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Ten-year-old Amelia does not like noise. From subway brakes to squeaky sneakers, she is sensitive to sound, just like her dad. Amelia has always worn noise-canceling headphones, but now that she’s going into fifth grade, her parents want her to stop wearing them. To make matters worse, she must learn to play an instrument! Or, as Amelia sees it, make noise on purpose.
To help Amelia cope, her father gives her a pair of earmuffs to wear instead. Even with her new earmuffs, Amelia struggles at school…until she gets partnered with Madge in music class. Madge is loud and bold and goofy—everything Amelia is not. And so Amelia is surprised when Madge wants to be friends.
Still, it’s not long though before Amelia’s quiet nature clashes with Madge’s loud personality. And when Madge disappears after an argument, Amelia fears Madge might be in trouble. If she’s going to help her friend, she will have to find a way to let in the noisy world she’s muffled for so long.
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On the other side of the lobby door, ninety- six sidewalk lines away, is the first day of fifth grade. I stare through the glass, tugging at my backpack straps, although they are fine. I know I am stalling. As soon as I open the door, the outside will rush into my ears: taxi horns, loud radios, barking dogs. I hold on to the quiet for as long as I can.
“Do you want us to walk with you?” Dad asks, right as Mom says, “Ready, Amelia?”
I shake my head. I savor one more moment of quiet—only to be interrupted by the elevator dinging. Deb brushes by us.
“See you there!” she says as she pushes open the lobby door. Warm air and city commotion burst into our apartment building. I cover my ears and count the ways I am different this year:
Once the door closes, I lower my hands. Outside, I see Deb catch up to Jax, who lives across the street. They head off together, without me. I tell myself that’s fine. I am only a neighborhood pal to Jax and, ever since third grade, backup friend to Deb-minus-Kiki.
I take a step toward the door, and then hesitate. I feel light-headed, missing the weight of my headphones. Only my hair covers my ears.
Mom hugs me good-bye. “Fifth grade will be great.”
Dad touches my arm. “One more thing,” he says, and hands me a box.
“What’s this?” Mom asks, as surprised as I am.
I open it. Inside are purple earmuffs with a white band. I slip them on. The muffs—soft and furry—cover my ears completely. I love them instantly. Earmuffs are like having permission to place your hands over your ears all the time.
I hug Dad hard. He laughs.
Mom’s smile doesn’t quite reach her eyes. “Where did you get those?” she asks Dad.
“Target,” he says.
I think she is really asking why, but I don’t care. Now I am ready. I open the lobby door and walk by myself to school. Every few feet, I can’t help touching the fluff over my ears. How wonderfully soft! My steps grow bold. I’m sure everyone is admiring my beautiful, regular-looking earmuffs.
At the end of the first block, the traffic light turns green and all the cars accelerate at once. I jump—it’s louder than I expect. I walk eight more sidewalk lines, noticing city sounds more than before: the beeping of a backing-up truck, the one-sided cell phone conversations, the rattling of tires over potholes. The volume I hear is about five bars out of ten. Noise-canceling headphones are more like one bar. Earmuffs are better than nothing, though. Under my earmuffs, at least, everything is muffled, every sound is bearable. Almost.
I stand in the doorway of room twelve. Mr. Fabian has gray hair pulled back in a ponytail, and he is in the front of the room checking off names. Jax spins a pencil in the air. Deb-and-Kiki talk loudly, in side-by-side desks. Madge stretches her long legs beyond her chair. Soon Noah, José, Emma, Lina—everyone—will fill the classroom with too many sounds. Three rows with seven desks each is twenty-one.
No one else looks changed. I am the one who is different, now that my headphones are gone and I’m wearing beautiful earmuffs. I take a deep breath, adjust the band, and step into the classroom.
Instead of ignoring me like usual, they stare at my head.
“New earmuffs?” Deb asks.
“Your head is smaller now!” Noah says.
“Yeah, you no longer look like you work at an airport!” Kiki says, which launches a laughter wave.
