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Written by Laura McNealAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Laura McNeal and Tom McNealAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Tom McNeal


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On Sale: December 24, 2008
Pages: 304 | ISBN: 978-0-307-48367-6
Published by : Knopf Books for Young Readers RH Childrens Books
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A Kirkus Reviews Best Young Adult Book of the Year
A New York Public Library Book for the Teen Age

Sixteen-year-old Lana Morris wishes her life were different: her Ice Queen of a foster mother won't leave her alone, and she has no friends but the other foster kids she takes care of.

Then she stumbles into a mysterious antique shop and trades her most valued possession for a single box of drawing paper: thirteen thick, blank pages, like thirteen wishes waiting to be made. Suddenly, impossibly, it seems Lana might actually have the power to change things. But wishing isn't always as harmless as it seems...

From the Hardcover edition.



Nebraska, June, the sky white with heat.

The dust devil begins with a pocket of unstable air where a farmer’s field of irrigated beans meets the heated asphalt of Highway 20, sending up a sudden rush of warm air that swirls and stretches higher, increasing speed. The twisting funnel of dirt and debris moves east through fields of alfalfa and wheat and corn toward the town of Two Rivers, where, in a two-storied foster home, a girl named Lana Morris lives.

Lana is sixteen and slim, with watchful dark eyes, brown hair that falls in straight lines down her long back, and a slot between her two front teeth that was once called her most charming feature by one of the least reliable in her mother’s long line of unreliable boyfriends. He said she was pretty, too, but the truth is Lana doesn’t think anything about herself is charming or pretty, only that the slot between her front teeth is the exact thickness of a dime, something she learned by trial and error.

Slipped into the crease behind Lana’s left ear, where some people might store a pencil or even a cigarette, you will normally find a tightly rolled two-dollar bill. With use and with time, this bill has been worn soft as cloth. Lana believes the bill was left to her by her father, believes that by unrolling it and holding it flat in her hand, she can sometimes feel the presence of the person he must have been. Lana has always believed in things. Fortune cookies. Horoscopes. That one of these days her mother (whereabouts unknown) would stop drinking, get a steady job, and buy them a little house somewhere. That her father, before he died, was nicer and less foolish than people said he was.

Lana stares down at her open hand with mild surprise. A minute before, she’d been drawing on a yellow legal pad, and now, without remembering doing it, she’s smoothing the two-dollar bill across the flat of her palm.

Lana rolls and fastens the bill, then tucks it behind her ear. Today will be okay, she thinks, if I can just get out of the house.

Always a big if.

It’s Saturday morning, for one thing. School is out for the summer. Whit Winters, her foster father, is upstairs asleep. His wife, Veronica, is in the backyard hanging sheets. Lana makes a point of being where Veronica isn’t, so she’s sneaked out to the front porch and sits sketching on a yellow legal tablet and eating Froot Loops from a box with a foster girl named Tilly, who is also sixteen. With her curly brown hair, green eyes, and round body, Tilly looks almost normal, but she isn’t.

“Look, Lana!” Tilly says, and Lana looks. Tilly holds open her pudgy hand to display a dozen or so Froot Loops, all pink. “Look! Look!”

“Pink is definitely your favorite,” Lana says.

Tilly says seriously, “Pinkies are better than yellows, Lana. You bet.”

They both fall quiet in the thick heat. Lana goes back to sketching Whit Winters’s face from memory. She can do his wavy hair, and she’s never had trouble with his eyes, but there’s something wrong with the chin, and if the chin’s wrong, everything’s wrong. He looks sharp and bony instead of smooth and boyish. She erases quickly, whisks the pink rubbery dust away with the side of her hand, and starts again.

Cicadas are whirring in the cottonwood, and a crow descends on the front lawn. Lana, lost again in her drawing, presumes this is a Saturday morning like any other Saturday morning, but in this she is wrong.

