In her first standalone middle-grade novel, the beloved author of the Keena Ford chapter book series delivers a funny yet moving story about fathers, sons, and criminal justice.
Oliver "Spaghetti-O" Jones's dad is about to be jailed for a crime he didn't commit, and Oliver believes the only way to save him is with the help of his favorite lucha-libre wrestler turned action star, Tito the Bonecrusher. Together with his best friend, Brianna (a.k.a. "Brain"), and their new ally Paul "Popcorn" Robards, Oliver devises a madcap plan to spring his dad from a Florida correctional facility.
Heartwarming and hilarious, this book looks at what it takes to be a hero . . . and what happens when you realize that saving the day might not always be possible.
|Publisher:||Farrar, Straus and Giroux|
|Product dimensions:||5.70(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.00(d)|
|Age Range:||8 - 11 Years|
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EVERYTHING WAS NOT GOING TO BE FINE
Around two months before Louisa's graduation, I found out that everything was not going to be fine.
It was late afternoon on a regular weekday. I was doing homework with my best friend, Brain, at her house after school. We were in the same fifth-grade class at this private school called Haselton Academy that Brain's been going to since kindergarten, but where I just started this year. Anyway, we were about to do our science assignment when I realized I'd left my workbook at home.
Brain lives three houses down from me. I used to live all the way across town before my mom married my stepdad, Carl, and we all moved in with him. Moving three houses down from Brain has been convenient for lots of reasons, including that it takes about two minutes to run home and back if I forget something.
So I ran home and up the stairs to get my science workbook from my room, figuring it wouldn't take long at all. But as I was digging around in a pile of stuff next to my desk, I heard a weird noise. It sounded like someone was laughing in the walls.
At first I thought maybe it was a ghost, and I started wondering if anyone had ever died under suspicious circumstances in Carl's house, like way back in the 1970s or something, before he even moved in.
Then it occurred to me that the sound was probably coming from Louisa's room, which didn't make sense, since she was supposed to be at her part-time job.
I went to investigate.
I got to Louisa's doorway and saw that she was facedown on her bed, laughing into her pillow, making noises like huh, huh, huhhhh. I had no idea what she was laughing at, but just the sound of it was funny to me. So I started laughing, too.
That made Louisa sit up and whip her head around toward the door, and that's when I saw that her face was all blotchy and her eyes were puffy and she wasn't actually laughing. She was crying. Hard.
But before I could say sorry for laughing and ask her what was wrong, her face twisted into something completely angry. She leapt off the bed and yelled, "GET OUT OF HERE!"
I took a step back when she was roaring at me, so I managed to be out of the way when she slammed the door in my face.
I didn't react at first, really. I stood there for a few seconds. Then I heard my mom calling to me.
"Oliver? Can you come here?"
I hurried down the stairs. Mom was standing in the doorway between the kitchen and the living room.
"I didn't do anything to Louisa," I started to explain. "I thought she was at work. She just started yelling at me —"
"Let's sit down," she said, and she took my hand and led me over to the couch. "Your father ...," she began. Then her face got all red, which meant she was trying not to cry. Mom is super, super white, so when she's trying not to cry, she looks sunburned. I wasn't too worried yet, because a lot of things make Mom cry. "Your father appeared before the judge today, and he entered a plea bargain."
"Okay," I said. That just sounded like more of the courtroom stuff we'd been hearing about for a while.
"Do you know what that means, Oliver?" she asked.
"Yeah," I said. I didn't know, really, but I didn't feel like hearing my mom describe the boring details. Plus there was something else about Mom's face that was making me nervous.
Mom grabbed both my hands and looked at me. "Your father has to serve a two-year sentence."
If someone had said that in a Tito movie, I would have understood what it meant. It meant that the character had to go to jail. But hearing my mom say it, it was like the words didn't go together. I was thinking of sentence like a group of words, and serve like serve food at a restaurant. I was thinking, How can someone serve a sentence? And I couldn't make sense of it. So I just sat there looking at her.
"Because the case was in Florida," Mom said, "he will be in a federal correctional center there."
"What's a correctional center?" I asked.
