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What We Found in the Corn Maze and How It Saved a Dragon
By Henry Clark
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An ordinary day turns extraordinary when twelve-year-old Cal witnesses his neighbor Modesty summon a slew of lost coins without lifting a finger. Turns out she has a secret manual of magic spells . . . but they only work sometimes. And they're the most boring spells ever: To Change the Color of a Room, To Repair a Chimney, To Walk With Stilts, To Untangle Yarn. Useless!
But when Cal, his friend Drew, and Modesty are suddenly transported to the world the spells come from—a world that's about to lose its last dragon—they'll have to find a way to use the oddly specific incantations to save the day, if only they can figure out when magic works.
From the inventive mind of Henry Clark comes a hilariously wacky adventure about magic, friendship, a lookout tower come to life, a maze in the shape of a dragon, an actual dragon named Phlogiston, and lots and lots of popcorn.
It all started at 12:34 on a Saturday afternoon.
The exact time is important. It couldn’t have happened five minutes earlier or an hour later.
It had to be then.
Drew and I were sitting on the grass in Onderdonk Grove, next to the brook that separates the nature preserve side of the park from the picnic area. On the opposite bank, both baseball fields had games going: one with adults, the other with Little Leaguers. Smoke from a barbecue grill rose in a straight line and then broke up and drifted east toward the town of Disarray, where Drew and I live. Our bikes leaned against a nearby tree.
I dug a small stone out of the grass and tossed it into the water.
“Did you tell them it’s a bad idea?” Drew asked, continuing a conversation we’d begun during the ride over, when we had stopped at an intersection to watch two moving vans leave town. He pulled his legs up, wrapped his arms around them, and rested his chin on his knees, turning himself into a compact, glasses-wearing boulder with mossy brown hair on top.
“I’m pretty sure they know it’s a bad idea,” I said, looking around for another pebble. A leaf walked by to my left. I lowered my head so that I could see the ant beneath it. The leaf was five times the size of the ant, yet the tiny creature had no trouble with the load.
“The farm stand’s losing money,” I added, raising myself back up. “My dad says if we have one rainy weekend this October, we’ll barely break even. If we have two rainy weekends, we’ll end up owing money.”
“So… no rainy weekends would mean a profit?” Drew turned his head sideways and stared at me.
“Not a big one.” I sighed. “Not like we used to get.”
My family owns a farm. This is possibly why I look like a scarecrow. At least, that’s what some of the kids at school say. I’m tall and I’m bony, and my clothes sometimes fit and sometimes don’t because most of them are hand-me-downs from my brother, Glen, who’s six years older and three inches taller. And it doesn’t help that my last name is Sapling. My first name is Calvin, which is all right but not something I would have chosen, if anybody had asked. I try not to turn around whenever somebody shouts, “Hey, Sap!”
“But Elwood Davy!” Drew muttered. “He owns half the town already.” He shifted closer to the embankment, picking up a few stones of his own. He’s eight inches shorter than I am, with a rounder face, and he knows how to weave twigs together to make little rafts that float down the stream, while the ones I make break apart and sink.
“His company made the offer.” I shrugged. I had seen my dad shrug a lot lately. Maybe it was contagious. “The farm stand makes more money these days off the corn maze and the monster barn than it does from selling produce. And it’s not enough. My dad says you can only milk Halloween for six, maybe seven weeks out of the year. He also says the offer from Davy is decent. We have a week to think it over.”
We fell silent as we watched one of the adult baseball players run backward to catch a pop fly, crash into another player, and miss the ball, allowing the batter to miraculously make it to second.
“If your parents sell the place, you’ll move,” said Drew. He sounded the way I felt. “Couldn’t they hold out till spring?”
“If there was enough money in the bank,” I said. “But. You know.” I shrugged again. “The Fireball 50.” I forced a lilt into my voice as I said it, as if the words were song lyrics rather than the name of a charred pile of junk I could see from my bedroom window. The Fireball 50 was something I said whenever I felt the need to remind myself that my family’s money problems were mostly the result of something I had done. Usually when I mentioned it around Drew, he knew enough to change the subject.
