By Don Zolidis
Formats and Prices
This item is a preorder. Your payment method will be charged immediately, and the product is expected to ship on or around April 6, 2021. This date is subject to change due to shipping delays beyond our control.
Mean Girls meets the debate team in this fish-out-of-water story about a teen girl determined to sabotage the elitist speech team at her new school.Not everyone can be a winner . . . and Sydney Williams knows this better than anyone. After her white-collar-criminal dad is sent to prison, Sydney fails almost all of her classes and moves into a dingy apartment with her mom, who can barely support them with her minimum-wage job at the mall.
A new school promises a fresh start. Except Eaganville isn’t exactly like other high schools. It’s ruled with an iron fist by a speech team that embodies the most extreme winner-takes-all philosophy.
Sydney is befriended by a group of fellow misfits, each of whom has been personally victimized by the speech team. It turns out Sydney is the perfect plant to take down the speech team from within.
With the help of her co-conspirators, Sydney throws herself into making Nationals in speech, where she will be poised to topple the corrupt regime. But what happens when Sydney realizes she actually has a shot at . . .winning? Sydney lost everything because of her dad’s obsession with being on top. Winning at speech might just be her ticket out of a life of loserdom. Can she really walk away from that?
History had already started by the time I arrived.
I crept into the classroom, trying not to interrupt. It was a small class; Eaganville School for the Arts promised a student-to-teacher ratio that would be the envy of any high school in Minnesota. I scanned the room, looking for a friendly face. The faces that stared back at me were unlike anything at my previous school. I was in a room of artists. As one, their artistic heads swiveled to look at me. I was keenly aware that my clothes were from Target, my hair was only two colors, and I hadn’t even pierced my septum. I felt like an untattooed, unpierced freak.
I mumbled a sorry and shuffled my boring sneakers to an open desk at the back of the room.
Eaganville was not a normal school in any sense of the word. First of all, it was housed in an old nunnery. Most of the classrooms were underground, and the corridors connecting them were a maze of twisting passages and narrow dead ends. Nothing made sense, nothing went in a straight line, and if you listened hard enough, you could hear the ghosts of dead nuns wandering the halls, searching in vain for a bathroom. Not only that, but the rooms didn’t have numbers. They were named after famous artists. History was in the Klimt room, which had taken me twenty minutes to find. It was basically Hogwarts for bullshit.
“Take a seat, please,” said the teacher, a sprightly sixty-year-old woman with short iron-gray hair. She wore a blazer and yoga pants and had about seven silvery bracelets on each wrist. She was probably big into astrology.
“My name is Ms. Banks,” she said. “Or Miss B. Or Teach. I do not answer to ‘Hey, Lady.’” The room buzzed with a little light laughter. Apparently, Miss B. was the shit. “You must be Sydney.”
“That’s what it says on my witness protection form,” I said. Nobody laughed. Some people eyed me quizzically. “That was a joke. I make, um… jokes sometimes, you know, when I’m late.”
“Ah,” said Ms. Banks.
“No filter,” I added.
“We get it.”
It’s astonishing how quickly you can become a social outcast in a new school. I seemed to have managed it in under thirty seconds. Cool, cool.
She put a foot on one of the empty desks at the front of the room and stretched like a lioness. “All right, let’s get back into it. And remember, folks,” she said, pointing to a large poster of Napoleon looking like a tiny badass in a very large hat, “history is written by the winners.”
Huh. I guess I wouldn’t be writing any history, then. I mentally crossed that off my career goals.
The closest I’d ever come to winning anything was the school geography bee in seventh grade. The final question had been “What controversial crop is a major export of Virginia?” and I’d strode confidently to the microphone, looked out at my parents, gave them a thumbs-up, and said, “Meth.”
Real answer: tobacco. Sorry, Virginia. I didn’t mean to do you like that.
Then there was the time in the championship soccer game in ninth grade when I managed to score two goals—against my own team. One goal, sure, that’s a mistake. Anyone can do that. But two goals was an incredible accomplishment. I really should’ve won the MVP of the other team. In my defense, I was extremely horrible at passing the ball to our goalie, and no one should have let me have the ball. It was probably their fault, really.
My family were losers, too. But that’s a whole different story.
“Why shouldn’t the winners write history?” said a tiny blond girl wearing a gray shirt that said PEACE AND LOVE in chalky lettering. “Who else is going to write it? The losers?” The rest of the class chuckled in assent.
Ms. Banks tried to quell the uprising. “Well, Taryn, I can see why you would say that, but—”
Taryn cut her off. “If it had been a good idea, it would’ve won, right? And then we’d be learning about that. So, obviously, the winning idea was the best idea. Why is this controversial?”
