The Private Thoughts of Amelia E. Rye

The Private Thoughts of Amelia E. Rye

4.6 6
by Bonnie Shimko

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"All a person needs in life is one true friend."

So says Grandpa Thomas, the only member of Amelia's family who cares about her one bit. That true friend finally arrives when Fancy Nelson, the first Negro kid Amelia has ever seen in person, walks into her fourth grade classroom. As Fancy's special sort of magic rubs off on Amelia, she slowly comes to


"All a person needs in life is one true friend."

So says Grandpa Thomas, the only member of Amelia's family who cares about her one bit. That true friend finally arrives when Fancy Nelson, the first Negro kid Amelia has ever seen in person, walks into her fourth grade classroom. As Fancy's special sort of magic rubs off on Amelia, she slowly comes to understand her trainwreck family and her place in it—and Fancy discovers a surprising secret about her own past.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Shimko's engaging novel, set in the 1960s in a small town in northeastern New York, is narrated by 13-year-old Amelia Earhart Rye. Named by her beloved Grandpa Thomas after the famous pilot, friendless Amelia has an incredibly mean mother; Amelia was a surprise baby, and her mother jumped out a window when she discovered she was pregnant (“...she was pure furious that I kept on kicking. And she blamed me for the scars on her face, too”). When Fancy Nelson, the first black child Amelia has ever seen, moves to town and befriends her, Amelia is inspired by Fancy's courage and confidence, and begins to enjoy an enlarged and enriched life. The book is peopled with believable, multilayered characters, except for Amelia's mother, who is so broadly drawn as to approach caricature. But as Amelia matures and changes her own behavior, her mother grows more sympathetic. Shimko's (Kat's Promise) story is original, and Amelia's distinctive voice and likable nature will have readers rooting for her in times of trouble and cheering her ultimate good fortune. The happy ending is immensely satisfying. Ages 10-14. (Apr.)
From the Publisher

“I loved this book, I couldn't put it down. It was heartwarming and filled with the clarity of innoncence. A real page-turner.” —Sara Gruen, author of Water for Elephants

“The intricate storylines come together and create a wonderful read.” —Library Media Connection

“Shimko's story is original, and Amelia's distinctive voice and likable nature will have readers rooting for her in times of trouble and cheering her ultimate good fortune. The happy ending is immensely satisfying.” —Publishers Weekly

VOYA - Teri Lesesne
Amelia Earhart Rye, named by her Grandpa Thomas, has not had an easy time at school. This year promises to be different because of the arrival of one Fancy (do not call her Frances) Nelson. Fancy and Amelia become best friends, sticking up for one another against the school bullies and some of the grown-ups in their lives as well. People come and go in Amelia's life: Grandpa Thomas suffers a stroke, Amelia's brother returns from a stint in prison, and she meets the older sisters she has never known. New friends, secret adventures, and some personal losses make this a novel about coming of age and acceptance. This piece of historical fiction, set in the 1960s, is more a quiet reflection on life in a small town where everyone knows the secrets others hold than it is an exploration of the time period. It serves merely as a backdrop most of the time, underscoring only a secret about Fancy's grandfather. Fancy and Amelia are both multidimensional. Even the adult characters have depth and play against stereotype. Events unfold at a leisurely pace so that Amelia's blossoming never feels rushed. Short chapters with plenty of humorous situations make this a perfect quick read for girls who also enjoy The Penderwicks (Yearling, 2007). Reviewer: Teri Lesesne
Children's Literature - Jody Little
Amelia's Grandpa Thomas tells her that she only needs one true friend in her life. Surprisingly that friend turns out to be Fancy Nelson, the first Negro person Amelia has ever seen. Fancy's world is completely different from Amelia's. Fancy lives with her loving mother in the spacious home of Judge Thomas, while Amelia lives in a beat up old house with her mean mother, who is old enough to be her grandmother. While Fancy deals with the horrors of racism, Amelia copes with her broken family—her beloved grandfather, who recently suffered a stroke; her runaway father and his ex-mistress; her jailed brother, her older sister in an insane asylum; and mostly her seemingly uncaring mother. Sharing adventures with her new best friend, Fancy, teaches Amelia more about the meaning of family than she ever learns in her own home. Set in the early 1960s in upstate New York and told from Amelia's feisty point of view, this book offers a fresh voice, humor, rich characters and a heart-warming message of family love. Reviewer: Jody Little
School Library Journal
Gr 4–6—When Fancy Nelson arrives in a small upstate New York town in the mid-1960s, she is just the friend that lonely Amelia Earhart Rye needs. Unlike most residents, Amelia could care less that the newcomer is African-American. Local bullies insult Fancy by cutting off her braids; she then remarks that even kids in Alabama were not so cruel. Although the incident rattles her, she picks herself up and takes pride in a new, short haircut. Meanwhile, emotionally abused Amelia learns how to be strong from her bold new friend. She practices standing up for herself against teachers, cousins, and, finally, her mean mother who never wanted her. Amelia's most significant rebellion occurs when she defies her mother and walks away from the baptismal font at their strict Protestant church. Shimko cleverly uses this transformative moment in Christian religious life to illustrate how Amelia has been reborn, thanks to Fancy's kindness and friendship. She also gives the fourth grader a loving surrogate mother in the character of Margo LaRue, whom Amelia initially hated for running away with Mr. Rye before Amelia's birth. Like most of the characters, Margo has a depth and complexity that unfold at a leisurely pace. This novel is sure to engage readers in search of character-driven stories about friendship.—Mary Landrum, Lexington Public Library, KY
Kirkus Reviews
Despite Amelia E. Rye's confession that, "I'm a very good liar. I curse, too," she comes clean to readers in her "personal memoir," in which she relates the difficulties of living with her bad-tempered mother, who was pushing 50 when Amelia was born. Mrs. Rye is too worn-out to muster any motherly feelings for her daughter. She forces Amelia to wear hand-me-downs that are decades out of fashion, causing the friendless girl to become the brunt of cruel pranks. Everything changes the day Fancy walks into Amelia's fourth-grade class. New to the upstate New York town, the friendly African-American girl offers friendship and acceptance, the very things Amelia has been hankering for. The story moves quickly, and in its four-year span Amelia learns the truth about her dysfunctional family's unhappy past. The 1960s-era setting is mostly irrelevant to the plot, the racial tension is unconvincing and Amelia's observations are too often wise beyond her years. What propels this otherwise undistinguished coming-of-age story forward is the strong bond of friendship that deepens over time between Amelia and Fancy. (Historical fiction. 10-12)

