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Authors: Sally Warner

EllRay Jakes Stands Tall

BOOK: EllRay Jakes Stands Tall
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VIKING

An imprint of Penguin Random House LLC

375 Hudson Street

New York, New York 10014

First published in the United States of America by Viking,

an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC, 2016

Text copyright © 2016 by Sally Warner

Illustrations copyright © 2016 by Brian Biggs

Penguin supports copyright. Copyright fuels creativity, encourages diverse voices, promotes free speech, and creates a vibrant culture. Thank you for buying an authorized edition of this book and for complying with copyright laws by not reproducing, scanning, or distributing any part of it in any form without permission. You are supporting writers and allowing Penguin to continue to publish books for every reader.

LIBRARY OF CONGRESS CATALOGING-IN-PUBLICATION DATA IS AVAILABLE

ISBN: 978-0-451-46913-7 (hardcover)

ISBN: 978-0-14-751253-6 (paperback)

ISBN: 978-0-698-15329-5 (ePub)

Version_1

To Liam and Fynn DiMaio —S.W.

For Wilson and Elliot —B.B.

CONTENTS
1

ALMOST LIKE B-BALL

“Give it here,” I shout to Jared Matthews. He is hogging the basketball, as usual—not that he really knows how to play.

It is Tuesday afternoon recess on a cool-warm February day that is perfect for running around. Sunshine, wind, and freedom!

My name is EllRay Jakes, and I am eight years old. I am in Ms. Sanchez's third grade class at Oak Glen Primary School, in Oak Glen, California.

And I'm the shortest kid in class.

All I want is respect, but to get respect you have to be good at something. At home, with neighbor kids and friends, it could be video games and memorizing lists of anime names. But at school, it pretty much has to be sports. For us boys, anyway. And sports means doing stuff.

But running around is about all we're doing this
recess, because we don't really know how to play basketball—or “b-ball,” as a couple of the guys in my class call it. Instead, we play something
almost like
b-ball.

Because with Jared, b-ball is more like a game of keep-away.

For Kevin McKinley and Nate Marshall, b-ball always ends up turning into soccer. They either bounce the ball off their heads, or they zig-zag kick it across the playground toward an imaginary goal. They make their own crowd-cheering sounds as they run.

When Kry Rodriguez gets hold of the ball, she stares at the hoop for so long before she shoots that some kids get bored and wander away. It's like Kry is doing yoga, something the girls in our third grade class are obsessed with lately.

Don't ask. I think yoga is mostly just holding still or lying around. In other words, it is the exact opposite of anything boy.

Jason Leffer just tucks the basketball under his arm like a football, ducks his head, and starts running.

Wrong game, dude!

My friend Corey Robinson is probably the best athlete in our whole school. He is a prize-winning swimmer. But he doesn't even try to get the ball. He's just glad to be outside, away from math, the white board, and reading out loud in class.

My new friend Marco Adair is the only other boy in class who is as bad at b-ball as I am. But Marco is too busy in his secret world of dragons and knights to care.

Me, I'd just like to get my hands on the ball for once! I can almost smell its weird rubbery sweetness and feel its goose bumps under my fingertips.

Huh. I wish!

“Give it here,” I yell again, darting around Nate and Major Donaldson, who are shoving each other in a friendly way that could turn rough, just like that.

“Come and get it, wuss,” Jared shouts back, like he just won a prize. The prize for embarrassing me, I guess. He doesn't even care about breaking our school's no-name-calling rule.

“You guys are so lame,” Cynthia Harbison shouts from over by the fence. “You don't even know what you're doing!”

“She's right,” her personal assistant Fiona McNulty says. “I've seen real basketball on TV, you guys. With my
daddy
. And that's not it.”

By now, we have three balls going at the same time, one basketball and two kickballs. So Fiona's at least a little right.

Jared tosses the real basketball up in the air, then spikes it down hard—volleyball style—in Cynthia and Fiona's direction.

Bam!

“Here! Throw it here,” I shout to Fiona. But she is cringing against the chain link fence like she's still under attack.

“Cynthia,” I yell. “Grab the ball and throw it here!”

“Get it yourself, if you want it so much, EllRay,” Cynthia says, tossing back her hair and grabbing hold of Fiona's hand so they can storm away better.

“Yeah, you baby,” Fiona says, mad at me instead of Jared, for some reason.

Me! And I didn't do anything.

I guess I'm not as scary as Jared, that's all—so Fiona can be braver against me.

I'm just EllRay Jakes, b-ball loser, who can't even get his goofy little hands on the ball once, much less shoot a basket.

And—
bzz-z-z-z!

Just like that, recess is over.

2

PROMISES

“But Dad promised,” I say to Mom in my darkened room that night. I am under the covers, and she is sitting on my quilt. Only the closet light is still on.

My dad is on a geology field trip in Arizona.

“Hmm,” Mom replies. She sounds half-asleep, I think, frowning.

And this is important!

