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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


List Price: $9.99


On Sale: December 18, 2007
Pages: 304 | ISBN: 978-0-307-43413-5
Published by : Knopf Books for Young Readers RH Childrens Books
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Winner of the PEN Center USA Literary Award for Children's Literature
A New York Public Library Book for the Teen Age
Winner of the 2004 Texas TAYSHAS High School Reading List

When fifteen-year-old Mick Nichols discovers a secret about his stepmother, he comes obsessed with uncovering the truth. But before he can get to the bottom of it, Mick is confronted by a series of strange robberies and a close friend with a dark secret of her own. As he seeks out answers, Mick realizes that all of his problems are zipped up together—and he may have to go to drastic lengths to untangle them.

“The McNeals spin a wonderfully rich story.”—Kirkus Reviews

“A well-honed novel. . . . Readers will be sucked in.”—Publishers Weekly

From the Hardcover edition.



Baked in a Pie

It wasn't a normal Thursday, but all day long it had seemed like one, so when the final bell rang, Mick Nichols did what he normally did. He walked from Jemison High to Melville Junior High by way of the athletic fields, fast-walking at first, but then, as he neared the muddy grass where the girls' field hockey team was collecting for spring practice, he settled into something closer to a purposeful stroll.

He hoped he wasn't too early, and he wasn't. Lisa Doyle was there--he caught a flash of her coppery red hair through the shifting shoulders and sticks, and suddenly everywhere and all at once a strange prickling sensation began spreading across his skin. She bent down to pick up her stick, and when she happened to flick a glance in his general direction, Mick's face went wooden. He kept his eyes directly forward and walked stiffly on without another look her way. Beneath his old bomber jacket, beneath his khaki T-shirt, a cool bead of sweat coursed down his rib cage. Dink, he thought as he reached the chain-link fence that marked the boundary of the high school. Dink dink dink.

Melville Junior High was located just across the street to the east of Jemison High, so by this time of day Jemison's shadow already reached across Melville's front lawn. Mick cut through Melville's parking lot and wandered down to the art room, where his stepmother, Nora Mercer-Nichols, was cleaning up after a day of what she liked jokingly to call "teaching art to the artless." She was stuffing dirty wool into black Hefty bags. When she saw Mick she pushed her sandy blond hair up with the back of her hand and said, "Hello, Maestro!" Then, "Hi, Mick."

Nora Mercer-Nichols was in her early thirties, but she seemed younger. She'd married Mick's father four years before. The first time Mick had met her, she and his father had come in quietly behind him when he was playing the piano in the living room. He'd thought he was alone, and when he finally got through one of Bach's Inventions without a flub, he leaned back on the piano bench and exultantly shot a fist into the air, which drew sudden laughter from Nora and his father. Mick had swung around, surprised and embarrassed. When his father introduced her, he said, "Nora, this is my son, Mick," and she'd smiled and said, "Well, I think I'm going to have to call him Maestro," which she still did. Mick had heard a lot of Bad Stepmother stories, but he liked Nora. He never thought of her as his mother or even his stepmother. She was just Nora, and almost any room was more interesting if she were in it.

Today, standing just inside her classroom door, next to a cabinet lined with bird's nests in clear Plexiglas boxes, Mick read for probably the hundredth time the English and Latin labels he'd helped Nora make one night last fall: black-capped chickadee (Parus atricapillus). house sparrow (Passer domesticus). chipping sparrow (Spizella passerina). A few of the nests held faintly tinted eggs, some freckled, some not. Nora had been asked about the eggs so often that she'd made a small sign that said don't worry, you bird lovers you, I only collect abandoned nests.

Mick found himself staring at some faintly freckled eggs, which made him think of Nora's shoulders in summer, a thought he tried to shake off.

"So," Nora said. "Gimme the daily Doyle report."

Mick shrugged. "Brief visual contact."

"Really? Well, did you smile back?"

"Not exactly."

