The Humiliations of Pipi McGee


By Beth Vrabel

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Award-winning author Beth Vrabel writes with humor and empathy about a girl who wants to shed her embarrassing moments before she leaves middle school behind her. The first eight years of Penelope McGee’s education have been a curriculum in humiliation. Now she is on a quest for redemption, and a little bit of revenge.

From her kindergarten self-portrait as a bacon with boobs, to fourth grade when she peed her pants in the library thanks to a stuck zipper to seventh grade where…well, she doesn’t talk about seventh grade. Ever.

After hearing the guidance counselor lecturing them on how high school will be a clean slate for everyone, Pipi–fearing that her eight humiliations will follow her into the halls of Northbrook High School–decides to use her last year in middle school to right the wrongs of her early education and save other innocents from the same picked-on, laughed-at fate. Pipi McGee is seeking redemption, but she’ll take revenge, too.


Chapter One

This year would be different.

I was sure of it.

“Welcome, students!” Principal Hendricks raised her arms in a cheer from her spot on the auditorium stage. Her red power suit gleamed in the spotlight. “We’re so excited to have you back at Northbrook Middle School!”

Next to me, my best friend Tasha pretended to puke into her backpack.

“Stop it.” I elbowed her. “This year is going to be different.”

Tasha raised her eyebrow. She had the best you’re-unbelievable look aside from my mom, whose facial expressions were expert level.

“I mean it, Tasha.” I folded my hands on my lap and pasted a smile on my face, despite feeling Tasha’s stare burn into me.

“You curled your hair, didn’t you?” Tasha asked.

My shoulder-length brownish-blond hair was naturally wavy, but only parts of it. Most of it was stick straight. So, picture chunks of straight hair with random curlicues. Normally, I deal with it, shoving it back into a ponytail and moving on with my life. But this year was going to be different. This year, I’d do what Mom was always yakking about—Take time with your appearance, Pipi. Make an effort. I’d wake up fifteen minutes early every day and curl my hair so it’d all be bouncy and exciting, like my brand-new, different self.

Now both of Tasha’s eyebrows were peaked. She pulled on one of my curls and then watched it bounce back. “Every year, you start off like an innocent little lamb thinking this time, everything’s going to be so new and grand. Every year, I’ve got to come pry you out of the bathroom stall you’re crying in by the end of September.”

“That’s not fair.” I crossed my arms. “You know perfectly well that everything that has happened to me was not my fault.




I glanced around, holding up my hands. “That’s one of the things that’s going to be different this year. I’m not going by Pipi anymore. I’m Penelope.”

Tasha closed her eyes and shook her head. This time, I guess facial features weren’t enough to convey her thoughts. “You’re unbelievable.”

“I’ve been Pipi McGee for four years—”

“Yep, ever since you—”

“Don’t say it!” I put my hand over Tasha’s mouth and she batted my arm away. Tasha crossed her own arms and stared at me. “Sorry,” I mumbled. “But just, please. Don’t say it. I mean it, this year’s going to be different.”

“Whatever.” Tasha shifted in her seat and slipped earbuds into her ears. She thumbed at her audiobook app.

“That again?” I pointed to the picture of the book cover on the app. “Haven’t you got the whole thing memorized?”

“’Course, I do.” Tasha grinned. “But the final installment—Crow Reaper: Reaping Death—releases next week. Just enough time to listen to the first book.”

I sighed.

Tasha shook her head, her long braids rustling against each other. “Uh-uh. No judgment, Pi—Penelope. You might be changing. I’m staying the same.”

I glanced at Tasha, who closed her eyes as she listened, and I knew that wasn’t exactly true. While each year I somehow managed to stay right where I was on the social hierarchy of Northbrook Middle School (the bottom rung)—always due to some unfortunate event that was never my fault—Tasha bumped up a few pegs.

That wasn’t even true, really. She built her own ladder. Her ridiculously overachieving brain and athleticism put her in a league of coolness totally of her own, despite being totally obsessed—to the point of dress up—with a book series about a demon-hunting boy whose brother turned into a crow. And then there was the fact that she was gorgeous, tall and athletic with dark brown skin and eyes.

Principal Hendricks’s smile seemed to stretch the auditorium. “As you know, this is my first year as principal of Northbrook Middle. As such, we’re going to kick off things a little differently.”

