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The First Magnificent Summer

LIST PRICE $8.99

About The Book

Judy Blume meets Barbara Dee in this tender and empowering middle grade novel told in journal entries and poetry about a young writer on the verge of becoming a woman whose summer with her estranged father doesn’t turn out the way she’d hoped.

Twelve-year-old Victoria Reeves is all set for her “First Magnificent Summer with Dad,” even though it’s been more than two years since she last saw him. She’s ready to impress him with her wit, her maturity, and her smarts—at least until he shows up for the long road trip to Ohio with his new family, The Replacements, in tow.

But that’s not the only unpleasant surprise in store for Victoria. There are some smaller disappointments, like being forced to eat bologna even though it’s her least favorite food in the world. And then there’s having to sleep outside in a tent while The Replacements rest comfortably inside the family RV. But the worst thing Victoria grapples with is when she begins to suspect that part of the reason Dad always treats her as “less than” is for one simple reason: she’s female.

As Victoria captures every moment of her less than magnificent summer in her journal, she discovers that the odds are stacked against her in the contest-no-one-knows-is-a-contest: Not only does her wit begin to crumble around Dad’s multiple shaming jabs, but she gets her first period. And when Dad does the worst thing yet, she realizes she has a decision to make: will she let a man define her?

Excerpt

July 15, 7:39 p.m. July 15, 7:39 p.m.
That clock on Memaw’s wall must have magnets made for my eyes, because I couldn’t stop looking at the swirling black hands and Roman numeral notches. Six o’clock. Six thirty. Seven o’clock.

Two hours since Mom dropped us off. Two and a half. Three.

More than enough time. She was supposed to call when she got home, so… why hadn’t she called?

My chest burned like the grass fire Jack accidentally started in Memaw’s backyard last summer, and rubbing it didn’t make it feel any less fiery. (We managed to get the grass fire out before Mom and Memaw got home, thank goodness. But the soles of our shoes were never the same after that.) My leg vibrated under the table, unusual for me. I am a Stillness Queen. I can be still as stagnant water, as a hammock on a windless day, as the suffocating air every time Coach Finley makes us run to the T (my least favorite thing to do when school’s in session).

Must be my nerves. Or maybe the quiet at the table. Or all the thoughts piling up around me.

I’m not supposed to open my journal at supper, but tonight I did, just to have a place for all the nervous energy to go.

“You don’t want your spaghetti?” Memaw nodded toward my bowl, which I hadn’t really touched. Another thing that’s unlike me: not eating Memaw’s spaghetti. It’s the perfect blend of salt and tang, better even than Mom’s homemade sauce. Mom says Memaw salts everything to death. I guess I like everything salted to death, then.

I didn’t answer Memaw, but she kept right on talking, like maybe she was as nervous as I was. Am I nervous? I haven’t reached a definitive conclusion yet, but I think yes, maybe I am, yeah, probably.

“Nerves, is it?” Memaw glanced at Jack. His brown eyes studied the table. His mud-colored hair curled around his ears like it does every summer. Mom doesn’t waste money on haircuts when we’re on break. I know why that’s important, but I have to admit, it makes Jack look a little like a shaggy dog.

Maggie pushed her orange bowl forward, and the bottom of it scraped the wood in a way that made me wince. (A nails on chalkboard kind of sound.) “I finished mine,” she said.

“Want some more?” Memaw said. Her eyes gleamed. I think Memaw gets a lot of joy out of feeding people. Or maybe it’s just making people happy in any way she can. Mom says she spoils us, coming to visit with bags full of kettle-cooked chips and cream horns and new crossword puzzles for Jack and composition books for me and coloring books for Maggie. I just think she’s the best grandma ever. (And I have four of them.)

Maggie nodded. “Yes please?” Her words arched up like she was asking a question.

“Maybe Tori will let you have hers.” Memaw eyed me with that one raised eyebrow, her dark eyes blinking questions.

I shook my head and stuffed a forkful of the salty spaghetti in my mouth. “Not sharing,” I said around the noodles. The salt was divine. A burst of intense flavor hit my tongue, and it made me wonder why I’d waited so long to eat.

