Chapter 1: Fan Number One
Natalie couldn't take it. She peeked in the doorway of the school library, then turned, took six steps down the hall, turned, paced back, and stopped to look in at Zoe again. The suspense was torture.
Zoe was still reading. The first two chapters only added up to twelve pages. Natalie leaned against the door frame and chewed on her thumbnail. She thought, What's taking her so long?
Zoe could see Natalie out of the corner of her eye. She could feel all that nervous energy nudging at her, but Zoe wasn't about to be rushed. She always read slowly, and she liked it that way, especially when it was a good story. And this one was good.
The Cheater by Natalie Nelson
I catch up with Sean between Eighty-second and Eighty-first Streets. His legs are longer than mine, so I'm panting. I grab his arm and he stops in front of a bodega.
He says, "Why are you following me?"
"I've got to talk to you."
"Yeah, well, too bad. You had your chance to talk during the Penalty Board hearing. And you didn't."
"But if I told the truth, then the whole school would know I cheated. I'd get expelled."
He just looks at me. "But you really did cheat, right?...And I really didn't steal that answer key, right?...And you know I didn't steal it because you did, right?"
I nod yes to all the questions.
Sean is almost shouting now, his eyes wild. "So first you steal, then you cheat, and now you've lied. And me? You've left me to take the punishment."
The shopkeeper is worried. He moves from the counter to the doorway of the bodega, looking at us.
Sean ignores him and gets right into my face, screaming. "Well, guess what, Angela. We're not friends now and I don't know if we ever were!"
He storms away, hands jammed in his pockets, shoulders hunched, stabbing the sidewalk with every step.
Me, I cry.
Zoe let page twelve slip onto the table and then stared at it, deep in thought.
"So, what do you think?"
Natalie was right behind her, and Zoe jumped six inches. "Jeez, Natalie! Scare me to death! And you ruined a nice moment too."
"But what do you think? Is it any good?"
Zoe nodded. "I think it's very good."
"Really?" Natalie pulled out a chair and sat down, leaning forward. "I mean, you're not just saying that because we're best friends?"
Zoe shook her head. "No, I mean it. It's good. Like I can't wait to read the whole thing. Can you bring the rest tomorrow?"
Natalie smiled and reached into her backpack. She pulled out a blue folder with a rubber band around it. "Here. I've still got to write about five more chapters. I just needed to know if the beginning was any good, but you can read what I've got done if you want."
Zoe took the folder carefully and said, "This is great. But you are going to finish it, right? Do you know the whole story already like all the way to the end?"
Natalie said, "Not all the way to the end...but almost. I know how the end feels, but not exactly what happens at least, not yet."
Natalie's book had begun by accident on the bus with her mom late one afternoon back in September. Sixth grade was already three weeks old, and both she and her mom had settled into the routine of commuting together. It was a Friday afternoon, and they were going home on the 5:55 coach, thundering through the Lincoln Tunnel from New York City to Hoboken, New Jersey.
Her mom looked exhausted. Natalie studied the face tilted toward her on the headrest. It was a pretty face Prettier than mine, she thought. But there were little lines at the corners of her mother's eyes and mouth. Care lines, worry lines.
Natalie said, "Hard day, Mom?"
Eyes still closed, her mom smiled and nodded. "The editorial department met all day with the marketing department all day."
Natalie asked, "How come?" When her dad died, Natalie had decided she needed to talk to her mom more. Sometimes she pretended to be interested in her mom's work at the publishing company even when she wasn't. Like now.
Her mom said, "Well, the marketing people keep track of what kinds of books kids and parents and teachers are buying. Then they tell us, and we're supposed to make more books like the ones they think people will buy."
Natalie said, "Makes sense. So, what kinds of books do they want you to make?"
Hannah Nelson lifted her head off the seat back and turned toward Natalie. "Here's the summary of a six-hour meeting. Ready?"
Her mom used a deep voice that sounded bossy. "People, we need to publish more adventure books, more series books, and more school stories." In her regular voice she said, "That was it. A six-hour meeting for something that could have gone into a one-page memo or a three-line E-mail."
Then Natalie asked, "What's a school story?"
"A school story is just what it sounds like it's a short novel about kids and stuff that happens mostly at school."
Natalie thought for a second and then said, "You mean like Dear Mr. Henshaw?"
And her mom said, "Exactly."
Then Natalie said to herself, Hey, who knows more about school than someone who's right there, five days a week, nine months a year? I bet I could write a school story.
And that was all it took. Natalie Nelson the novelist was born.
Or almost born. Her career as an author didn't officially spring to life until about four months later on that afternoon in the school library after Zoe read the first two chapters.
Because it's the same for every new author, for every new book. Somebody has to be the first to read it. Somebody has to be the first to say she likes it. Somebody has to be that first fan.
And of course, that was Zoe.
Text copyright © 2001 by Andrew Clements