“Told you.” I nudged Tasha, who just shook her head and bumped up the volume on her phone. My nose tickled, so I sat on my hands, keeping my smile firmly in place. I never touch my nose if I can help it. It’s my least favorite feature. Plus, the whole first-grade thing…

My smile was smacked straight off my face when Frau Jacobs, the seventh-grade Intro to Languages teacher, shuffled forward and whispered in Principal Hendricks’s ear.

Remember that part in Harry Potter where the old lady was actually a snake? Like the giant snake was just living inside the old lady’s skin? I’m pretty sure J. K. Rowling must’ve met Frau Jacobs when she thought about that snake lady.

Frau Jacobs was about five feet, two inches tall, all sweet smiles and curly brown hair. She smelled like freshly baked cookies and clasped her hands together in delight while verbally carving your soul into confetti. Even though she was probably the same age as my dad, she looked like grandma material. Which, strictly speaking, also includes my dad.

Principal Hendricks’s red lipsticked smile wavered a little at whatever Frau Jacobs whispered in her ear. Slowly, Frau Jacobs backed away and sat down, a satisfied little smile on her face.

“Yes, well, before I begin with what we’re doing differently this year,” (I didn’t even bother to elbow Tasha this time) “the other teachers and I would like to remind you all about the dress code.” A low rumbly groan rippled over the auditorium. Principal Hendricks held up her hand. I swallowed down the sour taste that flooded my mouth whenever I saw Frau Jacobs.

“Okay, girls. No exposed shoulders. No low-cut blouses. No tank tops. No leggings without a top that goes to mid-thigh. No shorts that are higher than finger length when your arms are by your side.” Principal Hendricks rattled off the dress code like a grocery list. Behind her, Frau Jacobs cleared her throat. Principal Hendricks turned halfway toward her, listening to whatever she muttered, then turned back with a tight smile. “Frau Jacobs would like to add a few words.”

My breath seeped out, and I fought the urge to cover my ears.

“Yes, ladies. As the famous soprano Frau Greta Mila von Nickel was fond of saying… well, I can’t actually repeat it because even in German, an insult is an insult. But it comes down to this, ladies: each of us has an inner swine-dog that we must vanquish.”

Principal Hendricks cleared her throat. Frau sighed and continued, “None of you are, of course, swine-dogs. It’s an imperfect translation. In any case, remember you are here to learn. Not to be caught unawares at the distraction you are causing among others. I will dress-code you. I do expect you to be ready to learn at all times while you’re here in this building, prepared and ready without excuse.” I pulled up my knees and burrowed my head into them. Tasha, earbuds removed, stirred a little closer to me and hissed something under her breath about Frau shutting her pie hole.

Frau Jacobs smiled at all of us. “And, gentlemen, be clean and neat.” She looked over the audience full of students, as though expecting applause.

Principal Hendricks stood back in front of the microphone as Frau Jacobs returned to her seat. “You likely don’t remember that, at the beginning of kindergarten, you drew portraits of what you hoped your future selves would be, what you would look like at the end of middle school. Today, we’re going to reveal those wonderful portraits and see how far you’ve come in seizing your dreams!”

Something cold crackled through my chest. My fingers stretched out and squeezed Tasha’s knee.

She pulled out an earbud again. “What?”

“Bad,” I muttered.

“How bad?” Tasha bit her lip. “Like, fourth-grade bad?”

I didn’t answer.

Tasha’s eyes turned to marbles. She looked toward Frau Jacobs, then back at me. “Pipi—is this seventh-grade bad?”

I didn’t answer.

I didn’t talk about seventh grade.


My eyes darted around the room. No way could they show everyone’s kindergarten portrait. There were, like, two hundred kids in my class. The lights dimmed and a screen lit up.

“No, no, no, no, no.”

Tasha looked at the screen, her mouth stretching into a relieved smile. “Come on, Pipi. It can’t be that bad. All of the drawings are goofy.” Flashing across the screen were scribbly sketches of big bobblehead humanoids next to the artist’s seventh-grade school picture. A few people laughed at Robert Andrew’s portrait—a giant head with arms and legs stretching out of it.

Now, maybe most people don’t remember their kindergarten self-portraits. Not me. How could I forget my first humiliation? Miss Simpson had held up my drawing in front of everyone, her face screwed up and red from holding in her laughter, as she told us to remember “sometimes the best thing to do when we make mistakes is to use an eraser or start over. Don’t just keep going.”

