Way down deep in the hills and hollers of southern Indiana, there once was a girl named Chig. No, Chig was not her real name. But when her daddy first laid eyes on her, he said, "That girl ain't any bigger than a little red chigger."
She was small, but well proportioned. Plain, but in a pleasing way. A sturdy baby, with a crown of frizzy red hair and eyes as soft and green as the leaves on a dogtooth violet. "It's the eyes," her mama said. "They're what make her almost, near-about pretty."
As the years passed and she grew older, her daddy allowed as how she'd grown. "'Bout the size of a chigger bite that's been scratched a few times too many," he said, looking her up and down. But as big as she got--and that wasn't any too large--she never outgrew her nickname.
"Chigger" seemed almost too big for her, so folks took to calling her Chig. And before anyone had any time to give it any thought, they'd all forgotten that her real name was Minerva.
This couldn't have mattered less to Chig. "We all got to have a name," she told her teacher, Miss Barkus, when she started school. "Might as well have one that fits."
Miss Barkus, Chig noticed, wasn't like most grown-ups. She was broad as a barrel and taller than a sumac tree run wild. But she didn't peer down distractedly at Chig like people generally did. Miss Barkus eased herself lower, knees creaking under the pressure of her bulk. When she was eye level with Chig, and considerably lower than anyone else's ears, she said, "You know what, Minerva? That's a grand nickname you've got. Wish I'd had one just as good when I was your age." Then she adjusted her voice so that the whole room could hear. "We'll register you as Chig M. Kalpin."
Chig beamed. Then she started. There was a commotion of slapping and snickering somewhere behind her. When she turned toward the back of the room, she saw several near-grown boys swatting each other and scratching their armpits and kneepits as if they were being worried by a swarm of chiggers. Chig's own daddy had given her play chigger-bite pinches when she was a baby girl, and she grinned at the memory. But the boys didn't grin back in a friendly way.
"Silence!" With that simple, sharp command from Miss Barkus, all snickering and swatting stopped. Chig felt her teacher's warmest smile shining on her, and she dared to continue their talk. "But why would you want a nickname?" she asked. "Miss Barkus suits you fine." Her voice was so soft and small, it was possible no one heard her, Miss Barkus included. That had happened more times than Chig could count. But her teacher surprised her. Still hunched on creaking knees, she whispered, "It's my first name that doesn't suit."
Chig blinked. Somehow Miss Barkus read the question in her eyes.
"It's Lily," she went on. "Can you imagine putting a name that delicate on someone like me?"
But before Chig could muster up an answer, her teacher swept on to another question. "Your birth date?" Miss Barkus asked.
Chig swallowed hard. Her answer was likely to get her in trouble. "It's the first of April," she said, "nineteen twenty-five."
It wasn't being an April fool that was so troublesome. It was her age.
"But that'd make you eight, Chig," said Miss Barkus. "What's taken you so long getting here? School's not so far from home you couldn't have come last year or the year before, is it?"
How could she explain? How her parents had held her back the first year, hoping she might grow a wee bit taller or bigger. How Mama's eyes had welled up, near to bursting with tears, the previous fall. "It's not easy being the oldest," Mama warned, "with no one to show you the ropes at school. Plus, kids can be hard on you when you're different." Chig guessed different meant small.
"Couldn't we hold her back one more year," Mama pleaded with Daddy, "just in case she gets a spurt?"
Daddy agreed, and for another year Chig helped Mama with chores and kept her younger brother, Hubert, from jumping off the henhouse roof. To make sure Chig wouldn't be too far behind once her growth spurt came, Mama taught her the letters of the alphabet, all the numbers from one to twenty-six ("So you'll know as much math as you do letters," Mama explained), and how to write her name.
Maybe in some other, more traveled corner of the world, a government official would have investigated and ordered Chig to school, small as she was. But Chig's corner, around the town of Niplak, was decidedly less traveled. No one there had seen a government official in years, and the natives tended to mind their own business.
Mama and Daddy watched Chig closely, but they saw no sign of a spurt. "'Fraid you'll have to face the world as you are," Daddy had decided at last.
"Well," said Miss Barkus, taking Chig's silence as a kind of answer, "I've never been one to push folks into doing what they're not ready for. There's a big river of learning out there, and we're not all willing to get our feet wet at the same time. You feeling ready now, Chig?"
Chig glanced at her feet, dry and warm, if a little uncomfortable in shoes after a long summer spent running bare-soled. Was her teacher talking about a real river or creek? Full of mud and crawdads? Probably not. "I could get my feet wet," she said.
Miss Barkus's smile showed Chig that this answer, at least, was the right one. "You're not afraid of hard work, are you?"
"You'll have a lot of catching up to do, to have lessons with the other eight-year-olds."
"I don't mind catch-up," said Chig. She liked ketchup, too, but didn't think this was the time to mention it.
"And starting tomorrow," Miss Barkus said, "you'll have to sit out recesses this fall and winter while we get you up to steam."From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Chig and the Second Spread by Gwenyth Swain. Copyright © 2003 by Gwenyth Swain. Excerpted by permission of Delacorte Books for Young Readers, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.