Twelve-year-old Owen Birnbaum is the fattest kid in school. But he's also a genius who invents cool contraptions? like a TV that shows the past. Something happened two years ago that he needs to see. But genius or not, there is much Owen can't outthink. Like his gym coach, who's on a mission to humiliate him. Or the way his Oreos keep disappearing from his lunch. He's sure that if he can only get the TV to work, things will start to make sense. But it will take a revelation for Owen, not science, to see the answer's not in the past, but the present. That no matter how large he is on the outside, he doesn't have to feel small on the inside.
With her trademark humor, Ellen Potter has created a larger-than-life character and story whose weight is immense when measured in heart.
About the Author
Like my character, Olivia Kidney, I grew up in a high-rise apartment building in New York City’s Upper West Side. In fact, the idea for Olivia Kidney came from a game I used to play when I was about eight or nine years old. I would watch people in the building’s elevator (most of whom I knew nothing about) and make up crazy stories about their apartments. There was one woman, for instance, who was sort of chubby and always cheerful, so I imagined that she lived in an apartment made entirely of chocolate! I imagined that her walls were made of chocolate, so she could lick them, and her furniture was chocolate, and she had a chocolate refrigerator that only contained chocolate eggs and chocolate milk. And if she got hungry in the middle of the night, she could nibble on her bed.
I remember the exact moment when I knew, without a doubt, that I wanted to be a writer. I was eleven years old and I was in my school library, strolling through the aisles, trying to decide what to read next. Should it be A Wrinkle in Time? Or maybe Harriet the Spy. In a flash, I decided that the best books in the world were written for eleven-year-olds! Sadly, my twelfth birthday was just around the corner. So I reasoned that the only thing to do was to grow up and write books for eleven-year-olds. Which is pretty much what happened (after many years and piles of rejections letters).
I studied creative writing at Binghamton University. After graduating I worked many different jobs while I continued to write. I was a dog groomer, a construction worker, an art teacher, and a waitress. Having lots of different jobs is a terrific advantage for a writer. Because of them, I know all kinds of oddball things, which I’ve used in my books, like how to remove bubble gum from a dog’s fur (peanut butter). In fact, it was while I was addressing envelopes during a boring stint as a receptionist that a name caught my eye: Olivia Kidney. What a great name, I thought! I jotted it down in my journal. Years later, while thumbing through my old journals, I spotted the name and decided it was perfect for the feisty twelve-year-old heroine of my first children’s book.
These days, my husband and I live in upstate New York with our new baby boy and a motley assortment of badly behaved animals.
For more information visit www.ellenpotter.com.
Read an Excerpt
My name is Owen Birnbaum, and I’m probably fatter than you are. This isn’t my low self-esteem talking. This is pure statistics. I’m five foot two and I weigh 156 pounds. That’s 57 percent fatter than the national average for a twelve year-old boy.
I’m also probably smarter than you. I don’t mean that as an insult. Again, statistics. They had my IQ tested in the second grade. I won’t tell you my score. Actually, I can’t tell you my score because I promised my mother I wouldn’t do that anymore. I used to tell everyone. My mother said that was obnoxious. I think she was also worried about giving my sister, Jeremy, a complex. Jeremy is a year younger than I am and not the brightest crayon in the box. She’s a good kid. Just very so-so in the cerebral cortex region.
I’m sure you’ve noticed that a lot of books start out with some kid’s first day at a new school. You can see why, of course. It makes for great suspense. The new kid is feeling very nervous. Everything seems slightly sinister. Half the kids in the class look like they want to smash his face in, and the other half look like they would love to see the first half of the class smash his face in.
The thing is, when you are fatter and smarter than the national average, practically every day is like the first day at a new school.
So, I’m starting this book on a Tuesday, and school has already been in session for a few weeks now. I go to Martha Doxie School in New York City. A three-story red brick nightmare of educational progress. They have this thing called “The Deskless Classroom,” where everyone does what interests them. We have different workstations . . . science, writing, global studies. We choose what we want to study at any given time. No desks. Just workstations. Which are basically desks.
