A chubby 12-year-old deals with mean girls at school, a brand new super power, and an intergalactic villain who wants to take over the taste buds of humanity. With her two best friends and a most unusual guide, Henrietta Sharp must overcome her self-doubt and learn to wield her power without losing her humanity
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Twelve-year-old Henrietta Sharp is smart, funny and likes to read the dictionary. But all she really wants is to be normal, a normal size that is, like her fashion-minded best friend Taffeta Bloom. That’s life before a magic lunch box (LB) mysteriously appears and tells Henri that she is a Traveler, someone who can summon portals and travel the universe.
Before you can say brand new super-power, Henri, her brainy boy-cousin P.J., Taffeta, and LB, are off on an adventure. They must find the medallion of power that will awaken the Guide who will train Henri in the ways of a Traveler. Unfortunately, this particular Guide is the most unlikely individual ever to assume responsibility for under age children and Henri’s training is strictly on the job.
They must leave immediately for the domain of Grymvald to rescue the imprisoned leader of the Fake Food Rebellion. A rogue Traveler, now a powerful Star Lord, has enslaved much of Grymvald with a deadly, addictive substance. Now, he gathers his forces in preparation for an attack on Earth.
The friends find Grymvald a different and disturbing and kind of place. It looks a lot like Earth, except that inanimate objects are, well, animated. Vegetables talk and think, dinnerware can be lethal, and saying no to seconds can get you put in prison.
Without the least idea how, Henri must learn to wield the medallion and defeat the Star Lord, while resisting the lure of its infinite power. With LB, Taffy and P.J. by her side, Henri discovers that friendship and loyalty have a power of their very own, and that the impossible business of saving the world cannot be separated from the complex business of finding herself.
A Very Bad Day
It was a very bad day. Actually, it was the worst of all possible days. Sitting alone on the school bus, Henrietta slumped against the cool metal of the interior, staring at the cracked brown covering of the seat in a sincere attempt to become invisible.
Just like in a movie where something creepy was on the other side of a closed door Henri couldn’t resist turning the knob, going to that place in her memory, hoping that things would be different. It all started in gym class.
Mrs. Silverman ended class early with a shrill blast of her shiny whistle. Her brown hair was braided and worn on top giving the illusion of height. She might have been a wrestler before becoming a teacher, at least that’s what her sturdy body and thick neck caused Henri to imagine. Without the slightest sign of effort, Mrs. Silverman crashed her hands together in a thunderous clap.
“Attention everyone. I need all seventh-grade girls to line-up in front of me.” Hiding at the back of the line, Henri spotted the reddish-gold curls of her best friend Taffeta.
“This can’t be good,” Taffy whispered.
Henri smiled faintly, noting that even in gym class Taffy’s outfit was color coordinated to match her sky blue eyes.
“Girls,” Mrs. Silverman continued, “There is a new school dress code for gym class.” Holding up a skimpy t-shirt and extra-short shorts, Mrs. Silverman intoned with the greatest possible distaste, “Items like these are not acceptable and will no longer be tolerated. I’m pleased to announce that gym uniforms are now required.”
Looking exceptionally proud, the gold fillings in Mrs. Silverman’s back molars were in full view as she smiled holding up a hideous one-piece romper which caused a collective groan of dismay.
Pointing to the elastic bands at the arms and legs, Taffy whispered, “Do you think she’s evil, or just doesn’t get fashion?”
“Hard to say,” Henri replied, just as the squinty-eyed Mrs. Silverman called, “You, Sharp, come here please.”
Time slowed as her sneakers stuck and squeaked against the gym floor, reducing her motion to little baby steps. After a hundred million digital ticks that never got to tock, Henri was just a step away from Mrs. Silverman’s side. At that very moment, a brilliant ray of sunshine poured in through the windows high on the gym wall. A beam of light bounced off of Mrs. Silverman’s metal whistle blinding Henri with laser-like intensity.
Her body folded and fell to the floor with a funny sounding splat. No one was laughing – yet. Henri’s head was screaming at her body, “Get up. Get up now!” But her bones had gone all squishy and it seemed that gravity had Henri pinned to the ground.
