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ABOUT THE BOOK ABOUT THE BOOK
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PRAISE PRAISE
READER'S GUIDE READER'S GUIDE
Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

SMALL STEPS is a contemporary young adult novel from Louis Sachar, the New York Times bestselling author of the Newbery Award–winning smash hit phenomenon book and movie/DVD sensation Holes, and The Cardturner.

 Two years after being released from Camp Green Lake, Armpit is home in Austin, Texas, trying to turn his life around. But it's hard when you have a record and everyone expects the worst from you. The only person who believe in Armpit is Ginny, his ten-year-old disabled neighbor. Together, they are learning to take small steps.

 Armpit seems to be on the right path until X-Ray, a buddy from Camp Green Lake, comes up with a get-rich-quick scheme. X-Ray's plan leads to a chance encounter with teen pop sensation Kaira DeLeon, the Beyoncé of her time, and suddenly Armpit's life spins out of control. Only one thing is certain: he'll never be the same again.

 Combining his signature wit with a unique blend of adventure and deeply felt characters, Sachar explores issues of race, the nature of celebrity, the invisible connections that shape a person's life, and what it takes to stay the course. Doing the right thing is never a wrong choice—but always a small step in right direction.

Excerpt

A rusted Honda Civic drove noisily down the street and parked across from the mayor’s house. Armpit had finished digging his trench and was attaching PVC pipe. The mayor had gone back inside.

The driver-side door had been bashed in, and it would have cost more to fix than the car was worth. The driver had to work his way over the stick shift and then exit on the passenger side.

The personalized license plate read: X RAY.

“Armpit!” X-Ray shouted as he crossed the street. “Armpit!”

The guys at work didn’t know him by that name, but if he didn’t say something X-Ray would just keep on shouting. Better to answer and shut him up.

“Hey,” he called back.

“Man, you’re really sweating,” X-Ray said as he came near.

“Yeah, well, you’d sweat too if you were digging.”

“I’ve already dug enough dirt to last one lifetime,” said X-Ray.

They had met each other at Camp Green Lake.

“Look, don’t call me Armpit around other people, all right?” Armpit said.

“But that’s your name, dawg. You should never be ashamed of who you are.”

X-Ray had the kind of smile that kept you from hating him no matter how annoying he was. He was skinny and wore glasses, which were now covered with clip-on shades.

He picked up Armpit’s shovel. “Different shape.”

“Yeah, it’s for digging trenches, not holes.”

X-Ray studied it awhile. “Seems like it would be harder to dig with. No leverage.” He let it drop. “So you must be making a ton of money.”

Armpit shrugged. “I’m doing all right.”

“A ton of money,” X-Ray repeated.

Armpit felt uncomfortable talking about money with X-Ray.

“So really, how much you got saved up so far?”

“I don’t know. Not that much.”

He knew exactly how much he had. Eight hundred and fifty-seven dollars. He hoped to break a thousand with his next paycheck.

“Got to be at least a thousand,” said X-Ray. “You’ve been working for three months.”

“Just part-time.”

Besides working, Armpit was also taking two classes in summer school. He had to make up for all the schooling he’d missed while at Green Lake.

“And they take out for taxes and stuff, so really I don’t take home all that much.”

“Eight hundred?”

“I don’t know, maybe.”

“The reason I’m asking,” X-Ray said, “the reason I’m asking is I got a business proposition for you. How would you like to double your money in less than two weeks?”

Armpit smiled as he shook his head. “I don’t think so.”

“I just need six hundred dollars. Double your money, guaranteed. And I won’t be taking out any taxes.”

“Look, things are going all right for me right now, and I just want to keep it all cool.”

“Don’t you even want to hear me out?”

“Not really.”

“It’s not against the law,” X-Ray assured him. “I checked.”

“Yeah, you didn’t think selling little bags of parsley for fifty dollars an ounce was against the law either.”

“Hey, it’s not my fault what people think they’re buying. How is that my fault? Am I supposed to be a mind reader?”

X-Ray had been sent to Camp Green Lake for selling bags of dried parsley and oregano to customers who thought they were buying marijuana. That was also why his family had to move from Lubbock to Austin shortly after he was released.