I bit my lip to keep from screaming. My eyes scoured the crowded auditorium. Maybe no one would be paying attention. No such luck. Everyone stared up at the screen with little grins. Each time a new portrait appeared, a little cooing sound would bubble up from spots in the crowd and everyone around that person would ooh and aah.

This was a disaster!

Three rows ahead of me, Ricky Salindo half twisted in his seat. When his eyes locked with mine, he quickly looked away. He remembered my kindergarten portrait, too.

I whimpered. Tasha elbowed me.

When I could be sure I could speak without screeching, I said, “There are two hundred kids in our grade. They won’t get to everyone, right?”

Tasha shrugged. “Two hundred and nineteen kids. Pictures are up for about three seconds, so it’d take six hundred fifty-seven seconds to get through everyone, or roughly ten minutes. And probably ten percent of the student body moved here after kindergarten.” My best friend has one of those super quick, bizarrely accurate math brains. I do not. “Oh!” she squealed. “It’s me!”

Tasha’s kindergarten portrait flashed on the screen. She had a red triangle dress, with brown arms and legs peeking out from the sides. Her hair was a lighter brown puff around her head. In careful writing, she had written her name, Tasha Martins, under her picture. She looked adorable and somehow exactly as I remembered her from when we first met, thanks to standing in alphabetical order in line for bathroom breaks. She had drawn herself holding a stack of books.

So cute. Alphabetical order. That meant I’d be—

It was worse than I remembered.

Let me set the scene, heading back in time eight years to tiny, poor Kindergarten Penelope dooming her future self.

Five-year-old Penelope sat at her table with colored pencils and crayons in a Tupperware container in front of her. She thought about her future self, what the Penelope of Eighth Grade would be like. She drew a pink face and yellow hair. And then Miss Simpson said, “Now, class, think about what you really, really love in life. And then think about all the choices you’ll get to make when you’re a big thirteen- or fourteen-year-old middle schooler!”

What do I really love in life? Kindergarten Penelope really loved bacon.

Sweet, innocent Penelope was so proud of her drawing. Then Miss Simpson made her trying-not-to-laugh face. And she held up the drawing and everyone in the classroom laughed. Kara Samson said something about Penelope being a sillyhead.

Penelope stood up and screamed that she was not a sillyhead, and someday she would be bacon, and then Kara would be sorry.

Miss Simpson talked then about fantasy versus reality and that no one could grow up to be bacon. But she was wrong, Kindergarten Penelope vowed, and wrote in careful letters: Penelope WILL be bacon. And then Penelope screamed that she would be drippy and delicious one day, and kicked Miss Simpson’s shin.

I remembered everyone’s faces, all twisty and eyes squinty, their hands covering their mouths as they whispered and laughed. My own face had flushed so red I could see it flaming.

It looked like… well, it looked exactly like what was happening right now, this very second. Because it was happening all over again.

“No!” Tasha gasped as the portrait took shape on the screen. She wrapped her arm around my shoulder and squeezed. “Pipi. Pipi, why did you put boobs on the bacon?”

“Because it’s older me,” I whimpered and looked down at my still mostly flat chest.

I was too numb to react. Just stared at the screen, both reliving my first humiliation and then experiencing it fresh all over again.

Know how long it takes for the entire eighth grade to turn on a kid?

Three seconds.

First it was a buzz. Then a guffaw. Next laughter.

“It’s Pipi McGee!” someone a few rows behind me called out.

“Sizzling hot!” shouted someone else.

Tasha jumped to her feet. “Shut it! Leave her alone!” Tasha pointed to Wade Michaels, a meathead jock who was laughing loudest. “Your drawing had ears bigger than your head, Meatlobe.” Wade covered his ears with his hands and closed his mouth. Tasha jabbed a finger in nasty-laughing Patricia Reynolds’s direction. “And, you! You didn’t even draw a body, Patricia. You were just a blob girl. A blob girl.” Patricia rolled her eyes but stopped laughing.

Still standing, Tasha turned to me as the people around us finally quieted. “Don’t listen to them, Pipi,” she said. “Everyone loves bacon!”

Especially booby bacon,” Wade called in a wheezy laugh. And the auditorium erupted again.

