Before becoming published as a YA author, I wrote--and unsuccessfully attempted to publish--novels for young children. One of those books almost sold. Set in the fourth grade, it was originally called The ChocoBarn Cow, and it won me a wonderful award from the Society of Children' Book Writer and Illustrators. The Sue Alexander Award earned me a free trip to New York City where I met with several editors. One of those editors even wanted to buy it! But his publisher said, "Nope." I later changed the name of that book to My Udder Life, which didn't help it. But I still think it's a cool story!
And I moved on.
I began work on another book set in the fourth grade. At a national conference put on by SCBWI, I had the first few chapters critiqued by an editor at a major publishing house. She loved it! She asked to see the rest of it when I was finished. I said, "Okay!" And when I finished it, I sent it to her, and she said, "Nope."
So I moved on and I wrote Thirteen Reasons Why. (That got a whole lot of nopes, too. Thankfully, it only takes one yep!)
Since today is Leap Day, I thought I'd finally share the opening two chapters of that second novel with all of you. While this has never been professionally edited, I still think it's pretty dang cool.
30 days has September
April, June, and November
All the rest have 31
But February —
That one's fun!
April, June, and November
All the rest have 31
But February —
That one's fun!
Tomorrow, my parents celebrate their tenth birthday. That’s right, tenth. A 1 followed by a 0. Here’s how it works:
Mom and Dad were born on Leap Day—February 29th. Their birth certificates may say they were born forty years ago, but since February 29th comes around once every four years, tomorrow will only be the tenth time they’ve seen their actual birth date.
I once figured it out, and there’s a 1 in 365 chance of being born on any normal day of the year, but a 1 in 1,461 chance of being born on Leap Day. But don’t even ask me the odds of two Leap Babies falling in love.
When I get home from school tomorrow, they’re taking me to our town’s Leap Day Festival. Most towns don’t have Leap Day Festivals, but that’s because most towns aren’t boring enough to need one. Years before I was born, the mayor decided we should create a one-of-a-kind festival that would draw people from miles around. A Leap Day Festival won the most votes before anyone realized they’d have to wait another three years to throw one.
But back to today—or Leap Day Eve, as my parents call it.
Dad sits on the corner of my bed fiddling with a plastic rooster alarm clock. Normally, Mom would wake me up before leaving for work in the morning, but tomorrow my parents are going out for a birthday breakfast. So Dad bought me this rooster so I can get up on my own. It’s supposed to cock-a-doodle-doo and flap its wings, but one of its wings has something more like a nervous twitch than a flap.
“That’s okay,” I say. “As long as it crows, I’ll get up.”
“Jacob, if one part is broken, there’s usually something else broken, too,” Dad says.
I lay back and pull the blanket over my head. Dad is not Mr. Fix-It and I do not want to see what’s about to happen.
“Don’t you want the rooster to flap its wings like it’s supposed to?” he asks. “Right now, it looks more like it’s waving.”
“Whatever you do,” I say, my voice muffled by the blanket, “just make it quick…and painless.”
“All I need to do is add a little pressure to the—”
I throw the blanket to my waist and sit up. “What was that?”
In one hand, Dad holds the rooster. In the other, he holds a wing. “Although,” he says, “a waving rooster is a nice thing to wake up to.”
I hold out my hands and ask him to give me the injured bird before he does any more damage to it. Then I place the rooster on my nightstand, out of his reach.
“You know,” he says, patting my leg, “you’re lucky. Being ten years old is a blast. It’s probably the most fun you’ll have in your whole life—and it lasts an entire year!”
What a weird thing to say. First of all, luck has nothing to do with it. No one gets to be eleven without being ten years old first. And second of all, Dad hated being ten.