The school’s motto is Compassion, Not Competition.
The thing is, most kids don’t give a flea’s fart aboutcompassion.
Exhibit A: My missing Oreo cookies.
Kids who bring their own lunches put them up on the top shelf of a hallway closet just outside their classrooms. Mom always puts my lunch in a cloth sack, which is made of recycled socks or something like that. My name is printed on it very clearly. She always puts three Oreos in an ecocontainer, which is made of recycled shower curtains (I’m not kidding, they really are made from shower curtains). Three Oreos at lunch. That’s our agreement, since I started this new diet. At first, she tried to give me some of the fake Oreos, with the organic ingredients and stuff like barley and cane juice, but I put my foot down there. The cookie part actually tasted pretty close to the original, but the cream inside was all wrong. When you opened the cookie and tried to scrape the cream off with your teeth, it all came off in one sticky disk and sort of dangled from the inside of your top teeth. If you didn’t catch it in time, it just plopped down into your lap. Completely unacceptable.
We argued about this for a long time, but I wouldn’t budge on the issue, so she finally gave in. I’ve had three bona fide Oreos in my lunch ever since. It’s a ritual for me. I look forward to them. I really do. It’s like a spiritual thing. No matter how lousy my morning was, those three Oreo cookies remind me that life also has its high points. Its moments of bliss.
If there was any day I needed a moment of bliss, it was that day.
The Martha Doxie School is progressive in everything except gym class. As far as gym goes, they are totally conventional. Bad uniforms. Ridiculous stretching exercises that make your bad uniform ride up into all the wrong nooks and crannies. Ropes to burn your inner thighs on, volleyballs to slam at each other’s heads, basketballs to pass only to your friends. In gym class the school’s motto reverses itself.
Competition, Not Compassion.
The gym teacher is Mr. Wooly. A nice, cozy, snuggly name. I really think that people should be named more appropriately. They used to do that back in the fourteenth century. If you were a potter in the fourteenth century, you were named Mr. Potter. If you father made beer, you were Mr. Brewer. No surprises.
Back in the fourteenth century, Mr. Wooly would have been named Mr. A Few Fries Short of a Happy Meal.
Mr. Walks like a Constipated Ape.
Mr. Hates Unathletic Kids and Enjoys Seeing Them Suffer.
In the locker room, I tinkered around with my combination lock for a while, waiting until most of the boys were changed and heading out to the gym. I always do that. When the locker room was pretty much empty, I quickly changed into the gym uniform of white T-shirt and blue shorts. I do it at lightning speed in order to make it out to the gym on time. It takes thirty-four seconds on a good day. Forty-six seconds if I have to undo any buttons. Then I rushed out onto the gym floor. Someone made a fart sound as I passed. That happens quite a bit, actually. Mr. Wooly was up front, engrossed in moving odd-looking equipment out of the supply room. I took my assigned spot on the 12D grid—the numbers run along the front and back walls of the gym and the letters run along the side walls of the gym. I stood right next to Andre Bertoni. He was already stretching, even though he didn’t have to yet. He swung his adult-sized muscle-bound arms from side to side and bounced on his toes, as though he was preparing for the Olympic 400-meter dash.
“What’s up, Flapjack?” he asked, flashing me one of his movie star smiles. He’s called me Flapjack for the past two years. I don’t know why. It’s idiotic, but people have called me worse.
“What do you think all that stuff is for?” I asked him nervously, looking at the equipment that Mr. Wooly was arranging. There were stands with metal poles across them, beefy-looking, vinyl-covered gizmos, loads of floor mats.
“Looks like we’ll be doing some gymnastics,” Andre said breezily.
“Oh, crap.” I said it under my breath, but Andre heard.
“Hey, Flapjack,” Andre hissed, tipping his head in a gesture for me to come closer to him. I glanced over at Mr. Wooly. He was kneeling down, unrolling a long bluemat on the floor.
“Yeah?” I said, moving closer a little cagily. You never know with Andre.
“Why don’t you just get one of those fat exemptions?” Andre said quietly.
