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Leslie Margolis's We Are Party People is sweet, brave, and laugh-out-loud funny, as Pixie Jones learns that stepping out of her comfort zone might not be so scary after all.
"I am the opposite of a mermaid and that’s exactly the way I like it." Shy and quiet, Pixie does everything she can to fade into the background. All she wants is to survive middle school without being noticed. Meanwhile, her parents own the best party-planning business in town. They thrive on attention, love being experts in fun, and throw themselves into party personas, dressing as pirates, princes, mermaids, and more. When her mom leaves town indefinitely and her new friend Sophie decides to run for class president, Pixie finds herself way too close to the spotlight. How far is she willing to go to help the people she loves?
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"We need you to be a mermaid next Saturday," my dad says, all matter-of-fact, like this is no big deal, as if he's simply asking me to make my bed, which I'm not going to do, either.
We are at breakfast and I'm halfway through with my Cheerios. It started out as a good morning because we had all the right fruit in the fridge. I like it when my real-life bowl matches the bowl on the cereal box: Cheerios, milk, a few strawberries, and a handful of blueberries. I replicate it as best as I can, even counting the number of berries in the bowl. There are too many actual Cheerios to calculate, but my guesstimate looks pretty close today.
Of course, my bowl will never match the picture exactly. That's impossible, because the food on the box probably isn't real. The Cheerios pictured could be floating in yogurt, or condensed milk, or possibly something that's not even edible. The fruit might be plastic. If the liquid is actually milk, it could be sprayed with something toxic to give it a shine. Or maybe all of the food in the bowl is edible but more delicious-looking on the box due to the magic of Photoshop. I know this is true, but I still like to make an effort. As long as I get close enough, I'm happy.
Except now I can't finish. My appetite is ruined and I feel twisty and sick to my stomach.
"There's no way. You promised," I tell him.
My dad puts down his coffee. "Pixie, please. I told you I'd try not to make you work unless it's absolutely necessary and that's exactly where we are right now."
I think about this for a few moments, desperate to find a way out. Meanwhile, my throat feels tight and it's hard to talk. "Next Saturday is almost two weeks away. Mom might be back by then."
My dad sighs. "Possibly, but it's not looking good, Pix. I wanted to be fair and give you enough time to get ready. Things are more complicated than we —"
"Why can't you do it?" Even as I ask the question, I realize how ridiculous it is. My dad would never pass for a mermaid. Not even if he shaved his whole entire body. He's over six feet tall and has big biceps, especially for an old guy. He'd be laughed out of the swimming pool.
He doesn't even dignify my question with an answer. I don't blame him, but I'm still not going to give in.
We lock eyes. My dad is stubborn but so am I.
"I'm going to call Mom," I say, scraping back my chair and standing up.
"Do not bother your mother with this. She's dealing with too much."
From the harsh and prickly tone of his voice, I know he's serious, so I sit back down. That's when I notice my Cheerios are getting soggy. Not that it matters, since I've lost my appetite anyway.
"Pixie, listen to me. I wish there was another way, but we're really in a bind. I can't cancel at the last minute and there's no time to train anyone new. Plus, I know you can do this."
I shake my head. "It's not about that. I don't need a pep talk. I'm busy next Saturday."
"With what?" he asks.
I cross my arms over my chest and huff. "Sophie invited Lola and me over for a Ping-Pong tournament." This is not technically true, but it could be. Sophie wants to play Ping-Pong pretty much every weekend.
Dad gives me a small smile. "Well, that's perfect. The party is only two hours long — from ten to twelve. You can meet them afterward. I'll even drive you to her house. That leaves you plenty of time for Ping-Pong. And we can pick up a pizza for everyone on the way there — my treat."
I want to scream. I want to kick something. I want to run my fingers through my hair and then pull until my scalp tingles, except I don't do any of that. Instead, I yell, "Fine, I'll be the stupid mermaid, but I'm not going to wear the wig and I am not doing the accent."
Our mermaid is named Luella and she sounds British. She's punk rock by design, with pink-and-blue-streaked hair and a rhinestone-studded tail. We've got to make sure our costume looks nothing like Ariel from The Little Mermaid so Disney doesn't sue.
"Pixie." My dad calls for me but it's too late. I've already stormed out of the kitchen.
Here's a secret: I said I'd be the mermaid, but I don't mean it. There is no way I will ever be the mermaid, but I don't have time to argue at the moment. It's a school day and I can't be late, so I head to my bedroom and get dressed.
I pick out my favorite faded jeans and a dark green sweatshirt with gray stripes on the arms. My sneakers are navy blue and scuffed because that's how I like them. I brush my hair into a low, loose ponytail and stare at myself in the mirror. My hair is brown and my eyes are light green. I have freckles across the bridge of my nose that look like they've faded in the sun. I am average height and average weight. I look a little tomboyish, like the kind of twelve-year-old who could throw a decent spiral and corner-kick a soccer ball straight past a goalie's outstretched arms. Except it's all an illusion. I'm way too clumsy for sports. Also, I can't stand the pressure.
