2000 Newbery Honor Title.
After their baby sister dies, Willa Jo and Little Sister's family falls apart. Their mother sinks deep into an unshakable depression, so the two older girls are sent to live with their strict Aunt Patty and her husband. Since Little Sister refuses to talk, Willa Jo has to try and make things right in their new home, but she can't stop missing her mother or the life the four of them had before Baby died. Aunt Patty is trying as hard as she can, but she doesn't really understand what Willa Jo and Little Sister are trying to deal with-until the morning the two girls climb up to the roof of her house, and stay there. Audrey Couloumbis's masterful debut novel brings to mind Karen Hesse, Katherine Paterson, and Betsy Byars's The Summer of the Swans-it is a story you will never forget.
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August 25, 2001
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Excerpt from Getting Near to Baby by Audrey Couloumbis
She told me so last night. When I got into bed, there was a sick feeling in my stomach that stayed with me through my sleep. I came out here to breathe deep of the fresh air but that sick feeling has not yet gone away.
And then Mrs. Garber ran by. Who would think somebody fifty years old would be up and running down the road before daybreak? She ran by and then she ran back and stared at me from the road, her knees all the time pumping up and down. I didn't say a word to her.
She came up to the house and rang the doorbell. I heard the doorbell and I heard her sneakers on the flagstone patio, pum, pum, pum. My stomach started to hurt.
After a couple of minutes she rings the doorbell again. A light comes on. I see a pale yellow square in the grass, like a shadow in reverse. Pum, pum, pum. The front door opens. Aunt Patty's voice breaks the silence of early morning.
"Mrs. Garber, is there something wrong?"
There are whispers. A squawk from Aunt Patty, and more whispers. I wrap my arms more tightly around my knees. Pretty soon Mrs. Garber is on her way down the road again. She does not look back once.
The front door closes.
My heart feels like there is a string tied around it, with something heavy hanging from the string. I don't like it. But the sky has broken pink and is stretching pale lavender fingers toward heaven. So I make up my mind to watch those sky fingers fade to nothing, to be burned away by the sunrise.
And here it comes.
A thin rim of orange-red, so deep and strong my heart almost breaks with the fierceness of that color. Moment by moment, there is more of it to see. So hot and bright, I cannot look but at the edges. Even when I look away, look clear away to the waning edge of darkness, I can see that color in my mind's eye, feel it beating in my very blood. I breathe color.
I know it doesn't really happen this way, but it always looks as if the sun creeps up to stand teetering on the edge of the earth. I wait. It stays there for long moments, until I wonder, is it stuck there. Just when I think it, the sun makes a little jump, and then it is floating free.
All at once the neighborhood is waking up. A phone rings not too far away. It may even be Aunt Patty's phone. Two pickup trucks come out from the piney woods, turn off in the direction that Mrs. Garber ran. A dog barks. Next door, Mrs. Biddle puts her cat out. Squeaky spring of her back door, slam. I hear an alarm clock go off. An old-timey miner's clock, that goes BRAAAAAANG.
Below, the front door opens again. "Willa Jo Dean, what do you think you're doing up there?"
I think, watching the sun rise.
I came up on the roof to watch the sun rise and I just stayed, I could say.
"I know Little Sister is up there with you," Aunt Patty says, as if I was keeping it a secret. Little Sister is here because she follows me everywhere. Everyone knows that. "Willa Jo, don't you act like you can just ignore me, now."
No one can ignore Aunt Patty, that's part of the trouble. She has that kind of voice. There isn't any hope of ignoring her.
I take off my leather sandals and place them so the heels are caught on a ridge and they won't slide down. Little Sister is already barefoot. I inch across the roof that feels like it has been sprinkled with coarse salt, liking the way the scratchy surface clutches at the fabric of my shorts, clings to my skin. I don't like getting this close to the edge, all the time knowing what I'll see. And then I do.
I look down on my Aunt Patty, who is looking up, her hair in pincurls. She's short and wide, and wearing a brown terry bathrobe that is the sorriest thing. From two and a half stories up, she looks like a face on a stump.
At her first glimpse of me, Aunt Patty shifts from annoyance to outright panic, her arms lift and wave like stubby branches in the wind. "Stop right there," she screams.
I only meant to get to where I could see her anyway. I wouldn't have to get this near but for the fact that she won't step off the patio in her slippers. She's afraid of getting a slug stuck on her if she steps into the wet grass. She's right, that probably would happen, there are an awful lot of slugs in Aunt Patty's lawn. But so far as I know, nobody has yet died of getting a slug stuck on them.
And then she makes like she's in charge of roof-sitting today. "Don't you come any closer to the edge. You're likely to fall right off onto the patio and crack your head wide open."
Little Sister has been inching her way down right along beside me, and then a little bit in front of me, and now she leans forward to get a good view of Aunt Patty screeching up at us. Aunt Patty rewards her with another shrill cry.
I have a handful of Little Sister's nightgown, just in case, but she isn't going anywhere. We've run down hillsides steeper than this. It does give me a funny feeling in the pit of my stomach, though, being so close to the edge. Like this roof might roll over like a big dog and heave us into the air like fleas.
"Little Sister," Aunt Patty calls. Her tone has changed to sweet and wheedling. "Little Sister, you'll listen to reason now, won't you?"
It's no use her appealing to Little Sister, who only listens to me, anyway. Another reason, Little Sister don't talk. She used to. But not now.