“What?” I felt my shoulders stiffen up.
“A fat exemption. You know. Your doctor writes it for you. It says you don’t have to do gym because you’re so fat that exercise could make your heart stop.” He thumped me on the back. He thumps me a lot.
I grunted and started to walk back to my spot, but Andre grabbed my arm.
“No joke, Flapjack. Look at that stuff.” He nodded toward the apparatus. “You’ll cripple yourself! And Wooly will love it. It’s not worth the pain.”
That’s the thing about Andre Bertoni. I can never tell if he’s being nice or mean. I often think I should hate him, but somehow he makes it difficult.
“Whenever Mr. Birnbaum is finished flirting with Mr. Bertoni, we can get started on our stretches!” Mr. Wooly had finished unrolling the mat and was now glaring at mewith his ape arms crossed over his ape chest. A chorus of snickers and catcalls rose up from the class.
I have no trouble hating Mr. Wooly, incidentally.
Mr. Wooly led us through a bunch of ridiculous stretching exercises. He didn’t do them himself. He never does. He just barks out instructions. That day I didn’t mind doing the stretching, though. It delayed what was to come. My eyes kept drifting over to the apparatus next to Mr. Wooly. I tlooked evil. It looked like it was specially designed to humiliate me.
I actually started to consider the fat exemption. I wondered if that was a real possibility. Mom had taken me in for a checkup before school, and the doctor had clucked his tongue as he read the scale. Then he gave Mom what they call a “firm talking to.” I felt really bad for her. It’s not her fault, after all.
That doctor might give me a fat exemption.
But I couldn’t do that. I have too much pride.
There’s that saying, “Pride cometh before the fall.” Yeah, I thought as I looked at the gymnastic equipment, there was going to be a lot of falling involved.
“All right, ladies and gentlemen!” Mr. Wooly clapped so loudly that it echoed throughout the gym.
PS, this is an all-boy class. No ladies. Hardy har har.
“For the next three weeks we are going to try something different. We are going to challenge our bodies. We are going to test our fears.”
Andre Bertoni caught my eye and winked. I have noidea why. Maybe he was relishing the thought of having hisfears tested. Or watching my fears being tested.
I don’t think I was the only one who was nervous about this gymnastic stuff, though. I had enough presence of mind to look around at the faces of the other boys. A lot of them were eying the gymnastic apparatus apprehensively. Onereally skinny kid named Justin Esposito was actually clutching at his stomach as though he were going to be sick. I feltso bad for him that I almost forgot to feel bad for me. Nima would have liked that. He would have thought it was very Buddhist of me.
I’ll tell you more about Nima later. Mr. Wooly explained about all the apparatus and what we were going to be doing on each one in the next few weeks, whether we liked it or not. We’d be flipping andflyingin the air. We’d regularly be defying the law of gravity. But first . . . He paused and looked around at all our faces. We stared back at him, waiting. He loved it, you could tell.
“First, we are going to learn how to do a somersault properly.”
A lot of the boys groaned, including Andre. I, on the other hand, felt like I had been handed a death sentence reprieve from the governor. Justin Esposito actually smiled. Big mistake.
“We’ll start with Mr. Esposito, since he is so overjoyed at the thought of doing somersaults. Gather around the mat, gentleworms.” Hardy har har.
We stood on either side of the long blue mat, while Mr. Wooly guided Justin Esposito to the front of it. Poor Justin looked like he was about to vomit. I was actually wishing that he would vomit so he’d be spared. A vomit exemption. But seeing someone vomit makes me want to vomit, so I took back the wish. I didn’t think I’d tell Nima about that, since it was less than empathetic.
“Get down on all fours, Mr. Esposito,” Mr. Wooly commanded.
Justin did. “Now put your head down two inches in front of the line of your shoulders,” Mr. Wooly said. “Legs hip width apart, toes tucked under, tailbone down.”
Justin Esposito’s ears were turning crimson, and he looked like he was in pain.
“Push your left hip out a little. Now tuck your head down and push with your toes. Now! Push! Now!”