“It’s fine,” Tasha whispered as she sat back down. “I’m sure everyone will forget soon.”

Booby bacon! Booby bacon! Booby bacon!” the class chanted.

“It’s okay,” I whispered back. I grabbed my backpack and pulled it up my arm. “It’s me. I’m a walking embarrassment.”

“That’s not true.”

“It’s like Kara Samson said last year. I’m a virus.” I wiped at the pathetic wetness on my cheeks. “I’ll be in my office. The third stall.”

“Oh, Pipi,” Tasha said. “It’s not even September.”

I shimmied past her, my head ducked low.

“Now, now,” Principal Hendricks said from the front of the room as I exited, interrupting the slideshow. “Isn’t it wonderful to see how far we’ve all come?”

“Booby bacon! Booby bacon! Booby bacon!” chanted the crowd, led once again by Kara Samson.

So much for this year being different.

Just like every other year, eighth grade was going to be an education in public humiliation.

Chapter Two

“I’m sure it wasn’t that bad.” Mom sat across from me at the kitchen island.

When I didn’t answer, without looking she grabbed a brownie from the tray between us and shoved it into her mouth. Mom, a fitness instructor, almost never ate sugar. She only wore leggings that molded to her toned legs and tank tops that showed off the way her lean arms rippled with muscles. Her constant ready-to-go-for-a-run attire was in contrast to the way her dark brown hair with blond highlights was always styled perfectly and her makeup was always perfectly done.

Since opening her gym downtown, Mom said she had to protect her “brand” and “look the part.” But every now and then she’d bake treats for special occasions—such as the first day of school—that weren’t made from black beans and agave nectar. She always tried not to sample them and was usually pretty successful.

This time, as soon as the sugar hit her tongue, her fitness-instructor self turned into someone just interested in fittin’ sugar into her mouth.

Alec, my stepdad, smiled at the back of Mom’s head from where he leaned against the counter. Alec’s always doing that, smiling at Mom like everything she does is wonderful, even shoving a brownie into her mouth. He saw me looking at him and winked. I tried to smile back, but it was wobbly. Then Alec wasn’t smiling but looking at me with concern.

While Mom was all spandex and lipstick, Alec was suits and polish. He was about six feet tall, almost always either in a suit or a white button-down shirt. He worked as a financial adviser; that’s how he and Mom met, back when she was finalizing details for opening her gym.

They were so in love it was disgusting.

Alec pushed off the counter and planted a kiss on the top of Mom’s head. She handed him a brownie, and he shook his head. Mom shoved it into her own mouth without a second glance, then pushed the tray toward me.

It was kind of funny—Alec was pretty much the exact opposite of my dad, who was a soft, pale Irishman with thinning red hair and a potbelly, and who was more than ten years older than Mom. Meanwhile, Alec was a tall, broad black man with abs that rivalled Mom’s. He was also about ten years younger than Mom, which was a topic she never wanted to discuss.

Speaking of my dad, he stretched out his hand to pat my arm. “Was it that bad, Penelope?” (Yeah, he was there, too. The divorce happened about five years ago, and honestly it wasn’t all that traumatic. So much had been happening then at our house that Dad going from sleeping on the couch like he had since I could remember to sleeping in his own apartment didn’t seem like a big deal. He and Mom might not have stayed in love, but they still loved each other and loved us. Dad even seemed to really like Alec; they played racquetball together in Mom’s gym a couple afternoons a week.)

Dad was a newspaper reporter and had a way of asking questions that made you start blabbing even if you didn’t want to. I nodded. “I think it ranks about third on The List.”

“The List?” Alec asked.

“The List of Humiliations of Pipi McGee,” supplied my older sister, Eliza. She placed a brownie on a little plate and handed it to Annie. “It’s long and pathetic.”

I nodded.

Annie glanced at Mom, who smiled, and then Annie dug in. Eliza’s mouth set into a hard line at the silent exchange, but she didn’t say anything.

