Told in diary form by an irresistible heroine, this “heartfelt, bittersweet, and ever-so-clever coming-of-age fantasy” (School Library Journal, starred review) named one of Publishers Weekly’s Best Books of the Year from the New York Times bestselling author of the May Bird trilogy sparkles with science, myth, magic, and the strange beauty of the everyday marvels we sometimes forget to notice.
Spirited, restless Gracie Lockwood has lived in Cliffden, Maine, her whole life. She’s a typical girl in an atypical world: one where sasquatches helped to win the Civil War, where dragons glide over Route 1 on their way south for the winter (sometimes burning down a T.J. Maxx or an Applebee’s along the way), where giants hide in caves near LA and mermaids hunt along the beaches, and where Dark Clouds come for people when they die.
To Gracie it’s all pretty ho-hum…until a Cloud comes looking for her little brother Sam, turning her small-town life upside down. Determined to protect Sam against all odds, her parents pack the family into a used Winnebago and set out on an epic search for a safe place that most people say doesn’t exist: The Extraordinary World. It’s rumored to lie at the ends of the earth, and no one has ever made it there and lived to tell the tale. To reach it, the Lockwoods will have to learn to believe in each other—and to trust that the world holds more possibilities than they’ve ever imagined.
My Diary from the Edge of the World September 7th I’m on top of the hill, looking down on the town of Cliffden, Maine. It’s an early fall day, and so far no one’s noticed that I’m where I’m not supposed to be. It’s one of those days where the clouds and the sun chase each other. A pretty breeze plays with my hair as I sit here with my back against the crumbled stone pillar that makes my seat. I can almost imagine I’m Joan of Arc surveying the siege of Orleans.
It’s been almost two months since I got this journal (for my twelfth birthday—from Mom), but I haven’t felt the urge to write until now. I’ve seen two bad omens since breakfast: a crow sitting on the fence at the edge of our yard, and a deathwatch beetle on my windowsill. These are both signs that someone is going to die, so I thought I’d better write them down in case someone does die and no one believes me later. I want to be able to prove that I knew it first. Though now that I’m here nestled in my favorite spot, I have to admit it’s hard on such a perfect day to imagine anyone ever dying.
Mom says that to tell a story you have to set the scene, so I’ll try that here, even though this isn’t really a story but just a diary. From here the town is drenched in light and shadows. To my right is Route 1 with all the fast food places: McDonald’s, Taco Bell, Wendy’s. To my left is downtown, a cluster of old colonial brick buildings. I can see the green cast-iron steeple of Upper Maine Academy, which I attend, and the fairgrounds beyond.
The valley is bustling: People are scurrying along the crisscrossing streets, rushing to finish their errands and get back indoors. It’s not exactly safe to be out: The dragons are on their way south again, from the northern reaches of Wales and Scotland and Ireland, to hibernate in South America. It’s the time when everyone takes cover in their houses, and when we mostly use the tunnels under downtown to get from shop to shop.
The dragons have been especially destructive this year. People are blaming it on the weather: It’s been colder than usual, so the migrations started early. (Dragons hate the cold I guess, and I do too. I wish I had wings to fly to South America every year.) Last week one burned down the T.J.Maxx in Valley Forge (all those bargains literally up in flames).
I’m not allowed to sit out here during dragon season, but today it’s too hard to resist. My mom would say I’m just “looking for trouble,” which I do manage to find surprisingly often. Sam’s scooter is still sitting neglected in the garage from when I crashed it into a boulder over Christmas. Last year I had to get stitches after falling off the lunch table while I was trying to get my classmates to throw Cheerios into my mouth. I’ve broken my collarbone—which is supposed to be the hardest bone in your body to break—twice. Dad calls me the Tasmanian she-devil. Millie calls me Mrs. Bungles, but I never listen to what Millie says. At least I’m not like the guy who was featured last week in the Cliffden Dispatch, who was found putting hundreds of dollars worth of 7-Layer Burritos from Taco Bell in his front yard so that the dragons would come and eat them.
The sky is a cool crystal blue except for one very distant Dark Cloud. It’s the same cloud my dad was looking at through his telescope first thing when I woke up this morning. He’s a meteorologist for a local TV station.