“That wasn’t your fault,” he said.
The ant with the leaf made it to the anthill. Other ants gathered around and started nibbling the leaf into smaller pieces that could be dragged underground.
“They’re selling. They really don’t have any other choice,” I said, as if Fireball 50 had never passed my lips.
We watched an empty plastic bottle bob past in the brook. It snagged against a rock, filled with water, and disappeared.
After a while, Drew said, “This doesn’t change our sleepover plans, does it? I’m already packed.”
“That’s not until tomorrow,” I reminded him.
“Even so. It’ll be bad news if I have to be home.”
Drew’s parents had arranged for him to stay at my place on Sunday and Monday nights while they tore apart their house’s one bathroom and tried to update it into the twenty-first century. The toilet was being ripped out and, knowing Drew’s parents’ lack of plumbing expertise, might take more than a day to replace. There had been talk of chamber pots.
Out of the corner of my eye, I caught a tiny movement in the grass. I turned my head slightly, expecting to see another leaf on its way to the anthill.
But it wasn’t a leaf.
It was a coin.
And it was sliding through the grass faceup, heading for my foot.
So the time would have been 12:34.
“Hey,” I said, happy for the diversion. “That’s got to be Super Ant. It’s actually carrying a quarter.”
Drew leaned over to see. The coin wobbled out of the grass and onto a stretch of bare dirt. “Why would an ant need a quarter?” he wondered.
“Maybe it’s looking for a soda machine.”
The coin hit my sneaker and stopped. It backed up an inch, then came forward and hit my sneaker again. I could have moved my foot, but I wanted to see what would happen. The coin tried three more times to get through the sole of my sneaker, then backed up and started to go around.
I reached down and gently lifted the quarter, expecting to see three or four ants working together or possibly a very muscle-bound ant all by itself.
There was nothing under the coin.
“Whoa!” I said, squinting at the quarter.
“It’s gotta be some sort of trick,” said Drew. “Is there a thread attached to it?”
“There’s nothing attached to it.” I turned the coin from heads to tails and back again. It was tarnished and worn at the edges, and its date was the year my grandfather was born. But otherwise, there was nothing strange about it.
Except that it had been moving by itself.
I put it back on the ground.
It did nothing. Just sat there.
I nudged it.
I flipped it over and nudged it again.
It didn’t budge.
“Maybe it’s playing possum,” said Drew.
“It’s a coin,” I said. “It can’t play anything.”
“It could play an arcade game if you had enough of them,” Drew reasoned. “Toss it here.”
I picked up the quarter and flipped it at him. It bounced off his fingers and landed in the grass; he scrambled after it, raking his hands through the grass, but he came up empty.
Which was all the quarter needed.
It came out of the grass, rolling on its edge this time, and slipped onto the narrow dirt path that led to the wider trail at the top of the embankment.
“It’s rolling uphill,” I said in disbelief.
“We gotta follow it!” Drew jumped to his feet and clambered up the slope.
I was right behind him.
The coin reached the trail and made a right.
“It changed direction,” Drew muttered. “That’s not possible.”
“None of this is possible,” I reminded him. “Don’t lose it!”
We kept pace with the coin. It showed no sign of slowing down.
A sweaty man in a jogging suit rounded the bend and trotted straight at us, the wires of his earphones flopping like the wattle on a rooster. We split to either side of him, and his right foot stomped down less than an inch from the coin, which wobbled a little, then straightened and accelerated.
“No way!” I gasped, halting in my tracks and catching Drew by the sleeve.
“What?” Drew looked but missed what I was seeing.
A second coin—a nickel—had slid out from under a bush and was tumbling end over end, heading in the same direction as the first. The quarter caught up with it, and they traveled on together. To our left, a faint hissing sound and a disturbance in the grass was either a snake or—
Another quarter tumbled onto the trail, raising a tiny dust cloud as it surfed on its belly.
