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By Sarah Watson
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From the creator of the hit TV series The Bold Type comes an empowering and heartfelt novel about a future female president’s senior year of high school.Ava, CJ, Jordan, and Martha (listed in alphabetical order out of fairness)have been friends since kindergarten. Now they’re in their senior year, facing their biggest fears about growing up and growing apart. But there’s more than just college on the horizon. One of these girls is destined to become the president of the United States.The mystery, of course, is which girl gets the gig.
Is it Ava, the picture-perfect artist who’s secretly struggling to figure out where she belongs? Or could it be CJ, the one who’s got everything figured out . . . except how to fix her terrible SAT scores? Maybe it’s Jordan, the group’s resident journalist, who knows she’s ready for more than their small Ohio suburb can offer. And don’t overlook Martha, who will have to overcome all the obstacles that stand in the way of her dreams.
This is the story of four best friends who have one another’s backs through every new love, breakup, stumble, and success — proving that great friendships can help young women achieve anything . . . even a seat in the Oval Office.
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LOGAN DIFFENDERFER kept a strong pace as he rounded the track. His sweat-soaked shirt clung to his body, and his brown hair bounced as if to the beat of some tragically hip but perfectly rhythmic song.
It was completely annoying.
The space underneath the bleachers was usually the best place at William McKinley High School to have a private conversation. CJ couldn’t believe she’d forgotten about cross-country practice when she suggested that she and her three best friends meet there after school. “Maybe we should go somewhere else,” she said. Up until this year, CJ had been on the team too. She’d never been a particularly strong runner, and she reminded herself that quitting made sense. She needed the time in her schedule to study for her SATs. (Another thing she wasn’t particularly strong at.) Still, it was weird and maybe even a little sad to watch her old team practice without her. “We could try the library. Or that spot behind the cafeteria dumpsters.”
Martha looked at the time on her phone. “I have to be in the car in five minutes. Not walking toward it. In it.” CJ didn’t hold it against her for being in a hurry. Martha was the only one with an after-school job. She was also the only one without a car, so she looked desperately to Ava, who had agreed to give her a ride. “Please tell CJ it’s safe to talk here.”
Ava shrugged. “It’s totally fine. Literally nobody can hear us.”
This prompted Jordan to look up from her phone. “That is literally not even remotely how you use the word ‘literally.’” She closed out of Snapchat and opened Instagram. Earlier that day she’d posted a photo of herself in her new ’50s-style midi dress with the “J” for Jordan embroidered on the pocket in a shade of purple that perfectly matched the stripes of color running through her hair. CJ was more of a “jeans and T-shirt” kind of girl and didn’t totally get Jordan’s look, but she’d clicked on the little heart next to the post and left a comment. Because that’s what you do when one of your best friends is trying to boost her social media following. “Ava has a point, though. Literally. Nobody.”
Martha looked at the time. “Four minutes. I have four minutes.”
Jordan put her phone away. “So, tonight, who’s going to drive and who’s going to bring… wait. What do we even need to bring?”
They all traded looks and shrugs. None of them had ever done anything like this before.
“Something sharp, I guess,” CJ finally said.
“I’ll handle that,” said Ava. “But how sharp are we talking?”
As they debated just how sharp of a sharp object Ava should bring, a loud whoop came from the track behind them. They all turned to see that Logan Diffenderfer had just crossed the finish line. As he slowed to a walk, catching his breath in big heaping gulps, he pumped his fist triumphantly into the air and let out another whoop. CJ felt a pang of jealousy. She missed that feeling of crossing the finish line in a flurry of relief and excitement. She watched as her old cross-country coach handed Logan a bottle of water and gave him a pat on the back.
CJ felt another pang. Everything always came so easily to Logan. Not that he didn’t work hard. Back when she was on the team, they were the only two who consistently logged extra miles and didn’t roll their eyes when their coach shouted inspiring things at them in the middle of practice. For Logan, this extra work resulted in first-place medals and broken records. For CJ, it barely put her in the middle of the pack.
