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You’ve never met anyone exactly like twelve-year-old Sarah Nelson. While most of her friends obsess over Harry Potter, she spends her time writing letters to Atticus Finch. She collects trouble words in her diary. Her best friend is a plant. And she’s never known her mother, who left when Sarah was two.
Since then, Sarah and her dad have moved from one small Texas town to another, and not one has felt like home.
Everything changes when Sarah launches an investigation into her family’s Big Secret. She makes unexpected new friends and has her first real crush, and instead of a “typical boring Sarah Nelson summer,” this one might just turn out to be extraordinary.
Table of Contents
A Sneak Peek of Mayday
A Sneak Peek of Courage for Beginners
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You've never met anyone like me. Unless, of course, you've met someone who survived her mother trying to drown her and now lives with an alcoholic father. If there are other people like this, I want to meet them pronto. Pronto, which is my current favorite word, is what they say in cop shows when a detective wants information fast. There would be a lot I could learn from those people, especially if they are older than me, which is almost twelve. As it is right now, I have to learn most things on my own.
This is what I've written in my real diary. I could never say this out loud. Never.
If you want to know, I have a real diary and a fake diary. The fake diary is the decoy, the one you hide in plain sight. If someone finds it and reads it, he will think you are normal and move right along. When you write in it, all you have to do is pretend an adult is reading it and say something like:
This was a great day. I got an A on the Math test, and I met a new friend named Denise, who hums during Algebra.
The real diary is just for me. Private and true. Lately, I've been writing about problems I'm trying to work out. Here's what I've written:
There are two weeks of school left. As soon as the final bell rings, I'll have two giant problems.
Problem 1: I'll have a boring summer and be forced to stay at my grandparents' boring house.
Problem 2: I'll have to go to seventh grade in three months and be forced to do that horrible Family Tree Project that Lisa's sister had to do this year. Everyone at school will know about my mother.
I can try to change Problem 1, but Problem 2 is tragically unsolvable. I can't figure out any way to get around doing the project unless I move away and go to another school. Investigate this option.
It's a little bit difficult to keep two diaries going, but it is necessary. I have to keep facts, clues, and lists of words where no one will see them but me. Not every person responds to words the same way. Some words are trouble words. A trouble word will change the face of the person you say it to. Love can be a trouble word for some people. Crazy is also a trouble word.
I should know.
Once, when we had just moved to Garland, into our ugly, brown rent-house on Yale Court, my dad had tensed up like he might hit something when I'd used the word crazy to describe my mother. It was because of career day at school. Dad had asked me if I had any idea what I wanted to be. To be honest, I had still been thinking about it because I was waiting to see if I turned out crazy like her.
So I said to Dad, "Why not wait until you figure out if you are going to inherit crazy before you decide on an occupation?" I don't know why I said this out loud. I'm usually careful with words.
I saw a hurt in Dad's eyes that made me want to leave the room. But because he was blocking the only way out of our U-shaped kitchen, there was no place to go. My backup plan was to climb inside a kitchen cabinet and hide. That is saying a lot when you think how rent-house cabinets are the most disgusting things you will ever see. If there is a list of grossest places on earth, these cabinets are on it.
"I'm sorry," I said.
He took a deep breath and told me no, I wasn't going to be crazy and please don't ever, EVER, use that word to describe her again, young lady! I couldn't say anything back, because I was afraid. I wish I'd had enough guts to tell him I'd looked up crazy in the dictionary.
I knew I'd chosen the right word.
crazy adj.: mentally deranged; demented; insane
I added crazy to my list of trouble words.
I hide the real diary between two folded towels under my bathroom sink and leave the decoy on my nightstand. It has a shiny gold lock on it, so you think it's hiding important words.
I was only two when my mother filled the kitchen sink with water and tried to drown me. Sometimes it feels like she was the mother of some family across the street and we watched her story on the news thinking, Wow, too bad for that poor family. The counselors my dad once sent me to spent all their time trying to pry details out or put details into my brain about what they called "the incident."
One of the counselors, Dr. Madrigal, was so sure I could remember some detail about that day, he asked me constantly if I had nightmares about water or a fear of water. No, I don't. But I tell you, if I'd gone to his office much longer, I'm pretty certain I'd have developed a fear of swimming.
So even though I'm her daughter and she tried to kill me, I know the story only from what's written in black and white. You would think I was an investigator. Many of the details are available to anyone with a computer. I'm scared to look up anything at home, so I've conducted my investigation at the library, using the search terms Jane Nelson trial.
