Read to the end for an exclusive excerpt of Alan Cole and a chance to win a copy!
About Alan Cole: Alan Cole is not a coward . . . right?
He can’t stand up to his cruel brother, Nathan. He can’t escape the wrath of his demanding father, who thinks he’s about as exceptional as a goldfish. And—scariest of all—he can’t let the cute boy across the cafeteria know he has a crush on him.
But when Nathan discovers Alan’s secret, his older brother announces a high-stakes round of Cole vs. Cole. Each brother must complete seven nearly impossible tasks; whoever finishes the most wins the game. If Alan doesn’t want to be outed to all of Evergreen Middle School, he’s got to become the most well-known kid in school, get his first kiss, and stand up to Dad—and all with the help of only two friends even less cool than he is.
Giving up is for cowards, and Alan’s determined to prove—to Nathan, to the world, to himself—that this goldfish can learn to swim. May the best Cole win.
Eric Bell’s debut novel is a smart, hilarious, and poignant coming-of-age story about trust, family, and learning to stand up for yourself, no matter how many times you have to dive into the deep end.
A Chat with Author Eric Bell
JA: Welcome to From the Mixed-Up Files, Eric! I’m so unbelievably excited about this book. Kids need this story and I’m thrilled to see it make its way into the world next month! You recently Tweeted about your decision to talk more openly about the fact that your MC, Alan, is gay. Can you tell us what you hope your story might mean to middle-grade readers who are gay or who know someone who is gay?
EB: As a closeted gay kid growing up in the 90s, I had a very hard time with my sexuality. And I wonder if there had been kids’ books with gay kids in them, maybe that wouldn’t have been the case. I would love it if queer youth could find strength and validation in my writing. And I’d love it if straight kids, whether they know someone who’s gay or not, develop more empathy from the book.
JA: What’s been the most surprising aspect of your path to publication?
EB: I would say my editor has really surprised me. Before the book sold, I was a little worried I’d work with an editor who would impose his or her editorial vision over my own. But my editor has been terrific – open, accessible, friendly, and, perhaps most importantly, sharp and perceptive editorially. He had a firm pulse on the book from day one. And he’s involved me in aspects like the cover design, which I didn’t expect.
JA: As a fellow Roald Dahl fan, I have to ask which one’s your favorite (mine is Danny, the Champion of the World!)?
EB: Growing up I always enjoyed Matilda. Something about a smart kid learning to strike back at the horrible people around her in fun (for her) ways – it’s pretty great wish fulfillment for a kid.
JA: What’s on your bookshelf right now?
EB: I finished Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key not too long ago. That book really resonated with me – powerful themes, strong voice, immersive storytelling. Looking forward to reading the sequel!
JA: What’s next after Alan Cole?
EB: Alan and friends will return next fall for more adventures! I’m currently editing the sequel, which takes place a few weeks after the events of the first book.
JA: Thanks so much for joining us, Eric. And best of luck with your debut. Now, for the moment we’ve all been waiting for, the excerpt, which is an amazing example of middle-grade voice and an attention-grabbing opening!
An Exclusive Excerpt
A guy’s life can basically be summed up by two things: how much Silly Putty he’s eaten and who made him eat it. There are charts and diagrams to calculate your Level of Wussdom based on whether you ate Silly Putty, say, because you were lazy and you didn’t feel like walking to the fridge to get an apple or something, or because your older brother tackled you to the floor and force-fed you leathery, glumpy globs.
Let’s just say my older brother’s introduced my stomach to so many varieties of random objects, my Wussdom Level is literally off the charts.
On my tombstone they’ll carve Here Lies Alan Cole. Ate a Metric Ton of Silly Putty. His Poop Was Spongy and Could Stick to Walls. What else is there to even say after that?
“Hey, Alan,” Zack Kimble says at the Unstable Table, adjusting the stuffed snake tied around his neck, “why do they call it a fork?”
Well, maybe there’s a little more to say.
“It’s funny.” Zack holds his plastic fork to the light like he’s waiting for it to sprout wings and dance the cha-cha. “You know how some things have names that fit them, right? Like, an orange is called an orange because it’s orange. Why is it called a fork?”
I swallow a big bite of the chicken sandwich I got from the cafeteria line. “Maybe the color came second.”
“The color fork?” Zack asks.
“The color orange. Maybe the color orange is called orange because it’s named after the fruit.”
Zack slowly lowers his fork. “Wow,” he whispers.
That should keep him quiet for a few minutes.
Anyway, sure, there’s a little more to say. That in between all the Silly Putty, and the Elmer’s glue, and the glitter—which doesn’t really taste like much, but man does it tickle going down—
“If you want my honest opinion,” Madison Wilson Truman pipes up next to me, interrupting my thoughts again, “a fork is called a fork because it’s forked between the points. Haven’t you ever heard of forks in the road? Those are different paths branching off from the same point. That’s where the term comes from.”
