To twelve-year-old Molly Nathans, perfect is:
The number four
The tip of a newly sharpened No. 2 pencil
A crisp white pad of paper
Her neatly aligned glass animal figurines
What’s not perfect is Molly’s mother leaving the family to take a faraway job with the promise to return in one year. Molly knows that promises are sometimes broken, so she hatches a plan to bring her mother home: Win the Lakeville Middle School Poetry Slam Contest. The winner is honored at a fancy banquet with white tablecloths. Molly is sure her mother would never miss that. Right…?
But as time passes, writing and reciting slam poetry become harder. Actually, everything becomes harder as new habits appear, and counting, cleaning, and organizing are not enough to keep Molly's world from spinning out of control. In this fresh-voiced debut novel, one girl learns there is no such thing as perfect.
Praise for Finding Perfect:
"With middle school friendships and family relationships at its heart, this novel offers an empathetic guide to coping with a mental health issue. . .Swartz adds to the growing list of fiction titles that raise awareness of differences and promote acceptance; a strong purchase for most middle grade and middle school collections." School Library Journal
"Swartz renders Molly’s decline into full-blown OCD visceral and sympathetic; readers with similar tendencies will relate while others, like her friends, will recognize the pain of seeing someone in need but not being able to help. . .This is one for preteens struggling with the desire for perfection in this imperfect life." The Bulletin
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
By Elly Swartz
Farrar, Straus and GirouxCopyright © 2016 Elly Swartz
All rights reserved.
blue pixie and the siamese fighting fish
MY COWBOY BOOTS SCUFF the wooden floor as I walk onto the stage, and for the next ninety seconds I won't think of anything but the rhythm and sound of each syllable in my poem. Today is Round One of Lakeville Middle School's Poetry Slam Contest.
The applause comes to a slow stop. I spin my lucky sea glass in my pocket one last time as I tap the microphone. My best friend Hannah gives me a thumbs-up from the fourth row. Still not used to her new hair. I actually like the black-as-night-tipped-in-blue pixie cut, but the uneven bang fringe isn't really working for me. She said she's paying tribute to Fred, her blue-flecked Siamese fighting fish that died two weeks ago, so I told her I loved it.
The crowd stares at me. Waiting. My mind quiets. I love this moment. The Before. When everything is still and anything is possible. I take a beat to look out at the faces, and then the words flow as I march across the stage.
like a broken clock,
a flat tire,
the blare of a police siren when you're trying to sleep.
I say okay
just bad luck
like a black cat,
Friday the 13th,
an open umbrella on the kitchen floor.
a different clock, a different hour, a different day.
Sliding doors and missed chances.
What if it was yesterday?
links in a chain,
a corner puzzle piece when you have two sides.
When I finish the poem, I'm kneeling at the edge of the stage. The quiet escapes out the back while everyone in the first four rows stands. Cheering. Me. Molly. My insides do a victory dance. I bow and take my seat next to Hannah. A little hand squeeze. Bridgett goes next. Her obsession with obituaries is not left out of her poetry. Her words are sad and dark, but somehow she makes them sound like a beautiful song. I clap loudly. Hannah pretends she's busy with something else and can't applaud. She's not a fan. Of obituaries or Bridgett. And if I'm being totally honest, Bridgett kind of deserves that. Ever since they both showed up to Richie C.'s fifth-grade Halloween party wearing the same zombie bride costume, B has sort-of-kind-of not been so nice to Hannah.
Hannah's the last to go. She bows her head; the bangs hang like a slope in front of her face. Her poem is a tribute to Fred. I decide for her next birthday I'll get her a new Siamese fighting fish from Pete's Pet Palace.
When all the poets have spoken, Ms. P. steps onto the stage and says into the microphone, "I will make the announcement tomorrow as to which two classmates will move on to Round Two of the Poetry Slam Contest." Spit flies from her mouth and I'm thankful there are four rows between us. "Nice job today, everyone."
The bell sounds the end of the day, and I run home to tell Dad or Kate or Ian, but when I get there, the house is echo-empty. I take the stairs two steps at a time. In the mirror, I see my braces under my smile and I don't even care. I love today. I spin sixteen times and fall onto my bed, dizzy.
I exhale and open my eyes. I wait for the room to stop spinning. I grab four red Twizzlers, pop in my earbuds, and click on the B. B. King playlist I made during art on Monday. We're on the watercolors unit and I'm more of a stay-in-the-lines artist.
I skip to track four. This is Mom's favorite song. Ideas swirl in my head for my next poem. I need to move on to Round Two. Then the final round. Then I need to win. The whole thing. My plan depends on it.