“It’s a coin migration,” declared Drew as we both started running again.
“Coins don’t migrate.”
“They must. That would explain why sometimes I can’t find my lunch money.”
The three coins skidded to the left and departed the trail, slowing down as they plunged into the weedy meadow that stretched to the trees bordering the park to the west. Two bright copper pennies sailed up a tuft of bent-over grass, became briefly airborne, then landed ahead of the first three coins, taking the lead.
“Fifty-seven cents!” shouted Drew.
“More than that!” I waved to either side. The grass and weeds rustled as small things in a hurry brushed past their stems. “It’s a stampede!”
“I wonder what they’re running from,” Drew said.
“Probably some guy with a metal detector.”
At least two dozen coins rolled and tumbled around us as we ran. In front of us, the fastest ones started to funnel into a single line.
“They’re heading for that tree.” I pointed to an elm at the edge of the park. Beyond the tree was a chain-link fence. “Don’t lose them!”
We sprinted, and I slammed into the tree first. Drew came in a close second, and the coins veered to our left. The two pennies were still in the lead, and as they sped by, I looked around the tree to see whether they would go through the fence to the road beyond.
A girl was crouched in front of the fence holding a bright-yellow beach pail against the ground. The first penny flew into the pail and thumped against the bottom. A moment later, the second penny joined it.
Drew leaned past me, and I caught him before he could draw the girl’s attention. Her black hair was pulled back from her face and gathered in a thick bun stuffed with what looked like pencils or pens—or possibly chopsticks. Smudges on her nose and cheeks made her look as though she’d gotten too close to the frosting on a multicolored cupcake.
I recognized her as the captain of the Disarray Dolphins, the school swim team. She wasn’t in any of my classes, and she moved too quickly for conversation in the halls. The one time I’d tried to speak to her, she’d been nearby when I said, “Hey, I like your back—” but was thirty feet away by the time I said, “—pack.” I’d been trying to compliment her on the very cool hand-painted rhinoceros on her bag, but it had come out as I like your back. Talk about awkward. I pulled Drew farther behind the tree.
As we watched, a stream of coins rolled, spun, and tumbled into her pail. Just a few at first, then a bunch, then a trickle. Then none. She looked up, as if to see if any more were coming.
“Modesty Brooker!” Drew blurted, then lost his balance and staggered forward. I stepped out after him, since I no longer saw any sense in hiding.
“Hi,” I said, raising my hand in what I thought was a friendly greeting.
She bolted, clutching her plastic bucket. She doubled back to snatch up her rhinoceros backpack, then ran to a break in the fence. She wiggled through the gap, scrambled onto a bike, and was down the road before we’d even managed a step.
“Hey! Come back!” I shouted after her. “We don’t want the money! We just want to talk!”
She disappeared around the bend.
“Okay,” said Drew. “That was strange.”
“Strange isn’t the word for it,” I replied as we walked to the spot where she had been crouching. “Did we just dream that?”
A dime rolled out of the weeds and bounced off Drew’s shoe. He picked it up.
“I would say no—we didn’t dream it.”
“Hey,” I said. “She forgot something.”
I fished a three-ring binder out of the tall grass along the fence. Its cover was spattered with paint and frayed at the corners. I flipped it open.
Handwritten at the top of the first sheet of loose-leaf were the words:
To Gather Lost Coins
The rest of the page was filled with gibberish. Odd syllables and real words were mixed together in sentences that meant nothing, as if they had been put together for the way they sounded rather than their sense.
I turned the page. The second sheet had the heading:
To Change the Color of a Room
It was followed by the same kind of nonsense as on the first sheet.
“What is this?” I wondered aloud.
“Well,” said Drew, scanning the pages as I turned them, “as a guess, and based on what we just saw, I’d say… maybe…”
“Maybe it’s a book of… magic?”
