When Zachary Beaver Came to Town

When Zachary Beaver Came to Town

by Kimberly Willis Holt


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National Book Award Winner

The red words painted on the trailer caused quite a buzz around town and before an hour was up, half of Antler was standing in line with two dollars clutched in hand to see the fattest boy in the world.

Toby Wilson is having the toughest summer of his life. It's the summer his mother leaves for good; the summer his best friend's brother returns from Vietnam in a coffin. And the summer that Zachary Beaver, the fattest boy in the world, arrives in their sleepy Texas town. While it's a summer filled with heartache of every kind, it's also a summer of new friendships gained and old friendships renewed. And it's Zachary Beaver who turns the town of Antler upside down and leaves everyone, especially Toby, changed forever.

With understated elegance, Kimberly Willis Holt tells a compelling coming-of-age story about a thirteen-year-old boy struggling to find himself in an imperfect world. At turns passionate and humorous, this extraordinary novel deals sensitively and candidly with obesity, war, and the true power of friendship.

When Zachary Beaver Came to Town is the winner of the 1999 National Book Award for Young People's Literature. This title has Common Core connections.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780312632120
Publisher: Square Fish
Publication date: 07/19/2011
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 256
Sales rank: 153,783
Product dimensions: 5.00(w) x 7.64(h) x 0.68(d)
Age Range: 10 - 14 Years

About the Author

Kimberly Willis Holt is the author of many award-winning novels for young adults and children, including The Water Seeker, My Louisiana Sky, and Keeper of the Night. She is also the author of the bestselling Piper Reed series of chapter books and picture books including Waiting for Gregory and Skinny Brown Dog. When Zachary Beaver Came to Town was her third book and won a National Book Award for Young People's Literature. She lives in West Texas with her family.

Holt was born in Pensacola, Florida, and lived all over the U.S. and the world—from Paris to Norfolk to Guam to New Orleans. She long dreamed of being a writer, but first worked as a radio news director, marketed a water park, and was an interior decorator, among other jobs. She resides in West Texas with her family.

Read an Excerpt

When Zachary Beaver Came to Town

By Kimberly Willis Holt

Henry Holt and Company

Copyright © 1999 Kimberly Willis Holt
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4299-5785-4


Nothing ever happens in Antler, Texas. Nothing much at all. Until this afternoon, when an old blue Thunderbird pulls a trailer decorated with Christmas lights into the Dairy Maid parking lot. The red words painted on the trailer cause quite a buzz around town, and before an hour is up, half of Antler is standing in line with two dollars clutched in hand to see the fattest boy in the world.

Since it's too late in the summer for firecrackers and too early for the Ladybug Waltz, Cal and I join Miss Myrtie Mae and the First Baptist Quilting Bee at the back of the line.

Miss Myrtie Mae wears a wide-brimmed straw hat. She claims that she's never exposed her skin to sun. Even so, wrinkles fold into her face like an unironed shirt. She takes her job as town historian and librarian seriously, and as usual, her camera hangs around her neck. "Toby, how's your mom?" "Fine," I say.

"That will really be something if she wins."

"Yes, ma'am, it will." My mouth says the words, but my mind is not wanting to settle on a picture of her winning. Mom dreams of following in the footsteps of her favorite singer, Tammy Wynette. Last month she entered a singing contest in Amarillo and won first place. She got a trophy and an all-expense-paid trip to Nashville for a week to enter the National Amateurs' Country Music Competition at the Grand Ole Opry. The winner gets to cut a record album.

Cars and pickups pull into the Dairy Maid parking lot. Some people make no bones about it. They just get in line to see him. Others try to act like they don't know anything about the buzz. They enter the Dairy Maid, place their orders, and exit with Coke floats, chocolate-dipped cones, or curlicue fries, then wander to the back of the line. They don't fool me.

The line isn't moving because the big event hasn't started. Some skinny guy wearing a tuxedo, smoking a pipe, is taking the money and giving out green tickets. Cal could stand in line forever to relieve his curiosity. He knows more gossip than any old biddy in Antler because he gathers it down at the cotton gin, where his dad and the other farmers drink coffee.

"I got better things to do than this," I tell Cal. Like eat. My stomach's been growling all the time now because I haven't had a decent meal since Mom left a few days ago. Not that she cooked much lately since she was getting ready for that stupid contest. But I miss the fried catfish and barbecue dinners she brought home from the Bowl-aRama Cafe, where she works.

