Middle Grade Fiction

An Exclusive Excerpt from The Magic of Melwick Orchard by Rebecca Caprara

A spooky abandoned orchard, a family in crisis, and a young girl who discovers a magical secret—The Magic of Melwick Orchard is a not-to-be missed middle grade debut. The B&N Kids’ Blog is excited to bring you an exclusive excerpt below, along with an introduction from author Rebecca Caprara!

The Magic of Melwick Orchard

The Magic of Melwick Orchard

Hardcover $17.99

The Magic of Melwick Orchard

Rebecca Caprara

Hardcover $17.99

Thank you, Barnes & Noble, for hosting this excerpt reveal of The Magic of Melwick Orchard, available this September from Carolrhoda Books. I am thrilled to share a special sneak peek of my debut novel with you!

Thank you, Barnes & Noble, for hosting this excerpt reveal of The Magic of Melwick Orchard, available this September from Carolrhoda Books. I am thrilled to share a special sneak peek of my debut novel with you!

The Magic of Melwick Orchard tells the story of a 12-year-old girl named Isa who finds herself becoming invisible to her family when her younger sister is diagnosed with cancer. But everything changes when Isa discovers a mysterious orchard that offers hope, a little magic, and possibly a lot more trouble…

Writing a book is like creating a giant tapestry, with several threads and themes woven together. In this story, some of those threads include magic and science, heartbreak and hope, vulnerability and resilience, family and friends. And of course, trees. Why trees, you ask?

I grew up in a small New England town surrounded by apple orchards that I was (and still am) convinced contained magic. Like they do for Isa, trees have served as places of refuge and reflection throughout my life. As a kid, climbing up into the branches of my favorite backyard tree made me feel bigger, braver, more connected to nature, and helped me see the world below in new ways.

So without further ado, I invite you to scroll onward to read the first chapter of The Magic of Melwick Orchard. And if one chapter just isn’t enough, you can pre-order the book here, or find The Magic of Melwick on Barnes & Noble shelves September 1, 2018. Happy reading!

The Magic of Melwick Orchard

 Chapter 1

Mom forgot to pick me up from school. Again.

So I walked the two miles home, which usually felt more like ten. But that first afternoon in April, it felt like one hundred miles. Endless and annoying. The least funny April Fools’ prank ever. Probably because it wasn’t a prank at all. And also because my shoes stunk. I don’t mean they smelled bad. They just stunk. Crummy, broken-down, too-small. No one heard me when I said I’d grown out of this pair weeks ago. By the end of that walk, my big toes stuck out and a blister was erupting on my right heel like a miniature volcano. I’m just glad the other kids from school weren’t nearby to see. Between my shoes and my patched jeans, I looked a real mess. Almost worse than Mom, and she barely got out of her bathrobe or brushed her hair anymore. At least she still had hair, though. Junie’s hair was all gone. And it was a crying shame, because she looked awful cute in pigtails.

I shuffled up our driveway, my cranky toes leading the way, kicking at pebbles and thinking about pigtails. My feet veered left, away from the house. I crossed the backyard, past the old shed that doubled as Dad’s workshop. I paused to peer in the window. The glass was cracked from a ball I’d accidentally thrown too hard during a game of catch last September. I’d expected Dad to say something like, “Isabel! We just moved here, and you’re already smashing the place to smithereens.” To my surprise, he wasn’t mad. He sucked in his breath, inspected the damage. Instead of scolding me, he let out a long whistle. “I knew you had the Fitzwilken arm,” he said beaming with pride, which made my heart expand to at least three times its normal size. We called that pitch the window-breaker from then on. Even though I hadn’t practiced it with him in a while, I still considered it my secret softball weapon.

I lifted a finger and very carefully touched the glass. If someone came along and tapped it in just the right place, the whole thing might shatter to pieces. Lately, I felt the same.

Dad promised he’d fix the cracked pane months ago, but other things came up. Now, looking in, I could see a curtain of cobwebs draping the window frame. Dust coated the tools. No one had been inside for a long time, except for an army of spiders apparently, and probably a few mice. A half-finished dollhouse sat on a table in the far corner. I wondered if we’d ever finish building it for Junie, but those thoughts made me feel too scratchy, so I continued on my way.

