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OVERHEARD IN FIFTH GRADE
My Epic Quest begins in fifth grade, right around the time I realized that despite its name, Ms. Paradise’s class is no paradise.
I used to be something called Literal, which means I thought words meant exactly what they sounded like. For example, I’d get upset when my mom said things like “I’m so hungry, I could eat a horse” because no, Mom, horses are our friends, and there’s plenty of food in the refrigerator, and WHY WOULD YOU DO SUCH A THING?!
But now I know this is just an expression. So when my mom says this, she just means she’s really hungry. Understanding expressions has made life a lot easier (though I still don’t quite understand why adults can’t just say what they mean, but that’s a separate issue).
So I wasn’t expecting Ms. Paradise’s class to be perfect. I knew that wasn’t realistic, and that her name had nothing to do with it. But then I discovered that there actually IS something to being Literal. Because my dad’s favorite expression is “trouble in paradise.” And that’s EXACTLY what I’ve found in Ms. Paradise’s fifth-grade class.
This is disappointing, because over the summer, I was really excited for fifth grade in general. I’m usually scared about a new school year (or about anything new, really) because what if it’s terrible and everyone hates me? But this year, for the first time in all of elementary school, I knew I was ready for it. Because what can go wrong when you’re the oldest kids in school?
On the first morning back, everything felt so familiar. I walked down the hallways I knew so well and waved hello to all my old teachers. I saw younger kids looking nervous as they walked in to their new classrooms, and I wanted to say, “Don’t worry, you’re going to have the BEST time with Ms. Bloom!” or “It’s okay, Mr. Flight’s leaf project is hard work, but it’s worth it!”
When I walked into Ms. Paradise’s class, I was ready to take on fifth grade. I was sure this would be the best year EVER.
So it was a bit of a letdown when I realized that Ms. Paradise is what my mom would call “A Bit Much.”
Ms. Paradise is new to our school this year, and came from teaching third graders. She’s big on following rules, and doing exercises and worksheets, which doesn’t leave much room for creativity (though her big fluffy dresses with flowers all over them ARE very creative, so at least there’s that). And whenever she talks to you one-on-one, her voice gets very high and syrupy, even though it definitely doesn’t sound that way when she talks to adults.
Ms. Paradise covers the walls of our classroom with neon paper cutouts of pineapples, which are VERY bright and distracting. They’re also kind of a strange choice (I love food as much as the next person, but if I had to pick a class Theme, I’d at least pick food with a little more variety, like sandwiches).
Plus she put me in the blue reading group, not the purple (which is the highest), because she says my reading comprehension needs some work when it comes to grammar.
Which is ridiculous.
* * *
In case you hadn’t noticed, I’m not the biggest fan of Ms. Paradise. My mom keeps saying things like “Give her a chance,” and “Cilla, you’ve only been in school for a month!” But I’d argue that when you’re faced with the kind of person who says “My, it’s roasty toasty back here!” when the classroom fans aren’t working, you’re probably never going to get along.
Worst of all, on that first day, instead of talking about all the exciting fifth-grade things we’d be doing in the year ahead, Ms. Paradise began talking about middle school. Specifically, how much we need to do to get ready for it.
I don’t think I’m “being bad with change” (which is what my mom says I am) for wanting to enjoy fifth grade. Also, for not wanting to talk about middle school ever, and possibly maybe never going. I’m not looking forward to when the middle schoolers come to visit our class later this year to tell us about it, or any of the other middle school–related things Ms. Paradise keeps talking about.
In fact, I wish we could just enjoy elementary school, because there’s SO MUCH to love. Fifth grade has so many exciting parts—like field trips, and science projects, and band, which is a special fifth-grade elective. This summer, I started playing the TUBA, which is big, Dramatic, and VERY loud, which means it’s probably the best instrument ever. Mr. Kendall, our music teacher, says I’m a “very strong player” (even if all I can play so far are scales and “Twinkle Twinkle, Little Star”). And I love the tuba so much that when Ms. Paradise had us do beginning-of-the-year introduction cards with facts about ourselves, after “writer,” “great older sister,” and “cheese connoisseur,” I put “Tuba Player.”
So everyone would know.
