For Ages
8 to 12

A beautiful and uplifting novel in verse about family, friendship, journeys that take us far from home and back again, renewed and more courageous from the three-time Coretta Scott King Honor winner of The Skin I'm In!

James Henry used to be brave. He hasn't been the same since that fateful night at the lighthouse when his ma went searching for Dog. Now months later, he feels as small as the space between the numbers on a watch, nervous day and night, barely able to go outside. Even words have a hard time leaving his mouth. The only person he speaks to is Hattie, his courageous twin sister, who fiercely protects him, especially from bullies.

James Henry wants nothing more than to be brave again. However, finding his voice will mean confronting the truth about what happened at the lighthouse-a step James Henry isn't sure he can take. Until a blue moon is forecast, and as Gran has said, everything is possible under a rare blue moon . . .

* "An evocative, immediate novel with compelling characters and a wonderfully well-paced plot." —The Horn Book, starred review

An Excerpt fromOnce in a Blue Moon


People ask about the boy
behind the door
inside the house
Mostly Sister gets the questions.
She chases away boys
girls too sometimes
who wander onto our property
to gawk and stare at me
the one
folks hardly see
but everybody knows about.

Me and Sister

Hattie and me are twins
not that we match exactly.

She’s two inches taller
I’m two minutes older
a boy.
though I seem younger.
Maybe that’s why Hattie likes to boss me around.
But I’m the captain
today anyhow.
Which means
she’s got to follow my rules.

My Condition

I feel as small as a flea
as little as the space between
the numbers on a watch.

It makes living hard
staying inside easier than leaving the house.

Right now
I’m on my knees
on the couch
by the window
staring out—­like usual.

to the right of the porch
next to the gravel walkway
in front of the bushes Gran asked her to trim

It’s a boy’s job
my job
but given my condition
Hattie gets to take my place
more than I’d like
not that I like
toting pails
feeding chickens

The Way Things Are

We live in Seed County, North Carolina.
Daddy is in Detroit
Here, it’s me
and Hattie in the house.
Uncle comes by now and again.

He don’t like me much.

Hattie’s Way

How many times you got to call
a girl before she answers?

One time?
Two times?

“Hattie Mae!” I say again.

Outside past the porch
she squats low
picks up a rope
that came from Detroit
wrapped around a box of new dresses
sent to her by Daddy.

She holds both ends
that rope
over her head
sends dirt flying.

she ignores me.

Could be she’s mad at me.
This is the third time this week I said
I’d go outside
try to anyhow.

Only I can’t.

Sister’s Song

Sister is dressed for Sunday
when it’s only Wednesday.
She sings while she jumps
“Miss Mary Mack, Mack, Mack . . .”

But as soon as her song starts
it stops.

“Everybody’s got a condition,” she says.
“Pastor wheezes when he preaches.
Sneezes come spring.
he gets out the house.”

I get out
at night, at least.
If folks looked up, there I’d be
on the roof
under the sky
talking to Hattie
the only one allowed up there
besides me.

My rules
even when I’m not the captain.

Lighthouses and Blue Moons

Sister takes her sweet time walking
up the pine front-­porch steps
sawed and nailed in place by Granddad, who built the house.

Halfway between the porch and me
she stops
gives Gran a hug
reminds her that there’ll be
a blue moon in a few months’ time.

Who don’t know that?

The almanac calls
the second full moon in a month
a blue moon.
It don’t happen too often.
Which makes it a big deal

Gran calls it a wishing moon.
What you want for, wish for
or need
on that day is yours
according to her.

Which is why Hattie is nagging me so.
If I’m to be rid of my condition
she believes
we need to get to the ocean
on the night of the blue moon
get to the lighthouse too
where I was when everything changed.

Which means
I have to get out of this house first.

Only I can’t.
Why don’t folks understand that?

Ma would.

Hattie in the House

Hattie comes inside
when I say I don’t feel so well.

Sister swears it’s nothing.
Just me worrying
or about to.
she puts her hand on my forehead.

Feels like something.

Needles poke my legs.
Fire burns my toes and fingernails.
My insides
like guitar strings just plucked.

It’s my nerves
playing tricks on me
Doc Edwards claimed
during his once-­a-­month visit.

Feels like something worse.

“Hattie,” Gran says from where she sits rocking
on the porch,
“leave him be.”

Hattie stands behind me.
Hugs me.
Brings up Doc Edwards.

I shiver
get cold to the bone.

My worrying is a worry to my soul
blood and everything that makes
Doc Edwards said before he left town for good.

“Get him outside in the sun.
Drag him if you must,” he told Daddy
not long after the accident
plus a few more times besides.

Daddy never did. Never would.
He understands me good as Ma.

Ma’s Twin

Uncle said
it was a fool’s errand
that sent me to the ocean that night
with Ma chasing after me.

More About Uncle

never did trust up-­north
pointy-­toed-­shoe-­wearing folk
 Negro or white
not even Daddy at first.

