It is the last day of second grade and Maddie is daydreaming about summer. Swim team. Jumping waves at the beach. A trip to the lake to camp with her cousins. And best of all, she thinks, Mommy says that this Fourth of July, Maddie can light her own sparkler. Finally,, I am not a baby!
She is just beginning to feel the chilly water on the flume at the amusement park, and is bracing herself for the big splash when ‘Crack!’! Miss Pinto raps Maddie’s desk with her ruler.
“Clap, clap, clap!”
Miss Pinto slaps her hands together, a signal for the class to clap back and be quiet. Maddie loves Miss Pinto, with her crazy curls of red hair and her freckles, which, Maddie’s mother says, are angel kisses.
Maddie has red hair too, and she daydreams that if Miss Pinto were her mother, she would understand why Maddie wants to color her hair black, straighten it, and ask the doctor how to get rid of the freckles. Maddie’s mother always says that grown-ups pay a lot of money for hair like hers.
“They can have it,” Maddie snaps whenever she hears this.
She once tried to cover her freckles with her mother’s make up, and and her hair with her Dad’s old bandana, but it was useless. She is Maddie the Red. Mommy says she loves Maddie: “Freckle to freckle and head to toe.”
Her mother doesn’t know how much the other kids tease her about her hair and freckles. They hurt her feelings and make her mad. Once she told a boy who wouldn’t leave her alone that his heart must be the size of her smallest freckle, he was so mean, but that made the teasing even worse. And once, when she pulled a tormentor’s hair, Miss Pinto sent her to The Office. After that, the whole class had to go to the cafeteria to hear a man talk about bullying.
But now it is the last day of school and Maddie can’t wait for her bus to be called.
“Now boys and girls, before you start third grade I want you to promise me that you will read at least 20 minutes every day this summer. All that outside reading will have you ready to go when you start third grade.”
The whole class groans. Maddie hates homework. Maybe Miss Pinto would not be such a good mother after all. She would probably make her read on the Fourth of July!
When she gets off the bus, Maddie races home, letting the screen door slam behind her. All the pictures hanging in the hall rattle. Her mother shouts at her from her office upstairs.
“Maddie, how do we close the front door? Come up and tell me about the last day of second grade,’ she calls. Maddie grabs two just-baked cookies and a juice box, then runs upstairs.
“Last day of school!” Her mother smiles. “I always loved the last day of school, too! Report card?”
She holds out her hand and Maddie turns it over.
Maddie hesitates. “It was all A’s except for reading. I like to read, I’m just not great at it. Miss Pinto told the whole class that we need more outside reading.”
“Well, a little outside reading never hurt anyone,” Mommy says. “I’m off tomorrow and we’ll go to the library.”
Maddie hugs her mom, then disappears to her own room. She picks out 10 of her favorite books and puts them in her backpack. She fills her water bottle, takes a few more cookies and, at the last second, an apple. She packs the wooden sword she has had since she was five and wanted to be a pirate.
She even packs her sunblock and a hat. Then she jumps from the fourth step to the foyer, making a loud crash and darting off before she gets in trouble.
Maddie pedals her bike as fast as she can toward the woods, where she and her best friend, Chuckie, had built a fort last summer. Then Chuckie’s father got a new job in another state, and they moved. Since neither one of them can have a phone of their own, they write real letters to each other. Ever since Chuckie moved away, Maddie hasn’t been back to the fort. It makes her miss him too much.
“But Chuckie likes to read, so maybe he’ll rub off on me,” she thinks.
She walks through the tangled, thorny vines full of their purple berries, slicing away with her sword to clear a path–but the fort is gone! All that’s left are the door and a faded “Keep Out” sign.
She can’t believe anyone could have just torn it down, not even the big kids from middle school could be so mean.
“Maybe the blizzard blew it away,” she thinks. She says good-bye to the fort, which had been such a great fort, then swings her sword to get out of the woods and back to her bike.
She snaps her helmet on, then looks up and down the street, wondering if she can find a better spot for outside reading. She decides that The Climbing Tree in the neighbor’s front yard would be just right.
She gets a foothold on a low branch, then scurries up to the spot where the tree splits, with a ‘V’ shaped place that Maddie knows will make a perfect place for reading. No sooner has she settled in, book in hand, when she feels something moving in the branches above her.
“It can’t be the wind,” she thinks, a split second before she spies a long black snake, curling its way through the leaves. Maddie is not afraid of snakes, but she does not like to be near them. She stuffs her book in her pack, drops the apple, and jumps from the tree before she even gets to the lowest branch. She looks back up to find the snake, but it is camouflaged.
Back on the street, Maddie sits on the curb to think a while about the outside reading. Twenty minutes a day, every day? She wonders if Daddy could put a hammock up for her, or maybe put a cozy chair on the porch.
She notices someone sitting and slowly swaying on the porch swing at Chuckie’s old house. She leaves her bike behind, and walks over to get a better look. She hopes against hope that the new people have a son her age, just like Chuckie, or a girl who likes red hair and playing animal hospital. Mostly, she thinks, she wants a friend.
A white-haired lady is sitting very straight and still on the porch swing.. She must be short, Maddie thinks, because her feet don’t reach the floor. Every few minutes, she uses a cane to give herself a push. Maddie moves even closer, inching along the walkway to the house. She can see the woman’s face. It is crackled with wrinkles.
Just as Maddie is about to turn away, the woman spots her.
“Why hello there! Want to swing a while?” she asks in a wrinkled sort of crackly voice.
Maddie steps up to the porch.
“Hello, my name is Maddie. My best friend ever used to live here. I miss swinging with him,” she says. She knows she is not supposed to talk to strangers, but this lady looks so old, older than anyone Maddie has ever seen.
“Would it be okay for me to do my outside reading here?” she asks.
The old lady chuckles. “I guess a porch will do for outside reading. Climb on up!” She pats the cushion at her side. “My name is Rosalind, but you may call me Miss Rose. Let’s see what you have here.”
Maddie pulls her books out, all ten of them.
“Would you like to hear one? Miss Pinto says I am good at reading out loud,” Maddie says. Outside read aloud! She thinks.
“Why so many books?” Miss Rose asks.
“I want to finish a whole week’s worth today,’ she says. She tells Miss Rose about her problems finding the best spot, the beaten down fort, the snake in the tree.
“How dreadful! Snakes! Not my cup of tea,” Miss Rose says. “I’m sure your teacher didn’t mean for it to be so hard to find a spot. You are welcome to use my swing any time you want to read.”
She adds, “And you can read to me. I am a good listener.”
Maddie reads two books and guesses it has been twenty minutes. Miss Rose smiles at her.
“Well done, Maddie,” she says.
Maddie thinks it might be nice to have a new best friend next door, and she nods happily.
“Can I come tomorrow, after swim team?” she asks. “I have to ask Mommy, too.”
“Of course you can, dear.” Miss Rose looks at her watch. “Time for me to head on in.”
Very, very slowly, Miss Rose uses her cane to lift herself from the swing.
Maddie jumps off to help her. There is a walker by the front door and Maddie brings it to Miss Rose.
“Till tomorrow,” Miss Rose says, which is something she has heard her own grandmother say.
She retrieves her bike and pedals home. She can’t wait to tell Mommy about her new friend for outside reading. Outside reading will be better than she thought it would, she decides.
And there is still time to play before dark.
Key Words: early draft, first novel, children’s books, kidlit, reading