Between the Lines
Between the Lines was Sammy’s idea, and frankly, she’s got a better imagination than I ever did at her age. It’s called Between the Lines, and it’s about what happens when happily ever after…isn’t. Delilah, a loner hates school as much as she loves books—one book in particular. In fact if anyone knew how many times she has read and reread the sweet little fairy tale she found in the library, especially her cooler than cool classmates, she’d be sent to social Siberia . . . forever.To Delilah, though, this fairy tale is more than just words on the page. Sure, there’s a handsome (well, okay, incredibly handsome) prince, and a castle, and an evil villain, but it feels as if there’s something deeper going on. And one day, Delilah finds out there is. Turns out, this Prince Charming is not just a one-dimensional character in a book. He’s real, and a certain fifteen-year-old loner has caught his eye. But they’re from two different worlds, and how can it ever possibly work?
It’s an absolutely STUNNING book - with the coolest illustrations that remind of Arthur Rackham’s work from the turn of the century and silhouettes that take my breath away -- in other words, it’s a book you want to keep on your shelves and just look at because it’s so pretty. But it’s also sweet, and funny, and charming, and it was a delight to have the experience of writing it with my own daughter! I’m incredibly excited for its publication and we’ll be on tour this summer to promote it!
BETWEEN THE LINES trailer
– from Allen & Unwin , my Australian publisher.
The story behind BETWEEN THE LINES
– from Jodi’s POV
I was on book tour in Los Angeles, when my telephone rang. “Mom,” my daughter Sammy said. “I think I have a pretty good idea for a book.”
This was not extraordinary. Of my three children, Sammy has always been the one with an imagination that is unparalleled. When other kids were playing “stuffed animals,” Sammy would scatter her toys around the house and create elaborate scenarios – this teddy bear is wounded and stuck on top of Mt. Everest and needs a rescue dog to climb to the top and save him. In second grade, her teacher called me to ask if I’d type up Sammy’s short story. Apparently, it was 40 pages long. He sent it home with my daughter and I fully expected a rambling stream of words – instead, I wound up reading a very cohesive story about a duck and a fish that meet on a pond and become best friends. The duck invites the fish to dinner and the fish says he’d love to come. But then, the fish has second thoughts: What if I am dinner? That, ladies and gentlemen, is called CONFLICT, and it’s the one thing you can’t teach. You are either born a storyteller or not, and my daughter seemed to have an intrinsic sense of how to craft literary tension. (For those of you who won’t be able to sleep at night without learning the outcome: the fish goes to the duck’s place for dinner and expresses his fear that he might be eaten. The duck takes this in stride and says he could understand why the fish might think that. He agrees to be a vegetarian and they stay best friends forever.) Sammy’s creativity continued to blossom as she grew up. She wrote one story about a woman who receives a corneal transplant, only to open her eyes in the hospital room and see a man who says he’s her husband and children who say they are her kids – but who look nothing like her actual husband and kids. (I was jealous I hadn’t thought of that plot.) Her nightmares are so vivid they’d give Stephen King a run for his money. As a teenager, she has written poetry that made me hunt down my own poetry journals from way back when – only to realize she is a much better writer than I ever was at that age.
So…when Sammy told me she had a great idea for a book, I listened carefully.
And you know what? She was right.
What if the characters in a book had lives of their own, after the cover was closed? What if the act of reading was just these characters performing a play, over and over…but those characters still had dreams, hopes, wishes, and aspirations beyond the roles they acted out on a daily basis for the reader? And what if one of those characters desperately wanted get out of his book?
Better yet, what if one of his readers fell in love with him, and decided to help?
“Mom,” Sammy said, as I languished in Los Angeles traffic. “What if we wrote the book together?”
“Okay,” I told her, “but that means we’re writing it. Not me.”
We started by brainstorming the characters. Sammy immediately named the prince after our dog, Oliver; and his committed teenager reader became Delilah, after one of our miniature donkeys. We came up with names of fairies, of trolls, of villains. Then we began to write the fairytale from which Oliver wanted to escape. We argued over the tone of the fairytale – I wanted it to be tongue-in-cheek; Sammy preferred it to be classic, and we compromised. It was Sammy who suggested that the prince in the fairytale be afraid of battle because his father had died fighting. I remembered a children’s book she used to love, The Paper Bag Princess, in which a very confident princess outsmarted a dragon, and I suggested that Oliver use his wits instead of bravery to get out of tight scrapes. She had very clear visions for the fairies (like mean girls in school, she suggested) and the mermaids (anorectic and very, very creepy). The scene where Oliver uses logic riddles to outsmart the trolls, the body-image-challenged steed Socks, and the climactic scene in the fairytale – where Prince Oliver surprises the villain by cross-dressing in princess clothes – were my contributions. When we needed to figure out why a teenager like Delilah who should be reading The Hunger Games was obsessed with a fairytale, I suggested having her feel a kinship with Oliver over his lack of a dad. I even named Delilah’s shrink Dr. Ducharme, a nod to Prince Charming, because she so badly wants a fairytale ending for her mom.
But we had far more fun creating the modern-day sections, where Oliver gets to be himself and where Delilah gets to crush on him. Some of the coolest details in the book were ones Sammy had envisioned long before we ever pinned a plot into place: the idea of an illustrated spider being plucked from the page and turning into a vaguely arachnid-shaped word, legs made of the serifs from the P and D in “spider”; the world going white around Oliver as he starts to rewrite his ending; and my personal favorite – the way Oliver proves who he is at the end of the book, by giving himself a paper cut. One metaphor I remember her contributing was in Delilah’s section – she describes the popular girls in school as a cluster of grapes, because honestly, do you ever see just one? Having a real, live teenager at the writing table was an attribute, when it came to creating Delilah and her motivations. There’s a scene where Delilah gets angry at Oliver, and the way she chooses to “get back” at him is to repeatedly flip to a page where he’s forced to kiss the princess he secretly can’t stand.
We also had a fun time creating our alternate personalities for the fairytale characters – the villain Rapscullio, who’s actually a poet/artist at heart and who wants nothing more than to have someone sing “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow” to him; of Seraphima, the princess who doesn’t realize that everyone’s acting; of Frump, the dog who’s secretly in love with her. It was like creating a soap opera made of fairytale characters.
We talked a lot about the “rules” of the world we were creating. What would happen if a character manifested itself in the real world – would he be like Flat Stanley? Six inches tall? If something wasn’t specifically mentioned in the book (like food in the castle kitchen) would it exist during the characters’ “off-time” when they weren’t performing? Would Oliver have a working knowledge of things like television, high school, swim meets…or was he a victim of the time period into which he was created? Would Frump, who’s the victim of a curse that’s turned him into a loyal hound, stay a hound when the book was closed…or would he be human again? We also talked about the metaphysical nature of a story – to whom does it belong? The writer – or the reader? Once a story is read, can it ever be changed, because it lives in that previous incarnation in the mind of whoever’s enjoyed it? And how would that manifest itself – would a story “auto-correct” any changes made? Would the act of simply opening the book again “reset” any edits made by Oliver from within? For me, too, writing Jessamyn Jacobs – the fairytale’s author – was really fun, and allowed me to think about what parts of my personal life bleed into my books, when I write them – and how authors use fiction to give a voice to the things they can’t understand. In the case of my adult fiction, these are ethical dilemmas; in Jessamyn’s case, it’s the emotional struggle of losing her husband to illness.
