Twenty Kids. Twenty points of view. One rambunctious, brilliantly conceived novel that corrals the seeming chaos (c’mon, TWENTY points of view!) into one effervescent story.
Sixth grade is a MOST confusing time. Best friends aren’t friends anymore. Worst enemies suddenly want to be partners in crime. And classmates you thought you knew have all sorts of surprising stuff going on. The kids in Mrs. Herrera’s class are dealing with all these things and more—specifically, three more:
1. There’s a new girl who just seems to be spying on them all and scribbling things in a notebook. Maybe she IS a spy? 2. Someone is stealing all of Mrs. Herrera’s most treasured items. 3. Their old classmate, Sam, keeps showing up and no one knows why…until they do.
Which leads to a fourth problem. But we can’t tell you about that yet. The twenty kids in Mrs. Herrera’s classroom can, though, and they do.
Ellie Thursday, September 28 Ellie closed her notebook with a satisfied pat and leaned back in her seat. Done. Finished. Complete.
Hermione Granger, Fifth-Grade Muggle was ready for publication.
She’d have to figure out how to publish a book, of course. Could a sixth grader find an agent? Because Ellie was pretty sure you had to have an agent if you wanted to get a real book published, which is to say a book with a cover and pages, a book people could buy in bookstores.
Mrs. Herrera would know what to do, Ellie thought. Mrs. Herrera was the sort of teacher who would have a dozen great ideas for getting your first novel published. Even better, she wouldn’t look at Ellie like she was crazy. Publish a book? You just started middle school and you think you can publish a book? That was the sort of thing other adults might say, but not Mrs. Herrera.
Ellie reached into her desk and pulled out her spelling notebook. There were fifteen minutes left in study hall, plenty of time to finish her LA homework. She’d still have Spanish to do when she got home, but Spanish never took long, ten minutes tops. She could zip right through it and then get started on a new novel now that she was done with Hermione. It was the perfect sort of day for starting a new novel, Ellie thought as she uncapped her fountain pen, the air just cool enough that she could sit on the front porch swing wearing her cozy green sweater, the perfect sort of sweater to wear when you were writing your second novel in the last week of September.
Cerulean, Ellie wrote down, her pen making a satisfying scratch on the paper. A shade of deep blue.Sentence: As we stood on the beach, we looked out on the cerulean-blue ocean.
But what should her new novel be about? When she’d started Hermione Granger, Fifth-Grade Muggle in June, she’d known exactly what she wanted to write. J. K. Rowling had barely said anything in the Harry Potter books about Hermione’s pre-Hogwarts years, and Ellie was dying to know what she’d been like before the books started. When had Hermione discovered she had magical powers? Was she always the smartest one in her class? Did she have any friends? If she did, what kind of friends were they? Good friends, or the kind of friends who turned on you? When Ellie realized she might never know the answers to these questions unless she made them up herself, she’d started writing.
Paradigm, Ellie wrote now. An example or pattern of something. Sentence: I could write a book about how Lila Willis is a paradigm of a terrible friend.
Ellie glanced up from her desk. Lila was in the book nook with Rosie Nichols, passing a notebook back and forth. Ellie could just imagine what they were writing about—who liked who, who liked someone who didn’t like them back, who was best-looking, who was worst-looking. After school, they’d send out a series of group texts to everyone in Mrs. Herrera’s class with all the information they’d compiled. If Ellie made one of their lists, it was usually the biggest geek list. She was typically number three, after Stefan Morrisey and Ben McPherson, although sometimes she nosed ahead of Ben into the number two slot.
It was hard to believe that at the very beginning of school she and Lila had been friends. Well, sort of friends. They’d both been new, although Ellie was used to being new. Up until that summer, her father had been an army lawyer, and her family had moved every two or three years—Texas; Kansas; Washington, DC; even Germany. Then last spring her parents decided they were ready to settle down. They moved to Milton Falls and bought an old house with a big front porch two blocks from downtown, and Ellie’s dad opened up his own law office and became the sort of lawyer who helped businesses get set up.
