Summer of Stolen Secrets

Summer of Stolen Secrets

by Julie Sternberg
Summer of Stolen Secrets

Summer of Stolen Secrets

by Julie Sternberg


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A city girl spends the summer in the South and learns the secrets of her estranged extended family.

Catarina has never met her strict Jewish grandmother. But now, with an opportunity to spend three weeks in Baton Rouge and away from her best-friends-turned-bullies, Cat packs her bags and leaves New York City to get to know the woman who has always been a mystery. Down South, she begins working at her grandmother's luxury department store with her rebellious cousin Lexie. Nothing seems to be going right and nobody talks about the past. But just when Cat is starting to think that this whole trip may have been a huge mistake, she stumbles onto a secret from a time her grandmother refuses to speak of. Suddenly Cat's summer, and everything she thought she knew, has changed.

Award-winning author Julie Sternberg tells a tender family story full of humor, heart, and heartbreak that reveals the power of forgiveness and proves it's never too late to start over.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780593203644
Publisher: Penguin Young Readers Group
Publication date: 05/11/2021
Pages: 288
Sales rank: 1,064,614
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.30(h) x 1.00(d)
Lexile: 710L (what's this?)
Age Range: 10 - 12 Years

About the Author

Julie Sternberg is the bestselling author of the Eleanor series, which includes Like Pickle Juice on a Cookie, a Texas Bluebonnet Award Master list selection and a Gryphon Award winner. Before becoming a writer, Julie worked as a public interest lawyer. Please visit her at

Read an Excerpt

I’m sorry.
   That’s what I’m sitting here thinking, Safta.
I’m so sorry, and I want to make things right.
   It’s strange. My whole life until now I would’ve said you should apologize to me. And practically everyone would’ve agreed. Until I came to Baton Rouge a few weeks ago, you acted as if I didn’t exist. I never once received a phone call from you, not even on my birthday. No letters, either. No cards, no emails, no texts, no presents. And you’re my grandmother.
   Now I’m in the wrong, though, not you. I’m sitting on the yellow linoleum floor of your storeroom, across from the boxes filled with your secrets, wanting to guard them. I shouldn’t know those secrets. I feel so bad about the way I uncovered them.
   I can’t fix that, but I can at least try to understand you better, and tell you more about me. Things I never talk about.
   I just have to decide how to begin.

