This brilliant novel from the author of The Seventh Most Important Thing celebrates kids who see the world a little differently.
April is looking for an escape from the sixth-grade lunch hour, which has become a social-scene nightmare, so she signs up to be a "buddy bench monitor" for the fourth graders' recess.
Joey Byrd is a boy on the fringes, who wanders the playground alone, dragging his foot through the dirt. But over time, April realizes that Joey isn't just making random circles. When you look at his designs from above, a story emerges... Joey's "bird's eye" drawings reveal what he observes and thinks about every day.
Told in alternating viewpointsApril's in text and Joey's mostly in artthe story gives the "whole picture" of what happens as these two outsiders find their rightful places.
About the Author
A former teacher and museum historian, SHELLEY PEARSALL is now a full-time author. Her first novel, Trouble Don't Last, won the Scott O'Dell Award for Historical Fiction. Her latest book was The Seventh Most Important Thing, which earned three starred reviews and was named an ALA Notable Book. To learn more about the author and her work, visit ShelleyPearsall.com.
Read an Excerpt
April: What Am I Doing Here?
Joey Byrd looked like he was dead.
I’m not joking.
Pretty much everybody at Marshallville Elementary knew who Joey Byrd was.
You could be walking to lunch or gym class, and suddenly you’d notice this pale-haired boy lying flat on the hallway tilesarms out, eyes closedas if he’d just been struck by a bolt of lightning. Usually a teacher would be standing nearby trying to coax him to get up and motioning for everyone else to go around, saying, “Just ignore him. Keep moving.”
But today, Joey Byrd was lying in the middle of the playground, only a few feet away from where I was sitting. It was only my second day as a Buddy Bench volunteer. I had no idea whether I should go and get Mrs. Zeff, the recess aide, or not. She seemed like a nice lady, but she also seemed pretty frazzled.
Fortunately, Marshallville’s playground wasn’t hard blacktopit was wood chips. And also fortunately, it was a sunny and warm day for the first week of September in Michigan.
Still I figured the little kid had to be really uncomfortable with all of those pointy pieces of bark sticking in his back while ants, and who knows what else, crawled all over him. . . .
Actually he hadn’t budged since recess started.
I checked the time on my phone. Fifteen minutes had already gone by. His arms had stayed frozen in placeangled diagonally from his sides. His eyes were closed. If you’d drawn a white line around him, he would’ve looked like one of those police outlines of a dead body.
Was he thinking? Pouting? In some kind of trance?
The day before, he’d walked around a tree all recess. I’m serious. Our playground had only one treea kind of scraggly maple treedonated by the class of 2003. Everybody called it the 2003 Tree. Joey had spent about thirty minutes of yesterday’s recess walking around it, making larger and larger circles in the wood chips with his left sneaker. I had no idea why. It had made me dizzy just watching him.
Today, my eyes kept going over to him automatically as I sat on the Buddy Bench. I couldn’t help itI had to keep checking that he was okay. Luckily, his pink eyelids fluttered and clenched against the bright sunlight, and his fingertips moved a little in the dirt, so that’s how I knew he was still alive.
Finally, I got up from the bench and tried to talk to him.
“Hey, you’ve been lying there for a long time,” I said in this super-cheerful voice. “Are you okay?”
The boy’s pale face scrunched into a grimace, and he crossed his arms over his chest like an annoyed mummy, so I knew he’d heard me. But he didn’t open his eyes and he didn’t answer. Sighing, I went back to the Buddy Bench.
What am I doing here? I wondered.
My eyes flickered toward the motionless form again. What was he doing here?
Reaching for the notebook I’d brought outside, I jotted those questions on a back page. The questions seemed simple, but I had a feeling the answers would take much longer to find.
Joey loved turning things around in his mind and looking at them from above. Like a bird. Like his last name, Byrd.
From above, the playground of Marshallville Elementary looked like a small, earth-colored square in a huge quilt. Around the school you could see the different patterns of the sports fields, parking lots, and neighborhoods. The hazy cluster of buildings in the distance were Kellogg’s factories where they made breakfast cereal for America.
Sometimes the air smelled like cornflakes.
If you zoomed in, you might notice a bright blue bench in the middle of the playground with a skinny tree not too far away from it.