Zack looks down at the plastic fork. “I never knew that. I’ve been using forks my whole life! I’ll never eat the same way agai—” He snaps his head to the left and swivels his neck as he looks up at the ceiling; his spiky hair, jutting out at all angles like an electrocuted porcupine, sways back and forth. “I thought I saw a dragon.”
Madison gives a little bow in his seat. “If you wouldn’t mind ‘forking’ over a tutoring fee, that would be greatly appreciated.” He adjusts the collar of his polo shirt and chuckles, and he actually makes air quotes when he says forking.
Zack rummages around in his pocket. “Is thirty-five cents okay?”
This is basically life at the Unstable Table, aka the lunch table with a piece of cardboard shoved underneath the one uneven leg. I’ve sat with Zack and Madison every day since the start of seventh grade at Evergreen Middle School, but we’re not friends or anything. I mean, Zack’s friendly (like a puppy that isn’t housebroken) and enthusiastic (like a flying squirrel who got into the Pixy Stix). And Madison’s smart (like a senile owl) and helpful (like a husky with an awful sense of direction). But I operate under a strict no-friends policy. I’ve had friends before, and they were my friends until my brother got through with them, and then they needed to join support groups for LEGO-related traumas. Not happening again.
Speaking of my brother, there was always this hope with Nathan that maybe someday I wouldn’t have to drink my Coke hanging upside down from his arms. Maybe someday I wouldn’t wake up to a drawer full of tighty-whities with cottage cheese smeared inside.
That day hasn’t come yet. (My lucky underwear was spared, at least.) But he’s been quiet since school started, so maybe it’s on the horizon. Until that day’s officially here, I do the Alan Cole Special everywhere: keep my head low and huddle into my sketchbook, where Nathan can’t find me. Someday soon a big, bold cretpoj is going to burst from my fingers in an explosion of paints and colored pencils and even Elmer’s glue and glitter, because true artists feed on inspiration wherever they can. A cretpoj, in case you were wondering, is—
“Are you okay, Alan?” Zack asks. “You’re quieter than normal.”
I want to ask Zack how he can even tell, since I’m always quiet, and since we don’t ever hang out or talk apart from having lunch and ASPEN (Accelerated School Placement Enrichment and Nourishment) classes together. None of us even went to the same elementary school. But having a normal conversation with Zack is hopeless. Maybe he’ll get distracted by some gum under his seat or something.
Madison gives me a sympathetic look. “Middle school can be a challenging time for anyone, let alone a Sapling. Of course Alan would have a lot to think about.”
Evergreen likes to call seventh graders “Saplings,” eighth graders “Sprouts,” and ninth graders “Shrubs.” If you live in a place called Petal Fields, Pennsylvania, in the heart of a place called Flower County (under an hour from Philadelphia!), where the main claim to fame is our enormous and clogged school district, what else are you going to talk about besides plants? My brother is a Shrub and I’m a Sapling. Don’t let the terms throw you off—Nathan’s no houseplant.
“Like when all those kids asked if you had a girl’s name?” Zack asks Madison.
Madison scowls. “Yes. Just like that.”
“Or when Jenny Cowper made fun of your weight? That wasn’t very funny.”
“No,” Madison says through a clenched jaw, “it wasn’t.”
“Oh, or how about when Mrs. Ront kept calling on you about prepositions, and you kept getting them mixed up with conjunctions, and Talia MacDonald had to give the right answer, and she listed, like, twenty-five of them, and all you could come up with was ‘because,’ and then Mrs. Ront got all screechy and said that wasn’t even close to a preposition—”
“I think we get it,” I say.
It’s obvious to me Zack is asking because he’s curious, and he’s not trying to be mean, but Madison’s face still turns pale. “Honestly,” he huffs, “do you ever—”
“There it is!” Zack points at the ceiling and half rises from his seat. “Oh, wait. That’s not a dragon. That’s one of the sprinklers.” He pretends to feed a forkful of corn to the snake around his neck, humming a song as he goes.
Madison grumbles and runs a hand through his buzz cut.
A cretpoj, in case you were wondering, is the term I came up with for my art projects, because one, it’s a lot more important-sounding than “project,” and two, it’s way more fun to say. I’m trying to paint a portrait of a person’s face. I can draw trees just fine and I can sketch the best bowl of wax fruit this side of Produce Pitstop, but I’ve never been able to paint a face. According to Mrs. Colton, faces are “trending” in the art world. Now, if I made a list of things I’m not, “trendy” would come right after “a twenty-foot-tall elephant,” but she made me realize that in my favorite paintings, it’s the people’s faces that keep me coming back—even those weird Picasso ones where their noses are jutting out of their eye sockets. I want to make something that keeps people coming back. I want to make something that’s going to change the world.
