Define "Normal"


By Julie Anne Peters

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This item is a preorder. Your payment method will be charged immediately, and the product is expected to ship on or around May 7, 2003. This date is subject to change due to shipping delays beyond our control.

What you see isn't always what you get in this funny and heart-wrenching story about two girls from different crowds who find common ground, by National Book Award finalist Julie Anne Peters.

Antonia is a "nerd," and Jazz is a "punk." Antonia belongs to the math club; Jazz hangs out at the tattoo parlor. Antonia's parents are divorced and her mother suffers from depression. Jazz is from a wealthy, traditional family. But when these two very different girls find themselves facing each other in a peer-counseling program, they discover they have some surprising things in common. With both humor and heart, this absorbing read will keep readers thinking and laughing. A reading-group guide written by the author is included at the back of this paperback edition.


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Table of Contents

Define "Normal" Reading Group Guide

A Sneak Peek of Lies My Girlfriend Told Me

Copyright Page

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Chapter 1

I opened the door and froze. Not Jazz Luther. Couldn't be. Impossible. My jaw stuck in the gape-open position.

"What are you looking at?" Jazz sneered at me.

Your purple hair? Your black lips? Your shredded jeans? "Nothing," I muttered.

"You my peer counselor?" Jazz asked, clunking ankle-high boots up onto the conference table. She tipped back the chair and threaded her fingers together behind her head.

My stomach knotted. "Guess so." I thought, Define "peer."

Jazz snorted. She must've had the same thought.

Exhaling a long breath, I slid into a chair at the opposite end of the table. Even that far away, her perfume was noxious. Maybe it wasn't perfume. More like incense. The odor, a mix of musky and sweet, made my nose pucker. I smoothed down my pleated skirt, trying desperately not to sneeze. Or gag. "Where's Dr. DiLeo?" I asked.

"He had some emergency," she answered. "Probably ran out of Tic Tacs and had to rush over to 7-Eleven."

I stifled a laugh. Our school psychologist did reek of peppermint.

"So, you want to start or you want me to?" She leaned back farther in the chair, her boots scraping across the Formica tabletop. They left a noticeable black mark. Maybe the faculty conference room wasn't the ideal place to hold counseling sessions.

Start. Where to start? When Dr. DiLeo proposed the peer counseling program at Oberon Middle School, I'm sure he didn't think someone like Jazz Luther would sign up. No doubt he meant it for people with minor problems. Problems such as dealing with difficult teachers or getting bogged down with homework. Problems with boyfriends or jealous girlfriends. I don't know. Not someone with Jazz Luther's problems. She was hopeless. A punker. A druggie. A gang hanger. Peer counseling? Jazz needed long-term professional psychotherapy. "In a lock-up facility," I mumbled.

"Huh?" she said.

"Nothing. Why don't you go ahead." This should be good. "Tell me why you're here." Dr. DiLeo suggested the line as an icebreaker, a way to open a conversation. Although between us, there loomed an iceberg.

Jazz smirked. "It keeps me off the streets."

I forced a smile back. Good reason.

She flung her feet to the floor and stood. Her chair crashed into the metal heater behind her, leaving a dent. "Oops." She shrugged. Without picking up the chair, she clomped across the room toward me. "I can't talk to you clear down there." She yanked out a chair catty-corner to me and looped her left leg over the back. "I'm here because DiLeo says I gotta be. I gotta do fifteen hours of counseling this term." She slid the sleeve of her lavender leather jacket up an inch and glanced at her watch. "Ten minutes and counting." She grinned.

I couldn't get over how white her teeth looked against the black lipstick. Or maybe what distracted me was the earring in her eyebrow. "Doesn't that hurt?"

"What?" She frowned.

I touched my eyebrow.

"Naw. I mean, it hurt at first. Bled like crazy. I felt like Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Why? You thinking of getting one?"

I shuddered. Not in this life.