Jane Nelson is my mother.
If you do this search, Google will tell you "there are about 821,000 results." That is how famous her case is on the Internet. You can click on her Wikipedia page first and learn simple facts. Jane Nelson was born in Texas. Her mother was killed when she was nine. Raised by her father. Went to nursing school. Became a mother at thirty-one. Committed to a mental hospital at thirty-five.
You can also click on articles about her trial and find details you wish weren't true, such as:
JANE NELSON TURNED ON THE WATER AFTER HER HUSBAND, TOM NELSON, LEFT FOR WORK.
She drowned me first. Then Simon, my older brother. He is my twin, born three and a half minutes before me. A UPS deliveryman came to the door and found my mother dripping wet. She asked him to call 911. The rest of the story is all about court cases and who was right and who was wrong and proving she was crazy.
I don't understand a lot about the trials. And, yes, I mean trials.
There were two.
First, my mother's, which led to a plea of insanity and a sentence of undetermined length at a mental-health facility here in Texas. Second, my dad's for failing to protect us. Don't ask me how to explain this since he was at work when my mother became a criminal, and of course he would've protected us. Still, the newspapers didn't write nice things about him, even after he was found not guilty.
The only thing I know for certain is that Simon wasn't as lucky as I was. He is dead in a tiny grave in Houston, and I'm in this ugly, brown house in Garland with a shiny pink cell phone making the Crazy Frog sound, which is how I know it's Lisa calling.
I put my diary to the side.
"Did you see?"
"Emma Rodriguez is officially in a relationship."
If you want to know, Lisa is obsessed with relationships.
"With who?" I ask.
"Go look and call me back."
"Just tell me, already."
When we hang up, there is a cloud of annoyance all over me. This is what she does. Tease people with information. It would be nice if I could talk to her about real things.
Dr. Madrigal said I should try "sharing my feelings" with kids my age, but what does he know? He always reminded me that my mother's crimes weren't my fault. Well, I figured that out on my own, thank you very much. My mother didn't know me the way a person really knows a person. She was sick and I was only two. You would think this all doesn't matter, because it happened a long time ago, but that is not the case. News reporters like to keep reminding people about our business.
When there is a new story about a woman killing her child, there is almost always some reference to my mother. Her story is that famous.
So you can see why I am dreading seventh grade with a capital D. It's simply impossible to imagine myself presenting a Family Tree Project with names, details, charts, major historic events in your family, and "what is the most interesting connection you see across the generations."
Lisa's sister did the project last year, and all Lisa talked about, besides how she'd steal her sister's project and not have to do one, was how her grandmother once sang on Broadway. Lisa said that was why she was going to get the lead part in Guys and Dolls, which she did, so there was no shutting her up.
Of course, I could lie and make up a whole family with nice qualities like a talent for woodworking. I could say, Oh, my family made bookshelves for George Washington, and look at this pencil I just carved.
But I would still have to be around all these braggers like Lisa who have something good to look forward to, and my neck would turn red when I lied anyway. Especially if I have to present before fancy-dresser Angela Nee. Angela and I are side by side in the school yearbook, but that's pretty much the only time we'll ever be together on anything.
Angela Nee: Tall and green-eyed. Perfect shiny black hair. Often mistaken for a model. Raises hand in class with correct answers.
Sarah Nelson: Short and brown-eyed. Short brown hair in need of style. Often mistaken for a fifth grader. Must be called on to answer.
Maybe I don't want to be a seventh grader with a Family Tree Project that informs the world that a crazy gene runs in my family, but wouldn't I like to know a few more things about my mother? Yes, I would. I would like to get information about her and have it all to myself. Like maybe we are both good with plants. Maybe we can both make them bloom, no problem.
It turns out that Emma Rodriguez is in a relationship with Jimmy Leighton. That is why Lisa teased me. She knows I like Jimmy. Well.
After I finish writing about Problems 1 and 2 in my diary, I count up the days until school is out for the summer. Thirteen more days of sixth grade, including the weekend. Lisa is going to camp as soon as school lets out, so "sharing my feelings" with her is no good.
So I write down that what I need is an informant, which is a word I found in the dictionary one night.
informant n.: a person who supplies data in answer to the questions of an investigator
If you want to know, the pages of my dictionary are rubbed soft. I have favorite words highlighted in blue. Dad hates how I write inside books, but I love words of all sorts, and this is what I must do.
Dad should be my chief informant. But an informant talks, and he does not like to talk about anything but what he needs to pick up at the store.
