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About the Author
By Terry Caszatt
CharlesbridgeCopyright © 2010 Terry Caszatt
All right reserved.
Chapter Onethe old man and the orange bicycle
I was grouchy, gloomy, and totally depressed right from the start, but when we drove down the exit ramp in the blowing snow and I saw the town itself, I felt fifty-nine bazillion times worse.
"Mom, tell me this isn't it," I said.
"This is it, honey," she said cheerfully. "Our new home." She kept a tight grip on the steering wheel, trying to control the rental trailer we were towing. "Isn't this simply beautiful country?" She nodded toward a snow-blurred swamp.
I just shook my head. My mom is the kind of person who could drive through the entrance to that hot and fiery you-know-where place and say, "Wow, look at the wonderful scrollwork on those gates!"
At the bottom of the exit ramp, a huge billboard loomed out of the snow. It showed a bunch of gnome-like people who had pumpkins for heads. The sign read GRINDSVILLE, MICHIGAN—HOME OF THE OCTOBER PUMPKIN FESTIVAL. COME BE A PUMPKIN-HEAD!
I knew right then I was headed for something weird.
"Boy, I can't wait to look like one of them," I said, pointing at the sign.
"Honey, honey, attitude please," said Mom in that little singsong way, but there was just the tiniest edge to her voice.
When we pulled off the exit ramp we were right on the small main street of Grindsville, but I couldn't see much because of the blowing snow. Then the wind let up and I saw the old storefronts emerge like a row of grumpy faces.
"Mom, this is so awful. Look at this place."
"Come on, I kind of like it," she said. "It's got a certain charm."
"Charm?" I said. This was one of her favorite words and I groaned and slumped back. Right then, when I did the slumping, I saw the weirdest thing. Or thought I did. Snow was drifting heavily across the mouth of an alley, but I saw what appeared to be an old bearded guy sitting on a bicycle, just watching the traffic go by. He was covered with snow and looked frozen. I opened my mouth to say something, but then we were past the alley and I let it go. The truth was, I wasn't sure what I'd seen. Anyway, Mom took up the slack.
"Honey, there's your new school. Oh my gosh, it's such a neat, older building, so traditional looking, so—"
"So pathetic," I said, catching a glimpse of a typical two-story brick school. I knew I sounded whiny, but I didn't really care. I mean, how would you feel if you were thirteen and moving to a new school in December? How about panic, nausea, and downright hysteria?
"Listen, Mr. Billy," Mom began, using my nickname for the first time that day.
"I think it's time to stop whining and realize this is a wonderful opportunity."
My real name is Eugene Ithaca Wise, and whenever Mom starts up with "Mr. Billy," it means she's getting a tad impatient with my attitude. If she calls me "Mr. Billy Bumpus," it means I've gone too far and I'd better shape up. Fast.
"Wonderful opportunity?" I whined on. "We could have thrown a dart at the map and done better. Why did we have to end up in such a weird place?"
"Honey, first of all it's not a weird place," said Mom in that determined-to-be-patient voice, "and second, I've explained why a hundred times. We ended up here because my old high school friend, Doris Avery, lives here and she offered to give me a job in her hair salon. It's really quite simple."
"Right, simple." I rolled my eyes. This was another of Mom's favorite words. In reality the whole move had been a gigantic mess, and there was nothing simple about it. The truth was, we were homeless, on the road in winter, and it was all my fault.
I won't bore you with all the gruesome details, but basically this is what happened. At my last school, Harris Junior High, I was expelled for pushing the principal off the gym stage. Duh, of course I didn't do it. See, we were at this pep rally in the gym and I was in a crowd of kids on the stage and standing next to the principal, Mr. Brigvoort. (The kids called him "Big Wart.") Just as he was called to the microphone, he sort of lost his balance, and stupid me, thinking I was going to be the school hero, I reached out to save him. But being the primo klutz I am, I only fumbled at his sleeve. When he went over splat, right onto the gym floor, it looked like I'd shoved him.
It didn't help that a couple of hot-shot ninth graders started yelling, "He pushed him! The little butt-brain pushed him!" Before I knew what was happening, I was hauled to the office by several outraged teachers and two days later the school board met to discuss my situation. Which wasn't good.
