Katie KNOWS she’s different but she’s never tried to hurt anyone…
Happy New Year! I am starting off 2018 by digging in to my list of reader requests- if there is a book you’d like to recommend (…or remind me that you’ve recommended…) please leave a comment!
Background: Willo Davis Roberts was one of the more prolific writers toiling away in the YA/Middle Reader vineyards of the 1970s and 80s, authoring YA Romances (3 titles in the Sunfire series), social-problem books (including Don’t Hurt Laurie!) and thrillers such as The View From the Cherry Tree…
The Plot: …and this one, a younger, less gory take on telekenesis than Carrie, that still manages to work in parental abandonment, pre-teen alienation, Big Pharma cover-ups, and (of course!) crappy adults.
As the book opens, Katie Welker, 9-going-on-10 (going on 40), has been reluctantly reunited with her mother, Monica, after the sudden death of her paternal Grandmother: after her parents divorced when she was a baby, Mom left Katie with her father to “go to work” and Dad soon dumped Katie on his own mother and split the scene for good. Katie and her mother have moved into the rundown The Cedars apartment complex in the unnamed Big City, where their neighbors include swingin’ single gal Miss K and balding, child-hating, would-be ladies’ man Mr. P.
We quickly learn that adults think Katie is weird right off the bat, whether it is because she is overly serious for a girl her age or because they notice her distinctive silver-colored eyes. In Delaney, the farming community that she had lived with her Grandmother, her oddness quickly inspired fear in both adults and her classmates as people seemed to have “bad luck” whenever she was around. In truth, Katie has been developing her telekinetic powers for some time: she can open the latch on the mailbox and float the mail in through the front door or fetch a handkerchief for her Grandmother without leaving the comforts of her chair. She had occasionally used her abilities to entertain herself (blowing pollen into church during a boring sermon to start a congregation-wide sneezing fit), or defend herself (the school bully gets stabbed with his own pocket-knife when he won’t stop poking her with it during class). But she thinks of her “powers” mostly as a novelty.
Katie is not entirely likeable as a heroine, something of a daring choice for a young girl that has had a difficult life up to this point. When she meets her mother’s oafish new boyfriend, Nathan, she dismisses the suggestion that they all watch TV after dinner:
“I don’t watch much TV,” Katie told her. “I can make up better stories in my head than most of those silly things.”
Katie takes it as a given that she is more intelligent than any of the adults she encounters, and is given over to lofty pronouncements such as
Kids had to resign themselves to all kinds of things they didn’t really like.
While she mentally pats herself on the back for things like not telling her invalid neighbor that her store-bought oatmeal cookies taste like crap, she does not extend the same courtesy to Mrs. H, her new babysitter, when she takes an immediate dislike to the woman and starts questioning her about the wart on her face. Following a demonstration of her powers over the breakfast table, a shaken Mrs. H quits after the first day (Katie has a harder time driving off the second babysitter, the grotesque Mrs. G who is too busy watching soaps and drinking Nathan’s beers that she doesn’t even notice Katie’s impressive displays of powers, even when Katie summons a wind storm to blow her wiglet right off her big fat head).
So, Katie is kind of a pretentious pill, but Roberts also manages to make her a lonely little girl who has never had any friends. So it’s a relief when she discovers that she can communicate with the fat and spoiled cat who lives in the apartment across the hall. The eccentric Mrs. M., the cat’s owner, accepts Katie’s communiques from her beloved Lobo unquestioningly and gives Katie the run of her collection of books in gratitude.
Katie also meets Jackson Jones, the neighborhood’s put-upon teenaged paperboy when he comes to collect for the tenant who previously occupied the Welkers’ apartment (and skipped town without paying for his last month of papers). Jackson Jones, the middle child of 8 siblings, doesn’t think Katie’s silver eyes are weird at all (he has one blue and one green eye himself) and is appreciative of her using her powers to get Mr. P to finally cough up for his papers.
Having finally gotten rid of Mrs. G for good, Katie’s mother agrees to have Mrs. M keep an eye on her during the day, and Katie soon comes trust Mrs. M even more than her own mother, providing a demonstration of her telekinetic powers and admitting that she can read Lobo’s mind.
