The Matchstick Castle

The Matchstick Castle

by Keir Graff


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A wild and whimsical adventure story, perfect for fans of Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library

Brian can think of a few places he'd rather spend his summer than with his aunt and uncle in Boring, Illinois. Jail, for example. Or an earplug factory. Anything would be better than doing summer school on a computer while his scientist dad is stationed at the South Pole.
Boring lives up to its name until Brian and his cousin Nora have a fight, get lost, and discover a huge, wooden house in the forest. With balconies, turrets, and windows seemingly stuck on at random, it looks ready to fall over in the next stiff breeze. To the madcap, eccentric family that lives inside, it’s not just a home—it’s a castle. 
Suddenly, summer gets a lot more exciting. With their new friends, Brian and Nora tangle with giant wasps, sharp-tusked wild boars, and a crazed bureaucrat intent on bringing the dangerously dilapidated old house down with a wrecking ball.
This funny, fantastical story will resonate with any reader who’s ever wished a little adventure would find them.

"For boys and girls alike, this story sings.”—Blue Balliett, award-winning author of Chasing Vermeer 

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781101996225
Publisher: Penguin Young Readers Group
Publication date: 01/10/2017
Pages: 288
Product dimensions: 5.60(w) x 8.30(h) x 1.30(d)
Lexile: 790L (what's this?)
Age Range: 8 - 12 Years

About the Author

Keir Graff's middle-grade debut, The Other Felix, was named "Best of the Best" by the Chicago Public Library. School Library Journal wrote: “The story has a beautifully crafted innocence reminiscent of The Little Prince . . . The ending is exquisite.” By day, he is the executive editor of Booklist in Chicago.

