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The Secret Spiral Hardcover – July 26, 2011
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About the Author
Gillian Neimark is the author of The Secret Spiral and The Golden Rectangle, and a nom de plume for writer Jill Neimark, who is also the author of the highly acclaimed Bloodsong as well as Why Good Things Happen to Good People. Additionally, she is the coauthor of I Want Your Moo, a picture book that won a Teacher’s Choice Award for Children’s Books.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
Introducing Flor the Pie Girl, Dr. Pi, and Mrs. Plump
It was a Wednesday in May when Flor’s life changed forever. That was when the world she knew collapsed—her familiar, ho-hum, humdrum, oh-so-comfy world in Brooklyn Heights, New York, in the rooftop apartment she shared with a proud white cat named Libenits and her mother, a fashion photographer. That was the day she learned that life was way wackier than anyone could ever have guessed. That was the time she peeked around the curve of time itself, and a hat took her on a flight, and she had breakfast in Paris, and she even raised a man from the dead. And that was the day she learned to love the Spiral.
It all started with Dr. Pi, owner of the Sky-High Pie Shop around the corner from her home. On Wednesday—the Wednesday when everything changed—Flor was sitting in class wiggling her toes in her new pink sandals. She was staring at the clock on the wall, trying to force time to move faster. I can’t, I can’t, I can’t, she was thinking. I simply can’t wait one more single second!
Mr. Fineman, the math teacher, was in front of the shiny white board drawing large rectangles with a black marker. But Flor couldn’t keep her mind on math.
It was almost three o’clock. There was no finer hour of the afternoon, especially on a Wednesday. Three o’clock on Wednesday was when the tart scent of fruit pie floated through the windows of Flor’s school and did a dance right under her nose. It was the hour when Dr. Pi opened his bakery.
She could picture him. Dr. Pi lived two blocks from the water on a street paved with crooked stones, with a view of the great city of Manhattan. With a click!he’d turn his key in one oak door and with a clack! he’d turn his key in the other oak door, and then give a big shove. Now he’d call out, “Good afternoon, Brooklyn! It’s three o’clock in the afternoon! Time to buy your Sky-High Pies!”
On pie day he got up at dawn. He took his morning bubble bath and slurped down his bowl of cottage cheese with ketchup. And then, while every child on the block was yawning and stretching and rubbing the sleep from their eyes, Dr. Pi padded downstairs into his shop to bake.
He filled his shop with pies once a week. They were a strange and marvelous shape. They were not flat. They were not square. They were almost not here or there. They had little pointy hills made of even littler pointy hills with berries peeking out from every point, and the whole thing going round and round and up and up to one big point at the top.
They were unbelievably yummy. You’d pinch a bit between your thumb and forefinger, just a smidge of warm crust and sweet fruit, pop it in your mouth, and let it melt on your tongue. Before you knew it you’d eaten the whole piece.
Dr. Pi was funny-looking in a friendly, comforting way. He had soft brown eyes, a big bald head, a bigger tummy, and a shy smile. He wore silk suspenders and bright button-down shirts. But the oddest thing about Dr. Pi was his hat. If you stood right in front of him it seemed like a big blue ball. If you stood behind him it looked like a small red ball. If you stood right next to him, it disappeared entirely. But when he turned around again, it popped back into view. It was such a strange hat, nobody knew what to make of it. And for that reason they politely refused to ever inquire where he’d gotten it and why it was so peculiar. They just pretended it wasn’t there.
He’d been making pies for years, but no one really knew how long. He had a special recipe for piecrust, and not a soul knew what it was. He ordered his sky-high pie pans with their copper bottoms from Europe, where they were fashioned by hand by a very old man who had once been a famous sculptor. Each year he sculpted one new sky-high pie pan for Dr. Pi, and each year Dr. Pi personally delivered fresh pie to the sculptor’s door. Together they ate pie and contemplated the countryside, pie, and life. Everybody in the neighborhood adored Dr. Pi and nobody could remember a time when he hadn’t lived there. But nobody could remember growing up with him either. He was simply a fact of life, like the moon and the sun.
Meanwhile, back in school, Flor’s math teacher was drawing a rectangle inside a rectangle inside another rectangle. One row ahead of her, teacher’s pet Nancy Know-It-All Franklin (the girl with the perfect brown hair perfectly pinned with two perfect barrettes and perfect bangs) was busy drawing exactly the same rectangles in her notebook. Great, thought Flor, you get a gold medal in geek. Now make it three o’clock!
