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by Justin Sayre


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"Coming-of-age never looked so beautiful." - Kirkus (Starred Review)
"[A] powerful story of growth and change, brimming with honesty and hope." - Publishers Weekly
"Students who might not yet be ready for Angie Thomas’s The Hate U Give will find an equally compelling narrator and story in Pretty." - VOYA Reviews

Sophie's perspective on what being pretty really means changes drastically in the second adjective-busting novel by the author of Husky, Justin Sayre.

Sayre details the private and public life of a thirteen-year-old burdened with far more than the middle-school adjective of Pretty. Though she appears confident, stylish, and easygoing at school, Sophie lives a nightmare at home. When her mother's alcohol addiction spirals out of control, Sophie's Auntie Amara steps in to help. She teaches Sophie new lessons about her family and heritage, while also challenging her to rethink how she feels about friends, boys, and even her sense of place in the Brooklyn neighborhood where she lives. Sayre, a master storyteller in the coming-of-age genre, asks readers to confront superficial assumptions about gender and beauty, and breathes new life into the canon of middle-grade realistic fiction.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780448484181
Publisher: Penguin Young Readers Group
Publication date: 06/26/2018
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 240
Sales rank: 718,952
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.20(h) x 0.70(d)
Age Range: 10 - 14 Years

About the Author

Justin Sayre is a writer and performer, appearing regularly in New York City and Los Angeles.  His debut novel, Husky was deemed "a superb addition to the middle grade literary canon" by VOYA Magazine and called "[a] moving journey of self-discovery . . ." by Publishers Weekly.  In addition to being an author of books for young readers, Sayre is a television writer for 2 Broke Girls and appeared in Lisa Kudrow's The Comeback.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1

The water’s on. That means she’s in the bathroom.

      At night, this is the game we play. I win when I hear her turn the water off, then take the five steps to her door, then the three to her bed. She wins if she doesn’t.

      Off, then five, then three.

      Off, then five, then three.

      But she’s still in there. She’s knocked some lotion bottles off the back of the toilet and cursed. I yell in to her, “Janet, do you need help?”

      “No! Go to bed,” she yells back and keeps talking to herself, probably about me, but I don’t care. I’m just waiting for the steps.

      Off, then five, then three.

      I used to think that this was crazy, having to wait like this for your mother to go to bed. But Janet isn’t like other mothers. So this is the game we play, every night, waiting to see who gets to breathe first. I’m not trying to say I don’t breathe during the day—I would, like, die—but breathing at the end of the night, when Janet has turned off the water and taken the five steps and then the three, and I’ve heard the squish sound of her mattress, is something very different.

      If I win, everything stops. I can stop my mind from racing through all the day’s stuff that’s happened with school and friends and her stuff and everything else that scrolls down in a long list in my head, every day. But only if I win.

      Only after the water’s off.

      Off, then five, then three.

      I keep repeating it over and over, hoping that almost by magic, it will get her to do it. And then she turns the water off. And the light. Janet closes the door and takes the five steps to her door. She waits a second, then turns the knob and one . . . two . . . three . . . mattress drop. She’s gone. She’s out. I’ve won.

      And I breathe. The lists of my day float by again.

      First, the morning getting ready alone and sneaking out without waking her but still checking that she’s in bed and that the bed is dry.

      Then school and the walk with Ducks and everything he has to say. It’s always a lot. And school and tests and classes and homework and Allegra and boys, which seem like a lot of trouble over not a lot of anything else.

      The walk home, with the slow steps I don’t even count until I open the door and find out what’s waiting for me behind it. Nothing will matter much until that.

      The minute I walk in the door, everything revolves around Janet, whether she realizes it or not. Even if I’m doing homework or watching TV or texting with Allegra or Ellen or whoever. I’m never not watching her. I’m counting. Counting how many drinks she’s had. Counting how many times she yells at the TV or trips on the door ledge. Counting all the time until her steps to bed and my one long breath. Counting to five, then to three.

