The King in the Windowby Adam Gopnik
Oliver Parker is a ten-year-old American boy miserably trapped in Paris, where his father is stationed as a journalist. Intimidated by his French school and its prickly teachers, oppressed by gray and wintry Paris, and feeling curiously remote from his father--who spends more and more time staring dully into his computer screen--Oliver longs to return to America.
- Miramax Books for Kids
- Publication date:
- Product dimensions:
- 6.00(w) x 8.50(h) x 1.32(d)
- Age Range:
- 10 - 14 Years
Read an Excerpt
The King In The Window
By Adam Gopnik
Hyperion Books for ChildrenCopyright © 2005 Adam Gopnik
All right reserved.
Chapter OneA Stone in the Street, a Boy in the Window
IF OLIVER HAD simply smiled and joked with his parents while he was wearing the gold paper crown, or if he had just remembered to take it off after dinner, as he had always done before, the window wraiths might never have mistaken him for royalty.
Instead, because he was a born worrier, and because he had homework to finish for the next morning, and because he was exasperated with his parents for being so childish, and just because (as he explained much tater to Mrs. Pearson) he pretty much forgot that he had it on, he wore the crown all through dessert and washing up. He had even kept it on his head at the end of the evening while he sat at the kitchen table and practiced making shadowpuppets.
And so that night, because Oliver wore the crown, the boy in the blue doublet appeared in the window for the first time.
It was the night of Epiphany, during a bitter and freezing winter in the city of Paris, where Oliver lived with his mother and father. It is often said that Paris is a happy and beautiful city, where people in love like to walk hand in hand and stare at each other, and, although this description is mildly goopy, it is also mostly true, at least beginning with April and ending in October.
Butin the winter Paris is another place. It is dark and cold and sad and mysterious. If you begin the school day, as Oliver did, at eight in the morning and ended it, as Oliver did, at four thirty in the afternoon, then six months go by in which you never once see sunlight. The sun has set by four thirty, and the streets are often empty by eight o'clock, with people crowded inside the golden-lit apartments and cafes and restaurants. In the evenings, the gray-violet skies always look as if they are about to snow, and never do.
Just that afternoon, for instance, right after school, Oliver had kicked a pebble home alone from his school on the Right Bank to the Left Bank, where he lived with his parents, and at every corner he had turned, he saw only streetlights and long shadows-trees with black limbs silhouetted against the twilight-and crowds of people with their scarves pulled tight around their throats, looking down as their heels went clack! as they wove in and out against the narrow stone pavement, and looking up at the charcoal sky above, which was still not snowing.
It had been a very cold and lonely walk home for Oliver that day. Oliver had been born in America, in New York City. His parents had moved to Paris with him when he was only three, and when he visited New York now, he found it exciting but a little frightening. Paris was his home, although he didn't always feel quite at home there. Oliver was often very lonely, but he had never been as lonely as he was this winter.
For years his father had met him every day after school on his way home from his office on the rue Fleurus. They would almost always find a perfectly smooth stone on the street in front of the school, and then kick it all the way home together-all the way across Paris, across the Jardin des Tuileries and the rue de Rivoli and the bridge to the Left Bank. But last year his father's office had closed, and now he worked at home, and he didn't come to meet Oliver after school. "You're a big guy now," he had said. "You can find your own way home."
It was true that he could find his own way home. But he didn't want to find his own way home. He wanted company, and conversation, and he almost never had any of either, from his Parisian schoolmates, who had their own lives to lead, and led them without Oliver. Ideally, he thought to himself, ideally he would have walked home every day arm in arm with a chain of very fashionable people, exchanging jokes and confidential secrets. And even if his father wasn't fashionable or witty, at least he had always answered his questions. What's the most expensive thing there is? Why are there so many languages in the world, and where did they come from? Why is there an infinity of numbers and not an infinity of letters? Why does it never snow in Paris? ... How had Oliver's father answered that one? Oh, yes, it never gets quite cold enough in Paris to turn the rain to snow.... Sometimes Oliver would ask so many questions that his father would just laugh and say "Ollie! Trust me."
Tonight, Oliver had tried to lift his spirits by kicking a pebble home himself. This stone wasn't even perfect-it was beautifully smooth, but it had a kind of weird white blemish on it-and he hadn't felt his heart lift one bit as he kicked his stone across the city. Up and down the narrow streets, and across the great gray violet boulevards-kicking a pebble home alone felt, well, empty, and Oliver had been so unhappy that he had at last kicked it right off the Pont Royal, one of the many bridges that runs across the river Seine and connects the Right Bank of Paris to the Left Bank.
