Harry Sue

Harry Sue

5.0 1
by Sue Stauffacher

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Harry Sue Clotkin is tough. Her mom's in the slammer and she wants to get there too, as fast as possible, so they can be together. But it's not so easy to become a juvenile delinquent when you've got a tender heart.

Harry Sue's got her hands full caring for the crumb-snatchers who take up her afternoons at the day care center, and spending time with her best


Harry Sue Clotkin is tough. Her mom's in the slammer and she wants to get there too, as fast as possible, so they can be together. But it's not so easy to become a juvenile delinquent when you've got a tender heart.

Harry Sue's got her hands full caring for the crumb-snatchers who take up her afternoons at the day care center, and spending time with her best friend Homer, a quadriplegic who sees life from a skylight in the roof of his tree house. When Harry Sue finds an unlikely confidante in her new art teacher, her ambitions toward a life of crime are sidelined as she comes to a deeper understanding about her past--and future.

Sue Stauffacher has once again crafted a fast-paced middle-grade novel filled with quirky but lovable characters, a narrator impossible to ignore, a completely original plot, and a whole lot of redemption.

From the Hardcover edition.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Listen up, Fish." Harry Sue tells her story in "joint jive" she's learned from her quadriplegic best friend's home health aide, an ex-con. She plans to be fluent in "Conglish" ("a combination of joint jive and English," explains the opening glossary) by the time she completes a crime spree that'll land her in prison alongside her drug-dealing mother. Mary Bell went to the slammer seven years earlier, leaving Harry Sue in the care of her racist paternal grandmother. Granny runs a day care for "crumb snatchers," as Harry Sue calls them, a place that's about as loving and reputable as the group home Luther oversees for his mother in Christopher Paul Curtis's Bucking the Sarge. Both books also share Michigan settings and over-the-top, overstuffed plots, in which hilarity goes a long way to offset implausibility. Like Luther, Harry Sue, at 11, is a bit too competent to be believed. When she reads aloud to quadriplegic Homer, it's Kafka. The prison metaphor applies not only to Granny's abode ("You see, Granny and I were locked in a war for control of the joint"), but also to Homer's tree house, which is accessible to others only by a rope. Stauffacher (Donuthead) juggles many balls in this lengthy, ambitious but briskly paced novel (another subplot involves a Sudanese substitute art teacher who was one of Africa's Lost Boys), and it's a measure of her skill that she very nearly succeeds in keeping them all in the air. Ages 8-12. (June) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Children's Literature
It is not unusual for an eleven-year-old to want to be just like her parents, and Harry Sue Clotkin is no exception. But Harry Sue's life ambition is a bit different. In order to follow in her parents' footsteps, Harry Sue must get herself thrown in the slammer. But unfortunately, try as she might, she just cannot seem to get it right. Her best-laid crime plans keep backfiring. Take that annoying Violet Chump, for instance. Instead of exacting her revenge on Violet, Harry Sue ends up saving her life and becoming an eleven-year-old hero. Kids will love the quirky cast of characters, including Harry Sue; her bizarre Granny; Homer, her paralyzed, tree-house-dwelling best friend (whose real name is Christopher); a substitute teacher unlike any other teacher Harry Sue has ever know; a nutty home health care worker; and a cast of crumb snatchers from Granny's daycare. This funny, yet touching story will tug at your heart strings as it tackles some tough issues including child neglect, racism, and parental incarceration. Like Dorothy in her favorite book, The Wizard of Oz, Harry Sue, on her quest to be reunited with her incarcerated mother, discovers that there really is no place like home. And sometimes, home is not where you thought it would be at all. 2005, Alfred A. Knopf, and Ages 9 to 12.
—Pat Trattles
School Library Journal
Gr 4-8-Harry Sue, 11, feels as though she's been doing time for the past seven years, since her father threw her out of a window in a drunken rage and both of her parents went to prison. She has tried to keep her focus on becoming a convict herself, with the hope that she will be reunited with her mother someday. Unfortunately for Harry Sue, she has a heart, and it is not the cold heart of a criminal. Consigned to the custody of her paternal grandmother, who runs a disturbingly bad child-care center, Harry Sue has her hands full, keeping the children at Granny's Lap from harm, going to school, and spending as much time as she can with her best friend, a quadriplegic with an inventive mind whom she has nicknamed Homer Price. That's right, our heroine is a reader, and in fact uses The Wizard of Oz as her touchstone. She knows the true, dark story that Baum wrote, and sees her life reflected on every page, in every character. It is her only source of comfort and hope. A glossary of Conglish, prison language, comes in handy because that's how Harry Sue speaks. Her vivacious narrative moves rapidly through a turning point in her life and that of her road dog (a friend you can count on), Homer. Both children finally come into contact with adults who see inside them and force hope into their lives. It's a tragic series of accidents that finally brings Granny's abuse to the attention of authorities and shows both children the possibility of a future. This is a riveting story, dramatically and well told, with characters whom readers won't soon forget.-Susan Oliver, Tampa-Hillsborough Public Library System, FL Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
With no communication from her incarcerated mother for six years, Harry Sue mistakenly believes that the only way to find her mother is to enter "the joint" herself. As an inmate in training, she learns the vocabulary and resolves to sufficiently harden her heart. Readers will know that is unlikely. Harry Sue devotes her life to protecting the people she loves, notably the tots at her granny's day care (where a dose of cold medicine in the applesauce keeps them manageable) and her best friend, Homer, who is a quadriplegic living in a tree house to escape his clinging mother. Like Dorothy in her favorite story The Wizard of Oz, Harry Sue is accompanied on her quest by a cast of colorful survivors whom life has simultaneously scarred and strengthened. Written with humor and heart, this is intricately plotted and full of unlikely but charming coincidences and characters of endearing eccentricity. It proves the old adage that the greatest courage is in facing your fear head on. "Joint Jive Glossary" included. (Fiction. 8-12)
From the Publisher
“Written with humor and heart, this is intricately plotted and full of unlikely but charming coincidences and characters of endearing eccentricity” --Kirkus Review, starred