Sometimes CJ couldn’t understand how Jordan had ever dated him. (Sure, it was only for about five minutes during freshman year, but still.) He was too perfect. It made him boring. Right then, Logan peeled off his shirt and used it to dab the sweat off his chest. Well, that certainly wasn’t boring. It was intimidating, though. With his shirt off, his tan skin and carved shoulders, which he’d earned teaching summer swim lessons at the rec center pool, were on full display. CJ folded her arms over the pooch of her stomach self-consciously. She’d spent all summer swimming too, and all it had given her was a face full of freckles.
“Maybe I am into dudes.”
This was Martha talking. Instead of drinking the bottle of water he’d been given, Logan touched it to the back of his neck. Ohio summers had a way of lingering, and the air was heavy with humidity. Sweat and water dripped down his shoulders.
“You can be into dudes,” Ava said. “But please not that one.” Logan started running the bottle of water up and down the line of his neck. Up and down. Up and down. “Oh, come on,” Ava huffed. “He’s doing that on purpose. He wants people to stare.”
“It’s working,” Martha said.
CJ laughed. Martha’s sexuality had been a question ever since they all watched the second-to-last Harry Potter movie. After it was over, CJ announced that she wished she could be Hermione Granger, and Martha announced that she wished she could make out with Hermione Granger. Whether her feelings were specifically directed toward Gryffindor’s most notorious female or toward females in general was yet to be determined. Martha was waiting to actually kiss a girl before she officially declared her sexuality.
“Come on, ladies,” Jordan said. “Martha’s gotta get to work. So what’s the deal?”
“I’ll drive,” CJ said. “Ava’s got the sharp thing covered—”
“Right. But seriously. Like how sharp?”
“Your choice,” Martha said. “I’m working until eight. Pick me up then?”
This would make them late. They’d be some of the last to arrive. But it’s not like they could ask Martha to blow off work. She was already a total stress ball about how she was going to pay for college next year.
So they agreed on eight PM, and then they discussed and settled on an appropriate level of sharpness, and that was that. They’d been talking and dreaming about this night for so long that it almost seemed surreal that it was finally happening.
As they walked away from the bleachers, CJ looked back for a second. She’d meant to catch her old cross-country coach’s eye. She wanted to give her a nod, a wordless way to let her know that even though she’d quit, she was still thankful for three years of coaching. CJ accidentally caught Logan’s eye instead. He quickly glanced away, but not before she realized that he’d been staring at one of them. What was impossible to tell, what she did not know, was which one of the four of them it was.
AVA, CJ, Jordan, and Martha (they always listed themselves in alphabetical order out of fairness) were a loyal and inseparable foursome. But their remarkable friendship had a fairly unremarkable origin story. There was no great moment of triumph, no great moment of tragedy. No magic pants. They simply met in a park one day when they were five. It was late summer and the line for the slide was long and they started talking while waiting for their turn. They were still a few weeks away from starting kindergarten, and each girl was nervous about it for her own reasons. There was a profound relief when they realized that all four of them had been placed in the same teacher’s class. One of them declared that it was fate, and all of them nodded even though two of them didn’t know what that word meant. By the end of that first day, they decided that they should all be best friends. It was as easy and natural as that.
Twelve years later, they still liked to say that it was fate that brought them to that particular park on that particular day. Though it’s hard to credit divine providence when every kid in the area practically lived in Memorial Park that summer. It’s not just that it had the best slide and the tallest set of monkey bars, but there was a certain curiosity and fascination with the names that were carved into the soft wood of the old jungle gym. At the time, Ava, CJ, Jordan, and Martha didn’t know why the names were there. They could barely even read. But that didn’t stop them from tracing their fingers over the letters and trying to sound out the words as the afternoon sun burned overhead and the sweet smells of summer seemed to stretch on forever.
