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Not So Normal Norbert
With Joey Green
Illustrated by Hatem Aly
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The Truth Police take me to a gray building, where they hold me tight by both arms and usher me down a long, arched corridor filled with cobwebs. The dirty stone walls are lined on both sides with thick steel prison doors. A rat scurries along a pipe hanging from the ceiling.
The thought of being thrown in the slammer and left to rot really gives me the creeps. But I’m not nervous. I’m too terrified to be nervous.
Finally the Truth Police stop. One officer punches a bunch of numbers into a keypad. The door to a cell pops open. They throw me inside without taking off my handcuffs and slam the door shut. Bam! Something tells me this can’t be good.
My prison cell? Cold, tiny, and gloomy. It almost reminds me of home.
Home is 526 Dreary Lane in a dreary little house with my dreary aunt Martha and my dreary uncle Hank.
They’re really not that bad. I’m just kidding around. I love Aunt Martha and Uncle Hank like crazy. Which just goes to show, maybe I really am crazy.
But they’re definitely two of the dullest people I’ve ever met. And believe me, I’ve met a lot of dull people. Mostly at Middle School Number 1022.
Aunt Martha works as an inventory clerk at a thumbtack warehouse. Incredibly boring, if you ask me. But Aunt Martha can’t stop talking about the day they had a big spill in aisle 70.
Uncle Hank has a job watching a machine on an assembly line insert cotton into aspirin bottles. He sits there, making sure the proper amount of cotton goes into each bottle. He loves the excitement.
At home Aunt Martha and Uncle Hank spend all their time watching shows on the TruthScreen. There’s only one channel, which makes it a lot easier to watch the same shows everyone else watches. Also, having just one channel means we never fight over which show we’re going to watch. So I suppose that helps create family harmony.
The TruthScreen, as you may have guessed, is a two-way screen. We watch it. And it watches us. So Loving Leader can keep us safe—from ourselves. Like he says, “You’re your own worst enemy.” And based on the fact that I’m now sitting in a cold, dank prison cell, I guess Loving Leader was definitely right about that.
You’re probably wondering why I live with my aunt and uncle. Especially since they’re so boring and dull.
What happened to my parents?
That’s a long story. I really don’t want to get into the details, but I was five years old when my parents disappeared. I’ve been trying to find them for the last seven years—with no luck whatsoever.
Aunt Martha and Uncle Hank are no help, either. They’re too scared of Loving Leader to even talk about my parents. They don’t want to end up in a prison cell. Like this one.
“The walls have ears,” Aunt Martha likes to say.
Then Uncle Hank points at the TruthScreen. “Eyes, too,” he says.
I desperately want to track down my mother and father. I miss them something awful. I’m determined to find them. Of course, there’s no way I can look for them if I’m stuck inside a prison cell. I guess I should have thought of that before I climbed up on Mrs. Hurlbutt’s desk.
I never expected to get arrested for doing my impression of Loving Leader. When Mrs. Hurlbutt left the classroom, I figured the coast was clear. Too bad I forgot about the TruthScreen. I mean, sure, Loving Leader constantly says he “sees all, knows all, and loves all,” but I didn’t really think he’d have his eyes on our class. Besides, if Loving Leader really does love all, you’d think that would include a good laugh once in a while. Obviously, the guy can’t take a joke. Stupid me.
I spend the next few hours sitting on the cold floor of my cell, worrying about what’s going to happen to me. Will I disappear like my parents did, never to be heard from again? How do I get out of here?
I wonder how long I’ll be left all alone in this cell. Three hours? Three years? Forever? Or just until the end of time?
Now I fear for my life. I feel like I’ve been sitting in this cell for an eternity. Not that I know what an eternity feels like.
I wonder if they have room service in here.
I hear footsteps outside the door to my cell. They clomp down the long hallway, getting louder and louder.
“Get your filthy hands off me!” yells someone. “Let go, you big bully!”
The door to my cell suddenly pops open. My heart jumps—and does a double backflip.
The Truth Police toss someone else inside the cell with me. It’s still dark in here, so I can barely see him. He falls to the floor. He’s tall. Lanky. The door slams shut again. The footsteps clomp back down the long hallway.
