Meli's Way by Meredith Sue Willis
Fourteen-year-old Melisandre Rossi lives in New York City with her mother. Meli, a self-identified weird teenager, far prefers exploring the museum to attending classes at her upscale private academy. Increasingly bored, she convinces her mother to let her transfer to an alternative public high school, where she can study ancient Chinese ceramics and interact with students even weirder than she is. Yet life grows more complicated, not less so, when she makes this transition. At home, she has to tolerate how her mother shares Too Much Information about her new boyfriends. At school, Meli must navigate the tricky social world of her peers, adjust to a curriculum that views all of Manhattan as the classroom, and make sense of her intensifying emotions toward a teacher. A summer trip to Italy, where Meli visits her Italian father and his new family, leaves her exhilarated but dizzy as her view of herself expands. Then Meli faces a terrible crisis: one of the darkest aspects of the wider world comes rushing into her life.
- ISBN: 978-1-932727-
- Price: $15.95 (paper)
Read an Excerpt
There’s an explosion at the end of this story, and a little bit of sex in the middle, but those things are just bumps in the road or maybe boulders in a river. They made me change direction, but I’m the river, not the rocks.
The spring before all this happened, I decided to leave Cranfort School. It was the first day after vacation. I was waiting in the rain to catch the uptown bus when I suddenly had a picture of myself in my mind. I saw myself in my school blazer walking down the main corridor with the real Oriental carpets and oak paneling, and all the other girls in their school blazers, and as I walked, my feet went slower and slower, and a sound track said, No, No, No.
My mother always told me Cranfort School was where every girl would go if she could. Not only rich girls butinteresting girls went there, she said. Interesting girls like me. Of course, no one showed much interest in me, not that I cared.
When I got to school that day, I watched myself, and it was just what I had imagined on the bus. My feet dragging and my heart beating No no no. Nothing horrible happened. I always got along at Cranfort because I’m tallish but not the tallest and pretty but not that pretty, and mainly, because I’m good at being quiet. I even had a couple of semi-friends at Cranfort, weird kids like me, but that day, even with friends, the voice kept booming, No. No. No.
At lunch I took my tangerine and peanut butter and sprouts on whole-wheat sandwich and slipped out the emergency exit door. The older girls kept the door propped open so they could go outside and smoke without the alarm going off. I passed the garbage bins, and walked over to the Museum eating my sandwich and tangerine.
The Museum is only a block and a half from Cranfort, and as often as possible I used to slip out and go look at the Chinese vases and then slip back. Going to the vases always worked. I became calm and accepted my fate. This day the rain had stopped although it was still misty, and I could feel the No dying down as I crossed Fifth Avenue.
What I love most in the Museum up there on the Chinese vase balcony is their graceful giant shapes and splendid colors that haven’t dimmed in eight hundred years. This is what makes me a weird kid. Sometimes if I stand in front of them very quietly, concentrating, there will be a little shudder in the air, and then I’ll be inside, in this perfect place, and whatever problem I have makes a shift, and I either have a solution or it isn’t a problem anymore.
But that day I never got to the vases.
I passed the people selling artwork and the food carts, toward the big stairs where people sit and eat their lunches. There weren’t too many out that day because the steps were wet, but there was a man playing a violin with his violin case open for you to throw in money. And next to him, a girl was doing something between a gymnastics floor routine and a dance.
A shaft of sun hit her just as I got there, and I stopped to watch. At first I thought she was with the violin player. She was wearing a magenta colored top with fringes and tight exercise pants and ballet slippers and a knitted cap over her hair the same color as her top. She was also wearing a grungy black backpack. She stood on one foot and lifted her other leg high up first in front of her, then she swung it behind and arched her back and made herself into a U and then almost an O.
I was thinking that would be better than going to school, to be a street performer, but all of a sudden the violinist seemed to get mad, and stopped playing. He slammed his case shut over the dollar bills and coins, and moved all the way to the other side of the steps. The people who were watching looked a little confused, but the girl kept right on doing her dance stretch, so I figured she had not been with the violin player after all. A couple of people followed the violinist, but the rest of us watched her, a girl about my age, with light brown skin, doing all kinds of graceful flexible things with her legs and back and arms, making curves that reminded me of the vases.
Then it was like she came out of a trance and noticed us looking at her, and she giggled and dropped her leg and sort of collapsed into a pile, and when people realized she was through, they went on up to the museum or over to the violinist or the hot dog cart, but I stayed.
I suddenly realized that I knew her. Or rather, I’d seen her at the deli downstairs from our apartment where I get salad bar for me and my mother when Ronnie, our babysitter/housekeeper is off. The girl always wore red black and green Rasta caps or French berets or fancy crocheted caps like the one she was wearing today.
I never start conversations with strangers, but this was an unusual day. I said, “I see you in the deli downstairs from where I live.”
She tucked her legs up and held them and looked at me over her knees. “Oh yeah,” she said. “You buy salad.”
“I’m Melisandre Rossi.”
“Hi,” she said. “Gray Jacobs, like the color. I buy potato salad. My mother pretends to be so healthy, but she’s always indulging herself with high cholesterol things like potato salad. Personally, I eat anything. I burn tremendous amounts of calories dancing.”
