James is convinced by his cruel and unhappy mother he is worthless and unlovable. So, armed with a report card that boasts a C average, he sets out to prove he is worthy of her love by becoming the most average kid in the entire world.
This idea magically transports him into the Realm of Possibilities, where he meets Mayor Culpa, an actual Scapegoat, Monsieur Roget, a professional Optimist and his grouchy companion, Kiljoy, an equally professional Pessimist.
Together with his new friends, James has wondrous adventures that include an attack by a tribe of Nervous Nellies who pelt him with worry warts, being stalked by the dreadful Creeping Doubt and reuniting the former King of Average, Norman the Unexceptional, with his estranged children, Jerome the Ordinary and Marie, the Extra-Ordinary. Eventually he finds a Shangri-La called Epiphany, and realizes if you can be the most average person ever – you can be the most anything you want in the whole wide world
Targeted Age Group:: 9-13
What Inspired You to Write Your Book?
My admiration for Norton Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth inspired my idea of a similar journey when I was a boy. Growing up in an abusive home prompted me into therapy and Alice Miller’s book, The Drama of the Gifted Child, along with Bradshaw’s Championing Your Inner Child, led to my wanting to really write this book after years of talking about it.
Neglected children can go so many different ways, I hope this book inspires kids to head in the direction of authenticity, love and acceptance. – With a smile.
How Did You Come up With Your Characters?
The punster Norton Juster made me do it. My hero’s sidekick’s name is Mayor Culpa – a talking scapegoat. There’s a professional Optimist named Roget (after the Thesaurus) and a pessimist named Kiljoy who looks a lot like the graffiti Gilroy was here.
It just went on from there. Charles Thaddeus Gladhand, the mayor of Nobbling in Flatterland, King Onus of Accusia, King Norman the Unexceptional of the Mediocracy known as the Commonwealth of Average, Ah-Ha the monk and the dreaded Shadow feature in the story as well. The names were fun to come up with.
James was nothing special: just a typical eleven-year-old boy. Who cared if he was an only child? No one. Who cared if he had no friends? Nobody. Was it his fault his father had left when he was a baby? Yes. According to his mother, James had caused all her troubles. “Oh, how I wish you were never born!” she’d moan. He didn’t mean to make her so miserable, but what could he do? That’s just who he was.
If there was one word you could use to describe James, it was “nice.” That’s if you noticed him at all. He acted nice even when he didn’t have to—by himself in his room, just for practice. No one had any cause to give James a second thought and that’s the way he liked it.
At school, he constantly doodled in his notebook. He doodled only one thing: rolling hills with an ever-narrowing, winding road cutting through halfway down the page and disappearing at the horizon line just below some big triangular mountains. It was a perspective drawing he had learned to do in art class. He wasn’t good at drawing people (though he tried), and he wasn’t interested in drawing cool cars like some of the other boys. And he definitely wasn’t interested in drawing horses. (That was a girl thing.) He just liked to doodle this image for no particular reason.
It was the end of the quarter at school and James was at his desk in homeroom, head down in his notebook, doodling while Mrs. Decker strode up and down the aisles passing out report cards. “These need to be signed and turned back in tomorrow.”
James ran down his list of grades. Math: C-, Science: C-, Social Studies: C, Art: C, English: C+, French: C+, Reading: C+. James does not apply himself. Could do much better, read the teacher’s comment in red ink. Conference requested. That’s not good, James thought.
When he got home, his mother was already in her bathrobe and on the phone with Sadie, their next-door neighbor. Sadie was the only one who would listen to his mother’s complaints, probably because she liked to complain as much as his mother did.
His mother’s white uniform from the Manor House Diner hung over the red vinyl chair by the secondhand red formica table where she sat. That’s where James would sit when she served him his dinner of unwanted sandwiches and other leftover items from the restaurant. She didn’t like to cook.
James watched her light another cigarette while absently stirring her coffee, keeping the phone pressed between her ear and shoulder. The table was littered with dirty dishes and papers. The large square glass ashtray brimmed with cigarette butts.
“Uh huh, me too . . .”
“If that was me, I’d—uh huh.”
“I know what you mean. I . . . I’d—uh huh.”
She didn’t really want to hear Sadie complain; she was looking for an opening to vent her own frustrations.
James patiently stood nearby holding the report card, waiting for her to notice him. When she finally did, she made a shooing motion, mouthing the words, “Go upstairs.” When he didn’t move, she covered the mouthpiece and hissed at him, “Don’t you have anything better to do?” He handed her his report card. She barely scanned it.