“Maybe the other idea just wasn’t sure of itself,” I said, running my mouth.
Taryn turned to look at me. She had a pixie cut with pink highlights and the icy-blue eyes of a wolf. A hush fell over the rest of the class like I had just poked the mother of all bears.
“And if people would’ve just given it a second chance, it could’ve proved itself, but as soon as it made one mistake over and over again it was trashed by a whole bunch of judgmental people. And then it had to leave its previous environment and go to a new school. Or something to that effect.”
Taryn blinked. “That’s literally the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard.”
“Well, I’m just saying that there are multiple perspectives—”
“And some of those perspectives are stupid and wrong.”
I felt my face get hot. “Maybe that perspective is stupid and wrong.”
Ms. Banks took a step back. I could feel the eyes of the class zero in on me. Taryn took a deep breath and tucked the pink ends of her hair behind her ears. “So you’re super in favor of the gold standard, then?”
“I’m in favor of what now?”
“The gold standard. What we’re talking about.”
I noticed that everyone had a book open on their desk. “Ohhhh.”
Ms. Banks gingerly lifted a syllabus and handed it to me. “This is actually a discussion about nineteenth-century monetary policy.”
“Riiight,” I said. “I withdraw my opinion, then. Carry on. Also does anyone have a copy of this book we’re supposed to be reading?”
I kept my mouth shut for the rest of class, which was a personal record for me. I noticed pretty quickly that nobody disagreed with Taryn about ANYTHING—the gold standard, the moon landing, tectonic plates, anything. Not even the teacher. Taryn was out for blood. I decided not to make the class hate me any more and let her have at it.
“All right, hey, before we go,” said Ms. Banks, right before class was over. “Any announcements for the week?”
I kept quiet. I felt it was best for me not to have announcements. Ever.
“Um… hey, I’m Lakshmi, if you don’t remember,” said a tall, brown-skinned girl with a long black ponytail. “We’ve got a really important basketball game coming up on Thursday, so we would really appreciate y’all cheering us on.” She gave a slight thumbs-up as a current of amusement rippled through the class. “It would be really cool if we had like a big crowd showing a lot of school spirit just to like give us some moral support, ’cause we need it super bad.”
A guy in the back of the room interrupted. “I’m sorry, are you inviting us to a sportsball game?” I took a closer look at him—he was deeply tan, had fluffy good hair, and wore a goddamn blazer with elbow patches.
“Not sportsball—I don’t actually know what sportsball is—this is basketball.”
“So you throw a round object through a hoop?”
Lakshmi blinked. “Yeah. That is a description of basketball, Milo.”
Milo leaned back in his chair. “And you think this is a worthwhile use of your time? I mean, you’re inviting us to this—don’t you think this culture puts too much emphasis on sports and not enough emphasis on things that actually matter?”
Lakshmi stammered a bit. I looked at Ms. Banks, who was trying to ignore all of it.
Milo kept going. “Are you aware that studies have shown that there’s no link between athletic achievement and success in college?”
“I don’t think that’s true—”
“So you just don’t believe in peer-reviewed studies, then? Is that it? I’m sorry, do you have a background as a social scientist? I guess I missed that part of our education here.”
“I’m just inviting people to a basketball game—”
“Why are you changing the subject?”
“I’m not changing the subject.”
“The subject is do you believe in peer-reviewed studies? Are you a believer in science?” Milo chopped his hand in front of him like he was slicing her down with a mental katana. “Clearly there is research out there. That research shows no link between athletics and academic achievement, and yet you would bury your head in the sand and have us all celebrate you. For what? For your ability to throw a round object through a hoop? Can anyone think of a more useless waste of our time?”
Lakshmi twitched a bit, biting her lip.
God, what an asshole.
Sixteen heads swiveled toward me. Oh, had those words come out of my mouth?
Why yes. Yes they had. See, there was a way to make the class hate me more.
“Just so you know,” said Taryn, approaching my desk after class, her “Peace and Love” shirt shimmering malevolently, “if you have an opinion about something, you’d better be ready to defend it.”
“Sorry I was just talking—”
“Right. You were just talking. Sounds were just coming out of your mouth with no connection to thoughts. I understand.” She smiled sweetly. “But in this school, you’d better be ready to back it up. That’s what we’re about here.”
People are not taking shit about the gold standard at Eaganville. Noted.
“Thanks for the pro tip,” I said.
“Hey, do you happen to know where the Arbus room is, ’cause that’s where my math class is. I don’t even know what time period Arbus is from.”
“This is why they invented Google. To help people who don’t know things.” She tossed her head with the slightest twirl of her pink hair and headed out.
