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  • When Zachary Beaver Came to Town
  • Written by Kimberly Willis Holt
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  • When Zachary Beaver Came to Town
  • Written by Kimberly Willis Holt
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When Zachary Beaver Came to Town

Written by Kimberly Willis HoltAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Kimberly Willis Holt
Read by Will PattonAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Will Patton

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On Sale: November 14, 2006
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Nothing ever happens in Toby's small Texas town. Nothing much until this summer that's full of big changes.
It's tough for Toby when his mother leaves home to become a country singer. And Toby takes it hard when his best friend Cal's older brother goes off to fight in Vietnam. But now their sleepy town is about to get an even bigger jolt with the arrival of Zachary Beaver, billed as the fattest boy in the world. Toby is in for a summer unlike any other, a summer sure to change his life.

From the Trade Paperback edition.


Nothing ever happens in Antler, Texas. Nothing much at all. Until this afternoon, when an old blue Thunderbird pulls a trailer decorated with Christmas lights into the Dairy Maid parking lot. The red words painted on the trailer cause quite a buzz around town, and before an hour is up, half of Antler is standing in line with two dollars clutched in hand to see the fattest boy in the world.

Since it's too late in the summer for firecrackers and too early for the Ladybug Waltz, Cal and I join Miss Myrtie Mae and the First Baptist Quilting Bee at the back of the line.

Miss Myrtie Mae wears a wide-brimmed straw hat. She claims that she's never exposed her skin to sun. Even so, wrinkles fold into her face like an unironed shirt. She takes her job as town historian and librarian seriously, and as usual, her camera hangs around her neck. "Toby, how's your mom?

"Fine," I say.

"That will really be something if she wins."

"Yes, ma'am, it will." My mouth says the words, but my mind is not wanting to settle on a picture of her winning. Mom dreams of following in the footsteps of her favorite singer, Tammy Wynette. Last month she entered a singing contest in Amarillo and won first place. She got a trophy and an allexpense-paid trip to Nashville for a week to enter the National Amateurs' Country Music Competition at the Grand Ole Opry. The winner gets to cut a record album.

Cars and pickups pull into the Dairy Maid parking lot. Some people make no bones about it. They just get in fine to see him. Others try to act like they don't know anything about the buzz. They enter the Dairy Maid, place their orders, and exit with Coke floats, chocolate-dipped cones, or curlicue fries, then wander to the back of the line. They don't fool me.

The line isn't moving because the big event hasn't started. Some skinny guy wearing a tuxedo, smoking a pipe, is taking the money and giving out green tickets. Cal could stand in line forever to relieve his curiosity. He knows more gossip than any old biddy in Antler because he gathers it down at the cotton gin, where his dad and the other farmers drink coffee.

"I got better things to do than this," I tell Cal. Like eat. My stomach's been growling all the time now because I haven't had a decent meal since Mom left a few days ago. Not that she cooked much lately since she was getting ready for that stupid contest. But I miss the fried catfish and barbecue dinners she brought home from the Bowl-a-Rama Cafe, where she works.

"Oh, come on, Toby," Cal begs. "He'll probably move out tomorrow and we'll never get another chance."

"He's just some fat kid. Heck, Malcolm Clifton probably has him beat hands down." Malcolm's mom claims he's big boned, not fat, but we've seen him pack away six jumbo burgers. I sigh real big like my dad does when he looks at my report card filled with Cs. "Okay," I say. "But I'm only waiting ten more minutes. After that, I'm splitting."

Cal grins that stupid grin with his black tooth showing. He likes to brag that he got his black tooth playing football, but I know the real story. His sister, Kate, socked him good when he scratched up her Carole King album. Cal says he was sick of hearing "You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Woman" every stinking day of his life,

Scarlett Stalling walks toward the line, holding her bratty sister Tara's hand. Scarlett, looks cool wearing a bikini top underneath an open white blouse and hip huggers that hit fight below her belly button. With her golden tan and long, silky blond hair, she could do a commercial for Coppertone.

Scarlett doesn't go to the back of the line. She walks over to me. To me. Smiling, flashing that Ultra Brite sex appeal smile and the tiny gap between her two front teeth. Cal grins, giving her the tooth, but I lower my eyelids half-mast and jerk my head back a little as if to say, "Hey."

Then she speaks. "Hey, Toby, would y'all do me a favor?"

"Sure," I squeak, killing my cool act in one split second.

Scarlett flutters her eyelashes, and I suck in my breath. "Take Tara in for me." She passes her little sister's hand like she's handing over a dog's leash. Then she squeezes her fingers into her pocket and pulls out two crumpled dollar bills. I would give anything to be one of those lucky dollar bills tucked into her pocket.

She flips back her blond mane. "I've got to get back home and get ready. Juan's dropping by soon."

The skin on my chest prickles. Mom is right. Scarlett Stalling is a flirt. Mom always told me, "You better stay a spittin' distance from that girl. Her mother had a bad reputation when I went to school, and the apple doesn't fall far from the tree."

Cal punches my shoulder. "Great going, ladies' man!"

