Fish in a Tree meets The Thing About Jellyfish in this heartfelt middle grade debut about long-buried secrets, the power of memory, and the bond between a girl and her gram.
All Lulu Carter wants is to be seen. But her parents are lost in their own worlds, and Lulu has learned the hard way that having something as rare as HSAM—the ability to remember almost every single moment in her life—won’t make you popular in school.
At least Lulu has Gram, who knows the truth about Lulu’s memory and loves her all the more for it. But Gram has started becoming absentminded, and the more lost she gets, the more she depends on Lulu…until Lulu realizes her memory holds the very key to fixing Gram’s forgetfulness. Once Lulu learns that trauma can cause amnesia, all she needs to do to cure Gram is hunt down that one painful moment in Gram’s life.
With her friends Olivia and Max, Lulu digs into Gram’s mysterious past. But they soon realize some secrets should stay buried, and Lulu wonders if she ever knew Gram at all. It’s up to Lulu to uncover the truth before the only person who truly sees her slips away.
1. Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory (HSAM for Short)
1. Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory (HSAM for Short) Turning thirteen and becoming an official teenager in two months is weird enough without having my brain go haywire. But I, Lulu Rose Carter, have a memory that won’t shut up.
There are some people who remember everything—or almost everything—about their pasts. It’s called highly superior autobiographical memory, or HSAM. It’s really rare, like fewer than a hundred people in the world have it. It’s not the same as eidetic or photographic memory. A person with HSAM has memories specific to their past. They might forget little things like where they put their phone five minutes ago, but they can remember nearly every day of their past in vibrant detail.
Not everyone develops HSAM the same way. Some develop it slowly with age. Others might have part of it and then all of a sudden—BAM—the full power of it flips on. Anything can act as the trigger—maybe a stressful event, or maybe something happy like falling in love for the first time. It might even be something like getting lost in a mall parking lot.
Only one person in the whole world knows the secret of my memory. I’m just not sure how much longer she’ll remember it. And if she forgets my secret—if she forgets who I am—then who else will know the real me?
My world implodes the week school lets out for the summer. It figures it would happen at the mall. My best friend, Olivia, says anything significant in life usually starts at the mall. She probably didn’t mean the parking lot, though.
Gram, Clay, and I have wandered around for the past hour. The summer heat turns the mall lot into a wasteland of melting asphalt. Sticky globs of tar stretch and snap with each step, and they cling to the soles of my shoes like a giant web. It’s what I get for texting while Gram parked. I wasn’t paying attention, and now we’re lost.
“Lulu, take the baby’s hand.” Gram thrusts Clay’s hand in mine.
“No baby,” Clay shouts.
“I swore it was here,” Gram repeats for the thousandth time. Her hands push against her eyes like if she presses hard enough, she’ll remember. “I parked right here. I know I did.”
The sweat on Clay’s palms makes them as slippery as butter. I tighten my grip and squint at the sea of cars. We may as well be on a different planet.
I pat Gram’s arm softly. “Gram, I think we should go back inside and get something to drink. Clay doesn’t look so good.”
She glances down at him, but her eyes aren’t focused. They’re filled with the same fear my horse, Remy, has when he sees a snake—before he takes the bit in his mouth and bolts.
Clay’s whimpers soar to wails, his face a kaleidoscope of red and purple. With all his hollering there should be tears, but his cheeks are as dry as the asphalt. The heat has sucked the tears straight out of his body, right along with Gram’s memory.
“I know it’s here.” Gram turns in a circle; her shopping bags hit my shoulder and tip me into the roasting metal of a car. Clay’s hand slips from mine, and he tumbles to the ground.
Before I can pick him back up, a blue truck slows down and idles next to us. The tinted window rolls down, and Mr. Rodriguez, the manager of the riding stables, smiles at us, his mustache dancing as he talks. “Hey there, you need help?”
“Mr. Rodriguez.” I smile and try to look normal. Please don’t let Max be with him. Please don’t let Max—
“Hey, Lulu.” Max leans across his dad and smirks at me. “You’re looking hot. Get it? Because it’s ninety degrees and—” Max’s dad pushes him back in his seat.
Max’s smirk is an exact replica of the one he wore when we first met three years ago, on the Saturday of my first horseback-riding lesson. He’d worn a Giants T-shirt with a matching hat and made riding look so easy. It was like he could read the horse’s mind and make it do anything he wanted. I, on the other hand, could barely stay in the saddle.
Since then he’s teased me without mercy. No matter how well I ride now, every time I see his smug face, I’m reminded of the embarrassment of that first day.
“Is he hurt?” Mr. Rodriguez points to Clay, rolling around on the ground and sobbing.
“We can’t find our van.” The words sound ridiculous as soon as I say them, and if it weren’t so hot outside, my red cheeks might be a dead giveaway.
Mr. Rodriguez waves us over. “Hop in, and we’ll help you find it. The truck has air-conditioning.”