My face turns as hot as my ears under my muffs. I keep my eyes down until I find my name on a desk next to Madge. My earmuffs are beautiful, I remind myself as I sit, letting the soft fluff brush my shoulder.
The bell rings, and I jump, unprepared. I press hard on my muffed ears, eyes shut, as everyone drops backpacks, scrambles to desks, scrapes chair legs across the floor. Mr. Fabian claps twice and snaps three times and claps again. Everyone’s hands make noise except mine. I am as stiff as a new book. Earmuffs do not cancel noise. Not even close.
“Welcome to fifth grade!” Mr. Fabian says, and announces that we’ll do ten minutes of silent reading every day, starting now.
Ten minutes is not very long, but I’m happy for the promise of quiet. I choose a book off the shelf about a raccoon named Bingo. I turn to the first page and stare at the words, but I can’t focus.
All around me are little pestering sounds. Jax curls the pages of his book, over and over like an itch. Cassie snorts and giggles as she reads, and even though Noah is three rows back and my earmuffs are on, I hear him popping gum. Madge says she doesn’t have a book, and Mr. Fabian sends her to the bookcase. Her shoelace charms clink-clank-plink with every step. She knocks books around on the shelf, picking one up, dropping it, flipping through another. Each noise bounces around the walls of my head like a rubber ball.
Mr. Fabian keeps saying “Shh” over and over.
I close my eyes, place my hands over the muffs again, and fly in my mind to the Boston Public Library, where librarians catalog all sounds. Inside voices, outside voices, they say. It’s where I can wrap myself in books like a blanket—
I feel a tap on my shoulder and open my eyes. Mr. Fabian is standing right next to me. “Amelia, how can you read with your eyes closed?”
Everyone turns to stare at me. I mumble, “How can I read with so much noise?”
Mr. Fabian pauses and bends down to speak so only I can hear. “I understand you’re trying something new this year.” He points to my earmuffs. “Are these part of the plan? Maybe you should take them off.”
I shake my head. “I like my new earmuffs.” Even with them, I feel as exposed as a bird on a wire.
I turn back to the page and pretend to read, hoping he will go away. Please don’t make everyone look at me again. I’m relieved when Jax asks him a question.
Things are no better when it’s time for my favorite subject. Mr. Fabian hands out fifth-grade math workbooks, but everyone asks him so many questions, he can’t get started talking about geometry and twelve-digit place values and long division.
I write my name inside the cover, concentrating on each stroke of each letter to block out Noah’s yawn, Lina’s complaints, and Madge’s groans. I flip through the clean pages, greeting the numbers like old friends.
At lunchtime, I clutch my brown bag, waiting near the door until the first rush of cafeteria noise dims: banging trays, ripping plastic, overtalking at too-crowded tables.
Shoulders tight, I take note of who sits where. Like last year, Deb is sitting with Kiki, Lina, and Emma. I see only their backs; everyone is clustered around Kiki. Her voice is sharp like a crow’s. In fourth grade, I tried to follow Deb into that circle, but it didn’t widen to include me.
Jax sits with Noah and Madge. Madge talks with an open mouth, and I see her chewed-up sandwich. She laughs hard when Noah burps after he guzzles chocolate milk. Some spills onto his shirt.
Nothing has changed. Except me. I touch my earmuffs again, so light on my head.
I walk the cafeteria perimeter to my table from last year, in the corner near the trash and recycling bins. I open my lunch bag and my copy of Alanna, even though I’ve read it five times. This way, no one will talk to me, and I can eat fast.
When it’s recess, I head to my place on the playground: inside the tube tunnel, my burrow. I curl up against the curve, back on hard plastic, knees near my eyes. Through the earmuffs I can still hear Kiki’s exaggerated screams, the creak of the swings, and Madge’s shouts of “You missed me.… No, not me! You’re it!” in a game of tag. But at least purple fluff cushions the noise.