A REALLY WELL-DONE DRAGON
Cal, you can’t argue with what we saw,” Drew said half an hour later as we sat at one of the farm stand’s picnic tables, the binder open between us.
From where we were, I could see cars pulling in and out of the parking lot. Business may have looked brisk, but it wasn’t; the overflow parking field on the other side of Route 9 was empty. So empty that I had an unobstructed view of the blackened remains of the Fireball 50 combine harvester in the wheat field beyond. I stared at it just long enough to get my usual queasy feeling, then shifted my gaze to the pumpkin-shaped sign by the roadside, which announced that this year’s corn maze, haunted hayride, and monster barn would have their spooktacular opening on Friday.
“There’s no such thing as magic,” I said.
The sound of hammering came from the barn. My dad and the five high school kids he had hired were putting up the walls of the creepy rooms that would soon be filled with weird furniture and monster mannequins. Starting Friday, these same five kids and ten others would dress up as creatures and jump out at anyone foolish enough to pay to walk through the place. I would have helped assemble the rooms, but I was scheduled to work in the stand later that afternoon, and my mom didn’t want me covered with sawdust or glue or some sticky combination of the two.
“You know there’s no such thing as magic, and I know it,” Drew agreed, “but Modesty Brooker made nickels and dimes jump into a bucket without touching them. And she had this book, with a page that says To Gather Lost Coins at the top, with some sort of spell or incantation written on it.”
“This is not a book of spells,” I said, pushing the notebook toward him. “It’s a three-ring binder. Every kid in school has one exactly like it. A book of spells would be… would be—”
“Old, for one thing. And musty-smelling, with a padlock on it and a leather cover with a creepy pattern that might or might not be a face but suddenly bites your hand if you try to open it.” I flipped randomly to the book’s middle. The page it opened to was titled To Brighten Teeth.
“And the spells would be written in blood with a raven’s quill pen, and they wouldn’t be about painting rooms or… or—”
“Dental hygiene?” Drew suggested.
“Exactly. And the pages in this book were obviously written with a pencil.” I gave the book a quarter turn and read the first line beneath Teeth.
“‘Gum puppy stump mucky; foo fee rump yucky.’ Does that sound like magic to you? This can’t be a book of spells.”
Drew turned the book back to him and flipped to the front.
“Well,” he said. “There’s one way to find out. You should probably crouch down on the ground with your hands cupped together.”
“Why would I do that?”
“To catch the coins that are going to start flying at us after I read the incantation.”
I folded my arms defiantly in front of me and rested them on the tabletop.
“Okay,” Drew said, “but some of those coins were moving pretty fast. Don’t blame me if you get a dime stuck in your ankle. Or a silver dollar slices off your big toe.”
I kept my arms where they were.
But I pulled my feet up.
Drew propped the binder on my folded arms, as if that was why I was holding them there. He pulled his phone from his pocket and took a picture of the page he was about to read from.
“In case it, you know, bursts into flame or something while I’m reading.”
He started to put his phone away, then flipped the book and took pictures of the next two pages.
“We don’t have time to snap the entire thing,” I said. “I have to be at work pretty soon.”
“Just give me a sec,” he said, adjusting his glasses, then twiddling his fingers on the phone’s face some more.
“Audio recording,” he replied, finally placing the phone to one side. “It’s what a scientist would do. For future study.”
He turned his attention back to the book and, in as deep and solemn a voice as he could manage, began to read.
“‘Mully ully goo gafsik hummus, portnoy fidget punko summus; Rastafast interabang gunk embargo, trundleheim thimblewits dum escargot—’”
I giggled. Drew shot me an angry glance, then giggled, too.
“It’s not going to work if we laugh,” he said, straightening his shoulders.
“No,” I agreed, “there’s absolutely nothing funny about this,” and burst out laughing again.
“You and I both saw the coins move,” Drew reminded me. “So there is some reason to think this might work. I’m starting over.”