Gram shakes her head, her jaw thrust out with a stubbornness that mirrors my baby brother’s. I pick Clay up and stagger to the truck. At almost three, he’s getting too big for me to carry, but sometimes it’s faster to lug him around than expect him to listen. As soon as I open the door, cold air wraps me in a hug. Clay slumps over and presses his flushed cheeks to the cool leather.
“Stay here,” I say needlessly. He isn’t going anywhere.
Max hops out to help. He smiles at Gram. “Hi, Mrs. Carter. It’s Max from the stables. Let me help you inside.”
“Come on, Gram,” I say. “It’s okay.”
She blinks at me, confusion blanketing her. I want to shake her. I want to make her snap out of this fog she’s in. She’s been forgetful before, but not for this long. Not like this.
This isn’t the Gram I know. The one who takes charge and bosses everyone around. The one who moved in after Mom had Clay and made me feel loved again. But her blank expression is the same one I’ve seen more and more lately. And it scares me.
Max murmurs something to Gram as he gently helps her into the car, and it reminds me of his kindness to the horses at the stables. I guess it’s just me he teases.
Mr. Rodriguez shifts the truck into gear and flicks a concerned glance at Gram. “Do you remember anything about where you parked?”
Gram’s lower lip trembles, and I know I have to do something. I can’t let her cry in front of Max and his dad. Gram never cries.
I squeeze my eyes shut and picture driving here earlier this morning. I’ve always had an outrageously good memory, but I’ve learned to keep it to myself. When I was really young, I thought it was something everyone had. I found out the hard way that people think it’s weird when you remember what they wore six Thursdays ago or what they ate for lunch a year ago from Monday.
Gram is the only one I trust. The only one who really knows about my memory. And she needs me now. She needs me to remember where the stupid van is.
I’ve become so used to ignoring my memory that it feels strange to work to remember something instead of pushing it away. Even when I don’t use it, I always sense it’s there. Somewhere in my brain. Waiting.
In the past, some memories would filter through: dates, names, what people did or said. Usually, it was because the day was an emotional one for me. Sad, angry, happy—it didn’t seem to matter what emotion as long as I felt it deeply.
But it isn’t until right now that I make myself remember every second of this day. I’ve never tried to recall something that happened only a few hours ago. I concentrate, forcing myself to open up the part of me I’ve kept tightly shut. Scenes of today appear like a movie in my mind. Each scene is separate; each hour has its own place. I experiment, moving the scenes around as if I were watching them on TV. I rewind one and I can see every minute, every second. I don’t stop until I find the moment I’m looking for.
My brain skids to a full standstill, and something cracks wide open. I can almost hear the sound of glass shattering. A part of my brain that’s been blurry is now completely in focus. Like when Remy breaks into a gallop and the wind hits my face, sweeping away the clutter from my brain.
Click. When I open my eyes, a 3-D map floats in front of me. It’s the exact route we took here, right down to the parking spot on the other side of the mall. I blink, but it stays put. I almost ask Max if he sees it too, but then he smirks at me and I know he doesn’t. It’s as if my vision is divided into a split screen, with one side playing the memory of our van parking three hours ago and the other side showing what’s happening this very second here in Mr. Rodriguez’s truck.
I know the memory is not really in front of me, but it may as well be. I can see every street, every sign, every car we passed before Gram finally parked earlier this morning.
This is different from anything I’ve experienced. It’s one thing to close my eyes and remember a date or what someone wore, but this is every single thing. It’s like I have a remote control that changes the channel of my memories. Click. Driving to the mall and every turn. Click. Every brick, every tree, every store. Click. Exactly where we parked, down to the pole two spots to the right of our car. Vivid pictures snap into place; memories line up to wait their turn.
I read somewhere that our brains are like computers. After trying to ignore my memory for so long, did the act of forcing it to work give mine an upgrade? Supersonic Memory Plus, downloaded and complete. Everything is crystal clear, like I’m seeing it all for the first time. And I don’t just remember the details. I also remember the feelings that went along with each memory, right down to how I felt when we parked—my excitement at shopping for new boots, my impatience with Clay’s whining, my happiness that Gram seemed to be her old self mixed with my worry about her growing forgetfulness. The accompanying sensations wash over me, the blast of heat hitting us as we got out of the car, the smell of popcorn from the movie theater next door, the faint whiffs of cinnamon buns, and the chill of the air-conditioning when we first walked in. It’s as vivid as if it were happening to me now.
Or am I imagining it all? There’s no way I can really remember everything this clearly. Maybe the heat is making me see things that aren’t really there. That’s what I want to believe. Anything else is too much to think about right now. But no matter what it is, I need to get out of this truck with Mr. Rodriguez’s overly concerned expression and Max’s know-it-all smile. My hand clamps down on the door handle, and I imagine—just for a second—opening the door and jumping.
“Our car is near the Cheesecake Factory entrance,” I say, trying not to sound too desperate. “Third row to the right and five spots down.”
