that WaPo article . . . It just adds so much MORE to the book, for me. I love hearing about the various sources of inspiration that brought this story to being. XO

  6. I have considered reading this one. You may have given me the push to go get it.

  7. The Radio Hour podcast had a great interview with McBride on August 8th and the First Edition podcast had one on August 9th. He tells great stories! I love this book.

  8. What a lovely back story to this wonderful book. Thank you for sharing those details with us.


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