That day felt like a million years ago and it felt like yesterday. That’s what Jordan was thinking as they drove to Memorial Park that night. They were running late, which was annoying even though it was basically her fault. She’d changed outfits about a million times before going back to the one she’d tried on first.
CJ pulled her car to the curb even though they were still around the corner and several blocks away from the park. “What are you doing?” Martha asked from the back seat.
“In case the cops show up,” CJ said. She turned off the ignition. “I don’t want my car placed at the scene of the crime.”
“Clarke Josephine Jacobson,” Jordan said. “You’re being ridiculous.”
CJ wasn’t listening. Or if she was listening, she was doing an excellent job of ignoring Jordan. She climbed out of the car and the others followed. Then she put her keys into her backpack and pulled a black sweatshirt out of it. She zipped the hoodie all the way up despite the fact that the night was warm and muggy. Jordan watched with curiosity as CJ pulled the sweatshirt hood around her face and tugged the strings so tightly that only her green eyes remained visible in the darkness. As she tied the strings into a crisp little bow, the others traded a look.
Long ago, the four girls had promised never to talk trash about any member of the group behind her back. They took their promises seriously, so when CJ looked over at them and uttered a muffled “What?” from behind the cotton/polyester blend of her hoodie, they didn’t make fun of her behind her back. They made fun of her to her face.
“You cannot be serious,” said Martha.
Ava looked her up and down, and tilted her head to the side. “Aren’t you a little hot in that?”
“I think she looks adorable,” said Jordan. She turned to CJ. “Smile.”
“Huh?” Right as CJ turned, Jordan snapped a picture.
“So cute,” she said, looking at the photo.
“Ha ha. You guys are hilarious. I don’t want to get caught.”
It’s not like what they were about to do was a felony or anything—they’d looked it up just to make sure—but it’s not like it was completely legal either. (It was a misdemeanor.) Jordan tried out different filter options on the picture.
“Don’t you dare post that,” CJ said in a slight panic.
“Why not? Look how cute you are.” Jordan held her phone out.
CJ took the phone and her eyes widened in horror. “I am not even remotely cute.”
The picture wasn’t exactly flattering. CJ’s face was all squished up by the hoodie, which made her freckled button nose—arguably her best feature—look a little too buttony. Wisps of blonde hair clung sadly to the sides of her face, and she looked tall. She was tall—the tallest girl in the class—but if she’d known the picture was coming, she probably would have done that weird thing she always did where she jutted her hip out to the side and shifted her shoulders down in a way that she claimed made her look normal heighted. Jordan watched as CJ deleted the photo.
“Hey!” said Jordan.
“I am not getting arrested because you posted this on social media. That one picture could destroy my whole future.”
Jordan took her phone back. “Don’t you think you’re being a little dramatic?”
“I might want to go into politics. What if this is the thing that keeps me from getting elected president? Wouldn’t you feel terrible?”
“Don’t worry,” Jordan said. “They’ll still let you be president of the Justin Bieber fan club.”
“Ha ha,” said CJ.
“Relax, CJ,” said Ava. “We’re minors. Nothing you do as a minor counts.” Ava’s mom was a lawyer.
“Then let’s commit all the crimes while we still can,” Martha said.
“Agreed,” said Jordan. “Come on. I have the least amount of time left.” She enthusiastically linked arms with Martha and they broke into a skip.
“Assholes,” CJ said as she caught up to them.
Jordan stopped skipping when she noticed the broken window on the corner house. The area had changed so much since they were kids, shifting from “quaint” into “kinda scary” practically overnight. Martha lived only a few blocks away, and even though she pretended like it didn’t bother her, Jordan knew that she was sensitive when the other kids at school referred to the area as a shithole. Jordan didn’t have to imagine how much that must hurt, because whenever people saw them together, it wasn’t Martha who they assumed lived here. Being half black meant that people looked at Jordan and decided that she was the one who belonged in the neighborhood with the broken windows and the high crime.
