The Harrisong family lives in Normal, Illinois—but this loveably quirky family still has a hard time fitting in. Mr. and Mrs. Harrisong are financially challenged but rich in good intentions. While struggling to make ends meet, their homemade dresses and gaudy bargain-bin gift-wrap inadvertently provides the five Harrisong kids with plenty to blush about. Luckily, Clara, a 12-year-old budding artist, is too confidently optimistic to notice, and 8-year-old Ben is too much of a comedian to care. 6-year-old Laura and 4-year-old Sally are simply too young to understand shame—but 11-year-old Charles is a bundle of raw nerves, and his family has a knack for getting under his skin. Charles manages the embarrassment by talking to God, organizing his fears into lists, and reading.
But sixth grade thrusts Charles into a whole new world of worry: junior high. The new school overwhelms even his best defense mechanisms, and Charles becomes increasingly self-conscious and withdrawn. Reading Harper Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird" prompts two significant reactions: empathy with the oddball Boo Radley and fear that he can relate to Boo a little too well. As summer slides into autumn, Charles increasingly finds himself flooded with conflicting emotions—particularly where his family is concerned—and haunted by horrible thoughts and impulses that contradict his gentle words and deeds.
Unfortunately, Clara's campaign for 7th Grade Class President inspires a wave of middle-school meanness that only intensifies the Harrisongs' vain struggle to be a normal family in Normal, Illinois. After a particularly ugly incident that Klise never fully discloses, the Harrisong family flees Normal in the middle of the night to start a new life on a rundown houseboat in Alabama. When the boat springs a leak, Charles is forced to shed shyness and fear for the sake of his family's safety. In doing so, he develops a better understanding of his family, his self, and his place in the world.
This report prepared by Tracie Amirante