Justin’s right leg kicked up and he toppled over to his right side. People laughed. I did too. I’m not proud of it. I almost didn’t tell you. I definitely will never tell Nima.
Mr. Wooly could not have been more pleased. He didn’t even have Justin try again. It would have ruined the moment if he’d actually managed to do a somersault on the second try.
The next boy up managed a decent somersault. The one after that did too. But then came a kid who was one ofthe lousier basketball players, and he failed miserably. What I noticed, though, was that when the athletic boys were on the mat, Mr. Wooly hardly gave them any instruction at all. However, when one of us non athletic types came to the mat, Mr. Wooly would bark out all these instructions about where to put their head and how to adjust their hips, and by the time the kid was all situated he looked as stiff and unnatural as if he were playing a game of Twister. When he pushed off into a tumble, he’d fall in this cockeyed way, which would make everyone laugh. Except for me. I wasn’t laughing any more. It was becoming clear to me that Mr. Wooly was setting these kids up. The way he had themplace their bodies, they were bound to fall in some weird way. It was pure physics. It made me so mad I wanted to rat on Mr. Wooly. I didn’t, though. I’m very non confrontational. But I wouldn’t laugh anymore.
“And next comes Mr. Birnbaum! Show us how it’s done, Mr. Birnbaum.” Mr. Wooly was already snickering. A pre-guffaw snicker. He was really looking forward to this. The fattest kid in class, flopping on the mat like a giant ravioli. Hysterical.
I walked up to the edge of the mat, avoiding the faces of my classmates. I could hear them laughing already.
“This is going to be so excellent,” I heard someone say.
“All right, Birnbaum, down on all fours.” Mr. Wooly started yelling his instructions at me. “Arms shoulders’ width apart. Head tucked. Rump to the sky. The birds will think the moon has fallen.” Everyone laughed at this. He waited till the laughter died down. “Okay. Now push your right hip out slightly.”
That was it. Wooly’s little trick to get me to fall funny.
“Come on, Birnbaum. Push out your right hip,” he said.
I wouldn’t do it. And you know what? It was less about not wanting to fall funny than it was about Mr. Wooly thinking he was smarter than I was. He really thought no one knew what he was up to. That just deep-fried me.
“If I push out my right hip,” I said, my voice sounding strangled because of the odd angle of my head, “I’ll topple to the side when I tumble.”
“Don’t whine,” Mr. Wooly snarled. “Just do what I tell you to do, Birnbaum. There are other people waiting their turn. Now, push out your right hip and shove off from your toes.”
“It won’t work that way. It can’t. It’s obvious. I mean, it’s just simple physics.” I probably shouldn’t have said that. Mr. Wooly is pretty stupid. You should never let stupid people know that you know they’re stupid. Particularly when they are your gym teacher.
Mr. Wooly went very quiet then. My head was still tucked under my chin, so I couldn’t see Mr. Wooly’s face, but I could see the faces of some of my classmates. They were looking in the direction of Mr. Wooly, their eyes wide. I started to get scared. Untucking my chin, I rolled back on the balls of my feet.
“Freeze, Birnbaum,” Mr. Wooly said.
I froze. I was in roughly the position of a frog about to leap.
“Stay . . . right . . . there.” He wasn’t shouting now. He sounded, in fact, like he had an idea. I was close to terrified.
I heard his sneakers squeaking against the polished gym floor as he walked away. Then I heard the squeal of the equipment door opening. There was some murmuring among the class as everyone wondered what on earth he was doing.
“Hang in there, Flapjack,” I heard Andre say.
You see what I mean about him?
My thighs were beginning to burn from holding the awkward position. I didn’t move, though. I heard the sound of clanking in the equipment room, as though Mr. Wooly was rummaging around for something. How bad could it be? I reasoned. He can’t really do anything to physically hurt me. He’d get in too much trouble for that. And therewere witnesses.
But then I remembered that Mr. Wooly was a few fries short of a Happy Meal. That was when my heart started pounding so hard I thought it might stop.