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The Private Thoughts of Amelia E. Rye

By Bonnie Shimko

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Copyright © 2010 Bonnie Shimko
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4299-3375-9


My mother tried to kill me before I was born. Even then I disappointed her.

I learned about the foundation of my life brick by brick from my daddy's daddy, Grandpa Thomas, and from Mama. Grandpa Thomas handed me the bricks gently, adding a fib or two to make our family seem halfway normal. Mama threw the bricks at me, aiming to kill. That woman had a mean streak in her as wide as the Atlantic Ocean.

My father grew up in a flea-size town in the upper right-hand corner of New York State, just up the road from Sullivan's Falls. Grandpa Thomas used to chuckle, "If your grandma Nellie'd birthed your daddy an inch farther to the north, he'd have been born speaking Canuck, eh?" I personally do not think it is polite to call Canadians Canucks, but Grandpa Thomas would never have hurt anybody's feelings on purpose, so maybe he thought it was a compliment.

The summer Daddy turned thirteen, the same age I am now, a traveling preacher named Brother Marvin set up a tent in the middle of Sullivan's Falls. He and his wife, Sister Catherine, filled the tent with folding chairs and then nailed flyers all over town, inviting the sinners of the area to come to their revival meeting to be saved.

Grandma Nellie must have thought the devil had her whole family by the tail because she paid extra for front-row seats. My daddy wrapped his legs around the rungs of his chair, ate the popcorn Sister Catherine hawked like one of those vendors at a baseball game, and waited for the show to start.

Sister Catherine was dressed for the weather in a flimsy skirt and a low-cut blouse. She sang hymns, played the cornet, and passed the collection plate. Brother Marvin preached the word of God with a performance that dazzled the audience.

Grandma Nellie was so filled with the Holy Spirit that she sank to her knees with her arms raised to heaven, shouting, "Hallelujah!" and dragged Grandpa Thomas down with her. At the same time, my daddy leaned forward to get a better look at Sister Catherine's you-know-whats. He hollered, "Thanks for the blessing, Lord!" then fell flat on his face with his legs still attached to that chair. Grandma Nellie thought Daddy'd been struck by a bolt of godliness. She was so overcome with gratitude that her entire family had been saved from the fires of hell that she put an extra quarter on the collection plate the next time it was passed. From then on, most everything my father thought was fun suddenly became a sin.

