Gayle Forman’s first-ever middle grade novel is a bittersweet coming-of-age story about two young friends set in 1987 Venice, California. When ten-year-old Bug meets her neighbor’s nephew, Frankie, she’s less than thrilled about spending the summer with someone new. However, the two soon grow closer as they gain understanding about each other and the world around them. Frankie & Bug is a poignant tale about friendship, allyship, and the power of found family.
In the debut middle grade novel from #1 New York Times bestselling author Gayle Forman comes a poignant and powerful coming-of-age story that follows a young girl and her new friend as they learn about family, friendship, allyship, and finding your way in a complicated world.
It’s the summer of 1987, and all ten-year-old Bug wants to do is go to the beach with her older brother and hang out with the locals on the boardwalk. But Danny wants to be with his own friends, and Bug’s mom is too busy, so Bug is stuck with their neighbor Philip’s nephew, Frankie.
Bug’s not too excited about hanging out with a kid she’s never met, but they soon find some common ground. And as the summer unfolds, they find themselves learning some important lessons about each other, and the world.
Like what it means to be your true self and how to be a good ally for others. That family can be the people you’re related to, but also the people you choose to have around you. And that even though life isn’t always fair, we can all do our part to make it more just.
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Read an Excerpt
1. Rule Number Four
Rule Number Four
TEN DAYS BEFORE SCHOOL let out, Mama announced that summer was canceled.
She didn’t say it straight out like that. But she might as well have. What she did say to Bug was: “What would you like to do this summer?”
This was a dumb question. Mama knew what Bug wanted to do this summer. The same thing she’d done for the last two summers, ever since Danny had persuaded Mama that there was no need to spend good money on the Y camp (which they both hated, Danny quietly so, and Bug noisily) now that he was old enough to watch them both all summer. For free.
“You can buy a new car instead,” Danny had said. Clever of him, Bug thought, because Mama was always complaining about the Datsun and its busted air conditioner.
So, after very elaborate negotiations with Phillip and Hedvig, their upstairs and downstairs neighbors who each sometimes watched Danny and Bug, and yet another consultation with Kip, the always-sunburned lifeguard who manned Tower 19, Mama had agreed to let them spend the summers alone. “With conditions,” she said.
Conditions, Bug had soon discovered, was another name for rules. But conditions sounded nicer.
Mama typed the “conditions” onto a piece of thick, fancy paper she used at her job at the mayor’s office. Then she made Danny and Bug both sign it. This, she explained, turned conditions into a contract.
The contract promised that Bug and Danny would:
- Always go to Tower 19 and check in with Kip.
- Always swim together if they went in past their knees.
- Never touch so much as a toe in the water if the riptide flag was up.
- Always stay together.
Rule number four was typed up in just the same way as the others, but Mama repeated its importance so often that Bug understood it was the most important one of all. Bug was not generally fond of rules, even when they were called conditions, but this one, the idea that she and Danny must always, always stay together, well, she liked that one just fine. It made her feel safe.
The list had been taped to the refrigerator that first beach summer, and all that following fall and winter. In the spring, when Mama was doing her big cleaning, she had taken it down. But Bug had retrieved the paper from the trash and hung it back up. She’d told Mama it was because she might forget the rules this coming summer, but the truth was, the list had become a promise. The promise of summer.
For almost three years, the list had stayed on the fridge, fastened into place with a ladybug magnet. So when in the waning days of fourth grade, Mama asked what Bug wanted to do for the upcoming summer, the answer was obvious: “I want to go to the beach,” Bug told Mama.
Mama got a funny look on her face, which in turn gave Bug a funny tickling in her stomach. Mama called this the Gut Voice and told Danny and Bug to listen to it. But Bug didn’t want to listen to her Gut Voice, because what it was saying—even before Mama said, “I think we might need to change it up this summer”—was that summer was about to be canceled.
“Why do we have to change it up?” Bug wasn’t entirely sure what “changing it up” meant, but she didn’t want to ask, lest she look babyish. That was Danny’s favorite insult as of late. And there was no way she would prove it true.
“It’s just that Danny...” Mama stopped herself. “Daniel.” Daniel. That was what Danny wanted to be called now. “Needs a bit of space this summer.”
