Gr 5–7—Seventh-grader Howard Boward is a friendless kid who sits by himself at the back of the cafeteria. He's plagued with a list of social crimes: he's skinny; has white hair that sticks straight up; loves science; wears a unitard as an experiment; and, worst of all, is smart. His worried mother gives him a copy of How to Make Friends, and he takes the book to heart. Advised to "Be Yourself," he sets up a lab in the garage and decides to make a friend. The result is Franklin Stine, a kind, lumbering creature made of Wonder Putty plus DNA from the hair of zoo animals and a kind schoolgirl. Disguised as a Canadian foreign exchange student, Franklin wows the coach and team with his football prowess. He's able to defend his creator from the bullying UPs ("uber-populars") while equally befriending them. Howard figures that Franklin's popularity means an end of their friendship. But Franklin gets Howard elected class president and ensures that he makes an unlikely football touchdown. Howard becomes How-Cool, beloved by the UPs while his loyalty and kindness are put to the test. Small cartoon-style illustrations are scattered throughout. Bates tells an entertaining and warmhearted tale concerning the struggles of middle-school friendships. Hilarious scenes and details and one-liners create a richly rewarding story.—Diane McCabe, John Muir Elementary, Santa Monica, CA
For Howard Boward, science genius, making friends in middle school is hard. The other kids have more fun creatively expanding Howard’s name than actually hanging out, as in How-weird or How-Lame. . So, why not actually make a friend? A little wonder putty, some DNA, a few accidentally spilled chemicals andboom!instant friend. Monster friend, that is. Franklin ends up being cool in middle school, and he helps Howard climb the uber-popular ladder, becoming How-Cool. But the new fame and friendship isn’t exactly everything Howard hoped. Turns out real friendship might not be so simple, even when you create your own friends from scratch.
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How to Make Friends and Monsters
A Howard Boward Book
By Ron Bates, Kim Childress
ZONDERVANCopyright © 2013 Ron Bates
All rights reserved.
You know how there's always that one kid who can't find a place to sit in the cafeteria because people "save" empty seats for imaginary friends whenever he heads their way? So he has to carry his Salisbury steak, potatoes, and hot roll all the way to the table in the very back of the room? Only he trips and falls before he gets there and, when he stands up, he's got cream gravy in his shirt pocket and green beans where his eyebrows should be?
I'm that kid.
My name is Howard Boward (yeah, thanks Mom and Dad), but most people just call me "How." Well, not just How, they call me "How Weird," or "How Lame," or "How Did You Get That Chair? It's Saved!" Things like that. Until a few weeks ago, I was more of a "Who" ("Who's the dork by the water fountain?"), a "What" ("What is wrong with that kid?") or a "Why" ("Why is he wearing a unitard?"). So, when you think about it, the fact that I am now a "How" is kind of a step up.
Not a giant step or anything. You can only go so far up the popularity ladder when half the seventh grade has seen you running down the hall in a unitard—which, for the record, was part of an experiment I was doing on invisibility. My hypothesis was correct: unitards cure invisibility.
I've actually created a chart of the popularity ladder and I fall somewhere between gym-class asthmatic and that dog that bit Vice Principal Hertz. It's not as bad as it sounds. A lot of people love that dog.
The point is, it's become increasingly apparent I need to improve my social status. And I need to do it fast because, in middle school, being unpopular is like having a disease. Symptoms include fear, loneliness, wedgies, and a sudden, unexplained loss of your lunch money. If you think you may be experiencing unpopularity, ask your bully if daily beatings are right for you.
I'm kidding! You can't ask a bully to cure a disease. Bullies are the disease! And Dolley Madison Middle School (Go Manatees!) is the center of the epidemic. I should know, I'm like candy to those people. It's weird—there's just something about me that attracts the big, brainless, and angry. I'd like to say it's my sparkling personality, but since the only thing about me that sparkles are my braces, it's probably one of these things:
Reasons I Am Bully Candy
1. I'm built for it. If they ever make a movie about those rubber stick figures that have bodies like pencils and flexible, spindly arms, Hollywood will knock at my door.