I climbed the grassy hill that sloped up behind the shed. With one swift leap, I cleared the gate at the top and kept on going straight into our orchard. I zigzagged between the rows of ancient apple trees until I arrived in an open meadow as big as a softball diamond. Traces of an old barn foundation were visible near the center of the clearing. Junie and I used to walk along the exposed foundation stones, testing our balance with our arms stretched to the side, pretending we were crossing the parapets of our own personal castle, while the scraggly looking apple trees marched beside us like loyal sentries.

The trees right along the edge of the clearing were bigger than the others in the orchard, probably because they were less crowded and could soak up more rain, catch more sunlight. When our parents first told us about our new home in Bridgebury, they tried to soften the blow of yet another dreaded move by promising my sister and me that we’d have the same as those trees: room to grow, fresh air to breathe, sunshine to bask in. There would be fields of grass to run through, mud puddles to stomp in, trees to swing beneath. We’d only ever lived in tiny city apartments, so it was hard to imagine having a real backyard, let alone acres of land to explore. It all sounded so perfect at first.

I walked over to our swing, the one Junie used to love. The one Dad built from barn wood and braided ropes, before he got too busy. The one Mom helped us hang from the strongest, safest branch she could find, before she got too sad. I used to lift Junie up, tell her to hold on tight, then give her a push. Let her fly. She’d hoot and holler and scream for me to stop, which I knew was actually sister code for go higher! Junie-to-the-moonie high.

That was last fall, which wasn’t really so long ago, if you looked at a calendar. But to me, those five months, three days, twenty-two hours and nine minutes felt like a million years. Like a different life.

The wind shifted. The orchard seemed to sigh. I had this strange sensation that the trees were listening to me, which was just plain silly, because I wasn’t actually saying anything out loud. And also, trees don’t have ears.

Just then, my own ears pricked. Something high-pitched trilled through the branches. My heart leapt in my chest, until I realized it was only birdsong. For a few fleeting seconds, I could’ve sworn it was Junie, laughing. Which made me want to cry. I looked at our swing, then down at my poor feet, and just about every part of me started to ache.

So I sat on that swing, even though I’d vowed to never touch it again. Not after what happened to Junie. Or me. Heck. I might as well have changed my name to Isabel-Invisible. For all I could tell, I was disappearing. Except this wasn’t superpower invisibility, or something cool like that. Nope. It was the opposite of cool. Junie would say it was the worstible, a word reserved for the worst-most-horrible things, like brussels sprouts and salamanders and shots at the doctor’s office.

Back and forth, the ropes and wood creaked as I kicked my legs, swinging higher. Up, up, then down with a whoosh that made my stomach drop. The higher I went, the more I could see. Not quite a bird’s-eye view. More like a squirrel’s-eye view. Little green leaves sprouted on crooked branches. Robins flitted here and there, building nests. Crocuses peeked up purple, and yellow forsythia blossoms scattered like confetti at a birthday party.

I hoped we’d have a party for Junie this summer. She’d never met a cupcake she didn’t like, any flavor would do. Chocolate, vanilla, strawberry, even carrot cake, which she refused to believe was actually made from a vegetable. Dad used to joke that somewhere in Junie’s pint-sized body was the stomach of an elephant. She could probably eat an entire dozen cupcakes if you let her, though Mom never would. I bet she’d make an exception this year though.

If there was a birthday.

I’d save up my lunch money and buy seven of the biggest, brightest balloons I could find. Instead of making wishes by blowing out candles (which leave holes in the tops of precious cupcakes), Junie preferred popping balloons, one for each year. Last year, Mom even gave her a wishing pin—a sparkly red brooch in the shape of a butterfly that she found for a dollar at a rummage sale. The latch was broken and it was missing some rhinestones, but Junie thought it was perfecterrific and proceeded to make her birthday wishes using it on the balloons. Pop. Pop. Pop. Pop. Pop. Pop! Six very loud wishes. And I’m pretty sure none of them involved getting sick.