      For the longest time, I didn’t even know she drank. I thought that she was just like everyone else’s mom. Everyone else’s mom needed help up the stairs sometimes or slept on the bathroom floor because she couldn’t make it to bed. I was sure everyone else’s mom turned up the music at three in the morning and danced, and wanted you to dance, too, so pulled you out of bed even though there was school in the morning; everyone else’s mom could be great like that. And everyone else’s mom could get sad about something and cry and pull you close to her, asking why her husband left five years ago, then push you away, cursing at him and asking how she’s ever supposed to meet someone now that she’s forty-five, and thank God you don’t know what any of this means, since you’re only thirteen.

      But that’s not everyone else’s mom. That’s just mine.

      My list is short today. My book report is half finished, and Janet’s offered to read through it tomorrow or the next day. She’ll feel useful, and if I write it well, she’ll be proud and braggy about it. She’ll grab the phone and threaten to call my teacher right now and tell her that her daughter, her genius daughter, deserves an A and probably a book contract, and if she’s too stupid to see that, my mother has a Peabody Award she can kiss. I fight her for the phone during this and, once I’m able to hang it up, we laugh for a while about it. It’ll be early, she’ll have only had a few. Once that stops, the night can go anywhere. Janet can go in any direction. She’s like a bouncing ball sometimes, and if you miss it once, it bounces under a car or up onto the roof, and everything is lost, all because you missed it just the once. This is why I have to watch her. This is why I have to count.

      It’s over for today. All of it.

      I close my eyes and I’m out.

      In the morning, I always check on her first. It’s the start of my day. I tiptoe the thirteen steps to her room, squeeze my way in through the sliver opening of the door, and look in at her. I look closely to see that she’s breathing, but I can usually hear her. Then I have to check if the bed is wet. Today, it’s not. That’s excellent. Now I can shower.
A morning like this is the best part of my day, sometimes my week. It’s before I have to hold my breath with Janet, and I can just take care of me. Put myself together and get a look. My favorite mornings are when clothes are the biggest worry, at least for the moment.
I need to get my hair fixed. I should tell Janet, if she doesn’t notice it first. She gets really mad if I let my hair go too long and then complains how everyone will see what a bad mother she is, and she doesn’t understand why I would want to do that. She can’t have that. Janet’s always worried about what everyone is doing or what everyone is thinking about her. Except me.

      I start thinking about my look.

      This September is still too hot, so I can’t wear a lot of layers yet, which is a shame because I love having a switch look halfway through the day. You can do that with a cardigan or a jacket, but in this heat, the look has to be sacrificed. I get in and out of the shower, lotion up quickly too. If my elbow gets even a little ashy, Janet is in on me again about how I’m embarrassing her.

      In my room, I open the closet and start putting together my look. If anything, I know how to dress. It’s probably the thing I’m best at.

      Janet used to tell me you can’t teach taste, and I guess you can’t, but I always feel like she’s taught me. Even when I was a little kid, Janet would sit me on her lap and flip through “the rags.” That’s what she called the fashion magazines. I think I loved being close to her and hearing the excitement in her voice when she talked about Givenchy or the new collection by Alexander McQueen. My dad was living with us then, and he would laugh at how still and serious I got when Janet dropped “the rags” on the floor and called me over. Almost like I was heading to school.

      “She’s the only girl in kindergarten who knows Dolce and Gabbana,” my father would say.

      We were happy then, together. But that was a long time ago.

      Today, I’m wearing a blue low V-neck, almost arctic, from Old Navy. It’s not fancy, but it does the trick with this flowy navy skirt with the smallest dots of the blue in the flowers, which pop when put with this top. The skirt is fancy, my dad sent it from Milan with a note that said lots of things that meant make sure you call me and thank me so I won’t be disappointed in you, and you’re welcome for the skirt.

      I put it with plain white sneakers and a very low sock, a long chain with a peacock feather on the end that I got from Ducks, and white lace Madonna gloves. I know it might seem like a lot for a Tuesday in the eighth grade, but I like it, and I need it. I always need a little something extra. It makes me feel like me, at least for a while.