Every morning last summer, Ellie woke up, got dressed, ate a bowl of cereal, and then waited on her front porch for someone her age to walk by so she could make friends with them. She was good at making friends. She’d been doing it all her life. But no kids walked by, and when Ellie started exploring her neighborhood, she didn’t find many kids there, either. There were old people and there were young people with babies. One of the moms with a baby told Ellie that most of the families with kids Ellie’s age lived in another part of town, where there were more soccer fields and youth activities.
So Ellie couldn’t wait for new-student orientation, which took place a week before school started. She’d finally get a chance to make some friends. And sure enough, after the principal gave a talk about what a great school Milton Falls Middle School was and how every student mattered, all eight hundred of them, a girl came up to Ellie and said, “Are you in sixth grade too? You look like you’re in sixth grade.”
Ellie had never had a friend like Lila Willis before. Lila was the kind of friend who called her up every night to talk about what they should wear the first day of school and if their outfits should match exactly or just have the same theme. “Maybe patriotic?” Lila had asked the night before her mom was going to take them to the mall to go clothes shopping. “You know, red, white, and blue, maybe with star earrings?”
“I don’t have pierced ears,” Ellie had told her. “I’m not allowed until I’m twelve. My mom’s really old-fashioned.”
“You can get your ears pierced at the mall tomorrow,” Lila said. “And then you can tell your mom you thought she meant sixth grade.”
“I can’t do that,” Ellie said. “I don’t want to lie to my mom.”
“Everybody lies to their moms,” Lila said. “Like, when my mom asks me how long I’ve been watching Netflix, I always say ‘about twenty minutes,’ even though it’s been two hours. She always believes me.”
They’d ended up getting matching T-shirts in different colors—pink for Lila, purple for Ellie—and white shorts. Instead of earrings, they got matching necklaces with blue butterflies on them. Sitting in the back seat of Mrs. Willis’s car on the way home from the mall, they’d taken their outfits out and admired them. “You know what I just thought of?” Lila asked, and Ellie had shaken her head. “Our clothes match and our names sort of match too—Lila and Ellie. I think we’re going to make an amazing first-day impression!”
Ellie guessed that was a good thing to do. Mostly she was glad to have a friend to sit with at lunch on the first day and to play with during recess. She bet it wouldn’t take long for her and Lila to make friends with other girls. In a way, Ellie thought, everyone in the sixth-grade class was new. This was the first year of middle school for all of them.
The two prettiest sixth-grade girls, Rosie Nichols and Petra Wilde, kept to themselves the first two weeks of school, while other girls hovered nearby and looked for opportunities to offer a Kit Kat bar or a compliment. “Rosie and Petra think they’re so special,” Lila had sneered. “Let’s ignore them.” Ellie thought that was funny. How could you ignore someone who was ignoring you first? But she was happy that Lila didn’t seem interested in being popular. Ellie just wished she’d been interested in something, well, interesting. Like watching Doctor Who or reading fantasy novels or anything besides looking at fashion magazines and critiquing the models.
The third week of school, Rosie and Petra sat down at Ellie and Lila’s lunch table and started asking Lila questions. What were the boys like at your old school? Where did you get that bracelet? Can you teach us to do our hair like yours?
And just like that, Lila was gone. No more phone calls about matching outfits, no more trading lunches, no more Friday night sleepovers, of which they’d had three and had been planning a fourth. On the one hand, Ellie couldn’t say that she was that sad about losing Lila, but on the other hand, her feelings were hurt. She’d never been dumped by a friend before, even a friend she wasn’t sure she liked all that much.
Once Rosie and Petra had made their pick, the other girls found their groups. Except for Ellie. The girl who was famous for making friends was friendless. She’d approached Aadita Amrit, but Aadita was so shy it was hard to make conversation. Cammi Lovett seemed like someone Ellie would get along with, but Cammi was joined at the hip with Becca Hobbes, best friends since preschool, apparently.
