Illustrated by Chi Birmingham
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With a madcap sense of humor and a lot of heart (not to mention other body parts), The Mortification of Fovea Munson is Young Frankenstein for today's middle grade audience!
Fovea Munson is nobody's Igor. True, her parents own a cadaver lab where they perform surgeries on dead bodies. And yes, that makes her gross by association, at least according to everyone in seventh grade. And sure, Fovea's stuck working at the lab now that her summer camp plans have fallen through. But she is by no means Dr. Frankenstein's snuffling assistant!
That is, until three disembodied heads, left to thaw in the wet lab, start talking. To her. Out loud. And they need a favor.
Copyright © 2018 by Mary Winn Heider
Cover art © 2018 by Chi Birmingham
All rights reserved. Published by Disney • Hyperion, an imprint of Disney Book Group. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without written permission from the publisher. For information address Disney • Hyperion, 125 West End Avenue, New York, New York 10023.
Designed by Maria Elias
Illustrations by Chi Birmingham
Dead bodies are the worst.
I’ve been trying to explain that to my parents for years. Mostly, I don’t come right out and say it, but sometimes I can’t help myself.
The main problem is that they just don’t seem to get it.
I’ll say: “Dead bodies are the worst.”
They’ll say: “Fovea! They’re so helpful! There’s nothing better than a good, helpful dead body!”
“Especially,” my dad might say.
“When you need a hand!” my mom will finish.
Then the two of them probably high-five over the dinner table, giggling.
On the other side of the table, Grandma Van will have fallen asleep over her turkey slab. It’s a sort of protest, I think.
Then dinner just keeps going while my dad talks about a knee he was really fond of, and my mom wonders if the shoulder they have in the freezer at work will be muscly enough, and I try to figure out how I keep failing quite so badly.
And how the heck I wound up in this family.
The truth is, there’s nothing wrong with my parents that a dead body can’t fix. Except for their cheerfulness issues. I’m not sure anything can fix their cheerfulness issues.
And anyway, after everything that’s happened, I can confirm that dead bodies are absolutely not helpful in any way whatsoever. Also, I think that stuff is gross, and I want to be clear about it, so you don’t think I’m into gross stuff. It’s exclusively my parents who are seriously into gross stuff.
They’re surgeons. They used to be regular surgeons, and then they stopped all that so they could have a better schedule. The regular surgeons of the world sometimes have to race to the hospital in the middle of the night to do random surgeries. But that’s only an issue if your patients are ALIVE. So these days, my mom and dad do surgeries on dead people. Completely predictable dead people.
My parents love the cadaver biz. They get to work normal business hours and have a regular schedule. They get to teach eager med students who are excited to practice surgeries. They deal exclusively with dead patients, who, as a bonus, will never argue with them. Also, as you may have noticed, there’s the death-defying wordplay.
And that never stops.
There’s also my name. In medical lingo, my first name, Fovea, means “eyeballs.”
They named their only kid “Eyeballs.”
And it’s not like I can go by my middle name either. It’s Hippocrates. Super catchy, I know. They’re obsessed with the original Hippocrates, aka the Father of Modern Medicine, and even though he’s been dead for over two thousand years, our apartment is a shrine to the guy. His picture is everywhere: T-shirts, soaps, even the toilet seat. I was the only kid with a Hippocrates backpack in kindergarten. They have matching tattoos with Hippocrates’ favorite slogan, “Do No Harm.” They can’t get enough of him, and they’ve been trying to get me on board since the day I was born.
I’m onto them. It’s all part of their plan for me to follow in their weirdo footsteps. They opened a tiny cadaver lab of their very own, buried right in the heart of Chicago, and aside from the students and the occasional experimenting surgeons who come in to do the practice surgeries with them, the lab staff is pretty small—it’s really just my parents and Whitney, who’s the receptionist and has been pre-premed for like six years. Or that’s how it was, until Whitney got a new life goal that did not involve dead people, took off to Florida with her boyfriend one day, and left my parents up a creek.
The note she left said:
Dean and I are going to go big time. Srry for the bummer. This bird’s gotta sing. Miami ho.
It was a weird little note. My dad put it on the fridge, next to the magnet of Hippocrates’ Cooking Guide to Ounces and Pounds. “Beginnings,” he said with a sigh. He gets sentimental easy.