So that’s my goal. And my brother can’t take that from me.
Loud laughter from the next table over cuts into my thoughts: Connor Garcia is flashing his trademark big smile at his table of jocks. I bury my face in my chicken sandwich to hide my blush. Without thinking, I take my napkin and dab at my hair, still damp from the morning’s swimming class. Then I realize, oh my God, I’m wiping my hair with a napkin, and I shove it in my lunch bag.
Connor Garcia would never even look over at the Unstable Table. He’d never come over here with his big smile and sit with somebody like me and act like it isn’t weird that somebody like me would ever want to ask somebody like him to the movies or something. Sure, he likes me, but he doesn’t like me. It’s bad enough that being . . . you-know-what is treated like the middle-school version of the bubonic plague, where somehow news of me having a . . . you-know-what on Connor would spread like lice in a kindergarten class, and soon everyone would be . . . I-don’t-think-I-have-to-tell-you-what, and the universe would basically explode.
Yet another reason I have a no-friends policy: even friends can’t keep secrets.
“Hey, Alan,” Zack says. “Do you think I should’ve worn the sock monkey instead?”
Leaving the cafeteria is a nightmare at Evergreen. All the seventh graders—I refuse to call myself a Sapling— have lunch together, so imagine trying to fight this unending tidal wave of around two hundred and fifty bodies while the loudspeaker blares some static-y message about fund-raisers or lawn mowers or something—I can’t even hear it over the full, spine-shattering loudness of my classmates—and when I think I find a safe place to catch my breath, an arm reaches out and tugs me into an empty classroom, practically dislocating my shoulder in the process.
“Hey, Al,” Nathan says.
For the record? It’s Alan. I hate being called Al. Nathan knows this. Why do you think he does it? (Also for the record? It’s Nathan, not Nate. I learned that the hard way.)
The empty, dim classroom makes Nathan’s shadow loom larger. Even though I’m almost as tall as him thanks to a last-minute summer growth spurt, it sure doesn’t feel that way. “Hi,” I mumble.
“Y’know,” Nathan says, crossing his arms. “I was thinking.” Thinking is Nathan’s specialty. Last year he thought about the best way to superglue my hair to the kitchen table. “It’s been a while since we’ve had a good talk. I wanted to invite you to a meeting. Top secret.”
“Sorry, I’m busy,” I say.
Nathan smiles. “Tonight at ten. On the patio. Come alone. I’ll bring the orange juice. We’re going to have a grand old time.”
The skin on my back starts to prickle. “You really don’t have to. I’m sure you’re busy. You’ve probably got lots of other things to do.”
His smile gets wider. “You crack me up, Al. Don’t be late.” He winks at me and walks out of the room.
A secret meeting . . . maybe he’s calling a truce. Maybe he’s throwing in the towel and giving up his old ways.
Or maybe they’ll change my tombstone to Make That Two Metric Tons of Silly Putty.
Some people say grace before dinner. They thank family, friends, food, everything in the universe for their meal. At 16 Werther Street, in Petal Fields, Pennsylvania, you don’t say anything before dinner. Or during dinner. Or after. You don’t say much of anything unless you’re spoken to first, and then you say as little as possible. Nobody gets thanked here.
Surrounded by the smells of garlic, tomatoes, and basil, Dad sits at the head of the table. He eats his pasta like he eats everything: deliberately. Nathan, sitting across from me, shoves his food down his throat so fast it probably leaves sparks in his esophagus. You’d think the sooner he gets done, the closer he is to leaving the table, but nobody gets up until Dad’s finished. House rules. Mom eats slowly, even though she’s normally the first to finish eating.
When Dad eats, he only leaves crumbs on himself and the area immediately around his plate. Tonight, Nathan isn’t so lucky, and three minutes and twenty seconds into mealtime a bit of his fettuccine falls onto the kitchen tiles.
Dad freezes midbite, fork hovering near his mouth. Nathan scrambles to pick up the offending piece of food and leaves it on the edge of his plate. He eats a lot slower after that.
I catch all this as I look at my reflection in the plate, staring back at the almost-teenager in the glass. Above the stove, Dad’s ancient wooden clock ticks away, older than me and Nathan, maybe even older than both of us put together.
Finally, after he’s wiped his mouth and taken a large gulp of water, Dad speaks. “This weekend is the company dinner.”
“Can’t I stay at Marcellus’s on Saturday?” Nathan whines. “He just got a new game and I’ve got to play it. Al can go instead.”