"'Cause if you are, Tattoo 4 U 2 is having a special. With every body piercing you get one free tattoo."

Tattoos? Should I ask?

"Want to see mine?"

Was I a masochist? Apparently. "Why not," I said.

Jazz wrenched her right boot off and stuck her foot in my face. Talk about fumes. "Can you tell what it is?" she asked.

Nostrils plugged, I peered closer at her ankle. There it was, a tiny tattoo. "A blood drop?" I ventured. Seemed appropriate.

"No." She shoved it closer to me. "It's a ladybug. See the spots?"

Only before my eyes. I squinted. "Oh, yeah. Cool." Okay, I admit it. It was sort of cool. "Did that hurt?"

"Naw. The other one did. The one on my… you know." She wiggled her eyebrows. "I won't show you."

"Thank you."

She laughed. As she tugged her boot back on, her gaze drifted down to her watch again. "Sixteen minutes. This isn't so bad. You want to talk about my hair, too? 'Cause you keep staring at it."

My face seared fireball red. Eyes dropping to my stack of books, I pulled out the peer counselor folder and opened it. My hands shook. What am I doing here? I wondered. I can't do this.

Jazz said, "Maybe we should start with our names. I'm Jasmine Luther. Everybody calls me Jazz, don't ask me why." She drummed the table with her index fingers like a rock musician then shined those sparkling teeth at me again.

It almost made me laugh. Almost. "I'm Antonia Dillon."

Jazz stuck out her hand to shake. "Nice to meet you, Tone."

I flinched.

Jazz leaned back in her chair. "Why don't you tell me about you first. Then maybe I won't be so nervous."

She was nervous? My hands were about to register on the Richter scale. "Okay. My name is Antonia. Everybody calls me Antonia." My eyes met hers.

She shrugged.

I continued, "I'm fourteen and in the eighth grade. My favorite subjects are algebra and history. I'm on the honor roll and in math club… I was in math club. I had to quit. I used to do gymnastics, too, but—"

Jazz yawned audibly. She checked her watch. "Time sure flies when you're having fun." Batting mascara-caked eyelashes at me, she added, "And that's about all the fun I can stand for one day." She stood.

I stumbled to my feet. As I shoved my notebook back into my bag, she flounced by me and opened the door. "Hey, thanks a lot, Tone," she said at my back. "I feel better already."

Wonderful, I thought. I feel sick.

Chapter 2

I rushed to the school counseling center to catch Dr. DiLeo before he left for the day. Good, he was still in. "It's not going to work, Dr. DiLeo." Standing in the doorway, panting, I added, "She's beyond help."

Dr. DiLeo straddled the desk corner and motioned me to sit. "Now, Antonia," he said. "No one is beyond help." Over the top of his wire-rimmed glasses he studied me. "Hmmm?"

I shifted uncomfortably. "She's not my peer, Dr. DiLeo." I almost blurted, She doesn't have a peer. Instead, what came out of my mouth was "I don't think I'm cut out to be a peer counselor."

"The first session is always tough. Believe me. You probably felt as if nothing was accomplished, right? But you'd be surprised how much progress was made. Just knowing someone cares is self-affirming, Antonia. Truly."

"That's just it," I said. "I don't care." Heat fried my face. There. I'd said it. Now he'd have to remove me from the program. I had no compassion at all.

"Let's just say that with Jazz, there's more than meets the eye."

I widened my eyes at him. "That's a scary thought."

He laughed. Standing up and moving toward the door, he said, "You only have to meet twice a week. Give it another session."


He added, "See if you don't change your mind."

It'd take a left-lobe lobotomy to change my mind.

He smiled. The peppermint bit my nose. I smiled back, even though I wanted to retch.

All the way home I fumed. The only reason I agreed to participate in the peer counseling program was that I could do it during the day. Okay, sure, it was an honor to be asked. And I knew I needed some extracurricular activities on my record if I was going to get into the college-prep program next year. But it was a major sacrifice giving up my homeroom period for peer counseling. Now I'd be up until midnight doing homework. And for who? Or should I say, for what?

