The Next Great Paulie Fink


By Ali Benjamin

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In this acclaimed novel by the author of the award-winning, bestselling The Thing About Jellyfish, being the new kid at school isn’t easy, especially when you have to follow in the footsteps of a legendary classroom prankster.

When Caitlyn Breen begins her disorienting new life at Mitchell School–where the students take care of real live goats and study long-dead philosophers, and where there are only ten other students in the entire seventh grade–it seems like nobody can stop talking about some kid named Paulie Fink.

Depending on whom you ask, Paulie was either a hilarious class clown, a relentless troublemaker, a hapless klutz, or an evil genius. One thing’s for sure, though: The kid was totally legendary. Now he’s disappeared, and Caitlyn finds herself leading a reality-show-style competition to find the school’s next great Paulie Fink. With each challenge, Caitlyn struggles to understand a person she never met…but it’s what she discovers about herself that most surprises her.

Told in multiple voices, interviews, and documents,this funny, thought-provoking novel from the bestselling author of The Thing About Jellyfish is a memorable exploration of what makes a hero–and if anyone, or anything, is truly what it seems.


Now goddess, child of Zeus, tell the old story for our modern times.

Find the beginning.

Homer, The Odyssey



Gabby Amisi

Timothy Boggs

Thomas Boggs

Henry Cardinali

Willow Das

Fiona Fawnstock

Sam Moyes

Lydia Shea

Diego Silva

Yumi Watanabe-Peterson


Caitlyn Breen


[Recording on]

SEPTEMBER 25, four weeks ADP (After the Disappearance of Paulie)


Come on, Caitlyn. What are you waiting for? We’ve elected you leader. Just start this thing already!


Okay… uh… what am I supposed to say?


Anything! Who cares? Just make it sound official. And try to sound excited for a change.


Okay, so this is the official record of the Search for the Next Great Paulie Fink. This reality-TV-style competition is being conducted by the Mitchell School’s seventh grade, aka the Originals, aka the cave, aka this den of stinking goats…


Hey! Be nice. Actually, never mind. We elected you because you’re not nice. Go ahead.


The competition will be run and documented by me, Caitlyn Breen, the eleventh and most recent member of Mitchell’s seventh grade. But I’d like to state for the record that it’s ridiculous you all want me to be in charge. A month ago, I’d never even heard the name Paulie Fink, and I’d never met any of you, and—


Cait-lyn! Cait-lyn! Cait-lyn!


—now here I am running an entire show, or whatever the heck this is, and will you please stop chanting like that?


Cait-lyn! Cait-lyn! Cait-lyn!


Listen, if I’m going to do this, I need to hear more stories about this mysterious Paulie Fink. But I can’t start if you don’t stop making so much noise. So can you be quiet for a change? Please?

Okay, thank you. Now, who wants to go first?

Interview: Diego


Okay, it’s recording, Diego. Go ahead.


Hey ho, Diego Silva, king of the soccer field here. Master attacker, wizard of kicks, genius of speed and agility—


Diego. Stick to the topic, okay? We’re here to talk about Paulie Fink.


Right. Diego Silva here, coming in live to talk about the one and only Paulie Fink. And I’m here to tell you: That kid was a god.

Oh, don’t roll your eyes like that, Caitlyn! I don’t mean he was God. I mean, duh. Obviously he wasn’t that. He was a god, which is totally different. I also don’t mean god like all those Brazilian soccer gods. Nah, Paulie couldn’t play soccer to save his life. I mean the kind of gods that Mags talks about in humanities class. The ones who sat up on Mount Olympus. In a way, those gods were like normal people—they messed up constantly, and they drove each other bonkers, and sometimes they played wild pranks. But they also had powers that regular people didn’t have, and they created chaos for everyone else.

That’s what Paulie was like. He messed up big-time. Sometimes he played wicked-funny tricks. And everything he did always led to chaos for the rest of us.

The kid was legendary. I’m pretty sure that’s the word. Paulie Fink was totally legendary.

Interview: Mr. Farabi

Paulie Fink? Brilliant, that kid.

Not that he was always a joy to have in class, mind you. But as the school’s science and math teacher, I found it hard not to appreciate his… um… innovative thinking.

I mean, the banana-peel debacle? Mini-geddon? His food wars with Principal Glebus? Wait, you haven’t heard those stories? Ask your classmates. I think you’ll see that every one of his stunts had a certain element of genius.

I don’t mean genius like Marie Curie or Neil deGrasse Tyson or Stephen Hawking. He wasn’t like any sort of genius that’s going to appear in your textbooks. Paulie Fink was more of what you’d call… an evil genius.

