Chapter One: The Three Hundred Book Challenge
Not many sixth graders get an opportunity to save an elephant. I had that chance, and it turned out to be the biggest challenge of my life.
The first time I saw Lilly, chains circled her ankles. She moved -- slowly, as if it hurt her to walk -- down the ramp of the small circus trailer that had brought her to town.
By then I was already in big trouble with my teacher. Some troubles are easily solved and quickly forgotten, but this one wasn't. The trouble I had with Mrs. Dawson led me to Lilly, and changed me forever.
It all began one drowsy Monday in late April. The sun streamed through the school's windows, making it impossible to think of anything except baseball, swimming, and summer vacation. I wanted to stretch out in a sunny spot the way my cat, Beanie, does and snooze.
I was amusing myself by writing my name, Erin Wrenn, in the middle of a piece of paper and then drawing flowers around it, when Mrs. Dawson rapped a ruler against the edge of her desk.
"I have a challenge for you," she announced.
Surprised, I quit drawing daisies and looked at my teacher. The rest of the class paid attention, too. We were not used to surprises. I liked Mrs. Dawson, but most of the time her class was boring. She spent twenty years teaching kindergarten, then switched to sixth grade this year. She probably should have stayed with kindergarten.
"I challenge you," Mrs. Dawson said, "to read three hundred books before May tenth."
Pinkie Ensburg, who sits behind me and is not exactly the world's greatest scholar, gave a little yelp, as if someone had stepped on his toes. "No way," Pinkie said. "I probably won't read three hundred books in my entire life."
"Not three hundred books each," Mrs. Dawson said. "Three hundred total. There are twenty-eight students in this class; if you each read eleven books, you'll be over the goal."
Flora Gummer said, "I will be glad to read eleven books before May tenth, Mrs. Dawson."
Behind me, Pinkie pretended to gag.
"If you do it," Mrs. Dawson told the class, "the prize will be a special field trip."
David Showers, who lives next door to me and is my best friend, leaned across the aisle and whispered, "Our TAG project will take a lot of time this week. Do you think we can do that and read extra books, too?"
David and I attend TAG class two mornings a week. TAG stands for Talented and Gifted, although privately we say it means Time Away from Gummer. Flora drives us crazy with her goody-goody comments. Except for recess, TAG is my favorite part of school.
Our TAG assignment was to write a report on animals in circuses. We were supposed to tell how they are cared for, their training, what laws are meant to protect them, and how those laws are enforced.
David and I didn't choose the subject; Mrs. Mapes, our TAG teacher, assigned it. She said she knew we liked animals and, since a circus would be coming to Harborview soon, the topic was timely.
I whispered back, "The reading we do for TAG can count for the class challenge, too."
We had known about the TAG project for nearly a month but, as usual, we had waited until the last week to begin. David says he does his best work under pressure; I procrastinate because I'd rather read or play with Beanie than start a big research project.
"Are there any questions about my challenge?" Mrs. Dawson said.
"Do the books have to be a minimum length?" Pinkie asked.
I wouldn't put it past Pinkie to try to get credit for reading Goodnight, Moon or Pat the Bunny.
"There are no rules about length or type of book," Mrs. Dawson replied, "but I trust you will not read any picture books meant for preschoolers and try to have them count toward the total."
"If someone reads more than eleven, can I read fewer?" Pinkie asked. "Or do we each have to read the same number?"
Mrs. Dawson sighed. "The total is what counts," she said. "However, I hope that each of you will want to contribute your fair share."
Pinkie poked me in the back to get my attention, then leaned forward and whispered, "You're a good reader, Erin. You can read twenty books and I'll read two."
"Thanks a lot, Pinkie," I said.
I was surprised he offered to read any at all. If Pinkie would spend as much time doing his school- work as he spends thinking of ways to avoid doing any schoolwork, he wouldn't be on the verge of being held back in sixth grade.
"All those in favor of accepting my challenge, raise your hand," Mrs. Dawson said.
David and I raised our hands. So did the rest of the students. Even Pinkie voted yes, although I knew he had no intention of reading eleven books before May tenth or any other time.
"When you finish a book," Mrs. Dawson said, "write the title and author on a piece of paper and give it to me. I made a chart to keep track of the total books read."
She taped a large graph to the bulletin board next to her desk. Across the top it said the 300 books challenge. Below that, from left to right, were the numbers 0 to 300. Dates, starting with the next day's date at the bottom, went up the left side, ending with May tenth at the top.
"Where will we go on the field trip?" David asked.
"That's a secret," Mrs. Dawson said. "First you have to read the three hundred books; then I'll tell you our destination."
"Stay tuned to learn how a sixth-grade class earned a personal tour of the sewage treatment plant," David said.