It should be noted, however, that it wasn’t all fun and games. Sammy and I took two years to write this book because I insisted that we be sitting together at the computer, taking turns typing, and literally speaking every sentence out loud. I would say one line, then Sammy would jump in with the next. Sometimes we were motivated and on a roll. Other times, Sammy would just stare at me in frustration. “You do this every day?” she said, at one point. I think the reality of writing something as big as a novel hit home for her, when we spend weekends, school vacations, and summers slaving away in front of an iMac. That said, we had some moments where we laughed so hard we couldn’t catch our breath. When we began to write the scene that has the unicorn meadow in it, and I described the waving silver grass in the field, Sammy told me it sounded like Oliver was having a bad drug trip. We spent ¾ of the book talking about Oliver’s jacket, and calling it a doublet, until one day on a whim I checked the definition and realized that word actually referred to medieval “pants” – which meant that we’d written numerous scenes where he hid a book or a piece of charcoal in his crotch, or whipped off his trousers moments after meeting Delilah in person. The coolest moments were when, as collaborators, we truly began to think alike. It’s not an experience I get to have very often as a novelist, but when you write with someone, and you are both envisioning the same unfolding moment, it’s magical. I can still remember the two of us writing the scene where Oliver scratches the words “Help Me” on the rock wall – without having discussed the details in advance, Sammy and I both had the same mental image of this happening, and the same words being scrawled onto the granite. Similarly, we both had a simultaneous inspirational flash of realization that if Oliver couldn’t be written out of the book, he’d try to write Delilah into it.
The hardest part of the experience was the editorial phase. Because this was a children’s book, we had two sets of editors – my regular adult editor, Emily Bestler, and a children’s editor, Jen Klonsky. Both are brilliant women, but as a writer, it’s bad enough to get one editorial letter, much less two! Sammy and I spent an entire summer addressing their concerns, which were particularly difficult, because pulling out one thread of plot led to unraveling of narrative throughout the entire book. As a result of all that hard work, though, some of the best characters and scenes became part of the story. Frump’s unwitting transformation back to human in Orville’s cottage, due to Delilah’s clumsiness, was created because of an editorial comment. Sammy had this vision of an element called Pandemonium bouncing off the walls and the ceiling and destroying everything in its midst – and accidentally breaking an unbreakable curse upon Frump. The character of Jules was a late addition, too, but I love her snarkiness and her willingness to forgive Delilah’s selfish behavior. Most fun, though, was rewriting the fairy tale to make it darker and creepier – in particular, the mermaid scene. I think Sammy and I can both very clearly see the movie image of a closet of skeletal suitors who didn’t survive the overbearing possessiveness of these sea sirens.
When Sammy called me on book tour two years ago with her idea, I thought it was a great one. I hope, that as you read BETWEEN THE LINES, you think so too. Fairytales were meant, historically, to be morality lessons, and to illustrate the darkness of the world beyond childhood that one steps into when growing up. Likewise, Delilah is in an uncharted territory – and yet, it may seem awfully familiar to you. After all, the novel takes place at the crossroads of happily-ever-after and reality, but at heart, it’s really just a love story. The reason you can read it and connect is not because you’ve liberated your own prince from a story, but because everyone has had that human experience of falling for someone out of one’s league; of loving someone from afar who seems to be light years away from real life. There is a scene where Oliver, who after all is a fairy-tale trope, proposes to Delilah, and she freaks out. The only people who get married at fifteen, she tells him, are pregnant and on MTV. What she wants is to be an ordinary teenager, with a boyfriend. To go to prom. To go on a date. To hold hands. What teenage girl hasn’t had those same thoughts and wishes – if not about Edward Cullen or another character in a book, then about the guy in math class who doesn’t seem to know she exists? I confess…I’m a little smitten with Oliver myself (although Sammy would say that emphatically makes me a Cougar). It’s not just because he’s adorable and has a British accent, but also because he of his beliefs. As Oliver says, at one point, Just because it’s fiction doesn’t mean it’s any less true.
Sammy and I couldn’t agree more.
The story behind BETWEEN THE LINES
– from Sammy van Leer’s POV
Between the Lines started simply as a daydream. It was toward the end of the school year, and I was in one of my last remaining eighth grade French classes. Yes, I should have been paying attention to Madame C., but somehow my train of thought arrived upon an idea. “What must it be like for the characters inside a book?” I wondered, and my imagination took off. I started to consider what might happen when the book is closed; whether the characters could see us; what it felt like for them, as we read. Through the rest of French class, I tossed around the idea of what would later become our book.
That day, my mom was on her spring book tour. When she called to see how school had gone, I told her that I’d had an idea for a story. My mom was interested and intrigued by the plot and began adding her opinions and thoughts. That’s when she suggested that we write this book together.
For the next few months, we made lists of characters and summarized the plot. You’d be surprised how much work it takes to create an entire world. When you dream at night, your brain creates a world for you -- every last detail, down to each strand of grass beneath your feet. But you’re the only one who “sees” those images. As an author, however, your job is to share them: to make sure the story is so detailed that the dream you’ve envisioned in your mind is the same one pictured by the person who reads your words.
As a writer I don’t feel like I seek out ideas – instead, ideas come to me. I have no idea why, perhaps it’s in my genes. The characters and voices and scenes pop into my mind, fully thought out, and ready to be written down. When my mom and I came across details we couldn’t figure out, or tried to decide what to write next, I had to wait until an idea graced me with its presence. Often this meant that I was…well…maybe a little unfocused. If you ask my mom about how distracted I was, she’ll laugh and probably tell you she was ready to super-glue me to the chair. I knew that being a writer meant you had to have imagination and perseverance, but I learned that you also have to have patience. My mom would set a goal of twenty pages per day, and sometimes as we approached the third hour of work, I was ready to burst through the window just to remember what walking felt like.
At other times, though, writing completely inspired me. Writing a great scene makes me feel like I just won a race or climbed Mount Everest. It feels like that moment you’ve been swimming under water for a long time and you finally burst through the seam between ocean and sky and suck in a giant, satisfying breath. While writing scenes my mom and I sometimes tumbled into an adrenaline-rushed flurry of words, tripping over each other’s sentences to get to the next line. I honestly wouldn’t have been surprised if my mom’s fingers ignited the keyboard sometimes from typing so fast. There must be some kind of mother-daughter telepathy between us, because the majority of the time, the ideas I had envisioned – those images I was trying to share so that the reader could see them the way I did – were identical to my mother’s ideas. It was sometimes like we were in the middle of the same dream. I started talking about mermaids with wild hair and shimmering tails. “So imagine if their eyes changed colors…” I began, only to have my mom finish my sentence: “…with their moods!” she said, and it was exactly what I had been about to say. These crazy, rushed moments of creativity were intense and exciting and sometimes painful – but that only made the moments when we knew we had written a perfect scene that much more fulfilling. We also had some moments that kept us laughing – like when we realized that we had been calling the prince’s tunic a doublet – which is actually a pair of medieval pants – and which meant that he had spent seventy pages or so hiding a book, a dagger, and various other items in his crotch. Or when, during the editing process, I read a typo out loud – and instead of a mermaid’s black hair fanning out behind her, her “back” hair was fanning out behind her.
Collaborating with another person may sound challenging -- two minds and conflicting ideas -- but the truth is writing Between the Lines was one of the best experiences I will ever have. It’s important to say that I would have never had the chance to do any of this if not for my mom. She was the one who “mentally” roped me to the chair everyday and reminded me to focus. By teaching me how to work toward a goal, my mom made a simple daydream grow into a remarkable book, and turned me from a writer into an author. Most teenage daughters enjoy their five-minute discussions about their school day with their mothers, and are set for the whole week. Not me. I love my mom. She’s more of a best friend to me than a strict, overbearing parent, which is why writing Between the Lines was so much fun. To all you readers, I hope you enjoy reading Between the Lines as much as I enjoyed writing it.
An interview with the writing team behind “BETWEEN THE LINES”
How did you get the idea for BETWEEN THE LINES?