Interview: Fiona

There was something about his eyes. Even when he was in trouble, even when Ms. Glebus was wagging that craggy finger in his face, his eyes were always kind of sparkly, like he had a disco ball back there, twirling around inside his brain.

And then he just up and disappeared. No warning. No good-bye. First day of seventh grade, Paulie just wasn’t there.



See ya, wouldn’t want to be ya.

And no offense, Caitlyn, but it’s not like you were any sort of replacement. In fact, the first time I saw your eyes, I was all, Now there’s a girl who’s never laughed. Not once in her entire stinkin’ life.


How It Begins

If the whole thing really had been a TV show, like everyone kept pretending it was, there are a million places the first episode could have started.

Like, maybe a good place to start would have been back in June, when I came home toward the end of sixth grade, and Mom greeted me with three fateful words: Caitlyn, we’re moving. Not Would you like to…? Or What would you think if…? Or Would you ever consider…? Not a question at all. By the time she brought up the subject, she’d already accepted her new job as director of the Mitchell Urgent Care Center, given notice at the hospital where she’d worked as a nurse practitioner since forever, and taken out a lease on a tiny house in Mitchell, Vermont.

Which is to say, the middle of absolutely nowhere.

But that’s just one place where the show could start. There are other options. Like on the drive here, when we passed the big green sign: WELCOME TO THE GREEN MOUNTAIN STATE. I saw nothing but trees and fields in all directions, and suddenly it hit me: This is really happening. I had to pretend to sleep just so I could press my face into a rumpled old sweatshirt against the window and cry without Mom noticing. By the time I opened my eyes again, we were passing an abandoned factory, the words OXTHORPE TEXTILES, MITCHELL, VERMONT still faintly visible on the bricks.

Or maybe the show would begin the first time I pulled up in front of my new school. The sign said it was a school, anyway—THE MITCHELL SCHOOL, K–7—but it sure didn’t look like any school I’d ever seen. This place was more like a haunted mansion: a huge wooden house with broken shutters, peeling paint, and a tangle of weedy vines snaking up the exterior. Near the front door, there was a bell, like a miniature version of the Liberty Bell, with a sign that read, THE GOOD DAY BELL: RING IF YOU HAD A GOOD DAY.

I remember thinking, The Good Day Bell. Stupidest thing I’ve ever seen in my life.

It’s strange how hard it is to choose just one beginning for this show. There are so many different ways to tell a single story. But I guess if I had to pick, I’d start the show a few minutes after I first saw that Good Day Bell. I’d begin in a classroom that doesn’t look like a classroom, inside a school that doesn’t look like a school, in a town where I never wanted to be living.

Let’s pause in that classroom to look around. Chances are, it’s not like any you’ve ever seen. There’s a marble fireplace and a gold-framed portrait of some old man. A stained-glass window featuring a bunch of half-naked flying babies. An enormous chandelier dangling from a cracked ceiling above a heavy wooden table. And around that table: ten seventh graders, all frozen in place.

They’re staring, twenty eyes fixed on something in the doorway. Whatever it is they see there, they don’t like it. Not one bit.

If we’d begun this show even ten seconds earlier, these very same kids would have been cheering their heads off. The applause began as soon as they heard a rap on the classroom door. They expected something fantastic when they heard that knock. They whooped and high-fived, shouted yeahs and woohoos, and it’s possible there was even a very enthusiastic Let the games begin!

Sorry, though. This show doesn’t begin with cheers. It begins only after the door opens all the way. That’s when the room goes instantly, eerily silent.

Look at those faces, how quickly the kids moved from excitement to disappointment. All of them: the pink-haired girl with a tiny guitar in her lap. The kid in the soccer jersey, one leg jutting casually to the side. The scrawny boy pushing up blue-framed glasses that are way too big for his face. There are three kids in headbands with pom-pom ears, two identical boys in camouflage, a girl in a lavender sweatshirt, the word MEGASTAR emblazoned across the front, and a small freckled girl in a bright red pantsuit, like it’s Halloween and she’s decided to dress as a middle-aged senator.

Different kids, different sizes, different shades, different styles. Yet they seem united in their feeling about what’s appeared in the doorway. Whatever they expected, whatever they were cheering for, it’s not this.

And what are they looking at? Well, I’m sorry to say that it’s me, Caitlyn Breen.

Hi. I’m Caitlyn. I’m the New Kid here at Mitchell. I like when everything’s in its place, because that’s how I know I have a place. I do not like when kids stare at me, making me feel like they can see right through me, all the way to my softest insides. So this, right here, is probably the most horrifying moment of my life.

