A Flicker of Courage

A Flicker of Courage

by Deb Caletti


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Printz Award Honoree and National Book Award finalist Deb Caletti debuts in middle grade with a tongue-in-cheek hero's journey set in a town full of magic, mayhem, lighthouses... and evil.

The story takes place in a world much like ours, but at the same time not at all like ours, in which Vlad Luxor—a capricious, vain, infantile tyrant—rules over a town with an iron fist. He's an emperor with no clothes, but woe is the person who points that out—they could wind up turned into a squirrel or lizard or who knows what! For in this world, the evil leader also has magic, which he uses to punish anyone who speaks out against him.

But in every classic tale with a despicable villain, there must also be a truly noble hero—in this case, four of them! Henry, Apollo, Pirate Girl, and JoJo must be their most brave and clever to break the spell Vlad Luxor has cast on Apollo's brother, Rocco. For we can't have Rocco remain a naked lizard for the rest of his life, now can we?

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781984813053
Publisher: Penguin Young Readers Group
Publication date: 01/07/2020
Series: Tales of Triumph and Disaster! Series , #1
Pages: 256
Sales rank: 720,187
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.90(d)
Age Range: 8 - 12 Years

About the Author

Deb Caletti is the award-winning and critically acclaimed author of over sixteen books for adults and young adults, including Honey, Baby, Sweetheart, a finalist for the National Book Award, and A Heart in a Body in the World, a Michael L. Printz Honor Book. Her books have also won the Josette Frank Award, the Washington State Book Award, and numerous other state awards and honors, and she was a finalist for the PEN Center USA Award. She lives with her family in Seattle.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1

The Backward Clock

On this Saturday morning, the Saturday morning that changes everything, Henry Every opens his bedroom window. Still wearing his striped pajamas, he leans far out. Even Henry knows you shouldn’t do this, of course, but never mind that now. He sticks one ear toward the wind and listens as hard as he can.

There are a few things you need to know about Henry. He’s a kind boy. He shudders when people are mean, and feels sorry for the losing team. He always says hello to dogs when he sees them sitting alone in cars, and when a cow is standing by herself in a field, he’ll give a friendly wave. But he’s also lonely. So lonely that he feels it like an actual ache in his heart. So lonely that he lifts his window like this every Saturday at sunrise, and every afternoon, and every evening, too. He lifts it even if the wind whips in or the rain drips down or the snow splats. In winter, when he sticks his head out, the end of his nose freezes, and on mornings like this, he breathes in the delicious smells of summer.

He doesn’t lean out his window to take in the glories of nature, though. He leans out for a more important reason, a critical reason: to listen to the Dante family next door. And the best day to do this is Saturday, at a very early hour. If he sticks his head far out then, he can hear the Dante children watching an episode of their favorite show, Rocket Galaxy. If he sits just so and barely makes a move, he can hear laser swords clashing with laser swords and the clink-zip sound of shots fired from spaceships. He can hear Rex Xavier capturing the Rebels of Venus as a meteor smashes into a magnificent planet.

Henry loves getting to listen to his favorite television show. But what he loves even more are the other sounds coming from the Dante house. The family sounds. The giggles and teasing of the Dante children, and even the shouts of GET AWAY FROM ME! and LEAVE ME ALONE! and YOUR LEG IS TOUCHING MY LEG! In the evenings, he can hear the low murmurs of Mr. and Mrs. Dante discussing important but mysterious things like mortgages and carburetors and gallbladders. He can hear the rattle and clank of pans at dinnertime as the fabulous smell of a Meat Mayhem Loaf drifts over to his window.

And he can hear his classmate Apollo Dante just being Apollo Dante—practicing his spelling words with a confident voice, patiently explaining to his sister, Coco, how a radio works. He can hear the thump, thump of a baseball hitting the very center of Apollo Dante’s mitt as he tosses it into the air again and again. Henry has lived next door to Apollo his whole life, and he and Apollo have been at the same school forever, but Henry can’t even speak to him. Henry can barely speak to anyone at school, but with Apollo it’s worse. Apollo is so smart and so astonishing that every, every time he asks Henry to play, Henry’s voice glugs and splutters like a clogged-up toilet. All he can manage to do is shake his head to sayno as his insides scream yes.

