“Emily,” I said to my sister. “When they take your picture, say ‘toenails.’”
“Eeuw, why would I say ‘toenails’?” she answered. “They’re gross.”
“Because saying the word moves your lips into a smile,” I explained. “Which, I might add, you don’t know how to do.”
We were walking down the school hall heading toward the bulletin board where they display the pictures of everyone who wins an award. If you want to be famous, it’s the best bulletin board in the school. Every kid at PS 87 has to pass by it at least twice a day.
And today they were taking a picture of Emily to put up on display. She had been picked as Reader of the Month . . . again.
“Hank, you’re just jealous because I’m getting my picture up on the bulletin board and you’re not,” Emily said.
The annoying thing about Emily is that she’s always right. I was jealous. This was the second time she had been picked as Reader of the Month, this time for having finished thirteen books in thirty days. Ask me how many books I’ve finished.
The answer is not one.
I want to read, I really do. But my eyes never seem to make friends with the words on the page. All those letters swim around like fish in a pond.
Just once, I’d like to win an award and get my picture pinned right in the center of the board. It could be for anything. Like being the best tuna-fish sandwich eater. I’m really good at that. Or for falling asleep. I can fall asleep before my eyes are even closed.
But no one gives out awards for those things, especially the head of my school, Principal Love. He’s got a mole on his cheek that looks just like the Statue of Liberty without the torch. Every time he laughs, it looks like the mole is doing the hula. I bet he wishes they gave out awards for the best mole.
When Emily and I reached the bulletin board, my parents were already there. They had come early to be sure they didn’t miss taking even one picture of Emily. They have a whole photo album just for Emily and her awards. Their smiles were so big, you could see every one of their teeth, even the yellow ones in the back.
“Yoo-hoo, kids,” my mom shouted. “We’re over here!”
My mom always calls out to us as though we can’t see her. I don’t know why she does that. My eyes are working fine. It’s my brain that doesn’t work so well.
Both my parents were wearing the green buttons our school gives out that say I’M A PROUD PS 87 PARENT. I wondered if that meant they were proud of both of us or just Emily.
“Oh, look,” Emily said. “The whole family is here for my special day.”
“Not exactly,” I pointed out. “If you notice, Cheerio’s not here.”
“Hank, Cheerio is a dog.”
“To you. To me, he’s my younger furry brother.”
“Well, he shouldn’t be here. He doesn’t appreciate books.”
“Are you kidding?” I said. “He loves chewing on them! And the ones he likes the best, he pees on.”
Principal Love arrived then, his face lighting up when he saw Emily. The mole on his cheek was dancing up a storm.
“Hello, all you Zipzers!” he said with a big grin. “You’re looking very zippy today.”
“It’s a special day for Emily,” my father said.
Principal Love took a key from his pocket and unlocked the glass case protecting the bulletin board. Then he pulled a picture of Emily out of a brown manila envelope.
“Oh, look,” he said. “There are already thumbtack holes in the corners of this picture from the last time we put it up.”
Emily smiled so big, I thought her face was going to crack in half. All I wanted to do was throw up.
Principal Love tacked Emily’s picture onto the center of the bulletin board, right under the big black letters that said READER OF THE MONTH. He was careful to use the pinholes that were already there. He’d probably get to use them twenty more times before the year was up.
“Time for a photo opportunity,” he said as he closed the case. “Your family certainly doesn’t want to forget this proud moment.”
Maybe the rest of them didn’t, but I sure did. My memory is full of proud moments about Emily in school and kind of empty about proud school moments of me.
“Dad, let me take the picture,” I said.
I thought that at least taking the picture would give me something to do, rather than just looking like the loser brother standing next to my winner sister.
“Okay, Hank,” my dad said, holding out his phone. “You take the picture. And try not to cut off our heads.”
I left my mom’s side and took the phone. As I snapped the photo, I wondered if the day would ever come when I would get my own special honor.
I didn’t think the morning could get worse, but it did. As I was walking to class, Nick the Tick McKelty grabbed my backpack for no reason and tossed it into the trash can. When I reached into the trash to get it out, I grabbed a rotten banana skin, which slimed all over my fingers. I’m not even going to tell you about the old baloney sandwich that was stuck to the banana.
If that wasn’t bad enough, Ms. Flowers surprised us with a pop science quiz on Chapter Four. It’s really hard to take a test on Chapter Four when I hadn’t even started Chapter Two yet. I’m what you call a slow reader. A snail reads faster than I do.
The worst part of the morning came when Ms. Flowers said we were going to the library. I have nothing against the library. In fact, when I see all those books on the shelves, I wish I could read every one. I imagine stories about wizards, pirates, and people who ride dog sleds across the Arctic and come face-to-face with polar bears. But those stories are made of words, and words are made of letters that I can’t sound out. All those library books just stay on the shelf looking down at me.
The one good thing about the library is Mrs. King, the librarian. She really tries hard to find books that I’d like. The last time I was there, she handed me a book about penguins in Antarctica. I tried to read it, but the pictures in it made me feel so cold, I had to put on my Mets sweatshirt.
As we walked to the library, my best friend Ashley was bubbling over with ideas.