“Look, I just don’t want to do anything that might screw things up,” Armpit said.

“That’s what you think? That I came here to screw things up? Man, I’m offering you an opportunity. An opportunity. If the Wright brothers came to you, you would have told them it’s impossible to fly.”

“The Wright brothers?” asked Armpit. “What century are you living in?”

“I just don’t get it,” said X-Ray. “I don’t get it. I offer my best friend an opportunity to double his money, and he won’t even listen to my idea.”

“All right, tell me your idea.”

“Forget it. If you’re not interested I’ll find somebody else.”

“Tell me your idea.” He actually was beginning to get just a little bit curious.

“What’s the point?” asked X-Ray. “If you’re not going to even listen . . .”

“All right, I’m listening,” said Armpit.

X-Ray smiled. “Just two words.” He paused for effect. “Kaira DeLeon.”

It was eleven-thirty in Austin, but it was an hour later in Atlanta, where Kaira DeLeon, a seventeen-year-old African American girl, was just waking up. Her face pressed against Pillow, which was, in fact, a pillow. There wasn’t much oomph left in the stuffing, and the edges were frayed. The picture of the bear with a balloon, which had once been brightly colored, had faded so much it was hardly visible.

Kaira groggily climbed out of bed. She wore boxer shorts and was unbuttoning her pajama top as she made her way to what she thought was the bathroom. She opened the door, then shrieked. A thirty-year-old white guy, sitting on a couch, stared back at her. She clutched the two halves of her pajama top together and slammed the door.

The door bounced back open.

“Doofus!” Kaira shouted at the man, then closed the door again, making sure it latched this time. “Can’t a person have some privacy around here!” she screamed, then made her way to the bathroom, which was on the opposite side of her bed.

Over the last three and a half weeks she’d been in nineteen different hotel suites, each with no fewer than three rooms, and one with six. So really, it was no wonder she went through the wrong door. She didn’t even remember what city she was in.

She suspected that Polly, her psychiatrist, would tell her she had done that on purpose; something about wanting to show her body to her bodyguard. Maybe she was better off not telling Polly about it. Everything she said in her therapy sessions was supposed to be confidential, but Kaira suspected that Polly, like a parrot, repeated everything to El Genius.

She had no privacy–not in her hotel room, not even in her own thoughts.

The problem was that, except for Polly, there wasn’t anybody on the tour she could talk to. Certainly not her mother. And not her doofus bodyguard. The guys in her band were all at least forty years old, and treated her like she was a snot-nosed little kid. The backup singers were in their late twenties, but they seemed to resent her being the center of attention.

The only time she felt at peace was when she was singing. Then it was just her and the song and everybody else just disappeared.

Her concert tour would take her to a total of fifty-four cities, so she wasn’t even half done yet. She was now on the southern swing. From Atlanta they’d be going to Jacksonville, then Miami, Birmingham, Memphis, Nashville, Little Rock, and Baton Rouge, and on to Texas: Houston, Austin, and Dallas. Originally the tour was supposed to include San Antonio instead of Austin, but that was changed at the last minute due to a monster truck rally at the Alamodome–not that Kaira cared, or even knew about the change.

Other people took care of things like that. Other people took care of everything. Kaira had accidentally left Pillow behind in New Haven, and Aileen, the tour’s travel coordinator, took a flight back to Connecticut and personally searched the hotel laundry until she found it.

_ _ _

Kaira emerged from the bathroom thirty minutes later wearing a hotel robe. She called room service and ordered a glass of orange juice, pancakes, a cappuccino, and French fries. It would have to last her until the concert. If she tried to eat before the concert she’d puke. After a concert she usually had a bowl of ice cream.

She got dressed, then stepped back out to the sitting area. Fred, her doofus bodyguard, was still there, going through her mail.

“As soon as I turn eighteen, you’re going to be the second person I fire.”

Fred didn’t even look up. It wasn’t the first time he’d heard it.

The television was on CNN. Kaira changed the station to the Cartoon Network.