Finally the bell rang and school was out. She jammed her books into her backpack and flew down the hall, out the door, and up the street, thinking as she did that everybody was definitely looking at her new pink sandals, which contrasted marvelously with her purple argyle knee-high socks, which were way too big and held up with green ribbons. It all clashed perfectly. That girl has fantastic sandals, Flor imagined the taxi driver on the corner saying. Her best friend Helen would see Flor’s new sandals, say that only a fashion dunce would wear anything so pink, along with knee-highs so obviously donated from somebody’s grandmother, and then ask if she could borrow them both.
As she turned a corner, a long, skinny shadow fell over Flor. She looked up into a frowning face. It was Mrs. Edna Plump. Mrs. Plump had once been fat, but after she went on a diet and got thin, someone nicknamed her Mrs. Plump. And for some reason humorless Mrs. Plump, who never liked a joke, loved this one and proudly began to call herself Mrs. Plump. That very same day she decided to wear only black. “Mrs. Plump always wears black,” she would say. “Black is the new black. Black never goes out of fashion.”
Mrs. Plump lived right next door to Dr. Pi and ran a shop called Mrs. Plump’s Tea and Toast. No sugar in your tea, and no butter on your toast.
“Florence Bernoulli!” cried Mrs. Plump now. “I’ve heard of pink shirts and pink scarves and even fuzzy pink slippers, but pink sandals? On a school day? How could your mother let you out of the house?”
Suddenly it seemed very cold under Mrs. Plump’s skinny shadow. For some reason Flor had never understood, Mrs. Plump seemed to take a special interest in her. Naturally, she worried that Edna Plump felt sorry for her because she lived alone with her mom. And Flor couldn’t stand the thought of anybody feeling sorry for her.
“It’s true,” Flor said. “Only a total fashion dunce would wear pink sandals.”
“Well then, Mrs. Plump has to wonder. If you know pink is inappropriate, then why are you wearing pink?”
“Because . . .” She thought a minute. “Because they didn’t have black, Mrs. Plump. There’s a long waiting list for black because you’ve made black so popular.”
Mrs. Plump fell for it. “Really? Everybody is waiting for black?” She couldn’t help smiling at the thought.
Of course, Mrs. Plump did not know that Flor had yellow shoes with fake fish eyes glued on top; a pair of way-too-chunky sunglasses to which she had affixed feathers from her neighbor’s parrot; a rainbow of huge crinkly bowties she’d cut and sewn from old silk curtains, which she often clipped into her hair; and many other accessories too numerous to count, all of which made boring life in Brooklyn much more interesting. Flor could put on her sunglasses and hair-bowties and get into ten conversations with ten strangers on the way to the store. Mrs. Plump had no idea what fun she was missing in her world of black.
Suddenly Mrs. Plump frowned. Flor knew what was coming.
“You’re not on your way to that dreadful pie shop, are you? Those pies are made of nothing but sugar and butter. Why don’t you come with me instead, and let me give you a nice, healthful cup of tea and a slice of toast?”
Just then they reached the long line of pie buyers waiting outside the Sky-High Pie Shop, and Flor took her place. “I thought so,” muttered Mrs. Plump, and she sneezed loudly. She held her nose with two fingers and shut her eyes. Then she marched down the street in her black high heels.
Flor could see Dr. Pi at his counter talking to a customer. Warm sunlight shone on his bald head, and a smile even warmer than the sun lit his face.
She’d known Dr. Pi since she was only a day old. Her mom loved to tell the story: “As soon as I brought you into Dr. Pi’s shop to show you off, you started waving your hands in the air like a cheerleader whose team had just won. I could’ve sworn you two recognized each other.”
But until she turned eight, her mother didn’t put her in charge of buying pies. Now, at ten years old, she was the official Pie Girl.
Dr. Pi greeted Flor half an hour later, when her turn came. “We all wait for something, don’t we,” he said cheerfully. “Although some of us simply can’t wait.”
“I’m very patient,” Flor said, standing on her tiptoes to get as close to the pies as possible.
“Now, Flor,” scolded Dr. Pi, “you were thinking about my pies so hard that you missed your teacher’s lesson on rectangles.”
Flor’s mouth dropped open. How did he know? “It’s not my fault,” she protested. “The blueberries came dancing out of your pie shop and went around the block and into my classroom and ended up in front of my nose!”
He laughed. “Were they really dancing?”
Flor nodded, the tip of her chin almost touching a piecrust. “Yes, right in front of me, bouncing up and down.” She inhaled the aroma of the pie. “I like this one.”
“Then it’s yours. This pie likes you, too.”
He smiled at her. He had the warmest smile, and it always made her feel like she was wrapped in a comfy blanket. If she didn’t have a real dad somewhere in France she would adopt Dr. Pi instead. She hadn’t seen her real dad since she was three years old, and couldn’t remember a thing about him, and so was forced to make up all kinds of stories about what he might be like so that she could almost imagine she had a fantastic French father waiting at home right this minute. For now, Dr. Pi and his shop would have to do.