"Oh, come on, Toby," Cal begs. "He'll probably move out tomorrow and we'll never get another chance."

"He's just some fat kid. Heck, Malcolm Clifton probably has him beat hands down." Malcolm's mom claims he's big boned, not fat, but we've seen him pack away six jumbo burgers. I sigh real big like my dad does when he looks at my report card filled with Cs. "Okay," I say. "But I'm only waiting ten more minutes. After that, I'm splitting."

Cal grins that stupid grin with his black tooth showing. He likes to brag that he got his black tooth playing football, but I know the real story. His sister, Kate, socked him good when he scratched up her Carole King album. Cal says he was sick of hearing "You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Woman" every stinking day of his life.

Scarlett Stalling walks toward the line, holding her bratty sister Tara's hand. Scarlett looks cool wearing a bikini top underneath an open white blouse and hip huggers that hit right below her belly button. With her golden tan and long, silky blond hair, she could do a commercial for Coppertone.

Scarlett doesn't go to the back of the line. She walks over to me. To me. Smiling, flashing that Ultra Brite sex appeal smile and the tiny gap between her two front teeth. Cal grins, giving her the tooth, but I lower my eyelids half-mast and jerk my head back a little as if to say, "Hey."

Then she speaks. "Hey, Toby, would ya'll do me a favor?"

"Sure," I squeak, killing my cool act in one split second.

Scarlett flutters her eyelashes, and I suck in my breath. "Take Tara in for me." She passes her little sister's sticky hand like she's handing over a dog's leash. Then she squeezes her fingers into her pocket and pulls out two crumpled dollar bills. I would give anything to be one of those lucky dollar bills tucked into her pocket.

She flips back her blond mane. "I've got to get back home and get ready. Juan's dropping by soon."

The skin on my chest prickles. Mom is right. Scarlett Stalling is a flirt. Mom always told me, "You better stay a spittin' distance from that girl. Her mother had a bad reputation when I went to school, and the apple doesn't fall far from the tree."

Cal punches my shoulder. "Great going, ladies' man!"

I watch Scarlett's tight jeans sway toward her house so she can get ready for the only Mexican guy in Antler Junior High. Juan already shaves. He's a head taller than the rest of the guys (two heads taller than me). That gives him an instant ticket to play first string on our basketball team, even though he's slow footed and a lousy shot. Whenever I see him around town, a number-five-iron golf club swings at his side. I don't plan to ever give him a reason to use it.

"Fatty, fatty, two by four," Tara chimes as she stares at the trailer. "Can't get through the kitchen door."

"Shut up, squirt," I mutter.

Miss Myrtie Mae frowns at me.

Tara yanks on my arm. "Uummmm!" she hollers. "You said shut up. Scarlett!" She rises on her toes as if that makes her louder. "Toby said shut up to me!"

But it's too late. Scarlett has already disappeared across the street. She's probably home smearing gloss on those pouty lips while I hold her whiny sister's lollipop fingers, standing next to my black-toothed best friend, waiting to see the fattest boy in the world.


There's not a cloud in the sky, and it's boiling hot. Wylie Womack's snow cone stand is across the parking lot, under the giant elm tree, and the idea is real tempting to let go of Tara's hand and bolt for it. But that would kill any chance I would ever have with Scarlett.

Sheriff Levi Fetterman drives by, making his afternoon rounds. He slows down and looks our way. His riding dog, Duke, sits in the passenger seat. Duke is Sheriff Levi's favorite adoptee. Anytime someone in Antler finds a stray cat or dog, they call the sheriff to pick up the animal and take it to the pound. Sheriff Levi can't bear to dump a dog, and because of that he has a couple dozen living on his one-acre place a mile out of town. However, cats are a different story. They go straight to the pound.

Sheriff Levi waves at us, then heads on his way. He drives all the way down Main Street and turns toward the highway.

Finally the skinny guy selling tickets moves to the top step in front of the trailer door. Even though he smokes a pipe, his baby face, braces, and tux make him look like he's ready for the eighth-grade formal. From the front his hair looks short, but he turns and I notice a ponytail hangs down his back.

"Welcome, fine folks," he yells like a carnival barker. His voice is older than his face — deep and clear like a DJ's. "Step this way to see Zachary Beaver, the fattest boy in the world. Six hundred and forty-three pounds. You don't have to rush, but keep in mind others behind you want a look too. My name is Paulie Rankin, and I'll be happy to take your questions."