I guess I still could have saved myself at the meeting. The board told me all I had to do was "tell the truth" and admit I had pushed Mr. Brigvoort off the stage, and they would "take that into consideration." But I couldn't admit to a lie, and I was so mad I froze up and stood there crying like a fool. I remember Brigvoort saying in a puffed-up way, "Some people like to cause trouble, don't they. But boy, when the old lightning strikes, it's funny how they turn into cowards."
Boy, it's more funny how adults can't seem to get it right. The truth was, I was a coward from the start, scared of practically everything. I mean, I had spent my entire thirteen years trying to avoid trouble, but still that "old lightning" seemed to come out of nowhere to nail me in the tail feathers.
I even began to recognize the warning signs that led up to one of those bolts. I made up a word, "pingeroo," which means, "Uh-oh, I feel something weird in the air." If I said "big fat pingeroo" that meant the bolt was building up. If I simply said "roo," it was probably too late to get out of the way.
Mom made a last-minute appeal to the board, and it might have helped, but then a "concerned neighbor" came in and testified that I had been playing "demon music" in my basement. Oh, right. As if playing some cool Spanish tunes on my trumpet was a crime. When I tried to explain what kind of music I liked, one of the board members said, "Why don't you like rock and roll or that stuff they call hippety-hop? That's what normal kids listen to."
Hippety hop? That's when I lost my temper and said, "Yeah, well, maybe I'm not normal."
Mom said later that snippy remark was the deciding moment. Even though she had passed out free samples of Herbal Gold Emulsion (the fiber that promotes regularity) to the board, they voted 7 to 0 to expel me. So here we were, just a week before Christmas on a blizzardy day, pulling up to the only stoplight in Grindsville, Michigan, the most depressing town in the entire universe.
"Mom, look at that," I said. "All the heads are missing from the parking meters. You've got to admit that's wacky."
"Not necessarily," countered Mom. "It could be a simple sign of hospitality."
I looked over at her. I thought maybe, just maybe, there was a hint of humor there. But no such luck. She was serious.
"Oh darn, what's the name of Doris's salon?" Mom was eyeing the buildings.
"I don't know," I said. "'Curl 'Em Tight,' or something like that."
"Don't be silly. It was something serious. Shoot, she told me it was on the main street and easy to find, but I don't see it. I'm going to have to stop and ask."
"Mom," I said, "let's just cruise around. We can find the place on our own." I had the desperate hope that if we couldn't find it, maybe we wouldn't stay.
But she was already pulling into a parking lot next to a row of old, mostly vacant, stores. "That laundry's open," she said. "I'll just pop in and ask."
Frankly, I don't know how she could tell it was open. It was barely lit and I couldn't see anybody moving around. Mom got out and went inside and I saw a lady stand up and start talking to her. I sighed and started to go through my music CDs.
I had just popped in my favorite, Spanish Knights, and was really getting into "Malagueña," my all-time favorite song, when a man appeared at the entrance to the alley across from me. First there was nothing but blowing snow, then suddenly he was there and staring right at me. I sat bolt upright. It was the old guy I'd seen sitting on the bike. I was sure of it.
He had a gray beard and wore some beat-up pants, a green stocking cap, and a faded Navy pea coat. Now he seemed to see something off to his right and he jumped back into the alley. I waited tensely and a few seconds later he popped into view and began gesturing frantically at me. I think I made a big facial "Whaaat?" All at once he gave up in frustration. He disappeared momentarily into the alley and then came out and headed quickly down the street pushing ... yup, the bicycle. It was a pukey orange-colored thing and there was a large brown suitcase riding in the front basket.
This is where it got totally bizarre. He stopped and looked back at me one last time. That's when I saw the thing hanging from his belt. I shook my head in disbelief. Even with the snow swirling around him like a ghostly cape, I knew what it was. It was a sword.
Chapter Twothe girl with the mysterious eyes
In the next instant, the old guy turned and was swallowed up in the storm.
For a moment I sat there like a turnip. "Okay, what in the heck is going on?" I murmured. I jumped nervously when Mom opened the door and got in.
"Mom, Mom," I started, "I just saw the most totally, absolutely weird-"
She stopped me quickly. "Honey, please. No more weird things." She expelled her breath in a weary, irritated way. "Look, I talked to the nicest lady in there and we're only a block away from Doris's shop. Let's just get there without any more critical remarks, okay?"