“Your brother the mapmaker,” Dad says. “Finally putting that art stuff to good use. Take some notes, Nathan.”
My chest feels a little lighter. Just yesterday Dad praised me for getting a really nice comment from Miss Richter, my social studies teacher, on an essay I wrote with a map I spent a lot of time drawing. Dad normally hates my paintings, but he likes anything that makes us look good.
Nathan scowls at me. He hasn’t gotten much praise from Dad since the school year started. The curriculum is probably a lot tougher in ninth grade than seventh. “But Dad, both of us don’t need to be there.”
“Of course you do,” Dad says. “I’m up for a promotion. If Mr. Harrison sees our family together, behaving perfectly, I’ve got a chance of finally moving up in the company. Mr. Harrison’s a family man.”
“Your dad’s right,” Mom says. “This is important for all of us.”
Dad’s been going on about this company dinner for three months. He’s been at his job for years, but they’ve never held a company dinner before this. Every night we talk about it, and every night he grills us on things. Tonight’s no exception. “Donald Turner’s going to be at the dinner with his family,” Dad continues. “His daughter speaks three languages.”
“Oh yeah?” Nathan perks up. “Scio quattuor linguas. That’s Latin for ‘I know four languages.’ Right, Dad?”
“Mmm,” Dad hums. Mom smiles. Nathan looks at me and smirks.
(English, Klingon, Elvish, and Pig Latin, if you were curious. No, actual Latin is not one of them.)
Dad nods. “Is your good dress ready?” he asks Mom.
Mom stops smiling. “Oh, I got caught up with the girls from church. I’ll pick it up tomorrow.”
Dad frowns, but doesn’t say anything. Mom looks down at her plate.
He turns to me. “What sports do you play?”
I don’t play any sports. I’m about as athletic as a bag of bricks, and I probably weigh less too. I can’t even swim, which makes this year’s aquatics program lots of fun. Nathan can’t swim either, but the program—and Evergreen’s pool—is new this year, so he never had to learn. Something he’s definitely reminded me about a few times. But I know what I’ve been rehearsing to say. “I run long distance, I play shortstop, and I’d show you my motorcycle kick if I’d remembered to bring my soccer ball.”
I can feel Dad staring at me. “Uh, bicycle kick,” I stammer. “I’d show you my bicycle kick.”
“This is the most important dinner of the year,” Dad says again. Then, like a hawk clutching its prey, he says, “Don’t disappoint me, goldfish.”
I lower my burning red face. Dad only trots out the nickname for special occasions. Nobody cares about goldfish. People don’t keep them as pets; they keep them as background decorations. Goldfish are to other fish what ants are to people, except goldfish can’t do anything cool like lift ten times their weight. To Dad, I am a goldfish.
As Mom clears the plates, the old clock ticks and tocks, and 16 Werther Street is quiet again.
Let me tell you about my cretpoj.
My cretpoj, in case you were wondering, is going to be the most breathtaking, jaw-dropping, eye-bulging, heart-racing, face-punching piece of art ever created by human hands.
I bet you’re really interested now. Well, this is probably a minor issue, but it doesn’t exist yet. At all. I don’t know who to paint. I’ve been looking at famous faces— Batman, Mario, a zombie. I even tried the Mona Lisa, because, hey, start at the top, right?
Nope. Not happening. It needs to be of somebody special. But who?
Changing the world is a lot more difficult than I thought.
I won’t give up though. Know why?
Tonight, it’s the beginning of October, and like the beginning of every October in Petal Fields, the big sugar maple at the side of my window sways in the breeze to this really nice rhythm only it seems to know. I’ve tried to capture that rhythm a bunch of times inside my sketchbook (“capture movement” was the assignment I set for myself over the summer). Nathan doesn’t have a two-story-tall Muppet-shaped tree rocking back and forth outside his window.
I look at Big Green. It’s still here. It’ll be naked in a few months, and then it’ll come back with a new coat. It shines, then fades, then shines again. It survives.
Between the Silly Putty, and the cottage cheese, and the superglue, and the hawks, I’m still here. I haven’t given up. I’ve survived. I’ll survive long enough to make my cretpoj.
Maybe that’s all you need to know about me.
Alan Cole: He Survived.
Well, I guess they wouldn’t put that on my tombstone, for obvious reasons.
Of course, right when you think things are pretty good, right when you’re about to get going with the greatest artistic effort of all time, right when you’re enjoying your majestic green coat of leaves, winter comes.
Because it’s 9:58. Show time.
Somehow I don’t think I’m going to get asked to show off my motorcycle kick.
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Eric Bell lives and writes in Pennsylvania. He was once in middle school. He survived. You will too. Alan Cole Is Not a Coward is his debut novel. You can ﬁnd him online at www.iamericbell.com.