"And your money too," Cal says out of the corner of his mouth. "By the way, can you loan me two bucks?" I nod and peel two dollars from my wallet.

Tara jumps and jumps. "I can't wait! I can't wait! Do you think he's fatter than Santa?

"How would I know?" I grumble.

Cal kneels next to her. "I'll bet he's three times fatter than Santa."

Her eyes grow big. "Oooh! That's real fat."

Cal likes little kids, but then, he sometimes acts like one. Maybe because he's the youngest in the family. He has two brothers and one sister. His oldest brother, Wayne, is in the army, serving in Vietnam. He's the kind of big brother I wish I had.

Wayne writes to Cal every week. But Cal is so lazy, he hardly ever writes him back. If I had a brother in Vietnam that wrote me letters saying what a neat brother I was, I'd always write him back.

Cal reads every letter to me. Wayne never says anything about the kind of stuff we see on the news — no blood and guts. He writes about home. How he misses lying in bed, listening to Casey Kasem and Wolfman Jack on the radio. How he wishes he could eat a Bahama Mama snow cone from Wylie Womack's stand and let the syrup run down his fingers. And how the worst day of his life, before he got drafted, was the day he missed catching that fly ball during the Bucks-Cardinals game because he was too busy watching some girl walk up the stands in her pink hot pants. He says he'd live that day over a hundred times if it meant he could come back home. Wayne makes Antler sound like the best place on the face of the earth. Sometimes he even adds: P.S. Tell your buddy Toby I said hey.

The line moves slowly, and when people exit the trailer, some come out all quiet like they've been shaken up at a revival. A few say things like, "Lord-a-mercy!" Others joke and laugh.

Finally we make it to the front door. I hand Paulie Rankin four bucks and glance down at Tara. Legs crossed, she's bouncing like crazy.

Paulie pulls the pipe out of his mouth. "Hey, the kid doesn't have to go, does she?"

"Do you?" I ask her, not intending to sound as mean as it comes out.

She shakes her head, making her two tiny blond ponytails flop like puppy ears.

"She better not," says Paulie. He rubs his chin and watches her suspiciously as we climb the trailer steps.

I grit my teeth and repeat Paulie's warning. "You better not."

The cramped trailer smells like Pine-Sol and lemon Pledge and it's dark except for a lamp and sunlight slipping between the crack in the curtains. A drape hangs at one end, hiding the space behind it. And in the middle of the trailer sits the largest human being I've ever seen. Zachary Beaver is the size of a two-man pup tent. His short black hair tops his huge moon face like a snug cap that's two sizes too small. His skin is pale as buttermilk, and his hazel eyes are practically lost in his puffy cheeks.

Wearing huge pull-on pants and a brown T-shirt, he sits in front of a television, watching Password, drinking a giant chocolate milk shake. ATV Guide rests on his lap, and a few stacks of books and Newsweek magazines are at his feet along with a sack of Lay's potato chips. Three Plexiglas walls box him in. The walls aren't very high, but I figure they keep brats like Tara from poking him. After all, he's not the Pillsbury Doughboy. A sign in the corner of one wall reads, Don't Touch the Glass, but if someone does, a squirt bottle of glass cleaner and a roll of paper towels are next to the TV.

There's no denying it — this place is clean with a capital C. And with the exception of a dusty bookcase filled with encyclopedias and other books, it's as sterile as a hospital. A gold cardboard box is on the center shelf by itself.

It seems weird, standing here, staring at someone because they look different. Wylie Womack is the strangest-looking person in Antler, but I'm so used to seeing his crooked body riding around town in his beat-up golf cart that I don't think about him looking weird.

Miss Myrtie Mae steps forward, lifting her camera. "Mind if I take a few pictures?" "Yes, I do," the fat kid says.

Miss Myrtie Mae lets the camera drop to her chest. "You like books, I see. I work at the Antler library."

Zachary Beaver ignores her.

For once Tara is quiet, but Cal is anything but speechless. He wants to know everything. Like a redheaded woodpecker, he pecks, pecks, pecks, trying to make a dent.

"How much do you eat?" he asks Zachary.

"As much as I can."

"How old are you?" "Old enough."

"Where do you go to school?" "You're looking at it." Zachary never once smiles or looks us in the eye. He focuses on that game show.

Then Cal asks, "What's in the gold box?" Zachary ignores him, his gaze dragging across Cal's face.

I wish Cal would shut up. Besides embarrassing me, his questions sound mean. But Zachary only looks bored and kind of irritated, like someone swishing away a fly.