They both fell silent. About three weeks ago, while driving home with Nora, Mick had told her in a matter-of-fact voice about "this kind of weird effect" that the sight of Lisa Doyle had on him. A laugh had burst from Nora. " 'The heart is the tyrant who spares no one,' " she recited.

"Who said that?"

Nora grinned and nodded toward a small, red ceramic devil that she'd recently set on her dashboard. "Probably little Beezlebub," she said. "Either that or some dead white guy."

Mick didn't know why she called the figurine Beezlebub. All he knew was, he didn't like the little guy. At first it just seemed like a toddler in a devil sleeper, but it always seemed to be peering at you with its black, curious eyes.

"Where'd you get that thing anyway?" he said.

"School," Nora said. "On desktop treasure trading day."

Mick stared at it for a second or two. "It's kind of grimy."

Nora chuckled. "The word I'd use is 'puckish.' " Then, after a block or two had passed, "Weren't we on the subject of one Lisa Doyle? What do you and Lisa talk about?"

"That's kind of the problem," Mick said, and felt his face color slightly. "I haven't actually ever talked to Lisa Doyle."

Nora shot him a look of surprise and then became serious. "Okay, Maestro. Here's the deal. You've been smitten. It may be a foolish infatuation or it may be the real thing. What you have to do is get to know her, and vice versa, which means something more extreme than hockey field walk-bys. You need proximity. If she's on the debate team, join the debate team. If she plays tennis, buy yourself a racket." They were at a stoplight and Nora had fixed Mick with her winsome smile. "If she plays pinochle, take up pinochle."

"I hear she's Mormon," Mick said.

Nora had laughed. "Then say your prayers, and make sure they're good ones," she had said.

The wool they were bagging this afternoon was surprisingly dirty, snagged with twigs and seeds and even clusters of what looked to Mick like sheep dung. He broke a silence by saying, "This stuff's pretty disgusting. What's it for anyway?"

"A new enrichment class." Nora pointed at the near bulletin board, where in large letters it said wool: from sheep to sweater. She laughed again. "You'll be happy to know it's open to students of both genders. The early colonists taught all their children to spin, including boys."

Mick said, "So this class would be a serious opportunity for any guy who might want to be a colonist when he grows up." He hoped this would be good for a chuckle from Nora, and it was. Then he said, "Well, maybe Dad or me'll get a sweater out of it." This was a joke. Although Nora had been working on something that was supposed to be a sweater, she wouldn't say who it was for or what it was supposed to look like, and more often than not she seemed to be unraveling it to correct a mistake.

"Ha," said Nora. "That'll depend on who does the supper dishes."

From the Hardcover edition.
Laura McNeal|Tom McNeal|Author Q&A

About Laura McNeal

Laura McNeal - Zipped
Laura McNeal is a freelance journalist and former English teacher. She is married to the author Tom McNeal and they live in Southern California.

About Tom McNeal

Tom McNeal - Zipped

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.

Author Q&A

Q: How did you write Zipped together–did you work straight from chapter one through to the end, or did you sometimes jump around? Did you work together to create outlines or discuss where the story was headed?

A: The first novel we wrote–Crooked–was like an unplanned car trip. Laura got behind the wheel and drove for one chapter and then slept in the backseat while Tom drove. We switched off after each chapter, so there was the more or less weekly thrill of finding yourself in a new place. About twenty chapters into it, though, we realized we had no idea where we were going, and since a novel really does need the things English teachers talk about–foreshadowing, rising action, climax, and denouement–we had to stop and make a plan. Tom had an idea for an ending, so he wrote a series of climactic scenes. Then we revised the whole thing several times to unify all the events and characters.
With Zipped, we tried to plan where we were going before we got in the car. We mapped out the beginning and the end. We divided up the characters and the chapters–Laura was more or less in charge of Lisa Doyle, Elder Keesler, and Lizette, for example, and Tom wrote scenes introducing Mick, Maurice, and Nora. Whenever a scene called for weather, scenery, Mormon culture, or bird references, Laura drove. When we needed gardening references or jokes about the mind of the adolescent male, she handed Tom the keys.