Sammy: I was daydreaming in French class (I know, I should have been focusing…) when I started to wonder what happens when a book is closed. What’s it like for the characters? Can they see us? What does it feel like for them, when we read? Through the rest of that period, I tossed around the idea of what would become our book. When I went home I called my mom, who was on book tour, and told her I had an idea for a story. She was intrigued and started adding her opinions – and suggested we write the book together.
How did you work together? Did you both write and edit? Did you divide those duties?
Jodi: I know it’s going to be hard for people to believe, but we wrote every line together. EVERY line. Just ask Sammy – I refused to work on the book unless she was there. We’d literally sit at the computer together, staring at the screen, and each of us would take turns speaking the next line out loud. We did share typing duties, although I did the majority – because I’m faster.
Sammy: When it came to editing, we were again sitting at the computer together, going through the editorial letter to figure out what needed to be fixed. There was a lot of brainstorming involved in the editing process since we had to add characters and change existing ones, and if we changed one scene it sometimes changed others later on in the book.
Jodi: We spent a lot of time asking, “How do they get food in the book, if it’s never written about in the fairytale?” Or “If the book corrects itself every time you open it, then if Oliver escapes, doesn’t he get sucked back into the book if it’s reopened?” There was a logic to the story we had to stick to.
Did you stick to a writing schedule? (Same time every day?)
Jodi: We wrote around Sammy’s school schedule. So: at first that meant for a few hours each weekend, and then when it was summertime, for entire days at a time.
How long did it take you to write BETWEEN THE LINES?
Jodi: Two years.
What was your favorite childhood book? Did you read fairy tales and did those inspire BTL?
Jodi: My favorite book as a teen was Gone with the Wind – it was so sweeping and romantic and the author created a whole world out of words. I actually read a lot of fairy tales as a college student, and learned how to deconstruct them psychologically. My favorite fairytale is probably Cinderella – who doesn’t want to be a princess? – so I really like the scenes where Delilah realizes that being a fairytale character isn’t all that fabulous.
Sammy: When I was really little, one of my favorite books was Where the Wild Things Are. I loved the story about Max running away in his own imagination! I didn’t read fairy tales. My favorite YA books are The Hunger Games, Elsewhere, and anything written by Sarah Dessen. But BTL is very different from them.
Do you read the same books? Recommend books to each other?
Jodi: Sammy reads a lot of YA stuff but sometimes comes to me for suggestions for adult literature. I’m the one who gave her The Lovely Bones and Jane Eyre, both of which she loved.
Which came first for BTL: the fairy tale, or the character-comes-to-life concept?
Sammy: The character-comes-to-life concept is what popped into my head first. It was my mom’s idea to actually write the fairytale that Oliver’s trapped in.
Did you have beta-readers for BTL, or did the draft go directly from you to your agent and editors?
Jodi: My mom (Sammy’s grandma) reads all my adult novels while in progress, so we gave her this one too. She loved it!
Jodi, how were you able to work on BTL while also working on your adult novel(s)? Were there times when the writing or writing/researching overlapped?
Jodi: Um, can you remind me NOT to do two novels at once?! It was really hard, actually, finding enough time to write both. Particularly since the book I am writing now is very dark and sad, and BTL isn’t – shifting from one to the other requires a whole mood change for me.
Jodi, how was writing a YA novel different than writing an Adult novel? How was it the same?
Jodi: It wasn’t that different, really. The characters still have to ring true – even if one of them is a fairytale prince. Plus, the themes in BTL – like to whom does a story really belong – are very adult concepts. Add to this the general unease Delilah and Oliver feel about not fitting in and frankly, it’s very similar to the things I address in my adult books. The difference was the humor. Although I write humor into my grownup novels, it isn’t as broad as some of the jokes in here, and I rarely have characters like Socks, whose job is purely to lighten the mood.
Sammy, what were your favorite parts about writing with your mom? Least favorite parts?
Sammy: It was REALLY hard to sit for hours at a computer and just WRITE. I sometimes wanted to get up and burst through the window – and I’m sure there were times she wanted to kill me because I got distracted. But then there were times it was really amazing to work together. Sometimes we tripped over each other’s sentences just to get to the next line – it was sort of like we were having the same dream and seeing exactly the same images in our heads, so that when we were writing we were telepathic.
Sammy, what’s your favorite music group/singer?
Sammy: My favorite singers are Sara Bareilles, Ingrid Michaelson, Jason Mraz, and Jack Johnson.
Jodi, best vacation spot?
Jodi: Turks & Caicos. It’s the only place I really relax!
Sammy, were any of the characters inspire by people you know?
Sammy: A few of the characters are named after my pets, but otherwise there’s no relation!
We know you like to write together—anything else you like to do as a team?
Jodi: We make pretty amazing sugar cookies together…not that I like to brag. And we like to shop together!
Sammy, what other hobbies do you have besides writing?
Sammy: I do contemporary dance, play softball, act in musicals, and volunteer weekly at a homeless shelter.
Did you learn anything about each other during the writing process?
Jodi: I learned what I had long suspected: that Sammy has an incredibly creative mind. And that she’s a better writer at her age than I was when I was sixteen.
Sammy: I learned to respect my mom’s profession. It’s hard work! And I also learned how similar we can be, when we’re writing.
If you won a shopping spree, where would you go first?
Sammy: Why? Are you thinking of giving me one!
Jodi: J. Crew, Piperlime, and Nordstrom for me.
Sammy: Forever 21 and J. Crew for me!
Jodi, what’s your family’s most requested home-cooked meal?
Jodi: If Sammy’s doing the requesting, it’s meat. Steak. She’s a total carnivore. With mashed potatoes and green beans.
Jodi, what can’t you leave the house without?
Jodi: My iPhone. I’d have it surgically implanted in my head if I could.
Any guilty pleasures?
Jodi: Watching The Bachelor
Sammy: Grey’s Anatomy.
Jodi, what’s the best thing about coming home after a tour?
Jodi: Sleeping in my bed and seeing my dogs.
Sammy. Um, thanks.
Jodi: And you!
What’s your favorite Ben & Jerry’s flavor?
Jodi: Coffee Coffee Buzz Buzz.
Sammy: Cookie Dough
Sammy, if your dogs could speak to you, what would they say?
Sammy: “Woman, give me some space! Stop kissing my head all the time! And for GOD’S SAKE, I get that you love me. You don’t have to tell me every five seconds. Oh, and you can’t say you miss me when I’m only in the next room.”
Sammy, what would you be embarrassed to tell people you have on your iPod?
Sammy: I have a long list of Miley Cyrus songs from when I was in middle school that I cannot figure out how to delete from my iPod, but I am proud to say I do not own a single Justin Bieber song.
Jodi, some people love the smell of baking, others crave lavender… what’s your favorite scent?
Jodi: Coconut suntan lotion, because it means I must be somewhere warm and sunny.
What’s your go-to nail polish color?
Jodi: Blue – on my toes.
If you could do something crazy to your hair for a day, what would you do?
Jodi: Straighten it.
Sammy: Dye it blue.
Who would play the prince in the movie version of BTL?
Sammy: OK, first, I want it said that I wanted Oliver to be blond, not black-haired. So: Zac Efron, Chace Crawford, Alex Pettyfer, or Joseph Gordon-Leavitt.
Jodi: Jeremy Irvine from WAR HORSE. He’s already got the accent downpat…
Do you believe in love at first sight?
Jodi: I do, but I also believe you can fall in love at first sight several times in your life.
Sammy: I don’t know – I’ll tell you if it happens.
How did you come up with the character names?
Sammy: Many of them are my pets. The rest just tumbled out of my mouth when we got to a point where we needed a name.
Did you pull from your own lives when you were plotting?
Sammy: No – we’ve never experienced anything like this!
There’s a lot of humor in this novel. What are your favorite comedies (film? TV?)