She released the brake and we pulled ahead. I wanted in the worst way to tell her what I had just seen, but I could tell by the jerky way she let out the clutch that now wasn't a good time. I was way too close to the edge.
We bumped across some railroad tracks and I glanced behind us. The old guy was up on the bike and riding it now. He seemed to be following us for a few seconds, then he shot off down another street. I couldn't help but think he was taking a short cut so he could catch up with us.
I shivered uneasily and felt a familiar chill run along my lower back. I didn't want to think it was true, but I could feel it as clear as anything. Something was in the air in Grindsville, and it wasn't just snow.
"Pingeroo," I muttered.
"Eugene, please don't whisper things under your breath," said Mom. "You know how that irritates me." She began humming "Make the World Go Away" in that flat way she has, and my eyes crossed.
I started whistling "Bring in the Clowns," a song Mom hates, but she didn't even notice, and we went on for several seconds doing a crazy little round. Suddenly she slapped the steering wheel. "Oh, there's Doris's shop—the Hair Temple! Why couldn't I remember that name? It's so obvious."
"So goofy," I said. "Sounds like a church for hippies." Actually I thought that was kind of funny. Big wrong.
Mom zapped me with a look. "Listen, Mr. Billy Bumpus, I think you'd better stop the wisecracks and take this place more seriously. Because, like it or not, this is where we're going to live."
I sighed. Exist maybe, but I could hardly imagine having a real life in Grindsville. We pulled into a parking lot and there was the Hair Temple, a sad little shop wedged between a bakery and a closed shoe store.
"I want you to come inside with me," Mom said, and by the tone of her voice I knew it was useless to argue. She began rummaging in her purse looking for her comb. "And remember how to look in case I say you use Gold Herbal."
I moaned in protest. "Mom, don't start with all that dumb constipation talk."
She waved this off. "There's not a thing wrong with the vitamins and minerals in Gold Herbal. And if we get into a bind money-wise, I might have to start selling it again." She found the comb and began running it through her hair, which is prematurely white and curly and always gives her a ton of trouble. "Just don't fight me on this, and if it does come up, try to look healthy."
"Yeah, yeah," I grumbled. We'd been through this routine before. Whenever Mom was trying to sell her Gold Herbal products, she always had her customers take a look at me. Why she called attention to me, I'll never know.
The truth is I'm short, and I have a funny round face and hair that looks like it was put on backwards. By that I mean my hair comes down quite far over my forehead but starts high up on the back of my head. Once, at a family picnic, I heard my Aunt Frieda say I looked like "a little old man wearing a cheap wig."
Mom finished with her hair and turned to me. "How do I look?"
"You look great," I said. "Just don't put your baseball cap back on."
She shook her head stubbornly. "No. I'm wearing it, Eugene. I want people to know us as we truly are—just plain folks."
She put the cap back on, and I have to admit she looked good in it, even with her purple bowling jacket that said "Freddie's Lanes" on the back.
"Okay, here we go." Mom opened her door. "It's survival time." She had been using this phrase all the way to Grindsville and it wasn't a new one. I had heard it for years, ever since my dad was killed in a car accident when I was eight.
We got out and started toward the Hair Temple, our heads bent in the driving snow. Right away I began looking around for the old guy with the sword, but I could barely see a thing. Maybe I was getting all excited for nothing. Maybe they were making a movie in town. Yeah, right, starring some old geezer who rode around in blizzards wearing a stupid sword. I don't think so.
"Maybe we should unload the trailer first, before it gets dark," I said nervously. Mom had already made arrangements for a rental house just outside town.
She shook her head. "No, we're on thin ice, honey. Before we do a thing, we've got to check in with Doris to make sure I've still got a job."
Several times lately I had felt the panic of our situation, but as Mom said those words, I truly understood her desperation. Because of me, we were on thin ice.
We went into the Hair Temple, and some pathetic door chimes made a tinny racket. The waiting room was small and contained a few chairs, a coffee table piled with worn magazines, and what seemed like a jungle of potted plants. They could have shot a Tarzan movie in there. Topping it off, a country-western singer was belting out "Jingle Bell Rock" on some hidden radio speakers.
Those were my first blurry impressions. Then I saw the girl. She stood next to the cash register, a broom poised in her hands. She was tall and thin with curly brown hair that was cut short, and she was staring right at me.