Anyway, right about then I was all about endings. School was finally almost out, and it had been a really lousy school year, so I was pumped to be leaving seventh grade in the dust. At home, I had this massive ongoing packing situation for the sleepaway camp I was supposed to go to for most of the summer. It was going to be great. Sure, I’d probably end up with poison ivy and get lost in the woods and fall off a horse. But despite that, camp was the one thing my parents and I agreed on. They were happy about me learning camp-related skills, and I was happy that no one there wanted me to grow up and become a doctor. So, like every year, I was off to camp.
Or at least I was until a few days before school was out, when we got a letter in the mail that there had been this whole boom in the snake population, a total snake infestation, all in the camping huts, or whatever, and they were closing the camp.
“Well, this is a nightmare,” my mom said.
“Yeah, too bad,” I said.
“How can they do this?” she said.
“They probably just got tired of living in the woods,” I said.
She sighed. “I was not referring to the snakes.”
I decided it would be a good moment to go to my room and dump out my half-filled suitcase.
I was wrong. While I was unpacking, my parents had the kind of brilliant idea that makes me wish I could go live in a camping hut with a bunch of snakes.
It made perfect sense, they explained as they got dinner ready. There I was, inconveniently out of a summer plan, and there they were, inconveniently out of a receptionist now that Whitney had left, and, wait for it…they’d decided I was old enough to work a part-time job at the family business.
I was opposed to this idea, on account of it not being 1955.
And also, the bodies.
I leaned against the kitchen counter for support, knowing they expected me to be thrilled. My mom thwacked her knife into a tomato, its seedy guts spurting out across the cutting board. My dad set a timer and wiped his hands. The ominous smell of sloppy joes hung in the air.
My dad’s apron stared back at me. Hippocrates was on it, naturally. A speech bubble over his smiling face said SURGEONS KNOW THE BEST CUT.
Even the apron was out to get me.
“Or,” I offered, “I could stay at home.”
“Nope.” Having massacred enough tomatoes for sloppy joe toppings, my mom wiped off her hands and started digging around in the junk drawer. “We don’t want you home alone all summer. And sweetheart—just imagine how much quality time we can spend together. AHA!” She pulled out a pair of nail clippers and held them up in the air like she’d just invented them. My dad clapped. They’re always encouraging each other.
“I could stay at somebody else’s house? Like with…a friend?” I didn’t technically have those types of friends anymore, but I wasn’t giving up so easily.
“Ooh! We can have lunch as a family every day!” said my mom. Apparently, she wasn’t giving up so easily either.
The situation didn’t look good. It was time to get serious. Thankfully, the sloppy joes still had a few more minutes. I suggested an emergency family meeting, and the three of us moved to the dinner table. My mom brought along her clippers. My dad picked up a lint roller. I wished they could stay focused.
“Regarding my summer plans,” I began as we all sat down. “Please please please don’t make me work in the lab. I’ll go to any kind of camp. Anything. That wilderness camp.”
My mom took off her glasses and de-smudged them with the bottom of her shirt. “Sweetheart,” she said, “the whole time you were at wilderness camp, you never actually stepped out into the wilderness.”
“I loved that wilderness camp. It was just, you know. My allergies.”
“You’re allergic to latex, honey.” She put her glasses back on. “There isn’t much latex in the wild.”
“There is latex at the lab, though, right?” I asked. Maybe I had an out. “Working in the lab might be hazardous to my health.” I put a hand to my forehead. “Maybe it already is. I’m feeling woozy.”
“Nah.” My mom smiled. “You’ll be fine. The only latex is way in back—”
My dad smiled, picking up the cue. “And that area’s off-limits until you’re in med school, like all the other—”
“Future Doctors of America!” they said in unison.
This would have been a perfect opportunity to mention that I really didn’t want to be a Future Doctor of America. But I’d already been stalling for twelve years. Why stop now?
“Or maybe…” I said, trying to bring it back down, “maybe you could send me back to that pottery camp?”
They turned to look at the shelf holding approximately seventy-five handmade ceramic coasters I’d made at pottery camp. It was a pretty wobbly stack since none of the coasters were actually flat.
“I think,” my dad said, turning his attention back to peeling off the top layer of sticky paper from the lint roller, “that we’re probably okay on drink coasters.”
I tried one more. “Theater camp?”