Or rather he had tried to kick it off the bridge. He had struck it with all his might-but then the pebble must have hit a part of the bridge railing that Oliver couldn't see. Somehow it had bounced right back at him and lay there on the pavement before him, like an eager puppy. Oliver was so annoyed by this that he had kicked it again, toward the water, from the other side of the bridge. But this time, too, it must have struck someone's ankle-"Hey, that's enough from you!" a man had barked reprovingly, looking at him in anger as he stood among a crowd of Parisians, staring up at the new lights that were being strung up and down the Eiffel Tower and there the pebble was again.
And the odd thing was that he thought that he had heard the man bark at him even before his toe had struck the stone.
This third time he had really kicked it hard and watched it fly off the bridge and land with a barely audible plop! in the water. It was twilight, and dark-but he was sure that he saw the pebble skim right across the water and come back up on the other side of the bank, along the quai, the paved walkway that ran by the river on the Left Bank.
Oliver was astonished. He must be getting much better at kicking than he had thought ... probably all that soccer practice, even though he wasn't big enough to make the school soccer team. It was so peculiar that, after he crossed the bridge, Oliver took a detour down the stairs to the quai to pick up the pebble, and had then kicked it home, as hard as he could, pretending to be Thierry Henry, the great French soccer star.
But no matter how hard he struck the pebble, this time it just flew lightly along the pavement, a few feet at a time, and then almost seemed to be waiting patiently for Oliver to kick it again, as though it wanted to go home with him, until at last he and the pebble both arrived at the courtyard of the building where he lived with his parents.
Leaving the pebble in the courtyard, he had taken a deep breath to drink in the Parisian winter air: in Paris in the winter, there is a special kind of keen, smoky smell that penetrates everywhere. It seems to be made up of strong cigarettes, black coffee, scalded milk, and burning wood. Then he walked up the narrow stairs to their third-floor apartment, to be embarrassed one more year by celebrating Epiphany with his parents.
One of the ways that people try to cheer up through the dark months of a Paris winter is at the feast called Epiphany. "Christmas isn't such a big deal in France," Oliver had once explained to his best, unfortunately faraway, friend, Charlie Gronek, of Allendale, New Jersey. "I mean, it's a big deal, but it's not the whole world, the way it is in America. Epiphany is just as big, really." Epiphany comes on January 6, and it celebrates the night when the Wise Men reached the stable at Bethlehem. ("If they were so wise, how come they got there so late?" Oliver had asked his parents when he was four, and they had laughed and repeated it to everybody for weeks, even though it had been a perfectly sincere question. What was worse was that they were still telling it now, eight years later, as though he had said it yesterday.)
So on this Epiphany night, Oliver was sitting with his parents in the kitchen of their apartment on a little street called the rue du Pre-aux-Clercs. Although they had a dining room on the other side of the apartment, they almost always ate dinner at a little round blue table in the kitchen next to the window.
"They make wonderful almond filling at Saffray," Oliver's mother was saying as she looked admiringly inside the cake that they were about to have for dessert. At Epiphany in Paris, everyone shares a cake called a galette des rois-the cake of the kings. A galette des rois has puff pastry outside, with a little design of leaves or wreaths on the top, and inside it is filled with almond cream. There is always a prize hidden inside the cake-a bean, or sometimes a tiny toy, or a golden angel. Whoever finds the prize in his slice of cake becomes the king, and gets to wear the gold-paper crown that the ladies in the bakery hand out when you buy the galette des rois.
"What beautiful almond filling ..." his mother said, intent on the cake.
From years of experience, and because he really was not a complete idiot, Oliver knew perfectly well that she was really searching to see where the prize was, so that she could make sure that it was in his slice. Oliver would have to pretend to be startled when he found the prize in his piece.
"It's funny," his mother said as she peered at the almond filling. "I had ordered a galette for six people, so that Oliver could have extra, but they only had this small one left. They said that someone else had come in and taken ours, by mistake. And you know who it was-it was Madame Farrad! Neige came up here to look for you-"
Madame Farrad was their gardienne. A gardienne in Paris is someone who looks after the building, and usually lives in a small ground-floor apartment. He or she collects the mail and watches the doors and takes out the trash. Madame Farrad was their gardienne-and she was a gloomy and suspicious woman, with a beautiful daughter.
Neige was her daughter's name. (Neige is the French word for "snow.") She was just one year older than Oliver, who had been playing with her since he was little. She was extremely beautiful, Oliver thought privately, but a bit, well, extremely difficult.
"Neige came up here?" Oliver asked. Missing Neige was one more thing that made today utterly lonely and rotten. They had had a stupid quarrel about six months ago, and she had hardly spoken to him since.
"Yes, darling. But I told her that you hadn't come home yet. You two don't seem to talk together as much as you used to. Is something wrong?"