This is an example of a conversation with my dad: "Are we out of milk? Cereal? How about I make pancakes on Saturday?"
In his conversations, your own input is not really required. I have to pry real information out of him. He is hard, frozen ice cream and I am a weak spoon. What I've learned is this: You don't get much ice cream for all the hard work you put in, and the spoon ends up bent.
Like always, I have to figure out things on my own and answer the questions my brain creates. If you want to know, I am looking for any signs of going crazy. The more information I gather, the better I can defend myself against the world, against the brain inside me that may or may not be like hers.
So far, I've decided only one thing about how to solve the problem of going to seventh grade. I will be on the case, as they say in crime shows. I will look for clues myself. I decide to write the names of all the people who know more about my mother than I do. They could be my sources. Dad, my grandparents. And, of course, my mother herself. When I get enough information, I will know what to do.
Under my dad's name, I make a note that he doesn't always tell the truth.
- Unreliable source
- Tells people he's a widower
Next, there are my grandparents. I write their names on a new page, make some notes about clues they might offer.
- Besides Dad, they are the only people I know who knew my mother before "the incident."
- My grandmother called her bohemian once.
bohemian n.: a person, as an artist or writer, who lives and acts free of regard for conventional rules and practices
Her tone didn't make it sound complimentary. It was the same way I sometimes tell Lisa her outfit looks "fine" when it's clearly a disaster.
On another diary page, I write my mother's name. I stare at it for a long time.
The page stays blank.
I wish I could just walk up and ask (the way my English teacher does), "Please, in your own words, tell me what happened the day you tried to kill me." But I can't. I close my diary and put it back in its hiding place between the towels. Then I stare into the mirror until my eyes are like those of a person who is calm and not at all scared. I say to myself, I want to know, in your own words, what happened. Before you answer, know that I will not hold a grudge. I'm just conducting an interview. Your cooperation is appreciated.
I rehearse lines in front of Plant, which, if you read my real diary, you would know for sure is my best friend. There are only two things we've had at every rental house: Plant and the miscellaneous box. I take Plant inside the new house, and Dad leaves the miscellaneous box in the garage. When I asked him about the box, he said miscellaneous is stuff you don't know you need until you see it.
Most days when I water Plant, I have a new trouble word to tell her. All of them are mixed deep in her soil. If secrets were seeds, she could bloom leaves that would make me blush.
And if she did bloom and show the world all my secrets, I just don't know what I'd do. Probably lie and say, "Oh, she was here when we moved in. These are the secrets of another girl."
Plant agrees with me. We'll start our investigation as soon as school is out. For now, I'm suffering through a hot Saturday afternoon with the knowledge that Jimmy Leighton is in a relationship.
I officially hate this day.
Now, I try not to use the word hate. One of the reasons I like watching The Rifleman on TV is that the cowboy Lucas McCain always says stuff like "Hate is too strong a word to use just because you don't agree with someone." But if it is only one day before your twelfth birthday, this should be a fun day where you get to go to the mall and pick out your birthday present.
Well, Dad trashed that plan when he decided to hang out with Jim Beam and get drunk. This is not unusual. When he is sober, he is the Secret Service. But put a drink in him and I am on my own. So sorry, Lucas McCain, aka Rifleman, but I still hate this day.
Dad hides the Jim Beam in a Dr Pepper bottle, but I still know. And when he drinks, it is almost always because of my mother. Well, didn't I see this coming? My birthday makes him sad. My birthday is never fun for him, so I should have known not to get my hopes up about the mall.
Of course, my birthday is Simon's birthday, too, which is one clue about why my dad doesn't like to celebrate. Or it would be his birthday. We talk about Simon even less than we do about my mother. His name is a trouble word times ten.
It makes me sad to wonder what he would want at the mall for his birthday. When I see things boys my age have, I sometimes stop and think, Would Simon like that? Would he want to read this kind of book? Would we be doing the same things? Since I don't know for sure, I give him imaginary presents. This year I gave him a motor-powered scooter with blinking lights and night-vision goggles. Last year I got him a boomerang and The Dangerous Book for Boys, which I've read several times (especially the parts about girls). Simon suggested this book to me in a dream. We both thought it was good.
Yes, I talk to my dead twin brother sometimes. This is a sure sign I am going to turn out crazy, but who am I supposed to talk to about some things? Besides Plant, he is probably the one who knows me best.
Sarah's confidants = one living green organism and one dead brother.