Grabbing my old maroon backpack, I sling it over one shoulder and head downstairs.
I check myself out in the mirror by the front door one last time, just to be safe. No food in my teeth or on my face. Nothing tucked where it shouldn't be tucked. No hair out of place. No flashy jewelry. No jewelry, period. I am dressed to blend in with the crowd, not to stand out or be noticed. That's the best way to survive at Beachwood Middle School, at least for girls like me.
I am the opposite of a mermaid, and that's exactly the way I like it.
My parents own WE ARE PARTY PEOPLE, the biggest and best party-planning company in town. I'm not saying it to brag. It's a simple fact. They have a store at the mall where toddlers go to take music, art, dance, and gymnastics. On weekends the space is devoted to kids' birthday parties. They are two-hour affairs and you can pick your own theme: magic, baseball, ninjas, pirates, fairies, superheroes, rock stars, race cars. You get the picture.
They often get hired to do parties on location, as well. That's their specialty. I actually work for them pretty often, and I don't mind as long as it's behind the scenes. I'll craft with kids all day long, help carry supplies, serve cupcakes and canapés, anything like that. My parents pay me for my time, and working with them is usually pretty fun.
Last summer they threw a princess party for a five-year-old named Stella. My mom showed up dressed in full royal regalia, her long pink gown shimmering in the sun. The skirt had layers of crinoline to make it pouf. When she walked, she seemed to glide. Large clear crystals dangled from her ears like delicate snowflakes. She twisted her thick blond hair into a loose bun, adding a jeweled tiara to complete the look. When she arrived at the party the girls went crazy, treated her like true royalty. Some of them even curtsied. I don't blame them. She looked stunning. Then again, my mom always did back then, even without the princess garb.
She threw the most amazing parties, each one carefully planned out to the minute. Stella's bash was no exception. First she taught Stella and her friends how to build a perfect castle out of giant cardboard bricks. Then she passed out plastic swords and showed the girls how to slay a dragon, straight through the heart, explaining that a genuine princess knows how to save herself. After some royal running races they had an iced-tea party, complete with cucumber sandwiches and scones with jam and clotted cream. I know because I poured the drinks and served the food, cutting the crusts off the sandwiches and spelling out "Happy Birthday Stella" in carrot and celery sticks.
After the girls consumed their dessert, thick slices of red velvet cake with fluffy marshmallow topping, my dad rode in dressed as Prince Charming on a real live horse.
As soon as they spotted him, Stella and her friends gasped in awe, like my dad was some kind of rock star.
While the kids got pony rides, I stuffed purple gift bags with silver tiaras, small tubes of nontoxic glue, sparkly rainbow beads, and string. This was so the kids could make their own jewelry at home.
My mom and dad handed out the goodie bags as the girls left the party. Meanwhile, I hung back and packed away the spare sequins and sprinkles.
When everyone else had left, Stella ran up to my parents and gave them huge hugs, telling them her birthday was the best party she'd ever had in her whole entire life. "And I've had a lot of parties," she added proudly, standing tall and flicking her shiny dark hair over one shoulder.
Her parents were equally thrilled. "You two are magical," they gushed.
People are always saying things like that to my parents. Their clients can't get enough of them.
"I think we'll need to have more kids, so we can throw more parties with you," Stella's mom said with a wink.
"If you do, we will be there," my dad replied, flashing his princely smile and giving a deep, formal bow. My mom offered up a delicate royal wave, and then we were off.
Back at home my parents changed into regular clothes and we all went out for pizza at Geppetto's, our favorite place. At the restaurant, we ran into one of Stella's friends: a kid named Zoey with Orphan Annie curls, a pale, freckly face, and bright blue eyes. When she recognized my mom and dad, she gasped and asked them for autographs. The two of them signed their names, joyfully, and even posed for pictures. It sounds ridiculous but it's true, and it wasn't even the first time it had happened.
My parents are like celebrities in our tiny town. And they are totally used to the attention. Before they had me, they were in the spotlight constantly, as skaters in the Ice Capades. That's how they met. They spent three glorious years touring all over the world. Then they moved to Hawaii and worked as scuba-diving instructors. After that they led safaris in Botswana. Then zip-line tours in Panama. Adventure was their middle name. Not really, of course, but it should've been. They were about to backpack through Southeast Asia when they realized they were pregnant with me, so they canceled their trip and moved to Beachwood and opened up We Are Party People.
Every weekend, ever since I was little, my life has been all about big bashes and splashy festivity. Celebrating is the family business and my parents are party people. They thrive on the attention, love being experts in fun.
At least they used to.
It's pretty crazy, actually, that I'm their daughter, considering that I am the opposite of a party person.
And no one has ever expected me to be different until now.