I hear footsteps climbing up into the tube. Jax appears, but he stops when he sees me like a clog in a pipe. We stare at each other for a moment before he backs down the ladder, leaving me alone, like last year. It’s like my earmuffs are stop signs. Which is fine, I tell myself. Now I don’t have to share my tunnel.
Mr. Fabian asks everyone to make fall leaves for the bulletin board and to write our names on them. We will post our creations by our leaves all year. On each desk are scissors and orange, yellow, red paper. “Quiet conversation is okay during art,” he says.
No, I think, but it’s too late. Talk surges around me like someone turned on twenty-one radios inside my head. I hear Cassie’s voice overlapping with Tyler’s on top of Ryan’s. I press my muffs firmly on my ears.
Kiki taps me on the shoulder. I cautiously lower my hands, wondering why she’s talking to me.
“Is it snowing?” Kiki asks. Deb dramatically arches her neck to peer over Kiki’s shoulder.
I turn toward the windows. Outside, the street trees are starting to turn orange-yellow, matching our bright artwork.
“It’s fall,” I say to Deb-and-Kiki.
Kiki points at my head. “Then why are you wearing earmuffs inside?”
“I can wear whatever I want,” I say, but no one pays attention.
By the time the last bell rings, I make up my mind. I will wear my earmuffs at lunch, at recess, at the library, when I take math tests. I will say, The headband holds my hair back, and I will wear them every day until no one notices them anymore.
Fifth grade will be the year of earmuffs.
Reading Group Guide
Reading Group Guide for
By Jennifer Gennari
About the Book
“Sometimes I wish I could change how I am,” Amelia says. That’s how she feels at home, at school, and just about everywhere except for the majestic and very quiet Boston Public Library. For Amelia, almost all noises are just too loud. Sounds that don’t bother other people make her flinch. In fourth grade, she wore noise-canceling headphones at school, but she felt isolated, and some kids were mean about it. As she starts fifth grade, her mother and the school counselor want her to quit wearing them. But her father, who knows how she feels, gives Amelia purple earmuffs for when it gets too loud—like in her required music class. To her surprise, learning the trombone helps Amelia connect with her classmate Madge, who’s loud but kind. Maybe they can be friends if Amelia, with a little help from her parents, can find a balance between too loud and too lonely that will make her feel comfortable and safe.
1. Describe Amelia, her living situation, and her personality. Discuss the ways that noise bothers her. How has that affected her life? What are solutions that she and her parents have tried? What has helped?
2. What is Madge like? Describe the start and progress of her friendship with Amelia. What do they have in common? How does that help their friendship? What is Madge’s living situation? Talk about Oma and how Amelia feels about her.
3. Who is Deb? Explain her past relationship with Amelia. How does Deb act toward Amelia? Why are they no longer close friends? Why does Amelia call her “Deb-and-Kiki”? How does Kiki treat Amelia?
4. How do other students at school, including Jax, act toward Amelia? Describe some of those students, and explain why you think they act this way. How does Amelia feel about school as the book opens? Why does she feel like this?
5. What is the music requirement at Amelia’s school, and why does it present a challenge for her? What does she try, and how do those attempts work out for her? Why does she end up with the trombone? Describe Ms. Parker and how she interacts with Amelia.
6. Describe some of the other adults at school, including Mr. Fabian and Mr. Skerritt. How do they try to help Amelia? Find examples of times she thinks they are helpful, and when she thinks they don’t understand her. Do you feel understood by the adults in your life? Explain your answer.
7. Who is Belle, and how does Amelia encounter her? What effect does Belle’s playing have on Amelia? How does Madge react to Belle? Why does Belle wear earbuds? How does that end up helping Amelia?
8. Describe what happens during Amelia and Madge’s visit to the Boston Public Library. Why does it create conflict between them? Relate that incident to Amelia’s mom’s observation that “‘Friendship is hard. . . . Sometimes we have to be patient with each other’s differences.’”
