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Flora la Fresca & the Art of Friendship

Illustrated by Sujean Rim
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Paperback
$8.99 US
| $12.50 CAN
On sale May 21, 2024 | 272 Pages | 978-0-525-55630-5
Age 8-12 years | Grades 3-7
Reading Level: Lexile 800L | Fountas & Pinnell V
From an NYT bestselling author comes the first in an illustrated middle grade series about a Panamanian American girl who uses humor and a little mischief to navigate her best friend moving away and her sister’s overbearing and all-consuming quince preparations.

Flora Violeta LeFevre, aka Flora "la Fresca" (so called because she tells it like it is, occasionally to her parents' chagrin) can always count on her best friend Clara Ocampo Londra to turn anything-from a day at the skate park to dreaded Saturday Spanish school ­into an exciting adventure. But amidst Flora's personal nightmare that is her sister Maylin's never-ending dress try-ons and dance practices for her upcoming quinceañera, news breaks that Clara's moving, and Flora doesn't know how she'll survive without her. The girls quickly roll up their sleeves and use their larger-than-life imaginations to make the most of each passing day together. But things get complicated when Clara moves and starts making new friends, an unlikely alliance blossoms between Flora and a new student, and preparations for Maylin's quince take a disastrous (but hilarious) turn.
Chapter 1

Chica, Chica, Chica

Flora Violeta LeFevre despised a great many things, but few of them as much as Saturday Spanish school. They called it a school, but it was really just a classroom at the Westerly Education Center. The class was roughly a dozen students, all between the ages of seven and twelve. Like Flora, they all had Latine parents who wanted their kids to speak better Spanish but were too busy to teach them at home.
Their teacher was an indefatigable young woman named Señorita María José who was so energetic that Flora suspected that her gold hoop earrings and jangly bracelets were actually solar panels. They were allowed to call her by her first name because it was Saturday school. They were not allowed to ask her why she had a girl’s name and a boy’s name.
“It’s just one of those things,” she had said.
Señorita María José, or Srta. MJ for short, had grown up in Puerto Rico and was now getting her master’s in teaching at Brown University.
All of the parents in Westerly, the town where Flora lived, said Brown University in a hushed and reverent tone, the same way the priest said our Lord and Savior during Sunday service. Flora’s mother said, “We are so lucky to have María José teaching you Spanish. That woman is brilliant!”
Flora didn’t have anything against her teacher. What she did have a problem with was spending practically half of one of her two days off doing extra school just because her parents were from Panama. But her parents made her go from nine a.m. to twelve noon, every Saturday no matter what excuse she could invent, from the time her eyesight “disappeared” to the violent stomachache that was really excellent acting for a ten--year--old, as anybody would tell you.
It would have been the worst except for the girl sitting next to her, who was the very best. Flora, who was ten and in the fifth grade, looked over at her best friend, Clara. Clarita slowly and deliberately rolled both of her eyes to the center of her head.
Flora tried, and failed, to stifle a giggle.
The lesson that day was about reflexive verbs, which made no sense to Flora. Cállate la boca was the only reflexive phrase Flora could say with confidence. But if she ever told her big sister to shut her mouth, she would get into more trouble than she knew what to do with.
“A verb is reflexive when the subject and the receiver are the same,” Señorita MJ told the class. “For example, I washed the plate, not reflexive. I took a shower, reflexive.”
Flora laid her head on the table. It didn’t make sense. None of it made sense.
She was hoping to settle in for a teeny--tiny nap when she felt a note come sliding across the table.
Flora opened it up and grinned. It said:
Perk up, buttercup.
Flora looked over at Clara, who pretended to nap on the table, snored loudly, then pantomimed waking up and looking around as if she were completely disoriented.
Flora’s Spanish was far from perfect, but she knew that Clara was muy graciosa. Perhaps even the very funniest of all BFFs.
When the clock struck noon, Srta. María José said, “Okay chicos, you are free to go. Disfruten de su sábado.”
Flora grabbed her navy--blue peacoat and dashed for the door. “¡Hasta whenever, Señorita María José!” she called out as she exited the classroom.
“Wait for me, Flora la Fresca!” Clara bellowed.
It was Clara’s nickname for Flora and it had started the previous summer when Clara had taken the windbreaker that she wore around her waist and tied it around her shoulders. Then she took out a golden paper crown from the back pocket of her denim shorts and put it on Flora’s head. She said, “I, Queen Clara, now residing in the realm of Westerly, have found you, Flora, to be the embodiment of all that is fun and good. From this day on, you shall be known as Flora la Fresca.”
Sometimes the kids at school called her Flo, which Flora hated. But she liked Flora la Fresca. Even her parents called her that sometimes. If she wasn’t exactly fresca—meaning fresh with a little bit of attitude—she definitely aspired to be.