There were other things scattered around the edges of the spacetwo old swing sets, a small slide, and a rusty jungle gymbut the blue bench was the most visible detail by far.
Everyone called it the Buddy Bench. Joey didn’t know why. The bench didn’t have any buddies. It was the only one.
Although Joey’s eyes were closed, he could tell that someone was sitting on the bench watching him. He had seen her before. She was from the older grades and she had straight brown hair and glasses. Today she was holding a notebook on her lap.
From above, the notebook looked like an empty white rectangle.
Joey didn’t know who the girl was, or why she was sitting there during the fourth-grade recess, but he had a feeling it meant something in his life was about to change.
April: Green Chickens
So why was I sitting by myself on a Popsicle-blue bench trying to be a buddy to fourth graders?
I put most of the blame on my (former) friend Julie Vanderbrook and what had happened on the first day of sixth grade. But maybe it had started long before that. If I’m being honest, I’ve never had a lot of friends, mostly because I’m not interested in all the gossip and social stuff. And I’m not good at pretending I am.
Julie and I had been friends since the middle of fourth grade, when both of us got glasses during the same week. Plus, we were in the same higher-level math and reading classes together. That’s how our friendship started.
Even back then, she had more friends and was more social than me. I just followed along, figuring our friendship would continue foreverbecause, well, why wouldn’t it?
Anyway, I hadn’t seen Julie much during the summer before sixth grade. (Okay, not at all.) She texted me a couple of times at the beginning of summer vacation and I texted her back. That was it.
Honestly, I didn’t think it was that big of a dealboth of us were busy with camps and family stuff. And our summer vacation was really short. Unlike a lot of school districts in Michigan, we always started the third week of August.
But when I saw Julie on our first day back after summer break, I was kind of shocked by how much she had changed. Maybe I looked different too. My hair was slightly longer than usual. It was almost touching my shoulders, and I had new reddish-framed glasses, and I was wearing these obviously new sneakers that my mom had convinced me to get for school and now I seriously regretted. . . .
But Julie seemed to have gone into a maturity time machine and turned into a totally different person.
As she strolled over to say hello to me in the hallway, it took me a minute to realize the biggest changeJulie’s glasses were missing. And I was pretty sure she was wearing contacts and eye makeup because her eyes seemed to be bigger or darker or something.
Plus, she had on these stylish shorts and a tight lime-green T-shirt and one small section of her straight blond hair had been dyed with a streak of bright pink.
I tried to keep my face from giving away how shocked I felt.
When she got to where I was standing, Julie rammed her shoulder into mine and said, “Hey, stranger. What’s up?” Then she lowered her voice. “Green chickens, pass it on.”
I had no clue what she was talking about, so I said, “What?”
Then Julie burst out laughing and said, “Oh, I guess you don’t know, do you?”
Clearly, I didn’t.
That day, things only continued to get worse. After homeroom, Julie switched from her assigned locker to one that was near some of the jocks. At lunch, she wanted to sit with a group of the semi-popular girls who spent the whole time throwing French fries at each other. Sitting on the other side of Julie, I spent most of lunch pretend-laughing at how (not) funny this was.
The next day, Julie sat with the same group, and I took the same spot againwhich I know sounds dumb, but I wasn’t sure what else to do.
Usually I had no idea what the inside joke of the day was about. Green chickens, orange slushies, potato chip penaltieswhat did they mean?
And you could never predict what would happen at lunch either. You could get harassed about what you brought for lunch, or what weird style jeans you were wearing, or even the fact that your cell phone case had rhinestones on it.
Mine did. And I still had no clue what significant and embarrassing thing it meant. My mom had made it for my birthday in June, so I couldn’t just make it disappear without hurting her feelings.
Most of the time, Julie didn’t seem to notice (or care) that I was at her table, but I was afraid she would definitely notice if I moved somewhere else. That was my dilemma. To move or not to move?
One lunch period, the drama was all about who was daring (or stupid) enough to write the name of a boy they likedokay, wanted to ask outin permanent marker on the bottom of their shoes. You were supposed to walk around all day without anybody seeing it. All the girls at my lunch table did it.
Trying to stay out of everything, I wrote the name William S. in tiny letters on my shoe and told everybody it was a boy I liked at another school.
