Twelve-year-old Natalie Nelson has written a powerful school story. It's a short novel called "The Cheater," and her best friend Zoe is certain it should be published. All Natalie has to do is give the manuscript to her mom, an editor at a big publishing house. However Natalie doesn't want any favors from her mom. Still, Zoe won't drop the idea. Spurred into action, Natalie invents a pen name for herself and Zoe becomes a self-styled literary agent. But if the girls are to succeed, they'll need support from their wary English teacher, legal advice from Zoe's tough-talking father, and some clever maneuvering to outwit the overbearing editor in chief of Shipley Junior Books. Andrew Clements, the best-selling author of Frindle, The Landry News, and The Janitor's Boy, delights his audience with this story of two irrepressible girls who use their talent, ingenuity, and a little cunning to try to make a young writer's dream come true.
Natalie couldn't take it. She peeked in the doorway of the school library, then turned, took six steps down the hall, turned, paced back, and stopped to look in at Zoe again. The suspense was torture.
Zoe was still reading. The first two chapters only added up to twelve pages. Natalie leaned against the door frame and chewed on her thumbnail. She thought, What's taking her so long?
Zoe could see Natalie out of the corner of her eye. She could feel all that nervous energy nudging at her, but Zoe wasn't about to be rushed. She always read slowly, and she liked it that way, especially when it was a good story. And this one was good.
The Cheater by Natalie Nelson
I catch up with Sean between Eighty-second and Eighty-first Streets. His legs are longer than mine, so I'm panting. I grab his arm and he stops in front of a bodega.
He says, "Why are you following me?"
"I've got to talk to you."
"Yeah, well, too bad. You had your chance to talk during the Penalty Board hearing. And you didn't."
"But if I told the truth, then the whole school would know I cheated. I'd get expelled."
He just looks at me. "But you really did cheat, right?...And I really didn't steal that answer key, right?...And you know I didn't steal it because you did, right?"
I nod yes to all the questions.
Sean is almost shouting now, his eyes wild. "So first you steal, then you cheat, and now you've lied. And me? You've left me to take the punishment."
The shopkeeper is worried. He moves from the counter to the doorway of the bodega, looking at us.
Sean ignores him and gets right into my face, screaming. "Well, guess what, Angela. We're not friends now -- and I don't know if we ever were!"
He storms away, hands jammed in his pockets, shoulders hunched, stabbing the sidewalk with every step.
Me, I cry.
Zoe let page twelve slip onto the table and then stared at it, deep in thought.
"So, what do you think?"
Natalie was right behind her, and Zoe jumped six inches. "Jeez, Natalie! Scare me to death! And you ruined a nice moment too."
"But what do you think? Is it any good?"
Zoe nodded. "I think it's very good."
"Really?" Natalie pulled out a chair and sat down, leaning forward. "I mean, you're not just saying that because we're best friends?"
Zoe shook her head. "No, I mean it. It's good. Like I can't wait to read the whole thing. Can you bring the rest tomorrow?"
Natalie smiled and reached into her backpack. She pulled out a blue folder with a rubber band around it. "Here. I've still got to write about five more chapters. I just needed to know if the beginning was any good, but you can read what I've got done if you want."
Zoe took the folder carefully and said, "This is great. But you are going to finish it, right? Do you know the whole story already -- like all the way to the end?"
Natalie said, "Not all the way to the end...but almost. I know how the end feels, but not exactly what happens -- at least, not yet."
Natalie's book had begun by accident on the bus with her mom late one afternoon back in September. Sixth grade was already three weeks old, and both she and her mom had settled into the routine of commuting together. It was a Friday afternoon, and they were going home on the 5:55 coach, thundering through the Lincoln Tunnel from New York City to Hoboken, New Jersey.
Her mom looked exhausted. Natalie studied the face tilted toward her on the headrest. It was a pretty face -- Prettier than mine, she thought. But there were little lines at the corners of her mother's eyes and mouth. Care lines, worry lines.
Natalie said, "Hard day, Mom?"
Eyes still closed, her mom smiled and nodded. "The editorial department met all day with the marketing department -- all day."
Natalie asked, "How come?" When her dad died, Natalie had decided she needed to talk to her mom more. Sometimes she pretended to be interested in her mom's work at the publishing company even when she wasn't. Like now.
Her mom said, "Well, the marketing people keep track of what kinds of books kids and parents and teachers are buying. Then they tell us, and we're supposed to make more books like the ones they think people will buy."