"It's ... it's a prison," Mom said.
Now my brain was telling me that the thing I was hearing was not right.
"Dad's not going to prison," I said. "He's coming here to visit us in two months."
Mom shook her head.
"Yes," I insisted. "He's going to be at Louisa's graduation. He promised her."
"No, honey," Mom said, her eyes wobbly. "He's not. He pleaded guilty to a lesser charge and has to serve two years. So he can't come back. Not yet, anyway."
I stared at her, and something in my bones started to itch.
"You and Louisa can still go to visit him," she said, squeezing my hands.
"Who will pick us up from the airport?" I asked.
Mom looked surprised. I guess she hadn't thought the first question I'd ask her after she told me my dad had to go to jail would be about getting picked up from the airport.
In Coyote Willis, Pioneer Cop, which is one of Tito the Bonecrusher's movies, Tito plays Coyote Willis, a pioneer cop in the Wild West. Tito's former manager, The Germ, plays Cactus, who is Coyote Willis's best friend and deputy. There's a scene where Coyote Willis is trying to help this lady after her family and all of her things are taken by bandits. Instead of answering Coyote's questions about where the bandits may have gone, she keeps wailing, "I need my haaaats!" And Cactus gets furious. He says, "Stop worrying about your stupid hats! We are trying to save your family!" But Coyote Willis says, "I think she's in shock. She doesn't know what she's talking about." Then he talks to the hats lady in this serious but calm voice to get her to relax before he finds the bandits and does a corkscrew moonsault onto their villainous leader to slam him into the dust.
I think I was in shock when I first heard that Dad had to go to jail. And that's why instead of asking an obvious question, like Why is Dad serving a sentence if Walker Stewart is the one who broke the law? or They can send you to jail just because your boss is a criminal?, I asked who would pick us up at the airport.
It was still an embarrassing question, though.
"Uncle Victor will pick you up, honey," my mom said. Uncle Victor wasn't my real uncle, but he was like a brother to my dad. They basically grew up in the same house, and so when Dad moved to Florida, he got a place near Uncle Victor, who had already lived there for a while. Other than being close to the beach and going to places like AW, SWEET!, the only good thing about Dad moving to Florida was that we got to see Uncle Victor a lot more.
"Oh, okay," I said. "That makes sense."
"What other questions do you have?" Mom asked hesitantly, like my next question might be about something even less important than getting picked up at the airport.
I tried to think of more questions. But the only question in my head was How can we make this not happen? Somehow I knew not to ask my mom. Maybe I could ask Louisa.
"Um, I don't have any more questions right now. I just want to go back to my room."
"Are you sure?" Mom asked. "I can come with you."
"No thanks," I said. I stood, patted Mom awkwardly on the arm, and walked as fast as I could out of the living room and up the stairs.
Louisa let me into her room, but she didn't say a word.
"This is not good," I said.
"We have to do something," I added.
"There's nothing we can do," Louisa finally said. "It's final. He's going to jail, and he totally lied to us. He's such a liar."
"He didn't know!" I said.
"He had to know it was a possibility," Louisa said. "And he promised me anyway that he would come. He never should have made a promise he didn't know he could keep."
"He didn't break the law!" I said. "Why would he think he was going to jail?"
"He must have done something wrong," Louisa said. "If he lied about coming to my graduation, he probably did something wrong."
"No," I said. The only person who was wrong was Louisa. "Don't say that. We know he didn't do anything. We need to help him."
Louisa laughed at me, and not in a nice way. "You're eleven years old. You're literally the last person who could do something to help."
"You're wrong," I said.
Just then the landline rang, so I took the opportunity to get the heck out of Louisa's room. I ran into Mom and Carl's room and picked up the receiver.
It was Brain.
"Do you need help looking?" she said.
"For your workbook?"
I had totally forgotten.
"Oh, I, uh ..."
"Are you okay?" she asked.
"Not really. We kind of ... My mom said that my dad ... You know that paperwork and tax stuff with Walker Stewart? I guess he lost the case." Aside from Mom and Louisa, Brain was the only person I ever talked to about my dad. It's not my style to go blabbing my business to anyone who will listen.