“I don’t like the looks of it,” he said when he came down to breakfast, his forehead all wrinkled. That’s about as much conversation as you’ll ever get out of my dad unless he’s going on and on about scientific theories of some sort. Millie says he’s “not the communicative type” and a “misunderstood genius,” but I know that he embarrasses her just as much as he does me.
I have to admit though, I agree with him about not liking the looks of the Cloud. He and I have both decided that it looks a bit like a misty galaxy with a black hole in the middle (the kind of black hole from Dad’s amateur astronomy lessons that swallows up everything in its path).
Dark Clouds come for people when they die. Usually the person is sick beforehand, and most of the people Clouds come for are old, but sometimes Clouds arrive with no warning at all. They wait outside people’s houses until it’s time, then they scoop up their souls and carry them away. Just last week, a Cloud floated up our block and collected Mrs. Elton, who was ninety-six.
Millie thinks this particular Dark Cloud looks like the face of an evil circus clown—but I think that’s just because she’s never gotten over her fear of the circus from when she was little (she fell in a pile of elephant poo and it scarred her for life). Dark Clouds are like regular clouds in that everyone who looks at them sees something different. I wonder what Mrs. Elton’s Cloud looked like to her.
Millie and I discussed it. “Maybe it looked like an old friend. At ninety-six,” I suggested, “you’re probably only half-alive anyway, so you don’t mind dying as much.”
Millie’s long, perfect eyelashes fluttered in annoyance. “You’re an emotional mutant,” she said, then wiped away a tear, which I can only suppose she squeezed out in order to be dramatic about Mrs. Elton. Though secretly I do feel guilty now about saying Mrs. Elton probably wouldn’t mind death. I guess Millie’s right that no one is going to be happy to see that kind of thing arrive on their doorstep, even if they’re ancient.
* * *
The truth is that, other than the occasional Dark Cloud, nothing terrible or exciting ever happens in Cliffden. Only baseball games and lying on the grass and chasing the ice-cream man in the summer, building igloos in the winter, sometimes collecting earthworms in the puddles after rain or hunting for dragon scales in the fall (Mom puts them in a big glass jar on the coffee table because, she says, “They add a splash of color,”) and trick or treating. (Last year a real ghoul escaped from the Underworld and ran around scaring children and stealing candy on Halloween night, which was pretty exciting. But none of the kids from my neighborhood got to see him, and he was quickly caught and escorted back underground by the local police.) There are science lectures about botany, zoology, the aurora borealis, and all sorts of other discoveries in a lecture hall in the caverns downtown. There’s the occasional parade or party at the firehouse (to thank the firemen for all their work with the dragon fires) or outdoor movies in the spring, and there’s the carnizaar (part carnival, part bazaar) at the fairgrounds for Cliffden Day. But that’s about it.
* * *
I just opened to the inscription Mom made on the inside cover of this book. It says, To Gracie, May this diary be big enough to contain your restless heart. She says I fling my loud personality at everyone and that one day it will poke somebody’s eye out. I don’t completely understand her—she’s a little obscure and poetic. She used to be a professional violinist. She said she gave me this diary because I need something to pour my loudness into. She says it’s better to sit and write my feelings than to spend all day dreaming up ways to irritate Millie. So far I’ve only filled six pages, and I’ve been here thinking for over an hour. I’m actually supposed to be doing my reading for school, but Sasquatches, Sailors, and Uncle Sam: An American History is, so far, unbearably boring.
So I’ve just been sitting here chewing my pen and trying to figure out how to write what’s around me, but it’s hard to capture. The sun is sinking and it’s getting chilly out. The air smells like fall—that exciting dry smell that reminds you of all the falls of your life. Behind me our big ambling Victorian is winking at me. I’ve always thought of our house as a lady’s face, with the two highest windows as the eyes—and one of the eyes closed because the curtain’s always drawn in that room. My little brother, Sam—whom we call the Mouse because he’s small for his age, and quiet, especially because he always has a cold—is silhouetted in one of the parlor windows practicing the flute (Mom made us each learn an instrument; we’re all disasters). Millie is probably watching Extreme Witches at top volume as usual, where they put six witches together in a big house and film them arguing with each other. Mom tries to get her to watch more informative stuff, like this segment CNN does once a week on the gods called The Immortals, Where Are They Now? Each week they feature a different god: Last week it was Zeus, sitting on a lawn chair up on top of Mount Olympus, where only authorized camera crews are allowed to go. But Millie couldn’t care less.