“I don’t have time for a conference. Tell her I work all day. This is the best you can do? You can’t do anything right, can you?”
“Could you sign it? Please?”
She took a long drag on her cigarette, exhaled, and squinted to keep the smoke from getting in her eyes. She put the report card on top of the folded newspaper next to the overloaded ashtray. And, still cradling the phone on her shoulder, she stubbed out her cigarette, grabbed a pencil, and quickly scribbled her name on the report card.
“Why did I ever have children, Sadie? Why am I so cursed?”
She lit another cigarette.
“What? Nothing. Just my son. A scholar he’s not. Just like his father, the good-for-nothing bum!”
Like my father, James thought. Even a good-for-nothing bum like him couldn’t stand me. His dad must have been a bum to saddle his mother with him. James had an urge to protest but didn’t want to set her off. She had an awful temper.
When she got to ranting at him for ruining her whole life, he’d retreat to his room and wait for things to calm down.
He’d imagine arguing back, “I’m not so bad. Okay, so I’m not the world’s greatest son . . . but I’m definitely not the worst!” There were worse kids—lots worse! Bobby Jenner, for example: a brooding bully who lived up the street. He picked on everyone on the block littler than he was and pounded them every chance he got. Last year, he had set his own house on fire. That was one rotten kid.
I could never be that bad, James thought as he looked at the report card. And I’m not that dumb either, he insisted to himself. I didn’t even fail one subject. Not one!
The Great Idea
On his walk home the next day, James took his usual shortcut, cutting across Mrs. Shubin’s backyard toward Hillside Avenue. He considered his report card. All C’s. C stands for satisfactory, he told himself. It means average. You could get by with all C’s.
“See? I’m not so terrible!” he said aloud. He glanced around. Had anyone heard him? No. The only living thing in sight was a little blackbird with orange-tipped wings perched on the telephone wire above his head.
It was a relief to finally hear it out loud. “So I’m average! What’s wrong with that?! Absolutely nothing!”
Then it came to him, an idea so intriguing and paradoxical that he had to laugh. What if I was more average than anybody else in the entire world?!
He was very pleased with himself for coming up with such a wonderful idea. It made him smile as he walked. The more he thought about it, the better he felt. All C’s! That’s average intelligence. Physically, he was average too. When he stood in line at school in order of height, he was always right in the middle. And he was never picked last for team games, like Todd Grant, who couldn’t play very much because he was small and had asthma. Even his name—James. Probably the most common name in the history of the English language. “I bet I could become the most average person who ever lived!” he announced.
That’s when the little bird dove from the wire and headed straight for his head.
“Wraawk! You could!” it cawed.
James covered his head with his arms as the bird dove at him again squawking, “It’s possible!” Then it took off like a shot and disappeared.
Did that bird actually speak? James thought. Maybe it was a mynah bird or something.
He started back for home but stopped when he spied another strange thing: a gray goat wearing wire-rimmed spectacles and a green tweed vest stood in Mrs. Shubin’s garden, calmly grazing on some pansies. A real live goat! The neighborhood had its share of dogs and cats, but never any farm animals. Especially ones in fancy clothes.
Not wanting to scare the goat, James edged closer, moving slowly, until he heard it mutter, “Oh, me. Oh, dear me. Dear mee-ee-ee!”
James blinked. Then blinked again—hard. “Are you a real goat, or someone dressed up to look like a goat?”
The little goat offered its backside to him. Cautiously, James reached down and patted the goat on its bony rump. “You’re a real goat, all right.”
“Go ahead, kick me!” The goat shook its head, pansy petals flying from his mouth. “It’s all my fault! We’re doomed! Baaaaa!! Ba-aaaaaa!” It nudged its rump against James’s leg. “Go on! I can take it!”
“What are you talking about? What’s your fault? And how can a goat talk, anyway?!” James scanned the yard. “Is someone hiding somewhere doing your voice? A ventriloquist or something? Is this some kind of joke? Hey! Who’s doing this?!”
The goat looked directly at him. “My, my, my! Suspicious, aren’t we?”
James rubbed his eyes. “This can’t be real.”
“Oh, but it is, James. It is real,” the goat assured him.
James couldn’t speak.
“Oh, dear! What a fool I am. How thoughtless of me. Let me introduce myself, I am Mayor Culpa.”
“M-Mayor Culpa? Mayor of what?” James asked, finding his voice at last.
“It’s an honorary title,” said the goat. “I am the royal mascot of Average. And you are James, an average boy. Am I right?”