It is way past my bedtime, but I can't fall asleep. My dad's old orange Garfield clock ticks too loudly. Bare branches scratch at my bedroom window. They sound like the claws of the monster in my favorite handheld video game,
Die, Creature, Die
. It's like the monster is trying to get inside my room.

How does
anyone
sleep? Ever?

“Dad said I'd grow taller once the new year started,” I say, hoping to wake Mom up a little. “And it's already February, but I'm not much closer to that basketball hoop than I was before Christmas. No one ever passes me the ball—even the kickball—unless recess is almost over and it doesn't count anymore. Or not even then! Not even Corey or Kevin pass to me. And they
like
me.”

They are my two best friends at school—plus Marco, but he's not playing. Kevin is the only other boy in our class with brown skin like mine.

Why is basketball suddenly such a big deal to me?

1. For almost all the guys in my class, it's our latest thing. See, our school got two new basketballs for the playground in January, around the same time they finally fixed the hoops. They even got new heavy-duty nets, so it looks really cool out there.

2. And we're not like most girls, who–in my opinion—bounce from one fad to another every week, like the yoga thing I mentioned. This new b-ball thing is gonna stick.

3. Also, I have brown skin, like most famous basketball players do—which should give me at least a small head start, considering how rare brown skin is around here. Right?

4. So I should somehow make this thing happen.

“There are sports other than basketball, you know,” Mom says. “And did your dad really promise you would grow this very year?” she asks, half teasing, as she pets my forehead with her cool fingers.

“Basically,” I say.

Mom sighs. “But you must know that your father didn't mean you'd grow taller
right away
this year,
honey-bun,” she says. “He probably meant over the summer, or in the fall.”

“I don't think it's ever gonna happen,” I say. “I'm getting
left behind
. That's the point.”

And it's the worst feeling in the world.

I have to be good at some sport to get respect at school, don't I?

And that's all I really need.

My best friend, Corey—the champion swimmer—has been looking taller and skinnier than ever since Christmas. And Marco is now taller than his main friend Major. Diego Romero has gotten taller since the holidays, too—and he was pretty tall to start with.

So unfair.

Even the girls are growing!

“I wish I could help you out,” Mom says.

I scowl up at my bedroom ceiling, where a few fluorescent stars still glimmer: my private constellation. They're left over from when I was five, the year we moved to Oak Glen, California, from San Diego. It's an hour away if the traffic is good.

“Same stars as on the ceiling in your old room,” my dad pointed out after sticking them up. “Same
stars in the sky, too.” He was trying to make me feel better about the move, I guess.

But even Professor Warren Jakes—also known as Dad—isn't perfect, I remind myself now. He would never
lie
, but he might have made one of his rare mistakes when he promised I'd grow taller this year.

After all, Alfie is a shrimp like me, isn't she? Maybe it runs in the family.


Beautiful elf
,” her real name—Alfleta—means in some weird language only my mom has heard about, but that no one alive speaks anymore. And Alfie is kind of like an elf, I think, frowning some more. Tiny, stubborn, and all over the place.

Promises
. Grown-ups are always promising something.

“EllRay, listen,” Mom says, sounding wide awake now. “I'm quite tall, would you agree?”

I nod. She is taller than a lot of other Oak Glen moms. Prettier, too, I think, with her caramel-brown skin, her floaty scarves, and her perfect smile.

“And your dad's
very
tall,” my mom continues. “And your doctor's not at all concerned that
you won't grow,” she adds, as if this is the winning argument. “He says you're perfectly normal, and that you'll shoot up like a weed when the time comes. Like a
weed
,” she repeats, sounding impressed already.

As if weeds are so wonderful. And—she asked my
doctor
?

What am I, a medical emergency?

I think about it. “‘Perfectly normal' isn't exactly
great
, Mom,” I point out. “And weeds aren't very tall, are they? Most of them barely come up to your knees.”

“They grow quickly once they get going, that's the point,” my mom says, getting to her feet. “And you will grow, too.”

“But when?” I ask.

Because what good will it be if I don't grow until I'm, like, seventeen?

I want respect
now
!

I want to be chosen first for stuff like basketball now!

Or chosen second or third, anyway. Not last.

“I'll ask your father to explain it to you again,
better
, once he gets home from Arizona. Believe me,” Mom says, making the promise as she turns off the closet light.

“No. That's okay,” I say, my voice sounding hollow in the dark.

My dad loves explaining things, true. He is a college teacher, after all. But sometimes he explains things for so long—and in so much detail—that I actually forget what the question was. Or that I'm sorry I asked it in the first place.

And words alone—even really, really smart ones like my dad's—will never make me grow.

Neither will wishes. I've already tried wishing. Upon a star, even.

“Night, Mom,” I say.

“Night,” Mom says from the doorway. “See you in the morning.”

“Yeah, the morning,” I say to the now-empty room. “See you
shortly
.”

Well, of course.

EllRay “Shortly” Jakes. That's me.

BOOK: EllRay Jakes Stands Tall
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