Nora Alpers woke up early on New Year’s morning and reached for the handsome leather-bound notebook she had gotten for Christmas. The notebook had a magnetic clasp that closed with a highly satisfying click.
“You can use it for a diary,” Nora’s mother had suggested.
Nora had no intention of using the notebook as a diary. She planned on writing more interesting things in it than “Today I had breakfast. Then I went to school. Then I went home.”
“You can write stories in it,” her older sister had teased. Sarah was a grown-up geologist who was expecting her first baby in a couple of months. Like everyone in Nora’s family, Sarah knew Nora preferred nonfiction to fiction.
“Or poetry.” Her brother, Mark, who was studying electrical engineering at MIT, had given Nora a grin.
Only her father had understood. “Nora is going to use her notebook,” he had said, obviously offering a prediction, not a suggestion, “for writing down fascinating facts about ants.”
Her father was absolutely, completely right.
Nora loved scribbling down all kinds of facts in all kinds of notebooks: big ones, little ones, fat ones, skinny ones, spiral ones, and now this new super-fancy one.
She had waited to start her new notebook on the first day of the new year.
“Fascinating Facts About Ants,” she now wrote on the first blank page with her blue ballpoint pen. But she might write fascinating facts about other subjects, too. “And Other Extremely Interesting Things,” she added.
She’d write facts she’d learned from the ant books she checked out of the grown-up section of the library. Even better, she’d write facts she had discovered all by herself by doing experiments on the ants in her very own ant farm.
Did they accomplish more tunnel building when they were warm or cold? (Warm.) Did they build more quickly in the dark or the light? (It didn’t seem to matter.) Right now she was investigating whether they dug faster in dry or wet sand. She had poured 30 milliliters (about a tenth of a cup) of water into the ant farm yesterday: not enough to drown her ants, of course, just enough to increase the moisture content of the sand. So far, they seemed to be having a harder time tunneling through the wet sand, probably because the water made it heavier. At least that was her current hypothesis.
She still had the notes she had made from her past experiments that she could copy into her notebook. And she’d learn new facts to add all the time.
This would be the Year of the Ant!
Nora thought about the Chinese calendar, which had twelve different years. It had mostly mammals in it: Year of the Rat, Ox, Tiger, Rabbit, Horse, Goat, Monkey, Dog, Pig. It had one reptile: Year of the Snake. It had one bird: Year of the Rooster. It even had one imaginary creature: Year of the Dragon. Nora didn’t approve of the Year of the Dragon at all, not that you could expect scientific accuracy from astrology.
The Chinese had no year of any insect at all. No Year of the Grasshopper. No Year of the Bee. No Year of the Cockroach. If Nora had been in charge of the Chinese zodiac, she would have replaced the Year of the Dragon with the Year of the Dragonfly.
And now her own personal calendar was launching the Year of the Ant, or rather, the Year of Many, Many Ants.
Nora rummaged through her current ant library book to find an especially amazing ant fact to use as the first fact in her new notebook.
Nora’s own Year of the Ant had begun.
Later that afternoon, Nora sat examining her friend Brody Baxter through the wrong end of the telescope she had gotten as another Christmas present. Brody appeared to be very tiny, very far away, and trying to get his dog to hold several tennis balls at once in his mouth.
Brody was actually a somewhat short but basically normal-sized fourth grader, seated on the floor right next to Nora in her family room. But he was indeed trying to coax his dog to fill his mouth with tennis balls.
“Just try, Dog,” Brody pleaded as Dog--that was the dog’s name--dropped a tennis ball onto the carpet. “The world record is five, and you’re the best dog in the world, so I know you can do six.”
Dog appeared to disagree. So far, he hadn’t managed to hold more than one. Tennis balls scattered.
Nora set down her telescope and retrieved a tennis ball that had rolled under the couch. Her other friend who had come to visit, Mason Dixon, collected a ball that had bounced over to the table where Nora’s ant farm stood. The ants didn’t seem to be noticing the tennis ball commotion.
Mason and Brody were best friends and co-owners of Dog, although Dog had to live at Mason’s house because of Brody’s father’s terrible allergies. As far as Nora could tell, both boys loved Dog equally, but Brody was vastly more enthusiastic about earning Dog a Guinness World Record. Then again, Brody was vastly more enthusiastic than Mason about everything.