I should probably explain this a little more before moving on with my story. Annie is actually Eliza’s daughter—my sister had her when she was sixteen years old. It really messed Eliza up for a long time. Now, Annie was four and a half, and Eliza was a lot stronger as a person—she is about to graduate college (mostly through taking online courses at a local university) and has a job at a makeup shop next to Mom’s gym. But for the first few years after Annie was born, Eliza was in pretty bad shape emotionally. Mom was the one who really took care of Annie, getting up in the middle of the night to feed her, singing her silly songs, and teaching her how to use the bathroom. You know, mom stuff. Annie even calls Mom “MomMom” and Eliza, well, “Eliza,” even though Eliza does most of the mom stuff now.

“Remember my humiliations when you have to do your self-portrait,” I said to Annie.

“How was your first day of preschool?” Dad asked Annie to try to change the subject.

She shrugged. “We had to eat Joe’s slop for lunch.”

“Sloppy Joes,” Eliza corrected. Annie sighed.

Annie was what a lot of people called an old soul. She had wide green eyes and my hair color, but hers was styled in a little pixie cut after an incident where she played barber in the bathroom with a pair of cuticle scissors. (Amazing how much damage cuticle scissors could do, especially if you cut your hair straight down the middle.) I had a pixie cut once, thanks to Vile Kara Samson, but Annie’s hairstyle was much cuter. She had Eliza’s perfect heart-shaped face. Picture a delicate angel—blue eyes, blond hair, pretty little nose, and dainty little features. That’s Eliza. Like, so pretty that people bumped into each other on the street when she walked by, hoping she’d bless them with a smile or something. Or, at least, that’s how she used to be. Now the first thing you’d see when Eliza walked by was her stop-sign scowl. Think, I don’t know, of an avenging angel who might smite you for no reason at all.

Turning back to me, Alec said, “It can’t be that bad, Pipi.” Dad turned to the side and raised his eyebrow. Mom eyed another brownie. “Come on!” Alec glanced at all of us.

“Pipi pees her pants,” Annie said.

“That is not true!” I slammed my hands on the counter. “I peed my pants. Once.” I looked to Alec. “That’s the fourth-grade entry.” His eyes widened and I knew he was doing the math, figuring out that fourth graders are at least nine years old and definitely shouldn’t be peeing their pants. “And ever since, everyone—even my own family—has called me Pipi.”

“It’s catchy,” Dad said. Eliza nodded.

I sighed.

“Okay,” Alec said. “So, you had an accident in fourth grade and in kindergarten, you drew yourself as a breakfast meat—”

“With boobs,” I added.

Alec continued, “How bad could the rest be?”

“Bad,” Eliza said.

“Real bad,” Mom added.

Alec crossed his arms. He and Mom had been married only a year, and apparently the courtship didn’t include a rundown of her daughter’s pathetic nature. Mom sighed. “It’s like this: every year, something happens to Pipi. Something awful. And then that event is like the sun—everything else that happens to her that year revolves around the event.”

Alec nodded. “Sounds a bit like a self-fulfilling prophecy. You think something bad will happen, so as soon as something bad happens, it becomes that thing.”

I blinked at him.

“So, maybe,” he continued, his eyes drifting toward Dad and back, “it’s not that whatever happened is all that bad. You’re just so prepped for it to be awful that no matter what it is, it’s inflated to feel that much worse.”

“Eh.” Dad cleared his throat. I used to go with him on story assignments when I was a little kid. Reporters don’t make a lot of money, and neither do fitness instructors, so I’d tag along if my grandparents couldn’t watch me. This “eh” wasn’t just a casual throat-clearing thing. This was a reporter tactic of Dad’s. It was questioning someone’s comment without straight-out casting doubt.

Sure enough, Dad pulled his reporter’s notebook from his back pocket. “Let’s go over the facts.”

I grabbed the notebook and a pen from him and flipped to a blank page. I spoke as I wrote. “Kindergarten, drew myself as bacon with boobs, thanks to poor instructions from Miss Simpson.”

“Another thing you’ll notice,” Eliza piped in, “is that it’s never Pipi’s fault, whatever happened. It’s always someone else’s.”

I stuck my tongue out at her. Annie giggled.

“First grade.” I scrawled a number one on the page and wrote class picture next to it. “My nose itched on the inside during the class picture. It was just an itch!” It itched again, just thinking about it, but I ignored it.

Mom was the one giggling now. She reached into a kitchen cabinet, way to the back, and pulled out a mug with my picture on it—one of those gifts you can order along with school pictures. And there I was, forever immortalized with my finger up my nose.