Dr. Madrigal once told me it's better to think of how things really are and not how things should be, but you can't always control your imagination. Lately, I imagine the way it would be if my mother were here. I could fill up a blank page in my diary with how it should be. We wouldn't live in a dead-end cul-de-sac, staring at gray ground and listening to that annoying dog barking and clawing at the chain-link fence. My hair would be long and braided, and my clothes would be folded fresh from the dryer. If you want to know, my hair has never been braided, and most days I pull a clean, wrinkled shirt from the laundry basket.
"How about we go to the mall?" Dad had asked, pressing a hand to my shoulder, his breath already tinted with Jim Beam.
"Sure," I told him.
But then he sat on the couch and watched Westerns or whatever crime shows he had recorded. Watching shows is one of his favorite things to do, so I guess that's the only thing we have in common. But watching too many shows is another sign he's unhappy.
I told him that I was going to go outside and that he should let me know when he was ready to go to the mall. He winked at me, which gave me doubts about our plan. What usually happens when he gets that look is he falls asleep for hours. I hoped this wouldn't be the case this time, because I'd already decided we would go to Claire's and then to the iPod store. I wanted a green iPod Shuffle to listen to when I walk home from school and a gift card from Claire's. Lisa and I planned to spend it next weekend, because who wants their dad following them around a store when they are trying to pick out a purple purse or black bracelets?
Plus, even though Lisa can be a fashion disaster, she knows more than I do about coordinating accessories. She has probably twenty pairs of shoes and gives me her old ones. If it weren't for Lisa, I would have only tennis shoes and one nice pair of shoes for special events that are usually grandparent-related, so they hardly ever get worn and they don't fit me. Lisa gave me colorful flip-flops so I won't be a complete dork.
Maybe I'm a bad person because I still want a present today. While Dad is passed out, I steal twenty dollars from his wallet. Why should I have to stay home all day? I take myself for a walk to Walgreens, which is just a block or so and one major stoplight from our house. Let him worry when he wakes up, I say. Let him feel bad enough he'll let me get my ears pierced. I'm practically the only twelve-year-old I know with unaccessorized ears.
I spend almost two hours at Walgreens, sipping a Coke and reading magazines until a store employee suggests in a not-so-nice way that the store is not a library and to buy something or move on. So I buy a king-size bag of M&M'S and a paperback romance called The Valiant Rake. I want to know how a rake can be valiant. At the checkout counter, the mean clerk eyeballs me when he scans the book.
I also buy a black headband with a line of fake diamonds running through the center. Lisa said this would be the perfect accessory for someone with brown hair brushing the shoulders, which is what I have.
With my phone, I take a picture of myself wearing the headband and send it to Lisa.
She sends one right back of herself, showing off her sparkly blue earrings, and this message:
Fix ur ears.
I reply to her, did you forget it's my birthday 2moro?
She replies with a smiley face.
There's nothing I can do about my ears. My dad thinks pierced ears are for grown women only, but what does he know about fashion? Most days I have to check his socks to see if they even match, or cut off little strings dangling from his pants pockets.
When I get back from Walgreens, nothing has changed in my cul-de-sac. The cicadas are still making their rattlesnake hiss in the trees, and it's so hot you sweat standing still. At least now my hair is accessorized with some new pizzazz, which is my current favorite word. It might be the only word I know with four z's.
pizzazz n.: attractive style; dash; flair
The only new thing here is the Sanchez Lawn Service at Mr. Gustafson's house. Mr. Gustafson is the one neighbor on the block who doesn't mow his own grass. I suppose it's because he is so bent he's starting to take on the shape of a candy cane.
The lawn crew probably doesn't care for an audience, but I walk over to Mr. Gustafson's anyway. A Mexican boy with a red cap starts his work. He doesn't look much older than I am, and I wonder how he already knows how to turn a yard into an even, green carpet with vacuum tracks on it. Why doesn't he try different patterns, give the yard alien-crop-circle swirls? As sometimes happens with me, my brain is thinking so much it forgets to tell my body to keep moving.
I stand still until the boy makes a coughing sound like I am in the way, which, as it turns out, I am.
"Oh, sorry," I say, stepping out of his way. "So, do you like this work? Mowing lawns fun?"
"No hablo inglés."
"What? Oh. I get it."
It's not that I haven't been around non-English-speaking people before. I'm not from Mars, after all. But just now, this boy in front of me and his inability to understand me are a newfound treasure. I could say anything.
"Rainbow chocolate cake winter snow porch."
