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By Jaime Berry
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Eleven-year-old Jubilee Johnson is an expert at three things: crafting, moving, and avoiding goodbyes. On the search for the "perfect place," she and her Nan live by their Number One Relocation Rule—just the two of them is all they need. But Jubilee's starting to feel like just two is a little too close to alone.
Desperate to settle down, Jubilee plans their next move, Hope Springs, Texas—home of her TV crafting idol, Arletta Paisley. Here she meets a girl set on winning the local fishing tournament and a boy who says exactly the right thing by hardly speaking at all. Soon, Jubilee wonders if Hope Springs might just be the place to call home.
But when the town is threatened by a mega-chain superstore fronted by Arletta Paisley, Jubilee is faced with skipping town yet again or standing up to her biggest bully yet. With the help of her new friends and the one person she never thought she'd need—her Momma—will Jubilee find a way to save the town she's come to love and convince Nan that it's finally time to settle down?
I knew this day was coming. The final week of sixth grade and the start of summer break creeping up mean prime relocation time. I’d lived with Nan long enough to know the signs.
She’d been in a mood for weeks, and now my new utensil organization system had pushed her grouchiness into a full-out fluster. Every drawer in the kitchen was open and she’d already said three almost-swears: corn nuts, kitty whiskers, and bumfuzzle. I cringed as she tossed a wooden spatula in the Tupperware drawer.
“Nan, if we put things back in the same place we found them, it’s easier to find them again,” I said.
“Where’s the fun in that?” she asked. If Nan was searching for fun in the silverware drawers, we’d be packing up sooner than I thought. Plus, she never put anything in the same place twice, including us.
I’d made sure the maps were out and organized on the table. They sat in my Arletta Paisley® linen expandable snap-top folder next to Nan’s kissing squirrels salt and pepper shakers—a gift from our current landlord, Mr. Taft. The shakers sat on opposite ends of the table. I scooted them together for luck.
“Aha! Victory.” Nan waved the can opener above her head. Dinner was pretzels and peanut butter with a side of canned peaches. She opened the can and slid the fruit wedges, syrup and all, into two bowls. The foamy soles of her white nurse shoes made a sticky sound on the linoleum as she walked over to the table.
“You read my mind, sugar.” She pointed at the maps with the opener. “This job has fried my nerves. Relocation Rule Number Five-hundred-whatever: Why fight on the battlefield when new fields await?” Some of our rules were tried and true; others, we made up on the spot when the occasion called for it. I wrote them all down in a notebook. We already had nineteen—and counting.
“Let’s fold out one of those maps and consider the possibilities,” Nan said. “Nothing like a new place to shake things up a little.”
According to Nan, she was a born loner but always blessed with a plus-one, first my daddy and now me. Not long after my daddy died, I moved in with Nan, and my momma, well, she just sort of moved on. Nan and I lived in the same apartment in Pleasant View, Tennessee—right outside Nashville—for nearly two whole years. Forever, by Nan’s standards. But then Momma started touring so often, there wasn’t much point in trying to stay close to her if she was never around. We’d been searching for a place to call home ever since.
“Maybe this time, we’ll find the perfect place,” I said as I ran my fingers over the folded edges of the maps. “I’ve got a good feeling.”
For years, Nan and I had searched for a place that felt absolutely head-to-toe “just right” perfect. Nan called it a search for substance, but I’d noticed a bit of a pattern. Today, it was a smart-mouthed doctor at the nursing home, last time was my school counselor calling to check on me too often, and the time before that was a traffic cop figuring out Nan’s secret to avoiding parking meters. There was always something that led us to getting the maps out.
Shortly after that, we got out too.
Only this time, I had a plan—an Arletta Paisley inspired plan. Even though I was prepared for another move, I felt a little like a squirrel on the inside, all jitters.
Arletta Paisley had her own show on the Hearth & Home Network called Queen of Neat. Her sign-off was “Join me next week, because y’all know life can get messy.” I liked the idea that I could take my messy life and make something else of it with my own two hands and a little effort. Arletta Paisley was from Hope Springs, Texas, and every word she said came out coated in a thick Texas drawl, sweet but with a little edge, like salted caramel. Maybe Hope Springs would be our perfect place. If it was good enough for Arletta Paisley, then surely it could be good enough for us too.
Nan wouldn’t use a computer for our town selections. She said this process required an old-fashioned map and intuition. I’d color-coded our collection of maps with tags made of free paint chips from the hardware store, a practical bit of flair learned from season 4, episode 11: “Neat for Next to Nothing.” Next to nothing pretty much summed up our budget.