9. After Amelia and Madge go to the library, Kiki says, “‘The only reason Madge wanted to be Amelia Mouse’s friend was for math help!’” How does Amelia react to the remark? Shortly afterward, Madge falls in the cafeteria, and Amelia laughs at her. Why does Amelia laugh? How does Amelia feel when she finds the note in her lunch bag?
10. One day, when things are particularly difficult for her, Amelia says, “Outside, I head straight for my tube tunnel, my footsteps on the ladder a prelude to peace and quiet. Just five minutes, I think. That’s all I need to recharge by myself in my cocoon.” Why is the tunnel important to her? What does she mean by “recharging”? Name other places and times where she recharges. What do you do to recharge?
11. Discuss Amelia’s relationship with her father and why he understands her in ways that her mother doesn’t. Why does he give her earmuffs? Explain what you learn from Amelia’s comment, “I don’t know how Dad has trained himself to concentrate only on one birdcall amid all the outside noise.”
12. After the concert, Amelia’s mom tells her, “‘You see, if you try harder, it will get easier and easier.’” In response, Amelia thinks, “Mom still thinks I’m not trying hard enough.” What does this show about their relationship? What does Amelia’s mom want for her? Do things get better between them over the course of the book? Explain your answers.
13. At the end of chapter ten, Amelia hears her parents arguing about her, and she thinks: “Two parents plus one is three. Three minus one is two. Two minus one is one. Me, always alone. I rest one muffed ear on my shoulder. Sometimes I wish I could change how I am.” How do her observations make you feel? Why do you think she responded this way? What would you tell Amelia if you were there with her?
14. One of Amelia’s techniques for ignoring noises that bother her is to count. Give examples of when she uses this technique to soothe herself. Why does she like numbers? How does she help Madge in math? Why does Ms. Parker say that math is a “‘great skill for a musician’”?
15. Discuss why Amelia loves to read and why she says, “Friends in books are the best.” What does she mean when she later observes, “You can’t have a conversation about math expressions or state capitals or trombone positions with friends in books”? Explain why the library is so important to her.
16. Review Amelia’s list at the beginning of the novel, her two lists in the middle, and her list at the end. How does she use these lists? How do they make her feel? What do the lists have in common, and how are they different?
17. Describe the story’s setting, including specific places where Amelia spends time. How might the story change if she lived in a suburb or rural area? What if it were set in a different time period? Consider the author’s note about growing noise pollution in your discussion.
1. Ask students to pay attention to sounds they like over the next twenty-four hours, and then pick ten of their favorites. Make a class list of everyone’s sounds. Hold a discussion about similarities and differences in the list, and have students tie it to the theme of similarities and differences in the novel.
2. Now that students are in the habit of listening, have them choose a time and place to listen carefully and list all the sounds they hear. They will then use that list to write a poem about the sounds to share with the class.
3. One way that Amelia and Madge bond is to write notes to each other with the words written backward. Invite students to find a scene between two characters in the novel, and compose notes written backward for the characters to exchange. Discuss codes as a class, including how they are used and why people enjoy them.
4. As a class, listen to a recording of Melba Liston play her trombone (such as the one found at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ojwANp_D_fE). Then have students do some research on her life and return to the group with five facts. If possible, read aloud from the picture book mentioned in the novel, Little Melba and Her Big Trombone by Katheryn Russell-Brown, and discuss it along with the information students gather about Liston.
5. The novel uses vivid figurative language to create images in the reader’s mind. For example, “Each noise bounces around the walls of my head like a rubber ball” and “Everyone’s gaze is like a hundred headlights.” Ask students to find other examples of figurative language in the story, identify what’s being compared, and discuss the impact of the images. Have each student take a few of the images and write their own figures of speech that the author could have used instead.
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.
This guide has been provided by Simon & Schuster for classroom, library, and reading group use. It may be reproduced in its entirety or excerpted for these purposes. For more Simon & Schuster guides and classroom materials, please visit simonandschuster.net or simonandschuster.net/thebookpantry.