Jack stuffed a bite in his mouth too.

Memaw said, “You bring all your notebooks with you, Tori?”

Do I ever go anywhere without my notebooks? I didn’t ask this question out loud because (1) it’s not exactly polite, and (2) Memaw already knows the answer. She’s the biggest supporter of my budding writing career, and without her I might not have volumes and volumes of my own stories and diaries. (I prefer to call them journals; people—Jack and Maggie—like to steal juicy diaries, but no one’s interested in boring journals.)

I also didn’t tell Memaw that I’ve decided to go by Victoria this summer. I’ve been Tori for twelve years of my life, and I’m ready for a change. A more grown-up name. Something to prove I’m not a little girl anymore. I’m still in a training bra, while all my friends have become women and moved up to the regular bra section, but at least I will have a new name. I mean, it’s an old name given twelve years ago, but it’s new for me. And grown-up. And womanly.

It’s not a conversation for the supper table, so I let it go.

“All two of them,” I said instead.

Memaw blinked at me like she’d forgotten her question. I do this all the time—I get tangled in my head and let a question sit way too long without an answer, and then the person forgets what they even asked. I was about to remind her she’d asked if I’d brought all my journals when she said, “Only two?” Her black eyebrows shot up even farther. “That enough for a whole thirty days?” She seemed to be saying something more underneath the words. Something like Thirty days with your father? Thirty days away from home? Thirty days of no routines and unpredictability and anxiety-inducing newness?

I try exceptionally hard to hide my weirdness from the world. (Mom says I’m quirky, not weird, but she’s my mom. She’s supposed to think I’m ordinary. Brilliant, but ordinary.) But Memaw is like one of those thermometers you wish you didn’t have in Texas, the ones that you can’t help but notice as you’re walking out the gym door for another run to the stop sign a whole sweaty one-point-six miles away from the school, the ones that practically shout, “It’s one hundred one degrees out here, get back inside, you moron!”

She always sees right through me to the temperature inside. Sometimes it’s kind of a relief. It’s exhausting putting on a show all the time. Pretending you’re perfectly fine when you’re not.

Sometimes, though, it’s a great big pain.

“I brought some books to read too.” My voice sounded a little squeaky, like even I didn’t believe I’d brought enough simple pleasures to distract me from less-than-ideal circumstances.

Okay, so I like routine and predictability and things that are old, not things that are new. And maybe I have a teensy little problem with anxiety that’s hardly worth mentioning.

I shrugged, because, well, words are hard, and so is the truth.

Memaw stood up and disappeared into her room. Jack shot me a Look, but I couldn’t decode it. I can’t read many of Jack’s Looks anymore, not like I used to. Middle school changed things for us in a weird and sometimes annoying way, but I don’t like to think about that. So I don’t. I let him have his football friends and band buddies and lunchroom chewing chums and leave him well enough alone, like he told me to do on my first day of sixth grade, when he was a big seventh grader on campus and I mistakenly thought that didn’t mean anything special.

Memaw reappeared and plopped down a pile of composition books. “That enough?” she said. I spread them out. Two purple ones (Memaw’s favorite color), one turquoise one (my favorite color), and three yellow ones (no one’s favorite color but bright and hopeful all the same). Six notebooks for thirty days, not counting the two I brought.

“Yeah. Sure,” I said. “Thanks.”

I wondered, briefly, how she’d found the composition books so fast. Her room is a minefield of messy stacks and future Christmas presents and powder spilled on bathroom counters. I don’t go in there often. Clutter ignites my anxiety like little sisters ignite annoyance.

I’m sorry. That was mean. Maggie doesn’t deserve that… usually.

“Give you something to do while you’re visiting your dad,” Memaw said, folding herself back in her chair.