It’s that kid named Drew Weaver. The first one who laughed at my impression of Loving Leader. His wrists are handcuffed like mine, but that doesn’t stop him from pounding his fists on the back of the door. “Let me out of here!” he yells. “I’m warning you! This is your last chance before I get really mad!”
I don’t know Drew very well. In fact, I don’t know him at all. Mrs. Hurlbutt once caught him doodling and sent him to the principal’s office. But that’s really all I know about him.
I’m definitely glad to see a fellow classmate. But Drew doesn’t seem very happy to see me. In fact, he seems really cheesed off at me. I have no idea why.
“All I did was laugh at what you did,” says Drew. “I wouldn’t be here if you hadn’t made me laugh! I’m not different! You’re the one who’s different!”
“I’m not different either,” I say.
“Then why did you get up on that desk?”
“It’s a long story.” I don’t feel like telling him. Not right now, anyway.
“I hate you, Norbert Riddle! You’re the reason I’m in here. You should have never done what you did. Do you know what’s going to happen to us now?”
“I haven’t the slightest idea.”
“I do,” says Drew. “And it’s not going to be pretty.”
“How do you know?”
“I was sent to the principal’s office last week, remember?”
“The principal locked the door and strapped me into a big metal chair. Then she put this weird thing on my head.”
“What kind of weird thing?”
“It was sort of like a helmet. Attached to all these strange wires and doodads. She pressed a button, and the helmet started whirring like mad. My eyes popped wide open. I couldn’t shut my eyes, no matter how hard I tried.”
Drew is making me really antsy. I feel my heart beating like crazy. “Did they erase your memory or something?” I ask.
Drew shakes his head no. “Worse,” he says. “The principal pressed another button. A TruthScreen lowered from the ceiling and started showing tapes of Loving Leader making speech after speech after speech. I thought my head was going to explode. I must have been strapped in that chair for a solid week—with Loving Leader droning on forever. ‘Imagination is insanity.’ ‘Creativity is crazy.’ Until it was drilled into my head.”
That doesn’t sound great, but it really doesn’t sound so horrible, either.
“But this is going to be worse,” says Drew. “Much worse.”
“What could be worse than this creepy old prison cell?” I ask.
“The Powder Room.” Drew grins. He’s freaking me out and the guy seems happy about it. What a weirdo.
I take the bait. “What’s the Powder Room?”
“I thought you’d never ask.” He smiles again. “It’s a giant room three stories tall with white walls. A big thingamabob—like a giant mirrored disco ball—hangs from the ceiling. The guards push you to the middle of the room and make you stand on this raised platform lit from underneath, like the dance floor in some fancy nightclub. The device lowers from the ceiling and makes a high-pitched noise. The lights on the dance floor flicker. The thingamabob zaps you with a bright-pink laser beam, and—kapowie! There’s nothing left of you but a small pile of bright-pink powder. That’s why it’s called…” Drew waits for me to finish his sentence.
“Okay, I get it.” Now I’m shaking like a leaf on a tree. (Not that I’ve ever seen an actual tree in person. Or a leaf. I have seen pictures, though.) Drew has me totally on edge. Maybe that’s what happened to my parents. Maybe the Truth Police took them to the Powder Room. The thought of my parents transformed into pink powder makes me want to cry.
“It’s nothing to worry about,” says Drew, trying to calm me down. “The laser beam just dehydrates your body into powder. The Truth Police vacuum up the pink powder, put it in a test tube, and place you in storage. They can bring you back to life anytime at all—by just adding water.”
So now I have to find two test tubes of pink powder. Then I realize something horrible. If I’m turned into pink powder too, I’ll never be able to find my parents.
Suddenly the door to our cell bursts open. Two burly guards shackle my ankles together. They clutch my handcuffed arms and guide me down the dark stone hallway. My shackles clank and clatter.
I have no idea where they’re taking me. My whole body is trembling in fear.
We turn down a gloomy corridor toward a green door. The first guard punches a bunch of numbers into a keypad. The thick door swings open. The rusty hinges squeak. My heart pounds.
The guards bring me into a courtroom with high ceilings and mahogany walls. They usher me up some stairs to a raised platform, shove me inside a boxy cage, and lock me inside. How nice.