I don't ask questions, but I think them. Like how did he get inside the trailer? He's way too wide to fit through the door. Tara's stupid chant plays over and over in my mind. Fatty, fatty, two by four. Can't getthrough the kitchen door. I'm surprised she hasn't started singing it. I look down at her. Her bugged-out eyes water, and one hand covers her mouth. The other is locked between her crossed legs. A yellow stream trickles down her leg and wets her white Keds.

I jump back. "Jeez —!"

Zachary looks up from the TV, his eyes flashing, his wide nostrils flaring. "Do I smell pee? Did that kid pee in here?" He points toward the exit, the flesh on his arm flapping as he punches his finger in the air. "Get her outta here!"

Every eye in the trailer stares at us. Except Cal, who is snooping around, picking up stuff. I want to yank Tara by her ponytails, punt her like a football, and send her sailing through the air, across the street, toward her house to knock down Juan as he arrives at Scarlett's door. Instead I grab Tara by the hand — the one that covers her mouth — and whip through the exit, past the waiting crowd. Taking long strides so that Tara must run to keep from falling, I cross two streets to her house, where Juan sits on the left side of the porch swing, holding Scarlett's hand. His number-five iron is at his feet, and he wears a white T-shirt with Don't Mess with Super Mex printed in ink across the front.

"He was soooo fat!" yells Tara, running inside their house. A great big wet spot covers the rear end of her shorts.

This has got to be my lowest moment ever. I swerve around, trying to avoid Juan and Scarlett.

But it's too late. Juan calls out, "Hey, man, I didn't know you baby-sat."


Seeing Scarlett and Juan together rattles me so bad, I almost forget my bike parked in front of the Dairy Maid. By the time I get back, the line has died down and Cal is gone. I hop on my bike, ride past the town square, and head home.

Antler is off Highway 287, tucked between the railroad tracks and the breaks of Palo Duro Canyon. Because of the breaks, it's not as flat and sparse as most of the Panhandle. Most Panhandle towns don't have trees unless someone planted them, but Antler has plenty of elms and cedars.

Our town's population has been shrinking since the bank foreclosed on some of the farms. A lot of the stores are vacant. Ferris Kelly's Bowl-a-Rama, Earline's Real Estate Agency, and Clifton's Dry Goods remain. Antique shops started opening in some of the vacant stores a couple of years ago.

The majority of the people who shop at the antique stores are passing through from Fort Worth or Dallas. Which is weird because they look like they can afford new stuff.

A cotton gin sits at the outskirts of Antler, and it isn't unusual to see a speck of cotton surfing on the wind like a lost snowflake.

Our house on Ivy Street is four streets away from the square and two streets from the school. Even though Cal's family owns a cotton farm on the edge of town, they live next door to us in a small brick house. It doesn't seem fair — Cal's family stuffed in their little place like sardines while the three of us live in a big two-story.

Not that our house is a mansion or anything. Mom calls it a hand-me-down. First it belonged to Mom's grandparents, then her parents, now us. It looks like the kind of place you'd see on a farm surrounded by acres of land — a white clapboard with a wraparound porch and a weather vane on the roof.

When I reach home, I see Cal's bike lying flat in his yard. His brother Billy is working on Wayne's old Mustang in their driveway. He's trying to get it fixed up to surprise Wayne when he comes home in March.

A flag waves from a tall pole in their front yard. Before Wayne went to Vietnam, they only hung it on the Fourth of July and other patriotic holidays. Now the flag goes up every morning and comes down each night.

Cal's mom, Mrs. McKnight, is pruning her roses in their front yard while she hums a song. I listen close, but I don't know the tune. Maybe it's an old Irish song. Cal says his mom's family passed them down like an old quilt.

As usual, Mrs. McKnight wears a floral apron tied around her waist. She's the only one in Cal's family who isn't redheaded. Right now her black hair blows wildly in the breeze. It makes me think how Mom puts so much hair spray on hers it defies any Panhandle wind and teases it so high it could hide a Frisbee. Mom claims big hair helps her hit the high notes.


Excerpted from When Zachary Beaver Came to Town by Kimberly Willis Holt. Copyright © 1999 Kimberly Willis Holt. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
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.

Reading Group Guide


Before Reading:
Inspect the cover and title of the book. Make predictions about the story and where it might take place.