For example, hanging at the top of our stairs are three picture frames. One for me, one for Mom, and one for Dad. Mom and Dad’s frames each hold twelve pictures, from first grade through high school. Mine shows first, second, and third grades, with nine spaces left to fill. I sincerely hope the fourth grade photo I took earlier this year looks nothing like Dad’s. In his photo, he has one cowlick at the top of his head, and another over his left ear. His glasses tilt to the right and his smile has a large gap in the middle of his teeth. The funniest thing about all of his pictures, though, are the eyes. In half of them his eyes are open. In the other half, they’re closed. If you look from one picture to the next real fast, it looks like he’s blinking.
The front door shuts and I hear Mom drop her heels onto the tile and then walk upstairs. It was another late night at work. Dad gets up and opens my bedroom door, greeting Mom with a dozen chicken-peck kisses. They’re always doing silly stuff like that.
Mom tickles Dad’s mustache with her fingernails. “No more pricklies tomorrow,” she says. “I can’t wait.”
“Are you shaving off your mustache?” I ask. I’ve never seen Dad’s upper lip before. I wonder if it’ll look pale compared to the rest of his face since it’s been out of the sun for years.
He smiles at Mom, and then looks at me. “You’ll have to wait until after school to find out.”
“Oh, let’s not wait that long,” Mom says. “Let’s show him first thing in the morning!”
“But we won’t be here when he wakes up,” Dad says. “Remember? We’re going out for breakfast.”
The way he looks at Mom, I know there’s more to this breakfast thing than they’re letting on. It’s that look you give a friend who isn’t sticking to the story.
“But it’ll be fun to wake him up,” Mom says.
That’s the kind of weird stuff they’ve been saying all week. Why should it be fun to wake me up? Every morning, I do the same things. I stretch. I yawn. Sometimes I rub my eyes. And then I go to the bathroom. How exciting is that?
Dad cocks his eyebrow and looks at the ceiling. A silly grin creeps onto his face. “Maybe you’re right,” he says. “Waking him up would be fun.”
Enough! “What are you talking about?”
“Nothing,” Dad says. He reaches over and messes up my hair. “Goodnight, Jacob.”
Mom leans down and kisses my forehead. “Goodnight, sugar dimples.” She shuts off my light, and when I hear their door close, I flip on my desk lamp.
For the next forty-five minutes (according to my one-winged rooster), I sit in bed trying to read. In that time, I don’t flip a single page. I can hear Mom and Dad walking around their bedroom, talking. Usually, they’re asleep within a half hour after leaving my room.
I creep out of bed, tiptoe to my door, and peek down the hall. It’s dark except for a thin sliver of light around their bedroom door. They have a rule about bedroom doors. If they’re shut all the way, you’d better knock before entering. But if it’s cracked even a little it might as well be wide open. I tiptoe down the hall and stand outside their door to listen.
“I’m having second thoughts,” Dad says. “If we tell him before school, he’ll flip out and won’t be able to focus all day.”
“We need to tell him before school,” Mom says. “I can’t wait any longer!”
“Believe me, I want to tell him just as badly as you,” Dad says. “Do you remember how much he used to whine about being the only child in the house?”
They both laugh and tell each other to keep it down or they’ll wake me. But it’s too late. The secret is out. I’m going to be a big brother!
“I remember that whining,” Mom says. “These two will definitely solve that.”
Twins? I’m going to be a big brother to twins?
I can’t stand it any longer, so I burst into the room and throw my arms open wide. “Congratulations!”
They both stand in front of their dresser mirror holding clothes up to their bodies as if modeling. But the clothes aren’t big enough for them, nor are they small enough for newborn twins. They’re my-size clothes.
“Jacob!” Mom says. “What are you doing up?”
They scramble to bury the clothes into dresser drawers. Dad shoves a pair of jeans and a green hooded sweater into his underwear drawer. Mom stuffs a red sweater and a black skirt into her sock drawer.
“Were you eavesdropping?” Dad asks, finally getting his drawer to shut.
“No,” I lie.
Mom closes her drawer. “Then what were you doing out there?”
