The pencil Ofelia tapped against her reporter’s notebook was part of a set, a last-day-of-school gift from her favorite teacher, Ms. Niggli. She’d given them to all the newspaper staffers who were moving on to middle school. Ofelia knew they were nice pencils. Not generic twelve for-two-dollars pencils. Each one was topped with a black eraser, and on its natural wood color was a quote by a man named Woody Guthrie: “All you can write is what you see.”
She had asked Ms. Niggli what the quote meant, and Ms. Niggli had answered in the way teachers do. “What do you
think it means?”
Ofelia hoped it didn’t mean that all you could write was, literally, what you saw. Woody Guthrie had obviously never lived in Sabal Palms, Florida.
What she saw outside the window of her mother’s car on that first Monday morning of summer break was the same thing she saw every Monday morning. There was Doña Amalia from next door wheeling her overflowing blue recycling bin across her driveway. The wheels crunched over gravel as she struggled to drag it. Once at the curb, she opened the lid and pulled out the topmost object. Then she aimed it at Chucho.
Chucho was a rooster that had shown up one day after a tropical storm battered their town. He moved into the tree in front of Doña Amalia’s house and never left. Someone on their street—no one remembers who—named him “Chucho,” and it stuck.
Chucho had the prettiest burnt-orange feathers, but his handsomeness didn’t outweigh his bad habits. The rooster pooped on cars when Doña Amalia had company parked out front. And if that wasn’t bad enough, he crowed all day, like his internal alarm clock was out of whack, drawing the wrath not just of Ofelia’s neighbor, but of the entire street.
As a rinsed-out can of Goya black beans flew through the air, it occurred to Ofelia that the only thing that really changed from week to week was the item Doña Amalia threw at the bird with all the strength her seventy-something-year old arm could muster. The can missed its mark but startled the rooster who flew from his perch, squawking angrily as he strutted down the street.
Ofelia watched her mom make her way toward the car, purse hanging on her right shoulder, keys in hand.
“Dale, Doña Amalia!” Mrs. Castillo called out. “If you hit that bird, I’ll make arroz con gallo for us.”
Ha-ha, Ofelia thought. She pulled off her glasses and wiped them on her T-shirt. She didn’t need them to see that the two women were now laughing like it was the first time her mom had made that joke.
She held up the pencil to her nose and inhaled the cedar scent. It smelled like an amazing story. It smelled like the truth. That
, she realized, was all she could write. And that
was what would win the Qwerty Sholes Journalism Contest.
Five lucky seventh-graders from around the country were picked each year to attend a summer journalism camp in New York City. Winning the contest not only meant being recognized for her writing. It meant going away without her parents and proving to them, once and for all, that she could be responsible and independent. But as she watched Doña Amalia push down the contents of her recycling bin, close the lid, and head back up her driveway, she saw her Qwerty Sholes dreams circling the drain.
Ofelia sighed and looked at the blank page.
“Let me remind you that you are not to write anything in your little notebook,” Mrs. Castillo said, settling into the driver’s seat and glancing in Ofelia’s direction. “Nothing you see, nothing you hear.”
“What kinds of things might I see or hear that I shouldn’t
write about?” She wiggled her eyebrows at her mom.
“Ni una palabra, Ofelia,” Mrs. Castillo warned again.
“None of your Nancy Drew business.”
“Nancy Drew is a sleuth,” Ofelia said. “She looks for clues to solve mysteries. I’m a journalist. I look for stories to write.”
“Hmm,” Mrs. Castillo said. “Both sound nosy to me.”
Ofelia thought about what her mother said. She knew that she wanted to be a journalist when she learned about the muckrakers in social studies class. In the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, journalists like Ida B. Wells, Nellie Bly, and Ida Tarbell exposed corruption. They noticed injustices and then, through their stories, forced the world to notice them too.
Ms. Niggli said no one really used the term muckraker
anymore, that today they call them investigative journalists. Still, Ofelia relished the idea of raking the muck off and exposing things. Like raking the tomato sauce off the “meatballs” in the school cafeteria and exposing them for the textured vegetable protein balls they really were. Or like the topic of her very first story in the second grade—an exposé on the three wise men—after she caught her parents, not los Reyes Magos, leaving gifts for her on January 6. It made her wonder what else the adults in her life were hiding.
Maybe she could be Nancy Drew and
Ida B. Wells all in one. She certainly didn’t want to be a Lois Lane type of journalist who didn’t even realize that Clark Kent was Superman wearing glasses.
“But what am I supposed to do there all summer, Ma?” Ofelia asked, struggling to keep from whining.
In books and movies, summer break meant spending your days outside looking for adventures. Her friend Andrea was flying alone to visit her cousins in California, and then she was going to sleepaway camp. Ofelia, on the other hand, got to go to work with her mom.
She squirmed with embarrassment and wondered how many twelve-year-olds had parents as overprotective as hers. She knew kids who were unsupervised after school and during the summer and went to the movies with friends, not with their parents.
“When I was a little girl in Cuba, we would make a whole game out of an empty box,” Mrs. Castillo said, proudly. “You can help me if you need something to do. I’m going to be very busy with the preparations for the Floras Centennial.”
“Just point me to the nearest box, please,” Ofelia said with fake enthusiasm.
“Bueno, read, be bored,” Mrs. Castillo said. “It’s not the worst thing in the world.”
Ofelia stuck the pencil in her mouth and bit down so hard the thin glossy coat over the word can
cracked between her teeth. It was as if even the pencil had known she was doomed.
Being bored, being stuck in an old, dusty house all summer, those were
the absolute worst things in the world. Ofelia pressed the steely gray lead of her pencil against the page and wrote:
Dead Body Found at DiSanti Mansion. Boredom Sought for Questioning. By Ofelia Castillo
Copyright © 2019 by Celia Perez. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.