Read the first line aloud, "Nothing ever happens in Antler, Texas." Look at a map of Texas and locate an area where Antler could be located. Discuss the meaning of the "panhandle" of Texas.

Chapter Three:
Using a Venn diagram, compare/contrast yourself to the main character, Toby. This will give you a better insight into the character of Toby.

Chapter Six:
Cal never writes his brother, Wayne, who is in Vietnam. Write a letter to Wayne for Cal and describe to him what is going on in the town of Antler this summer.

Chapter Seven:
Toby and Cal realize that Zachary Beaver has been left behind by the guy in the Thunderbird. Make a list of ways the two boys can help Zachary, who is a stranger in the town.

Chapter Eight:
Scarlett tells Toby that he is "Great!" This made Toby feel wonderful. Pick one of your friends or someone you don't know very well that may need a little boost in self-esteem. Do something nice today to make that person feel "Great".

Give a compliment Write a note expressing your appreciation for this person being your friend. Ask this person to join you at recess or lunch. Offer to help this person with homework or a class project.

Chapter Thirteen:
Cal and Toby take Zachary on an adventure to the drive-in. Since Zachary doesn't get out much, he is amazed at the sights he sees. Write a descriptive paragraph of what Zachary sees on the way to the drive-in. This can be illustrated also.

Chapter Sixteen:
In this chapter we find out that Zachary hasn't actually visited all the places he talks about. He has visited these places through books. Have a collection of travel brochures available for the students. Let them "travel" to different countries and cities by reading the brochures. After their visit, have the students write and illustrate a postcard to someone back home telling them all about the wonderful place they visited. (Check with a local travel agent for travel brochures.)

Chapter Seventeen:
After Wayne's death Toby doesn't know what to say to his best friend, Cal. Maybe it would be easier to write down his thoughts. Write a letter to Cal, as if you are Toby, expressing your heartfelt sorrow about Wayne's death. You may have lost a loved one, and can relate to the feelings that Toby is having at this time.

Chapter Eighteen:
In this chapter we find out that Juan comes from the "Mexican" part of town which seems to be a poor section. Juan is embarrassed to attend a function with Scarlett because he doesn't have the proper attire. This would be a wonderful opportunity to discuss with the class about people who are less fortunate then they are. Most students have clothing at home that they have outgrown. Have the students collect unwanted clothing to share with those that are less fortunate in the neighborhood, the community, or even at the school.

Culmination Activity #1:
The Ladybug Waltz is an important event in Antler, Texas. Select some classical music, preferably Mozart, to listen to while drawing your version of what the Ladybug Waltz looked like. On a large sheet of white paper, draw the cotton field with all the Antler folks standing in the middle of it with paper bags full of ladybugs. Don't forget that Zachary Beaver was there also to experience this wonderful adventure.

Culmination Activity #2:
Miss Myrtie Mae, the photographer, is very proud of the photos she has taken this summer. Ferris hangs them on the wall of the cafe for all to see. Your students can make a class photo album of their own. On 5x6 index card, have the students illustrate their favorite part of the book. Glue the "photos" on construction paper and bind them together for a class photo album. What a great way to remember all that happened in the town of Antler, Texas that summer of '71!


Chapter Two:
Toby and Cal see Zachary Beaver for the first time. What if you were Zachary? How would you feel having people pay money to gawk at you?

Chapter Three:
Toby's mom is away for awhile and the men have to do all the cooking and household chores. Do you think it is important for boys and men to know how to do "women's work"? Explain.

Chapter Four:
Toby is an only child and Cal has brothers and sisters. Which type of family would you prefer to live in and why?

Chapter Seven:
In this chapter Zachary has a chance to "rat" on Cal and Toby for breaking the window in his trailer. Why do you think Zachary kept quiet and didn't say anything to the sheriff?

Chapter Eight:
Toby's mom didn't win the singing contest in Nashville and she has decided not to come home for awhile. How would you feel if your mother did something like this?

Chapter Eighteen:
Scarlet is rather disgusted with Juan because he doesn't seem to know how to treat a girl. Write some tips for Juan on how to act around girls and some of the nice things a girl would like for a young man to do.

Chapter Nineteen:
In this chapter Toby's dad tells him, "You are a lucky person if you go through life and have one person need you." He was referring to Cal needing Toby to help him get through losing his brother, Wayne. Do you have a person in your life that needs you? Explain.
Chapter Twenty:
Zachary Beaver has never had the opportunity to be baptized. Why do you think it is important to him that he fulfills this goal?

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