This past Saturday, I came millimeters close to making a ginormous mistake that could have ruined my chances of winning the slam and my plan. I was shopping at Shine Gifts and Gems with Hannah when I almost bought the glass giraffe. Its long sunflower neck and cocoa spots were a splash of yellow against the white shelf. It was so beautiful, but a possibly disastrous purchase just a few days before Round One. Thankfully, I realized that before the clerk with dirty fingernails rang up the sale. I didn't tell Hannah why I returned Sir Giraffe to his shelf, but if I had bought him, then my collection would have forty-five glass figurines. Forty-five — a terrible odd number. I decided to wait until I could buy Sir Giraffe and Monsieur Kangaroo.
I grab a ruler and lay it along my snowy white dresser to carefully align my glass zebra so it sits exactly one inch from the blue glass dolphin. I pick up the giant panda (an awesome birthday gift from Kate and Ian), set her down on her paws, slowly reach for the elephant, and rest it precisely one inch away. I finish with the stallion and cow. Finally, they're all perfectly aligned. I step back and exhale. So beautiful.
Except for the pink glass perfume bottle. It's lost next to the whale.
I pick up the perfume and roll it between my palms. Mom let me borrow it. Then she told me about the guy she sat next to on the T who pulled out an eight-inch hunk of cheddar and ate it like a Snickers. That was kind of our thing. Not the cheddar, but lying beside each other on my bed and sharing the weirdest thing that happened that day. Now every time I'm on the T, I look for the Cheese Man. No sightings yet.
The perfume smells like jasmine and mint. Mom said Dad had the scent made for her for their tenth anniversary. I spray my wrists with I Love You Forever and wonder if the bottle will last for the entire year.
Three hundred sixty-five days is a really long time.CHAPTER 2
the juice lady
NOW THAT ROUND ONE is over, I can get back to working on my class presentation for Ms. P. It's due tomorrow. The make-your-own-business project is supposed to include forty-five color-coded index cards, one poster, one five-minute oral presentation, and a six-page paper with a fancy see-through cover and bibliography. After Ryan Mantis wanted to create a business that sold air, Ms. P. suggested with her stern pay-attention voice that we choose our businesses wisely. I created Molly's Personal Organizing Service — Bringing Order to Disorder. I look over my checklist for tomorrow's presentation.
"Not sure why you bother knocking if you're just going to open the door and walk right in," I say.
Ian tilts his head. "Want to play with Spider?" He sticks his pygmy hedgehog in my face.
I shake my head. "No, I don't want to play with Spider."
Dad got it for him. He had said, "Your brother's having trouble sleeping, and hedgehogs are nocturnal. I think it will be good company."
Seemed a bit extreme. Owls are nocturnal, too, but he didn't get him one of those. I mean, the last time Ian's not sleeping landed him at the foot of my bed in his Spider-Man pajamas, I gave him my very non-living-non-nocturnal glass hippo, and he fell right asleep. Besides, it took Kate a year to convince Dad to get Oscar from the dog shelter, and he's a normal pet if you ignore his love of frozen peas.
Spider curls up into a spiky ball at the sound of my voice.
Ian pops next to me on my bed and tucks his little hand in mine. His smile shows off his missing front tooth. I'm happy the tooth fairy was around to see him lose his first tooth.
Mom's office closed at the end of school last year. Well, it wasn't exactly an office, more like a warehouse with a lot of blenders, veggies, and fruit. Mom's one of the Juice Ladies. When she got notice the business was shutting down, I have to confess that I was kind of relieved. She had spent the last five years inventing new ways to torture Ian, Kate, and me by squeezing the hearty, so-good-for-you juice out of every type of fruit and vegetable. I didn't even know kale and broccoli had juice.
I figured when the job ended, so would the swamp juice. But the company decided the States was not their target market after all, and they needed to send Mom to Canada for one year to launch their new juice line. Her choice — Toronto or unemployment. Mine — move to Toronto with Juice Lady or stay in Lantern, Massachusetts, with Dad. I chose to stay. Kate chose not to talk about it and Ian chose to do whatever I did.
Ian slips an almond out of his pocket for Spider. "I saw Hannah today. Her hair is blue."
"Are you going to have blue hair?"
"Just checking if that was something we were doing."
"What are we doing?" Kate asks from the doorway.
"Don't you knock?"
"We are not getting blue hair," Ian says as Spider crawls up his arm.
"Obviously," Kate says, running her hand through her black-as-night curls and scooping up Spider.
It's all so easy for her. She doesn't care that Spider's dirty and prickly and, well, dirty. "Hey, your poem rocked today," Kate says.
"Thanks, but how did you hear it? You're not even in the same school as me anymore." Kate's a freshman at Lakeville High.