Jordan’s phone made the ding sound that meant she had a new text. It was from Logan Diffenderfer. It wasn’t totally unusual for him to text her. She was the editor of the school paper and he was the photographer. So they had a lot of professional business to sort out. His messages would usually start with “Hey, boss,” and say things like “Sent you the photos so check your e-mail.” Her replies were equally professional: “Got it, thanks,” “Final layout approved,” or “If you send me another dick pic, you’re fired.” (They were never actually obscene pictures. They were pictures of guys named Dick, and Jordan always pretended like she didn’t think they were funny.) The message today was a little different.
Looking for you. You here yet?
She didn’t know why he was looking for her, and she didn’t like that the fact that he was made her heart beat just a little faster. It made it harder to pretend her feelings for him were gone. Jordan looked over at Ava and wondered if she’d seen the text. She hoped not. She didn’t want to have to try to explain it. Not that she would ever lie to her friend. Well, that wasn’t completely true. She’d lied once. When they were freshmen, she had told Ava that the reason she dumped Logan Diffenderfer was because she didn’t care about him anymore. That wasn’t true. She cared about him then, and she still cared about him now. The truth was, the reason Jordan dumped Logan was because of Ava. Because of what Ava had overheard him say. And how it had hurt her.
Next to her, Ava unzipped her cross-body bag and dug around for something. Jordan found herself watching Ava carefully the way she often did. Ava seemed good. She seemed happy. But with Ava, appearances could sometimes be deceiving. Only her closest friends knew about the pain that was locked away down there. Jordan smiled at her and Ava smiled back. Then she found the thing she’d been digging around for and pulled it out of her bag. It was a large chef’s knife.
Jordan jumped back. “Holy crap, Ava! What the hell?”
The blade glinted under the streetlight. “What?” Ava asked nonchalantly. “You said to bring something sharp. This is sharp.”
CJ took the knife. “This is a Wüsthof, Ava. This is your mom’s chef’s knife.”
“So we can’t use this. Your mom will kill you.”
“I’ll put it back after we’re done.”
CJ turned the knife over in her hands. “You’re going to put it back destroyed.”
“She’ll never notice.”
“How could she not notice?”
“Uh, because she doesn’t cook. Like ever. I mean, have you met my mother?”
It was supposed to be a joke, but the truth was that even after twelve years of friendship, the other girls didn’t know Ava’s mom very well. She was always working. Jordan knew that when people heard that Ava was raised by a single mother, they always made assumptions. They’d look at the moody Latinx girl who hated speaking up in class and sometimes stayed home from school for cryptic reasons, and they would create a narrative of poverty. The reality was very different. Ava’s mom was a senior partner at one of the biggest law firms in the city.
“I cannot allow us to ruin a Wüsthof.” It’s not like CJ liked cooking, but she did like cooking shows. “And look at this thing. We’re liable to take a finger off.”
Ava took the knife back a bit defensively. “Then what are we supposed to do? You put me in charge of the knife. I brought a knife.”
Martha opened up her own backpack and produced something that she showed to CJ. It was a steak knife, old and dull with time and use. The tip of the blade was more of a nub than a point. “What about this?”
“That,” CJ said, “we can destroy.”
The knife felt strange in Martha’s hand. Her mother had given it to her earlier that afternoon after showing up unexpectedly at the movie theater where Martha worked.
Both of Martha’s parents were Cleveland lifers—class of 2003 at the same high school Martha now attended—and she’d always known that her parents had committed the same misdemeanor that Martha and her friends were about to. It wasn’t exactly a crime you could hide. She’d seen the evidence. Martha and her mom never really talked about it, though. Not that they really talked about anything. Martha lived with her dad, and her relationship with her mom ranged from difficult to nonexistent. They saw each other so infrequently that Martha barely even had a relationship with her half brothers. They were twins, and even though they weren’t identical, Martha still sometimes confused them. That part of her family didn’t feel like family. That’s why it had been such a surprise when her mom showed up with the knife. Her voice had caught when she handed it to Martha and told her that it was the very same one she had used when she was a senior.