There was a rustling in one of the trees. My eyes followed the sound. A squirrel skittered down a nearby trunk and ran across the clearing, his tail bouncing behind him, all jolly and fluffy. Junie and I watched that same squirrel collecting acorns last fall. I recognized him right away by the notch in his left ear and the patch of missing fur on his rump—souvenirs from a scuffle with a hawk, or a cat, or maybe our neighbor’s notoriously feisty chickens.

I remembered that squirrel digging holes all over our lawn and dropping nuts into the ground for safekeeping. I learned in Ms. Perdilla’s science class that squirrels are awfully forgetful and easily distracted, and often forget where they buried their nuts.

Which I could totally relate to. Take that wishing pin, for example. I told Junie I’d put it in one of my special hiding spots, for safekeeping. Trouble was, after a few weeks, I forgot where that spot was. It wasn’t the first time this type of thing had happened either. Mom said I turned the entire house upside down searching for my lost treasures. That was ridiculous, of course. Look, I was pretty strong: I could do eight chin-ups, and I could run the bases faster than any other girl on my softball team. But I was nowhere near strong enough to lift up an entire house and flip it over.

Although I wished I could. I’d shake it until my mother tumbled out of her room and all the change came clinking out from between the couch cushions. Then, maybe, Mom and Dad might’ve noticed that even though I was healthy and strong enough to lift up a house, I still needed them, too.

The squirrel was bounding through the grass, looking hungry. Swish, swish. His tail curved behind him like a question mark. Where are those nuts? he seemed to ask. I dragged my feet along the ground, slowing the swing to a halt. Dirt filled my holey, too-small shoes. I took them off and tossed them aside. Good riddance.

The squirrel stopped. He turned and stared right at me. Well? He cocked his head. Care to help?

I stood up and scanned the trees. For generations, Melwick Orchard had been famous for growing the most delicious fruit for miles and miles. People would travel hours just to buy a bushel of those apples. The farmers could barely keep up with the demand, so they started experimenting with ways to increase harvests. Unfortunately, something went wrong and the trees sort of rebelled, sprouting wild limbs in any direction they pleased, and refusing to produce so much as a single bud.

There was no fruit that fall, or the next, or any year since. People in town whispered all sorts of strange stories, but no one really understood what had happened. Maybe the pruning had been too aggressive? Maybe the pesticides and fertilizers had been too harsh? Maybe there weren’t enough bees to pollinate all those trees? Maybe the owners had gotten too greedy? Maybe it was something else entirely?

Of course, Junie was convinced it was magic. As much as I loved my little sister, I knew she was wrong. I’d stopped believing in that a long time ago.

Whatever the reason for the trees’ sudden change of heart, the family who owned the orchard eventually gave up and moved away. By the time we arrived, the property had been abandoned for years. The pale blue farmhouse was about as run-down as my lousy shoes, and the apple trees were peculiar, but I didn’t mind. As long as we stayed put.

I was tired of moving, moving, always moving.

In the past, just as soon as I’d start making friends someplace, Dad’s company would offer him a transfer. This bugged me for a bunch of reasons. First of all, the transfer was never really an offer; it was basically a demand dressed up real nice, like when my parents said things like, “Isabel, could you clean your room?” or “Junie, don’t you want to finish those lovely brussels sprouts on your plate?” Secondly, transfer was a deceptively smooth-sounding word for something that was actually a total pain in the butt, involving cardboard boxes, packing, and long, bumpy rides to some unfamiliar place. Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, it meant I’d have to say good-bye all over again. And on my list of worstibles, good-byes ranked pretty high, alongside walking home from school and being invisible.

That’s why, after transfer number five or so, I decided Junie would be the only friend I needed. Even if we moved again, we’d move together. I’d never have to say good-bye to my sister. At least that was the plan.

The squirrel’s tail swished impatiently. Well?

“Sorry,” I said. “I’m a little distracted these days. And apparently a little nuts, too. Talking to a squirrel. This is a new low.”

Nuts? Did you say nuts? The squirrel blinked eagerly.

