Illustrated by Sydney Smith
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Meet the Fitzgerald-Trouts, a band of four loosely related children living together in a lush tropical island. They take care of themselves. They sleep in their car, bathe in the ocean, eat fish they catch and fruit they pick, and can drive anywhere they need to go–to the school, the laundromat, or the drive-in. If they put their minds to it, the Fitzgerald-Trouts can do anything. Even, they hope, find a real home.
Award-winning poet and screenwriter Esta Spalding’s exciting middle grade debut establishes a marvelous place where children fend for themselves, and adults only seem to ruin everything. This extraordinary world is brought to vibrant life by Sydney Smith, the celebrated artist behind Sidewalk Flowers.
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For many years the four Fitzgerald-Trout children—Kim, Kimo, Pippa, and Toby—lived happily in the little green car in the parking lot beside the beach. But all that came to an end one Saturday when the sun rose over the ocean and its light shone through the windshield of the car where the Fitzgerald-Trout children had slept very badly. Badly enough to change everything.
Kim, who was eleven and the oldest of the children, had tossed and turned trying to stretch out in her seat behind the steering wheel. She had spent most of her sleepless night thinking about how she wanted to live in a real house with a real bed.
Kimo, much wider than Kim, with a broad back and shoulders, had had an even worse night's sleep, but because he was more practical, he hadn't spent the night dreaming of a bed; he spent the night fiddling with the knob of his seat, trying to get it to tilt farther back. It hadn't worked, and now he climbed out of the car, stretching in the morning light and rubbing his cramped arms and legs. Kim joined him and they left Pippa and Toby, the youngest two Fitzgerald-Trouts, tossing and turning in the backseat, where they too had spent a long, sleepless night.
As Kim quietly opened the trunk of the car to retrieve her toothbrush and toothpaste, she found that she was thinking—for maybe the millionth time—about the Perfects. They were a family of four wonderful children in Kim's favorite book. The Perfects lived in a stately house on a suburban street where mothers pushed strollers and fathers taught kite-flying in the park. The Perfects was so precious to Kim that she kept the book close to her at all times, either in the glove compartment of the car or under the front seat. Kim wished that her family could be just like the Perfects, but then she looked at Kimo, with his finger in his ear cleaning out the wax, and at the car, where the youngest two were crammed in the backseat sleeping. She knew her family was nothing like the Perfects.
She also knew things could have been much worse. After all, their little green car wasn't parked in a dark alley or beside a strip mall; it was parked at one of the many long, sandy beaches on the tropical island that the Fitzgerald-Trouts called home. The island wasn't very big. There was a road around its edge and anyone could drive that road and circle the whole island in about four hours. The road ran right beside the coast except for one place where it veered inland to avoid a forest: the Sakahatchi Forest. Island legend had it that deep in the Sakahatchi, bloodsucking iguanas roosted in the trees, but no one knew if this was really true or not. Islanders avoided the Sakahatchi and spent their time in the many towns that were filled with shops, restaurants, and shaved ice stands, or they went to one of the island's many beaches or hiked on one of its volcanic mountains. Except for the Sakahatchi Forest, it really was a very pleasant island, and people from all over the world flew long distances across the ocean to visit it.
But Kim had never lived anywhere else so it was easy to forget how idyllic the island and the beach were and spend her time worrying instead. Every day when Kim woke up she pulled out of her pocket the little notebook that held her list of all the things that needed to be done. Her list that day was pretty long. It looked like this:
Ice for cooler
Sandwiches for lunch
Fix Pippa's glasses
Find a house
On a day when she hadn't slept well because the little car they lived in was cramped and crowded, that last item on her list—find a house—felt particularly urgent to Kim.
Kim also kept a list of things for Kimo to do and she was always reminding him of what he had not yet done. That morning, standing beside the trunk of the car, Kim showed Kimo his list. It looked like this:
Replace trunk lightbulb
Teach Toby to write his name
Catch a fish
Kimo's list always included having to catch a fish. Luckily for him, the ocean had every kind of sea creature living in it and was an endless source of food. Of course, when fish got too boring to eat, the children would get in the car and drive to the foot of Mount Muldoon, where fruits of every flavor could be found if they were willing to walk, which wasn't so easy since none of the children on that island, even the ones who lived in houses, ever wore shoes. The mud would squinch between the children's toes as they climbed the steep uphill trail. It would get so muddy that sometimes they had to grab on to branches to stop from sliding, and sometimes even Kimo, who was very sure-footed, fell facedown in the muck. But it was worth it, because the fruits, which grew from trees and bushes at the top of the mountain, tasted more delicious than anything they could buy at any of the sweetshops on the island.
Even if the children weren't hungry, the walk was worth it because on the way they would see wonderful things. There were waterfalls on the mountain and trees with leaves the size of garbage can lids. There were exotic flowers that attracted birds so small they could fit in a matchbox. I know this because Pippa Fitzgerald-Trout kept just such a matchbox in her pocket and in it the tiny body of just such a bird. She'd once taken it to school for show-and-tell, and it says something about that island that none of the children she showed it to were surprised by it at all. In fact, several of them had matchboxes and birds in their pockets too.