Jasmine Luther. She was a what. A subhuman. A foreign body to steer clear of in the hallways. All punkers were. When people found out I was counseling Jasmine Luther, they'd die of hysterics. Of course, you were never supposed to tell who was in counseling; it'd break the oath of confidentiality. But everyone knew. There were no secrets at Oberon Middle School. I'd be the laughingstock. Lead the joke parade. I'd be hung out on the grapevine to wither and die. Nope. No way. Dr. DiLeo couldn't force me.

Could he?

When I flung open the door at home, still muttering to myself, my little brother Chuckie was screaming, "No! I don't want it." Michael, my other brother, hollered at him, "It's all there is, Chuckie. What's the matter? You like Cap'n Crunch."

Chuckie sobbed. "I hate warm milk."

I dropped my backpack on the couch and hustled to the kitchen. "What's going on?" I demanded. "What are you doing home already, Chuckie?"

He pouted.

Michael said, "He was here when I got home. He must've gotten out of day care early."

Without warning, my knees buckled. Exhaustion overwhelmed me as I took in the scene around my brothers. It looked like Hurricane Hugo had swept through the kitchen. Cereal was strewn all over the counter. Dirty dishes filled the sink. Newspapers, envelopes, and trash littered the floor. Automatically, I flicked off the Mr. Coffee. A crust of black had burned to the bottom of the pot. Had Mom left the machine on all day?

"All we got to eat is cereal," Michael said to me. "We're out of milk so I made powdered. Chuckie's being a brat." Michael threatened him with a butter knife.

"Michael!" I stood up, gripped his wrist hard, and yanked away the knife. "Quit it."

Michael took a deep, shaky breath and lowered his arm.

I let go and he crumpled into a chair to eat his cereal. "Chuckie, sweetie, you want to eat it out of the box?" I asked him.

His eyes gleamed. I handed him the box of Cap'n Crunch, which he proceeded to dump all over the floor.

I was too wiped out to care. "Where's Mom?" I asked, wandering over to the refrigerator. "I thought she was going shopping today." The fridge was bare. Except for a bottle of ketchup and a jar of crusty mayonnaise, there was nothing on the shelves. I pulled out the crisper drawer and wished I hadn't. A slimy head of lettuce rolled to the front. "Well?" I turned to Michael.

His face reddened. The freckles on his nose seemed to swell. "She's sick."

"Again?" My anger flared, but I forced it down.

Michael concentrated on his cereal.

"Okay," I said in a sigh. "I'll go get some groceries. Do you want me to call Mrs. Marsh to come over?"

"Yeth," Chuckie said.

"No," Michael countered. "Maybe we could go over there. It's… cleaner."

Tears welled in my eyes. It was my fault the house was so bad. I should've cleaned up before leaving this morning. I should've done a load of laundry. I should've checked on Mom. "I'll call Mrs. Marsh," I said, turning away so the boys wouldn't see me cry. They didn't need any more tears.

When I got off the phone, Michael and Chuckie were at it again. Michael was pelting Chuckie with Cap'n Crunch while Chuckie flailed his arms and wailed.

"Stop it, Michael!" I yelled at him.

"Why is it always my fault?" he said.

"You know why." I held his eyes.

He threw the box of cereal across the room and stormed out, screeching, "You're not the boss of me."

"Michael!" My fists clenched. Okay, Antonia, I calmed myself. It's going to be okay. Take a deep breath. They're just kids. In a nicer voice, I called to him, "Michael, take your homework to Mrs. Marsh's, okay?" I knew he wouldn't. He was going to flunk second grade if I didn't keep after him. What did he care?

Chuckie was still howling.

I knelt down in front of him. "Hey, I have something for you."

"A prethent?" He sniffled.