Bug had been hearing a lot about Daniel’s need for space these past few months. First, early in the spring, Danny had told Mama that he didn’t want to go to the magnet school he and Bug had both attended since kindergarten. This coming fall, he would be attending Venice High School.
A few weeks after that, Mama had taken Bug out for ice cream on the Santa Monica Pier and told Bug she was getting her own room. For a brief second, Bug had thought they were moving to one of those big houses with wall-to-wall carpeting and grassy backyards with pools, like the one her friend Beth Ann lived in. But then why would Mama be taking her out for ice cream to deliver good news? Ice cream was for bad news.
The bad news was this: Bug was being moved out of the biggest bedroom she and Danny had always shared and into a tiny alcove next to the bathroom that Mama had sometimes used as an office. It was too small to fit a bed and a dresser and desk, so with Hedvig?’s blessing—she was their landlady as well as their downstairs neighbor—Mama and Phillip built Bug a sleeping loft. Bug did like the loft. It had a wooden ladder and her window looked out onto a big magnolia that made it feel like she was sleeping in a tree house. But even if she liked the room okay, that didn’t mean she wanted it. No one had asked if she wanted it. And worse, Danny got to keep the biggest room, instead of switching with Mama, who had the medium-sized room. It just wasn’t fair! Bug had complained to Mama about this. Which was a big mistake. One thing about Mama was that she didn’t give two hoots about fair.
And now, Daniel’s need for space meant that Bug?’s summer was canceled. “It’s just that Daniel,” Mama was explaining, “has babysat you for the past few summers....”
“Babysat?” Bug was offended. “Danny doesn’t babysit me. In summer, we go to the beach. It’s what we do.”
“Well, this summer, we’re going to have to figure out something else for you to do.”
School had yet to let out, but Bug could feel the summer slipping through her fingers like sand at the beach, which she would not be going to.
She wanted to cry. Bug loved the beach. And the three months she got to spend there made all the bad parts of living in Venice—like her pretend bedroom and hearing gunshots at night and having to sit on a bus two hours a day to go to a good school and never having friends sleep over because nobody’s parents wanted them to sleep in a place where gunshots went off at night—worth it. Bug loved everything about the beach: the way the brisk water made her toes go numb, the way the drying salt made her skin feel tight, the way tropical tanning oil smelled, and the way the sand sounded when you laid your head against it. She even loved things about the beach other people hated, like how saltwater stung her scratched mosquito bites, or how the sand got everywhere—and she meant everywhere, in her sheets, her shoes, in the crack of her butt.
Mama couldn’t take that away from her. She just couldn’t!
“I don’t want to figure something else out!” Bug cried. “I want it to be like the other summers.”
Mama shook her head. “Daniel is fourteen. He wants to hang out with friends his own age. I think that’s fair.”
“Fair?” Bug scoffed, feeling the heat in her earlobes, which was how she knew she was about to lose her temper. “What do you care about fair?” Because wasn’t Mama the one who always told Bug, “Life isn’t fair—the most you can hope for is that it’s just”?
Mama put a hand on Bug?’s shoulder. “I understand you’re disappointed.”
But Bug was more than disappointed. Because in that moment, she suddenly understood what Daniel’s need for space really meant. It meant space away from Bug.
The realization made tears spring to her eyes. She blinked them back. She wasn’t a baby. She was ten! But Mama saw. She stroked Bug?’s cheek, a gesture that made her feel even sadder, which in turn made her madder. She stomped her feet, and balled her fists, not even caring how immature this made her look.
“I know you’re upset. I promise you’ll have a fun summer.” Mama took a breath. “At camp.”
“No way. Nohow. I’m not going back to the Y camp.” Y camp was the worst! You spent days inside in a moldy-smelling gymnasium, making lanyards or shaping clay into pots that never kept their shape. When you did go swimming, which was only twice a week, it was at an indoor pool. The ocean was just blocks away, but you had to swim in an indoor pool. It was the kind of thing Phillip would call a travesty.
“I’d rather stay with Hedvig!” Bug said, not because she wanted to spend the summer in their landlady’s apartment, but just to show just how little she wanted to attend the Y camp.
Mama put on her thinking face. “If that’s what you want, I’ll ask.” She paused. “Maybe you can stay some afternoons with her and others with Phillip when he’s not working.”