“H-h-how do you know m-m-my name?” James stammered, more than a little discombobulated.
“A little bird told me-ee-e.”
“Ha, ha, very funny. I’m on TV, aren’t I?” He looked around for the hidden camera.
“Enough! No more questions! Follow me-ee-e!” The goat took off toward the well-worn path by the lilac bushes.
What was a talking goat doing wearing clothes and spectacles? Maybe there was a circus or carnival in town. James wondered if he might be coming down with some kind of virus. Perhaps he had eaten something that made him hallucinate. Or maybe he was just going nuts. Whatever the reason, he watched the goat disappear into the hedge and bolted after it.
The Realm of Possibility
James hadn’t gone more than a few steps before something even more unbelievable happened.
He was no longer in Mrs. Shubin’s backyard.
The familiar houses were gone. In fact, there were no houses, just a rolling grass-green plain. Craggy mountains wreathed in mist and clouds rimmed an endless horizon. No transporter beam had disassembled James’s molecules and reassembled them on another planet. Somehow, in a flicker of an instant, everything had changed.
James froze. The goat trotted back.
“What’s the matter now?”
“Where am I?”
“You’re here and we’re he-ea-aded to Average.”
James hardly heard a word the goat said. He was still grappling with what had just happened. How had he gotten here? And where is “here”?
“Step lively, there’s no-oo time to lose. Our king is gone—vanished!”
“What are you talking about?”
The little goat kept on as if it hadn’t heard. “And it’s all my fault! Baaa-aaa-aah!”
When he saw James gaping at him and not moving, the goat stopped wallowing in guilt for a moment and smiled (as much as a goat could smile).
“Ah! Good! Yes, yes, very good indeed. Of course, it’s to be expected. The average person doesn’t catch on too quickly. Let me explain. And try not to ask too many questions; there’s only so much an average person should know.”
“H-H-How . . . ?” James stammered.
“How did you get here? The usual way. Nothing unusual ever happens in Average, only ordinary things. It’s the law!”
“Only ordinary things,” James repeated.
“Not grasping it right away,” the goat nodded approvingly. “Fine. I’ll go a little slower. You . . . are . . . not . . . far . . . from . . . Average. The Kingdom of Average, to be precise. A Commonwealth in the Realm of Possibility.”
The goat waited patiently for James to digest this before continuing.
“I’m told you want to become the most average person in the world. Is that correct?”
“How did you hear that?”
“Like I said, a little bird told me-ee-e.”
James shook his head vigorously, trying to rattle his brain into sanity. There were no signs of his neighborhood anywhere. Instead, he surveyed a landscape very much like the one in his doodles. Only this wasn’t crayon, ink, or pencil. The sky was real, cloudless, and pale blue; the air was still; and the ground smelled of real earth and greenery. This was real. Very real!
Stands of small trees dotted the rolling plain in the distance. Each looked to be a day’s walk away. He looked right and left for anything resembling his old neighborhood, but there was nothing. Not a house, fence, garden, or path. Farther out, more rolling hills swelled and behind them, far off in the distance, stood jagged mountains shrouded in a gray haze.
The Realm of Possibility spread out before him. It was stunning and totally beyond belief.
“I’m imagining all this. Aren’t I?” He took a deep breath and looked about. “I have to get home. How do I get out of here?”
“Give up now and go home if you want. We don’t abide failure,” warned the goat.
James’s mind kept reeling. He shook his head harder, trying desperately to shake this reality away without success.
“Hmmm. You don’t look very bright standing there with your mouth open. Maybe you’re not as average as I was led to believe. But if you really aspire to be truly average, then follow me.”
James took another deep breath and steadied himself.
“Are you average or not?” asked the goat.
“I’m average all right . . . or, could be—” but before he could say anything more, the little goat took off.
James called after him, “Wait! I’m coming with you.”
He quickly caught up and marched alongside the goat. “Okay, okay. I can’t deny I’m actually here. This is so weird. It feels like it’s really happening. I’ll probably wake up or come to eventually,” he said, trying to sound as nonchalant as he could, though that was the furthest thing from what he was feeling. This was the most fantastic thing that ever happened to him and he honestly hoped it was real.
“Besides,” he said, attempting to sound rational, “if I really am going to be completely average, I should see what Average looks like, shouldn’t I? What’s it like? Nice, I expect.”