I took a deep breath and held it. This time, Drew didn’t stop reciting until he had uttered every silly word and nonsense syllable on the page. It took him about a minute to get through it, but it felt like an hour because I was biting my tongue after the first ten seconds. As soon as he spoke the final line—
“‘Bullriggies blefuscu batburgers blintz; purple flirp baby birp conestoga mintz!’”
—we both turned and looked around us.
An acorn fell and hit Drew on the head. We both cringed and raised our hands to protect ourselves in case he had mispronounced one of the words and accidentally turned the spell into one that caused nuts to rain from the sky.
But the acorn was the only thing that fell, and after a moment, we both relaxed.
“This is a kid’s notebook,” I said, riffling the pages. “There are cross-outs and scribbles, and if these are magic spells, most of them are ridiculous. I mean, To Open a Door. How lazy is that? In the time it would take to speak the words, you could get up, open every door in your house, and close them again.” I read off the names of more spells as the pages fluttered through my fingers. “To Walk with Stilts, To Untangle Yarn, To Cast a Reflection, To Repair a Chimney, To Get Chewing Gum Out of a Carpet, To Materialize a Storm Cloud—”
A shadow fell across the table between us.
“Hey,” said Drew, “you materialized a cloud just by saying—”
“Give me my book back!”
Drew and I jumped.
Modesty Brooker was leaning over us. Up close, it turned out the sticks in her hair were paintbrushes, and the smudges on her face were paint. It made sense, since she was wearing an artist’s smock. She slammed her hand down on the notebook and yanked it away from us. Drew’s hand shot out and caught the book by the bottommost of its three rings.
“Let go! It isn’t yours!” Modesty said angrily.
“We found it in the grass,” I said.
“I thought it was in my backpack.” She huffed. “I came back for it the moment I realized.”
“Finders keepers?” Drew suggested, then looked like he regretted it as she spun the notebook to the right and twisted his fingers in the ring.
“We were going to return it,” I said.
“Monday. At school. We figured it was yours. It’s not like we stole it.”
Modesty locked eyes with Drew.
“Let go,” she said.
He released the notebook. She tucked it under her arm and started to walk away. I grabbed Drew’s phone, held it up, and called after her, “We took video of the moving coins!”
It was a lie, but I thought it might make her come back.
“You’re in it,” I added.
She stopped walking.
She turned slowly and came back to us.
“Video of coins moving by themselves could easily be faked using stop-motion photography,” she said testily, “so what you’ve got doesn’t prove a thing.”
“There are always idiots who think the latest photo of Bigfoot is real,” I said. “No matter how fake it looks. If we sent our video to Milton Supman over at Channel Seven News, and he ran it in the Wide World of Weird segment, you’d have people camping out on your doorstep wanting to know how you got coins to jump into a bucket.”
“Right!” agreed Drew. “Uh… just how did you do that? Get coins to jump into a bucket?”
Modesty gave us a sour look.
“If I tell you, will you delete the video?”
“I promise you, no one will ever see it.” I held up my hand as a pledge.
A family with three kids plunked themselves down at the table next to us, each of them with a steaming ear of corn from the snack bar, butter already running down their kernel-speckled chins.
Modesty eyeballed them.
“Anywhere we can go where it’s more private?” she asked.
I glanced around, considered the abandoned poultry shed where we had once kept prize-winning chickens, then noticed the shadow that stretched across the shed’s roof.
“You bet.” I nodded. “Follow me.”
I threaded my way through the picnic tables, past the vacant goat pen, to the base of the fire lookout tower.
The tower was a single room perched on top of four steel legs, with an open-air stairway that zigged four times and zagged five until you popped through a trapdoor in the floor of the cab, which is what a fire lookout tower room is called.
I used my key to unlock the gate at the base of the stairs, locked it behind us once we were through, and the three of us climbed the 123 steps to the top.
