Gracie's Girl

Gracie's Girl

4.4 8
by Ellen Wittlinger, Hamlin

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Now that Bess Cunningham is in middle school, she's determined to get noticed. With her new glasses, her wild thrift-store clothes, and her job as stage manager for the school play, she's sure her days of being invisible are over.
Being forced to volunteer with her parents at the local

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Now that Bess Cunningham is in middle school, she's determined to get noticed. With her new glasses, her wild thrift-store clothes, and her job as stage manager for the school play, she's sure her days of being invisible are over.
Being forced to volunteer with her parents at the local soup kitchen doesn't exactly fit into Bess's popularity plans, especially since she finds the place so creepy. But when she meets Gracie Jarvis Battle, an elderly homeless woman, Bess can't help but feel compassion for her. Bess grows more involved with trying to feed and shelter the older woman, but as the weather turns colder and Gracie grows thinner, Bess begins to wonder — will her help be enough?

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Sixth-grader Bess is on a campaign to be "cool," but she becomes less concerned with her own social status as she searches for a way to keep a homeless woman fed and sheltered. "A convincing look at a middle schooler's awakening to social problems," said PW. Ages 8-12. (Apr.) Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
At the onset of her sixth-grade year, narrator Bess's campaign to be "cool" includes reinventing her wardrobe around some funky vintage clothes. It's while sifting through such items in a thrift shop that she first meets Gracie, a homeless woman, and later, while helping serve Sunday dinner at a homeless shelter (at her parents' insistence), Bess sees her again. Gracie inspires Bess to rethink her priorities ("It made me kind of sick to think about her sleeping outside someplace, her big, old shoes poking into the sidewalk"); she becomes less concerned with her own social status as she searches for a way to keep Gracie fed and sheltered. In this bittersweet novel, Wittlinger (Hard Love; What's in a Name) offers a convincing look at a middle schooler's awakening to social problems in her community. Although readers may sympathize with Gracie, they will likely relate more to Bess and her day-to-day trials: getting snubbed by the popular crowd, finding out the boy she likes is more interested in her best friend and fighting for the attention of her charity-minded parents. Unfortunately, the book's strong political statement tends to overpower the subtler, equally relevant message regarding Bess's internal maturation. Ages 8-12. (Nov.) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
Children's Literature
Sixth-grader Bess wants to impress and make friends with some of the popular kids at her new middle school. Wearing eccentric outfits does get attention, but not necessarily the kind she wants. She is also sure that helping out at the soup kitchen where her mom volunteers and being friends with Gracie, the bag lady, would be considered uncool if school chums find out. Volunteering to be stage manager of the school play will better meet her popularity goals. So, with her friends, Ethan and Janette, she works on the play¾and hides Gracie in the school shed until the new women's shelter can provide a bed for her. As Bess basks in the glow of the success of her first play, she discovers that Gracie is dead. The book explores childhood friendships, the need to fit in, first crushes, and some realistic ways children can be involved in social issues, making this a quick and compelling read for young girls who want to make a difference. 2000, Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, $16.00. Ages 9 to 12. Reviewer: Chris Gill
In this new offering from Printz Honor Award-winning author Wittlinger, Bess Cunningham is entering middle school, a traumatic experience she seeks to make easier by being different. Different for her entails wearing thrift shop clothes, working on the school play, and attempting to hang out with the popular crowd. Try as she might to walk another path, Bess and her best friend, Ethan, become involved in the homeless shelter at which her parents spend countless hours volunteering. They particularly interact with a homeless woman named Grace Jarvis Battle, or Gracie. Through her experience with Gracie, Bess becomes better acquainted with her parents and herself. An interesting and quick-moving story, this novel is predictable throughout and a bit preachy as most of the characters extol the virtues of helping the homeless—an admirable lesson, but there are probably few teens like Bess and Ethan who spend so much time volunteering in a soup kitchen of their own volition. Although this title might not have broad teen appeal, it also might not need a lot of pushing. It is an average preteen-middle school read—a fairly good one at that. Wittlinger does a fine job of addressing a potentially sensitive issue and gives her readers something to think about. VOYA CODES: 3Q 3P M (Readable without serious defects; Will appeal with pushing; Middle School, defined as grades 6 to 8). 2000, Simon & Schuster, 186p, $16. Ages 11 to 14. Reviewer: Nicole A. Cooke
School Library Journal
Gr 4-6-Bess Cunningham isn't a kid anymore. She is in the sixth grade, and she's ready to be admired and possibly even envied as a trendsetting sensation. She thinks she's just about figured out how to redefine and personally epitomize the word "cool." However, she finds that her new persona is easier to imagine than execute. Her family really cramps her style. She can usually dismiss her moody older brother, but her parents are impossible to ignore, spending all of their free time at a local shelter and soup kitchen. Bess is sure people will find out and associate her with the eccentrics and unfortunates that rely on the shelter for subsistence. Then she meets Gracie, a sweet, sick, confused old woman who sleeps outside and eats out of garbage cans, and Bess begins to realize she doesn't know what awful is. Wittlinger's young narrator is engaging and believable. Readers will sympathize with her sometimes trifling, sometimes truly serious concerns. A school production of Bye Bye Birdie, fashion crises, and an unrequited crush round out this perceptive, realistic novel. Sporadic references to current rock groups and box-office superstars may date the book at some later time, but they help to make Gracie's predicament undeniably immediate for anyone who reads it today.-Catherine T. Quattlebaum, DeKalb County Public Library, Atlanta, GA Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Personal contact with a homeless woman teaches a sixth-grade girl what values are really important. Bess Cunningham is the daughter of a social worker, who, in a nice touch, is too busy doing good works to give her daughter the affection and attention she craves. Bess is about to start middle school, and this year her goal is to shed her nerdy elementary-school persona, make new friends, and hang with the popular crowd. To get noticed, she decides to don funky thrift-store clothing—which does indeed get her noticed though not in the way she was hoping—and volunteers to be the stage manager for her school's play. An encounter with an elderly destitute lady named Gracie raises Bess's consciousness in respect to the homeless—she had regarded them as scary and unsavory—and she begins to help the addled woman, first reluctantly, then finally with her whole heart. Wittlinger does a good job of presenting the change in Bess's mindset, her growing compassion and realization that Gracie is a real person,"definitely strange, but not totally nuts or anything." The book also elucidates the broad spectrum of attitudes that exist toward the indigent, though unfortunately the author defines her characters by their position on the homeless rather than giving them unique personal flavors. After a tragedy, the book ends on a hopeful note, and Bess learns some important if predictable lessons. Earnest and well-intentioned, this should shed some light on an important social issue. (Fiction. 8-12)