The girls turned the corner and Martha saw the size of the crowd. It looked like every senior in their class was there. Martha liked to self-identify as cynical and had been pretty vocal about thinking this tradition was kinda dumb. But as she turned the knife over in her hand, it didn’t feel “kinda dumb.” It must have been a pretty big deal for her mom to keep this knife for almost two decades. Maybe tonight was going to matter a lot more than she thought.
“Here we go,” Jordan said.
“Time to add our names to history,” said Ava.
For more than fifty years, seniors at William McKinley High School had gathered at Memorial Park on the first Friday of the school year to carve their names into the old wooden jungle gym. Tonight Ava Morgan, CJ Jacobson, Jordan Schafer, and Martha Custis would add their names to the list along with the rest of the class of 2020.
Unfortunately, things for these seniors were about to get complicated. As they got closer to the jungle gym, the girls realized for the first time that the crowd wasn’t actually gathered in the park. They were congregated along the edge of it. Memorial Park, which was usually open to everyone, was now completely sealed off, surrounded by a chain-link fence and topped with loops of barbed wire. At first, they thought it was just an annoying effort by the local cops to keep them from participating in a tradition that was technically vandalism. Then they saw the sign: an official proclamation from the city that told them they would never get the chance to join the generations before them in carving their names into the jungle gym. Their legacy would not continue on—at least not in this particular form—because the park was scheduled for demolition.
Everyone was shouting over everyone, but it was Grayson Palmer whose voice kept rising to the top. “They can’t keep us out. Does someone have some bolt cutters or, like, a crowbar or something? Because I say we break in!”
The crowd erupted in cheers. Ava looked to her friends and was happy to see that Jordan was already doing her journalist thing. She had her phone out and was typing the name of the park into her search engine to get more information. Logan walked up to her. “Finally,” he said to Jordan as a greeting. “I’ve been texting you. I think we’ve got a front-page story here.”
“Already on it,” Jordan said. “Are you taking pictures?”
“I can boost people over the top,” Grayson shouted. “Girl with the shortest skirt goes first.”
More cheers and more laughter. Grayson was the group’s de facto leader now. He was tall and he was loud and that was enough to put him in charge. Ava wanted to tell everyone that there was no point in breaking in if the city was just going to tear the park down. But her voice was the kind that you could never hear in a crowd.
Jordan looked up from her phone. “I’m on the city website. It’s taking forever to load.”
Ava, CJ, and Martha huddled around Jordan and peered at the electronic glow of her screen, waiting impatiently. Logan leaned in too, and Ava had to step awkwardly to the side to make room for him. His presence felt like an invasion. Just being near him always made her feel insecure. Small and inferior. Insignificant and stupid. Intellectually, she knew that she was none of those things. Okay, small, yes. Only physically, though. And she definitely wasn’t stupid. Years ago, Logan had said that she was. Not to her face. It was behind her back, which actually made it worse. It meant he really believed what he was saying. Even now, it was hard for her to not feel dumb whenever he was around. Ava did the thing that Dr. Clifford told her to do when flashes of insecurity bubbled up. She recited a mantra to herself. I am smart. I am smart. Then she added a second part that definitely wasn’t part of her doctor’s advice. Logan Diffenderfer is an idiot.
Something popped up on Jordan’s screen, and Logan scooted in even closer to try to read it. This time Ava held her ground. “Sorry,” Logan said and backed up.
Jordan used her fingers to widen the text on her screen. “Bingo,” she said. “I found the information about the proposed development.”
“I like the word ‘proposed,’” said CJ. “That means it’s not a done deal yet.”
“I don’t like the word ‘development,’” said Ava.
“Me neither,” Logan agreed. Ava looked at him, and she must have been making a weird face because he said, “What? I’m agreeing with you.” She looked away, and he turned back to Jordan. “What are they developing?”