Q: How do you give each other feedback during the writing process? Is it a help? A strain?

A: One of the reasons we’re married is that we have much the same taste in books, movies, music, and art, with the exception of Gilbert and Sullivan operas and sea chanteys, which Tom patiently endures. Sometimes we disagree about a character, a scene, or even a major plot development, but we try to be tactful about it, just as we try to be polite when suggesting whose fault it is that we ran out of coffee filters. It helps that most of the criticisms are written, not spoken. Our general practice is to take the other person’s computer draft and edit it by inserting brackets. Instead of just ripping out the parts we don’t like, we put brackets around them and write alternatives, which are also in brackets. Brackets save the marriage, basically.

Q: Did you do any research on teenagers, observational or otherwise, before writing the book?

A: A lot of our research was done as actual teenagers. We had to live through adolescence, and it’s kind of nice to have something to show for it. We both taught school for a while, too. When we have particular questions about cars or school policy or music, we consult Tom’s nephew or the children of friends or students at our local high school.

Q: How do you decide what references to make to television, movies, clothes, and music? Are you trying to be up to date with teen culture?

A: We weren’t even very good at that when we were teenagers ourselves. We do occasionally refer to current celebrities or fashions, but we try to keep those references to a minimum because it takes us at least a year to write a book, and then another year for the publication process. By the time the book reaches bookstores, fashion will have moved on, and a new celebrity will be on the cover of Teen People. We can’t entirely eliminate references to clothing and movie stars, of course, because teenagers do talk about those things. What we hope to do, though, is write a book that will still be comprehensible in twenty-five years.

Q: What inspired you to write Zipped?

A: A true story, unfortunately. We heard about a teacher whose son discovered his stepmother’s affair by reading her e-mail. The other characters were also inspired by people we have known–Mormon missionaries Laura knew in high school, boys on the work crew that Tom supervised, a friend Tom had in junior high, a pair of Lebanese brothers who ran an auto shop. We’re mostly inspired, though, by the desire to take a moral dilemma and explore it in a fictional way.

Q: Which characters in the book do you most identify with?

A: Mick and Lisa, as the romantic leads, are probably the characters we’d prefer to claim as cleaned-up, cosmetically enhanced versions of our former selves. We do, however, try to identify with even the loathsome characters–to imagine their points of view, and to sympathize with them, if only for a moment.

Q: When you are writing, whom do you envision reading your work?

A: When we’re writing, we’re concentrating on making Maurice or Mick seem like real people moving through a real town. The presence of an audience would only call attention to the imaginary nature of fiction, so we don’t think about the reader in a direct way. When we’re thinking of an idea for a book, however, we imagine readers who are about the same age as the characters.

Q: What types of books do you like to read? Who are your favorite authors?

A: Laura: I love books that explore one incident and its consequences from every conceivable point of view. Examples that come to mind are the Raj Quartet, by Paul Scott; Atonement, by Ian McEwan; An American Tragedy, by Theodore Dreiser, and That Night, by Alice McDermott.
Tom: There are writers–Alice McDermott, E. L. Doctorow, and Richard Ford, for example–whose mere manner of constructing sentences draws me back to them again and again. More broadly, it boils down to whether I can become immersed in a book or not. If the writing’s good, if the characters are engaging, and if the problems they face have some heft to them, then I’ll fall into this fictional world and enjoy the visit. The best books feel like important visits, and the feelings they afford will linger after you’ve come back home.



WINNER 2004 Texas TAYSHAS High School Reading List
Discussion Questions

Discussion Guides

1. In chapter one, Mick visits Nora’s classroom and talks to her about Lisa Doyle and his summer plans. What are some of the other memories he shares about time spent with Nora? Does he see her as a traditional stepmother? How does he feel about her and the experiences they’ve shared? How do his feelings change once he has read Nora’s e-mail? Mick asks Nora to drop the nickname Maestro, explaining, “I don’t like it. It’s not true” (p. 23). Is he talking only about the nickname here, or does his request have greater significance?