Flor flopped down on a chair, kicking out her legs. Even the bottoms of her sandals were pink. She’d painted them herself, though unfortunately the paint was already flaking off. She looked outside at the line of customers, which seemed to be growing by the minute, and gulped. “Your fans have been waiting forever.”
“Don’t worry,” he said, and pulled a pie out of the oven. “Everybody will get their pies in time. Personally, I make it a habit never to be impatient. I enjoy myself just where I am. I simply look forward to now. You might try that sometime.”
Flor wasn’t sure how you could look forward to now, since now was always becoming then and was totally over by the time you even noticed it. But she didn’t want to point this out to Dr. Pi, as it would have been impolite.
Dr. Pi motioned to the cherry pie he’d set on the counter. “Will you help me give samples to my adoring public?” Together he and Flor cut slices of pie and brought them on a tray to the waiting customers. “By the way,” he said as they came back into the shop, “your sandals are spectacular.”
And then something very peculiar happened. Dr. Pi’s hat began to spin. As it spun it lifted itself off his head. And he jumped like someone had just poked him hard. The color drained from his face.
“They’ve found me!” he exclaimed, grabbing his hat from the air with both hands and running into the back of his shop. The door slammed behind him.
Should she go after him? Who had found him? And why was he running away? Well, this was certainly very exciting.
“Hello, miss? Are you listening or daydreaming? I’m in a hurry and I’d like that one,” a man said as he wheeled his bicycle into the shop and pointed to a blackberry pie.
“I’m a very important person in a terrible rush. Can’t you see that?”
“Yes, sir, you look more rushed than any man I’ve ever seen, but how important you really are I have no idea—”
“Miss! Just do your job and get me that pie there. That’s the one I want.”
She sighed. “You’ve picked the best pie of them all, so . . . please just be a little patient while I get it out.”
Flor slid the pie onto a sheet of wax paper, sprinkled brown sugar over the top, and packed it up in a box, the way she’d seen Dr. Pi do every Wednesday of every week of her life. Not a moment later, the next customer stepped up and Flor took his order.
About twenty minutes later Dr. Pi reappeared. The color had returned to his face and his hat was back to normal, but he looked worried. “You’ve saved me! I can’t thank you enough. By the way,” he said, as he beckoned to another customer, “your mother is having guests to dinner tonight.”
“We’re not having guests,” Flor assured him. “She doesn’t like to cook. She’s the Chinese menu takeout queen.” Then she put on her best imitation “Mom” accent. “Triple Jade Delight? General Tso’s Chicken?”
“I’m certain you two are having guests,” he repeated. “I think she’d be pleased if you brought home two pies.”
Flor shook her head, mystified. “How do you do that?”
“Know what’s going to happen before it happens? Or know what happened when you weren’t even there—like my math teacher talking about rectangles. How do you do it?”
“It’s not hard,” he said as he handed a customer a pie. “I just take a peek around the curve.”
“A peek around what curve?”
“The curve of time,” he said, as if the idea that time was curved was the most natural thing, like bubbles in soda.
“Dr. Pi, that’s a joke. Time just marches ahead, day after day, year after year,” Flor said with great confidence, as she packed a pie into a box. “It goes right from the past straight into the future.”
“It doesn’t curve?” he inquired.
“And it never goes backward?”
“Of course not, or you could change the past. And you never can change the past. Like my mom says, ‘You can regret the past, but you can’t change it!’”
He packed two more pies. “Well, you’re sort of right and yet not quite. Time does, in fact, move forward. But it does not go in a straight line. Time curves. So I can take a peek around the curve, sort of like looking around the corner. So that’s how I know you’re having strangers to dinner tonight.”
“Well, where is this curve? Can I take a look?”
“Soon!” he said brightly. “You’ll be peeking around that curve yourself in no time.”
And that was that. Flor really wanted to see that curve, or look around it, as it sounded amazingly useful, the kind of thing that could completely change your life forever, but before she could even blink they had served the last customer and Dr. Pi said, “I’ve got so much more to tell you and we’ve only got about five minutes before your mother is going to start worrying about you.”
“What about the police?” she whispered.
“Are you running from the law? Who’s after you?”
He looked surprised, then threw his head back and laughed so hard his stomach shook. “Oh no, Flor. No, no, no. Not the police. Although,” he sighed, “I wish it were that simple.”
Dr. Pi took her hands and looked at her very gravely. “It’s my recipe, you see.”
“You’re afraid somebody will steal your recipe?”