“Really, Sharp! Stop clowning around.” Mrs. Silverman pulled Henri to her feet and shoved a clipboard into her hands saying, “We have work to do.”
Mrs. Silverman barked out a series of orders. “Listen up, girls. I want you to form a single line and come to me one at a time. State your name and your size (small, medium or large) so that I can order the gym uniforms for next year. Sharp will check your name off the list and mark the box next to your size.” Peering at Henri she continued, “I’d do this myself but I left my glasses at home this morning.”
Henri exchanged a quick look with Taffy. Go figure, the all-powerful Mrs. Silverman is myopic. Henri locked down her facial muscles before even the barest hint of a smile could appear. Even near-sighted she’s still scary.
“Sharp,” Mrs. Silverman said the dreaded words. “Let’s begin with you.”
“Me, Mrs. Silverman? Start what with me?”
“Haven’t you heard a word I’ve said? Start by stating your size.”
“Uh,” Henri replied faintly. “What if I just wrote it on the form?”
“Yes, yes,” Mrs. Silverman semi-shouted. “That’s precisely what I want you to do. Are you paying attention at all?”
Hunched over the clipboard, Henri’s straight brown hair disguised the scarlet rise of humiliation as it traveled from her neck to noggin, rising like a thermometer in July.
“Sharp, what’s taking so long?” Squinting at the clipboard, Mrs. Silverman said, “I see the problem. There’s no extra-large box on the form for you to check.” Mrs. Silverman lowered her voice to a whisper, which echoed off the walls to be heard by everyone. “Don’t worry dear. I’ll see if the uniforms come in extra-large, maybe an XXL, just to be sure.”
Exhaling with the relief of someone who had just averted catastrophe, Mrs. Silverman let loose a couple of attention-getting blasts. “Let’s go, people. Get yourselves in front of Sharp and state your size.”
So there she stood, drowning, even though there was plenty of air to breathe. Her classmates approached one after another, an endless list of smalls and mediums, with the occasional extra-small washing over Henri in another wave of humiliation.
Bright blue sneakers came into view, causing Henri to look up from her sweaty grip on the clipboard. Smiling mischievously Taffy stated her size loud and clear, “Extra-large, please.”
“Oh no dear,” Mrs. Silverman stood up from re-tying the world’s whitest shoelaces. “You couldn’t possibly be an extra-large.” Her eyes roamed over Taffy as if to discover parts previously missed, “No, you’re just not that large. I’ll order a medium.”
Henri started to check the M-box, when Taffy’s voice erupted like a volcano. “I don’t think so,” she said. Speaking slowly, like the ooze of red, hot lava, Taffy was now a force of nature, dangerous yet disguised.
“My mother,” Taffy said like a retail goddess, “owns the Pretty Kitty clothes boutique.” There was a shuffle and nod of affirmation from the girls in line, for all of them made the pilgrimage to Pretty Kitty with a frequency and devotion reserved for true believers in the power of fashion.
“My mother,” Taffy said, “would insist that I get an extra-large because, well, she knows a lot about clothes.” Standing extra tall, the still petite Taffy added, “Besides, I plan to grow a lot over the summer.
Mrs. Silverman had her index finger up and out, ready to dismantle Taffy’s impressive performance when the class bell rang. Shrugging her shoulders as one long conditioned to scheduled disruptions, Mrs. Silverman took the clipboard from Henri’s clenched fist and wrote XL next to Taffy’s name. With two piercing blasts of her whistle Mrs. Silverman officially ended gym class.
Beyond words and incapable of motion, Henri stood at the scene of her ordeal like a well-potted plant as her classmates migrated toward the locker room. Henri overheard alpha mean-girl Marcia Summerhill as she glided past with a supremely confident and creepy kind of grace.
“Don’t you just love Henri?” she inquired without really asking a question. “She always makes me think of Thanksgiving. It’s that perfectly round little pumpkin-head supported by her lumpy, plumpy, butter-ball body.”
Marcia’s posse flicked their eyes toward Henri snickering as they walked past, stabbing her like deftly thrown daggers.
In truth, the largest thing about Henri was her vocabulary. She was thinking about how to insult Marcia when Taffy attached herself to Henri’s side, steering her away from the Summerhill social club.