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Product Details

Simon & Schuster Books For Young Readers
Publication date:
Edition description:
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
7.62(w) x 5.08(h) x 0.54(d)
Age Range:
8 - 12 Years

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

It was the last week of the summer, and I felt like I should be getting ready, but there I was on Ethan's back porch again, playing Monopoly, just like most other days this summer. In fact, we were playing the same exact game we'd started in June. How many times the last three months had I landed in Jail and been glad to sit out a couple of my losing turns? Too many. Ethan was busy exchanging five-hundred-dollar bills for more hotels.

"Let's just say you win," I suggested. "In five days school starts. I want to do something different."

Ethan stared at my treasonous face. "Bess! We said we'd play this game all summer!"

"We have. Almost."

"But you can't quit now. I've got hotels on Park Place and Boardwalk!"

"Yeah, and all the Railroads and all the greens and yellows and reds, too! I couldn't possibly win. I'm bankrupt!"

"Here, I'll lend you some more money," he said, giving me a fistful of hundred-dollar bills. That's what he always does. That's why we'll probably be playing this same game until we graduate from high school. Ethan doesn't really care about winning; he's just naturally good at games, and Monopoly is his favorite.

"Well, let's at least quit for today. We'll play some more tomorrow."

He wasn't happy, but I knew he'd give in. Ethan doesn't like to argue.

"Okay. But what else can we do? It's too hot to ride bikes."

"We could go to the pool," I said. Ethan never wants to go to the pool, but I thought maybe the heat would change his mind. He doesn't like wearing swimming trunks in public because he thinks he's fat.

"I told you, I don't want to go there again until I have my growth spurt." His mother told him he'd get thin again when he had his growth spurt, and he was waiting for it like an extra birthday. I hope he gets it before next summer so we can cool off once in a while.

"Is Janette home today? We could go over there."

"Are you kidding? It's Thursday afternoon, which is ballet and tennis."

Janette Silverman is my second best friend (after Ethan) and the shyest girl in our class. We might have all three been best friends except that Janette is too nervous to sit around playing games. And she never stays in one place very long. She's used to being busy; her mother has her booked up with lessons — ballet, singing, violin, tennis, swimming. And in the summer she has to take sailing lessons every morning. I would die if I had to get up early even in the summer.

Sometimes Janette complains about having so much to do all the time. Once she told me, "My mother wants me to be a child prodigy. In anything — she doesn't care what. But I think I'm already too old." She chews her nails down to stumps.

Ethan was putting all his bills and property into perfect order so he'd be ready to monopolize me again tomorrow.

"What are you wearing to school next week?" I asked him.