Here’s something practically no one knows: I almost didn’t go to Baton Rouge. I almost stayed home in Manhattan, the way I have every other summer my whole life. If Ruthie Dane and Amelia Ogden hadn’t turned mean about a month ago, in May, just before the three of us finished seventh grade, I would’ve gone to a bookmaking camp in the West Village with the two of them in June, then tennis camp in Central Park in July. I’d already signed up and everything.
   But they did turn mean. Mysteriously and thoroughly mean.
   It started on a Friday, the day before Hannah Arnstein’s bat mitzvah. (I know what you’d say, Safta, if you were standing right here. You’d say, “You must have a bat mitzvah, Catarina.” But wait until you hear about this one.)
   That Friday, they were mean from the instant they saw me, right outside Spanish class. We were the only three girls in that class. Every day for months we had met in the hall before the bell, then walked into the room together. I always got there first because I’m in Math A, which is only one floor up. They’re in Math B, which is three floors down.
   You’re probably wondering, Math A? Does that mean you’re better at math than they are? Yes, it does. I am better at math than both of them put together. In lower school, when we had math classes together, I was always about fifteen folders ahead of them. That’s not nice to say, but it’s true. Plus, they were not nice to me first.
   Anyway, on the day they turned mean I was watching for them to come through the door to the stairwell together, then wave and hurry over to me. Since that’s what they usually did.
   Instead, this time, they came through the door, stopped really dramatically, then Ruthie pointed at me and said, “There’s Cat! Run!
   Then they both ran from me, down the long hallway!
   I felt pretty frozen, standing there watching their backs as they laughed and scooted around anyone standing in their way. Is that a joke? I kept thinking. It must be a joke. That’s why they’re laughing.
   I had a bad feeling they were laughing at me, even though that made no sense. I couldn’t just stand there waiting for them to come back and laugh in my face, so I picked my backpack up off the hall floor—it felt heavier than it ever had in my whole life—and I went to sit down in Spanish.
   We don’t have desks in there. We have three long tables instead, set up in a U that faces the whiteboard, with a bunch of chairs at the tables. There’re only eight kids in the class, and way too many chairs, and we don’t have assigned seats. (I’m giving all these chair details for a reason—don’t get impatient.)
   I was the only person in the whole classroom at that point. I sat in a random chair and pulled a book out of my backpack, any book at all, I didn’t even notice what it was, and I started pretending to read. I didn’t want to just sit there doing nothing—that would’ve looked really weird. But I couldn’t actually concentrate on a book because I kept hearing Ruthie in my head saying, There’s Cat! Run! Over and over.
   The first kid who came in was this boy Max van Helmond, who started at our school in sixth grade. I barely knew him because we hadn’t been in any other classes together. I still thought of him as a new kid. Plus he’s pretty funny-looking. His hair’s frizzy and covers his eyes, and his skin is very pale—even paler than mine—and he’s really skinny. I know looks are a terrible reason not to get to know someone. But I got distracted whenever I looked at him because I kept wanting to trim his hair.
   Anyway, Max walked in and stopped when he saw me all alone. “Hey,” he said, and I said “Hey” back. Then I went on pretending to read.
   “Where are Blondie and Glitter?” he asked. That was obviously Amelia (her hair used to be white blonde, but it’s getting darker now, just like her personality) and Ruthie (she’s extremely fond of glitter—in her eye shadow and lip gloss and nail polish; on her notebook covers—she calls it her “signature”).
   I shrugged without looking up from my book.
   “You’re pretty talented,” he said.
   I did look up then.
   “Not everyone can read upside down.”
   Turned out I was holding my science textbook upside down. I slammed it shut and shoved it in my backpack and crossed my arms over my chest and definitely did not smile. Max stared without saying anything.
   Then Glitter Ruthie came in. Again she stopped and pointed when she saw me. This time she said, “You can’t sit there. That’s Amelia’s seat.”
   “No, it’s not,” I said. And Max, who turns out to be a fabulous human being, said, “It’s really not.”
   Again, there were no assigned seats in that Spanish class! We always just sat wherever!
   Ruthie took her beglittered, freckly self off to the other side of the room and sat. Then she made a big show of pulling out the chair beside her and setting her backpack on it, obviously saving the seat for Amelia, who was definitely in the bathroom brushing her blonde hair. I didn’t have to see that to know it. It’s her favorite activity.
   Max took a seat a few spaces down from me.
   Then the teacher came in, and other kids, with Amelia last, her hair of course looking very freshly brushed and ridiculously shiny. She sped past me without even looking my way, and I decided I would never again trust anyone with particularly glistening hair. Ever.
   Our teacher started talking about a new assignment—a presentation on Spanish artists. She never spoke English to us, only Spanish. As soon as she said the word “presentación” my heart fell even further, from the bends in my knees to the tips of my toes. That whole year, Amelia, Ruthie, and I had done every single other presentación together, the three of us.
   I half paid attention to the rest of what Señora Alvarez said while keeping an eye on those two girls. I knew they wouldn’t understand her—they never do—they’re always asking me to translate. (They’re basically not the smartest people on the planet.)
   Sure enough, Ruthie started leaning over to ask Ethan Gardner questions. Then, when Señora Alvarez told us to break into groups and get started, Ruthie practically shouted at me, “We’re doing this project by ourselves. The two of us.”
   “Well, then, you’re going to fail,” I should’ve shouted back. But my brain had stopped working. I just looked down instead.
   Then, from the corner of my eye, I noticed Max watching me.
   “What?” I asked him, in a not-nice tone. I wasn’t trying to be mean; I just didn’t want anybody looking at me for a second. My whole body was feeling trembly.
   “I don’t have a partner,” he said. “Want to be partners?”
   I nodded without saying anything, and my mouth got all tight, and I had to take some deep breaths and tell myself, broccoli, broccoli, broccoli to distract myself from crying. Because other people’s kindness sometimes makes me feel weirdly weepy.
   I succeeded—I kept myself from crying. Then I did shout over at Glitter-Rhymes-with-Hit-Her and Blondie.
   “We’re going to be partners,” I told them, pointing back and forth between me and Max. “And we’re going to get an A.”
   Which—not to ruin the rest of the story or anything—we did.