While Kim went to the beach's public bathroom to brush her teeth and worry about things, Kimo, who always slept with his swim trunks on, was walking down toward the edge of the ocean. When he got there, he didn't hesitate, but splashed right in and dove through a wave, sinking to the ocean floor. He lay there staring up through the blue water at the sky.
It was at times like these, when he had escaped from the cramped car and was alone in the ocean holding his breath, that Kimo let himself think about his father. Kimo's father, Johnny Trout, had been missing at sea since Kimo was little.
What Kimo had learned about his father from one of his teachers at school was that Johnny Trout was descended from the island's first settlers, from the first tribe to ever fish in that ocean or set foot in those mountains—hundreds and hundreds of years ago. The teacher said there was still a lot of argument among island historians about how those first people got to that island. Did they come from this country across the ocean in the east or that country across the ocean in the west? And whichever country they came from, how did they travel such a long distance across such a large ocean in their wooden sailing canoes? Some historians thought there was another explanation entirely.
The historians met at the Royal Palm, which was the island's fanciest hotel, to argue their opinions. But Johnny Trout had thought the arguments were ridiculous. How could such a problem be solved at a fancy hotel? Instead, he had flown to the distant country in the west, where he found a large tree, carved out his own boat, and set sail, heading back toward the island. Before he left, he told people that he hoped once and for all to prove how his people had originally come to the island. But that was the last time he was ever seen, so perhaps Johnny Trout had been wrong.
Stretched out on the bottom of the ocean, looking up at the sky, Kimo thought about his father and hoped he was a castaway on some island and was swimming in that same ocean right now. With the last bit of air burning in his lungs, Kimo wondered if someday he and his father would meet.
He pushed off the sandy bottom and shot straight up, popping into the air and taking a deep breath. A few minutes later he walked, dripping wet, up the beach and joined Kim back at the car to make breakfast.
They did the same thing every morning. First they opened the trunk of the car and pulled out a box of cereal and the cooler that was filled with ice. Then Kim set four bowls on top of the car's roof and Kimo filled the bowls with the cereal. He got the milk out of the cooler (he noticed today that the ice was almost all melted) and poured the milk into each of the four bowls. They both liked it when they worked like this—communicating almost telepathically.
Kim had always thought of the two of them as kind of like twins. After all, weren't they born only a few months apart? And though they'd been born to completely different sets of parents, in completely different hospitals, on different sides of that island, she had been named Kim and he had been named Kimo. Only one letter different. It was as if, even then, before they were brother and sister, some invisible thread had joined them.
When the cereal was ready and there was a spoon in each bowl, Kim tapped on the car's back windows to tell Pippa and Toby it was time to eat.
Toby and Pippa climbed out of the car, stretching their sore arms and legs. Pippa, who was eight, with brown freckles that made her face look polka-dotted, reached into a compartment in one of the car's doors and took out her glasses. She had found them in the glove compartment several months before. They were cracked in places and a little bit bent, but she had decided that she should wear them because they made the edges of leaves on the trees look sharper. Now when she put them on, her head felt sore, and she rubbed her hand over it and found a lump as big as a mushimush berry. "My head has a bump," she said, scowling. "Like someone hit it with a coconut."
"Who would hit it with a coconut?" Kim asked, wary of upsetting Pippa, who had a terrible temper and whose freckles made her look like she was about to explode.
"I don't know!" Pippa growled.
"I have a bump too," said Toby. He was five years old, with dark hair like Kimo's and bright green eyes like Pippa's. He rarely said a word, so when he did, the others took it seriously.
"What happened?" asked Kim, taking him seriously.
"Dunno," said Toby, "but it hurts."
The cereal in their bowls was getting soggy as they stood there rubbing their heads. Watching them, a terrible question nudged its way into Kim's own head. It was a question that she didn't dare ask out loud. What if Pippa's and Toby's heads hurt because they had been bumping against each other all night? What if the two littlest Fitzgerald-Trouts had outgrown the backseat of the car? If that was true, everything would have to change for them. But who would change it? And how? Now Kim had these new unanswered questions to worry about too.
All day long Kim felt these questions running in circles around her brain. She felt them circling while the Fitzgerald-Trouts washed the breakfast dishes in the ocean, scrubbing them with sand instead of soap. She felt them circling while they swam. She felt them circling while they went to the gas station to buy more ice for the cooler and to fill up the gas tank. She felt them while they swung on the tire swing at the playground near the beach. She felt them while she fixed Pippa's glasses with a little bit of duct tape. She even felt them while she sat on a picnic bench at the beach eating shaved ice covered in coconut syrup. Kimo must have noticed her mood because when he was done with his shaved ice, he scooped Kim up in the air so that her arms and legs were wiggling like an insect's, and he danced around the picnic table with her, shouting in his best phony British accent, "Things are looking up." Though this amused Toby and Pippa (who loved Kimo's strongman antics), Kim barely cracked a smile. By the time they were grilling fish over their campfire, Kim was so tired of trying to ignore the circling questions that she decided she needed to fill her brain with something else. "Let's go to the drive-in," she said.