Jodi: Modern Family is pretty hilarious. And New Girl, with Zooey Deschanel, who actually IS my daughter. They act exactly the same.
Sammy: The Office and Modern Family make me cry.
What made you laugh the hardest during the writing process?
Jodi: We had been describing Oliver’s outfit as a medieval one, with a shirt and pants – but for some reason I thought the shirt was called a doublet. At some point I Googled the name, and it turns out the doublet is the pants. Which meant that for about 100 pages, Oliver had stuck a book, a dagger, and various other items in his crotch.
Sammy: During the editing process, I found a typo where we had written about a mermaid’s BACK hair fanning out behind her…instead of BLACK hair. It was simultaneously funny…and totally gross.
Were any scenes difficult to write?
Sammy: It was really hard to figure out a way to get Oliver out of the book – without the book sucking him back in every time the pages are opened. We created so many rules about the way the book functioned that in a way it was virtually impossible to get the ending we wanted.
What others are saying about Between the Lines…
“In her first foray into teen fiction, Picoult and her co-author daughter deliver an enjoyable, metafictive twist on the traditional teen-romance novel...Book lovers in particular are likely to get a kick out of the blurring of the lines between character and reader, fact and fiction. ...Fizzy fairy-tale fun.”
— Kirkus Reviews
“ Picoult’s teenage daughter pitched the idea to her mother, and together the two have created a compulsively readable charmer. The teen dialogue and interior monologues feel authentic, while Picoult’s practiced hand balances humor with larger issues such as abandonment, hope, and existential quandaries related to fate and human nature. Both silhouette and pencil drawings abound; characters climb in and around the text to excellent effect. Younger readers and their parents will appreciate the gentle, wholesome romance, with nary a shred of paranormal action. The tender, positive tone and effective pacing that builds to a satisfying finish will inspire readers to pass the book to a friend—or reread it themselves. ”
“ Prolific and bestselling author Picoult teams up with her teenage daughter to pen a clever YA romance about the magical relationship between a loner and her fictional “Prince Charming.” ...Elements from Picoult’s other novels—alternating character viewpoints with distinguishing fonts, snappy chapter endings—are present, and the story is peppered with pop culture references to The Hunger Games, the Kindle Fire, and the X-Men, as well as comic relief in the form of characters like a talking horse that thinks it has a weight problem. …Readers will be swept up by the romantic premise. ”
— Publisher's Weekly
Book club discussion questions for Between the Lines
- How is “The Beginning” like many fairy tales? How is it different?
- Oliver explains how “we all have lives outside the lives that we play when a Reader opens the book.” (p.12) How does this make you feel? Have you ever thought of a book like that?
- Give some examples of “what you see isn’t always what’s true.”
- “I guess I have to believe there’s more to the world than what’s inside these pages.” (p.17) How does Oliver’s statement fit your own life?
- When there is “suddenly a blinding light, and our sky cracks open along a seam”, what is happening?
- What does Delilah see that wasn’t there before in her many readings of the book?
- How does Delilah get to be somewhere else than her life? (p.27)
- Why does Delilah identify so much with Oliver?
- Do you have a friend/classmate like Jules?
- Why are real fairy tales NOT for the faint-hearted? Have you read many fairy tales?
- What does Oliver do so Delilah will notice him? Would you react the same way?
- “Did you really think that a story exists only when you’re reading it?” (p.53) Discuss.
- At one point Oliver asks Delilah how she knows that SHE isn’t just a character in someone else’s book. Have you ever considered that?
- Delilah reads books “because you can always count on a book to stay the same.” Why do you read books?
- When Delilah closes the book, then re-opens it to page 43, she is crushed to see Oliver is gone. Where is he? (p.62) What does this show us about Oliver?
- If you had written your own story, what would it be? How would it be different from your real life? How would it be the same?
- What happens to the spider Oliver manages to get out through the tear in the page?
- “What makes a treasure a treasure…is how rare a find it is, when you need it most.” (p.82) Oliver is given three items from the mermaids: a fire extinguisher, a megaphone, and a shark’s tooth. How do these items help Oliver later, making them “treasures” when he needs them most? What ordinary items have become treasures for you? Discuss.
- “When the book is closed, any of us can wander anywhere; there’s no privacy.” (p.88) What book would you like to be able to wander around in? Why?
- Have you ever had a crush on a character in a book? Who? Why?
- ”The world we live in is bigger than just the fairy tale; in fact, it’s as spacious as the imagination of the woman who created us.” How is this shown by the characters’ free time activities? (p.91)
- What can Rapscullio’s easel do? (p.102) Why is this crucial to Oliver?
- What does Oliver have to do for Rapscullio to get him to paint Delilah’s room on the magic easel? Why that particular song?
- When Oliver tells Delilah he wants to be alone right now, what does she realize? (p. 133) To what extent do both of these characters have trouble fitting into their respective worlds?
- Why are Delilah and her mother hooked on fairy tales?
- What feelings does Delilah share about her parents’ divorce? Why is she drawn to Oliver? (p.146)
- How does Seraphima’s inability to tell the difference between real life and the story add humor to the book?
- Delilah is angry that Oliver isn’t talking to her when she’s at the doctor’s office. What does she do to make Oliver upset enough to talk? Why?
- How does Oliver overcome the dragon?
- When Oliver goes to Orville for help, what does he see in his future? (p.218) Why is it upsetting?
- Why is Jules so upset? Does Delilah react like Jules expects?
- There is a completely different world that happens between the lines. (p.232) Discuss.
- How does Delilah react to the knowledge that Oliver had her written into the story? How does this reaction surprise Oliver?
- “What seemed exciting—trying to get Oliver out of the book—is absolutely terrifying now that I’m stuck inside it myself.” (p.239)..Have you ever been in a situation where something that seemed exciting turned out to be terrifying?
- How do Oliver and Delilah react when they see each other after their fight?
- What happens when Pandemonium strikes the copy of Between the Lines held by Delilah?
- How does the pearl necklace travel to Delilah’s world? (p.278)
- The act of reading is a partnership? Discuss.
- When Delilah sees Oliver enter the room, what does she do? Who is Edgar? How is he similar to Oliver…and how is he different?
- How does Delilah’s mom react when Delilah calls her at Jessamyn West’s insistence? Would your mom react the same way?
- How do Delilah and Edgar bond? (p.303)
- “Was that all it took to be brave? Knowing that someone believed in you?” (p.313) Discuss.
- What happens when Edgar flips through the book to find the part Delilah is reading?
- How do Delilah, Edgar, and Oliver figure out how to free Oliver? Does it work?
- What do Edgar and Oliver figure out? How does Oliver prove to Delilah that he’s really Oliver?
- To whom does a story belong? The reader? The writer? The characters who inhabit it? Do you believe that once a story is told it can’t be changed any more…because it already exists in the world in someone’s mind?
- What do you think happens after the book ends?
- If you could choose, what book would you like to be in?
Just so you know, when they say, “Once upon a time”…they’re lying.
It’s not once upon a time. It’s not even twice upon a time. It’s hundreds of times, over and over, every time someone opens up the pages of this dusty old book.
“Oliver,” my best friend says, “Checkmate.”
I follow Frump’s gaze and stare down at the chessboard, which isn’t really a chessboard at all. It’s just squares scratched onto the sand of Everafter Beach, and a bunch of accommodating pixies who don’t mind acting as pawns and bishops and queens. There isn’t a chess set in the story, so we have to make do with what we’ve got, and of course we have to clean up all evidence when we’re done, or else someone might assume that there is more to the story than what they know.