2. Somewhere behind the massive construction project in my mouth are the remains of my original teeth. I'm told I'll probably have a magnificent smile someday. I just can't imagine why I'd ever use it.
3. I have G.A.S. (Goosebumps Addictive Syndrome). I am totally addicted to the Goosebumps novels by R.L. Stine. I read them in the bathroom at school because, when I get to the scary parts, I tend to scream. This is a completely involuntary response. Coincidentally, pretty much the whole school thinks I have some painful digestive-disorder, though I've told them repeatedly, "No, I have G.A.S." This doesn't help.
4. I use big words like "digitibulist" when I could just say "thimble collector."
5. I am a digitibulist.
6. My hair is cotton white and stands bolt-upright on the top of my head so that I constantly look like I've been frightened by a creature in an Abbott and Costello movie.
7. I watch Abbott and Costello movies.
8. I have "nerdism," a condition that requires me to love science and wear bulky, un-cool eyeglasses.
9. The other kids are all jealous of me. (This one is kind of a long shot but it makes the list come out with ten items. I like to list things in groups of exactly ten.)
10. I am smart.
Number 10 is the worst offense, and the one most responsible for my problem. See, your average bully can smell a big, juicy brain from up to three blocks away. That's bad news for me. Imagine roaming through a pack of wild dogs with bacon in your head.
(FYI, I don't actually know what a brain smells like. But intelligence smells like bacon.)
Now, about the "incident" ... I guess it would be easy to blame what happened in the fall of seventh grade on the bullies, but I won't. No one made me do what I did. Everything that went wrong, and all the madness that came from it, is my responsibility. Judge me as you will.
All I ask is that you keep in mind I am only twelve years old, I had a ton of homework, and these were my first monsters.
The Mother Load
It all started the day Mom walked into my room, and, out of the deep blue nowhere, said, "Howard, why don't you bring a friend home to play after school?"
My gut instinct was to say, "Great idea, Mom! Whose friend should I bring?" But I didn't because she might actually have picked one. Anyway, I knew what was happening. I could tell by her too-eager smile and the way she kept rolling the tips of her hair around her fingers. This wasn't a real question—this was Mom-language! You know, that secret language of double-speak moms use when they're trying to say something without saying it.
Something like, "You don't have any friends, do you, Howard?"
See, this opens up a whole gray area because it really depends on how you define "friends." I mean, I interact with a lot of people. Wedgies, for example, can be a bonding experience, and I get no less than one a week. That has to count for something.
I stepped away from my desk and looked up at her. My mom's got this thick mop of dark-brown hair and these puffy bangs that flop down just across her eyebrows. Except this time she had the front pulled back, and I could see these little wrinkles on her forehead. Not old-lady wrinkles. Worry wrinkles.
I'm pretty sure I gave them to her.
Don't ask me how she does it, but Mom has a way of getting to me. All of a sudden, those wedgie-relationships felt as flimsy and unsupportive as my overstretched underpants. Funny, being friendless had never bothered me before. But now, having to say it out loud and having to say it to someone who actually worried about these things, it felt, I don't know ... wrong.
So I did what any son would do in my position. I told her a fictionalized version of the truth.
"Kids don't go to each other's houses anymore," I said. "We all hang out online. You'd be surprised how much the Internet has streamlined the friendship process. I'm close personal friends with a lot of people I don't even know."
Her worry lines deepened.
"What do you talk about?" she asked.
"Oh, sports. Politics. How to build better parent-teen relationships. That kind of thing."
OK, I was grasping at straws. I had to. It would be humiliating to tell my own mother the last thing I got on my FaceSpace page was a survey titled "Who Looks More Like a Mole Rat?" It came with two photos: me and a mole rat.
My advanced algebra book was sitting on the edge of my desk so I picked it up and started to leaf through the pages. This seemed like a painless way to wrap up the conversation. After several seconds of intense fake-reading, I glanced up. She was still standing in the doorway, half-swallowed inside one of Dad's old, gray sweatshirts. What was she waiting for? My mom is a smart woman, she knew how we played this game—I pretended to answer her questions, and she pretended to believe me.
But this time was different. It was like she kind of wanted to believe me.
"All right, then," she said at last.