Memaw even looks like the perfect grandma. She’s short and lumpy, with curly black-and-white hair that frames her face and neck in a halo. Her gray-brown tortoiseshell glasses are the kind that darken in the sunlight so you can’t see her eyes. (I know the names of all the frame colors and styles of glasses, which is how I know Memaw’s are tortoiseshell, because I spent two years trying to convince Mom to at least get me new glasses if she wasn’t going to get me contacts. My old frames are held together with superglue, and one earpiece falls off every time I so much as adjust their position on my nose. Glasses are expensive, though, which is probably why I finally wore her down just in time for this summer, and now I am the proud owner of brand-new soft contacts. Clear ones. Mom said no to colored contacts, even though I tried to tell her that’s all anyone wears anymore. She raised an eyebrow and said, “You really think I’m gonna let you get lenses that make you look like a cat?” Like I would do that. I just wanted blue ones. But Mom shook her head to even that. “Blue’s not all it’s cracked up to be,” she said. She doesn’t know, though. Her eyes are the same brown as mine, so how would she?)

Enough with the random brain detour, let’s go back to the table and Memaw’s “Give you something to do while you’re visiting your dad.”

The way she said, “your dad,” its squeezed-up, clenched-tight sound, made it obvious to any but the most oblivious observer (Maggie is one of those. No, that’s mean. Maggie’s just… blissfully unaware. She has an excuse—she’s nine) that Memaw does not like Dad. If my memory can be believed (and of course it can), she never has. She’s never come out and said it, but you can see that kind of thing on the face, hear it in the voice, watch it in the stiffness of a back, if you’re the right kind of nosy. Which I am.

I nodded again but didn’t say anything. The grandfather clock in the living room chimed its half-hour song. Seven thirty. In exactly twelve hours, he would be here.

My throat tightened as hard as Memaw’s eyes.

Good thing there’s Tales from the Crypt, Memaw’s favorite show, to distract me. If what’s happening tomorrow doesn’t make it impossible to sleep, creepy skeleton heads jumping out of coffins will.

(Memaw would be in so much trouble if Mom knew she let us watch Tales from the Crypt. It’s not exactly a kid’s show—bloody and gory and too spooky for imaginations like mine. And it’s probably in the top ten reasons I still sleep with a night-light. Mom barely approved Sabrina, the Teenage Witch, and I had to practically beg her to let me watch Friends. But Memaw’s house is a house of freedom and horror.)

Reading Group Guide

Reading Group Guide

The First Magnificent Summer

by R. L. Toalson​

About the Book

Twelve-year-old Victoria Reeves likes to write stories, but she loves documenting her daily activities and feelings in her journal even more. This summer, Victoria spends thirty days with her older brother, Jack; her younger sister, Maggie; and her father, whom she hasn’t seen in two years. Unfortunately, they also spend that time with “The Replacements,” Dad’s new girlfriend and his two new children. While Victoria hopes that this will still be a “magnificent” summer, she finds herself dealing with personal change as well as humiliation by her demeaning father. Victoria spends this time growing up and trying to connect with a father with whom she has a complicated relationship. However, by the end of the summer, she realizes that finding a happy(ish) ending is possible, even if you must pay a price to achieve it.

Discussion Questions

1. The setting describes the time and place of the story. This story takes place in the mid-1990s. What in the book shows that it takes place in this time period? How would the story change if the year or location were different?

2. This book is composed of journal entries that show the dates and times they were written. Notice how at the beginning of the story, the times are only minutes apart. Later they are days apart. Why do you think that is? What is the author trying to express? Why does Victoria call the books journals and not diaries?

3. Victoria Reeves has anxiety and is often worried about current or upcoming events in her life, as well as relationships between herself and others. What are some instances throughout the story when Victoria is particularly anxious? How does she deal with her anxiety in those situations?

4. Victoria has three rules when writing in her journal. One of them is to tell the truth. However, she realizes that everyone has their own truths from their own life experiences and that no one’s truth is the same. How is telling your truth different from telling the truth? How do people’s perspectives change the way the truth is seen or recorded?

5. When Dad picks up the children to begin their summer vacation, Victoria is surprised to see other people in the car. How do you think Victoria feels when she sees the woman and two kids in the car for the first time? What words does she use to express her emotions at this moment?

6. Victoria writes a poem about a chameleon. How does this poem describe Victoria, and why does she feel she has to be a chameleon around her father? Do you agree that Victoria and Jack act differently around Dad? How does Dad treat Victoria and Jack differently throughout the story? How are the ways that Victoria and Jack act around their dad related to how he treats them?