Till Ma introduced him to Daddy’s cousin Sarah.
She’s our cousin and our aunt now.
They married ten years ago.
Got no kids
just each other plus a big white house.

Uncle came back south when Gran got sick.
Ma followed.
For just a spell they both said.
Then he got a job with the railroad.
Ma started teaching.

pecan brown
Uncle dresses in clothes plain as paper bags.
always brown.
His car is fancy, though.
His house has three floors. He built it himself.
Some nights I stayed with them. He liked me then.


If it wasn’t for Ma
I would believe what people say about me
that I’m peculiar
a coward.

That night
Ma called me brave
her little man
the smartest boy in Seed County.
I never told anybody that.


On my back
on top the roof
laying on a blanket
with my toes aimed at the sky
I forget my troubles.

The moon lights up the night.
Lights me up inside
fills me up
calms me down.
Hattie too.

Sister is nearby with her birds.

Standing in front of cages
stacked wide and high
Hattie looks after her treasures
that think they’re hawks.
Twelve in all.

Only Nutcracker is free right now.

Above My Head

Nutcracker flaps his wings
heads for his favorite spot
a chicken-­wire fence Daddy put around the roof
so we don’t fall off.

Hattie sets another dove free
then another
there’s ten of us on the roof
one complaining—­

The others coo
peck at seeds
corn kernels
dry peas
that Hattie scatters
in the cages
on the roof
and me.

I close my eyes again
think about Buck Rogers
who is nothing like me.
he lives in the twenty-­fifth century
five hundred years in the future.

Ray guns.
High-­frequency impulses.

I never heard of such things
before his radio show.

Uncle doesn’t like it one bit.
Says Buck and me
do the devil’s work
by meditating on places
God never wanted folk to go
the Milky Way
the moon.

When I think on them
and other things above
I don’t fear anything.

Night Trains

The train runs along the track
behind our house.
spitting steam
it heads this way
on its way to the station.
Hattie’s birds squawk and swoop.
I’m in first class
on my way to Sirius.

Captain Me

Hattie sits beside me
in a rain barrel I sawed in half.

I check the controls—­
buttons and knobs
whittled out of wood
nailed into place with my very own hands.

Sister shifts gears using an old ax handle she swings in the air.

“Ready?” I ask.

Sister salutes.
“Aye, aye, Captain.”

“Head protector?” I ask.

She pats her helmet
Gran’s old church hat covered in tinfoil.
“Check,” she says.

“Rocket fuel?”

Sister lifts a seltzer bottle full of well water.
“Enough for a month, sir.”

“Jet pack?”

“Yes sir.”

We got suspenders strapped on our backs
stitched to feed sacks filled with dried peas
handmade by Gran.

Hattie Mae licks her baby finger.
Holds it high.
“Good news, James Henry. Yesterday’s storm
did not excite the wind too much.
We should make it to Neptune in record time
without being blown off course.”

I bolt the cabin door shut. “Ready?”

“Set,” Hattie says.

“Blast off!” we scream.

The train rolls by.
Houses rumble and shake
including ours.
Smoke from the engine nearly blinds us.
I see coloreds and whites on different planets.
Neptune not that far away.

To Outer Space and Beyond

“Space rocks!” Hattie Mae hollers at the top of her lungs.

Her birds know their parts.
Most times they stay in their cages
but before we got started she set ’em free
eight of ’em anyhow.

Pullman circles the roof—
dives down
grabs buttons with his claws
drops ’em on us.

named after Ma
goes for the acorns.
Other birds pick up sticks
just like Sister trained ’em.

Our anti-­radiation tinfoil hats
get hit from every which direction.
It doesn’t hurt us any.
It’s our rocket ship that’s damaged.

The engine cuts off.
“Sssssssss,” Sister says.

The cabin light follows.
Birds go back in their cages.

In the dark
without power
we drift off course—­like Buck Rogers.

our spaceship goes
till we’re in a part of the universe
we never saw before.

Sister pulls out a flashlight.
 The head is covered with cheesecloth.
Light rays shoot from it like sun through fog.

“It’s . . . so empty out here. Quiet,” I say.

Sister screams, “Aliens!”

I zap their tentacles with cow’s milk.
Point to our instruments spinning out of control.

Hattie grabs her throat. Coughs. “We’re losing oxygen. . . .
I . . . I’m dying . . . James Henry.”

She faints
the way them movie stars do at the picture show
flopping over the side of the rocket ship
eyes crossed.

I stand up. “I . . . won’t . . . fail . . . you . . . Sister!”

“Oh goodness,” I hear Gran say from inside the house.
“The whole dang town can hear ya.”

With all my strength
I give the instruments a good hard kick.

Hattie comes to. “Thank goodness.”
Sits up

A few hundred million miles later
we’re floating through space in peace.

Captains Ain’t Afraid

shut down the engine.

“Have you ever seen anything like it, Hattie?”