He nods as if I've made perfect sense, speaking fluent alien babble. His shoes are old and grass-stained, which makes me wonder how many houses he gets to see. It must be fun to have this job. You get to work outside and see something new all the time. In my diary, I will write this down as a possible career opportunity. It would be fun to see so many different neighborhoods. I bet I could pick out the rent-houses fast. They are brown, have the most weeds, and, like our house, usually have a dead tree stump in the front yard. There is a house like this a block from here, and the people put a potted plant on their tree stump like that would dress it up. I want to kidnap that plant because she is probably going to die of embarrassment up there.
The boy with the red cap stands there, waiting to see if I'm going to speak. Just saying secrets out loud can make you feel better, which is what I've learned from talking to Plant. She is not a person, but she is a living thing, so I know she hears me.
"I've never French-kissed a boy," I say to him as he removes a leaf blower from the truck.
"My dad let me drive the car once."
Two. Okay, he is still standing in front of me.
And then I wait and take a deep breath. When someone learns we are that family and my mother is that woman and I am that girl, we move. But just now, the want to say it is almost overpowering.
If I told you my name, you could search me on the computer and, along with a tiny mention of my twin, Simon, there I would be, the daughter of that woman. The crazy woman's daughter.
The boy moves his head to the side and squints like I've turned a flashlight on him. He starts up the leaf blower, walking around me to finish his work.
I could tell him that, but I've said enough for one day. I stand on the curb, munching my almost-melted M&M'S, and watch him make the sidewalk clean and new. The two other men on the crew load their equipment and open Gatorades and sit on the tailgate of their red truck. One of them says something that makes the other laugh and makes me wish I knew a little español, which I don't.
"Well, you do nice work," I say. The boy with the red cap, who is busy adjusting something on the blower, glances at me again. So I point to the grass, give him a thumbs-up, seeing how it must be a universal sign of approval. He nods.
"Cool, then. See you 'round," I say.
I walk the full circle of the cul-de-sac and wave at the lawn crew as it drives away, wondering what questions he might have asked me if he understood English, what secrets he might have. As much as I don't like nosy people, I love to know a juicy secret, too.
This may be the longest afternoon in the history of afternoons. My dad is still drunk.
I peeked inside the screen door, and, sure enough, he was sprawled on the couch, one hand hanging over the cushion, the other across his forehead like he got bad news and froze.
It's too far and too hot to walk to the library right now, so I'm stuck here in my own front yard with The Valiant Rake and melted M&M'S and nothing new to add to my knowledge of the world. I could already write a book on what I know of this stupid town. I filled a whole diary chapter about it in case I am famous and need to write my memoirs someday. Ha-ha!
We live in a neighborhood where all the streets are named after famous colleges. You'd think this signals we live in a fancy place, but no, we don't. It is the opposite of fancy. I doubt most people here even went to college. Lisa's mama says all people are part of Christ's body, so some people have to be the armpits. She says Garland is the hardworking armpit of the Lone Star State. It's a necessary body part, but it's not pretty and can be smelly, especially if you are downwind from the wastewater treatment plant, which we are. Not counting overgrown trees with middles chopped out so power lines can run through them, there's not a lot of nature here, if that's what you like, but the people are nice and they'll smile at you for no particular reason.
- * "Don't think this will be a hard sell to readers...for Harrington has created a protagonist who is, in her own way, as clear-eyed, tough-minded, and inspiring as any dystopian hero."—Booklist, starred review
- "Sarah Nelson faces her life squarely, with a heroism that makes us cheer for humanity's courage, wit, and guts. Hers is a compelling journey that takes us into that most fragile place: Hope. You will be glad you journeyed there with her."—Gary D. Schmidt, author of the Newbery Honor book The Wednesday Wars and Okay for Now
- * "Sarah is an introspective protagonist whose narrative, interspersed with letters and word definitions, keeps readers absorbed...Secondary characters add interest and texture to this compelling novel."—SLJ, starred review
- * "Readers intrigued by the premise of this moving story will sympathize with the plucky protagonist and rejoice in the way her summer works out."—Kirkus, starred review
- "An engaging, warm-hearted story. Beautifully written, Harrington creates a fearless and resilient heroine."—Jewell Parker Rhodes, author of the Coretta Scott King Honor book Ninth Ward and Sugar
- "Sure Signs of Crazy is knowing, hilarious, and tender. Karen Harrington's character portrait of Sarah Nelson is one for the ages."—Pat Conroy, bestselling author of The Prince of Tides and My Reading Life
- "Extraordinary heart."—The Horn Book
- On Sale
- May 20, 2014
- Page Count
- 304 pages
- Little, Brown Books for Young Readers