She’d even tried to make friends with Sam Hawkins, a boy who mostly kept to himself but had interesting habits. Sam carried a small notebook and a pencil in his back pocket, and Ellie had seen him taking notes at odd times—in the cafeteria line at lunch, in the hallway on the way to the media center. She thought that she and Sam probably had a lot in common, but when Ellie tried to talk to him, he just gave her a strange look and walked away. Last week, after Sam had missed three days of class in a row, Mrs. Herrera announced that his family had relocated—Ellie had thought “relocated” was an odd word to use; why not just say they’d moved?—and he was now going to another school. One less person to reject her, Ellie had thought, and permanently marked Sam Hawkins off her list of potential friends.
After a while, Ellie gave up trying to make new friends. She wasn’t that lonely, not really, and she had her writing career to attend to.
Autodidact, she wrote in her spelling notebook. Aself-taught person. Sentence: When it comes to being a novelist, I am an autodidact.
Maybe her new novel should be about Mrs. Herrera’s homeroom class. They spent most of their day together, traveling from classroom to classroom, after all, and Mrs. Herrera always said to write about what you know. Ellie got so excited by that idea that she pushed too hard on her pen and ink splattered across her definitions. That was okay; Mrs. Herrera wouldn’t mind. She liked Ellie’s fountain pen. “I remember using one of those in high school,” she’d told Ellie one day at recess, when Ellie had stayed inside to help grade spelling tests. “I don’t know where I got the idea. From reading novels, I guess.”
That’s when Ellie had known Mrs. Herrera would be her favorite teacher of all time. She was a teacher who understood about fountain pens and how a good book could make you do things you’d never thought about doing before. Like write your own book. And then write another one.
Ellie had never had a teacher like Mrs. Herrera before, a teacher who seemed like an actual person you could imagine sitting on her living room couch at night reading a book or petting her cat. Maybe it was because of Mrs. Herrera’s shelf, the one by her desk where she kept her special collection of special things. “These are the things that remind me of who I am and why I’m here,” Mrs. Herrera had explained to the class on the first day of school. “Some days teaching is hard, and sometimes I feel tired or unmotivated. My special collection of special things helps me remember that life is interesting and learning is good and teaching is a noble profession.”
Some of the items in Mrs. Herrera’s collection were so personal that they didn’t mean much to Ellie. There was a small, framed photograph of Mrs. Herrera’s favorite teacher ever, for instance, the one who inspired her to become a teacher herself, and there was a key to her first apartment, which was her first experience of independence and freedom. Ellie understood why they were special to Mrs. Herrera; they just weren’t special to Ellie.
What Ellie loved best was a small blue bowl filled with sugar cubes from all the wonderful places Mrs. Herrera had had high tea: the Savoy in London, Angelina’s in Paris, and the Plaza Hotel in New York. Ellie had only heard of the Plaza (because of Eloise), and she wasn’t exactly sure what high tea was as opposed to regular tea, but she loved the paper-wrapped cubes of sugar so much she had to stuff her hands in her pockets whenever she was near Mrs. Herrera’s special collection so she wouldn’t snatch one and run away with it.
Ellie understood the importance of having special things. She had special pens and special notebooks, and she never mixed them up, never used her drawing pen for writing, never wrote spelling words in her art journal. Now she put away her spelling notebook and took out the notebook she only used to write stories and poems in. On the top of the first blank page, she printed The Class in her neatest cursive. And then she started to write.
Frances O’Roark Dowell is the bestselling and critically acclaimed author of Dovey Coe, which won the Edgar Award and the William Allen White Award; Where I’d Like to Be; The Secret Language of Girls and its sequels The Kind of Friends We Used to Be and The Sound of Your Voice, Only Really Far Away; Chicken Boy; Shooting the Moon, which was awarded the Christopher Award; the Phineas L. MacGuire series; Falling In; The Second Life of Abigail Walker, which received three starred reviews; Anybody Shining;Ten Miles Past Normal; Trouble the Water; the Sam the Man series; The Class; and most recently, How to Build a Story. She lives with her family in Durham, North Carolina. Connect with Frances online at FrancesDowell.com.
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