7. Throughout the summer, Victoria is beginning to show physical signs of growing up as she goes through puberty. She wants to grow but at the same time still be a kid. She wonders if growing up will help her gain Dad’s respect. Victoria states, “Sometimes growing up feels like losing.” (p. 73) Why would she feel this way? Explain.

8. Mrs. Barnes, Victoria’s teacher, says that journals are a perfect way to get a little perspective. How can documenting your day help you work through your feelings and problems? How does Victoria use her journal to gain clarity on her emotions, thoughts, and feelings?

9. Just as Victoria and her family arrive in Ohio, Victoria’s worst nightmare becomes a reality. What sign of puberty does Victoria experience and what is her reaction to it? How do you think Victoria will deal with it without her mother, and how does it complicate the summer?

10. As we get to know Victoria’s mom and dad, we realize they don’t treat each other the same way. How does Dad talk about Mom and how does Mom talk about Dad in front of their children? Support with evidence from the text. How are the children affected by their parents’ relationship with each other?

11. Often in books, the author interrupts the action to include a memory or a flashback. It usually supports the theme or conflict or can foreshadow what may happen later. Throughout the story, what memories does Victoria recall? How do they show the relationship she had with her dad before the divorce, and how do they affect her now?

12. Victoria’s dad is constantly humiliating, belittling, and criticizing her throughout the summer. At one point, Victoria writes, “Words hurt way worse than sticks and stones.” (p. 174) Explain why Victoria thinks this. How do you feel about this statement? Do you think that words are always hurtful, or can they be therapeutic? Show examples of both theories from the story.

13. Dad repeatedly refers to Victoria as a “little girl.” When she won’t go down the slide into the lake, Victoria thinks, “Maybe I am just a silly little girl.” (p. 180) Do you think she is just acting immature, or do you think she is starting to believe him? Is he overpowering her confidence in herself?

14. Characters often express things in different tones of voice, which tells us how they feel about certain topics, people, or events. Victoria uses different tones when sharing her thoughts and feelings. She can be anxious, sarcastic, sad, or lonely, to name a few. At which points of the book does she use these tones of voice?

15. Sometimes characters say or do the opposite of what you would expect. Lisa, Dad’s new wife, has at least one of those moments. Think about how she treats Victoria and Maggie when they go to the laundromat. Then think about when they return, and Lisa tells Victoria to follow her inside the RV. Why does Lisa do this? Do you think this will change their relationship? Explain.

16. When Victoria, Jack, and Maggie finally get to call Mom, Victoria is so excited, she writes, “Home is, I think: a place where you know you’re loved, and you don’t have to do anything to earn that love.” (p. 228) Using evidence from the story, discuss why Victoria feels this way. Do you agree with her? Does she feel at home with her dad?

17. Victoria tells Mom on the phone that she’s writing a new story. Then she has an inner thought that worries her. She writes, “Dark is all I can seem to write anymore. What happened to my stories full of hope?” (p. 229) What changed Victoria’s style of writing? Do you think she will be able to write positive stories again? Why?

18. The night before leaving the campground, Victoria, Jack, and Maggie spend time with Dad without The Replacements. Victoria states, “I guess we’re all complicated people.” (p. 251) How is Dad’s behavior different when his new family is not around? What actions show a glimpse of humanity on Dad’s part?

19. At various times, Victoria shares her anxious self with us. When she goes to Dad and Lisa’s house, she has a panic attack. Describe what she sees and how it causes the attack. How would you help someone who was having a panic attack? What would you do or say to help?

20. Dad comments about Victoria’s body throughout the story. At his house, he tells Victoria, “‘Sitting around all day is how people get fat. . . . Get your chicken legs outside. . . . You need the sun and the exercise.’” (p. 265) What is Dad implying? How do his comments cause Victoria to change her eating habits to meet his expectations?

21. When Victoria and her siblings go school shopping at the clothing warehouse with Dad and The Replacements, Victoria realizes her mom and dad spend their money differently. What is the difference, and why is this so? Victoria also notices that the discount clothing they are buying may have flaws. Do you think she compares herself to these imperfections? Explain.

