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The Great Upending


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About The Book

“[For] readers who love good storytelling and spirited heroines.” —Booklist (starred review)
“[A] gentle, lovely tale of a deeply bonded family, replete with a clever mystery.” —Kirkus Reviews

When a troubled children’s book author moves to their farm, two kids with troubles of their own hatch a scheme to swipe the ending of the final book in a bestselling series to get a reward from the book’s publisher in this gorgeously written novel in the tradition of Wonder and Out of My Mind.

Twelve-year-old Sara and her brother Hawk are told that they are not to bother the man—The Mister—who just moved into the silo apartment on their farm. It doesn’t matter that they know nothing about him and they think they ought to know something. It doesn’t matter that he’s always riding that unicycle around. Mama told them no way, no how are they to bother The Mister unless they want to be in a mess of trouble.

Trouble is, trouble is the last thing Sara and her brother need. Sara’s got a condition, you see. Marfan syndrome. And that Marfan syndrome is causing her heart to have problems, the kind of problems that require surgery. But the family already has problems: The drought has dried up their crops and their funds, which means they can’t afford any more problems, let alone a surgery to fix those problems. Sara can feel the weight of her family’s worry, and the weight of her time running out, but what can a pair of kids do?

Well, it all starts with…bothering The Mister.


Full of Shine Full of Shine

Moon’s in bloom,” Hawk says. “Just hanging there. No strings.”

“Big and fat?” I ask. Through the wall that divides us.

“Biggest. Fattest. I’m heading out.”

I hear the springs of Hawk’s mattress creak. I hear him creep across the floor. I hear the screen in his window go up and his one foot crump and his other foot crump down onto the roof that we call our pier.

“Show’s on,” he says.

I push up to my elbows. See Hawk through my window, his pale face and his big eyes. He presses his face up against the screen, and then he turns and puts his arms out for balance. The moon pours its bucket of yellow down.

“Coming?” he says, his voice on the edge, in the dark.

I creak up. Put my feet on the floor. Crouch so my hair won’t snag on the low rafters, so my head won’t scrape. I cross the planked floor and push the screen up and away from the sill. Catch my breath. Swing my daddy long legs and my daddy long arms out into the night, sit down, butt-scoot forward, reach the edge, and throw my legs out into the air beside Hawk’s.

Catch more breath.

Fix my vision.

Hawk kicks his bare feet. I kick mine. The air freckles up with fireflies. The trees wave their hands in the breeze. The baled hay we haven’t barned up yet looks like waves rushing in.

“Lighthouse is full of shine,” Hawk says.

I look where he’s looking—toward the old silo where The Mister lives. It’s round and it’s tall and it’s silver. It’s got a red front door and a band of windows around its top that blinks on and off.

“You think he’s in there?” I ask Hawk, feeling my heart flop around between the bones in my chest.

“Where else would he be?” Hawk whispers, as if The Mister could hear us from all the way here, where we are, which he can’t.

“Mom says—”

“I know—” Hawk pulls a stick of dried hay from his hair. He bends it between his fingers. “Shhhh,” he says, for no good reason, because I’m already shhhh-ing.

The farm noises up. There are cows in the cow barn, goats in the goat barn, cats in their cuddle, and the old horse Moe, who snorts like a warthog. Also there’s Mom and Dad in the kitchen with their decaf, talking low, thinking we can’t hear them. Thinking that I haven’t heard the latest news, but I’ve heard it, I’ve heard it plenty.

Sky is zero clouds and star stuff. It’s August 3 and has not rained for twenty-two days. Morning, noon, night, Dad drives his old Ford to the top of the forest hill to check the water in the cistern. The water that feeds the pipes in the house, the cows in the field, the pigs in the sunflower stalks, the goats and their milk, the seeds in the earth. The water that vanishes inch by inch. When it rains, we pull the pots and pans and buckets to the roof and watch the water in them rise. When it rains, Mom hangs the laundry on the old rope to wash. When it rains, Dad checks the cistern so many times Mom sometimes makes him walk so he’ll save the gas in the truck.