Since Nan’s favorite color was yellow, I’d put a great big honking yellow tag on Texas. Just like magic, she pulled out that map first. She didn’t even ask me what the tags meant.
“Texas,” Nan said. “Now, a state that big gives us some options.” Nan was big on options. For her, choices meant freedom. But for me, I felt most free when I was making something. Arletta’s show had turned me into a crafter, someone who could make things by hand. Crafting took skill and creativity, and came with a clear-cut set of directions.
With regular old household items, patience, and imagination, I could create something new. Arletta called it “glamorganizing.” But I thought of it as a way to leave a tiny bit of me behind with the people and places we left, and sometimes, a way to take a little something along as a keepsake. All my crafts, from the large-scale collages hanging on the walls to the decorated toilet paper dispenser, were what Nan called “pack-worthy.” The walls and rooms might change, but what was on and in them didn’t.
Nan handed me the map, passed a bowl of peaches, and said, “All right, Jubilee, let the search for substance begin.”
So, Texas was easy. The tricky part was getting Nan to pick Hope Springs out of all those other towns. I’d dressed for the occasion. Being presentable played a major part in my overall mood. For this very reason, I was not one bit sad to say goodbye to our current apartment with its orangish carpet, watermarked ceiling, and faint smells left by previous owners. I wore a blue gingham skirt I’d sewn myself and an ironed T-shirt, white as a bowl of whole milk.
“Let’s see,” I said, shaking out the map and spreading it flat on the table. Hope Springs was a little black dot just south of the Arkansas state line, not big enough for the star I was sure it deserved.
Our search officially started when I was seven, about two years after I moved in with Nan. Substance, in her opinion, came with a soulful name and lay south of the Mason-Dixon Line. I’ll never forget that first town we decided on together. Calm Waters, Alabama. Back then, I really thought a name mattered. Turned out the only water in Calm Waters was a single muddy pond, and it wasn’t so much calm as it was boring. A name like Dull Mud Hole, while a better fit, was probably a bit too honest.
Picking a new place used to feel like an extra exciting game of Go Fish—we were always looking for a match. So, when Nan suggested a move, I’d pack up without a second thought. I knew that, in my “just right” place, I would breathe deep, feeling a loosening of all the things wound up in me, and know I’d found it. The only thing a deep breath did in our current apartment was make me want to pinch my nostrils together. Despite deep cleaning, the shag carpet still smelled like cigar smoke and bacon grease.
“Hmm.” I shoved a whole slick slice of peach in my mouth. “This one sounds good,” I said, trying to keep the quivery feeling inside out of my voice. “What do you think about Comfort?”
Nan shook her head. “Sounds like an old folks’ home.”
“Smiley?” I asked.
“Too cutesy.” She dipped a pretzel in peanut butter and chomped it. “Something with substance, darlin’, not pink ruffles and a tutu.” Nan and pink have always had a problematic relationship. She said pink boxed people in, and Nan wasn’t one for containment. I personally didn’t mind ruffles or pink, or tutus for that matter, but decided now wasn’t the time for a disagreement.
“How about Salty, Texas?”
“Maybe if I were in the right mood, but I’m not.” She took a drink of her soda, and I took a drink of mine, pretending to study the dickens out of that map.
“Hope Springs?” I asked. I grabbed the edge of my seat, every inch of me pulled up tight as spooled thread. I was ready to come right out and say I wanted to move to Hope Springs, but I knew Nan well enough to know it was better if she thought she had some say in the matter.
Nan closed her eyes, took a slow bite of peach, and got a far-off look. “Hope springs eternal in the human breast,” she said, punctuating each word with her forked peach. Nan was an English major before she settled on nursing and hadn’t managed to shake it. Our Relocation Rules were mostly a mash-up of lines from her favorite poems, novels, and classic country lyrics. “That’s from a poem about how people trust things will work out even when life gets messy.” Nan winked at me, clearly wise to my tricks.
I let out a squeal along with all the breaths I’d been holding in. We’d found our new town. “How long have you been on to me?” I asked. Nan was full of quotes but normally steered clear of anything Arletta Paisley.
“As soon as I saw that big yellow tag on the map of Texas, I figured you were up to something. Besides, I’ve overheard your Arletta Paisley enough to know where she’s from.” She laughed and, after a bit of quiet, said, “Another letter came for you.”
Failing to hide a frown, she laid the envelope down on the map in front of me. Just seeing it turned my mood sour. We only got letters from one person, and the envelopes were always the brightest, deepest, and most entirely pink thing ever created.