Honestly, every time any of the various members of the Dante family say, Good morning, Henry! or, How are you, Henry? or, Would you like to come over for dinner, Henry? his cheeks flame hot and his chin tilts down and he feels an upsetting clash of joy and sadness in his stomach. This is hard to understand, let alone explain, but a very deep piece of Henry is sure that he should never have any of that lovely goodness that belongs to the Dantes, and that Apollo should never, ever evensee the terrible horribleness that belongs to him.

So instead, he leans out his window and listens to them. And, wow, it’s all wonderful. It’s all reassuring and calm and happy. Since Henry’s house feels empty, these smells and sounds fill him up same as Yummers With Cheese. Well, he’s never actually eaten Yummers With Cheese. His parents would never let him have something that marvelous, not in a million years. But the point is, he loves what goes on at the Dante house. It makes him feel such longing that his chest hurts.

This morning, though, when he pops his head out, something is strange. Something is very, very strange. Eerie strange. It’s quiet over there. Dead silent. There’s not a tickle or a shriek or someone getting mad because they’ve just been pinched. No one is tattling or screeching from fun. No one is crying because their glitter ball just rolled into the garbage disposal. Rex Xavier’s laser sword is not slashing and jabbing and ridding the earth of evil.

It’s strange, and also worrisome. A bad feeling inches in. He stares hard at the Dante house. Henry needs glasses, but no one has noticed. So if you looked up at his window right then, you’d see a boy with thin shoulders and rumpled black hair, his eyes squinched in order to see better. From what he can tell, the Dante windows are shut tight on this warm summer morning. The cars sit still in the drive. Even the bright green blades of grass of the Dante lawn stand straight and unmoving.

It’s weird, all right. It’s making Henry quite nervous. Well, he has lots of reasons to be nervous anyway, but now he gets the shivery creeps, the kind where it seems like a mouse has just scampered up your spine.

And then he hears it. A horrible wail. It’s the sound of a wounded animal or a heart breaking. A bunch of awful and shocking images flash across Henry’s mind. His gut gives a wing-flap of panic.

He cranes his neck farther. This is extraordinarily inad-visable. Also terribly foolish. The whole top half of his body sticks out. One more inch, and he’ll tumble forward like a rolled-up sleeping bag. His heart pounds. His striped pajamas get somewhat sweaty in the armpits. But this is when he finally sees Apollo Dante, standing right there on the sidewalk in front of Henry’s house. That noise, that wailing—it’s coming from Apollo.

Suddenly, Henry’s doing stuff without even thinking about it. He backs up fast. Slams the window shut. He throws on a pair of shorts and a T-shirt. His knees look like a pair of tennis balls. The shirt is an old holey hand-me-down from his father. Henry’s skin is so pale, you can practically see the highway of veins underneath. Still, you see something else, too. The tiny, flickery flame of a person who badly wants to have a friend. Tobe a friend. The golden hue of someone who might one day be a hero.

Here is another thing you need to know about Henry Every: Way down deep, in that quietest place where you keep secrets even from yourself, Henry holds a tiny hope. Maybe, just maybe, there’s something else out there for him, something other than loneliness and hunger and hiding. He has felt this inside, a waiting, like a caterpillar wrapped up in its cocoon. He didn’t know what to do with a feeling like that. So he tucked it far, far back in his mind, as if it were a present he might someday open.

And now, seeing Apollo in despair, the butterfly knocks at the cocoon, and the ribbon is flung off the gift. Apollo’s tears send Henry down the stairs so fast, he’s practically flying. He races past his parents and hurls open his front door. A different Henry steps outside, only he doesn’t know it yet.

A story old and new begins.

But be warned, because in this story, there are slippery creatures, dark forests, and dazzling displays of courage. There is also evil, lots of evil, and a few near misses, and several daring escapes. It is a terrifying and nail-biting and nerve-racking tale.

One that unwinds, like a timeless, backward clock.

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