Author Luke Reynolds’s humorous and heart-warming contemporary novel, The Looney Experiment, chronicles one boy’s journey through bullying, first love, and an up-close examination of the meaning of courage.
Atticus Hobart couldn’t feel lower. He’s in love with a girl who doesn’t know he exists, he is the class bully’s personal punching bag, and to top it all off, his dad has just left the family. Into this drama steps Mr. Looney, a 77-year-old substitute English teacher with uncanny insight and a most unconventional approach to teaching. But Atticus soon discovers there’s more to Mr. Looney’s methods than he’d first thought. And as Atticus begins to unlock the truths within his own name, he finds that his hyper-imagination can help him forge his own voice, and maybe—just maybe—discover that the power to face his problems was inside him all along.
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|Age Range:||11 - 14 Years|
Read an Excerpt
The Looney Experiment
By Luke Reynolds
ZONDERVANCopyright © 2015 Luke Reynolds
All rights reserved.
Thunder, The Silver-Haired Man, And The Usual Results
"Atticus, we really don't have all day. Would you please move a little faster?" Mrs. Kathan looks at me and rubs her belly. It's a big belly. The kind of belly a marble would roll right off if placed anywhere on it. Even if the marble didn't roll off, the baby inside would probably kick it off.
"Atticus! Can you hear me?"
"Yes, Mrs. Kathan. Yes, I mean, I can, um, yes ..." The words feel like wet sand in my mouth.
"Get up and give your speech, Atticus. Now." Mrs. Kathan's chair squeaks as she leans back. I know she's not trying to be mean, and all through the winter and spring she's told us that having a baby in your belly makes you more emotional than normal. Okay. Fine. But I'm already terrified, and listening to someone "more emotional" tell me to hurry up isn't helping any.
I don't know why I can't speak in class. All I know is that when I try to get what's in my head to come out for other people to hear, it doesn't work.
It never works.
I pretend to shuffle my papers some more. I put my index cards with their big ROBERT FROST lettering into my red folder. Then I unclip the red folder from my three-ring binder. Then I take the index cards back out, clip my red folder back into my binder, flip my binder closed, and—
"Atticus! Get up there now, or you're getting an F on the poet report and your mom will get another call from me. We have seven more students who need to give their reports today and I—ah, ooh—I am not going to put up with this hemming and hawing garbage again. Do you hear me?" Mrs. Kathan leans way to the left in her chair, grabs her belly-with-the-baby-inside, and shimmies around. Her face stretches out like she's about to blow painful bubbles.
I stand up and start walking toward the podium.
Danny, Audrey, everyone. They're all there. Watching me. Waiting for what they know and I know and everybody knows is going to happen. So I have no choice. It starts banging on the doors of my head and I decide to just let it in, let it take over.
Robert Frost, the poet himself, suddenly opens the door to our English classroom and strolls in, like we've all been waiting for him anyway, and like he had promised me he was going to come. Looking at me, his eyes wrinkle up, and then he shoots me this wise look. Beneath his silver hair, his face rises up like a wave about to crash. Then his voice booms like the room is too small for it. "Atticus, my friend! I heard about this report you were giving on me, and I wanted to be here as well! You are a delightful young man, and I'm sure you'll teach even me about myself!"
And I look at Robert Frost and reply, with a smile and a laugh, "Hi, Robert! Nice to see you again! I'm psyched you could make it in for my speech. This is Mrs. Kathan, my English teacher ..." And then Mrs. Kathan blushes like Christmas. She's feeling so bad about the way she just talked to me. Even the baby inside her belly is thinking, Jeez, Mom, give the kid a break, will you?!
Then Robert Frost kind of glides over to me like he's on roller skates, and he throws his arm around me. He winks at me and says, "The floor is yours, Son." Just like that, he calls me Son and nods his head like we know something secret between the two of us and we're about to let the whole world in on it.
Together, Robert Frost and I walk up to the podium, where we recite some of his poetry back and forth, each of us saying a stanza. Just as soon as one of us stops reciting, the other one picks up like we're having a baseball catch—just tossing these lines of poetry back and forth, and it all feels so good, and we keep catching the lines and neither of us is afraid of dropping the ball. Because we don't, and we can't.