“No way. I don’t believe you,” Julie insisted with one of her usual arm smacks. “Where did you meet him?”
“Camp this summer.” It wasn’t exactly a lie. I’d done a three-day arts camp where we’d studied William Shakespeare and watched some college actors present a scene from Hamlet. They had been really good, actually.
“Show me a picture,” Julie insisted.
That’s when I decided I had to leave. Because the drama was getting worse by the hour.
I applied for the Buddy Bench job because being a buddy meant you gave up your own lunch period to help out with the younger grades. Convenient, right? Sixth graders didn’t have recess at Marshallvillewe had an activity block at the end of the day for sports and academic stuff, so I only had to worry about escaping from lunch.
On my application, I described how the job would help with understanding others (or avoiding them, in my case). And I talked about how it would give me more material for the advice column I wrote for our school newspaper each month.
Our paper was called The Tiger Times, but it was more like a newsletter than a newspaper. My section was called April’s Advice Box, and kids left questions for me using an actual box in the intermediate hallway.
The box was painted orange with black paw prints on the sides, and there was a slot in the top for questions. My mom had helped me design it.
I usually chose one or two questions from the box to answer in the newspaper each month. Last year some of my topics had been serious things like dealing with parents getting divorced or how to be a better friend . . . ironic, right? Others had been sillier, like whether hamsters or iguanas make better pets. (Yes, someone asked me that.)
When I started the column in fifth grade, I honestly thought it would help me seem more open and friendly, and well . . . normal. I liked to write, and I thought the box idea used my weird last name, Boxler, in a fun way.
What I didn’t consider was the fact that normal kids don’t usually write advice columns for other kids, and it would only reinforce the idea that I thought I was smarter and better than everybody else. (Which isn’t true, but I’ve basically given up trying to change people’s minds.)
And, of course, it didn’t take long before I started getting called “the Box” by some of the obnoxious people in my grade.
Sometimes I wished I was better at seeing the drawbacks of my own ideas before I tried them.
Like the Buddy Bench job, for instance.
Although it seemed like a good idea at the time, the first week ended up being a lot harder than I thought it would be. The fourth graders didn’t respect my age and listen to me like I thought they would. I hated wearing the official Buddy Bench shirt, which was school-bus yellow and said i’m your buddy on the back in large black letters. And Joey kept walking in circles and lying down and worrying me.
By Friday I had filled an entire page of my notebook about him.
Most people didn’t know this interesting fact, but the Australian wedge-tailed eagle (Aquila audax) had possibly the best eyesight among all the birds in the world. Its eyes could zoom in and out to see things close-up or far away. Aquila audax could also fly higher than some drones.
Joey often pictured himself as an eagle.
Sometimes he forgot he wasn’t one.
From an eagle’s point of view, the sports fields of Marshallville Elementary looked like a giant green game board covered with colorful, moving dots. The dots were Joey’s classmates, of course. But the great thing was that the kids who were weak and puny looked exactly the same as the ones who were tough and sporty. You couldn’t tell them apart.
Since Joey was smaller than most fourth gradersand not sporty at allhe liked this viewpoint a lot.
But it was also impossible to tell the difference between enemies and friends.
Joey had learned this lesson the hard way. He’d learned that if you wanted to protect yourselfor be left alonethe best thing to do was lie down. From above, this made you look much largerand most people, except teachers, would go away.
Another thing Joey had learned:
From above, the insides of most things were a mystery. Which meant Joey usually had to guess about them. He often guessed wrong. So things like sandwiches and people were mysteries to Joey. He couldn’t figure them out.
But the top of a pizza was easy.
Sometimes he wished the world were more like a pizza.
April: Daydreaming with Your Eyes Closed
“So how did it go this week?”
This was the first question Mr. MacArthur (otherwise known as Mr. Mac) asked our Buddy Bench group on Friday. He was the guidance counselor at Marshallville, and he ran the Buddy Bench program. We sat around the table in his small office after school, sharing a bag of half-burned microwave popcorn.
I was surprised that there were only four students at the meeting, including me. In the past, it seemed like there had been a ton of Buddy Bench volunteers from the sixth grade. Hadn’t anyone else applied?