I couldn’t help but laugh. Just a little. I looked at the trees around us. Overgrown, in need of attention. I felt like I was looking in a mirror, except beneath the ground they had deep roots, tying them to one spot forever. It was a feeling I’d never known, but one I desperately wanted.

“There,” I said to the squirrel. I pointed to a sapling, fresh and new, pushing its way up through the grass in the center of the clearing. I walked closer to it, feeling the cool ground beneath my bare feet. “That’s one of your nuts. At least it was, before it started growing into an oak tree.”

The squirrel scampered over, looking puzzled.

“It’s true,” I said with a shrug. “You probably buried your acorn right there in the fall. You forgot all about it. Nature did its thing, and now it’s growing! Ta-da!”

The squirrel scratched his notched ear, then bobbed his head up and down. I felt so wise, imparting my wisdom to that confused creature. I knelt down next to the sapling, which was nothing more than a skinny gray-brown stick. It stood about knee high with several fragile green shoots poking out. Crinkly paper-thin leaves were beginning to open. Oddly, the whole thing glistened with dew, even though the afternoon sun should have dried it out.

I squinted at the leaves. Upon closer inspection, they didn’t look like the oak leaves Ms. Perdilla had shown us during our fall foliage unit. They didn’t look like maple, elm, beech, birch, or apple leaves either. Then I remembered Ms. Perdilla telling us about a special type of plant that turns out differently than expected. She said it happened when science met serendipity – something Junie probably would’ve called sciendipity: a rare combination of seed, flower, pollen, and pure luck that produced something brand new.

She called those plants chance seedlings.

When the kids in my class asked how that was even possible, Ms. Perdilla told us to think about ourselves. “Are you exactly one hundred percent the same as your parents?” she asked. Of course, the answer was no. “We all share certain similarities with our family members, but we are each entirely original.” She picked up an apple from her desk. Ripe red streaked with gold. She took a bite, chewed, smiled. “Not as good as a Melwick,” she said, “but it’ll do.” She took another bite. “Can anyone tell me what sort of apple this is?”

After a few guesses, we learned it was a Cortland. Ms. Perdilla told us that if a Cortland tree was pollinated by a Red Delicious tree, you’d get an apple like the one in her hand, but the seeds inside that fruit would be a cross of the two parent varieties. Things might get interesting if you planted one of those seeds, because it could grow into a new, totally unique variety of apple.

“Take the Granny Smith apple, for example,” I said to the squirrel, who was listening to me intently. After months of feeling forgotten, it was nice to have such an appreciative audience. “Some old lady named Mary Ann Smith supposedly dumped kitchen scraps with a bunch of bitter Tasmanian crab apples near a creek in Australia. Bet she was surprised to discover a tree full of deliciously crisp green apples growing out of that garbage heap a few years later!”

I didn’t think squirrels could actually smile; at least Ms. Perdilla never mentioned it in science class. But I could’ve sworn that funny little squirrel smiled at me. Then he turned and looked the sapling up and down, sniffing the air.

An unusual scent swirled in the breeze. I inhaled. A bizarre combination filled my nostrils: sawdust from Dad’s workshop, cinnamon from Mom’s sticky bun recipe, the leather of my softball glove, Junie’s strawberry chewing gum. All mixed together, the result should’ve been gross. But somehow it wasn’t. It was like the perfume of a happy memory, if such a thing existed. And it seemed to be coming from the sapling.

I gently touched one of the wrinkled leaves. It unfolded in my palm. The smell grew stronger. When I closed my eyes and breathed deeply, memories flickered behind my eyelids, like a movie reel of the Fitzwilken family’s greatest hits. For a split second, I forgot about my sore feet, my invisibility dilemma, my sick sister. My whole body fizzed with delight. We were building the dollhouse in the workshop. Eating cotton candy and riding the Ferris wheel at a fair. Baking with Mom in the kitchen. Feeding swans in the park. Blowing pink gum bubbles as big as our faces. Playing catch in the backyard.

I opened my eyes and shook my head. As soon as the happiness wore off, pain set in. It left me wondering if we’d ever do those things again, together as a family. I quickly pushed the memories away.

The squirrel studied my face. His nose twitched.