When Daddy graduated high school, Grandma Nellie gave him the choice of staying home to work the farm or being ordained by Brother Marvin the next time he came to town. Daddy hated cows and the mess that went along with them, so he chose religion. I guess he figured when he was a bona fide preacher, that list of sins would get a whole lot shorter.

According to Brother Marvin, the most important thing a preacher needs is a wife, preferably a musical beauty like Sister Catherine, to loosen up the tight-wads. That's where Mama came in. Daddy wasn't crazy about her thick glasses and her even thicker ankles, but he did like the fact that she could play the piano and, better yet, that her parents had died and left her a three-bedroom bungalow on Navigation Street, complete with a detached garage and an almost-new Model T Ford. Besides, she was the best he could find. I guess he figured he could use his own good looks on the ladies of the congregation — let them convince their husbands to dig deep in their pockets to save their souls.

Mama was working as a waitress behind the luncheonette counter at Woolworth's. Daddy stopped in for Cokes and made her blush with his compliments about her charm and beauty. One day he asked her to have supper with him. She said she'd love to. He said, "Great! What time will it be ready?"

Mama's skill in the kitchen was the clincher. Daddy asked her to marry him, and they settled down on Navigation Street to begin their life together and start a family. Lucky for them, the preacher of the First Redeemer Church got fired because he was caught pocketing the special collection for poor little orphans. Daddy heard the good news, grabbed his spanking-new preacher certificate, rushed over to the church, and landed the job — just like that.

Thirty years passed before I showed up in Mama's belly. By then, my sister Sylvia was twenty-nine, married, and the mother of my four-year-old nephew, William. She lived in Maine and worked at the slipper factory. She was allowed to take her mistakes home, and she sent some to Mama and Daddy, so they wore slippers with the word REJECT stamped on them. My sister Charlotte was twenty-one. She thought the radio was talking to her through the radiator, and she heard strange voices coming from the walls, so she lived in the state mental hospital. And my nineteen-year-old brother, Jack? He was in Dannemora Prison, doing time for driving the getaway car in an armed robbery.

When I was inside my mother, she thought that I was a tumor and that all doctors were idiots, so she got into bed and waited to die. She soothed her upset stomach with Pepto-Bismol and watched her belly grow. One morning, the tumor kicked so hard that Mama's nightgown flew straight up in the air. When she realized what was happening, she went down to the kitchen, put the coffeepot on the stove, and punched my daddy so hard on his left ear that he had to go to the doctor to get it sewn up. Then Mama went back upstairs and took a flying leap out the window. When she landed headfirst in the barberry hedge, she was pure furious that I kept on kicking. And she blamed me for the scars on her face, too. The way I figure it, somebody as nearsighted as she was ought to put a little more planning into a project if she wants it to turn out right.

When Mama got even meaner, Daddy took off. That woman never missed a chance to tell me how it was my fault that her husband left Sullivan's Falls with Margo LaRue, the town hussy — in her brand-new, canary yellow Studebaker Champion bullet nose — at high noon, so everybody in town could witness the spectacle.

I had seen my daddy's picture, and he looked nice. I only wished he'd waited a few weeks and taken me with him. But if he'd stayed around any longer, Mama probably would have tried to kill him, too. Sometimes I sat by the window in my bedroom and watched for him. I just knew that he'd come back for me — soon, I hoped.


March 3, 1952. Welcome to the world, Amelia Earhart Rye!

As soon as Daddy left, Mama phoned Grandpa Thomas to let him know what a snake his son had turned out to be. Then she informed him that unless he was willing to help raise this baby, she was going to leave me at the hospital to be put up for adoption.

By then, Grandma Nellie'd passed on. Grandpa Thomas had given up drinking but taken up gambling to fill the empty hours. Mama didn't know that he'd just lost the farm in a poker game and was about to be evicted. He wasn't crazy about the idea of sleeping under a bridge for the rest of his life, so he thought fast and said indignant-like, "No Rye baby has ever been brought up by strangers. It would be sacrilegious to let a thing like that happen." Then he paused for a long time and gave a loud sigh to make Mama think that he was trying to come up with a solution. "I guess I can put my life on hold for a while to help you out." Before Mama realized that she was having a big fat one put over on her, Grandpa Thomas had already moved in. And to sweeten the deal, he brought the brand-new RCA Victor twenty-one-inch "Super Set" TV he'd won in a raffle at the Clinton County Fair.

