The Big Dreams of Small Creatures

The Big Dreams of Small Creatures

by Gail Lerner
The Big Dreams of Small Creatures

The Big Dreams of Small Creatures

by Gail Lerner


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From Black-ish writer and director Gail Lerner comes a whimsical and heartwarming tale where two unlikely allies band together to protect and defend the insect world from the worst enemy of all…humans.

“What an enchanting and wondrous book for young readers.” —Jamie Lee Curtis, actress and bestselling children’s book author

Ten-year-old Eden’s quiet life is upended when she saves a paper wasp nest from destruction and discovers, to her awe and amazement, that she and its haughty queen can talk to each other. This first conversation is the start of a grand adventure, leading Eden to The Institute for Lower Learning, a secret laboratory devoted to the peaceful coexistence of humans and insects. The Institute is more fantastic and idyllic than Eden could’ve imagined but hidden deep within its tunnels is an old secret that could spell the end for all insects on earth.

Nine-year-old August, an aspiring actor and bullied fourth-grader, is looking for that very secret after a few disastrous encounters have left him wanting to squash every annoying bug into oblivion. After all insects are small—he is big. And if there is anything he’s learned from the bullies at school—it's that being bigger is what counts.

But in the world of the Institute where insects have a place of their own, both Eden and August discover being bigger isn't necessarily better and sometimes the most courageous thing to do is to set out to make a new friend.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780593407851
Publisher: Penguin Young Readers Group
Publication date: 10/04/2022
Pages: 368
Sales rank: 316,668
Product dimensions: 5.71(w) x 8.54(h) x 1.25(d)
Lexile: 950L (what's this?)
Age Range: 10 - 12 Years

About the Author

Gail Lerner is a television and film writer/director. She has recently directed her first feature film, a reimagining of Cheaper by the Dozen, for Disney+, which will be released in February of 2022. Additionally, she has written and directed for Black-ish, Happy Endings, Ugly Betty, Grace and Frankie and Will & Grace. Her work has garnered her a Peabody Award, 6 NAACP Image Awards, and multiple Emmy and Golden Globe nominations. Her short film, Seraglio, which was co-written and co-directed with her dashing and talented husband, Colin Campbell, was nominated for a 2001 Academy Award. She holds an MFA in Theater Directing from Columbia University. This is her first novel.

Read an Excerpt

In the Wings

August stood backstage in the darkness, whispering tongue twisters to himself.

“Rubber baby buggy bumpers. Rubber baby buggy bumpers. Rubber baby buggy bumpers. The sixth sheik’s sixth sheep’s sick. The sixth sheik’s sixth sheep’s sick.”

The area he was standing in was called the wings. When Ms. Batra, the school’s drama teacher, first told his class that a stage had wings, August imagined the broad wooden floor taking off, like a giant bird or airplane, and flying in circles above the folding chairs below. He was surprised and a bit disappointed to learn that the wings were actually the dusty space on either side of the stage, where the curtains hung in bunched-up clusters while the performance was taking place.