That wasn’t what Bug wanted. Hedvig was okay, but her apartment, which took up the ground floor of their building, was full of junk, and all Hedvig did all day was watch soap operas. Phillip’s apartment, which took up the top floor of their triplex, was much neater, and Phillip, when he was home, did much more interesting things, like make collages out of old Time magazines with Bug, or play songs on his baby grand piano. But neither Phillip nor Hedvig would take Bug to the beach. And the beach was the only place she wanted to spend her summer.
“Can’t I go to the beach by myself??” Bug asked. “I’d check in with Kip. And only go up to my knees.” The thought of not being able to dive headfirst into the waves made Bug sad, but not as sad as sitting home all summer. She would show Mama she could compromise.
“I’m afraid not.”
“But you let Danny go alone with me.”
“Daniel’s a boy,” Mama said.
“What’s that got to do with it?” Bug could swim just as strong as Danny. She could stand the cold water just as long as Danny. She wasn’t one of those girls who was scared of sand crabs or attacking seagulls.
“A lot,” Mama said. “And you’re only ten.”
“I’ll be eleven soon. And Danny was only twelve when we started going to the beach ourselves.”
“You’ll be eleven in February,” Mama reminded her. “And I know two years doesn’t seem like much, but there’s a world of difference between ten and twelve.” Mama shook her head. “I’m sorry, Bug. You can’t go alone.”
“I won’t be alone. I’ll have Bian and Duane and Randy and Zeus.” These were Bug?’s summer friends, people she didn’t see too much during the regular year when school kept her too busy to spend much time on the boardwalk but whom she saw every day as part of her and Danny’s beach routine.
“I’m sorry,” Mama repeated.
“No, you’re not,” Bug shot back. “Because if you were, you wouldn’t be ruining my summer!” And then she could hold it in no longer. She burst into blubbering, babyish tears.
“I’m sorry, sweetie,” Mama repeated. “I’ll try to redeem your summer.”
Bug thought these were just empty words, but a week later, when Mama told her that some nephew of Phillip’s was coming to spend the entire summer in Venice, Bug understood, for better or for worse, whether she liked it or not, that this was her summer’s redemption.
Reading Group Guide
Reading Group Guide for
Frankie & Bug
By Gayle Forman
About the Book
Bug is facing a bleak summer in seaside California. Her older brother no longer wants to go to the beach with her, which is Bug’s absolutely favorite thing. Instead she’ll have to hang out with Hedvig, their eccentric downstairs neighbor, or with Frankie, who’s from Ohio and visiting his uncle, Phillip, who lives upstairs. Phillip is like family to Bug, and she doesn’t want to share him with a stranger. But then Bug and Frankie bond by investigating the Midnight Marauder, a criminal attacking people around Los Angeles. And although the new friends don’t solve that particular crime, Bug discovers secrets closer to home, including one about her family and another about Frankie that show her the world is more complex than she ever expected.
1. Discuss the opening line, “Ten days before school let out, Mama announced that summer was canceled.” In what ways is this an exaggeration? What’s going to change about Bug’s usual summer plans that she’s unhappy about? What do the first two pages tell you about Bug and her mother?
2. Relate the opening line and Bug’s reaction to Mama’s repeated comment that “Life isn’t fair—the most you can hope for is that it’s just.” What’s the difference between fairness and justice? Where else does this theme arise in the novel?
3. What is Mama like? Describe what you learn about her past and her life now, including her job. What kind of mother is she? How does she treat Daniel and Bug? How does she treat their neighbors?
4. Why does Bug believe Frankie has come from Ohio for Bug’s sake? What is her initial reaction to him? Why did he really come? When does she realize those reasons, and how does she react?
5. Who is the Midnight Marauder? How does the search for the Midnight Marauder bring Bug and Frankie together? What do they believe about Hermit House, and why do they feel that way? How do they approach their investigation? How does it change Bug’s view of Frankie? Explain your answers using examples from the book.
6. Describe Phillip and his role in Bug’s life. Why does she like him so much? How does he treat her? Why hasn’t Frankie met his uncle until now?
7. What is Daniel like? Why does he want to be called Daniel instead of Danny? Why doesn’t Bug call him Daniel, despite his request? Do you agree or disagree with Bug’s choice? Why is Daniel trying to be more like his father?
