Kelsey Green no longer heard any of the voices in her third-grade classroom. All her attention was focused on the book spread open beneath her desk.
Would the old key that had been buried in the earth for the last ten years open the locked door to the hidden garden?
Drawing in her breath, Kelsey waited as the key fitted into the keyhole.
The key turned.
Then with a squeak, the door opened slowly ... slowly.
The sound of her name startled her. The voice was cross, as if it had been calling her name without success for some time.
She looked up from The Secret Garden. Mrs. Molina was glaring at her from the front of the classroom.
"Kelsey, the rest of us are focusing on page 163 in our math books. The rest of us are not staring down at our laps lost in a daydream. The rest of us are doing fractions."
Kelsey felt sorry for the rest of them. But now she also felt sorry for herself. She knew Mrs. Molina was waiting for her to turn her full attention to her math book—the one book in the whole world that Kelsey did not love, or even like, but actually hated.
"Question fourteen," Mrs. Molina said. "What is one-eighth plus one-eighth?"
Kelsey had no idea. She wasn't completely sure what an eighth was.
Luckily, one of her two best friends, Annika Riz, sat right behind her. Annika whispered the answer, loud enough that Kelsey could hear, but not loud enough that Mrs. Molina could hear.
"Two-eighths," Kelsey said.
"And two-eighths reduces to?"
Annika whispered the answer again.
"One-fourth," Kelsey said.
Next to her, Kelsey's other best friend, Izzy Barr, started to giggle, but stopped herself in time. Both Kelsey and Izzy were glad to be best friends with the third-grade math queen. Izzy would rather be out running than doing math. Kelsey would rather be reading than doing math. Annika loved math the way that Izzy loved running and Kelsey loved reading.
Mrs. Molina shot Kelsey a suspicious look, but called on someone else for question fifteen.
With Mrs. Molina's attention directed elsewhere, Kelsey allowed herself to glance down at the book on her lap and finish the next few lines. Mary Lennox was finally standing inside the secret garden at Misselthwaite Manor! Kelsey didn't dare turn the page to start the next chapter.
Instead, she listened as Simon Ellis got question sixteen right; Simon was good at everything. And as Cody Harmon got question seventeen wrong; Cody was bad at everything, or at least bad at math, spelling, reading, writing, science, and social studies.
Just as someone else was trying to answer question eighteen, the classroom door opened. In came the principal, Mr. Boone. Mrs. Molina's voice turned friendlier as she welcomed him into the room. She saved her stern, math-fact-quizzing voice for her third graders. But even though her voice sounded friendlier, her face didn't look any friendlier.
Mr. Boone settled himself on Mrs. Molina's desk. Kelsey could tell from the way Mrs. Molina snatched a stack of papers out of his way that she didn't approve of principals sitting on teachers' desks. Mr. Boone was large, and he took up a lot of room. Mrs. Molina moved her coffee cup far away.
The best thing about Mr. Boone was his big, booming laugh. Kelsey had never been sent to the principal's office; she wondered if Mr. Boone laughed even when naughty kids were sent to him for talking back to teachers or fighting on the playground. He would have to be strict and scolding sometimes if he was a principal, but it was hard to imagine. Mrs. Molina should be the principal, and Mr. Boone should be a third-grade teacher, preferably Kelsey's third-grade teacher.
The second best thing about Mr. Boone was his beard—a thick, bushy Santa Claus beard, but black instead of white. A pirate beard, maybe, for a jolly, good-natured pirate.
"Good morning, third graders!" Mr. Boone shouted. He gave his big, booming laugh, even though he hadn't yet said anything funny.
"I've heard that there are a lot of excellent readers in this class," Mr. Boone said.
Kelsey sat up straighter in her seat. She quickly checked to see if everyone was looking at her, but they were all busy looking at Mr. Boone. She was definitely the best reader in the class—well, except for Simon Ellis. But even though Simon read a lot of books, long ones, too, Kelsey didn't think he loved books the way she did. Nobody could love books the way she did.
"You're going to get a chance over the next month to show me exactly how excellent," Mr. Boone went on.
Kelsey sat up even straighter.
"We are going to have our first-ever all-school reading contest!" Mr. Boone laughed. Kelsey knew he didn't think the reading contest was a joke; he was laughing because he thought it was a gloriously happy thing.
She did, too.
"Starting tomorrow, April first, we're going to keep track of how many books each class reads. The class that reads the most books will have a pizza party with me—all the pizza you can eat. And if the whole school reads two thousand books by the end of April—two thousand books—I'll ..."
He paused for emphasis, until the class was completely silent, before he finished his sentence.
"I'll shave off my beard!"
The class whooped and hollered.
Kelsey didn't want to be the only one raising her hand, but she had to ask. "What about the person who reads the most books? Does she get a prize, too?"
Simon turned around and stared at her. She stared right back.