The first person she’d fire would be El Genius. He was her business manager and agent, and also happened to be married to her mother. They had gotten married shortly before the tour. His real name was Jerome Paisley, but he actually wanted people to call him El Genius. No matter how hard Kaira tried to sound sarcastic when she used that name, he always took it as a compliment.

Her father had been killed in Iraq. His name was John Spears. Kaira’s real name was Kathy Spears, but there was already a famous singer with that last name.

El Genius had come up with the name Kaira DeLeon.

“You mean like Ponce de León?” Kaira had asked him.

“Who?”

Some genius.

Kaira explained to the genius who Ponce de León was, which was why her first CD was titled The Fountain of Youth El Genius thought it looked classy for DeLeon to be spelled as one word, with a capital letter in the middle.

Kaira had learned all about Ponce de León when she was in fourth grade and living at the Pensacola Naval Air Station. She had to learn the history of Florida. By year’s end she was living at Fort Myer, where they’d been studying the history of Virginia all year. She had never spent an entire school year in the same place.

“So, anything from Billy Boy?” she asked Fred.

Fred shook his head.

“Aw, too bad,” Kaira said. “He writes such charming letters.”

“It’s not funny,” said Fred.

“I think it’s hilarious,” said Kaira. She sang, “Oh, where have you been, Billy Boy, Billy Boy? Oh, where have you been, charming Billy?

Billy Boy had sent her four letters so far. He told her he thought she was lovely, she sang like a bird, and someday he would kill her.

El Genius hired Fred after the first letter. Kaira wouldn’t have been surprised if El Genius had actually written the letters, to scare her into staying confined to her hotel room. He was such a control freak. She was sure Fred told him everything she did.

“You got another marriage proposal,” Fred said.

“White or black?”

A photograph had been sent with he letter. Fred looked at it. “White,” he said.

“What is it with you guys?” asked Kaira.

It was her seventh proposal, and every one had been from a white man.

Fred carefully put the letter and the photograph in a plastic bag.

“What are you doing that for?”

“FBI.”

“He said he wanted to marry me, not kill me,” Kaira pointed out.

“For some people, it’s the same thing,” said Fred.

Kaira glanced at him, surprised. The Doofus had actually said something kind of profound.

“Let me see what he looks like?”

Fred handed her the plastic bag.

Kaira laughed when she saw the picture. “He looks like you!” The photograph was that of a very muscular man wearing no shirt. The only difference between him and Fred was that his hair was long and wavy, while Fred had a buzz cut.

“You ought to grow your hair out,” Kaira told him as she handed the plastic bag back to him.

Seven marriage proposals, and she’d never had a boyfriend.


From the Hardcover edition.
Louis Sachar|Author Q&A

About Louis Sachar

Louis Sachar - Small Steps

Photo © Perry Hagopian

Newbery Award–winning author Louis Sachar is the creator of the entertaining Marvin Redpost books as well as the much-loved There’s a Boy in the Girls’ Bathroom, winner of 17 child-voted state awards.

Louis Sachar’s book Holes, winner of the 1999 Newbery Medal, the National Book Award, and the Boston Globe–Horn Book Award, is also an ALA Best Book for Young Adults, an ALA Quick Pick, an ALA Notable Book, and was made into a major motion picture.