From the Hardcover edition.
Laura McNeal|Tom McNeal

About Laura McNeal

Laura McNeal - The Decoding of Lana Morris
Laura Rhoton McNeal holds a master’s degree in fiction writing from Syracuse University. She taught middle school and high school English before becoming a novelist and journalist.

Together, Laura and her husband, Tom McNeal, are the authors of Crooked, winner of the California Book Award for Juvenile Literature and an ALA Top Ten Best Book for Young Adults; Zipped, winner of the PEN Center USA Literary Award for Children’s Literature; Crushed (called “compelling” by Publishers Weekly); and The Decoding of Lana Morris, a Kirkus Reviews Best Young Adult Book of the Year.

The McNeals live in Southern California with their two sons, Sam and Hank. To learn more, please visit the authors’ Web site at www.mcnealbooks.com.

From the Hardcover edition.

About Tom McNeal

Tom McNeal - The Decoding of Lana Morris

Photo © Jeff Lucia/Cal Media

Tom McNeal is the critically acclaimed author of many short stories and the adult novel, Goodnight, Nebraska, winner of the 1999 James A. Michener Memorial Prize. He is married to the writer Laura McNeal and they live in Fallbrook, California.


NOMINEE 2008 ALA Best Books for Young Adults
WINNER 2008 Texas TAYSHAS High School Reading List
WINNER 2007 Kirkus Reviews Editor Choice Award
WINNER New York Public Library Books for the Teen Age
Teachers Guide

Teacher's Guide


The authors will donate 10% of their net
proceeds to The Arc of the United States, an
organization which advocates for the rights and
full participation of children and adults with
intellectual and developmental disabilities.
Visit www.thearc.org for more information.


When Lana arrives at her foster home, a family
comprised of a wicked mother, a sexy father, and
a house full of special needs kids, she thinks her
life is over; she soon discovers her complicated
journey has only just begun.

For 16-year-old foster child Lana Morris, life
presents more questions than answers. Resolute
and determined to survive, she tries not to care
that Trina and K.C. won’t allow her into their club,
and she denies her connection to the special needs
kids in her foster home. She also is confused about
her feelings for Whit, her foster father; clearly
hates Veronica, her foster mother; and is surprised
when her friendship with Chet, the boy next door,
threatens to blossom into love. One day, however,
after another hellish ride tagging along with the
cool kids in K.C.’s trunk, she discovers Miss
Hekkity’s antique and curiosity shop, where she
trades her cherished two-dollar bill for 13 sheets
of drawing paper. Soon Lana finds her life is
changing in mysterious ways, ways that resemble
what she has drawn on her new paper. Could she
really have
the power to make her deepest desires come true?


Laura McNeal is a freelance journalist and former
English teacher. Tom McNeal is the critically
acclaimed author of many short stories and the
adult novel Goodnight, Nebraska, winner of the
1999 James A. Michener Memorial Prize. They have
collaborated on other young adult novels, including
Crooked (an ALA Top Ten Book for Young Adults),
Zipped, and Crushed. The McNeals are married
and live in Fallbrook, California.


As you read the first
chapter aloud to the
students, ask them
to write down what
they learn about
Lana. Then, as a
class, compile the
information gleaned
from listening to the
chapter on the board.
From this list, ask
students to formally
compose questions
the author has
introduced about
Lana and her life
situation. Write these
questions down on
the board as well,
and as the students
read, allow them
to answer the
questions, draw
conclusions, and
generate additional


The first time Whit meets Lana he tells her, “I’m going to make it
my personal mission to learn the Morris code. . . . Everybody’s got
their own secret code and then one day—along comes the Decoder.”
(pp. 14–15) What are Whit, Veronica, Chet, and Lana’s secret codes?
Who is the decoder for each of them? How are their secret codes

Lana is willing to ride in the trunk of K.C.’s car in order to spend
time with people who make fun of her. What does this say about
Lana? How is Chet different from K.C. and Trina?

