About the Author
Vivienne To has illustrated several books, including The Underland Chronicles by Suzanne Collins and the Randi Rhodes, Ninja Detective series by Octavia Spencer. As a child, she had two pet mice escape. She currently lives in Sydney, Australia, with her partner and her ginger cat. Visit her at VivienneTo.com.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
New York City. Eight Months Ago. Where Things Take a Turn for the Weird.
Dear Abigail Hunter,
It is with great pleasure that we welcome you to the Smith School for Children’s class of 2019. We are confident you will contribute many amazing things to our school and community. Here at Smith we take our motto very seriously: Non tamen ad reddet. Not to take, but to give back. We strive each day to make the world a better place for our fellow human beings because this is what matters most.
Attached please find details regarding the start of the school year. Our travel office will be contacting you shortly to arrange transportation for you and your belongings to our beautiful Connecticut campus. We look forward to an exciting and rewarding year!
Headmaster, The Smith School for Children
The Smith School for Children? What? There has to be a mistake, because I go to Sweetbriar Montessori with Rowan and Ainsley and Blake and Alec, and we have plans. Next year, in eighth grade, there’s the epic three-day field trip to Washington, DC. And Blake and I trade lunch every day because he likes the kale chips and other inedible green things my mother packs for me. Speaking of my mother, “Mom! Get in here right now!” I yell.
My mother, the smart yet apparently forgetful Jennifer Hunter, appears in my bedroom doorway. She has a towel wrapped around her hair and one covering her torso. Her mouth is full of toothpaste.
“What?” she mumbles through the foam. “Are you on fire?”
I hold up the letter high so she is sure to get a good look at the Smith School crest and coat of arms, bright red and blue. (Also, why does a school for kids have a coat of arms?)
Mom squints. She’s vain, so she avoids wearing her reading glasses unless the situation calls for splinter removal. I clear my throat.
“Does the Smith School for Children ring a bell?” I shout. Mom freezes, a look of shock clouding her face. Toothpaste rolls down her chin. My stomach sinks. This letter is no mistake.
“Hold on,” my mother says. “I gotta spit.” She turns on her heel and leaves. She could have swallowed the toothpaste, but she’s angling for time. She needs a minute to determine the best way to tell me she’s sending me to boarding school and just kind of forgot to mention it.
I sit cross-legged on my bed. In my free hand, I hold a ceramic box I made in pottery this year. It’s glazed purple and orange and fits perfectly in my palm like a grenade. Not that I plan on throwing it or anything.
My mother returns in a white T-shirt, her long, wet hair dripping on the floor, a totally inappropriate smile plastered on her face. She eyes my pottery. The smile falters.
“Don’t you even think about throwing that at me,” she says, taking a seat on the end of my bed. “I’ll duck, it’ll smash on the wall, and what will you get?”
I put down the ceramic box. “Nothing,” I mutter.
“Exactly,” she says. “No upside. Just like when you ditched school with Ainsley to liberate the lemurs at the Central Park Zoo. There were police involved. No upside.”
“The lemurs were not happy,” I mumble. “And you’re dripping all over my bed.”
“I’m sorry you got the letter,” she says, frowning. “But since when do you pick up the mail?”
“I was trying to be helpful,” I say. “Didn’t you say it would be nice if I was more helpful? Besides, it was addressed to me.”
“The Smith School is the most prestigious boarding school in the country,” she says.
“I don’t care,” I say indignantly. “I’m not going.”
“You can wear skirts with little whales on them and polo shirts and things,” she says. “It’ll be a good fit. Lots of smart kids. Accomplished. You know.”
This is a ridiculous answer, even by Mom standards. I mean, how much can any kid accomplish by age twelve? The correct answer is . . . not much.
“Are you mad?” I ask. “I’ve never seen this place! I’ve never even heard of it until right now! I go to Sweetbriar Montessori. I have friends! I have plans!”
“The Smith School is really nice,” my mother offers. I pick up the ceramic box again. She shakes her head ever-so-slightly. I put it down.
“I don’t care if it’s nice,” I whine. “I’m not going.”
“You are.” Mom takes me by the shoulders and looks deep into my eyes. I hate when she does this. It’s mesmerizing, like she’s some kind of snake charmer, and although I’ve been her daughter for my whole life, I’m still powerless against it.
“You’re smart, Abigail,” she says. “But you need focus and discipline, and it’s my responsibility to find the place where that focusing and disciplining can happen. I need you to be safe.”
It’s true I sometimes get into trouble. For example, two months ago I rigged the student council elections and got caught mid-ballot-box-stuffing, but that was out of loyalty to Josh, who really wanted to win and probably wasn’t going to. So is loyalty bad? I think not.
The Sweetbriar principal has called me a chronic user of poor judgment. Usually he’s red in the face when he’s saying this, and my mother is sighing loudly in a chair in front of his desk.
“Boarding school?” I say again. For someone with a sharp tongue, I have a pathetically monosyllabic argument against boarding school. But to my credit, I’m in a state of shock, having just learned not five minutes ago that I will soon be disappeared into the green Connecticut landscape. I shake the letter at my mother.
“I will die in this prison,” I say. “I will shrivel up and disappear just like the Wicked Witch of the West. My creative self will be forever silenced. I cannot possibly go.”
Mom sits back and looks at me, a slight arch to one of her professionally engineered eyebrows.
“Plus, I hate polo shirts,” I add. “When have you ever seen me wear a polo shirt? And what sort of person wears marine life on her skirts? Wicked Witch of the West, Mom. Poof! Gone in a puff of smoke. The end of Abigail Hunter as you know her.”
“Steam,” Mom says.
“The Wicked Witch didn’t burn. She steamed.”
Whatever. I hug my knees to my chest, the defensive posture of a hedgehog under attack. Mom looks me up and down.
“Listen,” she says with a sigh. “This is going to be a complicated year. There are places I have to be and things that . . . need doing. I can’t be watching over you every second, pulling you back from the edge, intervening every time you take a wrong step. It just won’t work. Smith will challenge you and keep you focused. Give it a try. Please? For me?”
Mom has the most amazing violet eyes, and right now they tell me I ought to give in. This is the closest she will ever come to begging, and it doesn’t happen very often.
I love my mother. She’s fun and funny and treats me with respect even when I mess up, which is frequently. But she also failed to mention she was sending me to boarding school in September. So I wait to see what else she’s going to put on the table.
Mom stands up. She paces the short length of my narrow bedroom, thinking.
“Okay, how about winter break in Switzerland?” she says. “We can ski or build snowmen or, I don’t know, drink hot chocolate.”
I shake my head. I hate the snow. Besides, Mom drives on icy roads the same way she drives on not-icy roads: fast and terrifying.
“Tahiti?” she offers. “St. Barts? Galapagos? The Costa Rican cloud forest?”
Now she’s talking. “I’ll take Galapagos and that art history camp in Rome you said I was too young for.”
She eyes me. My heart races. The elusive victory is close, I can feel it. Mom puts her hands on her hips. A trickle of sweat runs down my back.
“Done,” she says finally. We shake hands. And while I’m ecstatically happy (I won!), I also know I’ve been had. Because just like that, I’m off to the Smith School for Children.