Nan rested her hand on mine. Our skin was a little like a paint chip, Nan’s fair and mine just a few shades darker. I got most of my looks from Nan and my dad, but my curly hair was all Momma’s doing. Thinking of her letters made me feel like there was something winding up inside me, and that pink envelope wound it one notch tighter. Later, I’d file Momma’s letter away with the others I’d never read, slide the lid on the box I kept them in, and then I’d feel better.
Momma wrote the L and K of her newish name with such long lines and loops, they nearly touched my name down in the center of the envelope. She changed names almost as often as we changed addresses. Before she became a touring country singer, her real name was Alexandra Kirkson, and then it was Alexandra Johnson when she married my dad. Now, she went by Lexie Kirk. After she visited for Christmas, Mr. Taft admitted he’d never heard of her. He wasn’t the only one.
Momma only had two songs that ever got any airtime: “Wait Just a Little Bit Longer” and “Even Donuts Have Holes.” Her donut song was picked up by a national donut chain and was her “big money hit.” I don’t know about big, but that money was sure gone fast. Currently, she tours as a backup singer for country music star Brent Chisholm. Even Mr. Taft had heard of Brent Chisholm.
Every month, two envelopes arrived: one for Nan and one for me. I knew Nan opened hers because I’d seen the check on the kitchen counter. Mine always stayed sealed.
The checks were written in the squat, neat print of Momma’s manager, Wynn. Wynn, my dad, and my mom were all friends in high school, and he’d been her manager since they were both teenagers. He came with Momma at Christmas, dressed in embroidered Western shirts and pointy-toed leather boots. After my dad died and before I moved in with Nan, he’d tried to step in. Maybe he thought love worked like a Ping-Pong ball and would bounce around between the three of us. In particular, I’m pretty sure he hoped some of Momma’s love would bounce around to him.
“I’ll call her later. We’ll get her our new address as soon as we have it,” Nan said and gave my hand a squeeze.
“That’s okay. I’ll do it.” Nan raised an eyebrow. I didn’t often offer to call Momma. “What? I haven’t talked to her in months,” I said. She nodded and slid her cell phone across the table. I knew exactly the last time I’d talked to Momma. It was five months ago on my eleventh birthday, and I knew from the screen on Nan’s phone that the call lasted only six minutes and thirteen seconds. She lived in Dallas, and though she was rarely there, it was only a day’s drive. A drive she hardly ever made.
I scrolled through Nan’s contacts while she cleaned up. Momma didn’t have any room to criticize a person moving too often, but it hadn’t kept her quiet the last time we packed up. This time, it was completely my idea, and I planned on telling her so.
“Hey, Jubi! Saw Nan’s number, figured it was you, so I picked up.” It was Wynn. “Everything okay?”
“Everything’s fine.” It was just like him to dive right in with questions even though I’d called to talk to Momma. Nan banged some dishes around. I got up and walked down our short hallway toward my room. “Is Momma there?”
“She’s currently in the recording booth!” Wynn said it all excited, like she was walking on the moon or something. “So, what’s up?” he asked after my unimpressed silence.
“Just checking in. Could you have her call me back?” I asked.
“Sure. Probably be at least half an hour before she wraps this up.”
“Great. Thanks.” I hung up before he could press for more information.
That thirty minutes turned into an hour, and that hour then dragged into two. By the time I got ready for bed, Momma still hadn’t called back. My brain knew better than to think she would change more than her name, but my stupid heart kept hoping. That’s the thing about a second chance—it doesn’t mean much when the person wasted the first one. Plus, I’d learned from Nan that even one shot was sometimes one too many.
Nan knocked and entered my room. She glanced down at the unopened letter and sat on the edge of my bed.
“What’d your momma have to say?” she asked. “We’ll be in the same state, even closer than we are now. She’ll like that.”
“Nothing,” I said. “She had nothing to say.” Nan waited for me to say more, but I didn’t.
“You know, Van Gogh said something like, ‘The more you love, the more you suffer.’” Recently, Nan had worked some famous artists’ quotes into her rotation for my benefit.
“Didn’t he also cut his ear off and mail it to a lady?” I asked.
“So, maybe not the best person to get advice from, huh?” she agreed, and we both laughed. Then she looked up at the old watermark left from a long-ago leak above my bed. “You sure you’re ready to say goodbye to this palace?”
I nodded. “I’m sure.”
She patted my leg before rising to leave. I knew she thought I’d talked to Momma, but Momma could hardly be mad about our moving if she couldn’t be bothered to return a phone call.