August peered out at the bright stage, admiring the three cardboard walls that were decorated to look like the inside of a house. Unlike a real house, which had a fourth wall to keep the house warm and private and keep strangers from looking in, a stage set had only three walls on purpose, so the audience could see everything inside: the three chairs, the three beds, and the three bowls of porridge.
August rocked on the balls of his feet, impatient for his first entrance as Papa Bear. He wasn’t nervous, just excited. He’d been so eager for this moment that he’d been tearing the pages off his word-a-day calendar without even glancing at the daily word. He’d thought that Thursday, April 29th, would never come, but it was finally here: the day of their first performance for the entire school. The big show for their parents would be that Saturday, but the idea of performing for their classmates was even more exciting. The annual play was the only time August got to be a star at school. For at least a week after each show, kids and teachers from all grades would stop him in the hall and say how good he was.
Today, the lunchroom-slash-assembly-room-slash-theater was packed with kindergartners through fifth graders, thrilled all to be missing class to see a show. August was only in fourth grade, but he’d been in many plays. He’d discovered that he loved acting when his kindergarten class had per­formed a dance in the school’s Spring Festival. August had played a sunflower. The whole dance had only lasted about a minute, but as he moved from lying curled on the floor in green felt overalls, to rising to his feet, to finally standing on his tiptoes as he reached his yellow-gloved hands toward the papier-mâché sun, August realized that he wanted to spend every minute of his life onstage. When he was acting, he was no longer the anxious, chubby-cheeked little nine-year-old who got picked last for Red Rover. He could be anyone or anything: even the tallest, most graceful flower in the field. He dreamed of the day when he would become a real actor on a real stage, instead of in a multipurpose room that smelled like meatballs.
He was thrilled when Ms. Batra announced that this year the fourth-grade play would be Goldilocks and the Three Bears, and that it would be longer than any play they’d done before: twenty whole minutes. When August asked if it could be half an hour, Ms. Batra explained that a fourth-grade play couldn’t be any longer than twenty minutes; otherwise they would “lose the audience.” When she’d first said this, August imagined the entire audience of parents lost in the woods like Hansel and Gretel, but then Ms. Batra explained that “losing the audience” meant that the audience would stop paying attention, and that as actors it was their job to make those twenty minutes as interesting and delightful for them as possible. August thought about his parents, who often came home tired and frustrated by their jobs, and he loved knowing that if he did his job well, he could make their lives more interesting and delightful, even if it was only for twenty minutes at a time.
August adjusted his ears and looked down at the furry brown mittens and slippers that protruded from the arms and legs of his blue church suit. Ms. Batra had glued claws onto them, and August had been so happy with how they looked, she’d had to remind him five times that he couldn’t dance around in them until they’d dried. Ms. Batra was so wise and talented. And kind and pretty. She was for sure the best teacher at Madison Prep. Maybe in all of Rhode Island. Maybe in the whole country. August adored the costume she’d made. It was the perfect combination of bear and human, which made it easy and fun to play a wild animal who also had the best qualities of a human father. As Papa Bear, August got to be the kind of dad he wished he had.
August’s father had to travel for work all the time. Right now, he was on a two-week trip to Los Angeles, and wouldn’t be able to see the play in person. August knew his dad was genuinely sorry to be missing it, and that his mom would video the whole show and send it to him. August’s dad would always watch it right away and then call him to talk about it. He loved telling his dad about all the best moments of rehearsal and the crazy mix-ups that happened backstage, but it wasn’t nearly as good as having his dad at the show. Not even close. Papa Bear never traveled for work. He stayed home and worked with his family. He, Mama Bear, and Baby Bear foraged for berries in the forest all day, then came home and ate porridge together every night.
Papa Bear also wasn’t annoyingly reasonable all the time. On their nightly phone calls, when August would complain that Sheila was bullying him again, his dad would say something like, Boy, that’s sad that she’s got to make other kids feel bad to feel good about herself. You’ve got to wonder what’s going on with her, which wasn’t helpful at all. Papa Bear, however, took Baby Bear’s side no matter what. When he discovered that an awful girl had broken into their house and smashed his baby’s bed, he had no problem scaring her off with a terrifying roar and a flash of his claws. Papa Bear didn’t waste time asking, Why did you break into our house, little girl? Are you hungry? Do you need a safe place to stay? Instead, Papa Bear just took care of business and made sure she never came back.
But the absolute best part of playing Papa Bear was that Sheila, his real-life bully, was playing Goldilocks. No one had been surprised when she got the part. Sheila, like Goldilocks, was a greedy, bratty girl who wanted everything for herself and would do anything to get it. The only difference between Sheila and Goldilocks was that Sheila didn’t have golden locks. She had straight brown hair that she wore in a floppy braid. In fact, August was the only kid who had Goldilocks-style golden curls. His mother let him keep the sides short like all the other boys, but she insisted that he keep the front long, and every morning she’d tug at his curls until they swirled around his bright blue eyes like foam around a tide pool. Secretly, August liked his hair, but he hated the way grown-ups felt like they could reach over and tousle it without even asking permission.
“Maybe,” Ms. Batra had said when they were discussing who would play each part, “August should play Goldilocks. After all, it doesn’t say anywhere that Goldilocks has to be a girl.”

Everyone had snickered at the thought of August playing Goldilocks except Sheila, who was enraged.

“Don’t even think about it, Nigh,” she’d whispered into his ear, leaning so far forward over her desk that he could smell the Fruit Roll-Up she’d had at lunch. Sheila Morton had been calling him Nigh for over a year, ever since she’d peeked at his report card and seen the long column of NIs, which stood for “needs improvement.” Sheila had had it in for him since kindergarten, when he’d pushed ahead of her in line for Show-and-Tell. It wasn’t the nicest thing in the world, he had to admit, but he’d just gotten a wooden sword for his birthday, and he was dying to show it off. He’d gone on a little too long, though, and Sheila, who wanted to show everyone her tiny new guinea pig, Snowy, had gotten bumped to the next week. By then, however, Snowy had almost doubled in size, and a regular-sized guinea pig wasn’t nearly as adorable as a tiny one.