On page 86, Whit tells Lana that everybody worries too much,
including her. “It’s a widespread affliction. Someday I’ll help cure
you of it.” Does Whit help Lana overcome worry? How does worry
play a role in Lana’s life?

Eventually, Lana’s thoughts of Whit begin to replace her thoughts
about her father. What does this say about her growing affection
for Whit? Why is she confused by Whit’s actions? Are Whit’s actions
toward Lana inappropriate? Why or why not?

Lana learns about wishes from Whit, from Chet, and from the
special paper that she purchased from Mrs. Hekkity. What does she
learn from each of them? How does what she learns help her to be
a better person? How do her wishes change from the first day at
Whit and Veronica’s house to the day she leaves?

Lana comes to the realization that some people have “zipped-tight
hearts,” and she despises them for the pain they have caused the
innocent. (p. 115) What prevents Lana from zipping up her heart?
How do the Snicks change Lana’s life? What needs do they meet
in each other that no one else can meet?

K.C., Spink, and Trina terrorize the Snicks and Lana when they
make their trip downtown to buy groceries. What motivates the
three of them to bully those that are less fortunate than themselves?
Why does Chet step forward to help Lana and the Snicks? How
does this event change the relationship between Chet and Lana?

When Lana begins listening to Chet on his late
night podcast, she realizes she has underestimated
Chet. What does she learn about Chet from
listening to him? Why is Chet so secretive about
what he does? How does Lana help Chet with
his program?

Lana is not afraid of taking risks, but when she
steals Veronica’s car and kidnaps the Snicks,
she and Chet could wind up in major trouble.
Is doing something wrong for the right reason
ever okay? Why or why not?

After Veronica comes home from the hospital,
she confronts Lana about her feelings for Whit.
How is Veronica’s angry outburst on pages
220–222 a blessing for Lana? How does Veronica’s
revelation begin to open Lana’s eyes?

Lana believes the Ladies Drawing Kit brings her
wishes to life. What evidence does she have to
support this belief? What other reasons could
explain the unusual reactions her drawings bring?
Is the paper really magic? Why or why not?

Mrs. Stoneman, Garth’s mother, reports to the authorities that the Winters’ home is not an
acceptable environment for her son and the other children living in the home. Ask students
to choose one of the following letter writing activities: (1) assume the voice of Lana and
write to Mrs. Stoneman assuring her the Winters’ home is a great place for her son, (2)
assume the voice of the Child Protective Service (CPS) employee explaining to Mr. and
Mrs. Winters why they are removing the children from their home, or (3) assume the
voice of Mrs. Hekkity detailing her reasons to the CPS for wanting all six children. Have
each student read their letter to the class.

Chet’s podcast brings enjoyment and entertainment to Lana and a select audience of
listeners. Ask students to work with a partner to write a script for a podcast similar to
Chet’s, including humor, thought-provoking questions, commercials, and
advice to callers. Then, have students record their podcasts to play for the class.


The authors’ unique word choices bring
nuances of meaning that ordinary words
don’t carry. Ask students to keep a two-
sided vocabulary journal as they read the
book. On the left side of the page, they
should copy down phrases such as the
ones below that convey unique word
choices. On the right side, students should
react personally to the word choice through
explanation, drawing, personal association,
and/or revision.
“A hint of truculence in her voice” (p. 4)
“This one is stellar” (p. 5)
“Low, rich, mellifluent voice” (p. 5)
“A cranky old misanthrope” (p. 35)
“Not especially acquisitive or covetous
by nature” (p. 39)
“Wear a label saying OMINOUS” (p. 51)
“Then raucous laughter from the Snicks”
(p. 65)
“She feels discombobulated” (p. 94)
“I like the Mrs. Hairball moniker” (p. 124)
“Hard derisive laughter” (p. 162)
“Stare with theatrical petulance” (p. 165)
“An odd, ardent expression forms” (p. 173)


Prepared by Susan Geye, Library Media Specialist, Crowley Ninth Grade Campus, Crowley, TX.

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