Natalie said, "Makes sense. So, what kinds of books do they want you to make?"
Hannah Nelson lifted her head off the seat back and turned toward Natalie. "Here's the summary of a six-hour meeting. Ready?"
Her mom used a deep voice that sounded bossy. "People, we need to publish more adventure books, more series books, and more school stories." In her regular voice she said, "That was it. A six-hour meeting for something that could have gone into a one-page memo -- or a three-line E-mail."
Then Natalie asked, "What's a school story?"
"A school story is just what it sounds like -- it's a short novel about kids and stuff that happens mostly at school."
Natalie thought for a second and then said, "You mean like Dear Mr. Henshaw?"
And her mom said, "Exactly."
Then Natalie said to herself, Hey, who knows more about school than someone who's right there, five days a week, nine months a year? I bet I could write a school story.
And that was all it took. Natalie Nelson the novelist was born.
Or almost born. Her career as an author didn't officially spring to life until about four months later -- on that afternoon in the school library after Zoe read the first two chapters.
Because it's the same for every new author, for every new book. Somebody has to be the first to read it. Somebody has to be the first to say she likes it. Somebody has to be that first fan.
Discussion Topics The School Story is a novel about the power of friendships, specifically the one between best friends Natalie Nelson and Zoe Reisman. But other friendships (obvious and not so obvious) are also explored in this story. Identify the different friendships included in the story and discuss them. What is your definition of a "friend"? Is it possible to have friendships with your parents, your relatives, your coworkers, and your teachers? Natalie and Zoe have a "push and pull friendship." What does this mean? Do you think Natalie and Zoe's friendship is stronger because they are so different from each other? Which girl would you most likely become friends with: Natalie or Zoe? Why? The topics of cheating and fairness are explored throughout this book. Natalie is initially dubious about adopting a pseudonym to submit "The Cheater" to Shipley Junior Books; she feels like she's cheating by doing so. Do you agree? Do you think it's fair that Natalie is able to use her contacts to get immediate attention for her book while numerous other manuscripts linger on the "slush pile" for months? Would you do the same if you were in her position? Ms. Clayton is initially wary about getting involved with Natalie and Zoe's plan, but she decides to forge ahead anyway. Do you ever doubt that this is a good decision on Ms. Clayton's part? How does helping the girls with their project help Ms. Clayton in the end? Why do you think Zoe works so hard to get Natalie's book published? Do you think the book would have been published without Zoe's resourcefulness and determination? Sometimes taking risks in life is necessary in order to grow as a human being. Other than Natalie and Zoe, identify the characters who take risks in The School Story. Why do they take these risks, and what is the outcome? How do these risks contribute to their self-discovery? The father/daughter bond is a prevalent theme in The School Story. Natalie writes "The Cheater" to feel closer to her late father. But how does she in reality become closer to her mother by writing the novel? How does Natalie's relationship with her mother change over the course of the book? What other father/daughter bonds are explored? Andrew Clements writes in The School Story that "some people are talkers, and some people are writers." Which are you, and why? Activities and Research Research the children's publishing industry. Read back issues of Publishers Weekly online (www.publishersweekly.com) or at the library. Log on to the Internet to do additional research about the various children's publishers. The Children's Book Council Web site (www.cbcbooks.org) is a good place to start. How many children's publishers exist? What are the editorial guidelines for each company? Discuss what you learn from your research. Find out about authors who currently write under pseudonyms. Can you discover why they adopt pen names and do not use their real names? If you assumed a pseudonym, what would it be, and why? Based on the information provided in The School Story, make a chart that shows the different jobs people do in a publishing house. Did you realize that there were so many people involved with the creation of a single book? Which job discussed in The School Story intrigues you most? Invite a local children's book author or illustrator to come to your school to talk about his or her experiences writing books for children. Attend a book signing by an author or illustrator at a local bookstore.
Andrew Clements is the author of the enormously popular Frindle. More than 10 million copies of his books have been sold, and he has been nominated for a multitude of state awards, including two Christopher Awards and an Edgar Award. His popular works include About Average, Troublemaker, Extra Credit, Lost and Found, No Talking, Room One, Lunch Money, and more. He is also the author of the Benjamin Pratt & the Keepers of the School series. He lives with his wife in Maine and has four grown children. Visit him at AndrewClements.com.