But now we’re on water rations, and here is Hawk and here is me, sitting at the edge of the pier, waiting for our ship to come in.

“Interesting,” Hawk says.

He gets to his feet, sets himself up into a crouching rock, and watches. I think about Dad and Hawk and sometimes me, with my helpful height, building those three rooms into that old silo, a Dad scheme to save the farm—another Dad scheme; he’s had lots. Each round room sits ten feet above the next round room. A spiral staircase dials through the cutout middle of each floor. Sun pours through the top window band and down the spiral steps and ends in a pretty yellow pool on the first floor. The table and the benches and the bed were built round to fit the round. The last time I was there, the place still smelled like sawdust. It smelled like the refrigerator motor, too, and the lavender wreath Mom had hung.

It was Mom who advertised the place. Mom who wrote the words, and they worked: Come. Stay. Sixteen days ago, The Mister drove up the dusty back road in a Cadillac limo so wide and long Hawk gave it a name, and that name is Silver Whale. I’d been down in the garden with my basket and Hawk had been out with the pigs in the stalks and Dad had been up on the hill with the Ford. I’d heard the puttering car, didn’t think much of it.

I didn’t stand up until I heard Hawk running.

“To the pier!” he said, flying past.

By the time I got in the house and up the stairs and out of my window and onto the pier beside Hawk, The Mister had arrived. He wore a blue coat, Hawk said, narrating, on account of my eyes. He carted his things from the trunk of the limo through the red of the door by way of the rusty wheelbarrow Dad had left there once the work on the lighthouse was done. He opened the door with the key Mom had left hanging the night before from a little outdoor hook. He was a small man with a hunched back, Hawk said, or maybe he was just hunching under the weight of things. “How many things?” I asked. “Lots,” Hawk said.



That was two weeks and two days ago—and all we’ve figured out since is that The Mister came from far away. He wants his privacy, Mom says. No fresh tomatoes, no slice of pie, no two kids named Hawk and Sara showing up at his front door.

“No prying eyes,” Mom said. “Okay? Nobody spying on The Mister.”

“Can’t help what I see,” Hawk said. Mom shook her head.

Now, past the bales of hay that Dad cut and raked and bound, the bales he hasn’t loaded yet into the old hay shed, I squint. All I can see through the windows of the lighthouse is a white streak, like a cloud tied to a string.

“Can’t figure this,” Hawk says, rocking and rocking.

“Can’t figure what?”

Hawk rocks. Keeps his figuring to himself, which drives me just about nuts. “Whoa,” he finally whispers. “Like a circus act. The guy’s wheeling around on a unicycle! Rounder and faster by the minute.”



“The old man?”

“Give me a sec.”

I wait. Across the dark, under the stars, all I see is that puff of cloud being yanked around by a string. The Mister’s hair, it’s got to be.

“You rock any harder, you’ll fall,” I say, because Hawk has stopped reporting again and sometimes it’s just too lousy to get your news secondhand, to not see what you want to see, to be relying on your best friend who is your brother. Sometimes I just can’t stand that what I see best is my own imagination and not what’s out there, in front of me. So that right now I’m seeing with my mind’s eye, and what I’m seeing is a figment of thought, by which I mean I half see, half imagine Hawk spying so hard that he tips and he falls into the crunch of apple trees. I half see and half imagine me scrambling through the window and down the stairs and running and Dad calling after me and Mom crying and two kids out of two kids in the Scholl family needing doctors the Scholls can’t afford. That’s what I see, while Hawk gets to see the actual unicycling Mister.

I catch Hawk’s arm in the hook of my own. I yank him back. He falls flat on the roof and looks up and I lie back and something blinks.

“He knows we’re here,” Hawk whispers, even quieter now. “The Mister.”

“You got proof?” I say, my heart flopping hard.

“He turned off the light. Just this second, now. It was on and now it’s off and that means that he’s seen us.”

“Seen you, maybe. Not seen me.”

“Like you’re not here?” Hawk says. “Like you wouldn’t be the easiest of us to see?”