So they drove the little green car to the drive-in and watched an old movie about giant ants taking over planet Earth. The movie terrified all of them except Pippa, who laughed whenever a grown-up was eaten by one of the ants. (The only thing more terrifying than Pippa's temper was her sense of humor.) Watching the movie, Kim thought, life could be worse; at least our island isn't being invaded by giant ants. But when they got back to the beach and climbed into their places to sleep, the circling questions came back and there was no getting rid of them.
"Ouch," said Pippa as Toby lay down on the backseat beside her. "Move your head."
"Move it where?" asked Toby.
"I don't know," said Pippa, "but it doesn't fit."
"He can't just take off his head," Kimo offered from the front seat.
"We're too crammed in back here," Pippa complained, and then she added the words that Kim had been dreading: "We don't fit anymore."
Before Kim could contradict her, Toby burst into tears and said, "What happens if I don't fit?"
Kim turned around in her seat and mopped up his tears with a tissue. She had no idea how to answer him. She couldn't offer to sleep in the back… that would make things worse. And there wasn't room for Toby with her in the front. If they took all their clothes and suitcases and food and books and the cooler out of the trunk, could one of them sleep there?
She heard Kimo's door swing open, and she turned to look. He was climbing out of the car. "Take my seat," he said to Toby.
"Really?" gurgled Toby, snot coming out of his nose. "What will you do?"
"I'll figure something out." As Toby crawled up into the front, Kimo looked over toward the forest and then down toward the moonlit beach. The sand makes a better bed than the leaves, he thought, and so he headed that way.
"You can have my seat if you want," Kim called out her window to him, half hoping he wouldn't take her up on the offer.
"I'm okay," said Kimo.
When he got to the sand, he lay down and wiggled around until he'd made a comfortable nest. Then he turned to look at the stars. He was wondering if his father was sleeping on a beach somewhere too. He hoped he was. It's not bad, he thought, and then, with a sigh, I hope it doesn't rain.
Tilted back in her seat in the car, Kim pulled out her copy of The Perfects. It was an old book with thick, rough pages. Rubbing her index finger over it in the dark, Kim could feel the outline of the tall house that was imprinted on the cloth cover. Inside that house were the bedrooms with the beds where the four Perfect children slept, dreaming their perfect dreams. But there was something very unusual about that book: If you flipped the book over and turned it around, what had once been the back cover of the book became the front cover, and that cover said The Awfuls and had a rough little shack imprinted on it. In other words, depending on which side you started from, the book told two completely different stories—one about the Perfect family and one about the Awful family. Kim never, ever reread the Awfuls' side of the book. She wished that side didn't exist, and she thought the author of the book—Stella Spalding—had made a terrible mistake in writing it. Many times Kim had considered tearing the Awfuls' half of the book from the spine and tossing it in the garbage, but she loved books too much to destroy even one that made her so queasy. Instead, she kept the Perfects' side faceup and focused on reading and rereading that tale.
Now, sitting in the car, cloaked in darkness, Kim ran her fingers over the Perfects' house and promised herself that she would move the bottom item on her to-do list up to the top. I must find us a house, she thought as she tumbled into sleep.
- "These kids are witty, full of heart and genuinely fun to read about."—The New York Times Book Review
"Have you ever wanted to live on an island filled with selfish grownups and blood-sucking iguanas hiding in a dark and mysterious forest? Me neither. But the brave and inventive Fitzgerald-Trouts have such fascinating lives that I just might reconsider--as soon as I read this glorious book again, at least twice. I salute thee, Fitzgerald-Trouts!"
—Lemony Snicket, author of the bestselling series A Series of Unfortunate Events and All the Wrong Questions
- "Spalding's playful tone takes the edge off the neglectful parents and dire circumstances, largely thanks to the plucky, self-reliant kids who know (rightly) they are better off on their own."—Booklist
- "A touch of Everything on a Waffle weirdness; a touch of The Willoughbys sendup; and a warm, genial, wholly original voice."—Horn Book
- "The Boxcar Children meet Dahl in a Hawaii-like setting here and it's all sorts of fun, with just enough snarkiness to add edge to the charm and wonder. A clever but subtle twist at the end adds even more amusement, and the overall effect is as pleasing as a tropical breeze."—The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books
- "Readers will root for the spunky youngsters [and] relate to the kids' simple desires for a normal life, complete with goldfish in bowls and room to sleep."—School Library Journal
- On Sale
- May 10, 2016
- Page Count
- 256 pages
- Little, Brown Books for Young Readers