Middle School: It's a Zoo in Here!


By James Patterson

Illustrated by Jomike Tejido

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Rafe feels like a caged lion at his summer job at the zoo–until a real lion desperately needs his help.
Rafe Khatchadorian is days away from sweet, sweet summer freedom until bad grades threaten to land him in . . . SUMMER SCHOOL.
It’s impossible to fail out of a summer job, right? Wrong. He strikes out at the zoo then grosses out at a billionaire's country club:
  • Digging a pit for the annual clambake
  • Scrubbing chewed bubblegum, sooty fireplaces, and . . . toilets
  • Polishing the chrome on his boss's ATV
Rafe is destined for the Failed Jobs Hall of Fame until an encounter with an endangered lion puts his wildlife knowledge to the test . . . and it's more than his grade on the line this time.




It was the last minute of the last day of school before summer vacation. Could anything be sweeter? Not for yours truly! Because I’m Rafe Khatchadorian. And if you’ve heard (or read) anything about me, you already know that Hills Village Middle School is probably my least-favorite place in the whole universe. There are a lot of reasons for that, most of which are not my fault. Really. Ask my friends.

Okay, friend. I’m working on bumping that up to plural.

Sometimes I just get frustrated by stupid rules, like “No parkour in class.” And sometimes I get carried away by my own crazy ideas, like painting a mural of the Story of Man on the ceiling of the boys’ bathroom. I heard there was a wanted poster with my face on it in the faculty lounge. Probably just a rumor.

On the last day of the semester, it was good-bye to all that! I couldn’t wait to escape! And I really, truly thought I was home free.

But as usual, I counted my chickens too soon. If you spend a little time with me, you’ll see that my very best days have a way of turning into, well… something else!

My last big task for the year was cleaning out my hall locker. And I’ll be honest, it got ugly in there! Way in the back, on the top shelf, I found a plastic bag of hard-boiled eggs from last September. At least I think they were eggs. Hard to tell with all the green, furry stuff. Then I pulled out a wadded-up gym shirt that hadn’t seen the inside of a washer since January. The stench pretty much cleared the corridor.

I also dug out a few long-lost library books (two dollars in fines), a petrified Glorp bar, an old Voldemort Halloween mask, a flyer from our class production of Les Miz (spoiler: it was pretty miserable), and some Machismo body spray. Probably seemed like a smart purchase at the time.

But now all that was behind me! All my earthly possessions were stuffed into my backpack and I was dreaming about the three worry-free months ahead of me…

“Ready, Rafe-ster?” It was my friend Flip Savage, one of the funniest kids on the planet.

“I’ve never been readier.”

Me and Flip always walk out together on the last day of school. It’s a tradition. Our other tradition: taking a few happy moments to vote on which teacher we’re going to miss the least! This year, there were some really solid contenders. For starters, our first-period language arts teacher, Ms. Loring.

Loring. Rhymes with boring!” said Flip. Couldn’t have said it better myself.

We also discussed Mr. Filbert, from third-period social studies. His George Washington impression really got on our nerves. Especially the part when he tried to eat a peach with his wooden teeth. And obviously we had to consider Mrs. Frecht, the Spanish teacher with the German accent. Nein comprendo.

But in the end, it was no contest. The winner by a mile was Mr. Manta, our fifth-period science teacher—aka the A-less Wonder. The last time anybody got higher than a B+ in his class was… never! Not that science is my strong suit anyway. You’ve probably picked up on the fact that I’m more of an artist at heart. I passed Mr. Manta’s final by the skin of my teeth.

“Farewell, heredity charts!” I yelled down the hall.

“So long, ecological cycles!” yelled Flip, even louder.

We picked up the pace, passing the gym, the scene of so many painful moments, and then the cafeteria, the site of this year’s infamous Meatloaf Rebellion. We turned one more corner and then we saw it—the light at the end of the tunnel!

Actually, just the door at the end of the hallway. But it meant the same thing. I was finally done! Sprung! Summer, here I come!

But suddenly, a shadow loomed over us, blocking our way. Blocking the hall.

Blocking the door. Blocking the sun.

“Mr. Khatchadorian? A moment, please.”


It was Mr. Manta in the flesh—and that’s a lot of flesh. Mr. Manta is a big guy, with a huge head and hands the size of hams. In one of those hammy hands, he was dangling a document with a Hills Village logo at the top. Very official-looking.

“Mr. Khatchadorian,” said Mr. Manta, “are you aware that a report on amphibian development was due in April?”