“We’ll start packing first thing,” Nan said, blew a kiss, and shut my door.
I snatched Momma’s letter off my bed and thought about tearing it in half. Instead, I slid the box out, shoved the crumpled envelope inside with the others, and with a kick, sent the box sliding back under my bed. Whatever Momma had to tell me that she couldn’t come out and say in person could go on and wait just a little bit longer, like her song suggested.
Hope Springs was going to be my perfect place; I just knew it. I wasn’t about to let Momma ruin my good mood. Packing always took my mind off things. So, I hopped up and got to work.
I didn’t have much to take. Relocation Rule Number 4: It’s easier to say goodbye if there’s not much to say goodbye to. We didn’t need extra things. But each month, that stupid box of pink letters from Momma got fuller, and each time we moved, I thought about leaving it behind. Maybe leaving things behind ran in my family.
When I’d wait for the school bus in the mornings, Mr. Taft and I fed the squirrels together. Starting next week, Mr. Taft would be feeding the squirrels on his own. Another person we’d leave behind, and I knew he’d miss us. He seemed even more alone than Nan and me.
I grabbed two thick sheets of card stock. My Caring Critter Card would do the trick. It was my staple thank-you, get well soon, any holiday, and most often goodbye card and could be modified to almost any animal. I made an owl for Ms. Landry, my fourth-grade teacher. After I told her I only had two more days before we moved, she cried a flood. The owl held a heart, and on it I wrote, “You’re a hoot” in my neatest cursive, but really, she wasn’t all that funny. In fact, she cried a lot.
As I took out the other crafting supplies I’d need, I could hear Arletta’s voice in my head. “Nothing says you care like a handmade gift.” I set everything out, nice and neat and ready for a close-up, just like Arletta always did. After going over the supplies, she’d say, “Now, let me talk you through it.” I started on the card and let Arletta’s voice and the act of making something soothe my feelings.
I made Mr. Taft’s card into a squirrel, and when I finished, I wrote “I’m nuts about you” on the heart, though that wasn’t all that true either.
MR. TAFT’S CARING CRITTER CARD
2 5-inch by 7-inch pieces of card stock or construction paper cut to the right size would also do in a pinch
2 googly eyes (though I think handmade eyes from nice paper look a bit more mature)
Red construction paper
1. Cut the corners off one of the 5-inch sides of the card and fold that end a quarter of the way down, making the face of the squirrel.
2. Stick on googly or handmade eyes. Draw a mouth and nose using the marker.
3. Use the other card to cut out a tail, ears, and two paws (or any other features the critter of your choosing might have).
4. Glue the tail on the back so it sticks out to the side or up behind the head.
5. Using the red paper, cut out a small heart about three inches across. Glue the heart on the squirrel’s stomach and then glue the two paws on the sides.
6. Be sure to write a critter-themed message on the heart (sincerity isn’t necessary, but a hint of the truth sure can go a long way).
Best Not to Make Best Friends
School ended on a Wednesday. We packed all our worldly belongings into Nan’s old hatchback on Thursday and were on the road first thing Friday morning. After four hours of driving, sandwiched by yellowed cow pastures on each side, we were almost there.
“In six miles, exit left,” Nan’s GPS interrupted during her rotation of Willie Nelson and Dolly Parton songs. She may not rely on modern technology to find our new towns, but she sure did to drive there.
The little dot labeled Hope Springs crept closer and closer. I smoothed my twice-ironed skirt. Try as I might, I wasn’t able to smooth out my nerves or squish down my high expectations.
As we drove past an acre of flattened land and the makings of a huge building, my breath caught. It was all I could do to gasp and point. A billboard plastered with Arletta Paisley’s face smiled down like a Texan angel sent from above just for me. Under her face were the words SMARTMART SUPERSTORE OPENING SOON. Already, I had a good feeling about Hope Springs, and that billboard was like Arletta Paisley herself saying, “Jubilee, darlin’, I’m so glad you came.”
Nan laughed. “Looks like you’ve got your own personal meet-and-greet committee.”
Arletta Paisley had recently become the national spokesperson for SmartMart, and with both of them greeting me at the city limits, I felt double welcomed. SmartMart was the same in every town. I always knew where to find exactly what I wanted, and what I wanted was normally in the back of the store, where Arletta Paisley’s housewares lined the shelves. Overstuffed pillows, fluffy bath mats, floral-print shower curtains, pastel comforter sets, four-hundred-thread-count cotton sheets, and dishes, all in the calm shades of baby nurseries. Walking the aisles, I almost felt embraced.