A Few Words From Louis Sachar
Of all the characters from Holes, why did you choose to revisit Armpit in SMALL STEPS?
LS: I tend to write about underdogs. It seemed to me that life would be tough for an African-American teenager from a low-income family with a criminal record. Especially someone stuck with the name, "Armpit."
Although this new book is about a character from Holes, the two books are very different. How would you explain to a fan of Holes what to expect from SMALL STEPS?
LS: I can't. I'm no good at describing my books. Holes has been out now for seven years, and I still can't come up with a good answer when asked what that book is about.
Could you imagine future novels about any of the other boys?
Do you think about what Stanley is up to now?
LS: I don't think too much about Stanley or Zero. I left them in a good place. Although money doesn't bring happiness, or give meaning to someone's life, the problems Stanley and Zero face now (and I'm sure they do face many problems) are less interesting than those faced by someone like Armpit.
Plenty of teenagers fantasize about what it would be like to be a young rock star.
You portray it as lonely. Tell us about that decision.
LS: The media tends to portray the teenage world as one where drinking and sex is taken for granted. In fact, I think most teenagers don't drink, are unsure of themselves, and feel awkward around members of the opposite sex. I thought it was important to show Kaira, a rock star no less, as such a person. Her situation, in many ways, is made more difficult as she has no social contact with anyone her age. She is trapped in a world of agents, record producers, and hanger-ons.
I'm imagining that off all the books you've written, Holes is the one that has changed your life the most. Not only did it win the Newbery Medal, it's also simply a popular sensation. Is this assessment accurate? What is this novel's continuing impact on your life? Would you consider it the book that you are proudest of?
LS: Not counting Small Steps, I think Holes is my best book, in terms of plot, and setting, and the way the story revealed itself. It hasn't changed my life, other than that I have more money than I did before I wrote it. I'm still too close to Small Steps to compare it to Holes.
Why do you typically write only two hours each day?
LS: Small steps. Every time I start a new novel it seems like an impossible undertaking. If I tried to do too much too quickly, I would get lost and feel overwhelmed. I have to go slow, and give things a chance to take form and grow.



PRAISE

THE BOY WHO LOST HIS FACE
“Readers will empathize with David’s troubles and cheer his triumph in this delightful, funny book.”—Publishers Weekly


DOGS DON’T TELL JOKES
“Readers will laugh at Gary’s good jokes and groan at his clunkers while they cheer his transformation from goon to legitimate comedian.”—Booklist


HOLES

—A Newbery Medal Winner
—A National Book Award for Young People’s Literature Award Winner
—A Boston Globe–Horn Book Award Winner for Fiction
—An ALA Best Book for Young Adults
—An ALA Notable Children’s Book
—An ALA Quick Pick
—A Bulletin Blue Ribbon Book
—A Horn Book Fanfare
—A School Library Journal Best Book of the Year
—A Publishers Weekly Best Book of the Year
—A New York Times Book Review Notable Children’s Book of the Year

“We haven’t seen a book with this much plot, so suspensefully and expertly deployed, in too long a time. . . . Louis Sachar has long been a great and deserved favorite among children, despite the benign neglect of critics. But Holes is witness to its own theme: what goes around, comes around. Eventually.”—Starred, The Horn Book Magazine

“A multitude of colorful characters coupled with the skillful braiding of ethnic folklore, American legend, and contemporary issues is a brilliant achievement. There is no question, kids will love Holes.”—Starred, School Library Journal


MARVIN REDPOST: WHY PICK ON ME?
“The hilarious portrayal of grade-school relationships has tremendous child appeal.”—The Horn Book Magazine


MARVIN REDPOST: IS HE A GIRL?
“Sachar writes for beginning readers with a comic simplicity that is never banal. Here he gets a lot of fun out of the identity confusion, and kids will love the frankness about grade-school gender wars and social taboos.”—Booklist


MARVIN REDPOST: ALONE IN HIS TEACHER’S HOUSE
“Sachar’s finely tuned sense of how children think and feel make this fourth book about Marvin and his comic misadventures entertaining.”—The Horn Book Magazine


MARVIN REDPOST: A FLYING BIRTH DAY CAKE?
“Clipped sentences and short paragraphs are not only just right for new readers, they’re just right for the story-a smart, funny mist on the new-kid theme, reminding us that everyone feels alienated at one time or another.”—The Horn Book Magazine


THERE’S A BOY IN THE GIRLS’ BATHROOM
“A humorous and immensely appealing story.”—Kirkus Reviews

Author Q&A

A Few Words From Louis Sachar

Q: Of all the characters from Holes, why did you choose to revisit Armpit in Small Steps?

A: I tend to write about underdogs. It seemed to me that life would be tough for an African-American teenager from a low-income family with a criminal record. Especially someone stuck with the name, "Armpit."

Q: Although this new book is about a character from Holes, the two books are very different. How would you explain to a fan of Holes what to expect from Small Steps?

A: I can't. I'm no good at describing my books. Holes has been out now for seven years, and I still can't come up with a good answer when asked what that book is about.