Read an Excerpt


It was supposed to be the perfect summer. I was going to camp out, build forts, have adventures, and score the championship‑winning goal in the New England All‑Star Under‑12 Soccer Tournament. When I wasn’t doing those things, I was going to stay up late with my friends, eat as much junk food as I wanted, and pretty much do whatever I felt like until sixth grade started in September. It was going to be epic: the all‑time, best summer ever.
Instead, I ended up in Boring, Illinois.
No, I’m not kidding. There’s a town called Boring. And it is.
How did this happen?
I asked myself that question on the way to the airport in Boston, on the plane, and on the drive to Uncle Gary’s house—which was actually just outside Boring, so I guess technically it was almost Boring—and was still asking myself that question early on the afternoon I arrived while Uncle Gary showed me how to use the educational software he had developed.
You guessed it: I was having summer school on a computer. Uncle Gary’s program was called Summer’s Cool, and if you think that’s funny, don’t laugh. You might be next.
“Now click here to start, Brian,” said Uncle Gary, leaning over me and breathing stinky coffee breath into my airspace.
The screen in front of me showed subjects like language arts, math, science, social science, and art listed on a chalk‑ board in handwriting that was supposed to look like a little kid’s. Why do grown‑ups think all kids make their Rs backward? And why would a kid be writing the lesson plan? That’s the teacher’s job, if you ask me.
Uncle Gary was pointing at language arts, so I clicked. A boy and girl scooted onto the screen. They looked like they were drawn by little kids, too—I’m not very good at drawing, but I could have done a better job. I was starting to feel like I was in kindergarten.
“I’m Darren!” said the boy, in an annoying little‑kid voice. “And I’m Dara!” said the girl, in the same voice, only higher pitched.
“You picked language arts!” they said together, sounding twice as annoying. “Ready . . . get set . . . learn!”
The chalkboard disappeared, and a story opened like the pages of a book.
“After you read the story, there will be a quiz,” said Uncle Gary. “If you get enough answers right, it will let you move on to the next lesson. If you get too many wrong, you’ll be prompted to reread the passages that caused you difficulty.”
“You really made this?” I asked.
“Well, I did have a little assistance from some highly respected educational engineers,” said Uncle Gary proudly.
I should have mentioned that my cousin, Nora, was sitting about three feet away on the other side of a folding table in the middle of Uncle Gary’s office. She obviously didn’t need any help. She had her headphones on and was clicking away like she was getting paid a penny per click. She’s one year older than me and about two inches taller. Uncle Gary had spent most of the ride from the airport telling me what an amazing student she was. According to him, she was the smartest girl in her class, the smartest girl in her school, maybe even the smartest girl in the whole country.
And who knows? Maybe he was right. I hadn’t seen Nora since I was five years old and I slimed her with a booger at somebody’s wedding. I figured she’d just try to get me back— hadn’t she ever played booger tag?—but she started crying and I had to go sit in the car.
I’m not exactly a good student. But I’m great at soccer, and climbing, and . . . well, lots of things.
So far, Nora and I weren’t hitting it off any better than last time. When Uncle Gary brought me from the airport, she looked at me like I was a birthday present she’d gotten three years in a row. And, in the couple of hours since then, she’d been acting like she wished she could return me to the store.
“Think you’ve got the hang of it, Brian?” asked Uncle Gary.
Nora stopped clicking and looked up, like she was curious how I would answer. She reminded me of a scientist studying a chimpanzee.
“Sure,” I said. It didn’t look that hard, even for me.
“Great. Then I pronounce Summer’s Cool officially in session!”
While I put on my headphones, Uncle Gary crossed the room, sat down at his desk in the corner, and started working on a computer with two big screens. He was the kind of guy who was hard to describe because there wasn’t really anything you remembered about him—he didn’t have glasses, or a mustache, or even very much hair on top of his head. If he got kidnapped and the police asked me what he was wearing, I wouldn’t have had a clue.
His office was the same way. It reminded me of the big office‑supply store I went to with my dad a few months ago when he needed to buy some new report covers for the deep‑space data he’d printed out. The store had all these fake offices set up that made me think of grown‑ups playing work the way some kids played house. All Uncle Gary’s office was missing was the price tags.
The only thing that made it interesting at all was the old‑fashioned model ships on top of the bookshelves. I especially liked a fast‑looking one with a red smokestack. I wanted a closer look, but they were all out of reach.
Which I’m sure was the point.
If I could, I would have climbed aboard that ship, raised a skull‑and‑crossbones flag, and steamed right out of Boring, Illinois, forever.
Four days ago, I was walking home from the last day of school, kicking my soccer ball down the sidewalk past the other row houses and making plans for the summer. But when I got home, everything changed in a nanosecond.
My dad was running around the house, trying to do three things at once. While I followed him upstairs to his bedroom, he told me he’d gotten a phone call that morning from the National Science Foundation. If he could be ready by Monday, they said, he could go to the South Pole. He’s an astronomer, and one of the most powerful telescopes in the world is at the South Pole. He’d been applying to go for so many years that none of us thought it would actually happen.
As he lugged his suitcase back downstairs, he explained that the astronomer who was posted there slipped on the ice and broke her right hand and her left arm. How do you slip on the ice in Antarctica? Don’t they give you spikes or something for your boots? And it’s not like you don’t know you’re on a continent completely covered in ice. But the deal was that my dad would fly down on the plane that would bring the other astronomer back.
“This is a once‑in‑a‑lifetime opportunity,” he said, opening his suitcase on the kitchen table and then picking up his phone, which was beeping like it was about to blow up. “I couldn’t say no.”
