Sunday, November 3, 2013


Name: Pete Catalano
Genre: MG Contemporary Humor

HARRY WALKER IS THE WORST MAGICIAN EVER. That’s what the billboards would say after I totally embarrassed myself after my first performance. Wait, not just any billboards. I would be in the middle of Times Square and the bazillion lights from the three-hundred-and-sixty-seven electronic screens and digital billboards twinkling back at me would all be flashing those very same words so that everyone in New York City would know. And then there would be the tourists. Every tourist from every country would go back home and tell ALL of their friends, so after a short period of time, a good portion of the earth would know how totally terribly my first show ended. I think it would be kind of crappy to be twelve years old and made fun of in Cantonese.
“Harry?” a voice called.
“Harry?” It called again. I couldn’t decide if I was actually hearing it or if it was a figment of my imagination.
"HARRY!" My daydreams burst into flames as everything came into focus. Peeling paint walls. Graffiti'd desk. Twenty sets of eyes staring at me as the first day of middle school started off a little rougher than planned.
“Mr. Walker, I’m not sure what your last school was like,” Ms. Shufflebottom said, “but here we do our daydreaming at home. Now sit up straight, eyes focused on the chalkboard, and for goodness sake, pay attention.”
She turned and walked back toward the front of the room. The other kids started laughing. Well, Ms. Shufflebottom, I thought, this is exactly what my last school was like.
When I was seven years old my dad showed me some pictures of my grandpa levitating off the ground. He was a magician, a great magician, and after seeing a few more pictures, I remember how absolutely amazed I was. It got me so intrigued about the world of magic that I started begging my dad for little tricks and gags and practicing them just enough to be able to fool family, friends, and even the random adult.
Then one day I realized it wasn’t really the magic that I loved. It was the amazing, unforgettable reaction I saw on people’s faces. At that time, it didn’t matter to me if the smile was on their faces because I was so good or because I was so awful. It just mattered to me that it was there.
But I was seven. When you’re seven, you don’t really understand the importance of finishing things . . . or practicing . . . or not telling all your friends how you did the latest trick. So at the ripe old age of eight, a one-year veteran of magic, I stopped doing it and only dabbled in it here and there.
When I got to middle school, I realized I’d always had this intense desire to be the “life of the party,” or the “cool guy.” More than anything, I wanted to be noticed. I thought I needed to get back to my first love . . . MAGIC!
I practiced as hard and as often as I could. After school, before school, even during school, I would run the tricks and steps through my head until I couldn’t think about them anymore. I even picked a name. A name that people would remember, but also lend itself to getting a few laughs. Nothing like a few laughs to help you remember. So that was the day Zoltan the Adequate was born.
One day, my opportunity to amaze, confound, tantalize and astound came in the form of a flyer talking about the Spring Talent Show. Two weeks of preparation and then everybody in school would be assembled into the gym to either witness the thrill of victory or to cheer on my own crash and burn.
“Well, what are you waiting for?” Criss Conklin, my best friend since first grade, said as he pushed me toward the sign-up sheet. “Come on, Harry. You’ve been talking about your magic since the first day I met you. But come to think about it, that’s the last time I saw you do anything about it.”                 
“It’s not as easy as it sounds,” I hemmed and hawed as I took one step toward the sign-up sheet and then shuffled two steps back toward Criss. “There are details to be worked out, props to be gotten, sets to be built . . . ”  
“My shoelace was untied, the sun was in my eyes.” Criss laughed as he mocked me. “Come on. Sign up for the Talent Show and let’s shut some people up around here. What are you afraid of?”
Just as I was about to step up, put my fear behind me, and sign my name, another kid in my grade, Lance Blackstone, stepped away from a group of girls that had been surrounding him, walked right past me to the sign-up sheet. Turning back to the girls, he pointed his finger at the sheet, wiggled it in the air, and as Criss and I watched, his signature appeared clearly on the very first line. A thunderous applause broke out in the hallway and all he had done was sign his name . . . with a little flair.
“That’s what I’m afraid of,” I whispered to Criss. “A signature gets that kind of response for him. Wait until he does his act.”
Lance Blackstone has been practicing magic for as long as I have, but he was always terrible. There were wrong cards, no doves flying, no rabbits being pulled out of a hat, and nothing ever disappeared except for his audience. Lately however, he somehow managed to get good. I mean, he got really good. Some of the wonders I’ve seen him perform to the roaring crowds in the cafeteria, there were just no easy answers for. As each trick he performed became more astounding than the last, people would flock around him. Every guy wanted to be his best friend and every girl wanted to be his girlfriend. 
“So,” Criss said it again, “you gonna sign up or not? If not, then let’s just get going to our next class and you can wait until high school to stop being invisible.”
Now Criss made me mad, and he knew dang well he had too. I turned to look at him, giving him my best and toughest scowl, and then marched right up to the sign-up sheet, fumbled a few times for the pencil as it danced on the string before me, and once I had it firmly in my hand, signed my name.
I turned around to see how much applause that would get, only to see that the crowds were gone, and Criss Henning, best friend that he was, gave me the “slow clap” we’ve seen a dozen times in the movies. Of course, I took advantage of every clap as I walked back toward him.
“Let’s get out of here.” I grabbed him and we headed down the hallway.
“Harry,” Criss started chanting in the hallway as we walked along, waving his arms up in the air, trying to get some of the stragglers we passed in the hall to join him, “Harry, Harry, Harry . . . Come on. Give me something.”
I raised my fists up into the air and moved through that ghost-town of a hallway, pretending that there were hundreds, no thousands, of kids applauding, reaching out to shake my hand or just touch a piece of my shirt as I triumphantly pushed through the crowd. Man, it felt good.
The rest of the day was pretty uneventful. I walked past the sign-up list half a dozen times, and each time saw a few additional names appearing throughout the day. By the time the bell rang at three o’clock there were eleven names on that list with Lance and me at the top and no one else worth mentioning listed below us.
The gauntlet was thrown down, and the race to the Talent Show was on.