* * *

Flora thought of that day as she waited for her friend.
Clara threw her quilted silver vest over her bright yellow sweatshirt and did a TikTok dance out of the room.
Flora said, “Come on, Clara!” but she didn’t really mind waiting for her to start walking home. Everything was more fun when Clara was around. It was mid--November, but the day was warm like September as the girls walked through Wilcox Park and headed toward the ocean.
Westerly was a pretty little town on the coast of Rhode Island. Two and a half hours from New York and ninety minutes from Boston, it was a popular summer getaway. Most of the year, there were fewer than twenty thousand people in the town. It sounded like a lot, but it wasn’t really. There were only thirty kids in the fifth grade of their public school, and Flora and Clara knew them all, as well as their siblings and parents. Once Memorial Day rolled around, the town’s population doubled. The girls noticed that the streets filled with the faces of strangers as the big summer houses on the ocean’s edge, which sat empty most of the winter, swelled with wealthy families and their guests.
Flora’s uncle Rogelio, her mother’s oldest brother, had moved to the town thirty years before to work at the quarry. Westerly Quarry was famous for its natural pink stone. Tío Rogelio had done well there and as he rose in the company, he got jobs for more and more Panamanians. Soon there were more than two dozen Panamanian families living in the small New England town.
Her uncle said that Westerly reminded him of Panama—-not the cold or the snow, but how on a warm summer day, you could wake up and smell the briny saltiness of the Atlantic Ocean. Even if you couldn’t see it, you could smell it. Tío said, “Where the sea is, we’re home.”
Flora stood in the middle of the park and took a big sniff.
Clara looked over at her and raised one eyebrow, then the other.
“Oh Flora,” her friend said. “Are you smelling the sea again?”
Flora nodded.
Clara said, “Then I’ll just have to take you there in my boat.”
She pretended to drag an invisible canoe across the park gravel, then stopped midway and mimed dropping the end of the canoe. “Flora! It’s heavy. Aren’t you going to help?”
Flora went to where she imagined the back of the boat to be. She pushed at the air and Clara pulled.
Clara looked up and said, “Come on, Flora. Being invisible doesn’t make the boat any lighter. Put some muscle into it.”
Flora smiled and took a step back and pushed as if her life depended on it.
Clara looked up approvingly and said, “Chica, that’s how it’s done.”
She stepped oh--so--carefully into the invisible canoe and gestured for Flora to join her.
Flora stepped in and sat cross--legged behind her friend.
Without needing to say a word, the girls began to move their invisible oars in unison. Sure they knew they looked goofy, but they were busy creating their own world.
“A la derecha,” Clara whispered softly. “A la izquierda.”
They sat that way, legs crisscrossed, moving their hands in semi--circles as if their fingers were oars and the gravel was the deepest blue ocean.
Flora said, “My dad said that when I’m sixteen, I can take sailing lessons.”
Every summer Sunday, early before her mother and sister woke up, Flora and her father would walk to the Westerly boat yard and look at the boats heading out for the day. Her father, Santiago LeFevre, was tall, with a scraggly beard and a smile that was never far from his face. He would drink coffee, she would drink a babyccino—-steamed milk with cocoa powder—-and they would talk about boats. Flora dreamed about being able to sail a boat, the way her sister talked about getting a driver’s license.
Clara kept paddling. “Great, I’ll take sailing lessons when I’m sixteen too.”
People passed them in the park, but no one seemed to notice their invisible canoe.
“Do you remember that girl Liba Daniels who used to pick us up from school when we were in the third grade?”
Flora said “third grade” as if it had been eons ago and not just two years before.
Clara nodded and said, “Claro, Liba was cool.”
Flora said, “My dad told me that Liba got her sailing license and she’s taking a gap year from college. She’s sailing some rich person’s boat from Rhode Island to the Caribbean.”
Clara looked confused. “Why doesn’t Señor Rich Person take his boat to the Caribbean himself?”
Flora said, “It could be a she.”
Clara pursed her lips. “Fine, Señora Rich Person.”
She shrugged. “I guess it’s a thing. They’re too busy or something, so they hire people to sail their boats from here to their homes in the islands.”
“You get paid to sail someone else’s fancy boat? How much?”
Flora said, “I have no idea. But I want that job.”
Flora felt her phone buzz. It was a text from her mother. “¿Dónde estás?”
She stepped out of the boat. “It’s my mom. I better get home.”
“Me too,” Clara said.
They walked home, talking the whole way about boats and how they couldn’t wait until they were old enough to take a year off of school and get paid cold, hard cash to lounge about on a boat all day. Being in the fifth grade was fun. But being teenagers together was going to be everything.