I watch Scarlett's tight jeans sway toward her house so she can get ready for the only Mexican guy in Antler junior High. Juan already shaves. He's a head taller than the rest of the guys (two heads taller than me). That gives him an instant ticket to play first string on our basketball team, even though he's slow footed and a lousy shot. Whenever I see him around town, a number-five-iron golf club swings at his side. I don't plan to ever give him a reason to use it.

"Fatty, fatty, two by four," Tara chimes as she stares at the trailer. "Can't get through the kitchen door."

"Shut up, squirt," I mutter.

Miss Myrtie Mae frowns at me.

Tara yanks on my arm. "Uummmm!" she hollers. "You said shut up. Scarlett! " She rises on her toes as if that makes her louder. "Toby said shut up to me!"

From the Trade Paperback edition.
Kimberly Willis Holt|Author Q&A

About Kimberly Willis Holt

Kimberly Willis Holt - When Zachary Beaver Came to Town

Photo © Fuqua Photography, Inc.

“I’m amazed how the tiniest moments grow into books.”—Kimberly Willis Holt

Kimberly Willis Holt’s first novel, My Louisiana Sky, was an ALA Notable Book and an ALA Top Ten Best Book for Young Adults. It also received a Boston Globe—Horn Book Honor Award. Her second novel, When Zachary Beaver Came to Town, won the National Book Award. She is also the author of Keeper of the Night.


Kimberly Willis Holt considers herself a southerner, but in reality she is a child of the world. Seven generations of her family are from the piney woods of central Louisiana, but her father’s military career caused her to call a different place home every couple of years. Some of her father’s assignments included France and Guam.

“Richard Peck once said that I wrote to find home. I think he’s right.”

As a child, Holt daydreamed a lot and struggled in school. She was thinking up stories while she should have been listening to the teacher.

After college, she had several different careers including radio news director, marketing a water park, and working as a terrible interior decorator. Finally she decided to pursue her secret dream to be a writer. She wrote short fiction, and worked on her first novel My Louisiana Sky.

“Although I sometimes enjoy writing from an adult’s perspective, I feel dedicated to the coming of age story-that part of a young person’s life where he must make a decision that will change his life forever. I still remember what it’s like to be twelve years old.”

Holt pulls a lot from her own experiences. “I’m amazed how the tiniest moments grow into books,” she says. The seeds of When Zachary Beaver Came to Town were planted when she was thirteen and visited the Louisiana State Fair. There she paid two dollars to see “the fattest teenage boy in the world.”

In 1999, Holt won the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature for When Zachary Beaver Came To Town, but she says the biggest reward was that this book proved the magic of rewriting. “I struggled with that first draft,” she explains, “and at one time I even thought of giving up on the book. I remember the exact moment where the story started to come together. Then the joy of revision took over.”

Holt claims that sometimes she’s just as surprised as the reader when something happens to one of her characters. “When I begin to write a story, I usually know how things will end. It’s the journey toward that point I must discover. The process is sometimes painful, but also exciting. I hope the wonder of what happens to my characters never goes away. That yearning keeps me writing.”

Born: Pensacola, Florida (during a hurricane)

Currently home: Amarillo, Texas

Previous jobs: Directing radio news, marketing, and decorating

Hobbies: Reading and going to the movies and theater

Inspiration for writing: Memories from childhood

Favorite books: To Kill a Mockingbird and The Heart is a Lonely Hunter

Q. You spent time in Guam as a child. What was the inspiration for this particular story?
A. When I returned as an adult to visit the schools on Guam, I learned that a former classmate had committed suicide the prior year. A mutual friend told me that she'd died praying on her knees. I couldn't shake that image. And it was that image that led me to Isabel's story. At first, I thought her story was going to be one among several in a short-story collection. But as I wrote I had to know that she would be okay. That required the space of a novel.

Q. Why did you decide to tell this story through short passages?
A. I've always loved the idea of writing a book with short chapters. However, in the past when I've tried to do so, it seemed forced. With Keeper of the Night, the spare form came naturally. It was a refreshing departure for me, and that in itself was rewarding. Part of the satisfaction I get as a writer is knowing I can explore different ways to tell a story. As far as difficulties are concerned, I encountered the same challenges I do when I write in a more traditional form. Did I tell the story well enough? Do the characters have depth?

Q. Do you have a favorite passage?
A. Usually my favorite passages are not my readers' favorites. In Keeper there is a chapter where Isabel's father takes her to the diving team tryouts. Later he tells her about her uncle who was a great diver. Isabel thinks that is her father's way of telling her she wasn't that great. Then her father says, "You must have gotten your talent from him." That part still chokes me up, because no matter how old I am, I want my parents to be proud of me. It's funny, one of my sisters said that's the part that got to her the most.
I was most intimidated to write about Frank being found after he cut himself. I dreaded writing that scene. I didn't want it to be melodramatic. So I chose to write it in short clips, like a photographer taking fast snapshots of an event. Originally, I did it that way just to get some words down, thinking that I'd go back to it. Ultimately, I chose to leave it as it was.