“Must’ve been quite an itch.” Alec laughed. “Your finger’s up to the knuckle.”

My chin popped up. “Vile Kara Samson had a lot of hairspray in her hair. A lot. It irritated my nasal passage. Anyway, I was not a nose picker. I swear! But all of first grade, no one would invite me to sleep over or to play after school because I had ‘boogie fingers.’” For months after that, I’d fall asleep rubbing my nose like I could somehow smudge it right off my face. Now, I never touched my nose if at all possible. It didn’t help, of course, that my nose was long and wide.

I drew a number two for second grade. Next to it, I wrote vomit-a-thon. Eliza shuddered.

“Do I want to know?” asked Alec, reading the paper upside down.

“It was the second week of school. My allergies—again!—were bothering me on the bus. I coughed, and it led to a little throw-up. It wouldn’t have been so bad if Sarah Trickle hadn’t turned around to hand me a tissue. I sprayed her with Eggo.”

“It was like dominos,” said Dad, his mustache awfully twitchy for discussing something traumatic. “The bus driver called the office and said all the parents had to pick up their kids. Sarah Trickle must’ve let loose on the kid next to her. The next person puked on the person in front of him, on and on. Only one kid—Ricky Salindo—was vomitless. Steel stomach, that kid.”

And,” I said, “every time Kara Samson so much as looked at me that year, she’d make gagging sounds. Like my face was a finger down her throat. She wasn’t even on the bus! And since she’s Vile Kara Samson that meant everyone else followed her lead. Can you imagine that? Everyone gagging when they see you? Even Sarah Trickle gagged around me.”

Vile Kara Samson. Ugh. Picture a tall, curvy girl with long brown hair. A smile with full lips and perfectly straight white teeth. Blue eyes that always look mean, even while blinding a person with that perfect smile. The girl no one actually likes but whom everyone desperately wants to like them. She’s paper-cut mean—leaving a sting that seems to go away, but brings tears to your eyes all over again as soon as it’s reopened.


  • "Recommended where there is demand for realistic, humorous fiction centered on girls coming of age."—School Library Journal
  • "Painful though they are, Pipi's trials neatly convey an authentic flavor of the commonplace agonies of middle school."—Kirkus
  • "Ready to gain redemption or exact revenge for her eight humiliations, Pipi McGee's choices will make you laugh out loud and cringe at the same time. Vrabel gives us a heartwarming story about learning to love ourselves, while recognizing we all have room to grow."
    Melanie Sumrow, author of The Prophet Calls, The Inside Battle
  • "Both hilarious and heartfelt, The Humiliations of Pipi McGee is for anyone who's ever felt invisible, made a mess of the best intentions, and wondered about their place in their own life. This book is for everyone. With sensitivity and respect, Beth Vrabel explores identity, family, friendship, and the emotional fall-out of bullying. Get ready to laugh, cry, cringe, and fall completely in love with Pipi McGee."—-Ashley Herring Blake, author of the Stonewall Honor book Ivy Aberdeen's Letter to the World
  • "Deftly balancing humor, heartbreak, and the uncomfortable realization that situations aren't always as simple as we might think, The Humiliations of Pipi McGee will speak to every reader who's ever dreamed of redemption-or revenge. A vibrant and thought-provoking read."—Cindy Baldwin, author of Where the Watermelons Grow
  • "Pipi McGee's story is as real and complicated as middle school itself. It's hurt and healing, betrayal and forgiveness, self-doubt and self-discovery. Thank you, Beth Vrabel, for this deeply moving and triumphant book."—Carrie Firestone, author of The Unlikelies, The Loose Ends List
  • "Beth Vrabel writes with an abundance of humor and heart and a keen understanding of both the trials and triumphs of growing up."—Jarrett Lerner, author of the EngiNerds series
  • "[S]ome set pieces are hilarious, the titular humiliations truly wince-worthy, and the supporting cast is chock-full of appealing characters."—Booklist

On Sale
Sep 17, 2019
Page Count
384 pages
Running Press Kids

Beth Vrabel

About the Author

Beth Vrabel is author of the Cybils'-nominated Caleb and Kit, ILA award-winning A Blind Guide to Stinkville, JLG-selection A Blind Guide to Normal, The Reckless Club, the Pack of Dorks series, and The Newspaper Club. She lives in Connecticut with her family.

Learn more about this author