22. Throughout Victoria’s time with Dad, she has many moments where she keeps her anger and frustration deep inside and doesn’t say anything. However, Victoria finally finds her voice toward the end of the summer. What happened, and why do you think Victoria decides to speak up then? What terrible memory is Victoria reminded of when Dad is holding the newspaper?

23. An intense and major event in a story is often the climax, when the protagonist confronts the main source of conflict. According to Dad, Victoria shouldn’t even think about picking up a pen or pencil, because the world does not need her words. How does Victoria react when Dad and Lisa read and destroy her journals? Why do you think Dad doesn’t value Victoria’s words or understand why she needs them?

24. At the beginning of the story, Victoria realizes that her relationship with Jack isn’t as strong as it was when she was younger. However, at the end, Jack proves that he is still her brother and he has her back. What events throughout the story prove this point? How do you think their connection will move forward?

25. As un-magnificent as this summer was, what does Victoria learn about herself and about life? Does she get her happy ending? What have you learned from her story?

Extension Activities

1. Author R. L. Toalson uses specific techniques to develop and support ideas in her story. One of these is the use of repetition. Pay attention to the author’s craft and the impact it has on the event taking place or the feeling expressed. Make a T-chart to show the words used and what the tone or mood is at that time. Discuss what other writing techniques you notice that enhance the story.

2. Often in books, an older and wiser person takes the main character aside and offers serious advice. Make a list of life lessons that Victoria learns from family members. Include who teaches Victoria the lesson, what it is, how it will help Victoria, and how you can practice these lessons in your own life.

3. When an incident happens, each person involved will have their own point of view of what took place. Discuss the events that happened after Lisa and Dad read Victoria’s journals and the feelings they had. Separate into groups with each group discussing one of the following characters’ point of view of the incident: Victoria, Dad and Lisa, Jack, and Maggie. Take turns sharing each group’s perspective with the class.

4. Victoria is an avid reader and mentions many famous authors and poets throughout the book. Break into groups and research classic writers, such as Virginia Woolf, Emily Dickinson, Simone de Beauvoir, William Carlos Williams, Charles Dickens, Lois Lowry, Scott O’Dell, Shel Silverstein, Christopher Paul Curtis, Maya Angelou, and Toni Morrison. Share with the group why these famous authors would be inspirational to other writers.

5. Victoria enjoys her daily journaling. She writes about what has taken place in her life during the two years that Dad missed. Write a journal entry about what changed about you or what happened to you in the past two years, or write a letter to Future You about your past two years and what you hope to change for next year.

6. Many people who have anxiety can relate to Victoria’s struggles throughout the book. One way to relieve stress is to focus on mindfulness. Try a breathing exercise where you breathe deeply and slowly for around five minutes. Count to three on the inhale and three again on the exhale. Or focus on the five senses as a way to reconnect and ground yourself. Relax and ask yourself: What are five things I can see, four things I can touch, three things I can hear, two things I can smell, one thing I can taste?

7. Fun with words! When a word or phrase has several meanings, you can describe that word as polysemous. Victoria writes about the various meanings of the word period. Make a list of words that have at least three meanings. Try to create a sentence or poem that incorporates the same word but with different meanings. For example, “You can bank on the fact that there is a bank near the riverbank.” Add an illustration for fun!

Note: page numbers refer to the hardcover edition of this title.

Angela Benevento is a literacy specialist and elementary school teacher, who lives with her family in New York.
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

About The Author

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R.L. Toalson grew up running wild through corn rows and cow-grazing fields and recording true and wildly exaggerated false tales to entertain her friends, family members, and anyone who would listen. She still runs (literally) wild through the streets of her city and spends most of her days recording true (if a little exaggerated) and false tales to entertain anyone who will listen. She lives in San Antonio, Texas, with her one brilliant husband, six delightful children, and two arrogant cats. She’s the author of The Colors of the Rain, which won the Arnold Adoff Poetry Honor Award for New Voices in 2020; The Woods, which received a starred review from Booklist; and the highly acclaimed The First Magnificent Summer. Visit her at RachelToalson.com.

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