Q: Could you imagine future novels about any of the other boys? Do you think about what Stanley is up to now?

A: I don't think too much about Stanley or Zero. I left them in a good place. Although money doesn't bring happiness, or give meaning to someone's life, the problems Stanley and Zero face now (and I'm sure they do face many problems) are less interesting than those faced by someone like Armpit.

Q: Plenty of teenagers fantasize about what it would be like to be a young rock star. You portray it as lonely. Tell us about that decision.

A: The media tends to portray the teenage world as one where drinking and sex is taken for granted. In fact, I think most teenagers don't drink, are unsure of themselves, and feel awkward around members of the opposite sex. I thought it was important to show Kaira, a rock star no less, as such a person. Her situation, in many ways, is made more difficult as she has no social contact with anyone her age. She is trapped in a world of agents, record producers, and hanger-ons.

Q: I'm imagining that off all the books you've written, Holes is the one that has changed your life the most. Not only did it win the Newbery Medal, it's also simply a popular sensation. Is this assessment accurate? What is this novel's continuing impact on your life? Would you consider it the book that you are proudest of?

A: Not counting Small Steps, I think Holes is my best book, in terms of plot, and setting, and the way the story revealed itself. It hasn't changed my life, other than that I have more money than I did before I wrote it. I'm still too close to Small Steps to compare it to Holes.

Q: Why do you typically write only two hours each day?

A: Small steps. Every time I start a new novel it seems like an impossible undertaking. If I tried to do too much too quickly, I would get lost and feel overwhelmed. I have to go slow, and give things a chance to take form and grow.


From the Hardcover edition.

Praise

Praise

"Louis Sachar is magic to the toughest circle of critics: librarians, children’s booksellers, teachers – and, most of all, kids."
USA Today

"Sachar’s touch is as deft as ever and the book is a page-turner."
Detroit Free-Press

"Mr. Sachar's gentle but surefire approach nails down challenging issues such as racism, teen romance and drugs."
Dallas Morning News

"Sachar has a talent for creating realistic relationships between unlikely friends. Although that's a staple device of children's literature, it often works by drawing on clichés. Sachar's characters, though, are never stereotypes, but always vividly alive."
Los Angeles Times

"
His prose is clear and relaxed, and funny in a low-key, observant way."
New York Times

"Part of what makes Small Steps so believable and appealing is that its characters do have insecurities, and they aren’t ashamed to let them show."
BookPage

"Sachar is a master storyteller who creates memorable characters."
School Library Journal

"Cleverly wrought…heartwarming, witty and suspenseful."
Time Out New York Kids

Praise for Louis Sachar’s Holes:

"A dazzling blend of social commentary, tall tale and magic realism."
Publishers Weekly (starred review)

"A brilliant achievement."
–School Library Journal


"A smart jigsaw puzzle of a novel."
The New York Times

"Imaginative plotting and memorable characters make this novel a winner."
Book Magazine


From the Hardcover edition.
Teachers Guide

Teacher's Guide



ABOUT THIS BOOK

In this poignant novel, Armpit, a character from the critically acclaimed novel Holes, takes lessons learned at Camp Green Lake and sets out to turn his life around one small step at a time.

Armpit has been home from Camp Green Lake two years, and he is still trying to prove that he can turn his life around. He manages to get a job digging trenches for a landscape company, save a little money, enroll in school, and avoid violent situations. In spite of his efforts, he finds that he is the victim of his past. The only person who truly believes in him is Ginny, a 10-year-old neighbor with cerebral palsy. When X-Ray, a buddy from Camp Green Lake appears with a get-richquick scheme, Armpit succumbs to the plan of his fast-talking friend, and winds up in a brawl at a Kaira DeLeon concert. This leads to a chance encounter with the teen pop sensation, a glimpse at her behind-the-scenes music world, and another chance to gain control of his life one small step at a time.

ABOUT THIS AUTHOR

Louis Sachar is the bestselling author of the award-winning novel Holes, There’s a Boy in the Girls’ Bathroom, Dogs Don’t Tell Jokes, and the Marvin Redpost series, among many others. Small Steps is his latest novel and features two characters featured in Holes.