Chapter 2

Flora’s House


The brown shingled cottage where Flora lived with her parents and older sister looked almost like every other house in their little seaside village. But what Flora liked about her house was that there was a secret behind it. When you went into the house and through the back door, there was a stone path that led to another brown shingled house, one that was much bigger. That house belonged to her uncle Rogelio and his family—-and that house had a private path to the beach.
Sunday dinners were always at Flora’s house, even if it was smaller. The kitchen was cozier and it spilled onto a patio that they used nearly year round. That November afternoon was no different, Flora’s mother calling out, “¡Maylin! ¡Flora! Necesito su ayuda.”
Maylin was Flora’s older sister. She was awful. Flora was convinced that if they ever performed surgery on her only sibling, they would find out that there was a hard, cold rock where Maylin’s heart should be. To say Maylin was mean was a gross understatement. She was stingy. And a tattletale. And of course, Maylin was their parents’ favorite. Flora wondered what you called someone who was the teacher’s pet, but with parents. “Parents’ pet” didn’t sound right. But there had to be a word. Whatever it was, Maylin was it.
Flora’s sister came into the kitchen and said, “Pero Mami, no puedo. I just painted my nails.”
Her mother said, “Okay, Flora, you’ll be my helper today.” Flora couldn’t believe it. Maylin was fourteen going on full-blown diva. She was a genius at doing as little around the house as humanly possible.
This time, however, Flora wasn’t having it. “Mami, her nails? Really?” Then, just to prove that there was hateration where her heart should be, Maylin winked at Flora as she floated up the stairs to her room.

* * *

Flora’s mother stood at the kitchen island, chopping potatoes.
“Come, sit,” she said, gesturing to the high--back stool next to the island.
“What are you making?” Flora asked, feeling thankful all of a sudden for the time alone with her mother.
Damaris Delfina LeFevre was a cardiothoracic surgeon, which meant she operated on hearts. She went to bed early during the week and spent long hours at the hospital. The weekends were usually all for family time. But Maylin was turning fifteen that spring and so every Saturday, it seemed, Flora’s mother was tied up with quinceañera planning.
To be fair to Maylin, the whole quince setup had built--in telenovela level drama. The birthday girl is attended to by a court of fourteen friends and family members—-seven damas and seven chambelanes. The court all wore matching outfits, there was a DJ, choreographed dances, catering, gift bags for guests. It was a thing.
“What are you making for tonight?” Flora asked as her mother handed her a bowl of meat that Flora began to roll into tiny meatballs. “Besides these albóndigas?”
“I thought I’d keep it simple,” her mother said. “Just tapas: patatas bravas, croquetas, albóndigas, a cheese and meat plate, and an arroz negro with seafood.”
Flora grinned. “Mami, your definition of simple and my definition of simple are not the same.”
Her mother said, “I like cooking. It relaxes me.”
Flora looked at her mother and asked, “Mami, does your work stress you out?”
Her mother lined the perfectly cut potatoes on a tray and paused before she answered. “Yes and no. It’s delicate work, and that’s stressful. But créeme Floracita, there is nothing like holding a human heart in your hand. It’s the most beautiful thing in the world.”
Flora thought for a second and said, “But when you’re holding the heart in your hand, it’s covered in blood, right?”
Her mother nodded.
Flora shook her head. “That’s just disgusting.”
Her mother laughed and shook her head. “Es un milagro, but I can totally see how you might find it a little disgusting.”
At that moment, Maylin the Maleficent walked into the kitchen.
“What’s disgusting?” she said, reaching for a bag of tortilla chips on the counter.
“Your face,” Flora whispered, smiling sweetly.
“Mami!” Maylin called out plaintively. “Did you hear that? Did you hear how she talks to me?”
“Kidding,” Flora said as she jumped off the barstool.
But as she went to the kitchen sink to wash her hands, she felt a swell of pride.
By her count, the day’s score was Flora--1. Maylin--0.