From the Hardcover edition.

Product Details

Random House Children's Books
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Random House
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File size:
2 MB
Age Range:
9 - 12 Years

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1
Harriet Susan Clotkin is not the sort of name you'd imagine for the first lady president of the United States. That's just fine by me, as I never had designs on running for political office but planned instead on following in the family tradition: a career of incarceration. As soon as I was old enough, I was headed for the joint. First I had to have the required fourteen to sixteen years of rotten childhood. So far, I had only served eleven years and change.
Time was running out on my becoming a juvenile delinquent. The really impressive cons started their rap sheets by nine or ten. Unfortunately, I had a heart condition that needed fixing before I could begin a serious crime spree.
Yes, Fish, my heart was as lumpy and soft as a rotten tomato. I couldn't stand to see things hurt, especially anything weak and defenseless. Watching Jolly Roger and his road dogs pull the legs off a spider made me grind my teeth down worse than if I slept with a mouth full of sandpaper. When those boys clicked the little kids on the bus, I had to sit on my hands just to keep from breaking theirs.
In the joint, where I was headed, I'd need a heart filled with cement and covered in riveted steel. I was working on it. But so far, I wasn't making much progress.
Now, there's a thing or two you need to know if you want to do time with Harry Sue. First off, you got to keep it real. Most everybody I know, they just see what they want to see. Aside from my road dogs, the people I have to deal with--including my teacher, Ms. Lanier, and that bunch over at Granny's Lap--they just see my mask.
It's like my favorite book, The Wizard of Oz, which just so happens to be the last one my mom read to me before she was sent up. Most people, they have only ever seen the movie. But me, I read the book. Twenty-seven times. If you didn't read the book, then you think it's all about singing and rainbows and skipping down the Yellow Brick Road.
You don't know anything about the real story. In the real story, those horrible winged monkeys help Dorothy. They do! And the Tin Man murders forty wolves, and when Dorothy gets to Oz, the Munchkins think she's signifying because her dress has white in it and that's the color of witches. There's monsters in that book whose names you can't even pronounce right. And they're not in any dictionary, either, because I checked.
There's so much they don't tell you in the movie. And people don't think to ask afterward. They just take what they see as the real story.
Me, I'm a little like Dorothy myself, searching for my own Aunt Em. I don't care where I have to live when I find her. It's been six long years since I set eyes on my mom. Some days, it feels like she's as far away as Oz is from Kansas and like I'll never see her again. In the real story, they don't have any of that hokey-pokey crap where Aunt Em calls out, "Dorothy! Dorothy! We're looking for you!" from the magic crystal ball.
The real story is more like my life. You have to wonder what Aunt Em is up to while Dorothy's trying to get out of Oz. Is she going through the motions, milking the cows and shucking the corn? Or is she wrung out with grief, sitting paralyzed on the back step, her eyes fixed on the flat line of horizon?
Chapter 2
Life at Trench Vista Elementary School was something like doing time. There was "the yard," what the principal, Mr. Hernandez, liked to call the courtyard. It sat next to a playground that pushed up against the wet edges of Marshfield's water treatment plant.
On days with a northeasterly wind, we were marched to the playground to play kickball, freeze tag, and other games designed to use up our energy. But on days with a southeasterly wind, when the smell from the treatment plant filled our nostrils and made more than one kid remember what became of lunch, he'd hustle us into the courtyard for jump rope and four square and tetherball.