As soon as I got home that afternoon, I went to tell Mom I couldn’t leave the apartment all weekend. Ruthie, Amelia, and I had been planning to sit together at Hannah Arnstein’s bat mitzvah the next day. We’d even planned our outfits: Ruthie would wear her brand-new, super-short, dark red, lacy dress. (She called it “merlot” instead of red. If you ever saw it, Safta, you’d call it “tarty.” You’d call all her dresses tarty.) Amelia would wear her indigo tank dress, because indigo looks good with “merlot.” And I’d wear my swingy aqua dress because, according to Ruthie, the aqua would make us “pop.” (Ruthie always decided what I’d wear in these kinds of situations. I never cared. I know you’d hate hearing that—I know how much you want fashion to matter to me. But it’s true.)
   Now, obviously, I wouldn’t be making us pop, because there was no us. And I wasn’t going anywhere near the bat mitzvah, with them in their merlot and indigo, either. I just had to convince Mom.
   I found her sitting at her desk, elbows up, face in both hands, staring at a sea of papers. Her hair was its usual wavy, crazy mess, and I felt overcome with love because it’s not even close to shiny. It’s always on the dry side, and she tends to skip things like conditioner when she has a court deadline coming up, like she did then. She also zones out and doesn’t fully see or hear me until I make her snap out of it.
   None of that makes her a bad person! Or a bad mom! I don’t want you thinking that, ever. She’s a good person—she helps people fight for their rights. Plus when she makes an effort, she looks really nice. She never smells bad or anything, either—she always remembers to put on deodorant and brush her teeth. And she usually pays enough attention to me. Probably too much attention.
   Standing by her desk, I waved both hands and said loudly, “Mom! Hello? Mom!” until she sat up and focused and smiled at me and said, “You’re home!”
   I made a sad face and said, “I don’t feel good. I haven’t felt good for hours.” That was the absolute truth.
   She got very concerned (see? she’s a good mom) and motioned for me to lean toward her so she could kiss my forehead. “No fever, I don’t think. What’re your symptoms?”
   “It hurts here.” I pointed at the right side of my stomach. She worries about appendicitis when I have right-side stomach pain.
   The problem is, she knows me well. And I’m a terrible liar. It’s a real issue. Right away, just reading my face, she could tell something else was going on.
   Also, she knows when not to say anything. It’s basically a superpower.
   She watched me and didn’t say anything.
   “I’m sick,” I insisted, gripping my stomach.
   Not a word. Just a slight raising of eyebrows.
   “It could be serious,” I told her. “I’ve felt rotten since just before Spanish.” I had hurt all over ever since then. “I think maybe I should stay in bed this whole weekend and just get better.”
   She finally spoke, getting up from her desk.
   “We’ll take your temperature and confirm you don’t have a fever. Then we’ll talk more.”
   We went to her bathroom; she cleaned the thermometer—the whole temperature-taking process.
   I didn’t have a fever.
   Mom leaned against the sink and started asking a million questions.
   “Did you have a fight with Hannah? Is that why you don’t want to go to her bat mitzvah?”
   “What, then? A fight with someone else?”
   “No.” (It wasn’t a fight. It was a massacre.)
   “Well, was someone mean to you?”
   That was a question I didn’t answer. Because if I said yes, she’d demand details, and then she’d have a hundred and fifty thousand suggestions for fixing the problem. That’s who she is—she fights to see justice served. I didn’t want to hear a hundred and fifty thousand suggestions. I was confused and exhausted, and my feelings were hurt, and I wanted to be alone in my room with my pain.
   “Did you do something mean?” she asked when I just stood there without answering.
   “I didn’t do one single thing!” I shouted. I knew this would happen—everyone would assume I’d done something wrong, because why else would Amelia and Ruthie just turn on me? But I hadn’t done anything.
   Mom shook her head. “No shouting.”
   I glared at her, and she looked back at me.
   “I want to go in my room,” I told her. Not shouting.
   I can read her face, like she can read mine. I could see her decide it wasn’t the right time to keep asking questions.
   “Here’s what I have to say about the bat mitzvah,” she said instead. “Since you don’t have a fever.”
   Then she gave me a whole lecture about how when you RSVP “yes” to an event, you have an obligation, and it’s important to honor obligations, and each guest costs the hosts lots of money, and backing out is not the right thing to do.
   (Doesn’t hearing that make you like my mom more, Safta? Don’t you thinkyou could’ve made every single one of those points?)
   Obviously my sickness plan got menowhere. On Saturday morning I had to walk up the long, stone steps to Hannah Arnstein’s synagogue all by myself. I wore a tan dress. You would’ve told me not to wear it because the color washes me out. But I didn’t care one bit whether I looked good. I just didn’t want to “pop.”

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