Chapter 3

La Familia

It was Flora’s job to set the table for family suppers. She placed each dish on the long oak dining table in front of the door that led out to the garden. Her father made that table, as he had made almost everything in their house. He liked to say he was a carpenter, but she thought of him as an artist. He designed all kinds of furniture and his work was so popular that just the year before, he’d been able to open his own shop on Canal Street, the main street in town.
Flora ran her finger along the pale wood grain. There was something about her father’s furniture that felt even more beautiful to her, as if he had made it just for her.
As she placed the forks on top of the navy--blue linen napkins, she could hear the family and friends arriving through the back door of the house. There was her tío Rogelio—-tall and handsome, with the same dark skin and wavy hair as her mother. There was her uncle’s husband, her tío Luca—-he was a former ballet dancer and everything about the way he moved was smooth and elegant. Luca was holding their baby girl. The baby was named Damaris Delfina, after Flora’s mother. But everyone called the baby Delfina or Fina, for short.
Next to arrive was her grandmother. Abuela lived nearby in a town called Mystic. Flora ran up to her and gave her a squeeze. Even when it was freezing out, her grandmother smelled like summer, like agua de pipa and fresh cut ginger and how in the summer, in Rhode Island, everywhere you looked there were trees that sprayed white and yellow blossoms across bright green lawns.
“Bienvenida, Abuela,” she said, taking in her scent.
Her grandmother pulled her away and looked at her in disbelief. “Ay niña, you’re almost as tall as me!”
It was true. At ten, Flora was nearly as tall as her grandmother. But as she pointed out: “Abuela, I hate to be the one to break it to you, but you’re also super short.”
Her abuela puffed out her chest and said, “¡No me digas! When I stand on the ladder that is my heart, I’m six feet tall.”
“Oh Abuela, you’re so silly,” Flora said, kissing her on the cheek.
The door creaked open again and the kitchen filled with more guests. There was her tía Janet and her husband, Tío Aarón. They weren’t really her aunt and uncle, but she’d been taught to call every adult from Panama aunt or uncle. Flora didn’t mind—she liked the idea of being from a place so small and tightly knit that anyone who lived there could be considered family.
Abuela had brought along the guy she called “my gentleman friend.” His name was Mr. Carter. Since he wasn’t from Panama, Flora’s mother said it was okay to call him Mr. Carter and so she did.
Mr. Carter sat in the living room with Flora’s father, examining a piece of wood that Papá was crafting into a side table.
“Flora! Maylin! Cozy, cozy!” her mother called out.
Flora knew that meant she and her sister were to add the four folding chairs that were kept in the basement to the dining room table.
Maylin called out, “Tía Janet is braiding my hair, can’t Flora do it?”
Flora didn’t even wait for her mother to respond “No hay problema.” Sometimes Flora wondered if Maylin was not actually her sister but a real life princess that her parents had been charged to raise, like Princess Leia in the Obi Wan Kenobi series. It was like she could Jedi mind trick everyone around her. After she’d squeezed the folding chairs in between the wooden chairs with the cloud--gray cushions her father had made, Flora went to the cabinet with the dishes. She counted out ten bone--white plates and ten blue ombre napkins.
Her mother brought a tray of patatas bravas to the table and looked at Flora’s handiwork approvingly. “So good,” she said, kissing her on the forehead. “Flora, tú eres formidable.”
The guests all poured into the dining room and Flora sat between her dad and her tío Luca.
As they passed serving platters back and forth, her abuela asked, “Ay, Flora, dime. ¿Cómo está tu español?”
Flora shrugged. “Pretty good. Tomo clases cada sábado.”
Maylin looked at her scornfully. “And yet, your accent remains tan feo.”
Flora flinched. It was true, her accent was a little different from the rest of the family’s. She’d never be truly bilingual, but at least she tried. It wasn’t her fault that she’d been born in Boston and raised in Rhode Island. Just because her accent wasn’t flawless didn’t mean it was ugly.
Nobody criticized Maylin for being so hurtful. Rather her tía Janet just encouraged her by asking, “And Maylin, how goes planning for your quince?”
Flora wanted to do one of those slow--motion dives across the table to stop the words from coming out of her tía’s mouth. Once Maylin started talking about her quince, there would be no way to put the quincezilla back into the bottle. But it was too late.
“Gracias, Tía,” Maylin said, as if she were on stage and someone had just handed her a big, shiny gold award. “I don’t have to tell you, but planning a quince is a full--time job. There are so many damas and chambelanes to dress and instruct what to do. One of my damas has already missed two dance classes. I called her up and said, ‘Chica, if you think I’m going to let you embarrass me at my quince, you have another thing coming.’ ”
For the rest of dinner, it was the Maylin show, and Flora wished there were a trapdoor beneath her seat, a way to escape the room that had, all of a sudden, started to feel Alice in Wonderland small.
Finally, when the platters were filled with nothing but crumbs and the remnants of fresh herbs that her mother had used to season each dish, she was sprung free. Her father said, “Flora, help me clear the table, querida.”
Flora nodded and collected the plates as Maylin pattered on. “I’ve had no luck finding a dress. Tú sabes, tengo un estilo muy refinado and I don’t want to just recycle a poofy prom dress the way so many girls do.”
As Flora stood side by side in the kitchen with her father, he said, “It’s not easy being in the middle.”
Flora was confused. “What do you mean?”
“Well, Maylin is the oldest.”
Flora said, “She’s also self-centered más que nada. Continue.”
Her father said, “You have Maylin on one hand and now Delfina is the baby.”
Flora was going to be starting middle school in a year. She certainly wasn’t worried about not being the baby of the family.
Her father was nothing if not perceptive. He said, “I know I’m not explaining it perfectly, but I guess what I’m trying to say is that when I was a kid, I felt stuck in the middle. My brother Ben was older and a soccer star. My little brother Dimitry was younger but he was a musical prodigy from the age of four. It took me a while to find my thing. But I also came to realize that there’s kind of a magic to being in the middle. I was surrounded by a lot of love.”
Listening to the orchestra of voices coming from the dining room, Flora knew her father wasn’t wrong. She did feel surrounded by love.
Then Maylin called out from the dining room, “Flora, bring us some water.”
Her father gave her a look that said “Cálmate.”
She wanted to take the jug of water out of the fridge and slam it on the table. But instead she handed it to her father, who took it into the dining room.
She opened the calendar on her father’s iPad and did some quick math. Only 912 days until Maylin went to college. Then she would be the only kid/teenager in the house. She could hardly wait. It was going to be awesome.
*“Chambers places universal friendship trials within the specific joy and beauty of an Afro-Panamanian family, capturing the deep, intense emotions of childhood bonds. Rim’s delightful illustrations punctuate the text and capture the mood of the characters’ journeys. . . . Funny, heartwarming, and sweet.”—Kirkus Reviews, starred review

