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About the Author
James Burks is an illustrator of picture books and graphic novels as well as an animator of movies and television shows. He lives in Valencia, California.Visit his website atwww.jamesburks.com.
Read an Excerpt
Chapter 1Around the Bend When Willy Maykit was three years old, his father went on an African safari and came home with amazing stories of lions, tigers, and bears. Or at least lions, elephants, and hippos. There are no tigers or bears in Africa. But they’re doing fine in the elephant and hippo department. Mr. Maykit was a bigtime scientist and an even bigger-time explorer. “There’s a whole world out there, Willy,” he often said. “There’s always something interesting around the next bend.” Willy didn’t know what his father was talking about. He was only three. He thought Bend was the name of a town in Oregon. The following year, Willy’s dad went on an Arctic safari and came home with stories of polar bears, walruses, and icebergs. Then there was a trip to the Antarctic, followed by more stories, and more talk about what was lurking around the next bend. One year Mr. Maykit journeyed to the bottom of the ocean and saw sea creatures twenty feet long. He saw giant squids and enormous sharks. This went on and on, one amazing journey after another, including a trip to Mars, and another to . . . uh . . . Uranus. And then, when Willy was eight years old, his father wandered into the Amazon jungle. He was never seen again. No more amazing stories. No more Mr. Maykit. Maybe he was swallowed by a giant anaconda, Willy thought. Maybe he fell into a river and was gobbled up by piranhas. Maybe he was captured by headhunters. Or foothunters. You never hear about foothunters. They’re that sneaky. What happened to Mr. Maykit? No one knew. And Willy began to realize what his father had meant when he said there was always something interesting around the next bend. This happened one day when he rounded a corner, which is a lot like rounding a bend, and practically smacked right into Cindy Das. Cindy Das, who just happened to be the prettiest girl in class. Willy opened his mouth to say, “Excuse me, Cindy.” But what came out was “Mumble, mumble, mumble.” So he tried again. He wanted to say something like, “Have a good weekend, Cindy.” But what came out was “Mumble, mumble, mumble.” Willy couldn’t get his mouth to work properly, not with Cindy standing right there, staring at him with her almost-smile. Then the almost-smile turned into a full-on smile. Dimples appeared. Willy kept his mouth shut and stared. If he couldn’t talk to her half-smile, he certainly couldn’t talk to her dimples. “You make me laugh, Willy Maykit,” she said, and she walked away. “Dad was right,” Willy said to himself. “There really is something interesting around the bend.” It was what his father had been saying all along. There was a whole world out there, waiting to be discovered. And right then, standing on the corner, watching Cindy head down the street, Willy decided it was up to him to pick up where his father had left off. After all, being an explorer was in his blood. *** So when Willy heard the news about the class field trip to Planet Ed, he jumped at the chance. He actually stood up from his desk and jumped. “Is there a problem, Mr. Maykit?” Mr. Jipthorn asked. Mr. Jipthorn was Willy’s teacher. He was also the tallest person Willy had ever seen. Long arms, long legs, long fingers, long underwear. Well, he probably had long underwear. Even many of the stories he told were tall tales. “Willy, is there a problem?” he asked again. Students didn’t just jump out of their chairs for no reason. Not unless they had to use the bathroom. Or maybe had an ant roaming around in their shorts. “None at all,” said Willy. “You jumped.” “Just excited about Planet Ed.” Willy couldn’t help himself. There were probably lots of bends on Planet Ed. There was not only a whole world out there—there was also a whole universe. But wait a second. Wasn’t Planet Ed far away? Very far away? Normally they didn’t allow fourth-grade field trips outside the solar system, but someone had just donated a Starlite 3000 to the school, complete with an android pilot. As you probably know, the Starlite 3000 is the fastest ship in the sky. It’s also the safest, and thus the perfect vehicle for fourth-grade field trips. The problem would be getting permission to go. Mrs. Maykit had lost her adventuring husband. She probably didn’t want an adventuring son. She might not understand the concept of things lurking around bends, and that exploring the universe would be even more interesting than exploring the world. With this thought, Willy sat back down. He really wanted to boldly go where no fourth-grader had gone before, but what if his mom wouldn’t let him? Mr. Jipthorn started passing out permission slips. “Get these signed or you won’t be going on the field trip,” he said. “And trust me, you don’t want to miss this trip.” Willy sure didn’t. For the rest of the day, he sat at his desk wondering what to do. How could he get his mother to sign the permission slip? And then, right before the bell rang, it came to him. Today was Friday. Friday was bring-lots-of-paperwork-home-to-have-your-parents-sign day. There were hot-lunch order forms, and recess-monitor forms, forms for the school play, music-lesson sign-up sheets, bake-sale sheets . . . and right in the middle of it all, Willy placed the permission slip for the class field trip to Planet Ed. It was the best plan he could come up with: Overload his mother with so much information that she wouldn’t stop and read the fine print. Chapter 2The Bribe After school, Willy raced home. “Hi, Mom,” he said, throwing his backpack on the couch. Then he pulled out the stack of papers and placed them on the dining room table. “How was school?” his mother asked. “Fine.” He pointed to the table. “Got some papers for you to sign.” “Anything interesting?” Willy yawned. “Boring school stuff.” Then he headed to his room, keeping his fingers crossed. Willy’s bedroom was in the attic, because it had the best view in the house. From there he could see the landing strip where his father had landed his plane. He could also see the harbor, in case his father was returning by boat. Please