Alienated, bullied, a classic underachiever, 12-year-old Brendan retreats into his fantasy world and then faces the long and demanding journey to a real world where he belongs.
No one is kind to sixth-grader Brendan Doyle: his foster mother, his teachers, his classmates, and especially the thugs who bully him. He takes refuge in books, drawing, carving, and daydreaming. When Brendan stumbles upon an old man near his tree house in the Virginia woods, he is quick to believe that this is the magical Green Man, guardian spirit of the forest. Brendan's need to immerse himself in his fantasy world becomes more acute, until he meets a girl with secrets of her own who may just keep his feet on the ground.
I’m sitting at my desk, drawing on the back of my math worksheet, not even trying to solve the problems today. What’s the use? They’ll all be wrong, and Mrs. Funkhauser will make some sarcastic comment about my inability to learn long division—as if I cared about something as useless as long division, which has no value in my opinion except to sort stupid kids from smart ones, and you know where that puts me. Stupid. Stupid. Stupid.
If our classroom had windows, I could watch the sky and the clouds and the trees, maybe a few birds flying past on their way to someplace where there’s no math, but when my school was built they wanted something called open space. No walls between rooms. Just chest-high bookcases to divide kids up into what they call pods, which makes us all baby whales, I guess.
No windows, either—only skylights in the ceiling. You can’t look outside unless you want to sprain your neck watching clouds.
Open space—how could there ever be such a thing in a school where all the spaces are closed off and you are trapped inside until you are sixteen and then maybe, just maybe, you will be free but everyone says no, you will be working in McDonald’s if you don’t go to college? Four more years after thirteen years of public school only with professors (what do they profess?) and majors and minors, which sounds like the army to me.
Anyway, why am I worrying about college? I’m not smart enough to go. What college would take a kid who can’t even add and subtract? A kid who—
That’s when I hear Mrs. Funkhauser say, “Time’s up, boys and girls. Hand in your math sheets.”
I look at the picture I’ve drawn of the Green Man. I just learned about him in a book of British myths and legends. He dwells deep in the woods and is seldom seen, partly because his face is almost hidden by clusters of oak leaves that seem to grow from his skin and sprout from his mouth. He protects the forest and all that dwell there—animals, birds, and trees. Those who respect the natural world need not fear him, but those who harm the forest will feel his wrath. Like a superhero, he fears nothing. He is just. And powerful.
My Green Man is treetop tall. He carries a sword. His beard is long and thick, his mustache curls, and his face is framed with oak leaves. His wavy hair falls to his shoulders like mine. It’s the best picture I’ve ever drawn, and I don’t want Mrs. Funkhauser to see it. I begin to slide it quietly under my notebook.
Suddenly she’s beside me. “Where is your math sheet, Brendan?” The heat of her anger scorches my skin.
I don’t say anything. I stare at my desk. The back of my neck feels like it’s on fire.
The giggling starts. It’s almost time to go home. The whales are restless. They’re hoping for a last-minute Funkhauser vs. Brendan show, a high note to end the boring day.
“What’s this?” Mrs. Funkhauser’s eyes are eagle sharp. They see everything, even the corner of my math sheet sticking out from my notebook. With one quick move, her talons jerk my paper from its hiding place. She looks at the problems. “You haven’t even tried, Brendan. What have you been doing all this time?”
I keep my head down and say nothing. Please don’t look at the back of my paper. Please don’t tear up my picture.
But of course she turns my paper over. She pauses to increase suspense. The whales squirm in their seats, ready to be entertained. Where’s the popcorn? Who’s got the soda?
Mrs. Funkhauser holds my drawing up for the whales to see. “Boys and girls,” she says, “look at this. Brendan Doyle thinks drawing pictures is more important than math.”
I know drawing is more important than math, but I sit there, head down, silent, waiting for the bell to ring, braced to run out the door faster than the whales. If they catch me, I’ll need the magic sword I haven’t got.
The whales laugh and Mrs. Funkhauser smiles at them—they’re smart, they know what’s important. They’ve learned their multiplication and long division, their fractions and ratios and decimals. They hand in their homework on time, neatly done, they follow directions, they pay attention. If they have to work at McDonald’s, they will always remember to say, “Do you want fries with that?” and “Have a nice day.” Their parents are proud of them. No one thinks they’re weird.
Mrs. Funkhauser crumples my drawing into a small wad of paper. My heart crumples too. But I don’t look up and I don’t say anything. I pretend Mrs. Funkhauser is being eaten by a dragon while the Green Man looks the other way. Saving her would be a waste of time.
Mrs. Funkhauser sighs. “What am I going to do with you, Brendan?”
I shrug. I don’t know what to do with me. Or her. Or anyone else.
“Why won’t you do your work? How do you expect to succeed in life?”
The whales laugh. What a joke. Me succeed in life? Hah-hah.
“Get that hair out of your face. Look at me when I’m talking to you!”
When I don’t move, Mrs. Funkhauser lifts my chin and forces me to look at her. “You’ll never get anywhere in this world unless you change your attitude and learn to cooperate. The way you’re going, you won’t pass sixth grade.”
As if I care. I’ve slid through every grade since I started school. I pass only because I read so well, not because I do my work. Besides, I hear it’s bad to flunk a kid, because you’ll damage his self-esteem. Maybe Mrs. Funkhauser has figured out I have no self-esteem to damage.
“Are you listening to me? Do you want to repeat sixth grade?”
I shrug. I want to say Yes. So I won’t have to go to middle school, I can stay right here. But not in your class. In someone else’s class where the teacher and all the kids will soon grow to hate me.
The dismissal bell interrupts Mrs. Funkhauser. I leap from my seat and run. The first kid out the door, that’s me. Down the steps, across the street, getting a head start. Behind me, I hear Jon Owens shout, “Run, Brenda, run!”
He and his friends chase me for maybe a block, calling me a girl, a weirdo, a long-haired freak, but they can’t catch me. I’m the fastest runner in school, mainly because I’ve had a lot of practice eluding Jon.
From the day I walked into Mrs. Funkhauser’s classroom, he and the other kids have hated me because of my hair and my attitude. Weird is what they call me. Weird is what I am. I don’t belong anywhere and I don’t care. I might be only twelve years old, but I know you can’t trust anyone. Sooner or later, they’ll desert you, betray you, turn against you, and you’ll end up alone. If a foster kid learns anything after moving from house to house and school to school, it’s Don&rsqu...
"Another solid outing from veteran Hahn."
"Hahn gives Brendan a narrative voice that is urgent, contemplative, and believable in this nuanced story about transformation, trust, identity, friendship, and loss."
"This is quintessential middle-grade realistic fiction, with an unvarnished depiction of the miseries that can be visited upon a quiet sixth grader and the succor that can be found in the hard-won friendship of peers and the attention of understanding elders."
—Horn Book Magazine
"A gentle and moving story."
"The fantasy of a forested getaway spot and the universality of Sam’s self-doubt give this strong appeal to a wide audience, who will start prowling their own neighborhoods for secret arboreal hideaways."
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