"What does that mean?" Brain asked.
"It means they thought he was, like, guilty," I said.
"No, I mean, what happens now? Does he have to pay a fine? Does he have to serve time?"
"Uh, the second one," I said. "He's going to miss Louisa's graduation." It's funny how sometimes you don't even realize that words make pictures in your head until the pictures change. It used to be that when I said Louisa's graduation, I could picture myself in the hot sun with a bunch of people listening to Louisa talk about how smart she is. But when I said Louisa's graduation to Brain on the phone, I pictured Louisa roaring "Get out!" at me, and then telling me I was the last person who would ever be able to help.
"What are we going to do? We have to do something," Brain declared.
"I don't know," I told her. "Louisa said there's nothing we can do. She said especially not me."
"Oh my God, Spaghetti-O, that is like the total opposite of what Tito the Bonecrusher would say," Brain responded immediately.
And she was right about Tito. His catchphrase is "Never quit trying!" He started saying it because of some really sad fan letter he got from a kid, and now that he's an action star, he says it at least once in every movie. Usually when he's about to break down a door or something.
"When everyone else thinks we should quit trying" — Brain said the words everyone else like they were cuss words, because she hates being like everyone else — "that's when we definitely need to do something."
"Whoa. You're right," I said. "We have to do something."
"For sure," Brain said.
There was a silence.
"Like what?" I asked.
"I don't know," she said. "But we will think of something."
She sounded confident. And Brain is practically a genius, so I trust her. She's probably even smarter than I am when it comes to thinking up ideas.
"Don't tell anyone, okay?" I said to Brain before we hung up.
"Obviously," Brain replied.
And that was it. One thing I appreciate about Brain is that she doesn't try to ask me about my feelings or anything mushy like that.
* * *
After an awkward dinner with Carl and Mom that Louisa refused to join, I sat in my room thinking about what Brain and I could do. I thought maybe we could speak to the judge directly, or wiretap Walker Stewart, my dad's former boss, in case he confessed that he was the one who did the illegal stuff, not my dad.
The phone rang again. I figured it was Brain calling back to say she would bring my backpack to school the next day. I ran into Mom and Carl's room and answered the phone.
It was Dad.
The call went like this:
"This is the Federal Correctional Institution, South Florida. Is this Oliver Jones, Louisa Jones, Carl Wyatt, or Diane Wyatt?"
"This is Oliver."
"Please hold for Daniel Jones."
"Hi, Spaghetti-O. Did your mom talk to you?"
"I don't know what to say. I'm sorry."
"It's not your fault. This isn't fair at all."
"It's not fair, I know."
"This isn't right."
I didn't have anything else to say, really. I couldn't think past the fact that Dad hadn't done anything wrong.
Dad said a few more things about how disappointed he was and how he had been hoping this wouldn't happen, but honestly, I was only half listening.
I had taken the cordless receiver from Mom and Carl'sroom into my room, and while Dad was talking, I was sitting on my bottom bunk, looking at my laundry hamper in the corner of the room.
One time I had to clean my room before Mom would let me go to Brain's house, and I was in a real hurry, so I just stuffed everything into the hamper. Clean clothes, dirty clothes, stuffed animals, even some old food wrappers. It was amazing how much stuff I could push down in that hamper without it overflowing.
Any feelings that came up while Dad was talking, I just stuffed them down into myself like my insides were a hamper. It worked amazingly well. Even when it sounded like Dad was crying, I didn't get upset. In fact, I didn't feel a thing.CHAPTER 2
Mom said Louisa and I could stay home from school the next day if we wanted to, but we both said we wanted to go. Louisa didn't want to risk a single point on her grades, and I was hoping Brain and I could start planning how to help Dad.
But we didn't have a chance to discuss it until after school, when we were at my house to do our homework. Brain was on my bottom bunk with her math book and tablet, and I was on the floor trying to find the list of questions our teacher, Mrs. Thumbly, had given us for a social studies assignment.
"Maybe we can tell the judge that my dad didn't do anything wrong," I suggested.
"I don't know," Brain said. "If the judge didn't believe your dad, I don't think he would believe a kid."