Oliver was thinking about whether to tell his mother about the quarrel-it had been really stupid-when his father looked up from the paper. "Did you offer to exchange them back?" he asked Oliver's mother sharply.
"Are you joking? That would have been a real crise. I was glad to let her have our big one," his mother said. Madame Farrad was a very argumentative and sullen lady, and Oliver knew that his mother hated to get into long discussions with her, much less have an argument about the size of an Epiphany cake.
"Ty," she said. Oliver's father was staring off into the window, as he often did these days. "Ty," she repeated. "What is it?"
"I better go check my e-mail. Something may be coming in. Be right back," he said, and dashed out of the room. His mother sighed. She hated it when people interrupted family occasions. She lived for family occasions, and more and more often his father seemed distracted when they took place.
Oliver's father was a writer for a newspaper in America, and every day he disappeared into his "office"-really, it was just a little room near the dining room-and Oliver would hear the keys of his computer clacking away. Faxes would come in from America in the middle of the night, and often Oliver's father would get up to read them, and then reply on his computer. When Oliver was little, he had loved the brrring of the faxes as they arrived, and the sound of his father clacking the keys, because both sounds seemed exciting. But now that he was older he thought that they made his father sad, and tired, and when he heard them in the middle of the night, he went back to sleep.
"It's that story about Gil," his mother said quietly to Oliver, shaking her head. "He's sort of obsessed with it."
"You know how he is about his work, Mom," Oliver said, trying to reassure her. "Especially now that he's trying to write about Gil."
Oliver knew that his father had been working for several months on a story about the great computer tycoon Gil Hornshaw. Gil was his father's oldest friend. Back in college, many years ago, he and Oliver's father had been roommates. "He was like Thomas Edison in a tie-dyed T-shirt back then," his father had told Oliver once. Then Gil had been hurt in a skateboarding accident, his father had explained to Oliver, and it had left the right side of his mouth paralyzed; ever afterward his face was set in a sarcastic-seeming half smile.
Gil Hornshaw (Oliver knew the story by heart, he had heard it so often) had offered to make his father a partner in the little computer company he had started. But Oliver's father had refused, because he wanted to go to France and write, and Gil's company had become a computer giant. Now Oliver's father and mother often joked about how much money Gil made every day compared to how many years it would take for his father to earn the same amount.
Only a few months before, Gil had announced that he was coming to Paris to demonstrate a "breakthrough," a strange and special project that would be based in the Eiffel Tower and somehow "be a quantum leap in engineering," and he had called to ask Oliver's father to write about it. "It would be an exclusive, Ty," Oliver had heard Gil say kindly to his father over the online connection.
Gil often would send streaming video of himself, answering questions, over Oliver's father's computer. Peering through his father's half-open door late at night, Oliver could see Gil Hornshaw's famous crooked half smile and open shirt, sending itself, in that herky-jerky way of computer videos, all the way from Seattle to Paris. Oliver even kept a little snapshot of himself with Gil, his arm around Oliver, in his wallet. It had been taken during the one visit he had made with his father to Seattle.
"Yes. Your father is obsessed with Gil and his project," Oliver's mother said now. Then she just looked away. "But it's not just the project, whatever that is. It's his whole way of looking at-" She caught herself, and then turned away and went over to the counter where the cake waited.
Oliver knew that she hated for him to think that his parents were unhappy.
Oliver quietly walked over to the window and looked out into the courtyard. There was nothing there, just Madame Farrad, staring up at the window, and disappearing into her tiny house in the courtyard. Oliver heard her speaking sharply to Neige from inside.
When his father came back from his office, Oliver's mother placed the cake on the table with great formality and lifted the slices onto their plates. Then they all bit in. Oliver poked around in his slice with his fork, and soon found something hard and bright inside it. The prize, of course. He withdrew it with his fork.
It was a shiny, small gold key-the kind of old-fashioned key with two stubby prongs that you see jailers holding in cartoons about medieval dungeons. As his mother exclaimed, pretending to be surprised, Oliver held the key up for a moment and examined it. He had to admit, they had done a very good job at Saffray. The key was much heavier than you expected it to be, more solid and actually keylike. The two prongs of the key were even grooved and worn, as if they were ready for a lock. Well, Oliver guessed, galette prize-making must be a very competitive business these days....
Excerpted from The King In The Window by Adam Gopnik Copyright © 2005 by Adam Gopnik. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Adam Gopnik was born in Pennsylvania and raised in Montreal. He is best known as a staff writer for The New Yorker, and as the author Paris to the Moon, an account of five years he and his family spent in the French capital. He is also author of the children's book The King in the Window.
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