My new middle grade novel, Justin Fisher Declares War!, hits the shelves on August 1. I haven’t talked about it much, so figured it was time to share a little background info. The nudge came when a lone copy of the book arrived in the mail the other day, a real book, whaddaya know.
In thinking about Justin, I imagined a boy who acts out in the classroom, what we used to call a class clown. So I got to thinking, what drives a clown?
I remembered all the times I watched kids at the bowling alley during those interminable winters when all birthday parties seemed to land at Dell Lanes. There would always be those boys who were not any good at it. And rather than struggle, and persevere — that is, risk the embarrassment of attempt and possible failure — they opted for comic effect. Bending over and rolling the ball between their legs, the goofy approach to the pins, the diverting silliness, and so on. They used humor as a defense against embarrassment.
Like Johnny Appleseed, I took that kernel of an idea and planted it. Here’s a scene from Chapter One, “The Funniest Thing Ever, Maybe.” The book begins this way:
Maybe life would have turned out differently for Justin Fisher if he had ordered a grilled cheese sandwich instead of that lousy plate of spaghetti and meatballs.
It’s the little things that make all the difference, you know.
Because at that exact moment — when Justin pointed to the meatballs and said to the school lunch lady, “Yeah, bring it!” — all his problems began.
I’ll skip a little, hold on while I flip a page . . .
He paid for his food, clutched the loose change in his right hand, and moved unsteadily into the cafetorium — which, by the way, was one of Justin’s favorite words in English or any other language. Cafetorium. Part cafeteria, part auditorium. Some days both, simultaneously.
(The only worse combination of rooms Justin could come up with was bathatorium. The privacy of a bathroom — with grandstand seating!)
So there he was, moving precariously forward with his tray, when things began sliding. The Jell-O shivered, slipping toward the edge. When Justin tipped the tray up, the three meatballs began to tumble, rumble, and roll in the other direction. To make things even worse, Justin had a paperback book tucked under his arm and an apple wedged between his chin and neck. As he tried to stop the sliding, slipping meatballs with a minor tray adjustment, the daredevil Jell-O decided to make a leap for it. Look out below! It splattered to the floor, a splotch of green goo.
As if that wasn’t bad enough — Justin wondered what dessert could possibly survive such a fall — a chunk of Jell-O slithered under his next footstep. Squish. And that was when the cardboard tray, complete with spaghetti worms and meatlike balls, flew toward the ceiling. Justin’s left knee buckled. His right foot slipped and kicked out, making him look like a backward-falling punter on a football field. Shoulders tipped back, and back, and back. At that moment, Justin Fisher had a pretty amazing view of the spaghetti as it soared up and up, like flying snakes but without wings or feathers, magical airborne spaghetti right out of some crazy sci-fi adventure movie. Then down he went with a thud, an ooomph, and a hard knock to the head. Ouch.
Seconds later, the spaghetti plunged down, too.
Onto Justin’s shirt, his neck, his face.
Justin could picture the whole ugly scene in his mind, and he wasn’t the only one. Because everybody say it. Or, okay, not everybody. He couldn’t say everybody, because there was always going to be someone out there who would call Justin on it. A foe who lacked both wit and imagination, just waiting to make Justin Fisher’s life a daily misery — like, for instance (not to name names or anything), Carly Edwards-Sapperstein, his neighbor and nemesis.
He could hear her high-pitched voice inside his head. (The words seemed to come out of her nose instead of her mouth.)
Everybody? I hardly think EVERYBODY in the whole world could fit in the school cafetorium! HMMMMM?
So, correction: Justin meant that everybody in the cafetorium saw the whole horrible thing, his humiliating fall. There was a moment of stunned silence. In that moment, he felt a glimmer of hope. Maybe they would turn away without a second thought. Maybe they saw but didn’t really see. Maybe the laughter wouldn’t come.
But, oh, it came.
In buckets. In squeals. In thunderous cheers, jeers, rib-splitting guffaws. Some kids even gushed milk from their nostrils with the force of fire hoses, drenching tabletops and neighbors. The merriment was deafening, and from that day forward Justin’s fall was known as “the funniest thing ever”!
To Justin, just a scrawny third grader at the time, it was not.
He wasn’t injured by the fall. Not physically, anyway. His injuries were way worse than a busted bone or a bumped head. He was embarrassed, mortified, a laughingstock . . . with spaghetti on his face.
And at that moment, Justin saw that he had come to a fork in the road. If he chose one direction, he was headed toward the elementary school life of a loser. So he took the other path.
Justin Fisher decided, right then and there, that he would play the clown.
He stood up, brushing gobs of spaghetti off his jeans, and took a long, deep bow, grandly flicking his left wrist in the air, a goofy grin on his face. It was terrific. The joke wasn’t on him anymore. They were all laughing — together.
The only problem? Justin had to spend the rest of his life trying to top it.
POSTSCRIPT: I always felt this was the image for the book cover, some humorous illustration showing the book’s main character, spaghetti on his face. But, you know, I guess not.