From inside the cage, I look around the courtroom. Aunt Martha and Uncle Hank are seated on one of the benches. Their faces look gray and nervous. They’re wearing their drab gray jumpsuits. Of course, everyone in the courtroom is wearing drab gray jumpsuits. We are all total fashionistas—the bailiff, the twelve members of the jury. Even mean old Mrs. Hurlbutt. Yeah, she’s here too. Lucky me.
My lawyer is not wearing a gray jumpsuit. That’s because I don’t have a lawyer. There’s no lawyer to prosecute me either.
“All rise for the Honorable Judge Wright,” says the bailiff. “Never wrong.”
Everyone stands up. I’m already standing in this stupid cage.
Judge Wright enters the courtroom. He wears (surprise!) a drab gray jumpsuit and looks like a crusty old grouch. He makes mean old Mrs. Hurlbutt look like an absolute sweetheart. He sits behind his judicial bench—a tall desk that towers over the courtroom. He bangs his gavel to start my Truth Trial.
“Norbert Riddle, Person Number L4LUZR-1. You are charged with six counts of being different.”
The TruthScreen on the wall behind the judge suddenly shows me performing my impression of Loving Leader. I have to admit I look pretty funny. I wonder if I can get a copy of that. I decide it’s probably not a good idea to ask.
My teacher takes the witness stand. (She doesn’t really take it anywhere. She steps inside it.)
The bailiff makes her raise her right hand and hold up two fingers to make the letter V. “Do you swear to twist the truth, the half-truth, and spout anything but the truth?” Okay, that’s not really what the bailiff asks her, but you get the idea.
Mrs. Hurlbutt testifies against me for daydreaming in class. Not just that one time I told you about. But all the times. “He’s always looking out the window into space. And we all know that’s one of the three deadly warning signs of imagination.”
My aunt and uncle try their best to defend me. “He’s really a good boy at home,” says Aunt Martha.
“How long has the accused been daydreaming?” asks the judge.
“Not long,” says Uncle Hank.
“So you admit Norbert Riddle daydreams.”
“Your Honor, I didn’t admit anything.”
“So, then, you deny Norbert Riddle has been daydreaming.”
“Yes,” says Uncle Hank. “I mean, no. I don’t deny anything.”
“In other words, you admit he’s been daydreaming.”
Done with Uncle Hank, the judge turns to my aunt. “And what about you, Martha Riddle? Do you deny your nephew has been daydreaming?”
“Yes,” says Aunt Martha. “I deny it.”
“Let the record show that Norbert Riddle daydreams, but his aunt Martha denies it.”
“No, wait, that’s not what I meant,” says Aunt Martha.
“So you deny that you admit your nephew daydreams.”
“Yes, that’s correct… I think. I’m honestly not sure anymore.”
“So you’re not sure whether you know that Norbert Riddle daydreams.”
Befuddled, Aunt Martha sits back down on the bench.
The judge turns to me. “Norbert Riddle, Person Number L4LUZR-1. Do you have anything to say for yourself?”
I grip the bars of my cage and try to stick my head out, but my ears won’t fit through the bars. I’m so tense I’m shaking. My handcuffs clang against the bars of the cage. The chains on my ankles rattle and clank.
“I’m not different,” I say. “Really, I’m not anything special. I’m mediocre like everyone else. Honest. Please don’t turn me into pink powder.”
“Pink powder?” asks Judge Wright.
Aunt Martha and Uncle Hank look to each other, perplexed.
Mrs. Hurlbutt scrunches up her wrinkled face and makes a sour expression.
“Rest assured, I won’t turn you into pink powder,” says Judge Wright. He faces the jury. “How do you find the accused?”
In desperate need of a hug, I think. But I decide not to say that out loud.
I look to the twelve grown-ups in the jury box. All wearing dull gray jumpsuits and dour expressions on their faces. They turn their heads to look at one another. No one makes a peep. What will they decide? Am I toast?
The captain of the jury stands up, straightens her gray jumpsuit, and looks to her fellow jurors. They bob their heads. They haven’t muttered a word to one another the whole time, but now they’re somehow signaling one another with silent nods.
The captain glares at me for a moment. It feels like her eyes are shooting poison darts at me. Then she turns to the judge. She quivers, afraid to utter a word.
Judge Wright sits up in his chair. “For the love of Loving Leader,” he barks. “Spit it out.”