8. How has Bug and Daniel’s relationship changed recently? Why does Bug feel like Daniel has rejected her? What would she like him to do for her? What does he do instead?
9. What do you learn about Venice, California? What makes it an unusual place to live? In what ways is the setting important to the story? What are some clues that the story doesn’t take place today? When do you find out that it’s 1987?
10. Describe Hedvig’s interests and appearance when she first appears in the story. What is Bug’s attitude toward Hedvig? What is Hedvig’s story about her past? How does the story change Bug’s view of her?
11. Why does Disneyland represent freedom to Hedvig? Why does Hedvig tell Mama and Phillip that they “both understand what it means to be a refugee”?
12. Discuss the following description of Mama, and explain why she doesn’t talk about Bug’s father or grandparents. “If she got sad when Bug asked about her father, she went blank when Bug asked about her grandparents, or why they never visited them, even though Visalia was only five hours away.” How have her mother’s parents treated her and those she loves? Why do you think they’ve acted that way? How does it make you feel?
13. Why don’t Frankie’s parents accept him and who he is? How does this parallel the way Phillip’s family treats him? How does it compare to the way Bug’s grandparents treated Bug’s father and Daniel?
14. Describe Flo and the times that Bug and Frankie encounter Flo. Why does Frankie care so much about meeting Flo? Why does Flo include Frankie in the phrase “us folk,” and what is Frankie’s reaction?
15. After Phillip is attacked, Aunt Teri says, “‘If you ask me, he deserved what he got.’” Why was Phillip attacked? Why is Aunt Teri so hostile toward him? Why was she so hostile to Bug’s father?
16. Although she sees many aspects of Aunt Teri that she doesn’t agree with, what does Bug learn from her mother about her aunt that shows her being supportive? Talk about the observation that Bug “was also starting to understand how Mama could be angry at Aunt Teri and still love her. After all, Mama was the one who always said that people were complicated.” Do you agree or disagree with Mama’s statement? Explain your answer using examples of how people are or aren’t complicated.
17. When Bug labels her grandparents as prejudiced, Mama says, “‘Everyone is prejudiced. It’s what you do with the prejudice that matters.’” Discuss those statements and the reasons why Mama goes on to tell Bug that you can choose to “‘judge people for who they are, not what they are.’” How might you go about following this advice in your own life?
18. After learning about her grandparents, Bug says, “‘Now I understand why we don’t have any other family.’” But Mama disagrees, saying, “‘We do . . . It’s just a different kind of family.’” What does she mean by that? How has Frankie also expanded his family this summer?
Meet My New Friend
What would Bug say about Frankie in a letter to someone who didn’t know him? What would Frankie say about Bug? Have students choose a character and write a letter from that character’s perspective about their new friend, describing their personality, how they became friends, and what they like most about the other person.
Welcome to Venice!
Venice, California, is clearly a colorful place that would attract visitors. Invite students to create a travel poster about the city based on what they’ve learned in the novel and what they can learn through internet research. The poster should illustrate and list attractions that would appeal to tourists.
Bug admires Frankie’s approach to investigating the Midnight Marauder. Ask students to make a list of all the steps that Frankie and Bug take in their investigation. The students can then add any additional steps they think would have been helpful; consider having them make these in a different font or color to distinguish their ideas from the book content. Have students meet in small groups to compare what they’ve written and any suggestions they’ve added.
Life’s Not Fair
Mama repeatedly tells Bug that “‘Life isn’t fair—the most you can hope for is that it’s just.’” Ask students to write an essay about that idea and relate it to the novel. Why isn’t life fair? What defines fairness? What is justice? What’s the difference between fairness and justice? How can you tell them apart? What does Bug see as unfair about her life? Does she get justice?
AIDS is a disease which began to spread in the US in the 1980s. Share more about the disease and timeline here: https://npin.cdc.gov/pages/hiv-and-aids-timeline#1980. Have each student research an aspect of AIDS such as its history, medical treatments, current statistics, famous people who have or had AIDS, or the way it was initially perceived. They should compile what they find and share it with the class.
Guide written by Kathleen Odean, a youth librarian for seventeen years who chaired the 2002 Newbery Award Committee. She now gives all-day workshops on new books for children and teens. She tweets at @kathleenodean.
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