“What?” I said, letting go of the leaf.

He lifted his tiny, furry shoulders, as if to say, How should I know? Then he looked at my hand. I followed his eyes.

My palm shimmered with a silvery, sticky sheen. Apparently the dew coating the tree wasn’t dew at all. It was some sort of sap. I tried to wipe it off on my pants, but it wouldn’t budge. I crouched and rubbed my palm vigorously on the grass, the way Junie did whenever we ran out of napkins at a picnic. When my hand accidentally brushed the sapling’s thin trunk, a tiny shock travelled through me, similar to the harmless jolts of static electricity I felt when I shuffled around our living room carpet in my fleecy socks. Except this feeling lasted longer. By the time I raised my hand, the glittery sap had disappeared.

“Weird,” I muttered, more to myself than to the squirrel.

But the sapling seemed to think I was speaking to it. It bent and swayed, then dropped a single leaf by my bare feet. Before I could pick it up, the leaf disintegrated into the grass. I blinked and it was gone.

“Did you see that?” I asked the squirrel. Now I felt like the confused creature. “That’s definitely not something a normal tree or leaf would do.”

The squirrel inspected the patch of grass, equally perplexed. We walked in a slow circle around the sapling, looking at it from all angles. The trunk straightened up. The leaves fluttered proudly, almost like that tree was showing off and enjoying the attention.

“There’s got to be a scientific explanation for whatever’s going on here, right? Do you think…” I chewed my lip. “Maybe this could be a chance seedling?”

The squirrel’s tail shot up, from a curling question mark to an excited exclamation point.

“You really think so?” So much for my great wisdom. Who was I kidding? I was just a barefoot fool, talking to a bushy-tailed rodent.

Swish, swish, went the squirrel’s tail. His glassy black eyes twinkled. Then he sprang toward the base of the sapling. He started to dig right below the spot where the leaf had landed.

“The leaf is gone,” I said. “And I told you, you won’t find an acorn under there either. It’s already sprouted.”

He kept digging. His paws worked quickly, flinging dirt in my direction.

“Cut that out. You’re making a mess.”

But the squirrel was determined. He dug and dug. The sapling trembled.

“Be careful not to hurt its roots!” I said, feeling strangely protective of that weird tree, even though it was basically a glorified stick.

After a few minutes, the squirrel stood up on his haunches and inspected his work. The hole was half a foot deep and wide enough to store an entire lunch box full of acorns. A few disoriented earthworms wriggled around at the bottom, wondering who turned on the lights. Some of the sapling’s roots were exposed, but thankfully they didn’t appear to be injured. Oddly, the roots weren’t brown or green, or any of the colors I expected them to be. Even caked with dirt, the roots were a very faint shade of blue.

“Look!” I pointed to the roots. The squirrel wasn’t interested. He just kept looking past me, his tail twitching. He eyed the sneakers I’d tossed aside earlier. Then me. Then the hole. Ahem.

“What exactly do you want me to do? Put my sneakers in there?”

He nodded.

“Why?” It was a question I asked a lot lately, but it rarely came with an answer. So I changed my question. “Why not?” The sneakers were pretty useless at this point. Maybe they did deserve a proper burial. I picked them up and placed them in the hole. As soon as I did, the roots brightened ever so slightly. It was very strange, but then again, so was hanging out with a squirrel.

“I feel like I should say something.” I cleared my throat. The squirrel held his tail in his hands, out of respect. “May your souls… and soles… rest in peace.”

As I tossed a handful of dirt into the hole, I spotted the tiny blue root tendrils snaking down toward the sneakers. One wove through the laces, another curled around the heel. Before I could investigate further, the squirrel jumped in front of me. His hind legs kicked the rest of the dirt back into the hole, completely covering the sneakers and twisting roots.

When he was finished, he moved aside and flashed another squirrely smile. With one last tail swish, he scurried away, disappearing through the orchard. I patted the ground with my palm, being careful not to disturb the sapling. Our work was done. And now my parents would have no choice but to buy me a new pair of sneakers.

The Magic of Melwick Orchard is on B&N bookshelves September 1.