Oh, and those ten kids who are staring at me right now? This is the Mitchell School’s entire seventh grade, right here—me, plus these ten strangers, who seem to despise me already, even as they’re seeing me for the very first time.

The girl in the red pantsuit tilts her head to the side. Eyes on me, she wrinkles her nose.

“Well, you’re not Paulie Fink,” she says.

Email sent to my mom back in late June, 61 days BDP (Before the Disappearance of Paulie)



Dear Wendy:

We have received Caitlyn’s records, and we are delighted that she will be joining our seventh-grade class in the fall. As you can imagine, a school of our size in a location as remote as Mitchell doesn’t see many new students. We barely have enough seventh graders to field a soccer team in the annual soccer game against Devlinshire Hills.

You mentioned that Caitlyn is making this move only reluctantly—I believe you said she was responding to the move “with all the enthusiasm of a feral cat being dipped in an ice-water bath.” Please reassure Caitlyn that her new class is lively and friendly—if I’m being completely honest, I might describe them as lively to a fault. You’ll see what I mean soon enough, I suppose.

A bit of history that will help you understand this school a little better: Two decades after Oxthorpe Textiles—once the largest employer in town—closed its doors, our school lacked sufficient funds to continue operating. It’s a common story in rural towns like ours: schools closing after a steady decline in population and tax revenues, combined with rising costs. Mitchell’s school building was even torn down. Mitchell children began attending school over in St. Johnsbury. The drive was nearly forty minutes each way, even in the best weather; in winter, it could be downright hazardous. Eight years ago, a group of dedicated parents decided to experiment by opening up a town academy. While the approach is still experimental, the town-academy model allows for the flexibility needed to educate such small numbers. It’s often a rural community’s last chance for keeping schools local.

Descendants of the Oxthorpes generously donated the family’s old estate to the school. It hadn’t been occupied for years, so it took both creativity and elbow grease to adapt the place for educational purposes. Classes are held in what used to be bedrooms and sitting rooms. We don’t have a gym, and we had to knock out the servants’ quarters to make room for bathrooms. But here we are!

We began with just a kindergarten. In year two, we had a kindergarten and a first grade. By year three, we were a K-through-second-grade school. This fall, those original kindergarten students will be in seventh grade.

Yes, you can tell Caitlyn her class is comprised of the Mitchell School’s first-ever students. We call this group “the Originals” for that reason… though I suspect she’ll find the name fits in other ways, too.

Looking forward to seeing you on the first day of school.

Alice Glebus

Principal, The Mitchell School

Interview: Timothy, Thomas, and Yumi


Okay, so I want you to think back to last month, the first day of seventh grade. Remember how you all started cheering when I knocked on the door?


Yeah, that’s because we thought Paulie had arrived. We couldn’t wait to find out what he was going to do to kick off the new year.


Just like he did last year, on the first day of sixth grade. Do you know about that one, Caitlyn?


She doesn’t know anything about Paulie. Remember? That’s the whole point of these interviews.


Right. Okay, so when we got to the sixth-grade classroom on the first day, there was a note taped to the door in Paulie’s handwriting. It said GLEBUS IS GIVING OUT CANDY IN HER OFFICE. HURRY, BEFORE THE OTHER GRADES EAT IT ALL!


And Caitlyn, you probably know that sixth graders crave candy the way zombies crave brains…


That metaphor is highly disturbing. But also oddly poetic.


It’s also a fact. So we all went tearing through the building and burst into Glebus’s office, like, “Yo, Glebus, where’s the candy at?”


Spoiler alert: There was no candy. Just Glebus, standing in front of that desk of hers, looking furious. Her desk is huge—way too wide to fit anywhere but in the corner. Anyway, she started lecturing us, going all, “You’re in sixth grade now… remember you’re the role models for all the younger children…


…when all of a sudden, behind her, one of the desk drawers popped open. Out of the blue, almost like a ghost had opened it.


Glebus didn’t think anything about it at first. She turned around and closed the drawer. But as soon as she did, a different drawer opened. She shut that one, too. Then, bam, it happened again. And again.


Finally, it dawned on Glebus to look behind her desk.


That’s when Paulie Fink popped up. He’d wedged himself into the gap between the desk and the wall, and he’d been pushing open the drawers from behind.


Like everything Paulie did, it was highly juvenile. But also highly entertaining.


Anyway, on the first day this year, we figured Paulie was late because he’d been up to no good. We couldn’t wait to find out what had happened.


But then it turned out you were standing there, Caitlyn. And you looked like someone was forcing you to eat boogers—


Dipped in decades-old mayonnaise.