I can’t remember when I first realized that life, as I knew it, wasn’t real. That this role I performed over and over was just that – a role. And that in order to play it, there had to be another party involved – namely one of those large round flat faces that blurred the sky above us every time the story began. The relationships you see on the page aren’t always as they seem. When we’re not acting our parts, we’re all just free to go about our business. It’s quite complicated, really. I’m Prince Oliver, but I’m not Prince Oliver. When the book is closed, I can stop pretending I’m interested in Seraphima or that I’m fighting a dragon, and instead I can hang out with Frump or taste the concoctions Queen Maureen likes to dream up in the kitchen or take a dip in the ocean with the pirates, who are actually quite nice fellows. In other words, we all have lives outside the lives that we play when a reader opens the book. For everyone else here, that knowledge is enough. They’re happy repeating the story endlessly, and staying trapped onstage even when the readers are gone. But me, I’ve always wondered. It stands to reason that if I have a life outside of this story, so do the readers whose faces float above us. And they’re not trapped inside the book. So where exactly are they? And what do they do when the book is closed?
Once, a reader – a very young one – knocked the book over and it fell open on a page that has no one but me written into it. For a full hour, I watched the Otherworld go by. These giants stacked bricks made of wood, with letters written on their sides, creating monstrous buildings. They dug their hands into a deep table filled with same sort of sand we have on Everafter Beach. They stood in front of easels, like the one Rapscullio likes to use when he paints, but these artists used a unique style – dipping their hands into the paint and smearing it across the paper in swirls of color. Finally, one of the Others, who looked to be as old as Queen Maureen, leaned forward and frowned. Children! This is not how we treat books, she said, before shutting me out.
When I told the others what I had seen, they just shrugged. Queen Maureen suggested I see Orville about my strange dreams, and ask for a sleeping potion. Frump, who is my best friend both inside the story and out, believed me. “What difference does it make, Oliver?” he asked. “Why waste time and energy thinking about a place or a person you’ll never be?” Immediately I regretted bringing it up. Frump wasn’t always a dog – he was written into the story as Figgins, my best buddy from childhood, who was transformed by Rapscullio into a common hound. Because it’s only a flashback of text, the only time he’s ever read he’s seen as a dog – which is why he stays in that form even when we’re offstage. And really, who would ever choose to be a talking basset hound?
Frump captures my queen. “Checkmate,” he says.
“Why do you always beat me?” I sigh.
“Why do you always let me?” Frump says, and he scratches behind his ear. “Stupid fleas.”
When we’re working, Frump doesn’t speak – just barks. He follows me around like, well, a faithful pup. You’d never guess, when he’s acting, that in real life he’s always bossing the rest of us around.
“I think I saw a tear at the top of page 47,” I say as casually as I can, although I’ve been thinking of nothing but getting back there to investigate since first spotting it. “Want to come check it out?”
“Honestly, Oliver. Not that again.” Frump rolls his eyes. “You’re like a one-trick pony.”
“Did you call me?” Socks trots closer. He’s my trusty steed, and again, a shining example of how what you see isn’t always what’s true. Although he snorts and stamps with the confidence of a stallion on the pages of our world, when the book is closed he’s a nervous mess with the self-confidence of a gnat.
I smile at him, because if I don’t, he’s going to think I’m angry at him. He’s that sensitive. “No, we didn’t…”
“I distinctly heard the word pony…”
“It was just an expression,” Frump says.
“Well, now that I’m here, tell me the truth,” Socks says, turning in a half circle. “This saddle totally makes my butt look fat, doesn’t it?”
“No,” I say immediately, as Frump vigorously shakes his head.
“You’re all muscle,” Frump says. “In fact I was going to ask if you’d been working out.”
“You’re just saying that to make me feel better,” Socks sniffles. “I knew I shouldn’t have had that last carrot at breakfast.”
“You look great, Socks,” I insist. “Honestly.” But he tosses his mane and sulks back toward the other side of the beach.
Frump rolls onto his back. “If I have to listen to that stupid horse whine one more time –“
“That’s exactly what I’m talking about,” I interrupt. “What if you didn’t have to? What if you could be anywhere – anything—you wanted to be?”
I have this dream. It’s kind of silly, but I see myself walking down a street I’ve never seen before, in a village I can’t identify. A girl hurries past me, her dark hair whipping behind her like a flag, and in her haste she crashes into me. When I reach out to help her up, I feel a spark ignite between us. Her eyes are the color of honey and I cannot turn away from them. Finally, I say, and when I kiss her, she tastes of mint and winter and nothing like Seraphima ---
“Yeah, right,” Frump says, interrupting me. “How many career opportunities are there for a basset hound?”
“You’re only a dog because you were written that way,” I say. “What if you could change that?”
He laughs. “Change it. Change a published story. Yeah, that’s a good one, Ollie. While you’re at it, why don’t you turn the ocean into grape juice and make the mermaids fly?”
Maybe he’s right, maybe it is just me. Everyone else in this book seems to be perfectly happy with the fact that they are part of a story; that they will wake up and do and say the same things over and over, like a play that gets performed for eternity. They probably think that the people in the Otherworld have the same sorts of lives we do. I guess I find it hard to believe that readers get up at the same hour every morning and eat the same breakfast every day and go sit in the same chair for hours and have the same conversations with their parents and go to bed and wake up and do it all over again. I think more likely they lead the most incredible lives – and by incredible, I mean: different every day. I wonder all the time what that would be like: To start the day not begging the queen to let me go on a quest. To avoid getting trapped by fairies and run ragged by a villain. To fall in love with a girl whose eyes are the color of honey. To see someone I don’t recognize, and whose name I don’t know. I’m not fussy, really. I wouldn’t mind being a butcher, instead of a prince. Or swimming across the ocean to get into the record books. Or picking a fight with someone who cuts in front of me. I wouldn’t mind doing anything other than the same old things I have done for as long as I can remember. I guess I just have to believe there’s more to life than what’s inside these pages. Or maybe it’s just that I desperately want to believe that.
I glance around at the others. Between readings, our real personalities show. One of the trolls is working out a melody on a flute he has carved from a piece of bamboo. The fairies are doing crossword puzzles that Captain Crabbe creates for them, but they keep cheating by looking into the wizard’s crystal ball. And Seraphima…
She blows me a kiss, and I force a smile.
She’s pretty, I suppose, with her silver hair and eyes the color of bluebells in the meadow near the castle. But her shoe size is bigger than her IQ. For example, she honestly believes that just because I save her over and over again as part of my job, I must truly have feelings for her.
I’ll be honest, it’s not a hard day’s work to kiss a beautiful girl repeatedly. But it all starts feeling same old/same old after a while. I certainly don’t love Seraphima, but that little detail seems to have escaped her. Which makes me feel guilty every time I kiss her, because I know she wants more from me than I’m ever going to give her when the storybook’s closed.
Beside me, Frump lets out a long, mournful howl. That’s the second reason I feel so guilty kissing Seraphima. He’s had a crush on her for as long as I can remember, and that makes it even worse. What must it be like, watching me pretend to fall in love with the girl he’s crazy about, day after day? “I’m sorry, buddy,” I say to him. “I wish she knew it was just for show.”
“Not your fault,” he replies tightly. “Just doing what you have to do.”
As if he’s conjured it, there is suddenly a blinding light, and our sky cracks open along a seam. “Places!” Frump cries, frantic. “Everyone! Into your positions!” He runs off to help the trolls dismantle the bridge, only so that they can rebuild it again.
I grab my doublet jacket and my dagger. The pixies who were our chess pieces rise like sparks and write the words SEE YOU LATER in the air before me, a trail of light as they zoom into the woods. “Yes, and thanks again,” I say politely, intent on hurrying to the castle for my first scene.
What would happen, I wonder, if I was late? If I dawdled or stopped to smell the lilacs at the castle gate, so that I wasn’t in place when the book was opened? Would it stay sealed shut? Or would the story start without me?
