Family secrets, first love and the magic of Rome take center stage in Catherine Gilbert Murdock's new novel for middle grade readers.
Fourteen-year-old Sarah Zorn intends to spend the Wisconsin summer with her “boyfriend” Curtis, waiting for a dead calf named Boris to decompose in time for the science fair. Her plans upend, however, when her fake-boyfriend strategy goes seriously awry just as her hippie Grandma Z invites her on a last-minute Roman holiday. As Sarah explores Italy’s ancient wonders, she can’t stop “boy-liking” Curtis . . . or puzzling over her grandmother’s odd behavior. Written as Sarah’s journal, this satisfying middle grade novel navigates the murky waters of first love, friendship, and family with heart and good humor.
This journal is for you isn’t it glorious? I saw it & thought of you instantly! Now you can record all your thoughts & your genius & your experiences-to-come! (And are you going to have experiences!) Someday, when you’re a creaky sixty-three-year-old granny, you’ll read this & remember every one of your marvelous adventures. I am so excited! Have fun writing!
Wednesday, June 12
Wow. My very own journal. What do you write in a journal? Because I don’t really have marvelous adventures—not like my grandmother Z. My grandmother Z could have an adventure just shopping for pencils. One time she left her apartment to buy milk and she didn’t make it home for seventy-one hours. That’s a marvelous adventure. My big adventure for today was making sure my best friend didn’t throw up.
Curtis Schwenk—he’s my best friend—is exceedingly shy. He does not like being the center of attention or even the perimeter of attention. In school he never talks at all. If he went out to buy pencils, he would be too shy even to ask where the pencils are located and he would go home empty-handed. A huge public thing like graduation is not a place he would ever happily be, even if he was one of the people graduating, which he is not because we have only finished eighth grade.
This year, though, Curtis’s older brother Win was the speaker at the Red Bend High School graduation ceremony. Curtis’s brother got intensely hurt playing football last year, and now he is recovering. Crowds of people came to hear him talk about overcoming the odds and being a fighter while Curtis sat next to him onstage in a necktie looking 100% queasy. I spent the whole speech sending Curtis morally supportive brain waves.
Then they gave out diplomas and graduation was over. Everyone said congratulations to everyone else even if there was nothing to congratulate them for. I myself got four congratulations just for standing there. The fourth time, I congratulated the fourth person right back and he did not even mind.
For a while I lost sight of Curtis, but then I found him again. Curtis is actually quite easy to find sight of because he is so tall. He saw me and smiled a huge relief-filled smile. “Hey,” he said, lifting up his hand. We Palm Saluted. A Palm Salute is where one person touches his or her left palm to the other person’s right palm. It is an amazingly fantastic gesture of greeting. Curtis and I invented it. We are, I think, the only people in the world who do it. Curtis’s hands are so big that my fingertips only reach his middle phalanx. (That is the scientific name for the middle set of bones in your fingers. I looked it up.)
“Hey,” I said, smiling at him. Every time we Palm Salute, I smile. “How’s Boris?”
“Okay, I think. I haven’t lifted the cover.”
“How bad’s the smell?”
Just then Emily Friend squeezed in next to Curtis. Note that she appeared as Curtis and I were discussing odors. “Hey, Curtis!” she said with that voice she has. “You looked very cool up there.”
Curtis did not say anything. But he quickly took his eyes off me and instead stared at the ground. He would not even share an eye roll.
“Hey, Sarah.” Emily always says my name as though she is just remembering it, even though we have been in school together since kindergarten. “Did you tie Curtis’s necktie for him? My cousin taught me how to tie ties, and it’s very important, you know, knowing how to tie your boyfriend’s tie . . . If you ever need anyone to tie it for you, Curtis, I can do it. I know how.” Then she gave me a look and she left. A look that means, I don’t care what everyone says: I know the truth. I’m on to you.
Curtis kept staring at the ground. I tried to think of what I could have said back to Emily. For example: Curtis and I would rather hang out with a dead calf than with you. Or Your name is Emily Friend, but you’re really Emily Enemy. But neither of these responses would work. No response works if you only think it up after the person has already left.
Finally I said, “So . . . Library? Tomorrow?”
Curtis nodded. “After practice.” He looked like he wanted to say something else, but I waited and he didnt. Mom was talking to Curtis’s sister, D.J.—probably saying congratulations because there weren’t any graduates nearby to say it to. Paul stood behind Mom looking dazed. My brother is a little obsessed with Curtis’s sister. He has articles about D.J. Schwenk playing boys’ football and girls’ basketball taped all over the inside of his closet. She awes him.
Then Curtis went off with D.J., and I went off with Mom and Paul, and Mom said Emily seemed nice because Mom = clueless. Dad was home from work by the time we got there. He asked about graduation. “In three more years,” Dad said to Paul, “that will be you.” He clinked his slice of pizza against Paul’s, like people in movies do with champagne. “And here’s to four more years for Sarah,” he added, and clinked his pizza with me. Four years! That’s how long it is until my very own high school graduation. I am worried about high school, but not too worried. Curtis will be there.
Z is coming for supper tomorrow night—that’s why I’m writing now. She will be immensely thrilled with my journaling. She will say that watching graduation is an adventure too. Good night!
Thursday, June 13
Today I’ll write until Curtis’s baseball practice ends and the library opens and we can go work on Boris. It’s either write or listen to Paul practice guitar. I have < 0.00 percent interest in that.
Curtis Schwenk and I didn’t used to be best friends. We were always in the same grade, but we moved in different circles because he is exceptionally athletic and I am exceptionally not. You could say Curtis moved in circles and I moved in uncoordinated blobs.
Then one day at recess in seventh grade I found a dead robin. I should have ignored it, because whenever I pay attention to things like that, it always ends badly. Which happened this time too. I was not even touching the robin but only studying it when three boys came by.
“That’s disgusting!” said Brett Ortlieb. “Kick it!”
I tried to stop them because nothing that was once alive should be kicked, but my blocking them only made them try harder while Emily Enemy and her friends made grossed-out expressions at me.
That’s when Curtis showed up. He was the tallest kid in school even in seventh grade. All of a sudden he was leaning over Brett and staring at him. “Stop,” he said. One word.
“It’s a dead bird!” Brett said. “It’s disgusting.”
Curtis didn’t say anything, but he clenched his fists. Even if you were looking only at his face, you could see the clenching. He stared at Brett, and Brett stared back until finally Brett muttered “whatever,” and he and his friends walked away.
I stood there. So did Curtis. At last I said, “I was trying to figure out how it died...
"My sister’s novel is a love story to growing up, a love story to Rome, and—in the best and simplest way—a love story to family. I adored reading it."
—Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love
"Fourteen-year-old Sarah discovers first love and family secrets in this sweet-as-a-cookie Dairy Queen companion for slightly younger readers."
"A sweet story about family and love, which should appeal to tween readers of Wendy Mass."
"[A] funny and sweet coming-of-age story from the author of Dairy Queen. . . [Sarah's] narrative voice, a winning blend of humor, enthusiasm, and insecurity, will resonate strongly with tween girls, and the journal format will also appeal."
—School Library Journal
"Sarah's voice is tart and inquisitive, and her observations make the pilgrimage come alive."
—The Horn Book Magazine
"Sarah tells her story in the form of journal entries, and her voice is authentically tween as she tried to sort through the complicated turns her life is taking. . . . Give this to fans of Frances O'Roark Dowell and the younger siblings of those who enjoyed the Dairy Queen trilogy."
—The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books
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