“You study dance?”
She extended one leg and leaned over it. “Yes.”
“A special school for dancers?”
“No, I go to a public school, but it’s set up so people can do what they’re interested in. The only thing we do all together is field trips. They’re at the museum today, but I didn’t choose to go in.”
She talked on, the way people my age usually do that typically makes me zone out, but she was so nice to look at with her long legs and arms and all that flexibility and how she didn’t seem to mind getting muddy from the wet museum steps. Mainly, though, I was thinking about a school where you could do what you were interested in. It was like the sun had come out a little more.
I said, “So at your school, you can get special permission to go to dance classes?”
“No, it’s part of your Individual Study Plan. Everyone goes out for something—special classes or psychotherapy. The pregnant girls are always out for check-ups. It’s called the Ciudad City School of the Future, and we’re supposed to be speaking Spanish half the time but no one does, and we go on all these crunchy-communal field trips, but it was old furniture today, and I’m totally bored by old furniture. We have plenty of old furniture at my house.”
I said, “I might like your school. I’ve been thinking of transferring. Maybe I’ll get my mother to find out more it.”
She nodded. “Cool. Since we live close, I could walk you over in the morning, but you’d have to go home by yourself in the afternoon, because I go to dance class.”
“I go everywhere by myself all the time,” I told her. We talked a little more, and I invited her over to my house after dinner. This was unusual for me, to have a friend over. My weird kid Cranfort friends lived out in Queens somewhere. I knew Ronnie would get all embarrassing and try to make us ice cream sundaes or something for small children instead of teens. Ronnie thinks I don’t have a normal life.
Gray said sure, what time and which apartment number. Like visiting friends was something normal to her.
And then, without ever going up to the balcony to see my jars, I went back to Cranfort and slipped in through the smokers’ door, and all afternoon, there was a dark glass between me and the teachers, but where the booming had been, ideas were dripping out of me like I was a coffee maker. I would transfer to Gray’s school where they let you study whatever you wanted and I would go to the museum every afternoon and in the mornings go out for Chinese lessons and pottery classes. The Cranfort girls hurried around me in their gray flannel skirts and blue blazers, and I was already somewhere else.
Praise for Meli's Way
Having grown up in the seventies when I was Meli's age, and having a daughter Meli's age during the time of 9-11, I felt this book is current to our time. Although an entertaining page turner, it can easily spark serious discussion within families. The first sentence was the most finely crafted, and intriguing I have read in a long time. It drew me in and kept me reading until I found out what happened to these interesting characters. I think it hit the developmental stages teens go through with a fresh pair of eyes. Meredith Sue Willis draws you in from the very first sentence, and will keep the reader holding on non stop to the surprising twist of an ending.
Meli's Way is deftly crafted and inherently absorbing read from beginning to end...very highly recommended for personal reading lists, as well as school and community library YA Fiction collections.
Willis gracefully enters the complex lives of multi-cultural, polyglot teens, each of whom struggles for self-acceptance and acceptance by others. When tragedy strikes, Willis brings the story full circle. Not only do the disparate characters form a whole, but Meli also finds her place in her family and in a sometimes frightening world. Willis clearly knows this countercultural teen world well and fearlessly deals with various characters: a pregnant girl, a Muslim female student who wears a hijab, a Jewish student who suffers from various insecurities, a bi-racial girl who lives in a tiny apartment in Meli’s building. She creates real situations: none of the characters seem as if they’re simply stereotypical sticks there to make statements. She breathes air into them, and they live. We care about them almost as much as we do about Meli.
Meli Rossi is no ordinary fifteen-year-old. . . . She’s smart, independent, impulsive, and determined to get her way. When she decides to transfer out of her privileged private school into crunchy alternative Ciudad City School of the Future, nothing can stop her. . . . For all her toughness, we also see Meli’s vulnerability. She’s worried about her mother’s hidden past and its repercussions on Meli in post 9/11 New York. She’s worried about changes in her home-life, as her beloved housekeeper contemplates marriage. Sex is all around her, and it’s threatening. And despite her proclamation that sex doesn’t interest her, she is becoming increasingly aware of her own yearnings, both physical and emotional. . . . A most satisfying conclusion for those of us who travel with her!
Meredith Sue Willis’s new young adult novel Meli’s Way [is] a masterpiece: a profound exploration of the technology-driven, terrorist-threatened, family-fragmented world in which young people today come of age. The book is an up-to-this-moment contemporary depiction of a young high school student in New York City finding her way with very little guidance (but a lot of love) from her single parent mom with a mysterious past. It’s fast-paced with meaningful action but also ample time for Meli (short for Melisandre) . . . to reflect on whether she’s losing or finding her “moral compass.” For much of the story, it’s a bit of both. Willis immerses her reader in Meli’s compelling journey that is as entertaining as it is deeply satisfying. . . . Willis’s writing is concrete and credible. . . . But it’s the insights at the heart of this novel that provide its lasting value. Far beyond mere entertainment, Meli’s Way reveals Willis’s deep understanding of young people; it provides knowledge based on her characters’ (and perhaps her own) experience that could take readers to another level of maturity.
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