"Can I help you?" she asked.
I stood there like a lamppost with pants on, but Mom stepped forward, gave her name, and said she was there to see Doris Avery.
The girl nodded. "Doris said to send you right on in." She pointed at some half-doors. Mom smiled at her and went on through. I hovered awkwardly, probably looking like the newest pumpkin-head. The girl hesitated, then leaned toward me.
Her eyes were golden brown, and it was then I realized how pretty she was.
"Wow, this is so cool," she whispered. "You finally got here." I saw a trace of fear flicker across her face. "We have to talk right away."
"About dwhut?" I said. "I mean what?"
She shook her head. "Can't talk here; it might be dangerous. Later."
She raised her eyebrows as if to ask if I understood, and I guess I nodded. I'm always nervous around girls and I know I wasn't registering much, but the word "dangerous" was ringing like a four-alarm fire in my brain.
She gave me a last intense look and went into the salon. Luckily, no one was there to see what I did next. I was so jumpy after that bizarre conversation with a complete stranger that I started to sit down on what I thought was a chair but was really a large rubber plant or whatever. I flailed about and managed to back into a potted cactus on the counter. Yelping like a madman, I lunged and caught the pot just before it nose-dived onto the floor. Some of the dirt spilled out, and I was frantically scooping it up when Mom, her friend Doris (I recognized her plump face and springy blonde curls from Mom's photographs) and what seemed like an army of women, came through the doors. Of course, the girl with the golden-brown eyes came with them.
"Here he is," said Mom, "hiding out here." It was obvious she had been talking about me and everyone had come up front to see me for themselves. I must have looked like some kind of freaky kid who likes to hug cactus plants.
Excerpted from BRASS MONKEYS by Terry Caszatt Copyright © 2010 by Terry Caszatt. Excerpted by permission of Charlesbridge. 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.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Silfunjoy! If you are confused by this word it means silly, fun, and joyfulness all rolled into one! It's the only way to describe how I felt after finishing this book! The author, Terry Caszatt, really must have had a blast writing this story, and it really shows. Throughout the whole book I was pleasantly surprised because I could not predict what would happen next, I like that. The hero, Eugene Wise, a.k.a. Billy Bumpus, is a young man without too many hopes other than to survive junior high…but his life changes quickly when he and his mother move to Grindsville, Michigan. Clumsy and lacking in confidence, Eugene isn't in town more than an hour before his adventure begins to take shape. A mysterious figure riding a bicycle in a snowstorm is about to deliver Eugene something very special. The boy doesn't realize that he may be the chosen one to save the students at the Grindsville school from a very bleak future. I really enjoyed the meaning behind McGinty's book and why it was so important for Ming, the evil teacher, to get her hands on it. It symbolize's the freedom of thought and creativity she is trying to destroy in all the children. The purpose behind Eugene carrying this book around close to his heart was quite beautiful. There are plenty of deep thoughts in Brass Monkeys, don't let the candy-coated shell fool you, there is more here than meets the eye! The best way I could describe the feel of this book is if you can picture Diary of a Wimpy Kid directed by Tim Burton. There are definitely dark moments that can creep you out, but, there are also wonderful imaginative scenes that make you wish you could visit the world of Billy Bumpus. The characters in the book are well developed, even the villain has a reasonable motivation that helps you understand her emotions and spiral toward evil. The dialog is quite original, and there are many laugh-out loud moments throughout the book. Duwang! The highlight of the book though, has to be the wonderful play on words that Terry uses. It really makes this story special. I would highly recommend this book to any adult and teenager, but be warned of the use of one "d" word though, for you parents who are trying to be careful about this. As far as I'm concerned, Hollywood should be looking here for their next franchise. Originality like this does not come around very often. More please!
The author's imagination was working big time when he wrote this adventurous tale set in the underworld desert city of Monkeyopolis, where everything is made of school objects. Ming the Mericless, the story's villain, has a goal to make all middle school students docile and dull-the outcome of poor academic instruction. Only one student, Eugene Ithaca Wise or as his single mother calls him, Billy Bumpus, has a chance to get the book Brass Monkeys to a legendary teacher named McInty and reverse this twisted educational paradigm.