“Nice view,” Modesty said once we got there. She took a moment to turn 360 degrees, which is what most people do, to look out the glassless windows that stretch across all four walls and allow you to see, on a clear day, ten miles in any direction. To the west, it gave a good view of downtown Disarray.
“People pay five bucks to come up here to look at the maze,” I said, stepping to the clunky pay-per-view binoculars bolted to the floor atop a green metal post.
My dad said that the tower and binoculars had paid for themselves after only a single Halloween, eight years earlier. He had bought the tower for $900 and spent twice that to move it seventy miles from Tinderwood State Forest to the edge of our cornfield. The binoculars were surplus from a national park. The heart-shaped metal box that held the lenses always reminded me of the head of a space alien. I popped a quarter into the alien’s nose, looked into its eyes, and swiveled its head in Modesty’s direction. I jumped back when all I saw was her eyeball.
“They study the maze for a while,” I continued, stepping aside and offering Modesty a free peek through the eyepieces, “then they head back down, pay their ten bucks to go into the maze, and they still get lost.”
Modesty ignored my binocular offer and strolled to the east side of the cab. She leaned out the window a little. Then she leaned out a lot.
“That’s a really well-done dragon!” she cried, sweeping her head back and forth to take in our cornfield.
I leaned out next to her.
“It sure is,” I agreed. “My dad says its name is Phlogiston.”
The corn maze stretched out below us in a dozen shades of green. The walkways of the maze formed a picture of a giant dragon curled in on itself with its head in the center. The previous year, the maze had been in the shape of the high school football mascot—a tough-looking anteater—and the year before that, the Mona Lisa with crossed eyes staring at a spider on her nose. My mom says my dad’s mazes are what Michelangelo would have done, if Michelangelo had owned a tractor.
“We really shouldn’t be leaning out this far,” I said.
“It’s okay; I have perfect balance.” Modesty slid out even farther, stretched her arms forward and her legs back as if she were swimming, and teetered on the windowsill on the flat of her stomach. She looked from side to side. “Comes from years of dance class. Why did you paint your harvester black?” She pointed in the direction opposite the maze. “Just for Halloween?”
I didn’t want to talk about it. “It’s not paint, okay? It’s… soot from when the harvester burned. Please come back inside.” I caught her by the wrist and dragged her into the cab. “If you fell out of the tower, I would get so yelled at.”
“Harvester fire, huh? Those are more common than people think.” Modesty adjusted her smock. “I’ve got an uncle in Alberta—”
“So how much did you make?” asked Drew, stepping between Modesty and me, this time changing the subject exactly the way he was supposed to.
Modesty’s scowl, which had disappeared while she was admiring the view, came back.
“How much did I make?”
“From your coin collecting.”
“I haven’t counted it yet,” she said sharply. “I came straight here the moment I realized I didn’t have the notebook. I knew where to go after the two of you popped out from behind the tree, and I thought, Oh, it’s Scarecrow Boy from the farm stand.”
“You can call me Cal,” I said, “and I’ve only dressed as a scarecrow once
A Washington Post Kids Post Summer Book Club Pick
Bank Street College of Education Best Books of 2021
- * "Tongue firmly in cheek, Clark propels his squabbling eco-crusaders through a rush of misadventures that test their credibility as well as ingenuity."—Booklist, starred review
- "A good choice for fans of The Phantom Tollbooth and The Westing Game and Chris Grabenstein's Mr. Lemoncello books.... A smart kid's goofball adventure."—Kirkus Reviews
- "There's something for everyone here: dragons, golems, political intrigue, environmental concern, library- and bathroom-related humor galore...and three strong, smart kids...who fight hard to right a terrible wrong."—School Library Journal
"This adventure shows what you can accomplish with teamwork. If you enjoyed the classic The Phantom Tollbooth, you will like this tale."
—The Week Junior
- On Sale
- May 5, 2020
- Page Count
- 352 pages
- Little, Brown Books for Young Readers