And I don’t know why Ms. Paradise feels like she has to mention middle school every day, when there are things like band to focus on instead. In fact, sometimes I wonder if she’s a Trickster Figure trying to distract us from the REAL Adventure, which is fifth grade. (Tricksters come up a lot in Quests, and you have to watch out for them, and possibly solve riddles to get away.) And sometimes I pretend that my tuba is a Magical Talisman that can help me resist her and protect me from the worried feelings I get whenever she mentions next year.
But the tuba can only do so much. So even though I’ve been trying hard to like Ms. Paradise, it’s been a whole month and things are only getting worse. Especially since Ms. Paradise has started to talk about things like “middle school Expectations.” And I’m sorry to say that she’s ESPECIALLY big on these Expectations, and what counts as middle school material, when it comes to writing.
I learned this last week, which is also when I realized just how many Struggles I had to overcome before fifth grade was over.
It happened like this:
We were doing a writing unit, and even though I still wasn’t sure how I felt about Ms. Paradise, I was excited to show her my stories.
Ms. Paradise wanted us to follow a worksheet that was all about how stories are like watermelons and ideas like seeds (which was a nice Simile, which is a Literary way of saying comparison). Ms. Paradise said that instead of telling the whole watermelon, you start with a seed. So instead of “I went to an amusement park and ate ice cream, rode some rides, and had a great day and came home,” you start with a tiny part of that. Like “The ice cream dripped from the cone down on my hands and was sticky and delicious.” That way, you start with details, and it’s easier for the reader to imagine your story, and they’ll want to know more and keep reading.
The assignment seemed fun. I love specifics and details, and since stories are my life’s work, I felt good about the examples I’d picked (plus I didn’t even say anything about how surprised I was about the whole watermelon Theme, given Ms. Paradise’s obsession with pineapples).
My story began:
On Zebulon 5, a prophecy was known. That one day a hero would save the planet from its endless war, a hero who would fly on feathers of steel.
But the people of Zebulon 5 didn’t believe the prophecy. They laughed and said it was a Silly story.
And so did Tilly the baker’s daughter.
Until one day, she woke up, and she had grown silver, metal wings.
I thought this was a great start. I didn’t start with Tilly growing wings—I started with the seed of the prophecy. I knew this beginning was perfect for drawing a reader in. They wouldn’t be able to resist asking how it ends, and where the wings came from, and when Tilly will discover that she can also shoot golden light out of her hands and use it to bring her world to peace (Spoiler Alert). I was sure I’d done a good job.
Only apparently my story wasn’t what Ms. Paradise had in mind.
“Um,” she said, her voice chirpy, “this is certainly interesting.”
“Thank you,” I said (because interesting is a good thing to be).
“But why don’t you write about something a little more relatable?” she went on. “Remember, next year you’re going to have teachers with high expectations of your writing—middle school expectations. They’re going to want your work to make your readers feel real emotion. So be a bit more serious, okay?”
Ms. Paradise said all of this with a smile, like she was just trying to help. Then she walked away with her big sleeves bouncing as she went.
I was frustrated because, this IS Serious. We’re talking the fate of Zebulon 5.
And if you don’t feel real emotion when you hear that an entire planet might be torn apart by galactic war, then I can’t help you.
For the rest of the activity, I sat and looked at my story and tried to figure out where it could be more Serious and why it didn’t meet middle school Expectations.
It didn’t help how I was feeling when Ms. Paradise asked Mimi Donnelly to read her story out loud as an “excellent and strong example.” Mimi also wants to be a writer (and yes, fair, writing is the best career you could ever choose but, also, couldn’t Mimi want to do something else?). And as she read, I didn’t understand why her story—which was one whole page about reaching out to touch a doorknob, and the feeling of turning it—WAS right for middle school. Even though it had some nice descriptions, who wants to read a story all about reaching for a doorknob without actually opening the door and seeing what’s behind it?
But luckily, I have my friends, who are all in Ms. Paradise’s class with me.
“Zebulon Five sounds so cool,” Colleen said.
“I want wings,” Melissa said. “Will you tell us the story at recess?”
“Will there be explosions?” Alien-Face McGee asked.
I appreciated all of their support, and the answer to both of these questions was, of course, “Yes!”
Text copyright © 2019 by Susan Tan
Illustrations copyright © 2019 by Dana Wulfekotte