Q. Many of the scenes and people in the book feel very detailed and authentic. Do you write from real-life observations?
A. My writing is like making gumbo–a little of this, a little of that mixed together. Some of those people were inspired by bits of people whom I met on the island; many details I made up. The oddest thing is, after spending so much time with the story, I couldn't tell you what is true and what isn't. I like to think the best fiction becomes its own truth.

Q. You thank many people in your acknowledgments. What kind of preparation did you do to write this book?
A. Six months after the trip to Guam during which I visited the schools, I had to return to do research. I spoke to many people on the island, spent time in the library, and tried to soak up the setting. Later, I depended greatly on several people for answers via e-mail. Because suicide and self-mutilation were part of the story, I interviewed the director of the suicide crisis center in Amarillo, Texas, as well as making contact with a Guam crisis center counselor.

Q. Do you like to get a lot of feedback as you write?
A. My daughter is the only person allowed to read (or I should say hear) my first drafts. I try not to let anyone else read anything earlier than the seventh draft. The reason is that I'm still figuring out the story and the characters in early drafts. I don't want other people to influence me at that organic stage.

Q. How long does it take you to write a book? 

A. I'll give the answer that I heard Bruce Coville give: all my life. Technically, it takes about one year to two years, but how can you discount a writer's entire life experience? That is truly a part of every story.

Q. Any advice for writers who have great story ideas but just can’t seem to get them down on paper?
A. If you are meant to be a writer, you will put it down on paper even if it means you have to write a lousy first draft. If not, maybe you aren't meant to write that story. Or maybe it's not the right time to write that story. Or maybe you are meant to do something else.

Q. As a writer, what is your greatest fear?
Boring the reader.

Q. Isabel must grow up fast in this story and seems exceptionally mature for her age. Why did you want to tell the story from her perspective?
A. Isabel is a firstborn child, as am I. But I didn't choose to tell it from her point of view. She chose me.

Q. In response to a loved one’s suicide, are there typical stages a person goes through?
A. I'm certainly not an expert on this subject, but my research, which included talking to survivors of suicide, indicated that the stages that Isabel goes through are typical. The sadness, the anger, the trying to figure out why it happened. One thing the suicide crisis director told me was that the survivor has to find something of her own to help her get on with living. For Isabel, that is the diving.

Q. What is your response to stress?

A. I'm afraid I'm not good at handling stress. Thank goodness, I married someone who is. Although I do think I am good at handling big difficulties. It's the small ones that I find most challenging. I guess you could say I sweat the small stuff.

Q. Are you a list maker like Isabel? 
Yes, I feel most secure with my lists. This drove my mother crazy because my dad was a list maker too. And he even made lists for her. 

Q. One theme that emerges from the book has to do with asking for (or not knowing how to ask for) help from other people. Why does Isabel struggle alone until the last part of the book?

A. I believe it's because she is a firstborn and thinks it is a weakness to ask for help. Tata's neglecting to deal with his wife's death plays a huge role in this family's lack of communication. One thing the crisis counselor from Guam told me was that when a Chamorro wife dies, the father goes on with his life and the grandmother or auntie steps in and tries to fill the mother's role. The counselor said Guam was very much a matriarchal society.

Q. Isabel is very much afraid to let the bucket of her emotions spill over. What do you think she fears will happen?

A. Tata is not holding the family together. Isabel feels that someone must, and that someone is her. I think Isabel believes she must stay strong, and that means not releasing her emotions.

Q. What do you like best about being a writer?
I get to wear my pajamas to work.


“Making an unusually auspicious debut, Holt offers a unique coming-of-age tale . . . readers . . . will admire [Tiger’s] courage, loyalty and love for her parents.”–Publisher Weekly, Starred

“Holt . . . eases the action along with a low-key, unpretentious plot . . . uncannily credible characters.”–The Horn Book Magazine, Starred

“Tiger has a distinctive voice, and her subtle observations include an increasing awareness of those marginalized by difference of class, race, and intelligence.”–The Bulletin, Recommended

“As in her first novel, My Louisiana Sky, Holt humanizes the outsider without sentimentality. . . . Holt reveals the freak in all of us, and the power of redemption.”–Booklist, Starred

“In her down-to-earth, people-smart way, Holt offers a gift.”–The Horn Book Magazine, Starred

Author Q&A

Born: Pensacola, Florida (during a hurricane)

Currently home: Amarillo, Texas

Previous jobs: Directing radio news, marketing, and decorating

Hobbies: Reading and going to the movies and theater

Inspiration for writing: Memories from childhood

Favorite books: To Kill a Mockingbird and The Heart is a Lonely Hunter

From the Trade Paperback edition.



“As in her first novel, My Louisiana Sky, Holt humanizes the outsider without sentimentality. . . . Holt reveals the freak in all of us, and the power of redemption.”
Booklist, Starred

“In her down-to-earth, people-smart way, Holt offers a gift.”
The Horn Book Magazine, Starred

From the Paperback edition.

  • When Zachary Beaver Came to Town by Kimberly Willis Holt
  • November 14, 2006
  • Juvenile Fiction
  • Listening Library (Audio)
  • $28.00
  • 9780739337349

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