The Arbus room was located with the other photographers (who knew? I did, after I googled her), which only took me fifteen minutes to find. The hallways were madness, weird people rushing about, following their muses, scrambling underground like rats in tunnels. Luckily, after the bell “rang” (another piece of classical music that I didn’t recognize, but I heard someone say, “Mahler! Good choice!”) things were a lot emptier, so I was able to get lost in peace.
Wandering the halls gave me time to breathe. My old school, my old life, was gone. I absently checked my phone to see if any of my friends had messaged me. Nope. I couldn’t really blame them after what went down, but it still stung. I was alone.
I passed by the guidance counselor’s office, which was decorated with the pennants from the colleges and universities kids had been accepted to. It was a who’s who of the best places in the country: Michigan, Northwestern, Boston College, Yale.
Earlier in the year I had been thinking I’d be putting up one of those pennants myself. Now? Probably not. When you fail half your classes the first semester of your junior year, your college dreams take a big hit. But that was probably the least of my worries.
Eaganville was small enough that everyone had the same lunch period. The cafeteria at least had been renovated since the days of the convent and had gleaming new tile and track lighting. That didn’t seem to help the food, which was the same prison-caliber mush that I’d had at my last school. The sad little turkey-and-cheese sandwich I’d packed didn’t seem so bad all of a sudden.
I held my sack lunch in front of me and scanned the boisterous, chaotic room. The tables were octagonal, surrounded by plastic benches, and they all seemed filled with people chatting, laughing, and completely unaware of my existence. I was used to people segregating by obvious cliques—the jocks, the preps, the band geeks—but the categories here were completely foreign.
People with piercings and blazers? Check.
Art students with partially shaved heads? Check, check, and check (there were three tables of these people).
People wearing ties? Why the hell not?
New Girl sits alone in the back, I guess.
“Hey bat girl!”
I guess there are worse nicknames. It was Lakshmi from first period, hustling over to collect me.
“Sydney, actually,” I said.
“I just wanted you to know that was awesome this morning. You lit that motherfucker up. That was some badass shit.”
I thought back to first period and didn’t recall a nonstop stream of profanity coming out of this girl, and yet here she was. And I didn’t recall lighting anyone up, either, seeing as how my confusion about the gold standard was eviscerated in front of a cheering audience.
“Who are you talking about?”
“Oh. Thanks,” I said. “Yeah that guy was a total asshat. I thought the class needed to know.”
“I love it. You got a place to sit?”
“No. I was figuring on sitting alone like a total outcast, but then I looked around the room and, um… looks like all the outcast roles are taken, so…”
She laughed and wrapped a strong arm around my shoulder, pulling me toward the back of the room.
“You can sit with us. We are some badass motherfuckers and we totally appreciate your take-no-shit attitude.”
At the table were two of the least badass motherfuckers I’d ever seen.
“This is Elijah,” she said, pointing to a gangly redhead with the physique of a scarecrow. He was so skinny it looked like he didn’t have room for internal organs and was simply a collection of elbows and knees strung together with fishing line.
“Hey,” he said, shaking my hand like an adult and looking me directly in the eyes with a kind of supernatural confidence. He had piercing blue eyes, deep and rich like undersea jewels, but not like I was paying attention to them or anything—
“And I’m Thomas,” said a slightly husky Black kid in a sweater vest. Thomas had short-cropped hair, serious glasses, and a clipped way of speaking that strongly suggested he was a genius.
“This is the girl I was telling you about,” said Lakshmi, settling in. “Right to Milo’s face. ‘Who is this asshole?’!”
They beamed at me.
“I believe I said, ‘God, what an asshole,’” I said, taking a quick bow.
Elijah laughed. “That is amazing. You are my new hero. I mean, just to be clear, Lakshmi is my hero, but you’re like second.”
“Thanks. That means a lot.”
“I’m sure it does.”
Thomas shook his head in appreciation. “Do you know who Milo is?”
My smile died a little bit. “Apparently not. I’m new.”
“Milo is Speech and Debate. Varsity.”
“Ooooh,” I said, making a big whoop gesture with my hand.
Thomas blinked. “Seriously.”
Lakshmi cut in. “Yeah, I mean, next time you’re gonna want to keep your mouth shut, but today was spectacular. Like, I love what you did today, but you also just made a serious enemy who will probably destroy your entire life. Just an FYI.”
“Speech and Debate?”
“Yeah.” Lakshmi’s eyes went wide. “They are hard-core here.”
“Like a gang?”
“No, like an after-school activity.”