But things worked out different from what everyone expected. From the moment I was born, Grandpa Thomas wouldn't let me out of his sight. His tender heart surprised even him. "I didn't know so much love could come attached to one soggy little baby girl," he told me when I was old enough to understand. "When your daddy was born, your grandma thought I'd break him or dirty him up, so she kept him out of reach." He lowered his eyes and said, a little sheepish-like, "Course I was drinking a lot then, too." He gave me a big smooch on the forehead. "But I got a second chance when you came along."

Lucky for me, everybody in town had seen Grandpa Thomas passed out in the gutter a few times too many, so Mama was the one who had to go out and get a job, which she did not mind one little bit. According to her, working six days a week at the A&P, slicing bologna and Swiss cheese, was a whole lot better than being cooped up all day with a scruffy old man and a colicky kid.

Even though life was mostly just Grandpa Thomas and me, by the time I was in school, Mama had managed to mess me up good. I don't blame her for passing on her bad eyesight or her mouse brown hair. But I do blame her for making me wear her old glasses, dressing me in my sisters' moth-eaten hand-me-downs that had sat in a trunk in the attic for twenty years, and cutting my hair with a do-it-yourself kit she saw advertised on TV. A girl dressed in World War I clothes and way-too-big glasses does not need a would-be Dutch boy haircut to finish it off. The rest of me is pretty much okay, more like my daddy's side of the family — tall and thin and regular-looking, plus china blue eyes.

I don't know who to blame for the counting, though. I guess just me. Not regular counting like in an arithmetic book. It was a dark kind where something in my head got stuck and made me do it. If I tried to ignore it, my heart thumped bad and I felt like I was being smothered and the nerves in my stomach tried to shake me apart. But when I went along with it, it took my mind away from what was happening.

If my teacher glared at me like I was a mistake of some kind because I couldn't read the word she'd written on the board, I'd make her disappear for a tiny minute.

One, two, three, four, five, six, seven.

"It's an easy one, Amelia," she'd say with a sigh. "You're just not trying."

One, two, three, four, five, six, seven.

When the biggest bully in the class stuck his foot into the aisle and laughed his head off when I fell and bloodied my nose, I'd get rid of him, too.

One, two, three, four, five, six, seven.

"Nice shoes, Pumpernickel," he'd say. "I hear antiques are worth a lot of money."

One, two, three, four, five, six, seven.

Counting kept me from crying while the snotty girls with the name-brand clothes and fake smiles said, "I love your glasses, Amelia. My grandmother had a pair just like those. They make your eyes look so big." Giggle, giggle. "And that's such a pretty dress. I've never seen one like it."

One, two, three, four, five, six, seven.

Even though our house was nearly a mile from school, I walked home. That way I didn't have to pretend the taunting on the bus didn't bother me, and I knew Grandpa Thomas would be in the kitchen, waiting. He was the only one in the world I could be around and not feel all twisted up inside. I could just be my own awkward self, without anybody keeping score.

When I was nearly home, I'd work up a good stream of tears, then run in the front door, blatting like a billy goat, ready to tell him how much I hated school and that a herd of elephants couldn't drag me back there. He'd sit me down at the table, wipe my face with the tail end of his handkerchief, and pour us each a glass of milk. And never once did he tell me to stop my blubbering or to grow a thicker skin the way my mother would have if she'd been home. Then Grandpa Thomas would reach for my hand and lead me into the living room. I'd sit next to him on the couch and mold myself to fit the curve of his scrawny, skeleton body that smelled like Old Spice. He'd put his arm around me, take my hand in his, and inspect the fingernails I'd bitten down to nubs.

"You know those kids are just acting the way they were raised," he'd say, cupping my chin in his hand. "Why I wouldn't be surprised if it was one of their mothers that tried to run me down when I was out by the mailbox this morning. You have to feel kind of sorry for people like that, the ones who go through life kicking and snarling at everybody else just to make themselves feel better."

By then, my bawling would have shifted to hiccuping and sniffling. "Tell me how I got my name, Grandpa Thomas," I'd say in a pathetic voice. I have always had an actress quality in me that I can call on whenever I want to. "Just one more time and I promise I'll never ask again."

"You must be tired of hearing about it by now," he'd tease. "You already know every little thing that happened. Why don't you just go ahead and tell me?"

I'd look up at him, knowing full well that he'd run into a burning building if I asked him to. "But it's more fun when it comes from you," I'd say in the whiny, singsong voice that made my mother so angry she'd give me a licking when I used it around her. Then I'd burrow into him even further and think how I'd like to stay there for the rest of my life.

He'd shake his head and say something about me being his special girl. Then, before he'd start, he'd smile the big smile that showed every one of the teeth he kept in that glass by his bed at night.