Sheila had never forgiven him for it, and by getting the whole class to call him Nigh, she’d gotten her revenge. August resented his nickname. He only got all those needs improvement’s because he didn’t waste his life memorizing spelling words, or finishing every last worksheet, like all the other fools in his class. They were the real fools, busting their butts for stickers of smiling apples. August knew better. He wasn’t going to waste his energy working hard now. He’d wait till he was grown up and a professional actor who got paid in real money and applause, not stickers. But in this meaningless world of fourth grade, where stickers mattered, Sheila’s nickname had stuck.

“Don’t worry. I don’t even want to be Goldilocks. I want to be Papa Bear,” he’d told her, and he meant it. If Sheila was Goldilocks and he was Papa Bear, everything would be different. She would be scared of him. Papa Bear would never duck behind a water fountain and hide like August did when he saw Sheila coming; in the play, Papa Bear would stand up on his hind legs, point his giant paw, and demand that she get out of their house and leave them alone. And Sheila would have to jump up and run screaming out of the cardboard house as fast as she could and never come back. Unfortunately, in real life, his giant paw was just a little hand, the school was made of bricks, and Sheila wasn’t going anywhere. Still, he was going to relish every moment of the play while it lasted.

“Break a leg, Augie,” Vincent Vicks said, placing a wicker basket filled with plastic berries on a small table beside him. Vincent was on the stage crew—one of the kids whose job it was to paint the sets, move furniture between scenes, and make sure the actors had the props they needed before they went onstage. The stage crew had to wear dark clothing, so they didn’t attract attention to themselves. With his long dark hair, black jeans, black T-shirt, and the dark purple cape he wore to school most days, Vincent was almost totally invisible, which was pretty much how he was every day anyway.

“Thanks,” August said quickly, hoping no one had noticed them talking.

Being associated with Vincent could put August at risk of being bullied even worse than he already was, so August did his best to avoid him. In addition to wearing a cape, Vincent had a weird condition where he burped when he got nervous, which was most of the time. Sheila’d started calling him Nurps, which was a combination of nerd and burps, and got all the other kids to do the same. August felt bad for Vincent. Once Sheila’s mean nickname had spread, Vincent’s burping problem got even worse, especially when he ate, so he stopped eating lunch in the cafeteria. At recess he’d dangle, friendless, from the monkey bars. August imagined him eating alone in the bathroom, his sandwich perched on his lap, his juice box wedged between his knees, and his cape hanging from the little hook on the inside of the stall door.

But now August’s cue to enter was coming up, and he realized that he needed to relax and focus. He’d gotten so tense thinking about Sheila, Vincent, and the whole unfair, inexplicable system that dictated who was popular and who wasn’t that his shoulders had risen so high they almost touched his ears. He lowered them, threw them back, and took a deep breath. This was his time to shine.

August turned to pick up the berry basket, and as he leaned down to grab it, he was horrified to see a fat brown cockroach scrambling in the fur of his mitten. He’d heard rumors that cockroaches invaded the lunchroom every night, searching for gobs of mayo and chunks of hot-dog buns, but he’d never actually seen one. He shook his hand violently, desperate to get it off, but instead of falling onto the ground, the cockroach trundled forward, its spiny legs disappearing under the cuff of his suit jacket. August shrieked and staggered backward onto the stage as he felt the cockroach’s whisker-thin feelers travel up his arm.

“Aaaaaghhhhh!” he screamed, landing amidst the bright lights, his body jerking and twisting as he struggled to get the cockroach out of his shirt. Totally unaware that all the actors and the entire audience were staring at him with shock and confusion, he tore off his mittens, flung off his suit jacket, and clawed at the buttons of his white dress shirt, ripping it off as he knocked over the cardboard house and smashed the balsa-wood beds in the process. Struggling to stay on his feet, he reached for something solid to grab on to, but his hand landed on something soft and scratchy. It gave way, tumbling to the ground and taking August with it. It was only when he landed, shirtless and gasping on the stage floor, that he realized the thing he’d grabbed was Sheila’s curly blond wig. She glared down at him, furious. Her nylon wig cap, bulging with brown hair, made her look like an angry mushroom.

A blast of laughter hit him with such force that if he hadn’t already been on the ground, it would’ve knocked him over. Unlike the delighted laughter of the crowd when he’d frolicked around the stage as Jiminy Cricket in second grade, this laughter was harsh and brutish. The audience and the cast were in hysterics, and Sheila was laughing the loudest of all. The only people who weren’t laughing were Ms. Batra, whose mouth hung open, astonished, and Vincent Vicks, who covered his face with his cape, too pained to look. Everyone else from K through 5 was laughing at him, not with him, at the very moment that they should’ve been grinning and shaking their heads in admiration of his magnificent performance. Although August was bare-chested in the cold lunchroom, his body burned with shame. Even as his brain throbbed, clouded by humiliation, one thing was clear: it was all the cockroach’s fault.

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