“Not a good idea,” Taffy whispered, escorting Henri in a round about way toward the locker room. “You can’t defeat a mean girl with words, no matter how many of them you know.”
Taking a deep breath, Henri forced her lips to form a halfhearted smile. “Yeah, I guess you’re right. Besides, Marcia doesn’t know that many words so she’s really hard to insult.”
Pushing open the locker room door they made their way to a remote corner in the green tiled room that smelled of sweat, soap and mildew spray. The flicker of an overhead florescent light on its last legs caused a shadowy ebb and flow across the wall.
“True,” Taffy replied. “The only way to get even with a girl like Marcia is to undermine her confidence.”
Henri forgot her locker room rule about changing clothes fast and stared at Taffy in amazement. “Just how do you go about undermining the confidence of Marcia McNasty?”
“Ooh,” Taffy said. “I like the McNasty name. And it’s kind of nice to know something you haven’t already read in a book.”
Taffy rose from the bench and rummaged through her backpack. She pulled out a barrette in hurt-your-eyes-green, caught a hunk of unruly hair and pulled it back from her face. A face, according to Henri’s way of thinking, that was just right in every way, sprinkled with enough freckles for charm, but not so many as to be a nuisance.
“It’s all those hours hanging out at the Pretty Kitty while my mom works,” Taffy explained.
Henri pulled on her stretchy black pants and blue striped shirt while Taffy shared her retail wisdom.
“You can tell a lot about people when they shop. Marcia and her mom come in and they’re so mean. They complain about everything and they make fun of the way other people look. They’re even McNasty to each other.”
Now dressed and bending to tie her sneakers Henri asked, “But what does that have to do with getting even with an alpha MG like Marcia?”
“I will reveal the answer at lunch. Right now we need to get going or we’ll be late for social studies.”
Groaning at the very thought of Mr. Farnsworth’s sleep-inducing voice, Henri stuffed her gym clothes into her backpack.
“Go ahead, Taffy. I have to stop by my locker to get my social studies book so I can turn it in.”
“Okay. I’m off.” Taffy shrugged her backpack into place. “Don’t be late. You know how Mr. Farnsworth is.”
Henri nodded her head in the general direction of the door as she wrestled with the zipper on her backpack. It made a groaning, grinding, zipper-like sound as the two sides finally joined in the middle. Just then, the intermittent florescent light gave one last flicker before going off on a permanent vacation.
Her eyes adjusted to the half-light, seeping around the corner from the fluorescent bulbs that still worked. Something wasn’t right. The tile wall she had been looking at moments before was rippling like wind-blown water. She rubbed her eyes in a futile attempt to restore reality. Henri looked again. But the wall was still acting out, behaving in a way that no wall should.
Then she heard it, a voice whispering. It bounced around the room, filling the space and leaving room for nothing else.
“Henrietta Sharp,” it called with diction so precise that her own name sounded utterly strange.
Henri marshaled every scrap of common sense, which in her case was considerable, and took inventory of the logical explanations for this unexpected turn of events.
“Okay, Taffy, you can come out now. I don’t know how you did the waving-wall thing, but it’s great. You really got me. I mean, it’s incredibly freaky and I want to know how you pulled it off, but enough already.”
“Henrietta Sharp.” Each syllable was pulled apart and re-upholstered with extra emphasis. “It’s almost time.”
Yes, Henri thought. It’s almost time for the poor little crazy girl who hears things to visit a certain kind of white-coated doctor. Is it possible? Did I eat my way to insanity, permanently screwing up my brain chemistry?
Henri leaned back against the beat-up gray lockers, feeling the cold metal seep into her bones as she considered the idea
“Henrietta Sharp.” Her name was spoken once again with a quiet insistence. “The need is great. You are the one, Henrietta Sharp. Prepare to travel. Hurry!”
Within a heartbeat it was gone. The wall stopped rippling like pond water and resumed its weight bearing responsibility. The locker room was silent, redefining quiet.
So Henri did what any reasonable person in unreasonable circumstances would do. She slithered down the length of the locker door like a de-boned fish and slipped into unconsciousness.