I didn't know what it was, but something about her tone bothered me. Because she didn't say it like, "All right, then. I guess I'll leave." She said it like, "All right, then. That goldfish isn't going to flush itself."
It was a tone of action—the kind of tone people use when they're trying to talk themselves into doing something unpleasant. I'm wrong about a lot of stuff. But I know my tones.
* * *
The unpleasantness was Reynolds Pipkin—and it was in my room.
"Howard," Mom said cheerily, as if the universe was not imploding. "Look who stopped by to see you!"
As I mentioned earlier, there is a lunch table in the back of the cafeteria that is the final destination for kids who have been rejected at every other place they tried to sit down. It is the saddest table in the world. If I had known how this situation was going to escalate, I'm sure I could have dragged home someone from the sad table. Not to play with, you understand, but just for show.
I pulled my covers up over my head.
"Howard?" my mother poked. "Aren't you going to say hello?"
"Hello, Mom," I said from the safety of the bed tent.
Reynolds was a year younger than me, which meant he was in elementary school, which meant he was a different species.
"Hello, Howard," I heard him blink behind his oversized owl-style glasses. "Your mother asked my mother if I could come over for a play date."
Oh, the agony! No one in seventh grade has play dates! If I was too big for footie-pajamas, the most comfortable PJ ever, I was too big for this. I pulled down my covers and shot powerful, imaginary laser beams at his pumpkin-shaped head.
"Not now, Reynolds," I said through gritted teeth. "I'm doing middle-school stuff."
"What kind of middle-school stuff?"
"I'm growing a mustache."
"Neat," Reynolds said. "Where are you growing it?"
"Why don't you show Reynolds your chemistry set?" Mom said.
At this suggestion, I filled both my cheeks with air and then blew it out hard so that my lips made a flapping noise. This is what you do when you don't like something, but you're not allowed to say bad words.
I got off my bed, walked to my closet, and pulled a large, rectangular, plastic box off the top shelf. The cartoon-covered front said "Li'l Genius Chemistry Set!"
None of this, I remind you, was my idea. You may hear some talk about an explosion. Don't believe it. It was more of a pop, the kind you get when a balloon breaks. I knew this would happen if I mixed certain chemicals together. What I did not know is whether it would happen if I had Reynolds mix them together.
Reynolds's skin was back to its normal, non-greenish color in less than a week. His parents insisted he still had a weird smell, but I think that's because they forgot how Reynolds usually smells.
Mom made me write an apology letter and not one that said, "Dear Reynolds, I'm sorry you stink," but it was worth it. Her Pipkin-plot had gone up in smoke—just like Reynolds's black, flame-kissed eyebrows.
* * *
A few days later, I walked into my room and saw a rectangular package wrapped in plain brown paper on my pillow. Written on the wrapping were these words: "You are special, Howard. Love, Mom."
It was a book: How to Make Friends.
Guru of the Den
Ordinarily I would've gone to my mom and thanked her for my present. That's because, ordinarily, my presents are good.
I just didn't see how a book could teach you how to make friends. Were there rules I was supposed to follow? Did the other kids know these rules? What about the UPs? UPs have more friends than anybody, and I don't think they've ever read a book in their lives.
"UPs" is what I call the "uber-populars," the superstars of Dolley Madison Middle School (DMMS). A single word from an UP can send you plunging to the bottom of the popularity ladder or raise you to that glorious place where even the eagles get nosebleeds.
I picked up the book. How to Make Friends had a hardcover and felt lightweight but stiff as a two-by-four. It was the kind of book a bully might check out of the library if he needed something educational to beat you with.
"I'll pass," I said aloud. Then I chucked it onto Mount Wash-Me, the pile of clothes that is always sticking out the top of my laundry hamper.
Now, I don't want you to think I have anything against books in general. In fact, in my bookcase right now are a dictionary, a Bible with my name on it, my dad's old copy of Where the Sidewalk Ends, a few Goosebumps paperbacks, and pretty much everything that's ever been written about hobbits. I know that doesn't sound like a whole lot, but I only have eleven other shelves and those are reserved for science. Chemistry, physics, biology, astronomy, botany, mineralogy, zoology, ichthyology—you name it. If it's the kind of reading any other seventh grader would consider torture, it's in my collection.