“You had all those nightmares about Hamlet.” My mom shuddered. “I don’t think any of us want to go through that again. That is definitely not to be.” The two of them tried not to giggle. They failed.
I was desperate. “The cadaver lab has cadavers,” I said. They nodded matter-of-factly.
I tried to break it down for them. “This is the kind of thing that scars people for life. Forever. I mean, death. I’d be in the lobby, right down the hall from it. Deathly death stuff.”
“I prefer to think of the lab as a life-giving place,” my mom said. “Where the phoenix rises from the ash.”
“Where the earth cycle blooms brightest,” said my dad. They both nodded earnestly.
I broke it down for them. “It’s gross. It’s really, really gross.”
“It’s not gross,” my mom said as she started clipping her fingernails so she wouldn’t get dead person tissue under them.
“It’s noble,” my dad said as he lint-rollered his head so that none of his hair would land inside a body he was opening up. In his spare time, my dad was balding.
“And,” my mom added, “it’s fun!” Clip. Clip.
“Can’t we try some other camps? Any kind of camp?”
“Oh, honey!” My mom put down the clippers. “Who needs camp when you can have…” She looked toward my dad expectantly.
It only took him a second. “Hippocampus!” They high-fived.
“That’s in the brain,” my mom explained, pointing at her own brain for clarification. “Oh, Fo, this is going to be so great! And all your friends will be jealous!”
They didn’t even seem to notice I was arguing with them.
Ding! went the timer.
They leapt up and swept into the kitchen to deal with dinner. As I watched them go, my dad leaned toward my mom and whispered, “Everything we’ve ever wanted!”
I was pretty sure he wasn’t referring to the sloppy joes.
What was I going to say?
I’ll tell you what I was thinking, though:
Some people’s parents own ice-cream stores.
So, update: all my friends were not jealous.
Actually, I did not mention my new summer plans to any of my friends at school.
Actually, I was a little short on friends.
I’ll back it up.
School had officially started going down the toilet for me four months ago, when my best friend in the world cut me loose in one spectacular moment of glory. It’s that classic, age-old problem where the friendship blossoms and grows and changes and then one person’s not into it anymore and stops talking to you and you feel like a piece of old sandwich meat and then everybody at school is suddenly calling you Igor.
Or maybe that’s just me.
“Igor!” Devon Kovach called from across the science lab.
Lucky me, the name had stuck.
It had stuck all the way to the last day of school, so there I was in my final science class of seventh grade, ignoring Devon Kovach and not telling anyone at all about my new summer plans.
It wasn’t like people were asking, though. The classroom was total chaos.
Ms. Peters wanted to use up all of her leftover supplies, so everybody was working on a different project. Groups of twos and threes stood around the tall lab tables, working on whatever kit they’d snagged.
I was sharing a table with the Lauras. The Lauras were inseparable—people said it all the time. Their teachers said it; other teachers said it. Mostly teachers said it, I guess. The Lauras and I were more what you’d call “separable.”
They’d let me hang out with them since third grade, but then I drifted away when I met Em. The Lauras weren’t adjusting well to me being back. I got it. And honestly, I was willing to overlook a lot on account of the coincidence of them both being named Laura. The Lauras even had a motto about being a Laura: “Like twins, but with more DNA.”
“And fewer names!” I added once. They did not laugh. They pretty much never laughed, as far as I could tell. They’d always been mysterious, somehow without being interesting. But they were still better than being alone.
That last day of school in Ms. Peters’s class, they’d picked up a kit that looked perfect for them. It was called “How to Use Your Own DNA to Code Your Way Out of a Theoretical Escape Room.” I dropped my stuff at the table with them and one Laura glanced meaningfully at the other Laura.
I got it. If they wanted space, I could give them space. I guess it could’ve been my imagination, but it seemed like they were taking more of it than usual.
Anyway, that was how I ended up in a group of one with a kit called “How to Use Basic Physics to Send Objects Hurtling Through Space With Specificity.”
“Igor! Igoooor!” Devon hollered for me again. “Look!”
Ms. Peters, either oblivious or trying to be, sat behind her desk with her nose buried in one of those novels where a virus gets loose and destroys the world.
“Looook!” Devon was at the “How to Dissect Virtually Anything” table, which unfortunately sat right in my line of vision. “The monster! It’s aliiiive!” He held his half-dissected frog by its skinny little arms and made the frog stagger across the tray in my direction. Kylie, his lab partner, laughed so hard she couldn’t even stand up. The rest of my class thought it was pretty hilarious, too.
