Erin Downing, Author Erin Downing, Author
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Juicy Gossip

Ages 9-12
Scholastic Inc.: June 2009

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Chapter One

I wish I could go to boarding school.

French boarding school.

J’adore croissants. And cutie pie French boys. They sound so romantic when they talk. Boys, not croissants. Especially when they say things like, “j’adore croissants”.

Of course, I’ve never actually met a French guy (nor have I heard one say ‘j’adore croissants, but that’s completely beside the point). So maybe I’m just thinking about Michael Hollings, who is my French partner and has his French accent down to an art. “J’adore…” it rolls off his tongue like buttery, jammy croissant. “J’adore…”

“Oui, Jenna?” Madame Fishman, my French teacher, is staring at me. It’s the middle of third period and I’m not paying attention.

I have other things to be thinking about.

I clear my throat, which sounds similar to my French pronunciation. I, unlike Michael Hollings, do not have my French accent down to an art. “Oui, Madame?”

Michael Hollings, who is sitting next to me now, looks at me like I’m crazy. I think I’d been muttering ‘j’adore’ under my breath.

“Do you have something to say to the class?” Madame Fishman’s eyes look like bulgy fish eyeballs, which always cracks me up. I sort of wonder if that’s why she married Mr. Fishman—she must have known it was a super hilarious coincidence that a fish-eyed lady would marry into a name like Fishman. This is so not the point.

I can’t help but widen my eyes back at her when I say, “Non, madame. I’m just practicing. Practiquant!”

She looks delighted that I have mastered such an important French adjective and moves on. I have become an expert at not paying attention in French class, which is the reason my diction is so shabby.

I prefer to spend most of French class admiring Michael Hollings. Unfortunately, my crush doesn’t go both ways. I am pretty sure Michael doesn’t even know my last name, but that’s beside the point. The other thing is, I think Michael might also be kind of rude—or maybe he just doesn’t like to talk. But his absolute cuteness makes up for it.

Almost…but not entirely. Like now, when he turns toward me and shakes his head, giving me this look, like, ‘Why are you talking to yourself, you nut? What is wrong with you?’ (He doesn’t say that or anything, but his expression makes me pretty certain that’s what he’s thinking.)

Nice, I think, my face reddening. That’s nice, Michael. There’s nothing truly wrong with me, but I definitely have some issues that are making me just the teensiest bit distracted. I actually sort of wish I could tell Michael just how much is wrong with my life right now. Then he would understand why I’m muttering strange French phrases under my breath. Because my life is about to get pretty bad…and that is why I want to go to boarding school.

I have decided to move to France because my parents, Stew and Liz Sampson, are opening a fruit juice bar in the food court at the mall. The little space between the Sbarro pizza place and the Wok ‘N’ Walk will soon be home to “Juice It”, the latest in a long line of Stew and Liz’s embarrassing professional ventures.

My best friend, Keisha Morris’s, parents both work at an ad agency. My neighbor, Cassidy Conlan, is the publisher of Splash!, a home design magazine. Mrs. Jackson, who comes over for coffee with my mom, is a civics teacher, for crying out loud. These are all normal careers.

My parents’ new venture? Not so much.

Some people may think this whole juice-bar-at-the-mall thing would be kind of fun. Or cool, even. Not me. Because I not only despise the mall (more on that later), but I also have a strong dislike of fruit. Which makes a fruit juice bar AT the mall incredibly unpleasant for me. Especially since I have to work there.

I’m sure you’re wondering: “Who dislikes fruit? That’s just weird.” Well, I consider it one of my quirks, and I have very normal reasons for not liking it.

First off, kiwi fruit has fur and papaya smells like armpits—enough said. Berries have tiny little seeds that shimmy between my teeth and force me to floss. Citrus fruit tastes like cleaning fluids. And I once ate so much pineapple during a family trip to Florida that all my taste buds got sizzled off. Seriously. Sizzled off. I couldn’t taste anything for a week.

So fruit juice + me do not equal [heart]. And the mall? Like I said, we’ll get to that. But for now, just know that I’m not psyched about my parents’ decision.

I personally find this career venture more than a little embarrassing. It feels too much like the time my dad started to sell these weird vegetable storage bags online (they kept veggies from getting bruised). Or when my step-mom, Liz, opened a store downtown that sold only beads and ballet shoes. Go figure. Now it’s a juice bar at the mall. Totally random, and totally yuck.

I exhale a huge sigh, and Michael pulls his book further away from me on our shared desk (they set up our language arts classrooms so we can more easily work with our partner). I can’t tell if Michael really is trying to get away from me because he thinks I’m a total weirdo, or if I’m imagining the whole thing—to be honest, Michael is sort of a mystery to me. A quiet, brooding, mystery boy…ooh la la, like a French poet or film star or something!

Michael is also totally out of my league. He is always hanging out with Robbie Prinzo and Jeremy Rosenberg, and he has a million girls oohing over him all the time. I wonder if he ever talks to any of them, or if he only talks to other guys? Well, he doesn’t talk to me, and that’s what matters.