Experimentally, I slow my pace, dragging my heels. But suddenly I feel a magnetic tug on the front of my doublet, propelling me through the pages. They rustle as I leap through them, my legs moving in double-time as I stare down, amazed. I can hear Socks whinnying in his stall at the royal stables, and the splash of the mermaids as they dive back into the sea, and suddenly, I am standing where I am supposed to be, before the royal throne in the Great Hall, at dispute court. “It’s about time,” Frump mutters. At the last moment there is a brilliant slice of light that opens above us, and instead of looking away like we usually do, this time I glance up.
I can see the reader’s face -- a little fuzzy at the edges, sort of how the sun looks from the ocean floor. And just like when one stares at the sun, I can’t make myself turn away.
“Oliver!” Frump hisses. “Focus!”
So I turn away from those eyes, the exact color of honey; from that mouth, its lips parted just the tiniest bit, as if she might be about to speak my name. I turn away, and clear my throat, and for the hundred billionth time in my life, I speak my first line of the story.
I did not write the lines I speak, they were given to me long before I remember. I mouth the words, but the actual sound is in the reader’s mind, not coming from my throat. Similarly, all the moves that we make as if we’re performing a play somehow unravel across the someone else’s imagination. It is as if the action and sound on our tiny remote stage is being broadcast in the thoughts of the reader. I’m not sure that I ever really learned this information – it was just something I’ve known for as long as I can remember, the same way I know that when I look at the grass and associate it with a color, I know that color is green.
I let Rapscullio convince me that he is a nobleman from afar whose beloved daughter has been kidnapped -- a speech I’ve heard so often that occasionally, I murmur the words along with him. In the story, of course, he has no daughter. He’s just setting a trap for me. But I’m not supposed to know that yet, even though I’ve played this scene a thousand times. So while he is going on and on about the other princes who won’t rescue Seraphima, I think about the girl who is reading us.
I’ve seen her before. She’s different from our usual readers– they’re either motherly, like Queen Maureen, or young enough to be captivated by tales of princesses in peril. But this reader looks – well, she looks to be about my age. It doesn’t make any sense. Surely she knows – like I do – that fairy tales are just stories. That happy endings aren’t real.
Frump waddles across the polished black-and-white marble floor, his
tail wagging vigorously as he skids to a halt beside me.
Suddenly I hear a voice – distant, through a tunnel, but clear enough: “Delilah, I told you twice already…we’re going to be late!”
From time to time, I’ve heard Readers talking. They don’t usually read out loud, but every now and then, a conversation occurs when a book is open. I’ve learned quite a lot from being a good listener. Like, for example, Don’t let the bedbugs bite is apparently a common way to say good night, even in rooms that do not appear to be infested with insects. I’ve learned about things the Otherworld has that we don’t: television (which is something parents do not like as much as books); Happy Meals (apparently not all meals bring joy. Just the ones that come in a paper bag with a small toy); and showers (something you take before bedtime that leaves you drenched).
“Just let me finish,” the girl says.
“You’ve read that book a thousand times – you know how it ends. Now means now!”
I have heard this reader speaking to the older woman before. From their conversations, I’m guessing it’s her mother. She is always telling Delilah to put the book away and to go outside. To take a walk and get some fresh air. To call a friend and go to a movie (whatever that is). Repeatedly, I wait for her to heed her mother’s directions – but most of the time she finds an excuse to keep reading. Sometimes she does go outside, but opens the book and starts reading again. I cannot tell you how frustrating this is for me. Here I am, wasting away inside a book I wish I could escape, and all she wants to do is stay in the story.
If I could talk to this girl Delilah, I’d ask her why on earth she would ever trade a single second of the world she’s in for the one in which I’m stuck.
But I’ve tried talking out loud to other readers. Believe me, it was the very first thing I attempted when I started to actively dream about life in the Otherworld. If I could just get one of those people holding the book to notice me, maybe I’d have a chance at escaping eventually. However, the people holding the book only saw me when the story was playing, and when the story was playing, I am compelled to stick to the script. Even when I try to say something like, “Please! Listen to me!” I wind up announcing, instead, “I’m on my way to rescue a princess!” like some sort of puppet. If I ever had reason to believe that a reader could see me for who I really am – not who I play in the story – I’d do, well, anything. I’d scream at the top of my lungs. I’d run in circles. I’d light myself on fire. Anything, to keep her seeing me.
Can you imagine what it would be like to know that your life was just going to be a series of days that were all the same, that were do-overs? As Prince Oliver, I may have been given the gift of life…but I have never been given the chance to live.
“Coming,” Delilah says, over her shoulder, and I exhale heavily, a breath I hadn’t even realized I was holding. The thought of not having to go through the motions again – is a gift, an absolute gift.
There is a dizzying whirl of gravity as the book starts to close, something we’ve all gotten used to. We hang onto details – candelabra and table legs and in some desperate cases, the hanging tail of a letter like “g” or “y”, until the pages are completely closed.
“Well,” I say, letting go of the drapery onto which I’m hanging. “Guess we got off lucky this –“
Before I can finish, however, I find myself flying head over heels as the pages are rifled through, and our world reopens on the very last bit of the story. As if by magic, I’m suddenly stuffed into the white doublet with a red sash; and Seraphima is glittering beside me in her shimmering gown. Frump has a wedding band tied to a silver ribbon around his neck. The trolls are holding the pillars of a bridal bower; the pixies have spun silken ribbons that wrap around them and blow in the sea breeze. The mermaids gather in the shallows of the ocean, watching us bitterly as we wed.
I glance down, and suddenly panic.
The chessboard. It’s still there. The pixie chesspieces are gone, certainly, but the squares I drew with a stick – the proof that there is life in this book when no one is reading it – are still carved onto the beach.
I don’t know why the book hasn’t reset itself. It never makes mistakes like this; every time we are flipped to a new page we will find ourselves ready, in costume, with any necessary set in place. Maybe, for all I know, this has happened before and I never noticed it. But it stands to reason that if I noticed; someone else might too.
Like a reader.
Deep breaths, Oliver, I tell myself. “Frump,” I hiss.
He growls, but I can understand him clearly: Not now.
Okay, Oliver, I tell myself. This is not a disaster. People read a fairy tale for the happy ending, not to hunt for a faintly visible chessboard scratched into the sand on the final page. Still, I try to pull Seraphima toward me, in an attempt to hide the chessboard beneath the fabric of her billowing dress. Seraphima, however, misinterprets this to mean that I might actually want to get closer to her. She tilts up her chin and her eyes flutter closed, waiting for her kiss.
Everyone’s waiting. The trolls, the fairies, the mermaids. The pirates with their anchor lines tightly wrapped around Pyro the dragon to keep him subdued.
The reader is waiting too. And if I give her what she wants, she’ll close the book and that will be that.
I lean forward and give Seraphima a kiss, winding my hands in her hair and pulling the length of her body along mine. I can feel her melt beneath my touch, leaning into me. She may not be my type, but there’s no reason I shouldn’t enjoy myself at work, after all.
As the girl leans closer, the sky darkens above us. “How strange,” the girl murmurs.
Her finger comes down, pushing at the edges of our world, bending the scenery even as we stand in it. I draw in my breath, thinking she is going to trap me, but instead, she touches the very spot where the chessboard is etched onto the sand.
“That,” she says, “was never here before.”
Everyone says so. I suppose it’s because while other fifteen-year-olds are talking about the best lip gloss and which Gossip Girl star is hotter, I would rather be curled up with a book. Seriously – have you been to a high school lately? Why would anyone sane want to interact with Cro-Magnon hockey players, or run the gauntlet of mean girls who lounge against the lockers like the fashion police, passing judgment on my faded high-top sneakers and thrift-store sweaters? No thanks; I’d much rather pretend I’m somewhere else, and any time I open the pages of a book, that happens.