I sense her eyes, so I glance toward the room after I toss the lines back to Robert Frost, and I'm right: Audrey Higgins is looking at me like Atticus, you are amazing, incredible, so confident and brave and smart and poetic and—
And I am not afraid.
And my voice is like thunder.
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood. The lines of Robert Frost leap from my mouth.
The Thundering Atticus!
The Brave Atticus!
The Bold Atticus!
Not the Terrified—
"ATTICUS! You open your mouth, and you speak. That's it. I'm going to treat you like my five-year-old son; I'm going to count to ten, and if you don't start your report before I get to ten, you can sit down and you will get an F. Then Margaret is up." Mrs. Kathan looks at me with eyes like the points of nails.
I tell my Imagination to shut up. I stand in front of the podium and open my mouth. "Two roads ..." I clear my throat. "I mean, two roads," I try to force the wet sand out of my voice.
But my voice refuses.
"Two roads diverged in a—"
"Fatticus, I can't hear you! Can you please speak up!" Danny Wills cups his hands together as he launches the words toward me.
"Danny, I'll be the one to tell Atticus what to do, all right? You just sit there until I tell you to speak! And what did you call him?" Mrs. Kathan has swiveled around in her rolling chair to face Danny at the back of the class. He wears a smirk and a baseball cap. We weren't allowed to wear hats in school until Danny's mom got herself elected to the school board, and now students can wear any kind of hat they want in school.
The smirk grows like bacteria across Danny's face, threatening to take over all the skin that remains.
"I called him Atticus, Mrs. Kathan. Isn't that his name?" Danny tips back in his chair, and the bacteria finally does it. Bam! It surrounds his face, and the skin is gone and the smirk is wild, free.
I let it happen again with my Imagination. I can't help it. (And maybe I don't want to.)
Robert Frost goes over to Danny and pulls the chair backward so that Danny falls and smacks his head on the floor. Then Robert Frost says, "Whoops. Did I do that?" Robert Frost looks up at me and gives me another nod, another wink, then a thumbs-up with his right hand for good measure, and I let my head lean backward and laugh so loud it hurts. It hurts so much but I can't stop laughing because Robert Frost is laughing too, and it doesn't help you stop laughing when you're trying to stop laughing but probably the best poet of all time just keeps on laughing like he's inviting you to laugh because you know it's all going to be completely—
"Fine! Danny, Put ... your ... chair ... down ... now!" Mrs. Kathan grabs her belly as if the baby is going to pop out right here in the middle of fourth period.
Meanwhile, I snap out of my Imagination and catch Audrey's eyes. The girl is the Fourth of July, my birthday, and Christmas all put together. I have loved Audrey Higgins for as long as I can remember, and she's been nice to me—you know, helping me pick up my binders after Danny knocks them down in the hallway or smiling at me to let me know that she knows that YES, I EXIST!
Right now, she's telling me something silently. Her mouth is moving, at least, and she's looking right at me, so she must be telling me something, right?
"Ugh! Why do I even try?" Mrs. Kathan turns back to face me again. "Okay, Atticus, here we go. One, two, three, four ..." She's counting fast. She's counting like lightning.
Audrey does it again—the silent-words thing. You ... something else, something else, something else ...
My Imagination keeps kicking in too—Robert Frost keeps yelling out, "Your turn, Son! Your turn to recite a stanza! Go for it, Son! Tossing the lines to you ... catch!"
"Five, six, seven ..." Mrs. Kathan's numbers are flashes.
You ... can ... Audrey stares hard at me.
"My son! Why, did you not hear me? I said, it's your turn to recite a stanza. Come on, now, just let your voice out of its cage, Son!"
"Eight, nine ..." Mrs. Kathan continues.
You can do it, Audrey mouths.
"Ten," Mrs. Kathan says in a voice as flat as a paved road. Audrey Higgins looks like she could cry.
Robert Frost lowers his head and then shakes it from side to side; he won't look me in the face anymore.
Mrs. Kathan puts her hands up to her face and rubs her eyes. "I just don't get it, Atticus. All you have to do is say the words on your index cards. I just—ah—don't get it."
As I take my seat, I feel something hard spike the back of my head. When I turn around to look, I see the smirk on Danny's face.
"Fatticus," he whispers.