Just then, the bell rings, marking the end of class. I grab my notebook and head into the hall. I have early lunch, so I rummage my peanut butter and honey bagel sandwich out of the mess of sticky notes that fill my locker and head down the main hall toward the journalism room.

Pretty much every day, I spend both my lunch period and fourth period in Mrs. Jensen’s English classroom, which I have dubbed “the journalism room”. I have journalism class fourth period, so I usually just bring my lunch and go to class really early. The thing is, I could either spend my lunch period sitting in the cafeteria text messaging with people like Stacey Smith and her BFF-of-the-week, or spend that time productively working on publishing the school paper.

I’m not naïve enough to think that Stacey Smith would ever text message me…for one thing, I don’t have a cell phone. My parents think cell phones give you brain tumors, so they won’t buy a family share plan. But my lack of phone is totally not the point, since Stacey Smith probably doesn’t even know who I am.

Stacey and I are in the same homeroom and her locker is a few away from mine, but I don’t think she’s ever even looked at me. There are four different elementary schools that feed into Washington and four hundred of us all get smushed together in each grade of our middle school. I am not a total outcast, but I am definitely not one of Washington Middle School’s Seventh Grade Snobs (my term, not theirs). I am just Jenna—not popular, not unpopular. Just…there.

The Snobs rule Washington, and people like me, Jenna Sampson—Editor of the school newspaper—are pretty much invisible. It doesn’t really bother me, most of the time. I’m fine with going pretty much unnoticed. I would much rather be known for my probing journalistic skills than the color of my barrettes. (Are barrettes even in style? You get my point.)

But I also seem to always be the last to know everything that’s going on, which isn’t really the best way to succeed as a journalist—aren’t journalists supposed to be “in the know?” For example, I don’t know if Heidi from The Hills is a good guy or a bad guy. And I couldn’t tell you if black is in style or out of style this year. And don’t even get me started on who is dating who in Hollywood…much less, who is dating who in the Seventh Grade at my school. I don’t really have very good access to that information, so I just can’t keep up with it all.

Sometimes, I think it would be nice to be a teensy-eensy bit more popular. Not just so I feel like I’m not totally out of it, but also so that certain people (ahem, Michael Hollings) would know I exist outside of French class. That wouldn’t be so bad.

“Yo! Jenna!” I turn, spotting my best friend Keisha’s thick black curls bouncing down the hallway. She’s waving, as though I wouldn’t see her otherwise. But since she’s, like, a foot taller than anyone else at school, she’s pretty hard to miss. “Cafeteria today?”

“I have six articles to write before we go to print next week,” I say, using the paper as an excuse for not having to go to the cafeteria. The cafeteria gives me the creeps. It smells like feet from the back-to-school dance a few weeks ago (you have to take off your shoes during dances and Jeremy Rosenberg’s feet are stinky) and Keisha and I can never find a table that hasn’t been claimed by some clique or another. “I need to get to work. There’s a school board referendum they’re trying to pass next month and it’s majorly important.”

Keisha rolls her eyes. “Ick, Jenna. That sounds so boring.”

“It’s important,” I protest, as we pass the center stairs. “The school board’s decisions affect us!” I realize how lame this sounds as I say it. But as a true journalist, I know this stuff is important to follow…if a little bland. “We have some space to fill in the paper next week, if you want to write a few more articles?”

“Groan,” Keisha replies as we walk down the hall toward Mrs. J’s room. “I wrote two articles for your paper last week. That’s my limit for the month.”

“Keish,” I look at her sternly. “Don’t call it my paper. It’s the school’s paper.”

Keisha looks right back at me. Her stares are fierce. “Jenna, you care about the paper more than anyone else. The paper lives and breathes with you and only you.”

“That’s not true!” I push the door to the journalism room open. Keisha follows me inside the empty classroom.

“But you’re the editor,” Keisha declares. “Mrs. Jensen chose you over Chris Dotman because you really, truly love the newspaper.”

“I care, but that doesn’t mean people read it,” I grumble. “I need to work really hard as the editor this year to prove that a seventh grader can do the job and make people want to read the Washington News.”

I was just named editor last week, partly because only one other guy really wanted the job and he didn’t even submit his application essay in time. But my dream is that I can boost readership by making a great paper that everyone will love.

You have to apply to be on the newspaper “staff” at the end of sixth or seventh grade—anyone at school can write articles for the paper, but you can only get credit for the journalism elective one year. Mrs. Jensen works with the rest of the English teachers at school to pick her staff for the next school year—but usually the class doesn’t even fill up, since not enough people apply.

There are sixteen of us on staff who are responsible for editing and designing the paper each week, but we use a bunch of other students (like Keisha) to write most of the articles—when we can find kids who are willing. It’s partly because we can’t get everything written ourselves, but it’s also because we want to get the rest of the student body involved so the articles have a different feel each week. I was just a writer for the paper last year, but this year I’m on staff—and now I’m the editor. This year is my only chance to shine as editor, and I need to make the most of it!