“Listening…very quietly,” I say. “What were you doing?”
“Nothing,” Mom says, leaning against the drawer. “Shouldn’t you be asleep by now?”
“First tell me whose clothes those are.”
“They’re ours,” Dad says.
“They are not,” I say. “They’re too small for you.”
After they exchange awkward stares, I can tell the conversation is over. But before shutting the door all the way, I poke my head back in and say, “Don’t think I don’t know,” and I watch their eyes grow wide. It can be nice to catch parents in a lie. The next time they catch me in a lie I can say, “But I learned it from watching you.” Sometimes that works. Other times I lose a week’s allowance.
So they aren’t having twins after all, because the clothes are too big for that. Instead, they must be adopting, which is great except for the fact that—based on the clothes—they’re adopting a boy and girl who are the same age as me. And the two of them will probably gang up on me because they’re probably already brother and sister.
I mean, what else could it be?
I’m laying on the dirty, stinky floor of a monkey cage with banana peels and monkey poop all around me. Two hyper monkeys squeal and jump around my body, high-fiving each other every time they crisscross over me.
The monkey squeals soon fade into children laughing, and I wake up from a dream to find two kids I’ve never seen before bouncing on my bed. The mattress bobbles my head from side to side, and with the window shade down, I can’t tell if it’s two boys or two girls or one boy and one girl or what.
“Get off—get off—get off!” I shout.
They continue leaping and laughing and crisscrossing my body. Every time they land, my blanket pulls further and further down the bed.
“Help!” I scream, trying to wake Mom and Dad. The bouncing kids laugh even harder. “Help!” I scream again.
But no one comes to my rescue.
I watch the feet of the giggling bouncers and, when they land at the same time, I yank up hard on the blanket. Their legs whip skyward, their bottoms land on the edge of the bed, and they bounce clumsy backward somersaults to the floor.
Followed by silence.
Followed by more laughter as they spring up from the floor, run through my open door, and skitter down the hall. “Outta my way! Outta my way!” I can hear them push each other against the walls and laugh the entire time they chase each other downstairs.
From my bed, I whisper, “Mom? Dad?” Again, no one answers.
I creep out of bed, tiptoe across my floor, and peek down the hall. I can still hear the two kids monkeying around downstairs, this time using the couch as a trampoline. Whoever they are, my parents are going to make their parents ground them for life.
On the top of my dresser, I always keep my clothes for the next day. Dad says that if you ever need to leave in a hurry, it’s best to be wearing more than your underwear. I slip into my shirt and pants and socks and shoes in under thirty seconds.
I sprint out my door and down the hall into Mom and Dad’s room. I slam shut their door and fall back against it. In their room, the bed isn’t made, which is unusual, and the underwear and sock drawers hang open.
Slamming the door must have caught the gigglers’ attention because downstairs goes quiet. The silence feels more disturbing than the running and laughing…until that silence is broken by a girl’s voice.
“Jacob,” she says, “would you mind coming downstairs?”
I see three clear choices before me. I can go downstairs and face them. I can wait for them to come up here. Or I can jump from the second-story window into a rosebush that needs pruning.
I slowly turn the doorknob, ease open the door, and step into the hall.
My heart thump-thump-thumps in my chest and my breathing is quick. My eyes stare hypnotized at the approaching stairs. In a few short steps, I’ll be peering over the edge at the two intruders.
And there they are, smiling up at me. A boy and a girl.
He’s wearing jeans and a green hooded sweater. But his face…I recognize his face! I look over at Dad’s pictures hanging on the wall and scan from first grade to the fourth. No! I look down at the girl. She’s wearing a red sweater with a black skirt. Then I look at Mom’s fourth grade picture. No way!
Behind me, the plastic rooster crows. Cock-a-doodle-doo!
The girl stretches out her arms to me. “Good morning, sugar dimples.”
My head feels light, like I’m about to pass out. My knees collapse, and I tumble down the stairs.