I was more on the frog’s side of things.
Across from me, the Lauras quietly congratulated each other about getting through Round One of the theoretical escape room and mumbled something I couldn’t quite make out about me and dignity.
I am WORKING on dignity, I wanted to say, it’s just a little hard these days, but then I glanced over exactly in time to see the frog’s intestines fall out, and I realized that pretty much summed up how I felt, and anyway it was the last day of school, and sometimes, when things were intestines-falling-out bad and seventh grade was almost over forever, it had to be okay to just give up. One of those moments where you focus instead on how eighth grade is going to be completely different and your intestines will be totally fine once you get there. Hopefully.
So, with eighth grade on my mind, I pretended I hadn’t heard the Lauras.
Doing his best at a loud, ribbity grunt, Devon made the frog karate-kick and Kylie cheered.
“Devon, Kylie,” said Ms. Peters wearily over the cover of her book. “Is there a problem?”
The main problem, in my opinion, was that I couldn’t fast-forward through the rest of this day. I pulled back the small catapult I’d built and let it go. The lump of clay was supposed to fly over the table, but instead, when the belt snapped, my tablespoon of clay flopped directly onto the table with a resounding splat.
In my defense, I might have done a better job if I wasn’t so distracted. And I’m not even talking about the frog situation.
Specifically: that family meeting yesterday had been a flat-out disaster. I could not spend my whole summer in the lab. I just couldn’t.
I mean, sure, probably my parents weren’t going to make me dig up graves and drag body parts home for their creepy experiments. But these were the facts: my cadaver-appreciating parents were basically nerdy, married versions of Dr. Frankenstein. And now I was going to be helping them. For four months, everybody at school had been calling me Igor, and for four months I’d been counting on a clean-slate summer, a shake-it-off summer, a start-eighth-grade-with-no-obvious-baggage summer, and no way could I shake off the rumor that I was Dr. Frankenstein’s body-slinging assistant Igor if I WAS ACTIVELY BEING AN IGOR.
Plus, I’d really been hoping that going to camp would change things with my best friend, Em Taylor.
Former best friend.
Temporary former best friend.
We met three years ago at camp.
“You’re hogging that tarantula,” was the first thing she ever said to me.
Nothing screams zoo camp like tarantulas.
At that point, we were about halfway through the two-week-long Chicagoland Chimp-Champ Zoo Camp. It was held in this circular room with wall-to-wall carpeting way in the back of the zoo. Inspirational animal posters lined the walls. It was creepily like somebody’s idea of an artificial habitat zoo enclosure for nine- and ten-year-olds.
I’d thought the Lauras were doing the camp, too, but they apparently changed their minds.
At the Chimp-Champ Zoo Camp, each day had a theme. They were trying to build the excitement, you know, so the first day was “Get to Know Your Phylum” and the last day was “How to Properly Hold a Monkey.” At the halfway point, we’d just reached “Predator Day.”
Cue the tarantulas.
So aside from me, my tarantula, and the girl with the Indiana Jones whip who was crowding us, there were ten other very loud and excited kids, three other tarantulas, and only one counselor.
Just to recap: four tarantulas total. One counselor.
The tarantula-to-counselor ratio was way off.
If there had been fewer tarantulas and more counselors, somebody would have noticed that I’d been stuck holding a tarantula for the last thirty minutes.
“I’ve held all the other tarantulas and I’m going to hold this one, too,” the girl said as she leaned in.
Her name was Em, and she’d carried that Indiana Jones whip around all week, and I wanted to ask if she thought there was a chance the tarantulas were going to get rowdy, but I didn’t actually say anything to her, because over the previous twenty-nine minutes, the specific tarantula I was dealing with had slowly wandered over to the edge of the handler’s glove I wore, and was currently one billionth of an inch away from stepping directly onto my arm. I wasn’t planning on breathing, much less speaking, until it backed the heck up.
The tarantula raised one leg, taunting me.
Over the noise in the room, Em half yelled at me, “I can’t compare them if I don’t hold them all.”
A second tarantula leg went up.
“It’s unscientific if I don’t,” she said loudly.
A third leg.
“I’m making a chart,” she hollered.