This is what life is like for me, the kid with no guts and the World's Worst Name: Atticus.CHAPTER 2
When I get home from school, Adrian is watching The Never-Ending Story for the 122nd time. I'm not kidding. My six-year-old brother has watched that DVD just about every day after school since my mom got it for him this past Christmas. She said it was one of her all-time favorite movies and that he probably hadn't ever heard of it because it was twenty years old or something.
As I walk through the living room, giving Adrian a pop on the head, he yells to me, "Atticus, the Rock Giant is about to come on. Watch it with me!"
"Adrian, look, I know that the Rock Giant is going to die, and everyone's going to be all boo-hoo and everything, and that in the end the white-haired dragon will come and make everything fine. I don't need to watch it again, okay?"
"Come on, Atticus, please?" But I'm not in the mood after what happened in English class today. Plus, I have to get ready for a baseball game.
I leave him on the couch and start up the stairs fast. That's where my mom catches me.
"Hey, honey, why so mean to Adrian?" She puts her hand on the right side of my face, and I feel something in me relax a little bit. I know it's not at all cool (and I know if someone like Danny ever knew this about me, he'd make my life even more miserable), but when my mom touches my face like that, everything calms down.
"It just wasn't great at school again, okay?" I try not to look at her.
"Why not?" She seems so calm, even though I know she and my dad have been screaming A LOT at night when they think Adrian and I are both asleep upstairs.
"It's just that I hate English class, and I don't ever want to go back there again." As I say the words, I finally look at my mom. Her eyes are closed, and she brings her hand up to her face like she's going to cry. So then I look past her at the monstrous pictures framed and hanging along the stairwell. There are pictures of me when I was a baby, when I was two, four, and on and on. Adrian too. I always look so happy in those pictures.
"But you used to love English. Remember how much you wrote, and how you read all the books before you even had to?" My mom combs my hair with her fingers.
Before I can explain, I hear the front door open and shut. Then my dad's voice comes up loud to meet me. "You ready or what? Game starts in thirty minutes. Let's go."
My mom looks down at the steps and lets her hands drop to her side.
I leave my mom in the stairwell and run up to put on my ridiculous baseball uniform. It's bright red with a picture of a tiger eating a fish. I'm serious. The tiger's fangs are ripping the head off of the fish, and blood is spurting out of the thing. Across this design, the words read: THE TOUGH TIGERS.
I hate the shirt. But Danny designed it, and Danny's father (whose name is actually Bill Wills) said the design "demonstrates what a real baseball team is all about." I wish I could play for a fake baseball team, then, because the design seriously stinks.
I throw the shirt on, ditch my school jeans, and start to put on the really stupid gray tights they make us wear in this Babe Ruth league. As I'm pulling the tights up, my Imagination grumbles, kicks in, and before I know it Gray Tights is moving, he has a voice, he's hearing my thoughts as if I'm shouting the words aloud—
Me: Man, these STUPID, STUPID, STUPID gray tights. Whoever invented these tights, anyway? What genius one day sat down in his living room and decided, Aha! I've got it! Boys who play baseball will wear tight gray pants that feel itchy and ridiculous!
Gray Tights: Hey, Atticus, why are you attacking me? I mean, for real? I was made in the factory, and I sat in the store for a while, and then your dad brought me home to you. All I ever asked for was someone to love me. That's all I've ever wanted.
Me: If you and all the other Gray Tights in the factory refused to leave, refused to go out and do what everyone was telling you to do, then you would have saved countless people from a mountain of humiliation—
Gray Tights: Refuse to exist?! Are you crazy? This is the only life I've got, buddy, and I don't want to lose it. Plus, can you imagine refusing that kind of power? I mean, really, can you even do that?
I hear a knock on my door, and I realize suddenly that I'm sitting on the edge of my bed, no pants on, with Gray Tights just below my knees.
"Let's go, Atticus. We're going to be late." My dad's voice sounds more hollow than normal.
"Yeah, I know," I say, pulling up the dreaded, actual gray tights of doom.
* * *
At Levy Field, I mainly sit the bench. Like usual. Coach Wills knows I stink. Danny knows I stink. I know I stink. The whole team knows I stink. The only reason I even come to the games is because it's the only thing my dad wants to do with me.