“Maybe there’s a different record you could try to break,” Nora suggested.
From where it had been lying on the floor, she picked up the Guinness World Records that Brody had gotten as his favorite Christmas present, and used the index to find records involving dogs. She loved books with indexes.
“ ‘Longest tongue,’ ” she read aloud. “Eleven point four three centimeters. That doesn’t sound that long.”
Mason and Brody stared at her blankly. They weren’t scientists the way she was; they didn’t measure things using the metric system. “Four and a half inches,” she translated. “Do you think Dog’s tongue could be longer than four and a half inches?”
“No,” said Mason.
“Yes!” said Brody. “Dog, stick out your record-breaking tongue!”
Dog was still panting enough from his tennis ball efforts that his tongue hung out partway. Nora studied what she could see of it. There was no way that Dog’s tongue was four and a half inches, let alone longer. Also, where were they supposed to measure it from? Where did his tongue start? She retrieved a ruler from the drawer in the ant farm’s table, because she knew Brody wouldn’t believe her otherwise.
“You hold his tongue, and I’ll measure,” Brody told Mason.
“How about you hold his tongue, and I’ll measure?” Mason countered.
“Sure.” Brody was always agreeable. “I’ll stretch it out as long as I can. Dog won’t mind, not if he gets a world record out of it, right, Dog?”
Dog allowed Brody to hold his tongue out to its full length, but it was clear to Nora that Mason had no idea how he was supposed to go about measuring it.
“Not even close,” Mason finally concluded. “Maybe three inches? It’s hard to tell.”
“What other records are there?” Brody asked Nora. “Pinkest tongue? Wettest tongue? Lickingest tongue?”
Nora closed the book, keeping her finger in the dog record section. In her opinion, Dog’s tongue needed a rest before the boys began testing anything else about it. It was time to change the subject.
“My favorite Christmas present was my telescope. Well, my telescope and my new ant notebook. Brody’s was his Guinness World Records book. What about you, Mason?”
“My least favorite was a harmonica. Tied with a book on how to juggle.”
“How could your parents think you’d want to play the harmonica? Or learn to juggle?” Nora asked. “You don’t like doing new things.”
“I know that. And they know that. But they keep on hoping.”
“Could we teach Dog to juggle?” Brody asked, with new excitement.
“No,” Nora and Mason said together.
“Dog has three legs,” Mason reminded Brody.
That was one of the reasons Mason and Brody had adopted him, because nobody else had wanted to take him home from the animal shelter.
“He doesn’t need four legs to juggle,” Brody said. “He’ll juggle with his front legs and his mouth, and he’ll be the best dog juggler in the world!”
Nora sighed. She would never understand other people and their pets. Mason, who hardly liked anything, was wild about Dog. Brody, who loved everything, loved Dog most of all. Emma Averill, in their class at school, had a cat named Precious Cupcake--Nora shuddered at the name--who starred in endless cat videos Emma showed everyone on her cell phone. Emma was the only fourth grader Nora knew who had a cell phone of her own. In the most recent video, before winter break, Precious Cupcake had been wearing a Santa Claus hat while being made to dance to “Jingle Bell Rock.”
Nora’s gaze fell fondly on her ant farm. Ants were such sensible pets. They didn’t wear comical hats or do holiday dances. They stayed content in their tidy glass enclosure: independent, self-reliant, busy, and endlessly interesting.
“All right,” Nora said, turning back to the Guinness book. “Here’s another dog record: how many steps can a dog walk while balancing a cup of water on his head without spilling it?”
Brody leaped to his feet. “Do you have a glass? Will your parents mind if we spill a little water?”
“Dog has three legs,” Mason reminded Brody again. “Walking with a cup of water on your head is harder if you don’t have as many legs as other people--I mean, other dogs.”
Brody’s already bright face brightened even more. “That can be the record! Most steps taken with a glass of water balanced on the head of a dog with three legs!”
Nora shook her head. “That’s too specific a record. Too narrow a category. There aren’t enough three-legged dogs carrying glasses of water on their heads for it to be worth setting a record about.”
“So what else is there?” Brody persisted.
Nora shrugged. She had already flipped to the section on ants. There was a record for largest ant farm, but what kind of a dumb record was that? What did the size of an ant farm matter? It was what ants did in their farm that counted. And even if her ants proved to be faster at tunnel building than other people’s ants, that wouldn’t be what Nora cared about. She’d want to know why they were so fast. It was the science behind the record that was worth thinking about. Why did one dog have such a long tongue? How did another dog carry so many tennis balls in its mouth or balance a glass of water so carefully on its head?