Brass Monkeys is a tremendous new addition to the canon of young adult literature. Caszatt masterfully puts us under a spell of colorful characters and landscape in his tale of Eugene Wise and the adventure he finds at his new school in Grindsville, Michigan. The dialogue in the book is superb, and is best when read out loud at bedtime. Although the book is geared towards preteens, the book is also superbly entertaining for adults. The book teaches us to value friendship, to stand up for what's right, and seek out our deepest passions. This book reminded me a lot of the great late Roald Dahl. Caszatt's Ming could give the Trunchbull a run for her money. And, you will be wildly cheering for the underdog Eugene Wise, for the underdog in us all. You won't regret going on this roller coaster of a story, and when the ride is over you'll be chanting, "More, more, more!" I hope to see other works in the future from Caszatt. Brass Monkeys deserves high praise and a prominent spot on the bookshelf.
Caszatt's Brass Monkeys proves that there are still great adventures to be experienced in the world! And if kids aren't reading as much as they should, I'll bet they won't be able to put his one down. You get pulled in right from the first page. I think kids will like the sudden twists and turns the plot takes in the fantastical underworld of school supplies. It's a great story with likable, clever middle-school kids battling some just awful, mean adults. And woven thru the story are those kinds of challenges that kids deal with every day. This book's got great heart and an appreciation for literature and music that readers should find fascinating and inspiring. I think this ranks right up there with Carroll, Hinton and Rowling. Just don't tell kids you think they'll like it!
This brilliant book made me want to be in my early teens again so that I could enjoy discovering it as much as I enjoyed discovering all my favorite books at that age. I highly recommend this engaging, creative and high-paced adventure for children, young teens and anyone young-at-heart. Loved the inspired, courageous commentary on the invaluable importance of defending and teaching free-thinking, with equal parts fantasy and adventure located in both our world and a Terry Gilliam-esque underworld comprised of school-house bits and pieces. This book could sit comfortably on a shelf next to such children's classics as "The Phantom Tollbooth," "A Wrinkle in Time" and "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland." Read the first couple chapters and you'll be hooked and ready to take the Monkeymind roller-coaster ride!
Unwinding into the pure pleasure of a well-crafted adventure is a luxury I thought I had given up as a tween. Now, Brass Monkeys has brought that joy of the reading experience back to me. From the first page, Eugene was so real (not a wise-cracking caricature of a young teen, but someone you would actually know), so endearing, I was immediately drawn into his world and invested in his epic quest. While I started reading the story with a 12 year-old boy, I finished it for myself: a 32 year-old woman! While the action is gripping, the humor non-stop, and the plot compelling, it was the underlying struggle between freedom and creativity and brainwashed, lock-step control that ultimately had me hooked. If you appreciate the ability to think for yourself and find joy in learning at any age, you'll find yourself captivated by Caszatt's adventure into the world of "education."
The first time I read Terry Caszatt's novel Brass Monkeys, I knew this was a book my nearly middle school-aged sons just had to read. I also knew they were going to love it as much as I did, because Brass Monkeys is timeless. It resonates with deeper truths we all confront sooner or later - that not everyone likes us, not everyone has our best interests at heart, true friends are irreplaceable and worth fighting for, and courage can be summoned, even if we don't exactly feel brave. Caszatt's main characters - Eugene, Harriet, Weeser, and Alvin - and the problems they encounter in the school of the Brass Monkeys led by their scary English teacher, Ming the Merciless, are downright funny, but they are also poignant, and sometimes very frightening. Yet the message of the book is clear and uplifting: being true to yourself and doing the right thing, even when it's hard, is utterly worth it. Turns out, I made an accurate prediction: My sons - 13 and 11 - couldn't put Brass Monkeys down. "This is good...This is really good," concluded my older son, whose smile as he read seemed permanently etched across his face. That he sneaked our copy into his backpack when his brother wasn't watching so he could take it to school says it all... My son commented after reading it, "Brass Monkeys was a very exciting and well-paced book. I especially liked the types of weapons, specifically music."
As a grandmother & great-grandmother I have passed my love of books on to many generations. Brass Monkeys grabs your interest right from the start and just keeps you turning the pages. What a great b-day or Christmas gift for young readers 9-15 years. Any time is a great time to give a kid a book. Please consider Brass Monkeys for your next book purchase.