The floor was cool and hard in a reassuringly solid way. Henri’s eyes fluttered as if attempting to overcome the weight of her thick, dark lashes. The overhead light glared with unrelenting steadiness, stabbing her eyes. Pushing herself upright, Henri rubbed one cheek temporarily tattooed with the mosaic pattern of the tiled floor.
“Umph,” Henri stood on stiff legs and headed for the row of sinks with hurky-jerky movements reminiscent of a poor Frankenstein impression.
Incapable of more than grunts, Henri splashed cool water on her face, wiping vigorously at the markings on her cheek. Looking into the mirror above the basin, Henri stared at the reflection of a perfectly ordinary wall.
“Okay!” Henri said to her mirror image. “Here’s how I see it. I’m crazy, hearing things that aren’t there. Or, I’m not crazy and the wall did go all wavy while talking out loud.”
Drying her face and hands with a scratchy paper towel, Henri ended her conversation with self. “I’m not sure which is scarier. But for now, I’m going to believe that I’m not crazy. Just as soon as school is out, I’m going to investigate the whole weird wall thing.”
Henri’s brain filtered through the sentence and abruptly spit out the word that didn’t fit.
Not sure if minutes or months had passed, Henri grabbed her backpack and threw her body out into the hallway, chubby knees knocking as she headed into who knows what.
“Sharp. So good of you to join us.” Mr. Farnsworth was being sarcastic but Henri didn’t mind. For once he wasn’t deadly dull.
She squeezed into the seat across the aisle from Taffy who raised an eyebrow. “Are you okay? Where have you been? Why are you late? Where are your books?”
Praying that Mr. Farnsworth wouldn’t call on her, Henri kept her eyes down and willed her body to be invisible. Mr. Farnsworth continued to reveal the glories of municipal government in a consistent monotone, which was oddly comforting. It was a welcome kind of normal. Lost in thought, Henri was startled by the bell signaling the end of class. Forgetting that her body was squeezed into the desk, Henri leapt to her feet and took a step or two before grasping the situation. The rush and scuffle of students flinging themselves out the door covered Henri’s mishap, except for Marcia Summerhill that is. Her glossy lips silently mouthed the word oink as she strolled past the captive Henri. Marcia’s posse followed her example and made little oinks as they walked out of the room.
Before the insult could transform itself into ill-considered action, Taffy came to Henri’s aid for the second time that day. Swinging her backpack in a wide arc as if to position it on her shoulders Taffy bumped the tail end of the McNasties, setting off a chain reaction of stumbling and tripping that cleared the room of Marcia and her mean girl wannabes. With her backpack firmly in place, a very satisfied looking Taffy turned to Henri. “C’mon. We’d better get to English class.”
They walked down the eerily deserted hall in companionable silence. The speckled linoleum floor sloped downward, connecting the original building to a new addition. The walls were painted drab beige, brightened a bit by the primary colored artwork of the first grade class. As she glanced at her surroundings, Henri was busy stuffing Marcia’s latest mean attack into a dark place deep within.
They lingered next to their lockers, the kind that needed a shove or a kick to make the lock line up properly. Taffy scanned the hallway for McNasty sightings before whispering, “Are you okay?”
“I’m fine.” Henri formed her mouth into a reassuring, lop-sided smile. “Besides, I’ve got more on my mind than Marcia Summerhill.”
Henri could tell that Taffy was about to ask what was on her mind but she was saved by Mrs. Marinda, the music teacher who wafted down the hall toward them. An opera singer of regional renown, Mrs. Marinda was always somewhat larger than life. She never just walked. Instead, she glided, swayed or strutted as if every floor was a stage and each gesture must carry across the void of space between performer and audience.
“Henrietta! Taffeta,” Mrs. Marinda’s descending inflection spanned several notes and created a faint buzzy sensation in their collective cheekbones. “I’m so glad to see you Henrietta. I was afraid I wouldn’t get to say good-bye before I leave on my trip. Just imagine, girls. Three wonderful weeks of music and Italian food at the Bel Canto Academy in Rome.”
With insufficient understanding of what Bel Canto actually was, Henri and Taffy nodded enthusiastically anyway, thinking that music and food sounded like a good thing no matter what.