My head was spinning. “Amphibian development?” Sounded vaguely familiar.

“You mean polliwogs?” asked Flip.

“Tadpoles,” said Mr. Manta, leaning over me. “You seem to be missing your tadpole report. And without it, your transcript is incomplete.” The way he said “incomplete” was like a dagger to my happiness.

At this point, Flip gave me a sad little wave and backed off down the hall. There went my wingman. Now it was just Me vs. Manta. I didn’t like those odds.

I wracked my brain. Think, Rafe, think! I clearly remembered the tadpoles wiggling around in their little glass petri dishes, going nowhere fast. Flip and I even gave them names. Captain Marvel. Thor. Black Widow. But a report? I had to admit, I had zero memory of handing one in.

“Maybe it was the week I was home with head lice,” I said. I thought head lice were way more interesting than tadpoles. But I didn’t say so.

“No matter the reason,” said Mr. Manta, “you’re short two credits in science. And I think you know what that means.”

Unfortunately, I did know what it meant. The Hammer of Doom. The Unthinkable. The Worst of the Worst. But until Mr. Manta actually said the words, I couldn’t believe it.

“Mr. Khatchadorian—I’ll see you in summer school.”

My vacation was over before it even started.



You know those movie scenes where everything gets foggy around the edges and the music gets really weird—like some guy banging on piano strings with a mallet? That’s what it was like on my walk home. At least that’s how it sounded in my head.

This couldn’t be happening again—could it? Whatever déjà vu is, I was feeling it. Because when it comes to summer school, this wasn’t my first rodeo.

Awhile back, Mom sent me to a summer school/summer camp called Camp Wannamorra. It was a mix of actual schoolwork and “summer activities.” Mom promised it was going to be fun. And you know what, it kinda was. (It even turned into a bestselling book!)

But this… was not that.

Summer school for science meant being stuck with Mr. Manta in a dull classroom with no air conditioning, staring at tadpoles through a magnifying glass, recording their growth patterns on graph paper, and then entering those measurements into a computer program called FrogStat. In other words: the exact opposite of fun.

It was humiliating. I was feeling about two feet tall—which is about a foot shorter than I usually feel. By the time I got home, I was slumped over so far my chin practically scraped the sidewalk. My dog, Junior, ran out to get his usual belly-rub greeting, but I could only manage a pat on his furry head. I didn’t want to see anybody. I didn’t want to talk to anybody. I especially didn’t want to…



Leave it to my mom to put together a last-minute end-of-school family celebration. Normally, I would love that. But under the circumstances, I just wanted to crawl under a rock.

I guess I got home a little early, because the preparations were still underway. Grandma Dotty was setting out red paper plates and white plastic forks while my super-annoying kid sister, Georgia, pointed out the environmental risks.

“You know plastic is destroying the oceans, right, Grandma?” Georgia has a way of letting the air out of any balloon.

“It’s just one little party, dear,” said Dotty. “But if you prefer, I’ll eat with my hands.”

“Hey, Rafe! Happy summer! Another big year behind you!” said Mom as she came out of the kitchen with a white cardboard box that could only mean one thing: a free pie from her job at Swifty’s Diner. In case you haven’t heard, Swifty’s pies are world-class.

“It’s your favorite,” Mom said. And when she opened the lid, I could see that she was right. Chocolate Cream with Cookie Crumbles. This pie belonged in the National Pie Hall of Fame—and I would be honored to make the induction speech. But not today.

As soon as she noticed my slump, Mom knew something was wrong. She has a patented, fail-proof, built-in Rafe Depression Detector (RDD), and I was setting it off big-time.

I couldn’t even look at her. I just handed her the slip I got from Mr. Manta.

“Summer school?” she said. “Rafe, you’ve got to be kidding!”

But then I heard something truly shocking, especially since it was coming from my brainiac kid sister:

“That makes two of us!”


Summer school for Georgia? That was impossible—unless she flushed one of Principal Stricker’s pet hermit crabs down the toilet. If you know anything about Georgia (and nobody knows her like I do), you know she has never missed a school assignment in her annoyingly high-achieving life!

“Summer school? You?” I asked.

“Not as a student, dummy,” she said. “As a tutor! They asked me to be a Math Mentor for sixth graders, and they’re paying me five dollars an hour!”

Great. Just great. I didn’t think there could be anything worse than summer school. But it turned out there was: having my kid sister rub my nose in it every single day—while she got filthy, stinking rich.

“Who wants pie?”