"Maybe we can write a letter pretending to be WalkerStewart and say he was the one who did everything wrong, not Dad," I offered instead, pulling a crumpled paper from my backpack that had something — grape jelly? — on it.
"Mmm-hmm," Brain said.
Mmm-hmm meant she was now totally focused on her math homework and had no idea what I'd just said. Brain loves schoolwork, and it's like she goes into a trance when she's solving math problems. There was no way I was going to snap her out of it, so I grabbed my social studies paper and Brain's phone and climbed up onto the top bunk to call Granny Janet.
Granny Janet, Carl's mom, is my step-grandma, and she's the second-meanest grown-up I know. She has long fingernails like painted eagle talons, and she says whatever she wants, even cuss words.
Granny Janet picked up after one ring. "What do you want?" she said.
"Hi, Granny Janet, it's Oliver," I began.
"I know who it is," she said. "What, you don't think I have caller ID? What can I do for you?"
"Oh, um ..." I hesitated. "I am doing a report for school ... on someone special in my family. And I picked you, because you are very special to me, Granny Janet." That wasn't true. First of all, we were supposed to pick an older relative, but Granny Janet wouldn't like it if I called her old. Second of all, I picked Granny Janet because she was the easiest person to get on the phone. Both Grandma Olivia and Grandma Darlene had passed away. My mom's dad, Grandpa Bo, lived in Texas and worked too late for me to call him on school nights, and my grandpa on my dad's side was ... Well, no one knew where he was. My dad never talked about him, my mom said not to ask about it, and Louisa thought Dad had never even met him.
Anyway, that's why I called Granny Janet.
"It's supposed to help us better understand ourselves," I told her.
"This is what you're learning about in school? To call people in your own family? And the tuition at that cuss-word place is how much?" "Um, we also learn to do presentations on something we are passionate about," I said.
Granny Janet snorted. "I should write a letter to that headmaster to tell him what I think of this school he's running. Teaching you to make phone calls and understand yourself. You can't put 'I understand myself' on a résumé, now can you, Oliver?"
"Um, probably not," I mumbled. I didn't know what a résumé was, but I didn't really want to know, either. "I just ... I have five questions. I'm supposed to ask you about your past, present, and future."
There was silence on the other end.
I heard her sigh loudly. "This is a ridiculous assignment, but fine. Go ahead and ask your questions."
The first question I had come up with was about Granny Janet's childhood. "Did you grow up poor?" I asked. Granny Janet is rich, and I've noticed that most adults who are rich can't wait to tell you about how they grew up poor.
"Heck no, Oliver, my father owned a newspaper and three gas stations. We weren't poor. Next question."
I wrote three gas stations, always rich on my paper underneath the first question. Then I asked two questions about Granny Janet's life as a grownup, and one question about stuff she likes to do now. The last question was about the future: "What are you looking forward to next in life?" "Well, I'll have you know that less than three weeks from now I am receiving a major award in front of all my friends. It's at a dinner gala. I donated the most money to a charitable foundation."
Charity stuff, I wrote on my paper.
"What's the name of the foundation?" I asked.
"I can't remember," Granny Janet said. "Kids Something. They raise money to help kids, or people, or whatever. It's the foundation of that movie actor, Tony Skullwrecker. He has some sort of local connection."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Tito the Bonecrusher"
Copyright © 2019 Melissa Thomson.
Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Prologue: A Hero Always Saves the Day,
1. Everything Was Not Going to Be Fine,
2. What's Next,
3. A Big Believer in Second Chances,
5. Brain's Birthday,
6. The Science Test,
7. Headmaster Nurbin's Office 2: Back in the Office,
8. The Wrath of Blanky,
9. The Decoy,
10. The Apparel Warehouse Commercial,
11. A Surprise for You,
12. It's More Complicated Than That,
13. Bus Ride 2: Back on the Bus,
14. Second-Biggest Secret,
17. I'm Paul Robards,
18. The Truth About Tito,
19. Paul Popcorn and Oliver Spaghetti,
20. We Are Pioneer Cops,
23. A Regular Old Saturday,
About the Author,