Katie spends a lot of time eavesdropping on adults discussing her, and one night she overhears her mother and Nathan talking about how when Monica was working for a pharmaceutical manufacturer, packing a new pain reliever called Ty-Pan-Oromine, she and three of her coworkers all became pregnant at the same time; however, shortly after they returned to work after giving birth, they were all laid off after the drug is abruptly taken off the market. While Monica is wracked with guilt over the idea that handling the medication might be the cause of Katie’s oddness, Nathan is more succinct in his assessment:
“Maybe she’s a mutation or something.”
Monica dismisses the idea, saying that she’s still in touch with her former co-workers, and there was nothing wrong with THEIR kids, ok?
But Katie is intrigued by the thought of the other children exactly her age. Could they have the same powers that she does? While her mother is at work, she snoops through her old keepsakes, turning up letters and birth announcements, and with Mrs. M’s help starts a search for the other three children. She finally has success in locating one boy, Dale, via telephone, and he sounds as intrigued as she is to meet her. But when she turns up on his doorstep a few days later, his family seems less than thrilled with her sudden appearance and Katie runs away from them when they notice her silver eyes. In a nearby park, Katie prepares to psychically aid some young children being bullied when someone else seems to intervene. Katie is startled, since she had nothing to with it- and then notices another boy across the park. Does he have silver eyes as well? He beats a hasty retreat, and when Katie can’t catch up with him, she resigns herself to taking the bus back home.
Around this time a hunky new bachelor moves into the downstairs apartment and ingratiates himself to the Welkers… but also starts asking a lot of questions of all of the neighbors about Katie. When she overhears him telling Mrs. M that her neighbors in Delaney suspected that after a quarrel Katie had pushed her Grandmother down the basement stairs, killing her, she panics. Is Mr. C a detective investigating her for the murder of her grandmother?
Katie decides to run away from home, and the always-reliable Jackson Jones smuggles her into his sister’s slumber party: among 15 other girls sprawled out in the basement rec room, Katie’s presence is barely noticed, and for once she’s treated like the rest of the kids as they spend the evening telling ghost stories, raiding the refrigerator and watching TV. All is well until the news comes on and Katie sees her own school photograph on the screen, with the message that anyone who sees her should contact the police.
Quickly taking off her glasses and changing her hairstyle, Katie is able to keep up the charade until the following morning, when nobody comes to collect her and Mrs. Jones finally notices that she’s the girl that’s been all over the TV.
Katie runs away again, but this time she has an idea: if she can psychically communicate with animals, maybe she can with humans as well. She returns to the park in Dale’s neighborhood, and after some fierce concentration she successfully summons Dale. Finally able to have a conversation, Katie and Dale discover many shared experiences: distrust and fear from their classmates and family, blame for anything that goes wrong, whether they caused it or not. Katie also fills Dale in on the existence of Eric and Kerri, the two other children born to the factory workers the same time as them, and that Katie thinks she saw Eric in the park. Working together, they try to mentally summon Eric to join them, which he does, hilariously with a sack of hamburgers because Katie was hungry to the point of distraction.
Together they decide to return to the Cedars Apartments and try to collectively read Mr. C’s mind, to see if he is really going to try to arrest Katie for the murder of her grandmother. They arrive at the same time as the Lamont family, and they immediately recognize Kerri (bonus power: can see in the dark), who slips away and explains that Monica came home and found Katie gone and assumed that she had been kidnapped, and the Lamonts were coming to support the search.
The four children troop into the apartment, much to Monica’s relief, and demand answers from Mr. C, who admits that he’s from the Institute of Psychic Phenomena, and has been snooping around so he can recruit the four silver-eyed children for his special school…
“We at the institute want to know what these powers are, and how they can be developed to produce the most good for the most people.”
So… be off-brand X-Men? That sounds shady as hell.
Katie and the others are less than thrilled about the idea of being studied “like bugs”, and mind-reading Dale confirms that
“I think he’s sincere in saying he wants what’s best for us, and for everybody else. I don’t know if we’d always agree with him that he wants is what we want.”
While it doesn’t get decided, the book ends with Katie and the others have at last made some real friends and having gained a few answers. Also one last prank on Mr. P.
Meta! Department: The books that Katie reads to her invalid neighbor in Delaney includes The View from the Cherry Tree.
Sign It Was Written In 1980 Department:
She only watched The Edge of Night or Search for Tomorrow or As The World Turns when she was too sick to read.