He looked at me as if my body had been inhabited by aliens. "What do you mean? The same stuff I always wear."

"Ethan, we're starting middle school. You don't want to look like you're still going to Albertine Gustavson Elementary School, do you?"

He shrugged. "Sixth graders don't look that different from fifth graders."

"Middle school kids look different. You never notice anything."

"I do too. Besides, you don't look any different."

"Maybe not this minute, but I will. My mother bought me some new clothes. And I'm getting a haircut tomorrow afternoon and picking up my new glasses on Monday. They have thin silver frames and they're really cool." It was hard to believe I'd ever liked my old pink frames — they looked so childish now.

Ethan wasn't impressed. "Girls always do that stuff. Boys don't."

That made me mad. "Ethan Riley, I never did this before, and plenty of boys wear cool stuff to school. We've dressed like twin dorks for six years. It's time we started to look interesting."

"I am not a dork."

"You're the biggest dork!" I know that sounds mean, but Ethan and I always say that kind of stuff to each other. Besides, I could have told you what he'd say next.

"Who cares? Sweatpants are comfortable. Hey, your mom's home. Let's go to your house."

Ethan lives next door to me, so it's not exactly a hike to go back and forth. And he's crazy about my mother, probably because she thinks he's the neatest invention since toast.

I'd forgotten what our living room looked like until we walked in the front door.

"I think your closets exploded," Ethan said.

"It's rummage sale weekend at the church," I said.

"Oh, right, your mom was in charge of that last year, too."

"She's in charge of it every year. Like she doesn't have enough to do already between her job and helping out at the shelter. I've hardly seen her for weeks," I complained.

He was pulling old shoes out of a box and measuring them against his foot. "Couldn't somebody else do the rummage sale sometimes?"

I shook my head. "She wants to do it. So she can go through the stuff first and pick out things for the people at the shelter." Not that our house is ever what you'd call neat, but the weeks before the rummage sale things really get out of hand. The dining room fills up with garbage bags first, and by the last collection days the living room is starting to look like Goodwill, with old coffeemakers and ugly lamps, mismatched dishes, and busted-up game boxes stacked all over everything. And now the couch was piled high with clothes, too. Mom had obviously been rummaging herself.

"Hi, guys," Mom called from the kitchen. "Want some carrots?" Mothers never give up pushing vegetables.

"Could we make popcorn instead? Corn is a vegetable," I said. "How come you're home early?"

She came into the living room but had to finish chewing her carrot before she could speak. "I have to get the rest of these bags down to the church by five, but I want to check through them first for clothes for the shelter. How about you two giving me a hand, and then we'll make popcorn?"

"Sure!" Ethan volunteered. "I think it's so cool that you and Mr. Cunningham serve lunch at the shelter on Sundays. I wish my parents did something like that."

"Your parents are busy," Mom said, just to make Ethan feel better.

"Not as busy as you," I said, but they ignored me. Mom dumped a few garbage bags out on the floor and explained to Ethan what she was looking for, mostly coats and warm sweaters. Some shoes, too.

"We don't go to the shelter every Sunday," Mom told Ethan. "More like every other week."

I felt like adding, And then you go to meetings about it the rest of the time. But I didn't. I know I shouldn't complain. I mean, she helps people who need her help. Maybe some Sunday I'll go stand in line at the soup kitchen and Mom will take a good look at me, too.

"You wouldn't think it was so great to have your parents out feeding other people if you had to stay home and make lunch for Willy," I told Ethan.

Mom threw a sweater onto the shelter pile and turned to stare at me. "What? Why are you making lunch for Willy? He's perfectly capable of taking care of himself."

"He always makes me some kind of bet or says I owe him for something."

"I'll speak to him," she said, but I knew she'd forget all about it. Mom is always talking about how you have to prioritize your responsibilities if you have a lot to do, and I learned a long time ago that Willy and I are not high on her priority list.

Willy's five years older than me, a junior in high school this year. It kills me when I hear girls say they wish they had an older brother. "Take mine," I tell them. "He's all yours." He was all right when we were younger, but as soon as he started high school he stopped speaking. Now all he does is grunt and swear, unless he's talking to one of his friends on the telephone, of course. Then he's Mr. Hilarious.

"How come you never go?" Ethan asked me.

"Go where?" I wasn't paying attention.

"To the shelter with your parents."

"I don't like to," I said.

"How come?"

"I just don't, all right?" I poked through a big pile of junk and pulled out a worn blue cardigan with a hole in the elbow. "How about this? Is this good?"

"That looks fine, sweetie," Mom said, winking at me.