Jordan followed another link. As her phone loaded, a deep thumping beat boomed from a nearby phone. Someone was playing a song about fighting the power, and a few people started dancing. Cammie Greenstein announced that her parents weren’t home and that her older sister could buy beer. For a second, it looked like the crowd might scatter. But Grayson shook his head. “No. Nobody’s leaving. We came here to do this. We’re doing this.” He drifted over to the fence and seemed genuinely upset as he wrapped his fingers around the links of fence and stared at the jungle gym. It was so close and yet so far away. “Anyone drive a truck here tonight? I say we just ram the whole gate down.”
Jordan groaned. Not at Grayson. She was reacting to something on her phone. “Well,” she said, “I have good news and I have bad news. What do you want first?”
“Bad,” said CJ.
Jordan held up her phone. “It’s a giant-ass office building.”
On the screen was an architectural rendering of a ten-story tower. Martha took the phone out of Jordan’s hands so she could look at it closer. “Assholes,” she said. “They want to put this in the middle of my neighborhood?” She handed the phone back to Jordan. “What’s the good news?”
“There’s a city meeting in three weeks to discuss it. It’s open to the public. Anyone with concerns is welcome to voice them.”
“Good,” Logan said. “Because I think there are quite a few people here who would like to voice some.” He turned to the crowd and put his hands up to his mouth like a megaphone. “Hey! Everybody! Listen up! Cut the music.” The fight-the-power song stopped on his command. “This isn’t over. We’ve got a plan.”
Everyone listened. They hung on his every word. Just like they’d done with Grayson. Ava wondered what it would be like to have a voice like that. Loud and commanding. She wondered how she’d use it if she did.
When Martha got home that night, she found her dad in the living room reading on the couch. Until recently, he’d been on the night shift, but he finally had enough seniority at the warehouse where he worked as a loader to get a more normal schedule. It still wasn’t enough hours to qualify for health insurance, but it was a huge improvement.
“Hey, Patsy,” he said, looking up from his book. Martha knew that she should have outgrown the cutesy term of endearment long ago, but she liked that her dad still called her that. Patsy was the childhood nickname of the woman she was named after. Her great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandmother, Martha Washington. “Aren’t you back kind of early?”
She plopped down on the couch next to him. “Aren’t you up kind of late?”
Since his shift change, he was usually in bed by ten. Martha glanced at the time. It was pretty obvious he’d been waiting up for her. Maybe her mom wasn’t the only one who was sentimental about the tradition. Her dad closed his book and set it to the side. “How was the big night?”
“It was a total bust, actually. The whole park was closed off. They want to tear it down.”
“Why would they do that?”
Martha picked up the book he was reading. It was a biography of Abraham Lincoln, and when she cracked it open, it had that fresh library-book smell. “Some developer wants to put in an office building. Right in the middle of our neighborhood.”
“This seems like a weird area for an office building,” her dad said.
* "Inspiring and heartwarming."—Kirkus Reviews, starred review
"Featuring an ethnically and socioeconomically varied cast, Watson's well-plotted debut delicately balances humor and weighty intersectional issues. Fast-paced action and sharp-witted dialogue prove to be a winning combination, drawing out suspense all the way to the presidential reveal."—Publishers Weekly
"Opens with a clever hook that will keep readers turning pages until the very end.... The dialogue is snappy and the plotting is sharp...considerable fun."—Booklist
"Debut author Watson creates four appealing and diverse young women.... A fun and light read."—School Library Journal
"[A] delightfully entertaining, well-rounded and compelling story.... Each character has her own complex side plot, but banding together is what helps each of them discover and solidify her place in the world."
"This feel-good teen audiobook is a perfect blend of drama and intrigue.... Listeners will be rooting for all the amazing girls in this uplifting story."—AudioFile
- On Sale
- Mar 2, 2021
- Page Count
- 384 pages