“It’s not a bad place. Goo-o-ood as some, not as good as others,” said the goat. “Some places are baaa-aa-d. Take Accusia. There’s always such turmoil there and they constantly blame us for it. Below Average is Apathia. Nothing ever goes on there to bother about, for the most part. Not so bad, I suppose, but who cares? Then there are the places above Average in the highlands on the other side of Expect Station, where we are now. No one from Average ever goes there if they can help it. And wa-aay in the distance over there—it’s hard to make them out they’re so far away—are the Unattainables, the highest mountain range in the world. Its highest peak is Mount Impossible. Beyond that, they say, is the Realm of Genius. No one really knows if it exists. Many think it’s a myth. But there are stories.”
“Uh-huh,” was all James could muster.
“Never mind all that. We have enough to deal with right here. Our king has gone missing! Everything was just fine and then he vanished without so much as a word.”
“So you had a king and now he’s gone,” James repeated.
“O-oh-oh, he was such an average king!” the goat rhapsodized. “So wonderfully mediocre!”
James nodded as if he understood, but truth be told, he didn’t. “What did he do to be so average?”
“Nothing we didn’t expect,” the goat sighed. “Now he’s gone and there’s no one to rule Average.”
“What about you? You’re a mayor. Couldn’t you—”
“Me-ee-eee-e, King of Average? I’m a goat! Too strange. It’s not permitted.”
“I guess you need someone human. That sounds logical,” James agreed.
“Not just someone! We need the most average person in the world. Someone completely, absolutely, perfectly average in every way. Someone like you.”
“Me? You think I’m average enough to be the king?”
“That remains to be see-een.”
The goat stepped up his pace. “If Average can’t maintain its place in the world, there’ll be nothing for the world to compare itself to. Disaster!” he called out over his shoulder toward James as he trotted along. “Hurry! I must present you to the Council of Judges in Median City.”
“The Council of Judges?” James had to jog to keep up.
“Yes, the . . . judges,” panted the goat. “They deal . . . in . . . the Law of Averages. They gave . . . me a 67 percent chance . . . of finding you,” he huffed. “They also said . . . there was a slight chance . . . you wouldn’t come. Less than 10 percent . . . But you did, thank goodness.”
The idea of being so important gave James pause. “A . . . king? I . . . don’t know . . .” James said between gulps of air as he jogged along. He wasn’t a very fast runner.
The goat stopped abruptly and turned to James. “You are the only eligible candidate! You can’t refuse. If you do, we will fail! We’ll be ruined, and it’ll be all my fault.”
The goat’s expression changed from mild anxiety to awe at the enormity of being blamed for the collapse of an entire kingdom. He pawed the ground and stamped his hooves in a fit of recrimination.
James tried to calm the goat. “I don’t see how this could all be your fault.”
“It is my fault and always will be!” snapped the goat. “I’m a Scapegoat and proud of it.”
“As long as I’m to blame, no one else can be burdened. It’s what I was bred for.”
“Do you mean nothing can ever be my fault?” James asked.
“Of course! You leave that to me,” the little goat snorted, peevishly. “May I continue?”
As Culpa went on explaining, James wondered what it would be like to be king. What do kings actually do? Maybe, if I wasn’t leading armies and fighting battles, I would just sit on the throne all day granting or not granting requests. Maybe I’d decree something or other—
“You’re not paying attention!” scolded Culpa.
“I’m sorry,” said James.
“No! My fault entirely. Perfectly all right,” said the mayor. “A perfectly normal thing to do. You are, after all, average and the average person can’t pay attention to any one thing too long. That is, after all, exactly what we need. Fine!” The goat bowed his head and muttered to himself, “Probably bored you with too many details.”
Culpa trotted over to a nearby tree and butted his head against it. He rammed it several times with loud thwacks and thuds, punctuating each word with a headbutt. “Boring!” Thud. “Stupid!” Bang. “Story!” Thwack. Finally, he stopped. “Much better!”
“Sorry,” James replied.
“No need to apologize,” said the scapegoat cheerfully. “Not your fault.”
“Doesn’t it hurt when you butt your head like that?”
“Of course,” Culpa replied. “Not to worry though, I can take it.”
They continued on at a half-trot.
“Is it far to Median City?” James asked after a while, breaking the silence.
“Not too far.”
“Just far enough.”
Even at this pace, James was running out of steam and patience. “Why won’t you give me a definitive answer?”
“That’s enough of that!” snapped the goat. “You ask too many questions! You don’t need to know everything. That would make you a know-it-all. And that is not average! Too many questions require too many answers and I don’t have them. No one in Average has all the answers, or needs them, for that matter.”
James saw his point. If one were to be completely average one would have to ask just the right amount of questions. But how many was that?
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