Grandma was trying to lighten the mood with sweets, but it was no use. For me, even the cookie crumbles had lost their crunch. I excused myself and headed for the Fortress of Solitude—aka my bedroom. Junior followed me, leaving behind a party-size bowl of Canine Crispy Crackers.

“Sleep well, loser,” said Georgia.

I closed the door and flopped facedown on my pillow. Let the tadpole nightmares begin.


Two minutes later…

Knock, knock.

Clearly, my DO NOT DISTURB UNDER PENALTY OF DEATH sign wasn’t working.

Junior was curled up with me on the bed—even though he knows he’s supposed to be sleeping in his doggy bed on the floor. But I guess he understood that I needed a little extra comfort. He even reached up with his paws to give me a belly rub.

Sometimes I get the feeling that I’m his pet instead of the other way around.

Knock, knock!

“Go away!” I yelled with my face buried in the pillow. But my words fell on deaf ears. I heard the door creak open and I could tell right away that it was Mom. She still wore her rubber-soled shoes from work, and they always squeak in a certain way. Usually I love that sound. But now I just wanted to be alone with my dark, amphibious thoughts.

I felt my mattress sink a few inches as Mom sat down on the edge of my bed. Now, you need to know that I really, truly love my mother. She might be my favorite person in the whole world. And she can usually make me feel better about almost anything. But this was no ordinary thing. This was summer school. It meant going back to the place I hate most—the scene of my biggest embarrassments.

And this was just one more. Add it to the list of Rafe’s Biggest Mess-Ups. (It’s a pretty long list.) This situation was beyond even Mom’s healing powers.

But Julia Khatchadorian isn’t the type to give up without a fight.

“Rafe, I know you’re frustrated. And I understand. I wish this hadn’t happened. But in the scheme of life, this is a speed bump, not a disaster.”

“Easy for you to say,” I wanted to say. It sure felt like a disaster to me.

I heard the sound of a plastic plate sliding onto my night table.

“I brought you a slice of chocolate pie.”

“Thanks, Mom,” I said. “But I’m really not hungry.”

“Okay then,” she said. “You get some rest.” I felt her lift off my mattress. “We’ve got a big appointment tomorrow.”

Appointment? I wondered what she had in store for me. Some quality time with Dr. Payne, my molar-mauling dentist? Or a date with my barber, Eduardo, who thinks bowl cuts are still in style? As it turned out, none of the above.

It was even worse.

As Mom closed the door, she said, “We have a meeting… with Mr. Manta.”

The last person on earth I wanted to see.


I’d never been inside Mr. Manta’s office before. Most of my spare time was spent in Principal Stricker’s office (on an involuntary basis). This room was really tiny. The desk looked like doll furniture with Mr. Manta crammed behind it. There were books on animal biology all over the place and a few old National Geographic nature posters on the walls. One camel. One grizzly bear. And a flock of seagulls. On the shelf behind Mr. Manta’s desk, there was some kind of preserved furry critter, frozen in place with its mouth wide open and its little paws raised.

Ferret? Gerbil? Meerkat?

“My goodness! Is that a mongoose?” Mom asked with amazement. She never ceases to amaze me. I could tell Mr. Manta was impressed.

“Well done, Mrs. Khatchadorian,” said Mr. Manta. “Very few people know that.”

“Please, call me Jules.”

And then it was down to business. According to Mr. Manta, the missing tadpole report was serious stuff. He started babbling about state mandates, assessment rubrics, blah blah blah. First my eyes glazed over, then my ears. But Mom looked really interested. She leaned in and nodded her head at everything Mr. Manta was saying. She totally agreed with him about how important animal studies were to a rigorous middle school curriculum. Before I knew it, they were talking about the wildlife drawings Mom did as an art student.

What’s going on here? My own mother was bonding with the enemy! What’s her game?


Did I actually see Mr. Manta crack a little smile? That was a first.

“So, Rafe—do you like animals too?” asked Mr. Manta. Was that a trick question? What self-respecting kid doesn’t like animals? I even ran my own dog-walking service. But that’s another story. In fact, it’s another whole book!

“Sure I do,” I said. “But tadpoles aren’t really animals, are they?” I felt Mom give me a little kick under the chair.

“Rafe,” said Mr. Manta, “I can tell that your mother really cares about your studies. And I know that spending your summer in a hot classroom is not a very pleasant prospect.”

That was the understatement of the century. But I still had no idea where this was going. Mr. Manta leaned forward and folded his ham-hands on the desk.

“I have a proposal for you,” he said.

“Okay,” I said. My eyes and ears were now fully open.