The legs twitched.
The tarantula was about to start moving.
“I’ve been—” But she didn’t say any more, because at that moment, three legs still hovering, the tarantula leaned, sort of slow-motion glommed toward the patch of my arm in front of it, and I straightened my arm with a snap and the tarantula popped into the air, legs scrambling.
That was when the giant owl flew directly between me and Em and ate the tarantula with a loud crunch.
We’d flattened ourselves on the ground, but once we recovered enough to look around, we saw that the bird had perched on the bookcase next to us, parts of the tarantula hanging out of its mouth.
“What did you do?” cried the counselor, Jenny, as she rushed over to me.
“Don’t look at her,” said Em. “Fovea’s not the one who ate the tarantula.”
The entire room turned to watch while the owl finished swallowing.
“Watch closely,” Em narrated. “They don’t chew their food. They just swallow it and then whatever they can’t digest, they’ll barf up later in a pellet—”
“Why were you hiding that tarantula?” Jenny was not happy with me. “I clearly announced that we were moving on to the next predator. I collected the tarantulas!”
“I’m sorry,” I said, pulling myself back to sitting. “It was so loud. I didn’t notice—”
“Terrific. You didn’t notice,” said the counselor, “and now we’re one tarantula short—”
“Wait. Why is it all her fault?” asked Em. “You didn’t count the tarantulas—and there were only four.”
“I was thinking about the owl already,” Jenny said, but she didn’t sound too sure of herself. “I really like the owl.”
“And the owl really liked that tarantula,” Em said. We all looked at him. His eyes were closed and he looked extremely satisfied. A small piece of leg came unstuck and fell from the owl’s beak.
“I’m so sorry,” I said again. Partly to Jenny, but mostly to the tarantula.
“Don’t you dare apologize!” Em said. She stood to face Jenny. “And you! This is natural selection, and natural selection doesn’t care about your plans. If you’re going to call it Predator Day, you have to be okay if something eats something else. That is the definition of a successful Predator Day.”
Jenny stared openmouthed at Em. The rest of the campers started a slow clap. The owl made a noise that I am 99 percent sure was a burp.
Afterwards, while Jenny was putting the owl away, Em leaned over to me and said, “That was amazing. The life cycle in action.”
“I still feel bad, though,” I said. “And I’m not even a tarantula person.”
“Doesn’t matter what kind of person you are in the face of the food chain,” she said. “Nice people get eaten by lions just as often as mean people do. No big deal.”
“I’m not sure I under—”
“And anyway,” she added with a wicked smile, “you made that owl’s day.”
“Look at him.”
I wouldn’t have guessed that owls could smile. I’d have been wrong, apparently. And Em was right: the happy, peaceful look on the owl’s face made me feel better. By the time we all left that afternoon, I completely agreed that it was the tarantula’s destiny to get eaten by the owl.
And Em was just getting started. For the rest of the time, she ruled zoo camp with me at her side. She broke into the snack cabinet while I was lookout, and then we ate the heads off the entire carton of animal crackers. She taught the parrot to say “I am not a parrot” while I distracted Jenny with a fake stomachache. Em even led a protest until all of the last three days were renamed “How to Properly Hold a Monkey.” During her victory speech at the lunch table, I stood behind her with a poster she’d made that said MONKEYS ARE WORTH IT.
Praise for The Mortification of Fovea Munson:An Indies Introduce middle grade debut pick
A Kids' Indie Next List pick
- "Equal parts screwball comedy, coming-of-age story, and tearjerker-I loved, loved, loved it!"—Varian Johnson, author of The Parker Inheritance
- "Hilarious and disgusting in equal measure. In other words, exactly what you've been waiting for."—Adam Gidwitz, Newbery Honor-winning author of The Inquisitor's Tale
- "I absolutely adore this book! The Mortification of Fovea Munson is not only hilariously zany, and clever, it's also full of heart. Mary Winn Heider is a brilliant new voice in kid's books."—Newbery Award winner, Matt de la Peña
- "Fovea is a normal girl existing in a suddenly off-kilter world, and her struggle to help her family and newfound friends is relatable and satisfying."—Publishers Weekly
- "Sure to tickle the most fickle funny bone."—Kirkus Reviews
- On Sale
- Jun 4, 2018
- Page Count
- 336 pages
- Little, Brown Books for Young Readers