      I go down to the kitchen, skipping the creaky step just in case, and pour myself some orange juice and start looking for a bagel. I hate when Janet buys onion bagels because she never eats them, but she leaves them at the bottom of the bag, so they stink up everything else. Blueberries and onions don’t mix anywhere. It’s like how I think of Janet in general. It should be a sweet thing, living alone with my mom, Janet, the beautiful fashion writer, but there’s something off. There’s one onion bagel in the bag, and it stinks up everything else. Lucky for me, today there’s a sesame right on top and strawberry jelly in the fridge, so I guess it’s not all bad.

      I grab my phone as I put the plate in the sink and see the three texts from Allegra already. Two Hi ones and one picture of her outfit. It’s funny because she thinks she’s killing it, wearing the best outfit EVAH, and she needs to show me because I will absolutely die. I really hate to be this mean about my friend, but she never has an outfit that is the Best Evah.

      She wears expensive things all the time, and I guess that’s cool. But that’s also her big mistake. You can shop your money away on a few expensive things, but that’s just one side of fashion. There’s nothing extra. There’s nothing you. You will be the picture that is set out by the designer or the store. But when you go all over, and you buy cheap stuff and fun stuff and crazy stuff and pricey stuff, you get all the extra, you get all of you. You need things that mean something to you, things that tell your story. Janet wrote that once. It was a big article for her. It’s her philosophy of fashion.

      I guess it’s mine, too, now.

      I never tell Allegra what I think about her outfits. I just send her emojis that I guess she reads as happy. It makes me feel better than lying. Stupid doodles can mean whatever you want.

      I slip my phone in my pocket and, with my books and folder in my hands and my pencil behind my ear, which will look old-school to highlight the gloves, I head outside to meet Ducks. He’ll notice the gloves and my necklace, I know. He always does. Sometimes I do the extra just for him.

      I close the door quietly. When I open it again, who knows what I’ll find.
Chapter 2

Outside, Ducks is waiting for me by the gate. His real name is Davis, but I’ve always called him Ducks. He has one earbud in. He likes to do this, pretend like he’s so focused on you, but there’s always opera blasting in his other ear. It doesn’t really bother me, but I wish he would just be honest and comfortable about it, instead of pretending that he’s listening with his whole head.

      “Those gloves are amazing,” Ducks says as I walk down to him. “And the necklace.” Then his face turns a little panicked. “Did you do all the reading for social studies?” he asks me.

      “It wasn’t that much,” I say. My phone buzzes in my pocket with a text from Allegra, asking if I want her to pick me up in her car. That’s how rich she is: Her parents have a car and drive her to school, while the rest of almost everyone we know walks or takes the train.

      “Who’s that?” Ducks asks.

      “Allegra,” I tell him. “She’s asking if we need a ride.” As soon as I get the words out, his panic about the twelve pages we had to read on the invention of cuneiform turns into something worse. Allegra has been mentioned. Now everything matters. Everything is a deal, big or little. It was just a car ride. I was stupid to mention it.

      “No, I’ll walk. It’s okay if you want to go though,” he says, backing away.

      It’s not okay at all, in fact. It’s totally the opposite. It’s always like this with Ducks, everything you do has a reaction or a moment when he has to wonder if he can or you can or what anyone will think or what he even thinks about it. It’s exhausting for us both. What is wrong with a ride to school?

      I text Allegra no. I’m walking with Ducks. I push open the iron gate and follow him down the street. When I catch up to him, he smiles. Sometimes I wish he could feel just one thing instead of twenty. There’s only so much I can take before school and before Janet.

      The walk down 7th Avenue is mostly quiet. The low static of Ducks’s music follows us along, to remind us that we are not talking. But that’s fine.

      Ducks knows me but doesn’t know about Janet. I know it’s very strange to say, but I used to get mad at him for not knowing. I mean, every little face I make or word I say is a huge deal to him, so why can’t he see something so obvious like that when it’s going on all the time?

      But how would he see? I cover for her all the time, and she doesn’t go out enough. And when she does, she’s always friendly and fun. I notice the little stuff because I have to. I look for clues to how many drinks she’s had. And sometimes I want to tell him, but I know that it’s easier just to keep quiet. Sometimes quiet is good.