The jury captain clears her throat. “We the jury find the accused… different and dangerous. Creative and crazy. Imaginative and insane.”
The other members of the jury applaud and cheer. “Different! Dangerous!” they chant. “Different! Dangerous! Different! Dangerous!”
The judge bangs his gavel. “Order in the court,” he demands. He hammers his gavel again. Bam! Bam! Bam!
My stomach churns. My head starts spinning. I think I’m going to be sick. I’m not different. I can’t even imagine being imaginative. I’m just as gray and faceless as everyone else. Why won’t anyone believe me? I’m not a lunatic. I’m not crazy. Really, I’m not. Special, maybe. But different? Hardly.
Judge Wright tells me to rise for sentencing. Can’t he see I’m already standing? And I’m the crazy one? I don’t think so.
I look to my aunt and uncle. They’re in complete shock. Just like me. Tears run down Aunt Martha’s face. Uncle Hank puts his arm around her. He reaches into the gray pocket of his gray jumpsuit and hands her his gray handkerchief. She wipes away her tears and blows her nose. Loudly, which makes me laugh. Aunt Martha does a great impression of a foghorn.
The judge bangs his gavel. “Norbert Riddle, Person Number L4LUZR-1. You are hereby banished forever from the planet. The United State of Earth hereby declares you a nonperson. You will be sent to the Astro-Nuts prison on planet Zorquat Three in the Orion Nebula—one thousand three hundred forty-seven light-years from here.”
Me? Prison? On another planet? How will I ever find my parents if I’m sent to the other side of the galaxy?
“Aunt Martha! Uncle Hank!” I yell. “Help me! Please!”
My aunt and uncle stare at me in the cage. They look so sad. So dreary. So defeated. I tug at the metal bars, rattling my handcuffs, chains, and shackles. Aunt Martha and Uncle Hank say nothing. They’re afraid to speak up in my defense. Scared to show even an inkling of emotion. Petrified that if they say what they’re really thinking, they, too, risk being labeled different and dangerous.
They live in fear of Loving Leader and the TruthScreen. Terrified of being arrested and taken away like my parents were. Never to be seen again.
Right then and there I get the feeling Aunt Martha and Uncle Hank know exactly what happened to my parents. I can see it in their eyes.
“Where are my parents?” I yell. “Tell me, please!”
Aunt Martha and Uncle Hank shake their heads with sadness.
“We have no idea where on Earth they are, Norbert,” says Aunt Martha.
On Earth? If my parents are imprisoned somewhere on Earth, then I have to stay here, even if it means being turned into pink powder. I plead to Judge Wright. “Send me to the Powder Room! Please! Turn me into pink powder! Send me anywhere but another planet!”
“Norbert,” says Uncle Hank. “You need to be sent away for your own good.”
Aunt Martha nods. Reluctantly. She wipes her tears with Uncle Hank’s gray handkerchief.
So my aunt and uncle agree with Judge Wright. They seem relieved that I’ve been sentenced to a nuthouse on another planet. I guess they figure my sentence could be worse. A lot worse.
The guards open the cage, remove my handcuffs and chains, and put me in a straitjacket. If you’ve never seen one, a straitjacket is like a pullover shirt with long sleeves that wrap around you to keep your arms tied to your body. It’s used to confine a crazy person, but sometimes a magician will escape from one onstage.
The guards drag me away. Kicking and shouting.
Too bad I’m not a magician.
I’m back in my cold prison cell. Alone. Trapped in a straitjacket. And having a total panic attack. Although I have to admit, this straitjacket does keep me rather warm and cozy.
You’re probably wondering where Drew went. When the guards threw me back in the cell, they grabbed Drew and dragged him, yelling and screaming, to his Truth Trial. I bet he’s yelling and screaming at Judge Wright this very minute.
Meanwhile, I’m stuck all by my lonesome in this dungeon. The last place I want to be sent is across the universe to some desolate planet. There’s only one thing for me to do. Escape. All I need is a decent plan. And a way out of this stupid straitjacket.
I wriggle and squirm. I twist and twirl.
The door pops open again. Two guards toss Drew back in the cell. They slam the door shut again.
Drew is wrapped in his own straitjacket. He’s wiggling and squirming just like me.
“What happened to you?” I ask.