“Pencil-like b&w sketches from Rim pepper vivacious prose by Chambers, punctuating Flora’s moments of elation and sorrow as she works to navigate her shifting relationships. Realistic familial dynamics and a fair amount of tween antics from Flora and company add verve to this warm friendship story.”—Publishers Weekly

“Chambers has captured the many real and raw feelings that a child may experience when a friend is moving. Paired with the splendid illustrations by Rim that enhance the story, this is a delightful look into the special connections one can have with friends and family.”—Booklist

“The girls’ friendship is full of inside jokes and heartwarming anecdotes, and both pals are realistic modern tweens, writing code in Scratch, practicing TikTok dances, and skateboarding. The mix of Spanish and English dialogue between the friends shows their growing Spanish language skills, and their relationships with their Latinx mothers deftly convey the parent/child dynamic of second-generation kids trying to honor their heritage. Having a close friend move away in childhood is a common theme in middle grade and YA lit, and Chambers’ compassionate look at Clara and Flora’s relationship may make the journey more bearable for those facing a similar scenario.”—BCCB
© Jason Clampet
Veronica Chambers is a prolific author, best known for her critically acclaimed memoir Mama's Girl. She coauthored the award-winning memoir Yes, Chef with chef Marcus Samuelsson, as well as Samuelsson's young-adult memoir Make It Messy, and has collaborated on four New York Times bestsellers, most recently 32 Yolks, which she cowrote with chef Eric Ripert. She has been a senior editor at the New York Times MagazineNewsweek, and Glamour. Born in Panama and raised in Brooklyn, she writes often about her Afro-Latina heritage. She speaks, reads, and writes Spanish, but she is truly fluent in Spanglish. She is currently a John S. Knight journalism fellow at Stanford University. Her upcoming novel is The Go-Between. View titles by Veronica Chambers