“Jenna, you were the best choice—you were a shoo in for editor. Hey, are you coming to our game tomorrow?” Keisha politely changes the subject, settling into one of the desks at the back of the classroom. She’s fully aware of the fact that I am super-defensive about the paper and hate that hardly anyone reads it—so I never really like to talk about it.

“Argh,” I cringe. “I have to go to the mall to help my parents get the store ready.” I don’t need to tell Keisha what “the store” is…she’s even more horrified than I am about my parents’ embarrassing new juice bar. Best friends are good like that.

“I’m a starter!” Keisha is a midfielder on Washington’s soccer team. She sat on the bench most of last season, but she practiced super-hard all summer and now she’s really good. Stacey Smith is sort of the star of the team, but I’m pretty sure Keisha is a better player than she is now—even better than all the eighth graders. Keisha would never say that, but I know it’s true. “Jenna, I need you to be there. You’re my good luck charm.”

I grin, flattered. “I can send a melon in my place. You can just call me Fruity McFruiterson for the next few years, until my parents realize that a food court juice bar is a bad idea.” The image of a melon sitting in the stands at Washington Middle School’s soccer field makes me giggle.

Keisha starts cracking up, too. “The worst part about this whole food court smoothie thing is that you don’t even like the mall. I mean, if you were Stacey Smith or Jasmine Chen or someone, this wouldn’t be so awful. At least you could go shopping for a new look on your breaks.”

Keisha pauses, probably wondering if I’m offended that she’s suggesting I need a new look. The thing is: I’m not a shopper. I’m not a fashionista. In fact, I can’t even match black and pink together correctly. I despise shopping. Keisha knows this as well as anyone. I usually just sort of get dressed and don’t really worry about style. It’s never really mattered to me.

My best friend sizes me up now, as though it’s the first time she’s seen me all day. She looks concerned. “Speaking of new looks…” This is the cool thing about Keisha—she just speaks her mind. I guess you can kind of call her a loud mouth. She continues, “what are you wearing today?”

For the record, I missed the lesson in what colors go together. My step-mom Liz wears only shades of khaki and chocolate, so I’m lucky I didn’t follow in those footsteps. “What do you mean?”

“Jenna,” Keisha groans. “Your jeans have a hole in them. And is that your brother’s sweater?”

I look down. Yup. “So?” I ask. “Writers never worry about fashion. We’re supposed to look frazzled. I’m playing the part.”

“You’re playing it well.”

“Keisha!” I grab a copy of the school newspaper from a full rack near Mrs. J’s desk, and hit her gently. She dodges my follow up hit with some of her fancy soccer footwork. “That’s not nice.”

She shrugs. “Sorry. But it’s true.”

I guess I could be offended, but I’m not. I’m used to the things Keisha says, and I’m comfortable with the way I dress. It’s not terrible enough to get negative attention from the Seventh Grade Snobs, and it’s not cool enough that anyone cares. It’s fine, and that’s good enough for me.

Just then, Mrs. Jensen walks through the door to her classroom. She looks a little surprised to see us inside, which is odd, since I spend almost every lunch period in her classroom. Mrs. J can be a little spacey sometimes, which is part of the reason I like her so much. “Hi, Mrs. J,” I say, turning on the computer in the back corner of her room. That’s where I do all my work for the paper.

“Girls,” she answers. Mrs. J isn’t big on chatting. But today she looks like she has something more to say. “Jenna, we need to talk.”

The tone in her voice is somewhat alarming. She sounds a little like my dad does after I’ve forgotten to take the garbage out. That’s his pet peeve: full garbage cans. Go figure. I can come up with a lot more important things to worry about in life and I sometimes tell him that when he scolds me for forgetting to empty the wastebasket in my room. He’s not very fond of that either. “What’s wrong, Mrs. J?”

“Jenna, I was just in a meeting with Mrs. Liu.” Mrs. Liu is our Principal. She’s really nice, but also sort of scary. She’s very serious, and often wears these abnormally high heels that clack angrily in the hallways. I’m pretty sure Mrs. Liu doesn’t mean for her feet to sound angry, but they do. When she’s walking down the hall it sounds like these tiny pointed elephant feet or something.

Mrs. Jensen continues, “School funding is being cut and Mrs. Liu and the rest of the teacher’s committee are looking for easy ways to save some money.”

“Okay…” I say, a little curious about how this affects me.

Mrs. Jensen sits on top of her desk. One of her legs is dangling off the edge and the way it’s swinging back and forth is driving me crazy. Her toe is tapping nervously in midair. I walk over to the window to get away from her swinging, tapping foot.

“I’m sorry, Jenna,” Mrs. Jensen says finally. “I know how much the newspaper means to you. But we have no choice—the newspaper is being cut.”

© Erin Soderberg Downing

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