"Yes! I'm glad you asked! The person who reads the most books in each class will get his or her name on a permanent plaque in the school library, as well as a special signed certificate to take home. And, of course, you'll help your class win the pizza party. And you'll help me lose my beard."
He laughed again, but the laugh was less big and booming this time.
Maybe he was hoping that Franklin School couldn't read two thousand books in a month. If so, he was wrong. Kelsey could practically read two thousand books all by herself. Mrs. Molina's class had as good as won the pizza party, thanks to Kelsey Green, reading queen. She could already see her name engraved on the library plaque, for future generations of Franklin School students to behold with admiration.
"Okay?" Mr. Boone asked the class.
"Okay!" they shouted, Kelsey loudest of all.
He hoisted himself off Mrs. Molina's desk, and she quickly moved her stack of papers back into place.
Kelsey closed The Secret Garden and tucked it inside her desk. It would be book number one. One down; one thousand, nine hundred ninety-nine to go.
"All right, third graders!" Mr. Boone called to them as he headed out the door. "Ready, set, read!"CHAPTER 2
Kelsey wanted to spend the evening reading The Secret Garden. But her mother made her go to her brother's eighth-grade band concert. Kelsey's whole family always went to everything. Her mother called it "being a family."
Usually Kelsey liked listening to Dylan play the trombone and cheering as Sarah scored for the high school girls' varsity basketball team. It would be fun having her whole family in the audience when Mr. Boone shaved off his beard, maybe announcing first that it was because of Kelsey Green that he had to do it.
But right this minute being a family was taking up too much time. Valuable time that could be spent reading.
"Do I have to go?" Kelsey asked.
Her mother didn't bother answering the question. "You can bring your book and read during intermission."
"Can I read during the concert, too? When Dylan's band isn't playing?"
"It'll be too dark to read."
Apparently her mother had forgotten that Kelsey had her own pencil-sized flashlight.
So Kelsey read through the sixth-grade band—terrible!—and the seventh-grade band—better—and closed The Secret Garden only when the eighth-grade band took the stage. She knew better than to ask if she could keep on reading up until the minute when Dylan had his solo.
When she went to bed that night, she still had five chapters to go.
* * *
The first thing Kelsey saw when she walked into the front doors of Franklin School at eight o'clock the next morning was a huge sheet of paper as wide as an entire classroom. The paper was taped to the wall, stretching from floor to ceiling.
On the paper was an enormous chart, with a column for every class in the school, three classes at every grade level from kindergarten to fifth grade. The columns were waiting to be colored in as students started reading.
Next to the big chart were taped two smaller squares of paper. One had the date on it: April 1. The other had the number of books read so far by everybody in the school: 0.
If only Kelsey had finished The Secret Garden last night. She could have had the first book read by anybody in Franklin School.
After the bell rang and the students were all in their seats, Mrs. Molina asked, "Did anyone finish reading a book last night?"
Only one hand went up.
Kelsey hoped that this was an April Fool's Day joke, but it wasn't.
"Excellent, Simon!" Mrs. Molina said. "I'll be sending our class total every morning to Mr. Boone, so I'll let him know that we have one book read already. Class, I'm counting on all of you to follow Simon's example."
If it hadn't been for Dylan's stupid band concert, Mrs. Molina could have been saying, "I'm counting on all of you to follow Simon and Kelsey's example."
Mrs. Molina showed the class a stack of photocopied sheets of paper placed on one corner of her very neat desk. She held up a sample sheet. Printed on it was the shape of a slug, or perhaps a chubby, stubby worm.
"These are our bookworms," Mrs. Molina explained. "When you finish reading a book, take one of these bookworms. On it, write your name and the name of your book, and put it in the bookworm folder I've made for each of you. The folders are in that file box over by the window, on top of our classroom library shelves. You can take blank bookworms home with you, too, to fill out there."
Mrs. Molina beamed as Simon filled out his bookworm and put it in his folder in the worm box.
She read The Secret Garden during silent reading time—not daring to read any more during math—and finished it at lunch. But by the time she had her first bookworm ready to put into the box, three other kids had bookworms as well, and Simon had a second one.
Kelsey noticed that Simon's second book was very skinny. It didn't have 311 pages like The Secret Garden.
She raised her hand. "How long does a book have to be to get a bookworm?"
Mrs. Molina adjusted her glasses, the way she did when she was thinking.
"One hundred pages," she said.
A chorus of groans arose.
"Sarah, Plain and Tall only has 58 pages, and it won the Newbery Medal," Annika pointed out.
Mrs. Molina adjusted her glasses again. "The number of pages isn't what matters," she corrected herself. "What matters is if I think the book is an appropriate choice for third graders."
She glanced over at Cody Harmon. Kelsey knew that Cody read books appropriate for a second grader, or even for a first grader, when he read books at all.