  1. Hi Pete, Ah, I love the title so already had me laughing before I started reading. MG humor is something I really love and I think you do such a great job turning the well-known story of the magical boy on its head. I love that he has magician skills, but is sort of too lazy to develop them until he wants to be popular, rather than for any noble purpose. It's a great understanding of the middle school years. I also think your writing is quite strong. The voice is consistent and easy to follow. My biggest criticism is in the structure (and somewhat pacing, too, but I think this is due to the structure).

    The book starts with Harry daydreaming, but then he immediately goes into a flashback of his decision to pursue magic and the history behind that. This isn't a real opening to the's just a bunch of information about Harry. The only conflict is his fear of failure, but there's no context for that failure until far's not in the moment. I think that to grip readers, you need to start with something happening....your character making choices and having wants and needs. The flashback in time might be better suited for chapter two, once we know the characters and the setting and conflict.

    The passage of time is also confusing as it's presented now. I wasn't sure if the whole chapter was a flashback and Harry was now in some new school. But when the chapter ended with the driving tension being about the Talent Show, I realized that the flashback after his daydream must have ended, but it wasn't clear when this happened. Or did it end? I'm still not sure. Unless you're really setting a narrative in which Harry is recounting a story from his past and it's clear, and there's a good reason for doing this, I would suggest starting the novel at the most interesting spot: maybe it's when he goes to sign up for the Talent Show and Lance shows him up. If that's the moment that's important and the rest is all exposition to show his character, then cut the rest.

    As I said, I think your writing is strong and the voice is believable. The word "dang" jumped out at me. It sounds like an authorial choice and not real language a kid would use. I also like that Harry's motivations are that he wants people to like him and he wants glory...those aren't particularly virtuous traits (but they are relatable), but I hope he grows more from there as the story progresses.

    Anyway, those are my thoughts...mostly to start in a place of conflict, instead of the flashback and exposition. I look forward to reading more!

  2. I enjoyed reading this. It’s a fun concept and you did a great job setting up Harry as the underdog. I’m really rooting for him to win that talent show!

    The character names are wonderful. Zoltan the Adequate—love it! Ms Shufflebottom—great choice for helping to set the humorous tone. Lance Blackstone—a perfect magician name. However, to me, Harry Walker sounds a little too similar to another young wizard… might want to consider changing the last name. Though perhaps the similarity is intentional?

    I am intrigued about Lance—how did he suddenly get so good at magic? I’d like to hear more about Lance’s relationship with Harry. Do they have an open rivalry, or does Lance even notice Harry at all?

    I like the first line a lot, but I was also a little confused about the daydream. Is he remembering an actual failed performance, or only imagining that he will fail? The daydream took place on the first day of middle school, but later on it is mentioned that he stopped practicing magic in first grade and only began practicing again after middle school started. Then, at the end of the chapter they are signing up for the Spring Talent Show. Reworking the timeline and maybe starting in a different place would help.

    Overall, it’s a very strong start and I’m looking forward to seeing your revisions!

  3. I also enjoyed reading this. I found myself laughing at some points and it was believable. But I was also concerned about the link between the flashback and present time. I was wondering if the flashback happened or if it's just a nightmare to come. When we get to the end we understand that Harry is very nervous about the talent show, so I wonder why the dream came before even though the dream seems to talk about a larger event than the Talent show.

    And yes, the name Harry, reminded me of Harry Potter I couldn't resist by compare the two.

    Great start and can't wait to read the next revisions

  4. Thanks so much for everyone's input so far. Just to clear it up there are two Harry's in the world. Harry Potter and since this is a book about magic Harry Houdini! :-) The revision will have the last name changed but Harry's name is sticking around for a while.

  5. I enjoyed reading your sample pages and think this sounds like a really fun read for middle school readers.

    I do think it would be a stronger opening if you started the story without the inclusion of backstory. Many readers, especially MG readers, are interested in the "here and now" and when exposition is used to explain past events or reasons the MC are where they are now, slows the pacing. Maybe if you start the story in the present and leave backstory until later?

    The name Harry didn't confuse me:)

    Best wishes as you revise!