My mom worries about me because I’m a loner. But that’s not entirely true. My best friend, Jules, totally gets me. It’s my mom’s fault that she can’t see past the safety pins Julia sticks through her ears and her pink Mohawk. The best thing about hanging around with Jules, though, is that when I’m with her, nobody even looks twice at me.
Jules understands my fixation on books. She feels the same way about B-movie horror films. She knows every single line of dialogue in The Blob. She refers to the popular girls in our school as Pod People.
Jules and I are not popular. In fact, I am pretty much banned from ever being popular, or for that matter, within 100 feet of anyone popular. Last year when we were playing softball in gym, I swung the bat and broke the left knee of Allie McAndrews, the head cheerleader. Allie had to stay off the top of the pyramid for six weeks and accepted her prom queen crown on crutches.
The worst part was I completely missed the ball.
Anyone who didn’t hate me before Water-on-the-Knee-Gate suddenly had a reason to ignore me or sneer at me or slam me against a locker when we passed in the halls. Except Jules, who moved here a week after it happened. When I told her why I was a social pariah, she laughed. “Too bad you didn’t break them both,” she said.
Jules and I have no secrets. I know that she is addicted to soap operas and she knows that my mother is a cleaning lady. There’s only one thing I haven’t told Jules, and that’s the fact that for the past week, the reason I’ve avoided her is because I’m embarrassed by my choice of reading material.
A fairytale written for elementary school kids.
If you think it’s social suicide to literally bring the head cheerleader to her knees, you should try reading a children’s book in plain sight in a high school. If you read Dostoevsky, you’re weird but smart. If you read comic books, you’re weird but hip. If you read a fairytale, you’re just a dork.
I discovered this story a month ago, when I was eating lunch quietly in the school library. There I sat, chewing on a peanut butter and Fluff sandwich, when I noticed that one book on the shelf was upside down and backwards, as if it had been jammed in. Figuring I could help Ms. Winx, the librarian, I went to fix it, and got an enormous electric shock on the tips of my fingers.
The book was tattered and the spine was shaky – I would have thought that by now, it would have made its way to the annual sale, where you could buy old novels for a dime each. It was illustrated – clearly a fairy tale – but it was shelved with nonfiction books about World War I. And strangest of all, it didn’t have a bar code to be checked out.
“Ms. Winx,” I had asked, “have you ever read this one?”
“Oh, a long time ago,” she told me. “It’s the only book of its kind. The author hand-painted the pictures and had it bound.”
“It must be worth a fortune!”
“Not so much,” Mrs. Winx said. “The writer was known for her murder mysteries. This was more of an experiment for her. A prototype that never evolved. In fact, she never wrote another book after this one. I was a big fan of her other novels, and couldn’t pass this up when I found it at a rummage sale. So for a nickel, it became the property of the school.”
I looked down at the cover – Between The Lines, by Jessamyn Jacobs.
I checked it out that first day, and while I was in Earth Science class, I hid the fairytale inside my textbook and read it from cover to cover. It’s about a prince, Oliver, who goes on a quest to rescue a princess who’s been taken hostage by the evil Rapscullio. The problem is that Oliver, unlike most fairytale princes, isn’t a big fan of taking risks. His father died in battle, and as far as he’s concerned, it’s far better to be safe than sorry.
I think that’s what made me keep reading. The very first thing Oliver says is that it’s not easy growing up without a dad. It was as if the words had been taken straight from my mouth. My father had not died in battle, but he’d left my mother when I was ten years old. She cried every night that year, after my father found himself a new, improved family. I was a straight A student – not because I loved school, but because I didn’t want to be one more person who disappointed my mother. We didn’t live in the nicest house in town and to pay the rent, my mom had to work hard cleaning the houses of the girls who treated me like pond scum.
True confessions time: Oliver was cuter than any guy in my school. Granted, he was two-dimensional and illustrated. Don’t judge me – go take a look at Wolverine in an X-Men comic and tell me he isn’t hot. With his jet black hair and pale eyes, I could almost pretend that Oliver was smiling up from the page directly at me. Clearly, any normal girl would take this as a sign that she needed to get out more. But me, I didn’t have too many places to get to.
Plus, he was smart. He conquered one obstacle after the other – not with his sword, but with his cleverness. For example, when he was held captive by a trio of creepy boy-crazy mermaids, he promised to get them dates in return for a pack of supplies – flotsam and jetsam that had washed into the ocean after shipwrecks. He used that junk – other people’s garbage – to rescue himself from the snares of the fiery dragon that killed his own father. He’s not your typical prince, a square peg in a round hole, kind of like me. He’s the sort of guy who wouldn’t mind reading side by side on a date. And he knows how to kiss, unlike Leonard Uberhardt, who practically tried to swallow me whole behind the jungle gym in fourth grade.
That first week I read the book so often that I memorized the words; I knew the layout of the pictures on the pages. I dreamed that I was being chased by Rapscullio; or forced by Captain Crabbe to walk the plank. Each week, I’d bring the book back to the library, because that was school policy. I’d have to wait until it was returned to the shelf a day later, giving someone else a chance to read it. But what other ninth grader cares about fairy tales? The book was always waiting for me, so I could check it out again and reconfirm my position as Public Loser Number One.
My mother worried. Why was a girl like me, who could easily read thousand-page adult novels, obsessed with a children’s book?
I knew the answer to that, not that I was about to admit it to anyone.
Prince Oliver understood me better than anyone in the world.
True, I’d never met him. And true, he was a fictional character. But he also was what people needed him to be: a dashing hero, an articulate peacemaker, a cunning escape artist. But then again, Prince Oliver had never existed anywhere but on a page, and in some random author’s brain. He didn’t know what it was like to be stuffed into a locker by the cheerleading squad and left there until some janitor heard me yelling.
Today, I decide, as I wake up and stare at the ceiling, is going to be different. First thing, I am going to return the book to the library. In my English journal, I’ll write down that I’ve been reading Twilight for my outside reading requirement (like 98% of the ninth grade), and I’ll explain why I am Team Jacob instead of Team Edward. I’ll tell Jules that we should go to the Rocky Horror marathon at the cheap theater this weekend. Then in Earth Science I’ll finally get enough courage to go talk to Zach, the vegetarian who insists on feeding tofu crumbles to the class Venus Flytrap, and who probably will save the whales before he turned 21.
Yes, today is the day everything is going to change.
I get up and take a shower and get dressed, but the fairytale is sitting on my nightstand where I left it before I went to bed. This must be what an addict feels like, I think, trying to fight the pull of one last quick read. My fingers itch toward the binding, and finally, with a sigh of regret, I just grab the book and open it, hungrily reading the story. But this time, something feels wrong. It is like an itch between my eyebrows, a wrinkle in my mind. Frowning, I scan through the dialogue, which is all the way it should be. I glance at the illustration: the prince sitting on a throne, his dog waiting beside him.
“Delilah!” my mother yells. I told you twice already…we’re going to be late!”
I stare at the page, my eyes narrowed. What is it that’s off? “Just let me finish---“
“You’ve read that book a thousand times – you know how it ends. Now means now!”
I flip through the book to the final page. When I see it, I can’t believe I haven’t noticed it before. Just to the left of Princess Seraphima’s glittering gown, drawn into the sand, is a grid. Sort of like a Bingo chart. Or a chessboard.
“How strange,” I say softly. “That wasn’t here before.”
When my mother uses my middle name, it means she’s really angry. I close the book and tuck it into my backpack, hurry downstairs to scarf down breakfast before I am dropped off at school.
My mother is already rinsing her coffee cup as I grab a slice of toast and butter it. “Mom,” I ask, “have you ever read a book and had it…change?”
She looks over her shoulder. “Well, sure. The first time I read Gone with the Wind and Rhett walked out on Scarlett, I was fifteen and thought all that unrequited love was wildly romantic. The second time I read it, last summer, I thought she was silly and he was a selfish pig.”