Jason snickered. Randy and Scooter groaned. Andrea said, "Yuck." Mrs. Dawson ignored the remark.
I laughed. David plans to be a TV news broadcaster and he often creates "teasers" that are supposed to make people watch the news.
"I'm sure whatever Mrs. Dawson chooses will be educational and wonderful," said Flora.
"I don't care if we go to the dump," Pinkie said, "as long as it gets me out of school for a few hours."
"I guarantee it will be someplace fun and exciting," Mrs. Dawson said. Then she used her fake voice that always sounds as if she's talking to a group of six-year-olds. "Reading three hundred books will be fun and exciting, too," she chirped.
"Not for me," muttered Pinkie.
The challenge would be fun for me -- I love to read -- but I didn't say so. Other kids sometimes resent it when the schoolwork that they are struggling with is easy for me, so I try hard to blend in and be like everyone else.
Mrs. Dawson told us we could all go to the school library to select books to read, and there was a general stampede toward the door.
I checked out five books -- three mysteries, which I love, and two books about circuses. That night Mom drove David and me to the public library to get more material about circus animals.
For the rest of that week, all I did outside of school was work on the TAG project. Well, almost all. I went to my final softball game (I got a single and struck out twice), and I played mouse-on-a-string with Beanie every night.
Mouse-on-a-string is his favorite game. I had tied a long piece of string around a catnip mouse. When I pull the string to make the mouse move, Beanie chases and attacks the mouse. He gets so excited that he always makes me laugh. It doesn't take much to make a cat happy.
Every night after dinner, David came over to work with me. After a few hours of research we began to wish we had been assigned a different subject.
My feelings for animals run deep, and what we learned made me sick to my stomach. I could hardly believe how badly animals are sometimes treated just so their owners can make a bigger profit.
David likes animals, too; he has a dog, Snoopy, and two gerbils, Lucy and Linus. When we read how rope is tied around the tigers' necks and the animals are choked to make them obey, David got so angry that he kicked the desk. I felt a horrified sadness, as if I personally knew each of the creatures who were mistreated.
We soon had a pile of printouts from web sites such as the Fund for Animals and the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. We had pamphlets and fact sheets about individual circuses and several quotations from the books we had read.
With so much material, writing our report was a cinch. We wrote twelve pages about the miserable lives of circus animals -- two more pages than required.
Because Mrs. Mapes always likes posters or charts, we decided to make a poster of a tiger jumping through a hoop of fire. Across the top we wrote all animals naturally fear fire and across the bottom we wrote this tiger fears punishment from his trainer even more.
Beanie jumped in my lap as I used a bright red marker to highlight the flames. I rubbed behind Beanie's ears the way he likes. As he purred and pushed his head under my chin, my heart ached for all the unfortunate animals who are forced to leave their natural habitats and made to perform for humans.
It isn't right, I thought, but what could a twelve-year-old do about it?
At nine o'clock Thursday night, David and I finished our TAG project. We celebrated with bowls of strawberry ice cream.
"My family went to a fair once," David said as we ate, "and we saw a dancing bear. At the time I thought it was wonderful. Now I wonder how that bear was trained to dance. Did he get beaten if he didn't put his front legs in the air and keep them there?"
"Probably," I said. "Bears in the wild don't dance around on their hind legs."
"That bear should have been walking on all four feet, in the forest where he belongs. But we didn't think about that, so we paid money to see him dance, which is exactly what the bear's trainer wanted."
David looked so sad and guilty that I said, "You didn't know. You'll never go to anything like that again, now that you know how the animals are trained."
"That's for sure," David said.
rd"I will never attend a fair or circus or any other event that's mean to animals," I vowed.
"Neither will I," David said.
He stuck out his hand and I shook it solemnly, as if we were making a legal pact.
I stirred my ice cream into strawberry soup.
"I've always wanted to be a veterinarian," I said, "so I could help animals. Now I wonder if I could help them more if I became a lawyer and worked for new laws to protect animals."
David announced, "We interrupt this program with breaking news: the Supreme Court ruled today that all animals have legal rights. After talented young attorney Erin Wrenn electrified the courtroom with her eloquent closing statements, the Court's decision was unanimous."
"Details in ten years," I said, wishing I were already grown up and could help the animals now.
"The Chief Justice praised Ms. Wrenn for her passion, insight, and dedication," David continued. "Ms. Wrenn responded that she owes her fondness for animals to her childhood friend, Beanie, who licked the ice cream when she wasn't watching."
When I realized what David had said, I plucked Beanie from the table, where he had his head in my dish, and plopped him on the floor.
Copyright © 2001 by Peg Kehret