Lakshmi leaned over the table. “You’re new, so you probably got a pass today. But Eaganville has the number one Speech and Debate team in the country. They run the show, all right? They’re like… worshipped. Taryn, that girl today?”
“Also Speech and Debate?”
“Yup. Even the teachers don’t fuck with them. They’re awesome.”
Elijah put his hands up. “They’re not that awesome. I was on the team.”
“He was kicked off,” said Thomas.
“I was not kicked off, I quit—”
“After they said, ‘You’re kicked off.’”
“Were you there? Were you in the tribunal? No.”
“They have tribunals?” I said.
“The whole culture is fucked up,” said Elijah. “I am a better person now. I am healthier; I’m able to actually sleep at night so that’s a bonus. I’m living a normal life.”
“Debatable,” said Thomas.
“Anyway,” said Lakshmi, with fiery glee in her brown eyes, “if you want to work out your rage, you should totally come out for the basketball team. We could use someone with raw, naked aggression and no fear of consequences.”
“I would do that, but, um… I really suck on account of the fact that I’m the least coordinated person ever.”
Lakshmi twisted her long black hair into a bun, and I noticed that she had actual muscles. “Don’t even worry about it. You would fit right in. Sadly. You should see these bitches. They’re like journaling during the games. The whole team is a disaster. No one gives a shit about sports at this school.”
“You’re making a really strong case for the basketball team right now,” said Elijah.
“I’m just being real with her. It is a flaming shitstorm and you should definitely join.”
“Or, barring that,” cut in Elijah, “I do improv comedy, so…”
“Oh my God,” said Thomas. “She’s not doing improv.”
“Anyone can do improv! You could do improv if you wanted. You wouldn’t be very good, but you could still do it.” Elijah turned to me. “Thomas is a theater snob. He doesn’t actually perform in the shows, but he’s an aficionado.”
“I choose not to perform in the shows.”
Thomas took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes. “It’s not—Hmm. There are myriad reasons why one wouldn’t want to be onstage—”
“I can’t think of any.”
“Besides, my talents are best used behind the scenes.”
“Crying in the wings.”
“Would you stop?”
“Sorry, guys,” I said. “I don’t have any talent, actually. That’s not entirely true, I guess. I’m really good at being a loser. So, are there any activities here for losers?”
Thomas looked at his friends. “Improv comedy, theater, and basketball come to mind.”
“We’re all losers here,” said Elijah.
“If you don’t have any special talent,” said Lakshmi, “why are you at a magnet school for the arts?”
“My mom and I moved into the district.”
“There’s a district?”
“There’s like a small section of… um… apartments where this is the closest school and that’s where you go if you don’t have a car. I just ended up here; I didn’t actually choose to be here.”
Elijah whistled in surprise. “You’re like the one normal kid in Xavier’s school for mutants.”
Thomas rolled his eyes powerfully. “Oh my God. First of all, there are other normal kids at Xavier’s.”
“Um, okay, no.”
“You can’t, then. You can’t do it. My reference stands.”
Lakshmi pulled me close to her. “Well, you’re at a school for the arts now.” She smiled wickedly. “Welcome to the Upside Down.”
Tragic Home Life
The bus home was sparsely populated. Not a lot of kids took the bus from Eaganville; most drove their own cars, or stayed after school in one of the millions of after-school activities that didn’t require sportsballs. It was early January, which was generally the worst time of the year in Minnesota. The sun sets at four in the afternoon, and when it is visible, it’s like a pale, apologetic sun that’s ashamed it’s unable to melt the mounds of ice and snow.
I watched out the window as we passed through the overdeveloped McMansions on the western side of Minneapolis. My home, such as it was, was at the Crestview Arms, a crumbling apartment complex that had been grandfathered into the school district. Mom and I had landed here after my parents divorced and our life imploded.
And by imploded, I mean where one parent goes to prison and the other one declares bankruptcy. Next-level imploded.
We used to live in neighborhoods like that, I thought, passing the places that had hired people to take their Christmas decorations down. Of course, even when we were in the nice house, with actual things we owned, there were problems. But they seem small once you’re forced to sell the car, sell the television, sell the jewelry, and hide the rest of the stuff in your cousin’s basement so you don’t have to declare it as an asset.
The bus stopped in front of the complex, a hive of eight three-story buildings that clustered together for warmth. I got out, pressed my little keycard to the gate that was designed either to keep people out or lock us in, and made my way through the snow to our apartment, keeping my chin down to my chest to brace against the cold.
My mom was already packing up our dinner when I walked through the front door. She was in the kitchenette area of the apartment, which was separated from the living room area by about nothing, really. It was all basically the same room. The carpet hadn’t been cleaned from the previous tenants, so it was best to never look at it or contemplate what might have gone on here previously.