don’t read the fine print, Mom, Willy said to himself as he climbed the spiral staircase to the attic. I really want to go to Planet Ed. Did he ever. At the top of the stairs, he grabbed a box of Cheerios and opened the attic window. Then he stepped out onto the roof and whistled for Phelps. Phelps was his pet seagull. Well, not exactly. He was more like a seagull acquaintance. When Willy’s father first vanished in the Amazon, Willy often sat on the roof, munching on Cheerios, watching the harbor and the airstrip, and thinking hopeful thoughts. His father never came, but Phelps did. He knew a sad boy when he saw one. Or at least he noticed the food the boy was eating. “Caw,” the seagull had said, staring at the Cheerios in Willy’s hand. Willy held a handful out to the bird and watched as he pecked away. They had been hanging out ever since. Willy named him Phelps because he didn’t look like a Charlie or a Jack. So now, with his father long gone, Willy sat on the roof and watched the sky for his favorite bird companion. A few moments later, Phelps flapped down, landed on the roof, and waddled over. “Caw,” he said, looking at the Cheerios in Willy’s hand. “Planet Ed, Phelps,” Willy said. “Can you believe it? Planet Ed.” *** Ed is a strange name for a planet . . . a very strange name. Look at any list of planets and Ed will probably stand out: SATURN NEPTUNE ED MERCURY Uh . . . URANUS Which one doesn’t belong? Planet Ed, of course. Ed was discovered by Ed the Astronomer, who wasn’t a real astronomer at all. Most people knew him as Ed the janitor at Mohave Middle School or Ed from the Mohave Bowling Team. He just happened to have an enormous telescope and an eye for things floating around in the night sky looking like undiscovered planets. One moonless night he was out in his backyard, gazing through his telescope, and there it was: a new planet, just sitting there. So Ed the janitor named the planet Ed. Did this mean that he had the biggest ego this side of the Rio Grande? Not exactly. His father’s name was Ed. So was his dog’s. Planet Ed . . . It had a nice ring to it. *** Phelps wasn’t all that interested in exploring other planets. He didn’t care about boldly going where no fourth-grader had gone before. He was more of a sit-around-and-eat-anchovies kind of guy. In fact, anchovies were his favorite subject. Still, Cheerios weren’t bad, and Willy was the boy who shared them with him. So Phelps ate his snack and tried to look interested as Willy went on and on about wanting to go to Planet Ed for his class field trip, about being his father’s son, and how someone had to be the explorer in the family. “What do you think, Phelps?” Willy asked. “It’s up to me, right?” “Caw,” went Phelps. “Exactly.” And then, right in the middle of their discussion, Willy heard his mother scream. “Planet Ed!” “Rats,” Willy said. “She read the fine print.” “Willy, get down here!” yelled his mother. “See you later, Phelps.” “Caw.” Willy climbed back inside and closed the window. Then he looked at himself in the mirror before going downstairs. What he saw was his father’s son, the son of an adventurer. Somehow he had to make his mother see it too. He was a Maykit, and Maykits explore the world. And maybe the universe. “Willy?” his mother called again. “Coming.” Mrs. Maykit was sitting at the table, permission slip in hand, when Willy got downstairs. Her hair was mussed and her face red. “If you think I’m letting you leave the solar system, you have another think coming.” Willy crossed his fingers and shoved them into his pockets. “It’s a school trip, Mom,” he said. “It’s educational.” His mother didn’t say anything, and her face was getting redder by the second. Willy kept talking. “It’s a brand-new Starlite 3000 with an android pilot. They wouldn’t let us go if it wasn’t safe. Randy Simpkins is going. So is Cindy Das.” He didn’t know if this was true. But he figured if he kept talking, his mother would get her normal skin color back. What he didn’t mention was his father. He was his father’s son—that much was true—but bringing it up would just cause his mother to dig in even deeper. Best to stick to the education argument. “I’ll take lots of pictures, Mom. I’ll write a sixty-page report.” Willy’s red-faced mother said nothing. She kept staring at the permission slip. Finally she said, “I’ll think about it, Willy.” “I’ll think about it” is way better than a no, Willy thought with a smile. “I’ll think about it” is almost a yes. “Good idea, Mom. Think about it. Sleep on it. I’ll come home in one piece, I promise.” That night Willy couldn’t sleep. What would his mom have to say about it in the morning? Maybe having all night to ponder the subject was a bad idea. Thinking about it would just bring back bad memories of his father’s disappearance. Willy needed to stack the deck in his favor. He needed a bribe. And what’s the best bribe in the world besides diamonds? Breakfast in bed, of course. The trick was to make the breakfast without waking his mother. It had to be a complete surprise, so she’d say something like, “Wow, this is almost as good as diamonds. Of course you can travel to another solar system, you dear boy.” And so, early the next morning, when it was still dark out, Willy descended the spiral staircase and tiptoed to the kitchen. Then he got busy making bacon, eggs, and toast. When it was finished, he carried it to his mother’s bedroom and woke her up. “What’s all this?” she said with a small yawn. “A gift from a son who loves you?” Willy didn’t mean for it to sound like a question. And, to be honest, it wasn’t the best breakfast in the world, but what it lacked in flavor, Willy made up for in service. He refilled the juice glass. He even spread jam on the toast. Then he sat on the edge of the bed. “Anything else I can get for you, Mom? Sorry, I didn’t know how to make coffee.” “This juice is perfect.” She took a sip. Then she looked up at him and said, “You will be careful, won’t you, Willy?” Somewhere inside his heart, a band began to play. Willy jumped off the bed and danced right there in his mother’s bedroom. It was the I’m-heading-out-of-the-solar-system-thank-you-very-much dance. “Thanks, Mom. I promise I’ll be careful.” Then he danced some more. The bribe had worked. Willy Maykit was going to Planet Ed!