“What if, instead of your spending three weeks here in school doing a tadpole lab, I were to let you do an independent study project, like your mother suggested?”

“Like what?” I asked. Was this some kind of trick?

“It would be outdoors. With real animals.”

Now I perked up. I saw a sliver of daylight. I sat up really straight.

“No summer school?” I glanced over at Mom. She looked totally serious, but she had a little twinkle in her eye.

“Think of it as summer work,” said Mr. Manta. “I still want a report. But it can be on any animal you choose.”

“But where?” I asked. My mind was spinning. The zoo? The dog park? Our backyard?

“Actually,” said Mr. Manta, “I have a very special place in mind.” He reached into his top desk drawer and pulled out a business card. He slid it across the desk toward me. I picked it up.

The card said BUSHYTAIL ANIMAL REFUGE. There was a drawing of a paw print behind the name, and below it was a slogan: WHERE ANIMALS GET BACK ON THEIR FEET.

“I promise you, Rafe,” said Mr. Manta, “these are animals you will never forget!”


Almost there, Rafe!”

Just two days later, Mom drove me to work on my first day as an official BushyTail volunteer. Emphasis on volunteer. Unlike Georgia, I wasn’t earning a penny for my summer efforts. But I still owed Mom a huge debt. I have no idea how she swayed Mr. Manta, but she sure knew how to speak his language. And at least I was out in the fresh air instead of being cooped up in a classroom. If you ask me, my mom should be Mother of the Year, every year—just for helping me out of tough spots. I know I don’t thank her enough, but I’m not too good with mushy stuff.

“Hey, Mom…” I said as we turned onto a dirt road.

“You’re welcome,” she said.

That’s another thing I love about Mom. She knows what I want to say before I even say it.

We drove through an entrance with a big sign that said BUSHYTAIL ANIMAL REFUGE—ANIMALS WELCOME ANYTIME. HUMANS, CALL AHEAD. My new boss was waiting inside, wearing orange bib overalls, a straw hat, and rubber boots. As soon as Mom pulled the car to a stop, he walked over to the passenger-side window and grunted.

“Morning. Name’s Penrod Pincus.”

As usual, Mom piped right up.

“I’m Jules Khatchadorian, Mr. Pincus—and this is my son, Rafe.” Awkward pause. Then I felt Mom poke me in the ribs.

“Hello, Mr. Pincus,” I said. “Nice to meet you.” I held my hand out for a shake, but Mr. Pincus was already walking off.

“Let’s go. Work to do,” he grunted.

I hopped out of the car. Mom blew me a little good-luck kiss.

“Be good, Rafe!” she said. “I’ll pick you up after work!” She turned the Khatchadorianmobile around and headed off to her morning shift at Swifty’s.

Mr. Pincus had already unlatched a huge metal gate that led to the inner part of the compound. Now he was holding it open. I double-timed it to catch up.

I observed a couple of things about my new boss right away. First, he grunted.

For sure, there were some words mixed in. But grunting was his main thing. Short grunts. Long grunts. High grunts. Low grunts. A whole glossary of grunts. Second, he didn’t like to wait around. Always on the move.

Once we passed through the main gate, I started hearing and seeing and smelling things that had my senses doing cartwheels. This was not your everyday petting zoo. There were no cute pens with lambs and baby rabbits. The website said BushyTail was “a fully licensed open-air animal rehabilitation refuge.” In other words, it was the last stop for animals nobody else wanted or knew what to do with. They came from circuses, state parks, puppy mills, aquariums—from all over. Sometimes the animals just got dropped off at the gate with a note, like a fruit basket.


On Sale
Jan 24, 2022
Page Count
336 pages

James Patterson

About the Author

James Patterson is the world’s bestselling author, best known for his many enduring fictional characters and series, including Alex Cross, the Women’s Murder Club, Michael Bennett, Maximum Ride, Middle School, I Funny, and Jacky Ha-Ha. Patterson’s writing career is characterized by a single mission: to prove to everyone, from children to adults, that there is no such thing as a person who “doesn’t like to read,” only people who haven’t found the right book. He’s given over a million books to schoolkids and over forty million dollars to support education, and endowed over five thousand college scholarships for teachers. He writes full-time and lives in Florida with his family.

Learn more at jamespatterson.com

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Jomike Tejido

About the Illustrator

Jomike Tejido is an author-illustrator who has illustrated more than one hundred children’s books. He is based in Manila, and once got into trouble in school for passing around funny cartoons during class. He now does this for a living, and shares his jokes with his daughter, Sophia.

Learn more about this illustrator