About

From an NYT bestselling author comes the first in an illustrated middle grade series about a Panamanian American girl who uses humor and a little mischief to navigate her best friend moving away and her sister’s overbearing and all-consuming quince preparations.

Flora Violeta LeFevre, aka Flora "la Fresca" (so called because she tells it like it is, occasionally to her parents' chagrin) can always count on her best friend Clara Ocampo Londra to turn anything-from a day at the skate park to dreaded Saturday Spanish school ­into an exciting adventure. But amidst Flora's personal nightmare that is her sister Maylin's never-ending dress try-ons and dance practices for her upcoming quinceañera, news breaks that Clara's moving, and Flora doesn't know how she'll survive without her. The girls quickly roll up their sleeves and use their larger-than-life imaginations to make the most of each passing day together. But things get complicated when Clara moves and starts making new friends, an unlikely alliance blossoms between Flora and a new student, and preparations for Maylin's quince take a disastrous (but hilarious) turn.

Excerpt

Chapter 1

Chica, Chica, Chica

Flora Violeta LeFevre despised a great many things, but few of them as much as Saturday Spanish school. They called it a school, but it was really just a classroom at the Westerly Education Center. The class was roughly a dozen students, all between the ages of seven and twelve. Like Flora, they all had Latine parents who wanted their kids to speak better Spanish but were too busy to teach them at home.
Their teacher was an indefatigable young woman named Señorita María José who was so energetic that Flora suspected that her gold hoop earrings and jangly bracelets were actually solar panels. They were allowed to call her by her first name because it was Saturday school. They were not allowed to ask her why she had a girl’s name and a boy’s name.
“It’s just one of those things,” she had said.
Señorita María José, or Srta. MJ for short, had grown up in Puerto Rico and was now getting her master’s in teaching at Brown University.
All of the parents in Westerly, the town where Flora lived, said Brown University in a hushed and reverent tone, the same way the priest said our Lord and Savior during Sunday service. Flora’s mother said, “We are so lucky to have María José teaching you Spanish. That woman is brilliant!”
Flora didn’t have anything against her teacher. What she did have a problem with was spending practically half of one of her two days off doing extra school just because her parents were from Panama. But her parents made her go from nine a.m. to twelve noon, every Saturday no matter what excuse she could invent, from the time her eyesight “disappeared” to the violent stomachache that was really excellent acting for a ten--year--old, as anybody would tell you.
It would have been the worst except for the girl sitting next to her, who was the very best. Flora, who was ten and in the fifth grade, looked over at her best friend, Clara. Clarita slowly and deliberately rolled both of her eyes to the center of her head.
Flora tried, and failed, to stifle a giggle.
The lesson that day was about reflexive verbs, which made no sense to Flora. Cállate la boca was the only reflexive phrase Flora could say with confidence. But if she ever told her big sister to shut her mouth, she would get into more trouble than she knew what to do with.
“A verb is reflexive when the subject and the receiver are the same,” Señorita MJ told the class. “For example, I washed the plate, not reflexive. I took a shower, reflexive.”
Flora laid her head on the table. It didn’t make sense. None of it made sense.
She was hoping to settle in for a teeny--tiny nap when she felt a note come sliding across the table.
Flora opened it up and grinned. It said:
Perk up, buttercup.
Flora looked over at Clara, who pretended to nap on the table, snored loudly, then pantomimed waking up and looking around as if she were completely disoriented.
Flora’s Spanish was far from perfect, but she knew that Clara was muy graciosa. Perhaps even the very funniest of all BFFs.
When the clock struck noon, Srta. María José said, “Okay chicos, you are free to go. Disfruten de su sábado.”
Flora grabbed her navy--blue peacoat and dashed for the door. “¡Hasta whenever, Señorita María José!” she called out as she exited the classroom.
“Wait for me, Flora la Fresca!” Clara bellowed.
It was Clara’s nickname for Flora and it had started the previous summer when Clara had taken the windbreaker that she wore around her waist and tied it around her shoulders. Then she took out a golden paper crown from the back pocket of her denim shorts and put it on Flora’s head. She said, “I, Queen Clara, now residing in the realm of Westerly, have found you, Flora, to be the embodiment of all that is fun and good. From this day on, you shall be known as Flora la Fresca.”
Sometimes the kids at school called her Flo, which Flora hated. But she liked Flora la Fresca. Even her parents called her that sometimes. If she wasn’t exactly fresca—meaning fresh with a little bit of attitude—she definitely aspired to be.