* * *
I couldn't sleep. I kept wondering why Mom had given me that book in the first place. What was she not telling me? Was something terrible going to happen if I didn't start making friends? I remembered the time in third grade when my class went on a field trip to the museum, and you couldn't go inside without a buddy. Everyone paired up, and I was left standing there outside the door. I eventually got in. Still, it's kind of hard to enjoy dinosaur bones when you're holding hands with Mrs. Feeney.
You don't think you have to pick a buddy to get into college, do you? I hope not. I don't think I could stand spending four years with Mrs. Feeney.
It turns out not sleeping is surprisingly thirsty work. I headed to the kitchen for a bottle of water, and on my way back, I noticed a flickering light coming from inside the den. It lured me. When I looked through the doorway, I saw a wad of messy hair peeking over the top of the recliner. I didn't need to see the other side. I knew he'd be there stretched out in his favorite, old T-shirt and goofy pajama bottoms, the light from the TV making his face kind of an eerie blue.
"Hey, champ," he answered.
When my dad is watching TV, he calls everyone "champ." That way, he doesn't have to turn his head to see who he's talking to.
"What are you watching?" I asked.
"Why do you like monster movies so much?"
"They have monsters."
"Oh," I said. "Which one is this?"
"Frankenstein. You want to watch it with me?"
"No thanks," I said.
Don't even get me started on Frankenstein. I can't stand that movie. First of all, I don't like the monster. He's big, he's strong, he's scary, and he can barely put two syllables together. If I wanted to see a creature like that, I'd go to school and wait for one to stuff me in my locker.
The other thing I don't like is how everybody calls the monster "Frankenstein." Frankenstein is the scientist! You know, the guy who created a person out of spare parts in the coolest laboratory ever? He should be the star of the movie!
But he isn't. Nobody watches the scientist when there's a big, ugly monster to look at.
"Dad, can I ask you something?"
"What is it?" he said, and I heard fear in his voice. I'm pretty sure he thought I was going to ask if I could have some of his popcorn.
"Is being popular important?"
"Oh, that," he said, reaching back into the bowl and pulling out a fistful of buttery kernels. "Ask your mother."
It would save my family a lot of time if Dad just had "Ask your mother" tattooed on his forehead.
"Well, she's kind of the reason I brought it up. She gave me a book about making friends."
"A book, huh?" Dad said, and he licked his fingers like five salty popsicles. "Well, if it's all right with her, it's all right with me. You tell your mother you have my permission to be popular. OK, champ?"
In fairness to my dad, there was an eight-foot monster on the TV screen terrorizing villagers, so the fact that he was paying any attention to me at all was kind of a miracle.
"Sure, Dad. Thanks."
I went back to my room and pulled the book off the mountain. I figured it couldn't hurt to read just the first couple of pages—it might even put me to sleep.
Only it didn't put me to sleep. It did the opposite. The truth is, I had a whole new respect for How to Make Friends the minute I saw what was on the first page.
The New Place
The first page said, "Chapter 1: Try Going Someplace New."
Right away, I could tell this book was going to help me a lot. See, I'm the kind of guy who likes to hang around the house, which is a terrible place for making friends. Everyone knows me there.
That's why I decided to follow the book's advice and go someplace new—the garage.
By "garage" I mean that thing that looks like a garage, but isn't. To be considered an actual garage, a structure, in theory, would have to be able to hold a car. This particular space had no hope of holding a vehicle of any kind, including a theoretical one.
That's because it was literally packed with junk—old appliances, discarded wires, patio furniture, Christmas decorations, outdated clothing, the possible remains of a UFO, and boxes and boxes of things we had forgotten we ever owned.
But to me, the best thing about the garage was what it didn't have—my family. This was a place where I could be alone. A kid my age needs some alone time for pondering and stuff. You can't ponder when family's around. It makes them think you're up to something.
Excerpted from How to Make Friends and Monsters by Ron Bates. Copyright © 2013 by Ron Bates. Excerpted by permission of ZONDERVAN.
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