I’m Not Him

Well, you’re not Paulie Fink. That’s what the girl in the pantsuit just said.

I look around the classroom, trying to take it all in: the confused faces, the haunted-house vibe, the fact that this is everyone, the whole seventh grade. From behind a teacher’s desk, a woman rises. She’s small, but what she lacks in height she’s apparently decided to make up for in layers of fabric—flowy pants, tunic, mile-long scarf.

She swishes over to me. “You must be Caitlyn! I’m Miss Magruder, though most kids call me Mags.” Then she turns to the class. “Everybody, this is Caitlyn. She just moved to Mitchell, isn’t that a thrill?”

And just like that, I’m officially the New Kid.

Every year at my old school, there were always a handful of New Kids. Teachers always introduced them by saying things like I know you will give so-and-so a great welcome. I’m sure you’ll let them know how happy we are to have them join us. But most of the time, we weren’t happy to have them join us. We were too busy trying to figure out who they were and how they fit in. If the New Kid wore a Star Trek T-shirt, we knew that by lunchtime she’d be sitting with the sci-fi geeks in the cafeteria. If it was an athletic-looking boy in basketball shorts, he’d sit with the jocks. The whole thing reminded me of one of those coin-sorting machines: You take a jar of jumbled-up change, dump it all into the machine, and within about twenty seconds all the dimes are neatly stacked, and all the nickels, and all the pennies and quarters, too. That’s what middle school feels like: a giant sorting machine.

Which means that right now, everyone’s trying to figure out where I fit.

My new class stares. I swallow. Soccer Boy hiccups. Then one of the identical kids in camouflage shouts, “But where’s Paulie?”

“Yeah,” says his twin. “Why isn’t Paulie here yet?”

Then everyone starts shouting that name.

“Yeah, where is Paulie?”

“You think Paulie got in trouble already?”

“Uh-oh, what’d Paulie do!?”

Then Pantsuit Girl stands up, jams her fist in the air. “Paul-ie!” she chants. “Paul-ie! Paul-ie! Paul-ie!”

And suddenly they’re all chanting, like sports fans demanding the star player be allowed in the game. They’re looking at me as if I’m the one who’s holding him back.

“Pau-lie! Pau-lie! Pau-lie!”

The girl with the pink hair and the tiny guitar even starts strumming along, like she’s writing music to go with their cheers.

Just for a moment, I let myself imagine that I’m not really here. That I’m back home, with my friends. I can picture the seventh-grade hallway at my old school: my friends waiting for me by the lockers. All of us huddled together, checking out kids’ back-to-school haircuts and first-day outfits. Peering at our schedules to see which classes we’ll have together.

I realize my friends are doing all that right now, at this very second. They’re just doing it without me.

That’s when I feel a swell in my throat, almost like my insides are flooding.

Sometimes this is how it is. Sometimes I go all swampy inside. My insides slosh and rise, and I know that if I’m not careful, I’m going to start crying. I’ve learned that there are three things you have to do when your insides get swampy:

1. Stare at something. Anything. And then don’t blink, not even once. I choose the portrait hanging above the fireplace. It’s some old man with bushy eyebrows and eyes like ice. There’s a big gold plaque attached to the frame. It says JULIUS HEWITT MAYBERRY OXTHORPE, 1869–1931.

2. Take a breath. I use what Mom calls a “cleansing breath”—in through the nose, out through the top of my head—even though that is technically impossible.

3. Turn to stone. I imagine that all my swampy insides are hardening into something dense and cool, so strong I’ll never cry again.

Everyone knows the first two tricks. But the third trick is all my own, and it’s the one that works best of all. When your insides are made of stone, nothing can hurt you.


The teacher, Mags, must take some sort of pity on me, because she doesn’t force the whole I know you will give Caitlyn a great big welcome thing. Instead, she points to a chair between Pantsuit Girl and Soccer Boy and tells me to take a seat.

When she finally quiets the class, Mags leans against the fireplace. “Originals, I have some news,” she says. “For some reason, Paulie Fink is not on my class list this year. It looks like he’s no longer enrolled at Mitchell.”

Next to me, Pantsuit Girl leaps out of her seat again, this time so fast her chair crashes backward. She throws her arms out to the sides, practically smacking me in the forehead with the back of her hand. “What?!” she shouts. “I mean… WHAT?!”

“Sit down, please, Fiona,” says Mags reasonably.

“But where is he?” asks Pink Hair. She’s wearing a T-shirt that says THERE IS NO EARTH WITHOUT ART, and she’s got a million woven bracelets on her arm.