TEACHING IDEAS

Pre-Reading Activity

Ask students to write a journal entry about a time when they had to make a tough choice between right and wrong. Have them include the following points: What contributed to their decision? How did their decision affect others? Was the outcome worth it? Encourage them to share their journal entries in class. Instruct students to read the newspaper for several days and bring in articles where people have been in situations that required them to make a personal choice that could have a life-changing impact on them or others. Share the articles in class, and discuss whether the choices they made were positive or negative.

DISCUSSION AND WRITING

ACHIEVEMENT
Armpit feels that the way to turn his life around is to set goals. His five goals are: graduate from high school; get a job; save money; avoid violent situations; and lose the name Armpit. Ask students what Armpit’s greatest obstacles are in achieving his goals? Explain the metaphor “his life would be like walking upstream in a rushing river.” (p. 4) At what point does the river appear to be rushing out of control? How does Armpit almost give up hope of achieving his goals?

RACISM AND PREJUDICE
Discuss the difference between overt and covert racism. Find examples of each type of racism in the novel. Armpit’s parents have an image of the type of people who go to rock concerts. Armpit tells them, “Just because people have tattoos or pierced tongues doesn’t mean they’re crazy.” (p. 94) Discuss the relationship between labeling, image, and prejudices. How are Armpit’s parents expressing a prejudice?

TRUST
Armpit takes Ginny to the Kaira DeLeon concert. Why is his mother more worried for Ginny’s safety than her own mother? Discuss why Armpit’s mother hesitates when Ginny’s mother says, “You must be very proud of Theodore”? Why does the mayor’s telephone call at the end of the novel help Armpit’s mother look at him differently? Discuss ways X-Ray has proved to be untrustworthy. Why does Armpit allow himself to become involved with X-Ray’s get-rich scheme when he knows that he can’t trust him?

HONESTY AND BETRAYAL
Armpit knows that Coach Simmons has the reputation for giving better grades to football players. When he tells the coach that he intends to go out for football, Tatiana responds, “So you lied to him. Isn’t that kind of cheating?” (p. 29) How does Armpit justify his lie? X-Ray is hauled to police headquarters about the counterfeit tickets, and tries to blame Armpit. He says, “Armpit is not someone you can say no to. I’m talking big, and mean, and tough.” (p. 183) Why doesn’t he tell X-Ray that he heard the entire conversation? Debate why he doesn’t realize that one betrayal leads to another with X-Ray.

One Step Beyond
1. Explain what Armpit means when he says, “It wasn’t Camp Green Lake that released him from his anger. It was coming home and meeting Ginny.” (p. 117) What might Armpit and Ginny teach the other characters in the book about taking small steps?

2. Discuss how making bad choices are sometimes driven by temptation and peer pressure. Role-play a conversation between Armpit and X-Ray where Armpit refuses X-Ray’s get-rich scheme.

3. Read aloud the entire song that Armpit hears Kaira DeLeon sing on radio at the end of the novel. How does her song make him think about his new goals? The last two lines read: Then maybe I’ll discover Who I am along the way . . . What is the most important discovery that Armpit has made about himself?

SUGGESTED ACTIVITIES

Armpit and Ginny are both taking small steps in their lives. Write a letter that Armpit may nwrite to Ginny from California explaining to her the consequences of taking a giant step.

Armpit tells Ginny, “I don’t know what they can do with someone with no heart and soul.” (p. 91) Write the lyrics for a blues song that focuses on the heart and soul of one of the above characters (e.g., The Heart and Soul of X-Ray).

AWARDS

“Fans . . . will eagerly follow the sometimes stumbling, sometimes sprinting progress of Sachar’ fallible yet heroic protagonist.” —Booklist, Starred

An ALA Schneider Family Book Award
A New York Public Library Book for the Teen Age
A Bank Street College of Education Best Children’
Book of the Year
A IRA—BC Children’ Choice
An NCSS—BC Notable Social Studies
Trade Book for Young People
A CCBC Choice
A Colorado Children’ Book Award
An Indiana Young Hoosier Award
A Kentucky Bluegrass Award


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