“I can’t wait to check out the next Detective Duck book,” she said. “They’re so funny. The last one quacked me up.”
Despite my horrible day, I burst out laughing.
“Finally, there’s a smile on your face,” my other best friend, Frankie, said. “You’ve been down in the dumps all morning, Zip.”
“How would you feel if your little sister got all the awards and made you feel like you could never do anything right?”
“You do a lot of stuff right,” Ashley said. “You’re a great friend, and you can tie a cherry stem into a knot with your tongue. I bet Emily can’t do that.”
By then, we had reached the library. We waited in line while Mrs. King gave us instructions.
“Students,” she said. “Feel free to look around and pick a book to check out. Don’t just stay in your favorite section. If you like mysteries, try picking a biography. Try something new.”
“I’m sticking with Detective Duck,” Ashley whispered.
“Remember to use your library voices,” Mrs. King went on. “And when you take a book off the shelf, be sure to put it back where it belongs.”
We went inside, and all the kids spread out to different sections. Katie Sperling went to the fantasy section in search of unicorns. Ryan Shimozato was looking for sports heroes. Luke Whitman just stood there picking his nose, as usual.
“You don’t want to touch a book that he’s touched,” Frankie whispered to me. “That finger has been places we never want to go.”
“Yeah, and I thought the banana peel in the trash can was slimy,” I said.
“I really don’t want to know why your hand was in the trash can,” Frankie said.
“I can explain,” I answered.
“Maybe later,” Frankie said. “Or maybe never. Yeah, never works.”
Frankie wandered off to the science section. He was looking for a book about robots. I wanted to go to the kindergarten section, because all those books have more pictures than words. I was too embarrassed, so instead I pulled out a book about George Washington. I opened it up and stared at a picture of him in his white wig and fancy clothes.
“Hank, I didn’t know you were interested in history,” a voice behind me said. It was Mr. Rock, our music teacher and all-around cool guy.
“I can’t put this book down,” I said to him.
“Really? Is it that good?”
“No, but the person who read it before me must have had a peanut-butter sandwich, because the cover is stuck to my hands.”
Mr. Rock cracked up, which surprised me. I didn’t even know I was being funny.
“Hank, you have a great sense of humor,” Mr. Rock said. “Come with me, and I’ll show you some books I think you’d really like.”
I pulled the book off my hands, wiped the peanut butter onto my jeans, and followed him to a display table. He picked up a book and showed me the cover, which had two kids dressed in white space suits.
“This book is full of adventure, but it’s funny, too,” Mr. Rock said. “It’s written by a wonderful author, Paula Hart. She’s a friend of mine, and I asked her to come speak at our school on Friday.”
“I’ve never met a real author,” I said.
“You’re going to love this book,” Mr. Rock said. “Even the title is great, don’t you think?”
I looked at the title.
“Journey to Japan,” I read aloud. “I bet this book has a lot of pictures of volcanoes. I saw a TV show that said there are over two hundred volcanoes in Japan.”
“Hank,” Mr. Rock said. “The cover says Journey to Jupiter, not Journey to Japan. It’s about a bunch of kids who set up the first space colony on the planet Jupiter.”
“Oh, Jupiter, of course,” I said. “That makes sense. That’s why the kids are both dressed in white space suits.”
Mr. Rock rubbed his chin like he was thinking. Then he said, “Hank, do you have trouble reading?”
I laughed, a little too hard.
“You can tell me if reading is difficult for you,” he went on. “You’re not alone, you know.”
“Well, sometimes I just get the j words mixed up,” I said, not telling the whole truth. “You know, like Jupiter, Japan, giraffe.”
“Giraffe starts with a g, not a j,” Mr. Rock said.
I definitely did not want to continue this conversation. I wanted to get out of there as fast as I could.
“I’m going to go check this book out right now,” I said to Mr. Rock. “I’ll let you know how I like it.”
“I have another idea,” Mr. Rock said. “Ms. Adolf, Principal Love, and I are going to select some students to welcome Paula Hart to our school. The winners will introduce her at the assembly, show her around PS 87, and make her feel at home. Why don’t you try out? I think you’d do a great job.”
“That sounds incredible,” I said. “Maybe my friends Ashley and Frankie can try out, too?”
“Why not? You’d be a welcoming trio.”
This was exciting. “What do we have to do?” I asked.
“The rules have been posted on the bulletin board outside Principal Love’s office for two weeks now,” he said. “I take it you didn’t read them.”
“I usually walk really fast when I’m near Principal Love’s office,” I said. “Just in case he wants to call me in and discuss my grades.”
Mr. Rock laughed.
“That makes sense to me,” he said. “So all you have to do is read the book and come to the tryouts tomorrow. Then tell us what you liked about the book in your own words.”
“Does that mean I have to read the whole book?” I asked. “Like, start at the first page and go all the way to the end?”
Mr. Rock laughed again. “That’s usually the way a book is read. Trust me, Hank. Once you start, you won’t be able to put down this book.”
Mr. Rock sure didn’t know the inside of my brain.
I had at least a million reasons why I couldn’t read that book. In fact, there were so many that I couldn’t possibly list them all here. So I’m only going to give you four.