Mags shakes her head. “I really don’t know any details, Yumi. I double-checked as soon as I got the list, and apparently it’s true. Paulie Fink is no longer a student here. I’m sure we’ll find out more soon enough.”

“Maybe this is one of his pranks,” says one of the three kids in matching pom-pom ears, a girl with pink cheeks, frizzy red hair, and a mouth full of braces. The other two pom-poms nod along. It’s funny, because these three kids look nothing alike—in addition to the redhead, there’s also a wispy girl in yoga clothes with perfect posture and a kid who could be either a girl or a boy, lean and wiry, with hair buzzed practically to stubble—but somehow you can tell they’re a threesome. It’s not just the pom-poms, either. It’s the way they’re leaning into one another. You can tell they’ve known each other forever.

“Yeah,” the girl in the MEGASTAR sweatshirt pipes up. Her dark hair’s piled into a high ponytail and spills out in every direction. “Maybe Paulie wants us to think he’s missing, but it’s all part of a dramatic setup!”

Again, everyone starts shouting.

I mean, a person can’t just vanish into thin air!

He’d tell us if he was really leaving, wouldn’t he?

This place won’t be the same without Paulie!


  • Praise for The Next Great Paulie Fink:
    A ParentsMagazine 30 Best Kids' Books of 2019
    A LAPL Best Books of 2019
    A NYPL Best Books of 2019
    A KirkusReviews Best Children's Books of 2019
    A PublishersWeekly Best Books of 2019
    A PublishersWeekly Most Anticipated Children's Book of Spring 2019
    An Amazon Best Book of the Month for April 2019
  • "A funny and fast-paced romp."
    The New York Times
  • * "A story with massive heart... A book to make readers think, question, reach, laugh, and strive harder."
    Kirkus Reviews, starred review
  • * "A witty, tender, and utterly engaging modern school story that draws on the wisdom of the ages."—School Library Journal, starred review
  • * "Genuinely original, the novel offers thoughtful perspectives on friendship, accepting change, and the many rewarding guises of storytelling, as well as a fully gratifying ending that the characters don't see coming."
    Publishers Weekly, starred review
  • * "A beautiful, powerful novel about embracing one's own great self, even--or especially--in middle school."—Shelf Awareness, starred review
  • "Benjamin strikes a nice balance of goofy, often physical comedy...with introspection...for a look at shifting middle-school identities and the strange chaos they bring."
  • "Takes the reader on a journey of self-discovery."—School Library Connection
  • "Sympathetic."
  • "Wise and funny."—The Wall Street Journal
  • "A middle school story to top all middle school stories."
    The Buffalo News
  • "An inspirational story about finding your place in an unfamiliar community and learning that normal is not always better."—The Denver Post
  • "Laugh-out-loud funny."—Horn Book
  • "You'll love this new favorite about being the new kid at school, and dealing with bullies, and becoming something different."—Romper
  • Praise for The Thing About Jellyfish:
    A 2015 National Book Award Finalist
    A New York Times Bestseller
    An Indiebound Bestseller
    An E.B. White Read-aloud Book Award Finalist
    An Amazon Editor's Best Book of the 2015
    A 2015 GoodReads Choice Award Finalist
    An Amazon Editors' Fall Favorite Children's Book
    A Booklist Top Ten First Novel of 2015
    A Publishers Weekly Best Book of 2015
  • *"A painful story smartly told, Benjamin's first solo novel has appeal well beyond a middle school audience."
    Kirkus Reviews, starred review
  • *"Reminiscent of works by Jennifer L. Holm and Sharon Creech...a shining example of the highs and lows of early adolescence."—Publishers Weekly, starred review
  • *"Authentic and poignant...[a] superbly written, heartfelt novel."—School Library Journal, starred review
  • *"Clean, fluid writing that is highly accessible, yet rich with possibilities for discussion.... An uncommonly fine first novel."—Booklist, starred review
  • *"Just-right pacing, authentic voices and characters, beautifully crafted plot, and superb writing. Readers will find that this story lingers with them after the book is closed."—VOYA, starred review
  • "There are...a lot of children who might not only benefit from this book but also find themselves deeply moved by it."—New York Times Book Review

On Sale
Apr 16, 2019
Page Count
368 pages

Ali Benjamin

About the Author

Ali Benjamin is a New York Times bestselling author and National Book Award Finalist for The Thing About Jellyfish, and the co-writer for HIV-positive teen Paige Rawl’s coming-of-age memoir Positive as well as Tim Howard’s national bestseller The Keeper. She lives near Williamstown, Massachusetts.

Learn more about this author