“Stop it,” I whisper, louder than him. “Just—”

“Mom can’t know, right?” Hawk says. “Mom can’t know, and we’re not telling.”

“You don’t tell, I won’t tell,” I say, and breathe. More trouble is the last thing we Scholls need.

Reading Group Guide

In The Great Upending, Sara Scholl and her brother, Hawk, live with their parents on a family farm among pigs and goats and fabulous chickens, vegetables, and housecats. It’s a happy family, a beautiful place, but there are problems. A drought has set in, money is short, and Sara, who has Marfan syndrome, has been told that her future could depend on her getting medical care that her family cannot afford. Into this world moves an old man, a picture-book artist the children call The Mister, who is renting the family’s renovated silo. The Mister has mysterious troubles all his own, though the children are cautioned against getting involved. Soon the challenges all the characters face merge into a single, life-changing adventure.

Below are some questions you might consider as you read this book.

1. Sometimes, when Sara and Hawk sit outside, they listen to the sounds of their world: “The farm noises up. There are cows in the cow barn, goats in the goat barn, cats in their cuddle, and the old horse Moe, who snorts like a warthog.” What are the sounds of your world? Make a list, then write a poem so that others can hear what you hear.

2. Hawk loves the book Treasure Island so much that he carries parts of it around with him in his head. Name the book that you love best, then write a letter to the author (even if the author is no longer alive) to tell them why.

3. Sara has her own private seed museum. What do the seeds mean to Sara? What is your hobby? Find a way to document that hobby with just four photographs.

4. Sara’s mom can do a lot of things—fix a fence, fight a fire, bake delicious pies. In fact, every member of the Scholl family has special talents. What are they? What do they contribute to the story?

5. Mrs. Kalin, who was inspired by Beth’s second-grade teacher, is a very special librarian. In what ways does she make the books she loves come to life? Draw your version of the World’s Best Library—and the world’s best librarian.

6. When you first meet The Mister, what do you believe his story is? How does your impression of him change as the story unfolds?

7. Sara and Hawk have been asked, very clearly, not to interfere with The Mister. Why? Do you think they were wrong to get involved with him? Should they have told their parents what they were up to? How did this choice impact the outcome of the story?

8. The Mister is the creator of famous wordless picture books. Create your own wordless picture book to share with friends and family. Ask each person to tell you the story they believe your wordless picture book tells. In what ways are these stories your pictures inspire similar? In what ways are they different? Are you surprised by any interpretations? What is the power of a story without words?

9. What do you think the red shoes in The Mister’s picture book symbolize?

10. Marfan syndrome is a connective tissue disorder that has affected many famous people. Research the condition to find out more about its symptoms and the studies now being undertaken to help those who are diagnosed with it.

11. The author, Beth Kephart, dedicated this book to a young friend named Becca Weust, who has Marfan syndrome. To whom would you dedicate a poem or story of your own? Write and illustrate that poem or story. Write the dedication.

12. Read this interview with the author, Beth Kephart: What other questions do you have for Beth? Send your best one to, give Beth some time, and she will answer it.

Guide written by the author, Beth Kephart. The Great Upending is A Caitlyn Dlouhy Book, Atheneum Books for Young Readers, Simon & Schuster, March 31, 2020.

This guide has been provided for classroom, library, and reading group use. It may be reproduced in its entirety or excerpted for these purposes.

About The Author

William Sulit

National Book Award finalist Beth Kephart is the critically acclaimed author of nearly two dozen books for both adults and young readers. Her recent, Wild Blues, was named an ALA Youth Editor’s Choice. Her other novels—including Undercover, Small Damages, and One Thing Stolen—have been also featured on numerous best book lists. She is an award-winning lecturer at the University of Pennsylvania where she teaches creative nonfiction and fiction. She lives in Devon, Pennsylvania.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Atheneum/Caitlyn Dlouhy Books (March 30, 2021)
  • Length: 288 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781481491570
  • Ages: 11 - 14

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Awards and Honors

  • Bank Street Best Children's Book of the Year Selection Title

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More books from this author: Beth Kephart