"Yes, a present. Stay put." I bounded to the living room and grabbed my backpack. From inside the front pocket, I fished out the brownie I'd saved from lunch. Not saved, actually. Snitched from an abandoned tray on my way out.

Chuckie tore into the napkin wrapper.

"Save some for Michael," I said.

Michael reappeared in the doorway. Hastily he started picking up pieces of Cap'n Crunch. "He doesn't have to," Michael muttered, but I saw him eyeing the brownie.

"I'll buy brownie mix at the store," I told him.

"And some bread and peanut butter for lunch," Michael said. "We ran out two days ago."

"What've you been eating?"

He shrugged. "I just borrow stuff."

Oh, no. I should've noticed. At least Chuckie's lunch was provided. I removed Mom's Visa card from her billfold and scrounged around in the bottom of her purse for bus fare.

As soon as I dropped off the boys at the neighbor's, I was out of there. If I didn't have to take care of Chuckie and Michael, I'd never come back.

Chapter 3

My eyelids fluttered. Regaining consciousness, I heard someone at the table behind me snoring. Was he mocking me? Had I been snoring? I whipped my chin up off my chest as Mrs. Bartoli finished her introduction to chapter 10, Quadratic Equations.

The bell rang and Mrs. Bartoli said, "Your take-home tests are due today. Leave them on my desk on your way out." The sound of perforated paper being torn from notebooks punctuated the stale air.

It was the last assignment I'd tackled this morning. At one-thirty A.M. By the time I got home from grocery shopping, made the boys dinner, supervised Chuckie in the tub, stood over Michael while he groused about doing homework, got everyone to bed, and cleaned up the house, it was after midnight.

My paper was a mess, all smeared with erasure marks. It embarrassed me to turn it in. I waited until the room cleared before approaching my advanced algebra teacher. "If you can't read this, Mrs. Bartoli, I'll be glad to copy it over," I said.

She glanced down at the paper, then up at me. "You didn't type it?"

My cheeks flared.

"I'm kidding, Antonia. It's fine."

"Are you sure?"

She laughed. "Half the class didn't even do the assignment. And you're worried if I can read your answers?" She chuckled again.

I didn't think it was funny. "Do you want me to type it? I could reserve a PC at lunchtime."

Mrs. Bartoli slapped her hand over mine—the one hastily retrieving the top sheet from a slim stack of test papers. "It was a joke, Antonia. I'm just teasing you." She arched both eyebrows. "Can't you take a joke?"

Sure, when it's funny, I almost said. I hated being teased. At the door I stopped and whirled. "Next time I'll type it."

She met my eyes and frowned.

"Just kidding, Mrs. Bartoli. Can't you take a joke?" I smirked inwardly and left.

At home that night I opened a box of Banquet fried chicken and whipped up some instant mashed potatoes. Real gourmet. It used to be, when Mom got home from work, she'd cook. Or leave me instructions on the days she had evening appointments.

Was she still sleeping? I wondered at the ceiling. No one could sleep this long and live. It didn't look like she'd even gotten up to make coffee.

Maybe she was dead. That'd be perfect. Leave us without any parents. At least there'd be one less mouth to feed. Antonia! I chided myself. You're a terrible person.

"I got a note from my teacher that you gotta sign," Michael said at my side. He shoved a slip of paper under my nose.

It was a permission slip to go to the Museum of Natural History tomorrow. The slip had to be signed by a parent or guardian.

My eyes locked with Michael's. He said, "I left it with Mom, but I guess she forgot. If I don't get it signed, I can't go and I'll have to stay in the liberry all day."

My jaw clenched. "Give me your pencil."

Michael handed me his stub.

As I scribbled my name, as illegibly as possible, I said, "If your teacher asks, tell her I'm your guardian." Which wasn't a total lie.

He wiped his runny nose on his sleeve and took back the slip. Then he shuffled out to the TV.