"The high school had some half-day teacher workshop thing, so Kevin and I snuck into the back of the auditorium just in time to hear your slam."
I stare in disbelief as I watch her try to kiss Spider.
"Kevin and I think you could totally move on."
"Thanks." A bit awkward to think I was part of a conversation between Kate and her I-can't-live-for-thirty-seconds-without-him sophomore boyfriend.
"I liked the black cat part. I mean, I don't buy into the whole superstition thing. You totally rule your own destiny. Cat or no cat. But it sounded deep."
I nod, but don't hear a word she's saying. Spider has moved from kissing to climbing onto her shoulder and is heading down her back, toward my bed. No towel. I'm trying to decide if it would be worse to catch him in my bare hands or have him land on my comforter when Ian grabs him. "I'm going to show Dad how Spider can sleep in his sock."
Before Kate or I can ask what he's talking about, he whips out one of Dad's long navy dress socks from his pocket, Spider crawls in, and they leave my room. Kate follows them.
My checklist for my business presentation is still on my bed, thankfully untouched by Spider.
Top of the list — get shoe boxes. First stop, Mom's closet.
I crack open the doors and slide onto the honey-colored wood floor. There are no clothes, no shoes, not even a belt left. I set my special sea glass down on the bare wood. Mom and I found it together on Chapin Beach when I was six. Two pieces had washed up on the sand next to each other. One turquoise and one gold. Mom kept the gold and I have the turquoise. It's always with me, so I never have to be without it and her.
Her clothes and shoes are gone, but the empty shoe boxes remain neatly stacked in the corner. A shiny red-checked box from the ballet flats I used to borrow, a long black box from the matching leather boots she bought for our birthdays last year, a white striped one from her fancy silver sandals she never wore, and the neon-orange box the running shoes came in when she decided she needed to start exercising. I like to sit in here. It smells like jasmine and mint and reminds me of her. My phone blasts the first twenty-four bars of Mom's favorite B. B. King song. I hit Ignore. It's just a reminder. Thirty-two days until Mom's first scheduled visit.
The door to the closet creaks open. Kate stands there staring at me. "What are you doing in here?"
"Nothing," I say. "What are you doing here?"
She slides next to me on the closet floor.
"Sometimes when I miss her most I come in here," she says.
I take her hand and we sit on the floor of Mom's closet together. Being next to her feels like a little slice of Mom is with me. Everyone always says she's the mirror image of Mom. The black curls, white-as-sand skin, and crystal-blue eyes. Kate tells me her favorite Mom things, which include almost everything but swamp juice and moving to Toronto.
"I miss her laugh," I say. It's from-her-belly loud and always lasts a beat longer than it should. Neither of us says anything for a while. Lost in our own Mom-moments.
That quiet ends when Ian and sock-Spider poke into the closet. "Can't find Dad. Have you seen him?"
We shake our heads no.
Ian stares at us. "Why are you guys sitting on the floor of Mom's closet?"
"Just talking," I say. He doesn't need to know that we miss Mom's laugh, her bad sense of direction, her lasagna. It's already too hard for him. It's been three weeks since she drove out of the driveway in the back of a cab and he still can't sleep at night.
"Sounds boring." He grabs sock-Spider and just before he leaves says, "The closet smells like her."
"I know," is all I say.
When he's gone, I ask Kate what's been swimming in my brain since Mom left. "Do you think she's ever coming back?"
She stares at me. "Pinky-swear honest?"
going is not the same as leaving
HER "NO" BOUNCES OFF the ceiling and smacks me in the face. I hear Mom's voice promising me she'll only be gone for one year.
"But she swore she was coming back. That this was temporary," I say.
"Like their separation?"
I ignore her. "She said that she was going to a job." I have the day she's coming back circled on my calendar. A year from the date she left.
She stops shaking her head and stares at me with that little-sister-you're-such-an-idiot look. I've seen it before. More than once. "Believe what you want."
"Mom told me that going to something was not the same as leaving. She said there's a difference." I squeeze my sea glass.
Kate picks at the green polish on her nails. "I don't know why you keep defending her. I'm not the only one she left behind."
"She's coming back. She promised." I pause. Then, "Anyway, I have a plan."
Kate's right eyebrow arches. Another thing she got from Mom. "What kind of plan?"
"A plan to get her back here. For good."
"How?" Kate wants to know.
"I win the slam."
"Your big plan to get our mom to leave Canada and come home is to win a poetry competition at your middle school?" A smirk slips through.