“That’s not what I mean…that’s you changing – not the book.” I take a bite of the toast and wash it down with orange juice. “Imagine that you’ve read a story a hundred times and it always takes place on a ship. And then one day, you read it, and it’s set in the Wild West instead.”
“That’s ridiculous,” my mother replies. “Books don’t change in front of your eyes.”
“Mine did,” I say.
She turns and looks at me, head tilted as if she is trying to figure out if I am lying or crazy or both. “You need to get more sleep, Delilah,” she announces.
“Mom, I’m serious –“
“You simply saw something you overlooked before,” my mother says, and she puts on her jacket. “Let’s go.”
But it’s not something I overlooked. I know it.
The whole way to school, my backpack sits on my lap. My mother and I talk about things that don’t matter – what time she is coming home from work; when my algebra test is; if it’s going to snow – when all I can focus on is that little faint chessboard scratched into the sand of the beach on the last page of the fairytale.
My mother’s car pulls up in front of the building. “Have a good day,” she says, and I kiss her goodbye. I hurry past a kid plugged into his earphones, and the popular girls, who cluster together like grapes (honestly, do you ever see just one of them?)
The school’s current “it” couple, Brianna and Angelo – or BrAngelo, as they’re known – are wrapped in each other’s arms across my locker.
“I’m gonna miss you,” Brianna says.
“I’m gonna miss you too, baby,” Angelo murmurs.
For Pete’s sake. It’s not like she’s leaving on a trip around the world. She’s only headed to homeroom.
I don’t realize I’ve said that out loud until I see them both staring at me. “Get a life,” Brianna says.
Angelo laughs. “Or at least a boyfriend.”
They leave with their arms around each other, hands tucked into each other’s rear jeans pocket.
The worst part is, it’s true. I wouldn’t know what true love feels like, if it hit me between the eyes. Given my mother’s experience with romance, I shouldn’t even care – but there’s a part of me that wonders what it would be like to be the most important person to someone else; to always feel like you were missing a piece of yourself when he wasn’t near you.
There is a crash on the metal of the locker beside mine, and I look up to see Jules smacking her hand against it to get my attention. “Hey,” Jules says. “Earth to Delilah?” Today she is dressed in a black veil and a miniskirt, over leggings that look like they’ve been hacked with a razor. She looks like a corpse bride. “Where’d you go last night?” she says. “I sent you a thousand texts.”
I hesitate. I’ve hidden my fairytale obsession from Jules, but if anyone is going to believe me when I say that a book changed before my eyes, it’s going to be my best friend.
“Sorry,” I say. “I went to bed early.”
“Well, the texts were all about Soy Boy.”
I blush. At three AM during our last sleepover, I confessed to her that I thought Zach from my science class was possible future boyfriend material.
“I heard that he hooked up with Mallory Wegman last weekend.”
Mallory Wegman had hooked up with so many guys in our class that her nickname was the Fisherman. I let this news sink in, and the fact that I had thought about Zach this morning before reading my book, which seemed a thousand years ago.
“He’s telling everyone she slipped him a real burger instead of a veggie one and it overloaded his system. That he has no recollection of doing anything with her.”
“Must have been some really good beef,” I murmur. For a second, I try to mourn Zach, my potential crush, who now has someone real, but all I’m thinking of is Oliver.
“I have to tell you something,” I confess.
Jules looks at me, suddenly serious.
“I was reading this book and it…it sort of changed.”
“I totally understand,” Jules says. “The first time I saw ‘Attack of the Killer Tomatoes’ I knew my life was never going to be the same.”
“No, it’s not that I’ve changed – it’s the book that changed.” I reach into my backpack and grab the fairytale, flipping directly to the last page. “Look.”
Prince? Yup, standing right where he usually is.
Frump? Wagging happily.
It was there less than a half hour ago, and suddenly it’s gone.
“Delilah?” Jules asks. “Are you okay?”
I can feel myself breaking out in a cold sweat. I close the book and then open it again; I blink fast to clear my eyes.
I stuff the book into my backpack again and close my locker. “I, um, have to go,” I say to Jules, shoving past her just as the bell rings.
Just so you know, I never lie. I never steal. I never cut class. I am, in short, the perfect student.
Which makes what I am about to do even more shocking. I turn in the opposite direction and walk toward the gymnasium, although I am supposed to be in homeroom.
Me, Delilah McPhee.
Who has never ditched a class, except for the time I got the flu.
“Delilah?” I look up to see the principal standing in front of me. “Shouldn’t you be in homeroom?”
He smiles at me. He doesn’t expect me to be cutting class, either.
“Um…Mrs. Winx asked me to get a book from the gym teacher.”
“Oh,” the principal says. “Excellent!” He waves me on.
For a moment I just stare at him. Is it really this easy to become someone I’m not? Then I break into a run.
I don’t stop until I have reached the locker room. I know it will be empty this early in the morning. Sitting down on a bench, I take the book from my backpack again and open it again.
Real fairy tales are not for the faint-hearted. In them, children get eaten by witches and chased by wolves; women fall into comas and are tortured by evil relatives. Somehow, all that pain and suffering is worthwhile, though, when it leads to the ending: happily ever after. Suddenly it no longer matters if you got a B- on your midterm in French or you’re the only girl in the school who doesn’t have a date for the spring formal. Happily ever after trumps everything. But what if ever after could change?
It did for my mom. At one point, she loved my dad, or they wouldn’t have gotten married – but now, she doesn’t even want to speak to him when he calls me on my birthday and Christmas. Likewise, maybe the fairy tale isn’t accurate. Maybe the last line should read something like: .
There is still no chessboard on the sand.
I start flipping through the pages furiously. In most of them, Prince Oliver is in the company of someone or something – his dog, the villain Rapscullio, Princess Seraphima. But there is one illustration where he is all alone.
Actually, it’s my favorite.
It comes toward the end of the story, after he’s outsmarted the dragon Pyro and left the beast in the care of Captain Crabbe and the pirates. Afterward, as the pirates load the dragon onto the ship, Oliver is left alone on the shore looking up the cliff wall at the tower where Seraphima is being imprisoned. In the picture on page 43, he starts to climb.
I lift the book closer so that I can see Oliver more clearly. He is drawn in color, his jet hair ruffling in the breeze; his arms straining as he scales the sheer rock face. His bottle-green velvet doublet is tattered: singed from Pyro’s fiery breath and torn from his escape from shackles on the pirate ship. His dagger is clenched between his teeth so that he can grasp the next ledge. His face is turned toward the ocean, where the ship slips into the distance.
I think the reason I love this illustration so much is because of the expression on his face. You’d expect, at that moment, he’d be overcome by fierce determination. Or maybe shining love for his nearby princess. But instead, he looks…well…like something’s missing.
Like he’d almost rather be on that pirate ship. Or anywhere but where he is, on the face of the rocky cliff.
Like there’s something he’s hiding.
I lean forward, until my nose is nearly touching the page. The image blurs as I get close, but for a moment, I’m positive that Oliver’s eyes have flickered away from the ocean, and toward me.
“I wish you were real,” I whisper.
On the loudspeaker in the locker room, the bell rings. That means homeroom is over; and I have to go to algebra. With a sigh, I set the fairy tale down on a bench, still cracked open. I unzip my backpack and then pick the book up again.
Oliver is still climbing the sheer rock wall. But the dagger clenched between his teeth is now in his right hand. Steel to stone, its sharp tip scratches the faintest of white lines into the dark granite, and then another, and a third.
I rub my eyes. This is not a Nook, or an iPad, just a very ordinary old book. No animation, no bells and whistles. Drawing in my breath, I touch the paper, that very spot, and lift my finger again.
Two words slowly appear on the surface of the rock wall.