Jessica thinks she’ll be laughed off the face of the earth…
Mary Downing Hahn may be best known for her YA suspense novels, especially the deeply creepy, deeply beloved ghost story Wait Till Helen Comes. But sprinkled throughout her bibliography are more conventional social-problem and coming-of-age novels, including The Jellyfish Season, Tallahassee Higgins, and this one, dealing with middle-school bullies, homelessness, and tragically dead parents.
The Plot: Seventh-grader Jessica Taylor is already having a bad day when her English teacher, Mr. O’Brien, announces that the class has been selected to participate in a county-wide contest to write and illustrate a children’s picture book- the class will be working in teams of two, and HE WILL ALLOW NO CHANGES TO BE MADE TO THE ASSIGNED PARTNERS (the book opens in January, and it sounds like Mr. O’Brien has been having a tough year).
Jessica is horrified when she is paired with the class pariah, Daphne Woodleigh:
There she sat, her long black hair falling down her back, hiding her face like a dark curtain. As usual she was wearing one of her bizarre outfits. Two or three layers of baggy sweaters and blouses, a calf-length tiered skirt, dark tights, thick leg warmers, and ballerina slippers. It was the sort of outfit a fashion model might wear, but in a roomful of girls wearing Shetland sweaters and blue jeans, Daphne’s clothes looked terribly out of place.
So, Daphne dresses weird, and she doesn’t talk to anybody and worst of all she appeared at the suburban Oakcrest, Maryland, middle school a few weeks after school started. With mean girls Sherry and Michelle leading the charge, Daphne has quickly become the most-hated girl in school.
Despite the previous announcement, Jess still approaches Mr. O’Brien after class, and asks if she can change partners and do the project with her best friend, Tracy. Despite the fact that it is the end of the day and he clearly just wants to go home and drink an entire six pack and forget about 7th grade for a few hours, he gently explains again that there will be no reassignments, and strokes Jess’s ego by explaining that she is the best writer in the entire 7th grade and Daphne is the best artist, so if they work together he is confident that they can bring the middle school book-writing trophy home to Oakcrest.
Jess is discouraged, not just because she’s stuck with Daphne, but also because Tracy has been way more interested in hanging out with Sherry and Michelle and screeching about boys and wearing purple eyeshadow all the way up to her eyebrows than spending time with Jess. She had hoped that if they worked together on the project their friendship would be restored.
Jess avoids talking to Daphne as long as she can, until finally Mr. O’Brien makes vague threats about her getting a bad grade in English for the first time in her life.
On a visit to the public library to look at examples of picture books (which involves much giggling over the nudity of In the Night Kitchen and sneaking looks at Playboy in the periodicals section) (did they really keep Playboy in the open stacks in the 80s????), Jess finally approaches Daphne and suggests a fairytale based on the toy mice she collects. Daphne reluctantly agrees to come over to Jess’s house that weekend and check out this whole mice idea.
Daphne arrives that Saturday with her younger sister, Hope, in tow- and Jess is surprised to learn that Daphne is largely responsible for 5 year old Hope, since they live with their grandmother after their mother and father were killed in (respectively) a car accident and Vietnam.
(Jess’s mother is also slightly alarmed when she learns that Daphne and Hope had walked several miles from the family farm, and that they don’t have a phone)
Jess sloooooooooowly finds herself warming to Daphne, who is very shy and serious, but doesn’t judge Jess for being a late bloomer who is more interested in reading, writing and playing with her doll house than boys and roller disco:
I realized that I wanted Daphne to like my story. I wanted to impress her, I wanted to realize that I wasn’t like all the other girls in our class.
Strange as it seemed, I’d had the best time I’d had in a long time. In fact, I could hardly wait for Daphne to come over again. And not just to work on the book. There were so many things I didn’t know about her, so many questions I wanted to ask.
But Jess and Daphne’s friendship is anything but smooth, and back at school and around Sherry, Michelle and Tracy, Jess finds any excuse to avoid Daphne, lest she also become a walking target, especially since Tracy and Michelle were assigned to work together:
“We’re writing this story called ‘The Nightmare Slumber Party.’ It’s about these girls who get killed one by one at this slumber party. It’s really scary because they keep hearing these weird sounds and all the horrible things happen.”
“One of the girls in going to have a boyfriend who sings in a rock band drives a red Camaro.”
And then Daphne stops coming to school. Jess gets her mom to drive out to the farm to see what’s up, but they are shocked when they drive by Daphne, Hope and their Grandmother picking up bottles on the side of the road. Although the Taylors drive on without stopping, not wanting to embarrass Daphne, Jess eventually works up the nerve to bike out to the farm on her own.
And she finally learns what Daphne’s deal is- her Grandmother had a breakdown after her son’s death, and now seems to be sliding into senile dementia, insisting that she has visions of him promising to return to care of the family. The farmhouse has no electricity, and is overrun with feral cats- the only money they have coming is from returning deposit-bottles. Daphne stopped coming to school when her Grandmother’s mental state had deteriorated to the point where she couldn’t trust her to stay with Hope during the day. Daphne begs Jess to tell everyone that she has Mono and is expected to have a long recovery before she can come back to school, and Jess reluctantly agrees to keep the secret.
And Jess manages to do so for weeks, treating Daphne and Hope to dinner at McDonalds when she gets her allowance. But when Jess is at the local supermarket with Sherry, Michelle and Tracy and they run into Daphne and her Grandmother, who is having an episode, she still can’t stick up for her friend.
Hahn doesn’t offer any easy answers or pat ending; in fact, the conclusion is pretty brutal, as Jess finally confesses to her mother what’s been going on with Daphne’s family and single-mom Mrs. Taylor gently rejects Jess’s plan adopting Daphne and Hope. She calls the county’s Family Services Department and Grandma is taken to the state psychiatric hospital and Daphne and Hope are sent to a group home in another part of the state.
When it is announced that Daphne and Jess won first prize in the writing contest, Jess can barely work up any enthusiasm, continuing to put off writing Daphne, even with the good news. Finally Mrs. Taylor insists on driving Jess to visit Daphne. At the group foster home, Hope is excited to see Jess, but informs her that Daphne doesn’t want to see anybody. Or even talk to anyone, including the distant relatives who are going to take them to live in Maine.
Jess finally finds Daphne and chases her into the woods, where she learns what happened after Family services took over:
“Did Hope tell you that Grandmother died?”
Shocked, I shook my head. “No. She just said she missed her.”
“She died a couple of weeks ago. They’d put her in a hospital. She had pneumonia, but she got worse because she hated it there. She wouldn’t eat anything and wouldn’t cooperate with the doctors or nurses.
“When they told me she was dead, I was glad, Jessica! I knew I’d never have to see her again, I’d never have to go back to that house, I’d never have to hear her talk about Daddy like he was still alive.”
At least admitting that is cathartic for Daphne, and Jess is finally able to apologize for not being a better friend when Michelle and Sherry were around. Daphne says she’ll try to get the distant relatives to drive her down for the awards ceremony for their book and Jess and Daphne declare themselves best friends, even if they are going to be hundreds of miles apart.
In conclusion: thank God you only have to be thirteen once in your life.
Sign It was Written In 1983 Department:
“I thought you were so liberated, and here you are, cooking up all this fancy stuff with tomato sauce all over it.”