While he cleared his throat and shifted in his seat to get ready, I'd walk my fingers along the gigantic veins that ran down his hands like swollen purple rivers, push them in, then watch them pop up again. His skin was so thin I could lift it away from the bones below and fold it in half like tissue paper.

"All right then. Here goes," he'd say, play-pinching my cheek. "Once upon a time, a gorgeous little baby girl was born right here in Sullivan's Falls." He always started out like that. As if he was telling a fairy tale and I was Snow White herself — the really pretty one in the Walt Disney movie, not the dopey-looking loser in the coloring books.

Then it was my turn. "What was that little baby's name?" I'd act all serious, as if I had no idea who he was talking about.

"Well, that's just it. She didn't have one."

"Why not? How come her mama didn't name her?"

"I guess because that little baby was so beautiful she wanted to think about it, pick the perfect one. She didn't want to give a baby that special just any old name."

Even back then, when I was too young to know much, that part sounded fishy. Wouldn't you want to be prepared? So that when they handed you your baby, you could say "Hello, little whatever-its-name-is" and make it feel wanted? When Grandpa Thomas first told me the story, I asked him what Mama called me before I got my real name. He turned all fidgety and finally said that he remembered her calling me things like sweetheart and honey. But he is not a very good liar.

"Right," I'd say. "Then what happened?"

He'd give me a little squeeze and clear his throat again. "Finally, after a couple of weeks, the mean old grandpa got sick and tired of waiting for the mama to name that baby and he up and did it himself."

I'd look at him and laugh. "That was you, the mean old grandpa."

He'd nod and make a giddyup noise with his mouth. "That was me, all right. And I gave that baby a name anybody'd be proud to wear."

"Didn't the mama get mad? Didn't she want to name her own baby?" That part always made me feel empty inside, but the rest of the story made up for it.

"Well, she had her chance. Sometimes a person just has to take charge and get a thing done."

"So how come you named me Amelia Earhart Rye?"

He'd tilt my head up and look into my eyes so deeply it was as if he could see straight through to my soul. "Well, the Rye part was already in place. But Amelia Earhart was one of the most courageous women of all time. I knew that if you were to survive in this mean old world you'd have to be as brave as she was and I thought that having her name might give you a little head start."

"It hasn't worked yet," I'd say with a sigh. "The kids in school don't think I'm brave or they wouldn't tease me all the time." I'd gaze up at him and make my eyes look as pitiful as a cocker spaniel's. "Do you think I'll ever have any friends?"

Then Grandpa Thomas would scoot himself around sideways, take my hands in his, and hold me at arm's length. "Friends? Why, you're so likable, you'll have more friends than you know what to do with."


Excerpted from The Private Thoughts of Amelia E. Rye by Bonnie Shimko. Copyright © 2010 Bonnie Shimko. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Bonnie Shimko's previous books include Letters in the Attic (978-0897335638), which won the Lambda Literary Award for Young Adults in 2002. She lives in Plattsburgh, New York.

Bonnie Shimko’s books include Letters in the Attic (978-0897335638), which won the Lambda Literary Award for Young Adults in 2002. She lives in Plattsburgh, New York.

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The Private Thoughts of Amelia E. Rye 4.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 6 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Im surprised that more people didnt finish the book it interesting you eoukd not want to put the book back.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Chapter Four is in the next res.
Mohammed Nemmassi More than 1 year ago
If you were wanting to read a fun social issue for school or just for fun this us the right book.
TeensReadToo More than 1 year ago
In a small town in New York in the 1960's lives Amelia Earhart Rye. She has no friends, her mother's mean, her father is MIA, her brother is in jail, and her sister is in an insane asylum. Her only bright piece of hope is her grandfather. Her grandfather tells her all the time that she only needs one true friend to make her life better. When Fancy Nelson moves into town, the first African-American that Amelia has ever seen, the two become friends and Amelia begins to take a serious look at her home situation. As the two spend more and more time together, however, Amelia begins to see bullies cutting off Fancy's braids to insult her and other racial acts that are cruel. Instead of being knocked down and offended by them, though, Fancy stands tall and looks on the bright side of things. Can Amelia take a page out of Fancy's book and rise above her situation, as well? THE PRIVATE THOUGHTS OF AMELIA E. RYE is a touching coming-of-age novel. The characters are multi-dimensional and memorable. The plot is well-developed and engaging, and the message in the novel is timeless. Those who like historical fiction, coming-of-age stories, and friendship tales will all enjoy reading this book.
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