* * *

Flora thought of that day as she waited for her friend.
Clara threw her quilted silver vest over her bright yellow sweatshirt and did a TikTok dance out of the room.
Flora said, “Come on, Clara!” but she didn’t really mind waiting for her to start walking home. Everything was more fun when Clara was around. It was mid--November, but the day was warm like September as the girls walked through Wilcox Park and headed toward the ocean.
Westerly was a pretty little town on the coast of Rhode Island. Two and a half hours from New York and ninety minutes from Boston, it was a popular summer getaway. Most of the year, there were fewer than twenty thousand people in the town. It sounded like a lot, but it wasn’t really. There were only thirty kids in the fifth grade of their public school, and Flora and Clara knew them all, as well as their siblings and parents. Once Memorial Day rolled around, the town’s population doubled. The girls noticed that the streets filled with the faces of strangers as the big summer houses on the ocean’s edge, which sat empty most of the winter, swelled with wealthy families and their guests.
Flora’s uncle Rogelio, her mother’s oldest brother, had moved to the town thirty years before to work at the quarry. Westerly Quarry was famous for its natural pink stone. Tío Rogelio had done well there and as he rose in the company, he got jobs for more and more Panamanians. Soon there were more than two dozen Panamanian families living in the small New England town.
Her uncle said that Westerly reminded him of Panama—-not the cold or the snow, but how on a warm summer day, you could wake up and smell the briny saltiness of the Atlantic Ocean. Even if you couldn’t see it, you could smell it. Tío said, “Where the sea is, we’re home.”
Flora stood in the middle of the park and took a big sniff.
Clara looked over at her and raised one eyebrow, then the other.
“Oh Flora,” her friend said. “Are you smelling the sea again?”
Flora nodded.
Clara said, “Then I’ll just have to take you there in my boat.”
She pretended to drag an invisible canoe across the park gravel, then stopped midway and mimed dropping the end of the canoe. “Flora! It’s heavy. Aren’t you going to help?”
Flora went to where she imagined the back of the boat to be. She pushed at the air and Clara pulled.
Clara looked up and said, “Come on, Flora. Being invisible doesn’t make the boat any lighter. Put some muscle into it.”
Flora smiled and took a step back and pushed as if her life depended on it.
Clara looked up approvingly and said, “Chica, that’s how it’s done.”
She stepped oh--so--carefully into the invisible canoe and gestured for Flora to join her.
Flora stepped in and sat cross--legged behind her friend.
Without needing to say a word, the girls began to move their invisible oars in unison. Sure they knew they looked goofy, but they were busy creating their own world.
“A la derecha,” Clara whispered softly. “A la izquierda.”
They sat that way, legs crisscrossed, moving their hands in semi--circles as if their fingers were oars and the gravel was the deepest blue ocean.
Flora said, “My dad said that when I’m sixteen, I can take sailing lessons.”
Every summer Sunday, early before her mother and sister woke up, Flora and her father would walk to the Westerly boat yard and look at the boats heading out for the day. Her father, Santiago LeFevre, was tall, with a scraggly beard and a smile that was never far from his face. He would drink coffee, she would drink a babyccino—-steamed milk with cocoa powder—-and they would talk about boats. Flora dreamed about being able to sail a boat, the way her sister talked about getting a driver’s license.
Clara kept paddling. “Great, I’ll take sailing lessons when I’m sixteen too.”
People passed them in the park, but no one seemed to notice their invisible canoe.
“Do you remember that girl Liba Daniels who used to pick us up from school when we were in the third grade?”
Flora said “third grade” as if it had been eons ago and not just two years before.
Clara nodded and said, “Claro, