"[A] moving journey of self-discovery and a gratifying coming-of-age story." - Publishers Weekly
"Husky . . . is a superb addition to the middle grade literary canon." - VOYA Reviews
"There is not a false note in the writing . . ." - Lambda Literary
A beautifully voiced debut captures an intimate story of change and acceptance.
Twelve-year-old Davis lives in an old brownstone with his mother and grandmother in Brooklyn. He loves people-watching in Prospect Park, visiting his mom in the bakery she owns, and listening to the biggest operas he can find as he walks everywhere.
But Davis is having a difficult summer. As questions of sexuality begin to enter his mind, he worries people don’t see him as anything other than “husky.” To make matters worse, his best girlfriends are starting to hang out with mean girls and popular boys. Davis is equally concerned about the distance forming between him and his single mother as she begins dating again, and about his changing relationship with his amusingly loud Irish grandmother, Nanny.
Ultimately, Davis learns to see himself outside of his one defining adjective. He’s a kid with unique interests, admirable qualities, and people who will love him no matter what changes life brings about.
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
“Ducks, now would you look at this! Let’s just hope they have one in your size.”
There’s no sound like it in the world. Louder than an ambulance, more annoying than a car alarm, the sound of my Nanny yelling stops me cold every time. Every time. Honest. It’s so loud that all the other sounds in the world sort of stop out of shock. So do all the people in earshot, at least all the ones in the Boys’ section at Target. Her accent doesn’t help. There’s just no getting away from it. None. She’s talking only to me. I can’t shrug it off or pretend I don’t know her. I’m the only “Ducks” here. Really, Davis, but Nanny calls me Ducks because I waddled when I first started walking. I don’t know that a person should be punished their whole life for how they started doing something, but I am. So to everyone from then on, I have been “Ducks.”
No one knows why she yells like this. We used to think it was just at home, with Jock’s TV blaring, that maybe she felt like she had to yell over it. But it’s everywhere. Mom thinks it’s Nanny’s cry for attention, like maybe she thinks people aren’t listening to her, but that is impossible. Everyone, everywhere is listening to her, whether they like it or not. I just think it’s the way she is, Loud. It’s not a mean loud or an angry loud—it’s meant to be a nice loud. But it’s still shocking. I’m never afraid of her yelling, it just embarrasses me and shocks other people.
As I walk over, I see that she’s holding just the kind of shirt you would expect a grandmother to like. It’s something she thinks is real “hip” or “cool” but is actually terrible in a pretty obvious way and so babyish, I know I’ll have to wear it just so I won’t hurt her feelings or remind her that I’m growing up, which I am, even though she and the shirt are choosing to totally ignore the fact. This shirt is sort of perfect for that. It’s brown with blue “graffiti” lettering all over it saying, “Cool Dude.” All Over It. As if one big “Cool Dude” wasn’t enough, the shirt really wants to let everyone know from every angle that the person wearing this shirt is a Cool Dude. As far as I know, cool dudes don’t need that much advertising.
But Nanny thinks they do, or at least I do, and she smiles this big smile as she holds it up to my shoulders and knocks me in the face with the hanger.
“The shoulders fit, but I don’t know about the rest,” Nanny says as I try to give her the Pleasestopyouareliterallykillingme look through the hanger squishing my nose. She doesn’t see the look. She’s too happy with herself to notice.
“Well, doesn’t that do a wonder for you!” Nanny smiles. “And you’re a cool dude, aren’t you, Ducks?”
How do I tell my grandmother, no, I am not cool? In fact, I may be Weird. Or maybe Nerdy. Definitely Quiet, which sometimes comes off as a little Creepy.
I’m trying to just be me, whatever that is, but whatever it is, I already know that it’s not cool. My friend Ellen, who is Mean but still my really good friend, says before you get to high school you get boiled down to only one adjective. You’re the sweet kid or the smelly kid or the annoying kid or the rich kid. One word. One adjective. That’s it. It’s decided. There. Permanent. And I see that it’s true, even now. I mean, in my friends, Ellen is the mean one, and Sophie is the pretty one. One word. And as for me . . .
I’m the fat one, but everyone calls me husky.
* * *
Husky is the nice way for your mom’s friend or even your mom to call you fat. Department stores too. It’s a funny word, and makes you think of a strong dog in Alaska or something else cute but powerful. It’s trying not to be as gross a word as fat, which just sounds disgusting, but it’s still a punch of a word that always hits you right in the jaw. Fat. People say husky so that they can sort of pat you on the cheek instead of punching you right in the mouth.
But if you know what it actually means, it’s all the same thing.
I’m not huge. I’m just, well, husky, I guess. I mean, my stomach is squishy and hangs off the sides a little. And I have really thick legs that are strong but look like tree trunks. My arms are thin, and I don’t have, like, rolls or anything or a double chin, so I’m not, like, gross or something. And I don’t have man-boobs. I’m not even that fat. I’m just sort of, well, husky.
But I don’t want to be the husky kid. I don’t want husky to be my adjective. But trying on clothes, so many clothes, with my loud grandmother shouting sizes at me over and over and over again, proves that I am. I definitely can’t be cool like this. So Nanny’s shirt would just be a big-brown-with-graffiti-lettering lie. In XL.
“You don’t like it, I can tell by the face,” says Nanny, finally noticing. “Well, show me something you do like then. We need to get you some clothes.”
We do need to get me some clothes, because school starts in two weeks, and I have nothing to wear. I’ve been putting this off and off and off for the last couple of weeks because, well, besides the yelling, I hate shopping with Nanny. It’s not just her, I sort of hate shopping at all, which probably sounds weird, but it’s true. I don’t really like buying clothes. Because when I buy clothes, and especially with Nanny, I always have to deal with my word. It’s not that she makes me feel bad about myself, well, not on purpose. But “Let’s hope they have it in your size,” what was that? It’s a Large, not a Tent. She never really says anything mean. She knows who I am and what I look like, and to her those things are fine, and she loves them, because they’re me, but I don’t want them to be. But also the yelling. A big part of it is the yelling. There’s nothing worse than having “You need that in an X-Large, don’t you, Ducks?” screamed across a store to remind you and everyone standing around that you are, indeed, Husky.
I guess, for at least one more day, I don’t want to be reminded that this may be the thing I am known as for this year. That husky may be my adjective. Clothes won’t help. I sometimes have this weird idea that if I try on an outfit to look a certain way, I’ll automatically look that way. If I had a jacket and a tie on, I would be a business guy and my shoulders would be big and my wrist would be thick for a big metal watch and everything would be the way it’s supposed to be. Like my body knows how to change with the fabric and it does, and then I am different. I can be that thing, anything, or anyone else perfectly, just because of some clothes. But I can’t. Trying on all this stuff today makes me think that whether I like it or not, I am the husky kid. I might not even get the chance to be weird. Or Nerdy. Or anything else.
* * *
I start trying to find something that I do actually like, something to make me even a little different. But again and again, it’s all husky. One pair of jeans actually has it written right on them. Gross. Your adjective says really everything about you. Ellen’s the mean girl, and that’s her. She says sarcastic, but she’s not. Sarcastic would mean it’s partially a joke, but with Ellen, it never is. It’s usually just one mean word at a time. Last year Ellen got braces and started talking out the side of her mouth, like she was trying to sneak the words, which makes a lot of sense, because everything she says is pretty rotten. It’s not mean mean, but it’s definitely not nice. For a while, I thought her braces were too tight and they were squeezing all the nice things out of her mouth. But then Connor Broeckner got braces too and he was fine and when Kaitlin Koecheck got them too and was still silly, I had to think that mean or Sarcastic might just be Ellen’s adjective. Her braces just sort of turned it up.
Sophie is the pretty one. Beautiful, really. But that’s a lot to say all the time. And then people think I’m in love with her or something, when it’s not like that. At all. Sophie is my best friend. Or at least she was. I’m not sure, it’s been weird lately, and I blame it on the pretty. It’s a strange thing how people become pretty. I mean, I always thought Sophie was beautiful because she was my friend. And I always was happy to see her face because it was connected to my friend Sophie, who loves pickles and who had to stop wearing long sleeves for a while because she was constantly wiping her nose on them. This is my Sophie, who’s been my friend since we were practically babies, our moms are friends and we live down the block. We know each other. But last year, other people started to be really excited to see Sophie too. More excited than to see me. Then everyone was really nice to her, and some boys, well, a lot of boys, started to like like her. It got where every outfit she wore was the right outfit, and her hair was the right hair. And nothing had to change, everything was right because it was on Sophie. People look at her all the time now. Boys who never looked at her before and girls neither of us ever even talked to, like Allegra Bernstein, who is seriously the Worst, have started wanting to be her friend. Everybody wants something from her. Most of the time, Sophie just looks away. The trouble is, she’s started to look away from me too. And I don’t know why.