“Not in all my born days.”

I unbuckle my belt
decompress the hatch like Buck.
Open the door.
Check my oxygen levels.
Take off my helmet
and breathe.

Space air smells sweeter than earth air.
More like them green-­apple pies Gran bakes
and wins prizes for.

“Up here
we can drink from any fountain.
Sit in any seat we want.”

Hattie nods, then follows me out.
“When we meet those space people
don’t be scared, you hear?” she says.

I beat my chest. “I’m the captain.
And captains ain’t afraid of nothing.”

Hattie floats past me
because there’s no gravity in space.

Tiptoeing behind birdcages, we search for stuff
we came with earlier
chicken feet
tree bark
rabbit teeth
eggshells stomped to pieces.

Things we astronauts call by other names
space dust
moon rocks.

“Space critters sure are messy,” Sister says.
she picks up pine needles
drops ’em into medicine bottles
calls ’em alien bones.

The sound of Gran’s bell
a cooking pot she hits with a wooden spoon
finds us way up here in outer space.
“Suppertime! Y’all come,” she says.

We keep exploring
filling our helmets with our finds
lose track of time until I hear something.



Seems like my heart stops too.

Hattie Mae swallows. “It’s nothing.”

It’s them and she knows it.

Sister keeps to her space job
collecting marbles
we plan to trade with space pirates
in case we need to bargain for our lives.


My fingers find my mouth.
I chew my nails.
Between bites, I ask
if she heard what I heard.

Sister lies. “No.”

“You had to, Hattie. I know it.”

I back up
find the darkest part of the roof
the space between the cages and the fence.
I squeeze my eyes tight.


“James Henry. We know you up there.
You coward.”

The Baker Brothers

“Titus Baker, take this.”


Sister pitches coals over the chicken-­wire fence like baseballs.

Her aim is always perfect.
Titus Baker finds that out soon enough.

“Hattie Mae,” he shouts up to us.
“Your brother’s got it coming, and you know it!”

I try to keep myself calm.
But my mind ignores me
like always.

Go in the house.
Hide under the kitchen table.

My forehead gets wet as water.
Drips sweat.
I rub my eyes
but cannot wipe my thoughts clean.
I take off running.

Pecans fly over the chicken wire like bullets
hit my chest
sting my neck
chase Hattie’s birds
rattle the rest still in cages.

I go back to where I was.
Hattie follows.
Crouching low beside me
Sister reminds me that there’s a blue moon coming and
when a blue moon shows up


My hands tremble like collards in a December wind.
“Even me?”
I think of myself the way I used to be.

“Even you, James Henry.
Which is why tomorrow you have to start practicing
getting out the house and
used to the world again.”

I want to agree
but my thoughts won’t go along.
worry me.

What if she’s wrong?
What if I make it to the ocean and drown
once and for all this time?

The Baker Brothers Plus One

“James Henry!”

The Baker brothers live
up the road a piece.
Their father’s cow always breaks free
finds its way to our house.
The brothers—­five of them—­are mean as ground hornets.

“Want to go swimming?” Titus shouts.
He’s the eldest Baker boy.

“Don’t let me come down there,” says Hattie.

Them Bakers standing with their cousin Red
bring up other things
that scare me
leaving home
folks touching me
all except Hattie, Gran, or Daddy.

you won’t let ’em get up here, will you?” I ask.

“No, Brother. I won’t.”

“Gran won’t either, will she?”

“Never, James Henry.”

“And if they come
they won’t find me, right?”

“They won’t get past me, James Henry.
I’ll always protect you. You and me twins.”

“But what if there’s lots of ’em sometime?
A whole crowd of ’em.
A town’s worth
of kids trying to get to me.
Then what?”

“They know, James Henry, that I
can whip the whole lot of them, if I must.
We’ve been on the moon, haven’t we?
To Ursa Major and back.
Me and you can do anything.”


“Yeah, twins are like that.”

I get on my knees.
Breathe in slow and easy.
Remind myself that long as Hattie is with me,
nothing bad can truly happen.
But then I smell it.


Sister Saves Me, Again

Hattie tells me to stay put
Not to
Not to
what she already knows
I’m thinking.

What if the house burns down?
What if Gran can’t get out?
What if we’re trapped up here?
What help would I be?
I couldn’t even save Ma or Dog.
Just stood there.
Not even Hattie knows the whole story.

More smoke floats up to our planet.
I cover my nose and mouth.

Hattie calls for two birds
named after Buck Rogers’s assistant
and Pullman
named for the dignified
sleeping-car porters
who formed their very own union.

“Get ’em!” she shouts.

Hattie ain’t the captain. I am.
Sometimes she forgets that.
Like now
when she jumps over the chicken-­wire fence
leaps to the ground
with her arms wide as dragon wings.

I run to the chicken wire

The Bakers and their cousin Red
run too
up the road in every which direction.

Anybody would,
with Hattie and her birds
chasing ’em.

Under the Cover