“And when we get back from summer vacation, we’ll begin your voice lessons. Yes Henrietta? It will be so wonderful to help you find your voice.”
Henri didn’t realize that her voice was lost but finding it seemed like a good idea. Glancing at her wrist for the time, Mrs. Marinda’s face registered a catastrophic dismay more commonly seen in emergency rooms.
“Excuse me, girls. I’m late for a rehearsal. Have a wonderful summer. Arrivedela Taffeta. Arrivedela Henrietta. And remember keep on singing!”
Henri and Taffy ducked into English class just before the bell rang. It was the last day of school so Mrs. Brattleby had arranged a spelling contest just for fun. Unlike other team sports where Henri was the last to be chosen, she was sought after when it came to spelling.
After class, Henri and Taffy entered the bedlam of a minimally supervised lunchroom.
“I guess the teachers couldn’t take it any more,” Taffy said between bites of her egg salad sandwich. “Poor Mr. Farnsworth with his Hush Puppies and plaid is the only adult here.” Henri had a faraway look on her face that prompted Taffy to ask, “What ‘cha thinking about? You’re awfully quiet.”
Even though she really wanted to Henri didn’t mention the wavy wall.
Instead she brought up another troubling issue. “I was waiting for you to tell me all about mean girl management. I’d like to get all revengy but that never works out well for the person taking revenge.”
“Mean girl management is revenge,” Taffy said. “It’s just the kind that doesn’t get you sent to the principal’s office.” Grabbing salt and pepper packets from a near-by table, Taffy lined them up with the precision of a science project. Then, with a wave of her hand she explained, “It’s all about the pack.”
Henri leaned forward, drawn in by Taffy’s conspirator-plotting-no-good voice. “Mean girls always have a pack,” she said. “You know, a posse like the McNasties. Alpha MGs need followers to build themselves up. All you have to do is disturb the balance in the pack and they do the rest.”
Henri looked at Taffy with the same respect one might give a venomous snake, “You seem so innocent, but you’re really dangerous. I like that about you.” Henri let out a sigh in acknowledgment of reality, “There’s no way I could subvert Marcia’s posse. They think I’m a joke because I’m so, uh, because of my size.”
Taffy hissed, making a shushing sound, “Don’t. Don’t you dare put yourself down.”
“Why not? It’s true.”
Taffy shrugged. “Nobody likes the way they look. You should hang out at the store and you’d see for yourself.”
“Yeah” Henri interrupted, “but you’re a normal size.” Taking a closer look, she added, “You’re girly-curvy.” Embarrassed Henri muttered, “Well, you’re headed in that direction. But me, there’s just entirely too much of me.”
“Is that why you’re always trying to, you know, be invisible?” Taffy whispered. “I mean sometimes it’s like you’re a brain without a body. Don’t take this wrong, but you’re the only person I know who reads the dictionary for fun.”
“I like to read,” Henri paused. “Because, well, then you know stuff,” she finished lamely. “Besides, if I’m a brain maybe people won’t notice the way I look.”
“Well, you can always change if you want to, not that I think you should. Besides, it’s not like you’re going to die from being, uh, well, you know, the way you are right now. I mean … ”
“Give it up.” Henri smiled at Taffy’s awkwardness. “There’s no easy way out of this one. But you’re wrong you know.”
“Wrong,” Taffy choked out around too big a bite of sandwich, “about what?”
“About being fat,” she said it almost without wincing. “It can cause all sorts of health problems.”
“Stop! You’re ruining my lunch. By the way, where’s your lunch? Aren’t people who want to lose weight, not that I think you should, but aren’t they supposed to eat before they get too hungry?”
“Yeah, I’ve read that too. It’s just that I’m kind of shy.”
“What in the world?” Taffy shrieked, “does being shy have to do with lunch?”
Ducking her head, Henri confessed. “I’m shy about eating in front of people because of how I look.”
Without saying a word, Taffy slid over the remaining half of her sandwich and looked sternly at Henri. “Eat this. Eat it now.”
And that’s what Henri did. Sitting companionably with her best friend, the strangest last day of school ever didn’t quite feel quite so much like the end of the world.