“The jury declared me different and dangerous.”
“I don’t understand. All you did was laugh at me. You didn’t do anything creative or imaginative. I didn’t either, really. But you definitely didn’t.”
“Well, that’s not totally true. I doodle all the time. I can’t stop. It’s just something I do.”
“Are they going to send you to the Powder Room?”
“No such luck,” says Drew. “The judge banished me to a prison on Zorquat Three.”
“Yeah, but there’s just one problem.”
“There is no prison on Zorquat Three. They just want us to think we’re being sent to a prison.”
“How could you possibly know that?”
“Zorquat Three is a bleak planet covered with quicksand pits and giant, man-eating lizards. With forked tongues. And razor-sharp claws. They eat kids like you and me for breakfast. Everyone knows that.”
Now I’m sweating buckets.
Drew grins, like he’s happy to see me with the heebie-jeebies. What’s with this kid?
Suddenly the door to the cell bangs open.…
Bright light from the stone corridor fills our prison cell. A big silhouette stands in the doorway. It steps forward, and I suddenly make out a large, gruff-looking man wearing a tight-fitting space suit and a Viking helmet. You know, one of those helmets with two sharp horns. Kind of kooky, if you ask me.
A patch on his uniform says his name is Grissom. He’s got scraggly black hair and a trimmed black beard. Behind Grissom stand three robot guards aiming laser guns directly at us. The robots all look the same. They’re thin, tall, and gold—with beady little red lights for eyes.
“So, you’re the new Astro-Nuts,” says Grissom. His voice sounds like gravel.
I turn to Drew. “What are Astro-Nuts?” I whisper.
Drew shrugs. “I guess we are,” he says.
“Put a cork in it,” snaps Grissom. “You two nonpersons best not give me any trouble.”
Grissom leads the way. We follow after him, still wearing our straitjackets. The three robot guards walk behind us, their laser guns aimed at our backs. I look for a way to escape, but I can feel the robots scrutinizing me with their piercing red eyes.
Grissom brings us outside to a sleek silver spaceship standing upright in the middle of a courtyard. The landing legs make the large spacecraft look like a spider.
“All aboard,” shouts Grissom.
There’s nowhere for us to go but up the ladder into the spaceship. Grissom follows us. The robots lower their laser guns and load huge metallic crates into the cargo hold.
Once we’re aboard, Grissom removes our straitjackets and places Drew and me in the same clean white jail cell—with two cots, a sink, and a toilet. Across the hall is another barred cell containing one other nonperson.
“Boys, meet your fellow Astro-Nut,” says Grissom. “Sophie Singer, this is Norbert Riddle and Drew Weaver.”
Sophie Singer sits on the cot in her cell with her head buried in her hands. Her long, curly brown hair covers her face. She wears—you guessed it—a gray jumpsuit. Sophie just whimpers and refuses to look up at us.
Who is this strange girl? And what did she do to end up here?
We zoom across the galaxy at some sort of mind-blowing super-duper-hyper-turbo-zippo-speed—a gazillion bajillion times the speed of light. Doggone fast. That’s the technical term for it.
The mere thought of spending the rest of my life on some weird planet on the opposite side of the universe makes me want to start bawling my eyes out. But I’m desperately holding myself together so I can concentrate my energy on figuring out a way to get back to Earth.
Praise for Not So Normal Norbert:A Barnes & Noble Best Book for Young Readers!A Parents' Choice Awards (R) Winner!
- "Readers will chortle at the relentless wordplay, a supporting cast made up almost entirely of caricatured grown-ups and young pranksters, and Norbert's winning mix of glibness and gullibility. Aly's scribbly ink-and-wash line drawings add punchlines as well as comical portraits of the major characters."—Booklist
- "Buoyed by Aly's boisterous drawings, Norbert's droll wordplay, wisecracking banter, and oddball characters, the comedy reaches farcical heights before careening to an unforeseen conclusion. The authors balance the inanity with real-life, affecting emotion, convincingly depicting Norbert's fright as well as his yearning for his parents."—Publishers Weekly
- "The humor, adventure, and lively illustrations will make this book enjoyable for reluctant readers."—Common Sense Media
- On Sale
- Jul 2, 2018
- Page Count
- 368 pages
- jimmy patterson