My brothers had to be excited, too. Barry, who’s cool but goes to college, already had plans to spend the summer in Maine getting certified as a wilderness guide. And Brad—he’s annoying but still lives with us because he’s in high school— would be peeing his pants because he was going to get to spend his summer working in a pizza parlor and playing video games with his best friend, Isaac. Dad had already talked to Isaac’s parents and they’d invited Brad to stay with them.
“Everyone else is getting to do something awesome,” I said. “What about me?”
Dad looked up from his phone and gave me a here’s‑the‑bad‑news smile.
“You’re just as important as everyone else, Brian, but most people already have plans for the summer,” he said.
“I could stay with Uncle Sean,” I suggested.
If I couldn’t stay home, Uncle Sean was definitely my first choice. He was always doing something exciting.
“He’s going to be taking photographs in Mongolia,” said my dad.
“How about Grammy and Grampop?”
Summer at their house wouldn’t be exciting, exactly, but their guest room had a TV, their fridge was stocked with soda, and there was an overgrown, abandoned factory I wanted to explore just down the road.
“They’re heading out west to a seniors‑only RV roundup. No kids allowed, I’m afraid.”
“How about Oscar? Or Diego?”
They were my best friends and my teammates on the Boston Beans, which is the top under‑12 soccer team in Eastern Massachusetts.
Dad shook his head. “Oscar’s family is taking a Caribbean cruise, and Diego already shares his room with his grandma. But at your age, I’d rather have you stay with family, anyway. I’m sure your mother, if she were here, would agree.”
I had no way of knowing what she would or wouldn’t have wanted. I never knew my mom—she died when I was really little. My dad talked about her a lot, and there were lots of pictures of her around the house, but he only brought her into an argument when he really wanted to win it. I was doomed.
“Then where?” I asked, slumping into a chair.
“Your uncle Gary and aunt Jenny said they’d host you for the summer.”
Of all the places I could have been sentenced to spend the summer—including a desert, jail, the moon, and outer space— my absolute last pick would have been Uncle Gary’s house in Boring, Illinois. It’s not often a town is so perfectly named for its residents. But Uncle Gary, Aunt Jenny, and Cousin Nora were the most boring people I had ever met. I had never once heard of them doing anything remotely interesting.
“Think of it as an adventure,” said my dad, tapping his phone with his thumbs.
“That’s easy for you to say. You’re actually going on an adventure.”
Dad put his phone in his suitcase—where I knew he’d forget it—came around behind me, and gave my shoulders a rub. “You never know, Brian. You might have one, too.”
If he could see me now, I thought. On the computer in front of me, Darren and Dara were waving their arms like they were trying to get my attention. Their voices came through my headphones: “We’re waiting! Are you ready to start?”
Uncle Gary looked up. I guess he noticed that Nora was the only one clicking.
“Is there a problem, Brian?” he asked in that tone people use when they already think there is a problem, and the problem is you.
I took off my headphones. “It’s just that my dad never said anything about summer school. I wouldn’t have to do this if I was at home.”
“Studies show that, over long summer vacations, most kids forget a large portion of what they learned during the previous year, Brian. They take two steps forward and one step back.”
Uncle Gary spoke slowly, like he wasn’t sure I would understand. He even illustrated the two steps forward and one step back with his hand, like his fingers were little legs walking. I wondered if my dad had told him I was bad at school.
“That’s why I created the Summer’s Cool software,” he continued. “You and Nora are my beta testers. And you’re the first ones to benefit.”
Nora, of course, had stopped clicking and was watching me again. I swear I still hadn’t seen her blink. You’d think her eyeballs would dry out.
“Did my dad say I have to do this?”
“He agreed that you would abide by my rules while living in my house.”
“But . . . he didn’t say I had to do this specifically?”
“These plans all came together very quickly, as you know. We didn’t have time to discuss every detail.”
“I want to ask him. If he never had me do summer school before, I don’t know why he would suddenly want me to start doing it now.”
Uncle Gary’s face tightened, like a smile and a frown were at war beneath the surface.
“Fine,” he said. “Ask your father. But until he replies, we’ll do things my way. Deal?”
“Okay,” I said.
For now, I thought.
Uncle Gary turned back to his own computer.
Nora was still staring at me. I gave her my best what‑are‑ YOU‑looking‑at face, but she didn’t blink. So I tried my zombie face instead: I opened my mouth so far it looked like my jaw was broken and rolled my eyes back until I could practically see my own brain. She stared at me for a few more seconds and then calmly went back to work.
What a freak!
I put the headphones on again.
“We’re waiting!” chorused the kids on the computer. “Are you ready to start?”
I hit pause, and mute, then opened a new browser window and signed on to my e‑mail. I knew my dad was still on his way to Antarctica, but I wanted my message to be waiting for him when he got there.
Dear Dad,
So far, this is the worst summer ever. Nora still hates me, and even worse, Uncle Gary is using us as human guinea pigs for this dumb software he made called Summer’s Cool. I told him you would say I don’t have to do any kind of summer school, so please tell him as soon as you can. And also tell him it’s okay for me to stay up late, to have soda with caffeine in it, and to use my spending money on whatever I want. If Grammy and Grampop drive through Illinois, they should pick me up. I would rather hide in the back of their RV all summer then stay here. HELP ME!
Love, Brian
PS I hope Antarctica is cool. Send pictures of penguins.
“It’s spelled t‑h‑a‑n, Brian,” said Uncle Gary.
I jumped, thinking he had sneaked up behind me. But he was still at his desk, eyes glued to his monitor. Was he using spyware to look at my screen?
PPS This is private, Uncle Gary! I typed.
“While you’re in the school environment, I have the right to monitor your computer,” he answered in his I’m‑speaking‑slowly‑so‑you’ll‑understand voice. “You can always save personal messages for after school.”
“Well, thanks for telling me.” “Now you know.”
After deleting the last line, I clicked send, waited anxiously while the computer screen seemed to freeze, and then swallowed in relief when I saw that the message had been sent.
“And now it’s time to get to work,” said Uncle Gary. I un‑paused and un‑muted Summer’s Cool.
“Welcome back!” said Darren and Dara. “Are you ready to learn?”

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