"Look, the winner gets a big banquet in her honor with her whole family. They even get to sit at a special table with a white tablecloth. Mom would definitely come back for that. And once she's home, she'll remember how great it is to be together, how much she's missed us, and she'll stay." I stare at Kate, waiting for the smirk to morph into a congratulations-on-your-brilliant-plan smile.
It doesn't. Her lips flatten. "You're only making this harder on yourself, Mol. If you, me, Ian, and Dad weren't enough for her not to leave, then a linen tablecloth and overcooked turkey at some stupid banquet aren't going to be enough to get her to come home."
My heart sinks into the floor of the empty closet, but I have to believe I can do this. I have to believe I can get her back.
"My plan will work," I argue.
"Honestly, Mol, neither your stupid sea glass nor your master plan will bring her home. She left us. On purpose. Deal with it," Kate says.
I notice her right ring finger no longer has even a trace of green polish. "You're wrong," I say. Then my mind goes to Ian. He's too young, too sweet, and too innocent to think Mom would just turn around and leave us. Forever. "Don't you dare tell Ian what you think about Mom."
She snorts. "You can't even say it. You can't even say that I think that Mom's never ever coming back."
I glare at her. "Just promise me that you won't say anything to Ian."
Kate's phone rings "Paired" by the Penguins. "Kevin, hold on," she says as she leaves the closet and runs into her room.
Now it's just me and the jasmine and mint. I sit for a while, thinking about pre-Toronto Mom. Kate's words creep into my brain. I stuff them somewhere down deep, grab as many boxes as I can carry, leave the closet, and head downstairs.
The cold air in the basement hits me on step eight. To the right on the wall are pictures of Kate, Ian, and me at our birthday parties. I stare at the one of Hannah and me eating chocolate cake at my tenth birthday party. Her hair is brown. No bangs. When Hannah walked in that day, she handed me a package wrapped in aluminum foil. A tinfoil ball really. Inside were two glass figurines — a cow and a piglet. She said since I had turned double digits I should get two. I loved my tenth birthday. Everything was perfect if you ignored the brownish-green swamp juice we had with my cake. I'd just turned ten, our whole house smelled like chocolate, and Mom and Dad made me a birthday scavenger hunt. That was long before their official temporary separation that started just six months before Mom fled to Toronto and our kitchen smelled like takeout all the time.
I spread a clean white sheet on top of the orange shag carpet and line up the boxes next to the files and the ziplock plastic bags. The antique mirror that Dad got to surprise Mom hangs to my right. Dad thought Mom would love it. She didn't. She thought it was just old. I stare into the mirror and decide to keep my hair exactly the same until she gets back. We got our hair cut together the week she left. She didn't even have an appointment. I did. But when Gwen-with-all-the-bird-tattoos finished trimming my hair, Mom whispered something to her. Forty minutes later, Mom's hair was five inches shorter.
She said she loved it. She needed a change. Something totally new.
I look in the mirror and measure from roots to ends. Twenty-six inches.
Excerpted from Finding Perfect by Elly Swartz. Copyright © 2016 Elly Swartz. 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.
Table of Contents
1. Blue Pixie and the Siamese Fighting Fish,
2. The Juice Lady,
3. Going Is Not the Same as Leaving,
4. Boogies on the Wall,
5. The Remains of the Breakfast Burrito,
6. Wishing for Sandal Season,
7. The Opposite of Pod,
8. Rules of ROYGBIV,
9. Bargus Clan and the Bug Jar,
10. Worst Word in Merriam-Webster's Dictionary,
11. Bad Things Will Happen,
12. Cheese Man Sighting,
13. Regular Mad or Slam-the-Door-and-Walk-Away Mad,
14. Perfect Doesn't Travel Well,
15. I See You,
16. The Smallest of Peeks,
17. Rainbow of Beautiful Colors,
18. Today Is the Day,
19. Say Cheese,
20. My Right Side,
22. Another Weird Thing,
23. Stop It! Stop It! Stop It! Stop It!,
25. Say Something,
26. Goodnight Moon,
27. In the Closet,
28. Lonely, the Number Eleven,
29. Doesn't Look like Nothing,
30. The Kiss,
31. The Postings of Lynx Lomain,
32. Longest Stretch of Mad,
33. Walking Around in the Dark,
34. Hiding in Plain Sight,
36. My Numbers Are Showing,
37. Behind the Velvet Curtain,
38. There's a Spot on the Floor,
39. The Death of Spider-Man,
40. The Power of the Band-Aid,
41. Shattered Glass,
42. Just like Grammy Jean,
43. Can I Catch It?,
44. Panic Rising,
45. The Wrong Spot,
46. Weird for a Reason,
47. Welcome Home,
48. Twizzler Test,
49. Meet Max,
51. Three Days Shy of Being Thirteen,
About the Author,