"Or appropriate for your reading level," Mrs. Molina said.
Kelsey didn't think that was fair. If Cody got worms for reading short, easy books, she should get worms for them, too. It would be wrong if someone won the best reader prize by reading shorter, easier books than everyone else. Not that Cody was in any danger of winning the best reader prize.
But she didn't say anything. She was going to read Sarah, Plain and Tall as soon as Annika was done reading it. And every other short but age-appropriate book she could find.
* * *
By the end of the weekend, Kelsey had read five books. When the classroom tally was taken on Monday morning, the start of the first full week of the contest, Simon had read seven. No one else had read more than three, so Kelsey was in second place behind Simon. Annika and Izzy had each read two. Cody hadn't read any.
As the class walked to P.E., Kelsey checked the chart in the front hallway. Mrs. Molina's third-grade class was in second place behind Mr. Thurston's fifth graders.
Kelsey had no intention of letting herself or her class remain in second place. When her mother came to pick her up from school, her backpack was full of short but age-appropriate books from the classroom library. Annika was coming home with her; Izzy was busy running with the Franklin School Fitness Club, training for a 10K race in May.
Kelsey had suggested to Izzy that she could try holding an open book in front of her as she ran. Izzy had said that was the dumbest idea she had ever heard. She had said it in a way that made Kelsey think that Izzy didn't want to hear any more reading-related suggestions.
"How was your day, girls?" Kelsey's mom asked as Kelsey and Annika climbed into the backseat of the car. Because Kelsey's mom was a stay-at-home mom, she was always the one who gave rides to everybody.
"Good," Annika said, just as Kelsey said, "Terrible."
"I don't think it's possible," Kelsey said, "that Simon Ellis read seven books in four days."
"Maybe he's a fast reader," her mother offered.
"I'm a fast reader, and I read five books. Of course, Simon probably didn't have to go to any band concerts." Kelsey hoped her mother felt guilty. "And Simon's parents probably don't make him go to bed at nine."
"One of his books was skinny," Annika pointed out.
"Yes, but two of the books he read were fat."
Kelsey really didn't think that Simon could have read two fat books in such a short period of time, plus five others.
He was a good reader, but not that good.
He was a good reader, but not a better reader than Kelsey Green.
Kelsey paused. "Two of the books he said he read were fat."
After all, who was checking to see if students were actually reading the books for which they were busily collecting bookworms? It would be so easy for someone who already had a reputation as a top reader to exaggerate just a little tiny bit, with his eyes on a library plaque and a classroom pizza party.
"Now, Kelsey," her mother said.
"Are you thinking what I'm thinking?" Annika asked.
Kelsey said, "I'm thinking that somebody might be cheating."CHAPTER 3
Kelsey and Annika called Izzy once they figured she was home from Fitness Club. They told her to meet them at school fifteen minutes early the next morning to make a top-secret cheater-catcher plan.
That morning, the three of them hid behind a long row of bushes bursting with yellow blossoms at the edge of the school property. Kelsey snapped off one little sprig and tucked it into her short, straight brown hair. It made her feel beautiful, like Helen of Troy, from the short but age-appropriate book of Greek mythology she had been reading the night before. Kelsey of Troy.
"Okay," Kelsey said, calling the meeting to order. "How can we catch Simon cheating?"
"What if he isn't cheating?" Izzy asked. Izzy was always fair to everyone, even boys.
"What if he is?" Annika shot back.
"Well, what if he is?" Izzy asked. "No one will know, and our class will win anyway."
Kelsey was shocked. "We don't want to win by cheating. We want to win by reading."
Besides, she wanted to be the one to have her name immortalized on the plaque as the best reader in the whole class, not some boy cheater.
"Anyway, that's what we're going to find out," Kelsey said. Her Kelsey of Troy flower slid down her hair; she stuck it back in place.
"How?" Izzy asked.
"That's what we need to figure out," Kelsey explained, trying not to sound impatient. She liked Annika and Izzy equally, but sometimes it took longer for Izzy to get things.
"We could spy on him," Izzy suggested. "I could look in the window of his house after school and see if he's reading. If anyone sees me, I'll run really fast. I'll be the spy, because I'm good at running."
Kelsey had been wrong to doubt Izzy. Izzy might be overly fair and slow to catch on sometimes, but she was definitely brave.
"All right," Kelsey said. "Idea number one is spying. Any other ideas?"
"We could make it into a math problem," Annika said. "We count up how many pages Simon reads in a day—how many he says he reads—and how many free minutes there are in a day, and then divide the pages by the minutes, or the minutes by the pages, and see if it's humanly possible to read that fast."
Kelsey's head was spinning. "Could you do a math problem like that?"
"Sure. I could do it easy-peasy."
"Any other ideas?" Kelsey asked.
"You haven't had any yet," Izzy pointed out.