It’s not all the time.
There are still times when it’s just the three of us and it’s the same as it was before. We’re laughing and kidding around and it’s great, but then all of a sudden it’s not. Whatever was there, is Gone. I don’t know what happens. I don’t know where all that fun or what we were goes to, but it’s gone, and then Sophie gets really quiet and sort of goes away too. What’s left is a girl who looks like my friend Sophie but isn’t her at all.
* * *
After we pick, well, Nanny picks, about twenty, at least twenty, outfits from the racks, I have to try everything on. Everything?
“Yes, everything. What do you think? They’re all the same? Try them on.” Nanny laughs as she closes the changing room door.
If I hate shopping, I hate trying clothes on more. Like people hate going to the dentist hate it. You get forced into this tiny little white room with the brightest lights in the world, as if I need to see what these clothes would look like on the sun, and then you have to get naked. Well, not naked, I mean, I keep on my underwear, but still, I’m just in my underwear in a store with my grandmother sitting right outside and waiting for the fashion parade to begin. That’s the other thing. Not only do I have to try them all on to see if I like them, I have to try them on to see if she likes them. And she has to check the fit. That means there’s a lot of pulling and “fixing” shirts. Adjusting them all while she complains about how fast I’m growing or how they don’t size these things right. She adjusts me from every angle, and not easy like fixing flowers, but like let me pull you up by the back of these pants and see if they’ll hold. Essentially, Nanny gives me atomic wedgies to see if my pants will hold if I were hung from the ceiling. At least my jeans wouldn’t rip. That would be the embarrassing part.
The first outfit, the shirt’s not right.
The second, the jeans seem a little too long.
“I’ll hem them. Or maybe you’ll grow. That’d be nice, wouldn’t it?”
The third is right, but I hate the color. Even though:
“That green does a wonder on you, Ducks.” She smiles.
The fourth, fifth, and sixth all have pieces that work, but also pieces that don’t. So there’s a lot of tugging and folding and fixing. I go in to try on option seven when she knocks on the door with, “You don’t need pants, do you?”
To my Irish grandmother, pants means underwear. And to me, underwear is not happening today. Not ever, actually. Not with her.
“No.” I hope that somehow she can see my Please-
youareliterallykillingme look again through the door.
“’Cause we’re here, I can go get you a bundle now.”
“No. I’m fine.”
There’s a pause while she figures if she should go and get some anyway, or wait and take me with her to embarrass me, or just not buy them at all. Underwear would be the worst part of an already terrible day. Underwear shopping in general is pretty gross, but with those guys on the underwear packages, the shirtless smiling guys, with the muscles and the big grins, like, “Look how hot and sexy I look in these briefs. If you bought these, you’d be sexy just like me,” it’s terrible. Nice try, jerks, I’ve learned that lesson on every other outfit in here. And put on a shirt, we’re in a store.
The last time I bought underwear with Nanny, it was awful. Aw. Ful.
“Oh, these with the stripes are nice. Do you like them?” she screamed. “What about the ones with the dogs on them? Does that mean something I don’t know? Don’t tell me if it does.” Then she laughed, thinking I am sure something totally disgusting about people in underwear, or maybe me in underwear, which is so disgusting, it all makes me want to throw up. And then Nanny thought this guy on the package with black hair and a hairy chest was cute, which is gross but totally happens, and said, “Would you look at him. My Word.”
My Word is Old Irish Lady for Wowza.
And Wowza is Me for Barf.
Finally she says through the door, “Fine. But we’re here, so if you need pants, it’s best to get them now. I won’t come back.”
Neither will I, don’t worry.
* * *
When it’s all over, I have two big bags of clothes, none of which make me into anything else but the husky kid, even though one shirt insists that I’m a “Cool Dude.” Nanny’s paying, so she wanted to get something she liked. We spent a lot of money, and that part always makes me feel bad. I really don’t need any of this. None of it’s going to help.