That's when I felt the closed-in, clamped-down feeling of prison. I'd pace the edges of the yard, ducking in and out of the ragged lilac bushes and honeysuckle vines that were planted as a pathetic defense against the smell of Marshfield's liquid garbage. Our sixth-grade year was only thirty-eight days into a nine-month stay, but I knew things were heating up considerably. There are days when I can feel the trouble in my bones.
Violet Eleanor Chump was what we considered the lowest form of life in the joint: a snitch, a rat, a cheese eater. Old Violet would drop a dime as easy as batting her eyelashes. Since Mr. Hernandez was particular about keeping the students in alphabetical order--to line up for recess, to line up for chow, to line up for the buses--I spent more time around Violet than I'd've liked. I had to sit next to her, too, and there wasn't much chance of that changing unless an eleven-year-old with a name between Chump and Clotkin had the misfortune to enroll at Trench Vista.
Fish, don't make me say this twice. If you want to hang with Harry Sue, you got to learn to do your own time. It was hard to imagine anyone choosing to go to school at Trench Vista. Yet here we were by accident of birth--or maybe just plain accident, as in my personal case. But if you have to be here, stop messing around in other people's business and attend to your own.
Violet's problems were mostly due to her notion that she was special. She thought someone should care about how she felt. She thought her needs mattered. What kind of family did she grow up in? I wondered.
I was filing back in after recess, observing the rule of "closed lips, hands on hips," when Ms. Lanier put a bony hand on my shoulder and pulled me into the coatroom.
"I'm afraid those," she said, pointing to my soggy shoes and holding out a plastic Family Fare grocery bag, "will need to stay in here.
"It's possible we'll need to have a talk about personal hygiene, Harry Sue, and the importance of bathing on a regular basis. You are getting older now and your body is undergoing changes."
Ms. Lanier put one finger inside the tight collar of her blouse and pulled it away from her damp neck. I had a sudden image of Granny loosening jellied cranberry from the can with a long-handled butter knife. At Granny's Lap, we ate canned jellied cranberries as a fruit serving from December to March because it was cheaper than dirt and made most of the crumb snatchers want to heave. Whether you ate it or not, it still counted as one fruit serving for Granny to put on her federal forms.
Ms. Lanier's neck quivered in just the same way the cranberry did as she stood there contemplating my body undergoing its changes.
I kept my eyes to the floor. Somewhere in my chest my heart started to throb as I knelt to untie my shoes. They were cheap and worn, the kind you pick up in the bin next to the flip-flops at Value Village.
The pounding inside me was so loud it threatened to give me away. She would bathe regularly, it throbbed, if there wasn't always a baby in the bathtub. The shoes stink, it complained in its trembly way, because we had to haul Spooner from the pond again this morning.
I caught my breath, checking for the mask, letting it handle the damage control. My jaw set, I looked up at Ms. Lanier, imagining my gaze passing through an invisible magnifying glass, like sun does, heating it to the burning point.
It worked. Suddenly, we were just two conettes on the yard who didn't have permission to take it outside. Ms. Lanier looked away, but I kept the gaze on her, not bothering to glance down at the laces disintegrating between my fingers.
It was the best look in my catalog and I used it a lot. I called it "mad and dumb." You didn't want to appear too intelligent. What you wanted was a look that said: This dog bites.
"Violet has a very delicate constitution," Ms. Lanier said. "On bad days like these, what with her asthma and her allergies, she just can't take the added assault on her senses."
She removed the finger from the collar that was choking her and shook open the bag. I held the stare as I dropped the shoes into it.
"Socks, too," she squeaked.
Did she really expect me to spend the afternoon barefoot?
Chapter 3