We ate in the living room while watching Wheel of Fortune. By seven o'clock I was getting worried, so I scraped together what was left from dinner and took a plate up to Mom's bedroom. The sun had set and eerie shadows fell across her rumpled bedding.

For a moment I just stood in the doorway and stared. Why, I didn't know. It was a familiar sight. When the lump in bed stirred, I said softly, "Mom? You awake?"

"Who is it?" Mom shot up. "Kurt, is that you?"

"No, Mom. It's me. Antonia." Your slave child, I thought.

Mom fell back on the pillow.

"I brought you some dinner." Forcing a smile, I fibbed, "It's Kentucky Fried. Your favorite."

She rolled back over. "I'm not hungry," she mumbled.

"Okay, fine." I set the plate on her dresser, harder than I meant to. A chicken wing jumped off. It slid across a stack of pictures that had been spread out all over the bureau. Most of the pictures were of Mom and Dad when they were younger. The chicken wing left a greasy smear on one of the pictures.

I started to wipe it off, then noticed it was a picture of us at Christmas. Mom was sitting in front of the tree, hugging Michael. She looked like she was pregnant with Chuckie, so it must've been… three years ago? Yeah, must've been. Mom was wearing a Santa hat. I remembered she'd put on the whole Santa suit earlier in the day when Michael declared, "There's no stupid Santa Claus. Tyler told me." I remembered her saying to me, as she buckled the belt, "I want him to believe. Just one more year."

She'd looked pretty convincing with her big belly. Especially going around the house ho-ho-ho-ing in this deep voice. Silly. But Mom was always doing crazy stuff like that. She was so happy that whole time she was pregnant.

In the picture I was sitting beside Mom, holding up a new sweater set that Santa had brought. I still wore that set occasionally, even though it was way too tight.

Dad must've taken the picture, since he wasn't in it. That was the last Christmas before…

My eyes strayed up to Mom's mirror. I freaked. For a second, I thought I saw him. Then I realized it was only me. Mom always said I had Dad's eyes and crooked smile.

The smile faded and all I saw was this tired-looking person with stringy brown hair hanging in her eyes. Mom would be horrified if she saw how long my hair had gotten. Maybe I was hoping she'd notice.

She let out a little whimper and I looked down at her. A wave of sympathy washed over me. "Try to eat, Mom," I said. "You need to keep your strength up."

"Why?" she asked.

When I didn't answer, she exhaled loudly and sat up.

"Did you take your medicine today?" I asked.

She raked her fingers through her hair. In reply, she said, "Hand me my cigarettes, will you, Antonia?"

I glanced down at her nightstand. An ashtray overflowed with cigarette butts. When had she started smoking again? I wondered. Then I saw a big black mark where a lit cigarette had burned a hole. Great. Now I'd have trouble sleeping, worrying whether she was going to set the house on fire.

"You're out of cigarettes," I lied, noticing that the pack had fallen behind the nightstand.

Mom clucked in disgust and stood up. "Run down to the 7-Eleven and get me a couple of packs, okay?"

"They won't sell cigarettes to me. You know that."

She mumbled some obscenity. Then she dragged past me and headed for the bathroom. "You're going to have to be more help around here, Antonia," she snapped on her way past. "I can't do everything myself." She slammed the door in my face.

Chapter 4

Jazz was late for our Friday session. Good, I thought. Maybe she realized how ridiculous this arrangement was, too, and dropped out. It'd be like her. Did Dr. DiLeo actually expect Jazz Luther to honor her agreement to put in fifteen hours? I wondered what she'd done to deserve the punishment.

With a whoosh,


On Sale
May 7, 2003
Page Count
208 pages

Julie Anne Peters

About the Author

Julie Anne Peters is the critically acclaimed author of Define “Normal,” Keeping You a Secret, Pretend You Love Me, Between Mom and Jo, She Loves You, She Loves You Not…, It’s Our Prom (So Deal With It), and Luna, a National Book Award finalist.

Learn more about this author