Later that day I'm in line for lunch and it's sausage pizza with crunchy veggie sticks and ranch dressing on the side. I know because I checked the calendar. I always do because that way I'm never surprised when fish sticks or chicken nuggets come up. The fish sticks and the chicken nuggets served in our school cafeteria smell exactly the same. You may be thinking, So what? Who cares what they smell like? I do, because 75 percent of what we think we taste is actually what we smell, so I am not taking any chances.
But that's not my point. It's this: I'm standing in the middle of the line and getting so close I can smell the pizza — which is one of my favorite things because, hey, who doesn't love melty cheese and bread, plus, it actually smells like pizza — when Jenna Johnson cuts right in front of me. She acts as if she doesn't even notice me, like I'm invisible or something. Her best friend, Allie Sanders, happens to be standing in front of me, and the two of them are talking like they've both been there all along.
I know I shouldn't care. Not when I'm the one who works so hard to blend in. And I shouldn't take it personally, either, since Jenna goes through life acting like everyone is a background actor in a movie where she's the star. It's just the way she is — dramatic.
Right now she's hugging Allie as if she's been stranded on a desert island for months and Allie is the first person who's come to her rescue, bringing along chocolate chip cookies — the good kind that are gooey on the inside and crispy on the outside, freshly baked and still warm.
The two of them are giggling like mad, arms linked, heads together, as if they've got a million scintillating stories to share. We all have English together, which meets right before lunch, so I know they've only been apart for seven minutes, max.
"Here you go," says Jenna, pulling a large hot-pink envelope out of her bag and handing it to Allie.
"Finally!" says Allie, ripping it open.
It's an invitation to her birthday party. I'm not spying on them, but I can't help but see.
"You've got to come," Jenna tells her, as though her very survival depends on Allie's attendance.
I glance at the invitation because it's right there in front of my face, practically. There's a picture of Jenna on the front, except she doesn't look like normal, everyday Jenna. It's a glamour shot. Her hair is sleek and shiny, her dress is small and black, and she's wearing makeup, but not regular middle school–girl makeup. Jenna has been magically transformed into a sixteen-year-old model, at least on paper. She seems like she belongs on the cover of a magazine. Her parents must've hired a professional hairstylist and makeup artist. Jenna is posing with a plastic pizza. She's also wearing white ice skates with pink laces. The invitation is shaped like a thirteen because Jenna is turning thirteen. It's so thick and elegant, I can tell it was designed by Barry's Bashes, which is the only other big party-planning company in town.
Barry makes everything about his parties fancy and expensive, as if that's the most important thing. A lot of people fall for it.
Except just because something costs a lot of money doesn't mean it's going to be the best. That's what my parents always say. A party's success is all about energy and creativity and the right attitude. Also? A party is only as good and as fun as the people who are throwing it.
I'm not going to explain this to Jenna, though, not when I'm not even invited to her birthday. Only a few people are. That's the thing with girls like Jenna. More important than who gets invited to her party is who isn't on her list — the exclusivity of it all.
Anyway, Allie is reading the invitation and raving about the picture, saying, "You could seriously model, Jenna."
Jenna runs her fingers through her sleek dark hair, flipping her part from one side to the other, pretending to be bashful, except not very convincingly. "Shut up. You're lying," she says.
Allie shoves her playfully. "Am not!"
"Yeeouch, that hurt," Jenna says, her pink, glossy lips pouty. Although I can tell she doesn't mean it. She simply wants to make her friend feel bad, which she does. It's obvious by the look on Allie's face.
"Sorry," Allie whispers.
"It's fine," Jenna says, rolling her eyes and sighing. "Just don't be late, because there's a lot going on. I couldn't decide between a pool party and a movie party and ice-skating, so we are ice-skating in the morning and then going to a movie and after that my parents are heating the pool so we can night-swim."
"Awesome!" says Allie.
"Yeah, no kidding. But I'm not done yet. It's a sleepover party, too. After swimming we'll make our own gourmet pizzas, the dough included. A real gourmet pizza chef is going to come over and teach us how and give us a whole cooking lesson."
"Amaze-balls," Allie says, clearly impressed.
"And I saw his picture on the website and he's supercute," Jenna adds.
Allie raises her hand up and the two of them high-five, giggling all the while.
If I were rude, or more honest, I guess, I'd interject and offer her some advice, because actually, what Jenna described does not sound like an amazing party. It sounds like an exhausting party. I'm not only thinking this out of bitterness over not being included — I literally know it for a fact.
Cooking, swimming, movie watching, ice-skating, and sleeping over are way too many things to do in one day. Plus, the activities aren't even thematically linked in any way. Jenna's friends are going to be confused as they rush from activity to activity. None of them will be able to enjoy her party, and by the end of the night they will all be blurry-eyed and exhausted and probably cranky, too.
Excerpted from "We Are Party People"
Copyright © 2017 Leslie Margolis.
Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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