Max glances over at me, and I bet he wonders why I didn’t remember sooner. Why I let my baby brother and Gram wander around aimlessly in the baking heat. Clay slouches on me, his warm cheek pressed against my arm. His breaths come out in soft, shuddering sighs that signal he’s asleep.
Every nerve of my body quivers as if my skin were too weak to keep all my feelings inside. I blink away a prickle of tears. I can’t cry. Max will think I’m as much of a baby as Clay is.
I dig my fingernails into the palms of my hands. Olivia says the trick to not crying is to distract yourself. She usually does this by online shopping with her mother’s credit card. Olivia is the happiest person I know, always smiling and joking, so there must be some truth to it.
We find our van exactly where I said it would be. The floating map folds behind another memory of how to get home. I want to examine it, poke at it, see how far the map goes. I’ve tried so hard to ignore my memory in the past, but pushing away the need to replay a random day that happened a year ago, two years ago, five months ago is nothing compared to this. I rub my forehead and wonder what specific part of the brain is beneath my fingers. Which part is responsible for what’s happening right now? I’m afraid I’ve unlocked something that I won’t ever be able to ignore again.
I help Gram find her keys, and she finally snaps out of her daze.
“Thank you,” she says to Mr. Rodriguez. “I think we’ll be fine now.”
He opens his mouth to say something but shuts it when Gram frowns at him in that way she has. Even befuddled, she has a dignity that makes you trust her. He nods and heads back to the truck.
I help buckle Clay into his car seat. Gram looks down at the key in her hand for several seconds before she finally turns it in the ignition. A gust of hot air hits us in the face, and I quickly adjust the vent to face away from her.
“You okay, Gram?”
“I’m fine,” she says, but her voice shakes as she backs out of the parking space. I watch her carefully as she drives around the lot, searching for the nearest exit. She squints at the signs, rubbing her eyes as if her sight is the problem.
“This one.” I point to where she should turn. She obeys with a small cluck of her tongue. It’s the sound we use on the horses to soothe them, to let them know they don’t need to worry.
Click. The day Gram moved in with us two years and six months ago. Click. What I wore that day, how she made me feel, what the weather was like. Click. The day Gram forgot Clay’s grilled cheese sandwich on the stove and the fire department had to come. Click. The way Gram looked at me with growing alarm for a whole minute last week, as if she didn’t know who I was. As if I were a stranger.
Jennifer Camiccia has lived in the wilds of Los Angeles, where she wrote her first book at the tender age of five; Iran, where she developed a fear of camels and a fondness for pistachios; Hawaii, with its balmy breezes and memories of learning to swim; and the San Francisco Bay Area, where she now lives with her children and husband. Visit her online at JenCamiccia.com or on Twitter: @JenCamiccia.
“Memories can be complicated. Thirteen-year-old Lulu has highly superior autobiographical memory (HSAM), allowing her to recall everything she has ever experienced; Gram, who is Lulu's kindred spirit, finds herself increasingly forgetful; and Mom and Dad (who have delegated most of their parental responsibilities to Gram) try to repress their memories of Lulu's now-deceased younger sister. Lulu hopes Gram's memory loss is the result of trauma; if she can uncover its source, she's sure Gram can be cured. In Lulu's search for secrets, she uncovers Gram's diary, her Russian passport, and a mysterious acquaintance. Camiccia's debut novel begins each chapter with a short discussion of a brain component and its function, which she links to the current story. Characters (especially family and two of Lulu's friends) are well developed, and the plot unfolds smoothly as Lulu gradually exposes Gram's hidden past, including a trauma that unfortunately does not alter Gram's prognosis. Throughout, Camiccia stresses that the best way to hold onto loved ones is by telling their stories.” —Booklist
"Lulu Rose, twelve, has Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory (HSAM), an extremely rare condition that enables her to recall every single detail of her life; fearing people’s reactions, she hides her memory from everyone except Gram, her grandmother and confidant, who moved in with Lulu’s family years ago. Gram’s own memory is now fading as signs of Alzheimer’s disease steadily worsen, but Lulu is convinced that it’s not Alzheimer’s but amnesia linked to a traumatic event in her grandmother’s mysterious past, so she gathers stories from and information about Gram in hopes that reviving those memories will cure her. This is a heartfelt tale of an exceptional girl who, for all her gifts, cannot fix what is happening to her grandmother and realizes she may not even know the woman she trusts the most. The story’s gentle tone makes serious subjects, ranging from Gram’s dementia to Lulu’s mother’s depression to Gram’s father’s abuse, accessible but restrained, and readers will also be intrigued by the detective-story aspect as Lulu and her friends puzzle out Gram’s true past. The novel provides a diagram of the human brain, and each chapter begins with detailed explanation of one of its many components, using that anatomical element as a springboard for Lulu’s contemplations. The author does an awesome job of introducing neuroscience in this intricate tale of a family that works much like the cerebral cortex: when one part struggles to deal, another steps in." —BCCB