With two siblings it’s the quiet that you want, trust me. Especially when you’re not the oldest or the youngest or the beautiful, graceful one but just the one that happened to fall in the middle. I’ll tell you in one sentence what it’s like to be the middle child, in case you don’t know: Everyone on either side of you squeezes you until you almost explode, and all the time that they’re smushing you they’re not really noticing you’re there. So you have to find a place that’s just yours, and that’s how I found this old church stone at the corner of our yard.
Ugh. Mouse just called out the window to say Mom’s looking for me and that it’s time to take a shower. I hate bathing in general. When I was little, Mom used to threaten me into the bath by saying dirty children get sent to the Crow’s Nest, where my grandma lives (speaking of witches), deep in the heart of the Smoky Mountains. Supposedly, in the seventies, Grandma caused three people to disappear forever just by cursing hairs she got from their hairbrushes. She—
Oops, Mom just spotted me—she’s hanging out her bedroom window yelling. Her hair is all wet from the shower and flopping down the sides of her face like curtains. How’s that for descriptive?
Gracie Lockwood lives in Cliffden, Maine, which may seem like an ordinary place, but in fact, it’s quite the opposite. In Cliffden, Gracie may encounter a vampire on the way to McDonald’s or see a dragon near TJ Maxx. And if someone is going to die, a Dark Cloud appears above their home. Stunned when such a cloud looms over their house, Gracie’s family tries to outrun it. First they seek help from Gracie’s grandmother, a witch. Then they set off to find the Extraordinary World, a safer—but possibly imaginary—world near Cape Horn. Their danger-filled journey binds together Gracie’s family and her orphaned friend, Oliver, but can they ever reach safety and escape the threat of death?
1. The novel’s narrator thinks at one point, “Sometimes silence is best.” When and how can silence be a good thing?
2. What are the possible benefits of keeping a diary?
1. On the first page, Gracie imagines herself like Joan of Arc. What are some traits of Joan of Arc? How might mentioning her serve as foreshadowing for the story?
2. Early on, Gracie encounters a father dragon who seems more attentive to its offspring than her own father does. How does her father treat her at the beginning of the story? How does that change?
3. Gracie’s father believes in the Extraordinary World even when no one else does. How does he try to convince the family that he’s right? Discuss whether they have reason to be angry with him, and how they feel when it turns out he’s right.
4. Mr. Lockwood is particularly interested in physics and what Sam calls “count 'em mechanics.” Why does he think that science helps to prove the existence of the Extraordinary World? What does he mean when he says there are endless possibilities? How does it tie into what Gracie says near the end about snowflakes?
5. Gracie describes her mother as “the opposite of my dad.” Compare and contrast her parents. Why do you think Gracie sees them as opposites?
6. Why is Sam the center of the family? Describe him and his personality. Why do they believe that he’s the one in danger? How do different family members react to, and interact with, the cloud?
7. Why does Sam love to have Gracie tell him about when he was born? Explain how the story changes in the final telling. What does the story reveal about Gracie and how she feels about Sam?
8. Gracie and Millie don’t get along when the book begins. Describe their relationship and how it changes throughout the course of the book.
9. What does her mother mean when she describes Gracie as having a “restless heart” and “loud personality”? Give examples from the story that show these aspects of Gracie.
10. Their mother says that Gracie was born with “an inner compass” but that Millie has to find hers. What does she mean? Do you agree? Do you think Millie eventually finds her inner compass?
11. How can you tell that writing is important to Gracie? Why does it matter so much to her?
12. Describe Oliver when Gracie first meets him. How does he change over the course of the book? Why do he and Gracie like each other so much?
13. Gracie has never visited Grandma before. What is the Crow’s Nest like? Describe Grandma and compare her to Gracie’s father.