“Maybe we need to come up with our own record,” Brody suggested. “Not a record that’s already in the book for Dog to break, but a new record that nobody ever thought up before.”
“Like what?” Mason sounded skeptical.
“Like--like--Nora, you’re good at thinking things up.”
It was true. But, frankly, Nora greatly doubted that there was anything at all that Dog was best in the world at doing. After all, it couldn’t be easy to be best in the world at something, or else everyone would be that good, and then it wouldn’t be best anymore.
“Can Dog learn how to play the harmonica?” Brody asked.
“No,” Nora and Mason said together.
Nora kept on thumbing through the pages of Brody’s book. It was amazing how many records people held for all kinds of strange things: largest collection of rubber ducks, most spoons balanced on the face, farthest distance to spit milk.
She hoped Brody wouldn’t decide to train Dog in milk spitting, at least not this afternoon, at her house.
Then her eyes fell upon another world record: youngest person ever to have a research paper published in a peer-reviewed science journal. The person was a girl named Emily Rosa. Emily Rosa had been eleven when she published her record-breaking paper.
Nora was ten.
She hardly listened as Brody asked Mason if Dog could get a record for chewing tennis balls, given that Dog had already destroyed two tennis balls in the last half hour.
Had Emily Rosa loved science since she had been old enough to love anything?
Did Emily Rosa have the periodic table of the elements and a map of all the constellations, both Northern and Southern Hemispheres, hanging on the wall of her bedroom?
Did Emily Rosa know how to fix a broken vacuum cleaner?
Did Emily Rosa have her own telescope?
Nora had already done months of experiments with her ant farm and documented them all in a special science notebook. She was probably already the leading ten-year-old expert on myrmecology, the scientific study of ants. She had been looking for a worthy goal for the new year, and now she had found it: to be the youngest person ever to publish an article in a grown-up science journal.
She glanced over again at her busy, bustling ants, burrowing through their nicely moistened sand. They had no idea how important they were soon going to be to the future of science.
School started again the next day. Nora didn’t mind that winter break was over. She liked their fourth-grade teacher, an enthusiastic, sports-loving man who called himself Coach Joe. Coach Joe had told Nora once that he’d like her to bring her ant farm to school to show their class. Maybe she should plan to do that soon.
As she stood outside Plainfield Elementary School in the early-morning cold, waiting for the bell, she heard a shriek.
“Dunk! Stop that! Dunk! No!”
Nora recognized that shriek. It could belong to only one shrieker: Emma Averill.
Dunk, the biggest, beefiest boy in their class, had scooped up a handful of snow from the shoveled mounds by the side of the blacktop.
“Here’s some nice clean snow, Emma!” he called out, holding up his snowball for all to see. “Your face looks a little dirty. Don’t you think it could use a good washing?”
Emma shrieked again. It wasn’t a bloodcurdling shriek, more of a cross between a shriek and a giggle.
Mason and Brody had arrived, inseparable as usual, joining the crowd of Coach Joe’s fourth graders surrounding Dunk and Emma.
“Why is Dunk picking on Emma?” Brody asked indignantly.
“Because he’s mean,” Mason replied.
Nora stared at both of them. Hadn’t they seen any shows on the Animal Planet channel? Boy penguins made strange cries and flapped their flippers to attract girl penguins. Boy lions ruffled their manes to attract girl lions. And boy humans threatened to wash the faces of girl humans with handfuls of snow.
“Dunk is acting that way because he likes Emma,” Nora explained. “And Emma is shrieking so loudly because she likes Dunk.”
Brody looked doubtful. Mason looked shocked. Nora knew Mason was thinking: how could anybody like Dunk?
The bell rang. Nora made her way into Coach Joe’s room, Emma’s shrieks still ringing in her ears.
Coach Joe’s class always began with a “huddle” on the football-shaped rug in the back corner of the room.
“Welcome back, team!” Coach Joe said. “Everyone ready for some championship play? Grand slams? Slam dunks?” He grinned at Dunk, who had wedged himself next to Emma. “Touchdowns?”
Copyright © 2015 by Claudia Mills. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.