Before I could think what to say, she dipped down and picked up a pair of wool socks, man-sized, from the bench we used to remove our boots. Then she grabbed her can of Fruit Fresh Peachy Keen aerosol spray and proceeded to douse my new socks with the sickening-sweet scent of factory-made fruit smells.
I focused my stare. Little dewdrops of sweat formed in the tiny hairs above Ms. Lanier's mouth. Without breaking my gaze, I peeled off my soggy socks and dropped them into the grocery bag. 
My temples were throbbing and the bone that ran between my neck and my shoulder, the one that never got straight since the fall, was pressing against a nerve. What was it about Ms. Lanier that always made things hurt worse? The pain made me think of a line from Mom's favorite fairy tale, "Jack and the Beanstalk," where the giant tears apart the kitchen looking for the kid who's been lifting his golden eggs.
I'll grind your bones to make my bread.
The entire class was twisting in their seats, straining to get a view of my entrance. I tried to look dignified with a pair of man's socks dragging at my ankles. A couple of busters in the back row covered their mouths and pointed.
"If anybody laughs, it's on," I hissed.
But then I told myself not to get distracted. What was most important was to find Violet. I needed to communicate with my eyes my look that said:
Somewhere, somehow, when you least expect it, I will exact my punishment.
Before we go any further, we have to go back. Way back. Seven years back, to the day of my accident. You can't fully appreciate the saga of Harry Sue unless you know the backstory. Every conette has a backstory. It's hard enough returning to the night that changed my life forever, but if it was up to my road dog, Homer, we'd go back even further.
You see, Homer would argue that my father, Garnett Clotkin, didn't just show up to our apartment that night swearing and spitting like a rabid dog for no reason at all. Not everybody expresses their anger with violence. Garnett had to be trained to it.
"Maybe your granny tied his shoes too tight," he'd offer, or, "Maybe it was her habit of dunking his head in toilet water when he sassed her."
I say, any way you slice it, it's still bread.
On the night that changed our lives forever, the man I called father was nursing a wounded pride by drinking up as much Motor City Ale as he could locate. He wanted my mother to take him back. She'd already been down to the police station to get a restraining order to keep him away from us.
To me, anyway, that meant, "I don't think so."
But to my father it was just a piece of paper. He was too much of a man, too lit on Motor City Ale, to use that restraining order for more than what kept his chewing gum from sticking to the bottom of Granny's wicker wastebasket.
To make a long story short, Mom threatened to call the cops when he barged in, so he dangled me out the window to get her to pay attention.
"I'm warning you, Mary Bell. Put the phone down."
People say I couldn't possibly have a clear memory of that moment. I was only five years old and barely conscious. He'd pulled me out of that little-kid sleep, the real satisfying kind that comes from not knowing the score.
But I do remember. I remember her crying, "Don't hurt my baby! And how the air felt, so wet it was like fingers pressing on my face. And how it smelled--both sweet and sour--like the garbage under our sink in summer.
I heard and felt all those things before I was yanked back inside. 
After that, it's a blur, but I can tell it fairly from the way the neighbors whispered and from the trial. Mom connected to the Marshfield Police Station and started talking gibberish. My father, being a man of his word, picked me back up, pressed my knees to my shoulders, and shoved me out the window, using the chest pass that kept him in school until the ninth grade as first-string guard for the Trench Vista varsity basketball team.
That is the kind of detail Homer loves because it shows how everything, every action, affects what comes after. Homer likes to say if my dad had chosen baseball over basketball, he'd have to call some other dog his best friend, for I would be long gone from this world.
Because he was a basketball player, my father squished me into a ball and launched me out the window when his instincts took over. His anger was like rocket fuel, enough to catapult me into the branches of an elm tree. See, an elm tree is shaped like a vase, so instead of dropping seven stories to the brick patio, I began a long, slow-motion game of pinball, rolling toward the center of the tree. This is another detail Homer loves, because if it had been an oak tree, well, we've already touched on that possibility.
I do remember the sensation of wet branches grabbing me, of leaves slapping my face. I rolled all the way to the center of the tree before it let go just ten feet from the ground and dropped me onto a pile of wet leaves and soggy mulch.
In the time it took me to ride that leafy elevator to the ground floor, my father's head cleared enough to determine he'd just committed a capital offense. Who knows? Maybe he even felt bad about it, at least bad enough to lay me on the backseat of his truck and rush me to the emergency room, where I was diagnosed with a severe case of bruising, a dislocated shoulder, and two broken ribs.
Mom rushed out, too, but he'd copped the elevator and she couldn't match him for speed down seven floors. In all the confusion, she forgot to put away the toy chemistry lab she'd set up on the table to make crystal methamphetamine, or crank as it's called on the street, an illegal drug she mostly used herself to stay awake while working the swing shift at the auto glass factory.

From the Hardcover edition.

Meet the Author

Sue Stauffacher is a professional journalist and has been writing a children's book review column for ten years. The author lives in Grand Rapids, MI.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Harry Sue 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This is the best book in the universe!