Nan and I always did a drive-through in a new town, but our Hope Springs exploration didn’t last long because there wasn’t much to drive through. There was only one middle school, one high school, one biggish grocery store, and one run-down city pool, but about one million beauty parlors and churches. The library was the smallest one I’d ever seen, and the community center wasn’t much bigger. Another surprise was that Hope Springs, on first inspection, didn’t have any sign, statue, or other significant marker dedicated to Arletta Paisley. I didn’t even see anyone carrying one of her signature handbags or wearing a Queen of Neat T-shirt like the one I had folded up tight and tidy in my suitcase.
“Well, let’s see what we’ve got,” Nan said as we parked in front of City Hall. Our first day of a new move always started at City Hall. Nan said it was the fastest way to get settled into a new town. She never worried about getting a job. As a certified nursing assistant, or a CNA for short, she figured there’d never be a shortage of sick folks needing assistance.
Downtown consisted of two intersecting streets, Main Street and High Street, separated by a single flashing stoplight and no traffic. Not a single moving car.
Hope Springs’s City Hall was a two-story brick building with tall white columns and pairs of paint-peeled shutters on every window. In front, there was a stone well with a commemorative plaque. Finally, I thought and walked up to it, wondering what the heck a well had to do with Arletta Paisley.
The plaque read:
Nan came and stood behind me, reading over my shoulder. “I’ll be,” she mumbled. “Guess that means there’s no spring in Hope Springs.” She chuckled all the way to the foot of the steps. “You coming?”
I didn’t think too much of fate or fortunes, but a dried-up spring sure didn’t seem like a great start. I closed my eyes and took deep gulps of air, trying to breathe in the place. No tingling, no goose bumps, not even a hint of perfection whatsoever. The only thing I felt was a strong urge to sweep the steps.
With my eyes still closed, I tried to picture that billboard again. I tried to reclaim that hopeful feeling I’d had just minutes before. I tried to ignore the fact that so far Hope Springs was falling a little short of what I’d hoped for.
“Nan, you mind if I wait here?” I sighed and plopped down on the first step, worried we’d made our way into another dead-end, boring, waste of time, dusty mudhole of a town, with another move not too far off.
“Sure, hon. But don’t wander.” She took the steps two at a time, her wooden wedges making a dull clomp to match my mood.
Nan turned and gave me a silly two-thumbs-up before going in. I prayed she found somewhere decent for us to live. She tended to trust her gut when it came to our rentals, and history had proven her gut wasn’t to be trusted.
As I sat staring down the empty Main Street, the heat pressed on me until sweat trickled down my back. The stoplight creaked and swung in the slight breeze. I stood, stomped back over to the well, and dug around in my bag for a penny. Surely, that billboard meant something. I held my coin out, ready to wish that this place would be it, would be the perfect place we’d been searching for. With that penny balanced on my nail, waiting for a flip, I thought too long on all the things I might wish for and froze.
Nan was my father’s mother. He’d died in a motorcycle accident when I was four. I only had two clear memories of him. One was of a Big Bird birthday cake and my dad singing loud, Nan and Momma laughing and covering their ears. The other was of his short black hair and how it felt rough and soft at the same time, like crushed velvet. All I knew of him was from Nan’s stories. Sometimes, I thought losing him was harder for her because she remembered so much more, and because the motorcycle had been a hand-me-down present from her.
Nan hadn’t been on a motorcycle since Daddy died, but she sure hadn’t settled down any either. Other grandmothers with their sensible shoes, poufs of white hair, and flowery smells were nothing like Nan. She kept her hair cropped short and dyed jet black and smelled sharp and clean like cut grass. Though Nan’s biker days were behind her, the look stuck. She had a flair for fashion and makeup that was best left untapped.
*"Readers will be enchanted with this tale of family, friendship, and community."—School Library Connection, starred review
“I loved this heart-rousing, soul-stirring tale of a girl finding her home, her family, her true friends, and the most important thing of all: herself.”—Dan Gemeinhart, author of The Remarkable Journey of Coyote Sunrise
“An empowering and endearing must-read.”—Ashley Herring Blake, Stonewall Honor author of Ivy Aberdeen’s Letter to the World
"A promising debut reminiscent of Kate DiCamillo’s Because of Winn-Dixie and Deborah Wiles’s Aurora County trilogy."—School Library Journal
"Quilting offers a perfect metaphor in this thoughtful tale of a tween piecing together a new life."—Kirkus Reviews
- On Sale
- Aug 10, 2021
- Page Count
- 336 pages
- Little, Brown Books for Young Readers