“My recipe is based on a math equation. And, I might add, a lovely equation at that.” He paused and looked away dreamily. “It has hypnotized many a man before me.”
“Ummm . . . I’m sorry, but I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“I didn’t invent the equation.”
Flor just decided to roll with it, since Dr. Pi was making no sense. After all, he was on the run from somebody, and maybe he’d temporarily lost his mind. So she said gently, as if trying to soothe a child who’d just awakened from a bad dream, “What does this have to do with the recipe?”
Dr. Pi shook his head. “I thought a pie shop was the perfect hiding place. I thought I was so clever. I’m afraid that I was wrong.”
© 2011 Jill Neimark
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Top customer reviews
Flor starts out the story seeming to care about little besides piecing together outrageous outfits to amuse herself and her friends:
"Everybody was definitely looking at her new pink sandals, which contrasted marvelously with her purple argyle knee-high socks, which were way too big and held up with green ribbons. It all clashed perfectly. That girl has fantastic sandals, Flor imagined the taxi driver on the corner saying. Her best friend Helen would see Flor's new sandals, say that only a fashion dunce would wear anything so pink, along with knee-highs so obviously donated from somebody's grandmother, and then ask if she could borrow them both."
On this day though, Flor's life gets wackier by the minute. Things start to change during a visit to the neighborhood pie shop, run by the kindly Dr. Pi. As usual, the pies smell scrumptious, but Dr. Pi is uncharacteristically preoccupied. He confides to Flor that some of his enemies have caught up with him and entrusts her with some of his magical possessions -- including a seashell that allows people to see around the "curve of time" into the future, a wheel that can make time slow down, and a hat that can serve as a spaceship.
Dr. Pi insists to Flor that she bring home two pies for supper, informing her that she and her mother will be having company. And indeed they do, when two brothers from another planet -- Mr. Bit and Mr. It -- crash through the stained-glass skylight. Joined by the neighbor lady (Mrs. Plump, proprietress of The Tea and Toast Shop), Flor and her guests end up traveling through space and time, to have breakfast in Paris and even raise a man from the dead.
"The future doesn't always match up with our wishes," Dr. Pi advises Flor at one point. "Sometimes the future knows where we're going even when we have plans to go somewhere else." Fortunately, Flor is mostly a go-with-the-flow type of girl, and she sails through the adventures with aplomb.
In terms of its genre and appeal, "The Secret Spiral" is close to "James and the Giant Peach": a little bit of science, a whole lot of imagination and a good bit of style. All in all, it's an enjoyable book.
The Secret Spiral is about a girl named Flor Bernoulli who is faced with the task of saving her friend Mr. It from death, while keeping the fire that feeds the spiral and keep it alive and turning. With help from her friends, Dr. Pi, Ms. Plump, and Mr. Bit, they go all over the world (in Dr. Pi's hat) and save both Mr. It and Mr. Bit from death. They also find the true threat to the spiral, which is Square Man. This miraculous adventure is perfect for all ages!
List of Characters:
This is the 2nd review written by my 9 yr old grandaughter and I'm extremely proud of her and her love of reading.
As an internationally published author who writes at the intersection of science and spirituality, I can say that The Secret Spiral by Gillian Neimark is truly imaginative and entertaining. Its protagonist, Flor Bernoulli, lives in Brooklyn, next to the Sky-High Pie Shop, whose owner and baker Dr. Pi bakes the most fantastic pies imaginable. One day while Flor is picking out her weekly pie, Dr. Pi tells her she had better buy two pies. Why? Because he has peeked around the curve of time and found she's going to have two guests. And here they come, crashing into their world, Mr. Bit and Mr. It - odd brothers from another dimension. All the commotion brings Mrs. Plump, who operates Mrs. Plump's Tea and Toast Shop next door.
Soon everyone has climbed in to Dr. Pi's magical expanding hat and are traveling through space. When Flor asks Dr. Pi how he can look into the future around the curve of time, he explains to her that he is in charge of The Spiral, which is unique because "It gets bigger and bigger without changing its shape at all. Do you know anything else that can do that?" He reveals to Flor that she too has a very special relationship to The Spiral. The wise Dr. Pi translates and explains "that we are all like the Spiral. Though we change and grow and learn through life, something deep in us remains the same. Just like the Spiral, which gets bigger and bigger, but never changes its proportions. And so, we too are always changed, and ever the same." This is truly a life transforming message, and I applaud the author for making it so visible annndunderstandable to young readers. The narrative is clever and full of constant surprises and adventures. It's an exciting book to read and I recommend it highly.
Though the book is full of the love of math it contains no actual mathematics. However by introducing young readers to important and significant ideas it can only make them more eager to learn the actual use and application of these terms when it comes time for them to learn mathematics in school.