2. Why won’t Mick take off his coat at the end of chapter one? Look at the moments throughout the book when Mick pats the disk that is zipped into his jacket pocket. What is he thinking about when he does this? What is he really trying to keep zipped up? Does it work? Similarly, Myra puts her feelings for Pam into a letter. At the end of the novel, Mick and Myra send their disk and letter up into the sky with a bunch of balloons. What does this act symbolize for each of them?

3. On page 21, Mick takes a long look at this father, and later he challenges his father to a particularly competitive game of foosball in an attempt to “make him play a little harder” (p. 26). What is Mick trying to bring out in his father? Through whose point of view is Mick seeing his father now?

4. Internal conflict is a struggle within a character over an issue or a choice he or she must make. Lisa considers the forbidden fruits of the Mormon religion: “drinking, caffeine, boyfriends, and fun” (p. 33). How does she feel about these rules? What is Lisa’s internal struggle? By the end of the novel, do you think Lisa is on her way to resolving these problems? What choices do you think she will make? What are Myra’s internal conflicts? Mick’s? Nora’s? How are they resolved?

5. Betrayal is one of the themes of the novel. Which characters feel betrayed? How and by whom? How does each of these characters deal with his or her feelings? Would you be able to forgive an act of betrayal like Nora’s? Why or why not? Does Mick forgive her?

6. A symbol is a physical thing that stands for an idea or an emotion. Nora adds a new figurine to her car’s dashboard--a small plastic devil she calls Beelzebub. How does Mick feel about this item and why? Where do you think it came from? What does this figure symbolize to Nora? Do her feelings about it ever change? Where does this figure end up and what does its condition represent?

7. Birds’ nests appear throughout the story. Toward the end, a singing bird is building a new nest in the backyard. Contrast the image of the dried, abandoned nests in Nora’s classroom with the lively new nest at the end, in which “. . . the five white eggs were still together and intact” (p. 269). What do you think these images symbolize about the status of the Nichols family at different points in the novel?

8. The setting of a story--when and where it takes place--can establish its atmosphere, or mood. Where does this story take place? During what season? Mick observes, “The air was warm sometimes, but you couldn’t trust it ” (p. 7). How does this climate foreshadow, or hint at, the situation Mick is about to find himself in? How are the lines “Everything looked green--the trees, the yard, the valley and hillside beyond--everything” (p. 272), indicative of Mick’s new situation? Do the authors use the weather to set the mood in other parts of the story?

9. Do you think Maurice is racist or prejudiced? Why or why not? What are some of the characteristics that make the reader and characters dislike him? Describe Janice’s feelings for Maurice. Do they change when she looks into the orange juice container? Eventually, Lisa decides Maurice is not a total “sleazeball” (p. 273). Why does she come to this conclusion? Do you have sympathy for Maurice? Why or why not?

10. Lisa and Janice are best friends, but they don’t spend much time together as the book progresses. How do their differences become clearer? What kinds of choices do each of them make? Have any of your friendships ever taken similar turns? What do you think will happen to their relationship? Is Lisa a good friend? If not to Janice, then to whom? At the end of the novel, after Elder Keesler departs, Lisa visits Home Park Gardens “one last time” (p. 265). What does she see? How is this view different from what she used to see? What do you think this means?

11. Many of the characters in the book are different on the inside than they appear to be on the outside. Myra calls this phenomenon the “face behind the face behind the face” (p. 120). How do Nora and Myra fit this category? What does Mick expect from Nora and how is he surprised by her behavior? What does Mick assume Myra will be like and how does she surprise him? Does Mr. Cruso fit Mick’s assumptions? Nora says, “Adults are like everybody else, Mick. Usually they do what they’re supposed to do. Sometimes they don’t” (p. 255). What does this teach Mick about himself and other people?

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