14. Oliver lost his parents in an attack by sasquatches, yet he is kind to Daisy. What do his actions reveal about his character? When the family decides not to sell Daisy, what does it show about them and how their views have evolved?
15. Describe Daisy and how she changes during her time with the family. How does she save the family from a fatal accident? How do they respond to her deed?
16. Why does Oliver call Big Tex “a beast”? After leaving the circus, Gracie thinks that “who’s the beast and who isn’t” depends on “where you’re standing.” What does she mean?
17. What is Virgil like and what role does he play in the story? What are his strengths? Discuss his relationship to the family, especially Millie.
18. Prospero is the name of a magician in Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Describe Prospero in this book and why he might have that name. What does Gracie’s father think of him? What impact does the visit to Prospero have on the plot?
19. Explain why the girls find Captain Bill to be a romantic, dashing figure. Why does their opinion change? Describe his attitude toward their mother and why he thinks she shares the same feelings.
20. Discuss how the explorer Magellan is mentioned throughout the novel. What does he symbolize, especially to Gracie’s father?
21. Compare the Earth that Gracie lives on to the Extraordinary World in terms of geography and inhabitants. Why does the Extraordinary World sound so appealing to Gracie’s family?
22. Gracie decides partway through her diary to add a quote from Hamlet as an epigraph. How does the epigraph tie in to the story? Discuss whether you think it’s an appropriate choice.
A Magical Menagerie
Many different magical creatures appear in this story. Choose one to research, using print and Internet sources. Then create a poster of the creature including a drawing or painting, and a substantial description of what you learned in your research.
Print out a blank map of the Western hemisphere such as the one at World Atlas (worldatlas.com/webimage/countrys/namerica/printpage/americas.htm). On the map, trace a line of the journey that Gracie’s family takes from Maine to the tip of South America. Label the places they stop on the way and label cities mentioned in the text like Chicago and New York. Use the margins of the map to write short descriptions of the places that you labeled, using information from the novel.
Imagine that Oliver is also keeping a diary. Choose several days that Gracie writes about and write diary entries from Oliver’s point of view. Show how he sees things in some ways differently and in some ways the same as Gracie does.
Guide written by Kathleen Odean, a former school librarian and Chair of the 2002 Newbery Award Committee. She gives professional development workshops on books for young people and is the author of Great Books for Girls and Great Books about Things Kids Love.
This guide has been provided by Simon & Schuster for classroom, library, and reading group use. It may be reproduced in its entirety or excerpted for these purposes.
Jodi Lynn Anderson is the bestselling author of several critically acclaimed books for young people, including theMay Bird trilogyand My Diary from the Edge of the World. She lives with her husband, son, and daughter in Asheville, North Carolina, and holds an MFA in writing and literature from Bennington College.
* Gracie Lockwood is a spirited girl and journal writer, who lives with her parents, brother, and sister right down the street from a T.J. Maxx that was recently burned down by dragons. Her world mirrors ours, in that there is a Wendy’s, Taco Bell, and MacDonald’s off of Route 1. It differs, however, because Sasquatches roam the forests, depressed ghosts linger, and for a pretty penny, one can hire a guardian angel should one require protection. Perhaps the most ominous thing about her world is the fact that dark clouds visit the homes of anyone whose life they’re about to take. When such a cloud appears over Gracie’s home, the family believes it has come for her ailing younger brother, Sam. Their one chance at outrunning his death is crossing over into, “The Extraordinary World.” Her father, a somewhat unreliable scientist believes that a parallel universe exists, one in which humans thrive without the death clouds and other dangers found in their own world. When the Lockwoods purchase a Winnebago to flee their town in pursuit of “The Extraordinary World,” readers are taken on a fun-filled, well-paced, modern adventure. VERDICT Fans of J.K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter” will enjoy this heartfelt, bittersweet, and ever-so-clever coming-of-age fantasy. It is a must-add to any middle grade collection.
– School Library Journal STARRED REVIEW
"Fans of J.K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter” will enjoy this heartfelt, bittersweet, and ever-so-clever coming-of-age fantasy. It is a must-add to any middle grade collection."