“How was your first day at the new school, sweetie?”
“Um… interesting, I guess.” Apparently I have made some mortal enemies, but no worries.
Charlie, our bulldog, lumbered up to me, his giant tongue lolling sloppily out of the side of his cavernous mouth. I groaned under his weight as I picked him up, his stubby little legs pushing against me.
“Who’s a good boy? Who’s a good boy?! Charlie is! Yes he is!” Charlie’s rubbery tongue washed my face with slobber.
Charlie was an illegal occupant of our apartment, since we didn’t have the money to pay the pet deposit, which meant that I had to take him on very fast walks and occasionally pretend to enter different apartments with him if I spotted a Crestview employee.
“Does he need to go out?! Does Charlie need to go out?! Yes he does! Yes he does!” Charlie wiggled appreciatively as I went to get his sweater.
“Don’t put him in the pink one,” said Mom from the kitchen.
“I’m putting him in the pink one,” I said, going to get the pink one.
“Luke’s coming over later.”
I stopped. “I’m putting him in the tutu, then.”
I could sense my mom rolling her eyes from halfway across the room. “Sydney.”
“Why are you trying to fit him into a conformist model of gender identity? Besides, we’re all aware that you’re the one responsible for his lack of testicles.”
“Don’t say testicles. It’s gross. And he could’ve kept his testicles if he didn’t hump the entire universe, which he did.”
“Well… this is the glorious result, then. Behold him.” I patted Charlie on the head. “Who doesn’t have any testicles?! Charlie doesn’t! No he doesn’t! Charlie has no testicles!” Charlie vibrated with joy.
“Sydney. Please. Luke is coming over, and I don’t want him to get confused about the dog’s gender.”
“Have you considered the fact that if your boyfriend is confused by your dog’s gender, he might not be the guy for you?”
“Just do it.”
“Fine.” I scooped him up and headed for my closet-sized room. “I’ll put him in the Wonder Woman outfit.”
“We’re going ice-skating tonight, remember.”
Mom was having none of it. “Don’t go all teenagery on me. You said you would come along.”
“I hate ice-skating, and I don’t really want to spend a romantic evening with you and Luke.”
Luke had appeared like a malignant tumor sometime in October, after the divorce papers were fully signed. My mom decided to go on a health kick. She’d wake up each morning and go jogging—at first she tried to get me to go with, at which point I would moan, pull my hair over my face, and roll over like a majestic lion. (Seriously—have you been to a zoo? Those bastards sleep twenty hours a day and yet they also have time to be king of the jungle. #rolemodels)
Anyway, after the jogging didn’t produce the intended results, my mom joined a CrossFit gym/cult, where she met Luke, lord of fitness.
“If you gave him a chance, you might like him,” said my mom, following me into my tiny bedroom. “And I have tonight off and I want to spend some time with you.”
“Because I love you and want to spend time with you. Jeez,” she said, trying to smooth her auburn hair behind her ears. Her roots, which were a mixture of gray and brown, hadn’t been done in two months, another result of our post-divorce collapse. “I know that things have been… crazy, and I thought it would be good for us to have some fun together, okay? With Luke. I know… he’s sometimes very… intense, but can you please give him a chance?”
I put my head in my hands. “Yes, I will give him a chance, but I also want you to consider the possibility that he sucks. Will you do that? Objectively evaluate him and see if he sucks?”
“Fine,” she said, wrapping me in a hug.
“Maybe we should come up with a rubric or something.”
Luke looked like he had stepped out of a J.Crew catalog, except not quite as attractive. He stepped out of J.Crew’s less attractive cousin’s catalog. He was white, but he had spent most of his existence tanning, so his skin was best described as caramel, but not like tasty caramel, more like caramel that you find glued to the floor of a movie theater. His smile was a little messed up, he had one tooth that kind of jutted out, and there was something about his eyes that made you think he had been dropped on his head a lot.
The rest of Luke was muscle, and obviously, that’s where his appeal lay. I get it. I’m not stupid. My mom was going through a midlife crisis. And here he was in all his snaggletoothed, tan, and meaty glory.
Even his knock was annoying. He rapped on our door too forcefully, as if to say, Here I am, the gym biscuit of your dreams, blessed with an unfortunate amount of self-confidence.
Mom had finished packing the dinner for our “picnic on ice,” which sounded disturbingly romantic, and yet also extremely impractical.
“All right!” She tittered, opening the door for Luke.
- On Sale
- Apr 6, 2021
- Page Count
- 448 pages
- Little, Brown Books for Young Readers