I don't play in the field, but league rules say that everyone on the team has to bat. Today, I strike out in all three of my at bats. Each time, as I drag myself back to my spot on the bench, Danny whispers, Fatticus, and then laughs like it's the most brilliant thing ever. But hey, what's so brilliant about putting an F in front of my name? So I'm fat. Fine. So I've got to wear stupid glasses. Fine. So I've got curly hair that makes me look like I have the biggest roller coaster ever right on top of my head. Fine. But what about Danny? The way he acts, I wish I had the courage to put an F in front of his name and roar out, Fanny!
In the ninth inning, our team is down by one, 3–2. We have two outs and one man on second base. I'm due up at the plate.
Coach Wills stops the game and goes out onto the field to talk with the umpire—a guy who looks like he could actually eat me for dinner with a side of potatoes. They talk for a while, laugh for a while, then frown for a while. Finally, Coach Wills comes back to the dugout shaking his head and rubbing his chin.
Danny asks him, "What's wrong, Dad?"
"Ump said Atticus has to bat, unless he's injured." Then Coach looks at me and shrugs. I grab my helmet and bat and trudge out to the mound, ignoring the stinging in my eyes and the tickle in my throat as best as I can.
Behind me, I overhear Danny say to his father, "I could injure him if that would help." And then a bunch of chuckles from the rest of the team.
At the plate, I stand way outside the batter's box.
"Come on now, kid, you know you've got to be inside the box for the pitches to count, right?" The ump removes his facemask and gives me this look, like he's wondering if he's going to put ketchup on me as well as the potatoes, or just some salt, before he devours me.
"Yes, um, yeah." I feel the words come out in a whisper. I don't know why I'm afraid of my words, but I sure as heck know why I'm afraid of the pitcher's fastball. That thing could knock my head off. Which would make the ump happier than all heaven because then he'd have my head right there, like it was served up for him.
I step just inside the batter's box, and the pitcher reams one right past me. I don't even see the thing, but I hear a wppt as it lands in the catcher's glove.
"Steeerike one!" the ump calls as he jabs his right hand in the air like he's practicing dragon slaying. All I can think is: I wish it took just two strikes to get out.
Up in the bleachers I see my mom, dad, and Adrian. My dad's fist is closed tightly, raised in the air, and he's gritting his teeth. My mom is smiling. Adrian is in between them playing with something.
The second pitch comes just as fast as the first, but this time I try to send the bat around the plate. I feel my swing still swooshing over home when the sound of the ball in the catcher's glove slaps my ears.
"Steeerike two!" And again, the dragon-slaying maneuver.
In our dugout, Coach Wills and my teammates are already packing up the equipment.
And that's when my Imagination takes over. All of a sudden, there is an announcer's voice in my head—it's low, and it's smooth, but it's also incredibly excited ...
Here at Levy Field today, we've got a packed stadium, ladies and gents. Atticus Hobart at the plate, with the Tough Tigers trailing by one. This at-bat could literally be a game changer, and we sure don't see teams this close with these Tigers very often. With an undefeated record, this could be quite the blemish on Coach Wills' perfect season.
And Hobart steps into the batter's box. Look at his eyes, folks! Talk about a Tough Tiger! Hobart is the very image of one right now. The pitcher nods at the call ... the wind up ... the pitch ... HOLY COW! Hobart has come around with a ferocious swing, and that ball is on its way to the moon. It is up, way up, way, WAY UP ... and going, going, GONE! Hobart has done it for the Tigers!
It's not until I hear the ump's grunting voice that I realize the dragon is dead, and dinner is served.
My dad and mom don't say a word the whole ride home. I keep thinking that it's because of me, that I've failed my dad too many times. If I could just get one single, stupid hit, then he would be happy. He'd be proud of me. And he'd say so.
Instead, the entire trip, the only sounds in the car are from Adrian, making farting noises and saying, "No, check out this one, this one is going to be the best!"
As soon as we get back in the house, my mom says, "All right, James, this is what you want. You tell Atticus yourself. I'm taking Adrian out of here. He's not going to find out like this."
Then my dad says, "Helen, don't make me out to be the bad guy here. You heard what the therapist said—I need more freedom to find out who I really am. That's all this is—some time to explore myself."
Excerpted from The Looney Experiment by Luke Reynolds. Copyright © 2015 Luke Reynolds. Excerpted by permission of ZONDERVAN.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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