She knows it makes me uncomfortable to go to the Derby Street Shelter. It's in Atwood, but not near our house. It's in downtown Atwood, on the other side of the middle and high schools, in a kind of run-down area. Where our house is, it's pretty; all the houses have yards with trees and flowers and barbecue grills. But down there the buildings are close together, and some of the apartment windows are broken out. It makes me feel small to walk around there, like I don't belong.

When we were little, Willy and I used to go to the shelter with Mom and Dad because we were too young to stay home alone and it was hard to find a baby-sitter for Sunday afternoons. We'd sit back in the kitchen and eat soup and bread and salad. Dad would cook, which never seemed odd because he does most of the cooking at home, too. He loves cooking, which Mom says is one of his best qualities. Dad's a lawyer, but standing in the kitchen at the shelter, stirring a big kettle, he'd always say, "I should have been a chef."

After a while Willy and I decided we wanted to be out in front, where all the action seemed to be, at the serving line with Mom. Until we actually went out there.

It was kind of scary. I mean, a lot of the people looked okay, but some of them, when they got up close to you, smelled bad. I remember once there were two men in the back of the room having a loud argument about something, and some of the shelter people finally had to make them leave. One woman coughed all over her food, and her two little kids looked pretty snotty and sick, too. It was weird. I'd never been around people like that before. Some of them were downright crazy. You couldn't pretend they weren't. Even my parents couldn't.

Not that anybody ever hurt me or even touched me or anything. The last time we went, I guess I was about eight and Willy was thirteen. I was standing by the trash barrel, just daydreaming, and this old man looked me right in the eye and said, "Could you help me find my teeth? I dropped them in the barrel." Except without his teeth it sounded more like, "Would you hep me fine my teef? I dwopped dem in da barrow."

Now I realize I should have just told somebody about it; my mom or dad would've helped him look. But all I could think about was that big gummy mouth of his smiling at me, and me having to dig through the garbage to find his old yellow choppers.

So I started crying. I cried until Mom drove Willy and me home. And that was the last time we ever had to go to the shelter. Willy was thrilled to stay home and "baby-sit" for me, as long as I didn't bother him while he watched videos all afternoon.

I held up an enormous flowered skirt, about size 82. "Who buys this stuff, anyway?" I said. "I mean, I know poor people at the shelter need clothes, but why would anybody else want this junk?" I couldn't imagine wearing somebody's old, thrown-out clothes.

"Lots of people," Mom said. "You can start putting stuff back in the garbage bags now. I've got enough to take to Derby Street."

"But who?" I insisted.

"Well, there are people who just don't like to spend a lot of money on clothes. They think it's a shame to get rid of perfectly wearable clothes just because they aren't this year's styles. I feel that way."

"Yeah, but you wouldn't buy stuff at rummage sales."

"Of course I would! My favorite blouse is from last year's sale. I have a lot of clothes I've picked up at our sale."

I made a face. "Ethan, don't you tell a soul my mother wears used clothes." That's all I needed to ruin my new middle school image, the news that my mother wore somebody else's raggy, old outfits.

Ethan, of course, couldn't imagine why I objected to anything Alice Cunningham did. "What's the big deal? She looks fine." Saint Alice.

"Thank you, Ethan. Lots of people shop at rummage sales," Mom said. "Kids from the college come to pick up inexpensive, funky-looking outfits. People who like to stand out from the crowd, look a little different. And some people just can't afford to pay the prices they ask at the mall. They aren't homeless, but they don't want to waste their money on overpriced clothing."

As you can tell, my mother has a lot of opinions.

So do I. "Well, I don't get it. I mean, those clothes could be dirty, or something."

"That's why we own a washing machine," Mom said.

Ethan grinned. "I'm gonna go to the sale. It sounds like fun."

"Why?" I said. "All you ever wear is gray sweatpants and a navy blue sweatshirt."

He shrugged. "Maybe I'll change."

"Wait until Saturday," Mom suggested. "That's Bag Day. All you can stuff into a bag for one dollar. There's always lots left to choose from."

"Great," I said. "I'll come, too. I can help Ethan pick out a new housedress and a pair of fuzzy slippers." Ethan just laughed. I don't know why he doesn't have a million friends. He never gets mad at anybody, and he acts like everything you say is so darn funny.

Text copyright © 2000 by Ellen Wittlinger

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What People are saying about this

Ellen Wittlinger
From the Author: Ellen Wittlinger writes about the genesis of Gracie's Girl: "I watched both my children, when they were younger, volunteer their services at a local soup kitchen. At first they were a little apprehensive, but it didn't take long for them to get to know the guests and to feel comfortable there. The great revelation, of course, was that by helping others they came to feel better about themselves."

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