      Ducks turns to me and asks, “So you really did all the reading for social studies?”

      “Yes,” I answer. “How many pages did you get through?”

      “Like, five. Is that bad?” he asks, scrunching his nose at me. He wants me to tell him no and all the stuff he needs to know so he can feel fine about not doing his homework. And he knows I’ll do it. That’s why he scrunches his nose at me. Ducks is my best friend, and even now, the minute before I dive into a full book report on the last seven pages of our homework he didn’t read, I take a second to laugh at his nose and roll my eyes, because I know he knows I’ll help him. It’s what we do.

      By the time we’re out of the numbered streets, Ducks is all caught up on the beginning of civilization, and we can talk about other things.

      “Well I think, I mean, really, I think Ryan like likes you,” Ducks says, staring at the sun and not at me.

      “He’s never said anything,” I answer.

      Ryan is a friend who sometimes comes over with Allegra and his friend Brian. He’s all right. He’s cute, I guess, I mean, if you like boys like that. Ryan is a boy. There’s no other way to describe him. He does boy things and says boy things. It’s not like Boy is a separate language or anything, it’s just that I don’t know how I’m supposed to respond in Girl with so much Boy coming at me all the time. Lots of other girls like him, though. Emily Winter writes his name all over her homework and downloads all the pictures from his Facebook. Let her talk Boy to him.

      “I mean, he is Ryan Julesning, he’s a Thing,” Ducks says, like it’s something everybody knows and yet I need to be reminded about. Ryan is popular. Everybody knows him, and people talk about what he does. He’s Ryan. Of Ryan and Brian. And Ryan of the basketball team. And Ryan with the great hair and the really sweet smile. It might also be that he’s tall. He’s like the Bank Tower with the big red clock near our school. A landmark or something you can see from anywhere in our classroom.

      “Yeah, and I’m Sophie LeClerq. Aren’t I a Thing?” I smile at Ducks. He smiles back, beaming.

      On the corner of President Street, there’s this cute little vintage store called Shelley’s that always has the best stuff in the window, so of course I always have to stop. I love places like this, and Park Slope has a lot; vintage shops for clothes and furniture and interesting stuff that’s old and you can’t find anywhere else. Today in the window, they have this old mannequin with a crack in its face, wearing a cape. It’s plaid, with big sections of bright mustard. The cape is loud and it would be a lot to wear every day, because it’s so bright, but for a once-a-week jacket, maybe to wear every other Friday, just to change up the look on the walk to school when it really gets cold in a few more weeks, it might be perfect. This is what I’m talking about. This is the extra.

      “Do you like that?” Ducks says, making a face that says he doesn’t.

      “Oh, come on. It’s great. It’d be awesome with a hat and maybe gloves,” I answer.

      “I bet it’s really expensive. Nothing in Shelley’s is ever cheap.”

      “Yeah, ’cause you are paying for how special it is,” I shoot back. “I mean, where are you ever going to find something like that?”

      “Is special what you want?” Ducks asks.

      “Sometimes. Not every day. But sometimes,” I answer.

      “It must be nice,” Ducks says. I know what he’s thinking about, but I don’t dare bring it up. I don’t want to get into a whole debate before school.

      A few months ago, Ducks started saying I was pretty. Not in a creepy way or anything like that, not in a he likes me way. He totally doesn’t. We’re not like that at all. Where a boy like Ryan is all boy, from his sneakers to his endless supply of snot, Ducks is something else. He’s quieter. He gets hurt more easily, and I don’t think I have ever seen him blow his nose more than three times.

      The trouble with the Pretty thing is the way he says it. It’s not, like, just a factual thing like my name or my address or the color of my skirt. It’s more than that. A couple months ago, our friend Ellen told him something about adjectives. That you, like, get one word and you’re stuck with it. It sounds so stupid. But also, really, who cares? If you don’t even get a say in what your adjective is or even get to pick the people who decide it, what’s the point? Ducks worries about stuff like this all the time. So does Ellen. I would, too, but it’s not as important to me. They would say that’s because I got a good one, so everything is easy and fun for me.

      But, Pretty, what does that even mean?

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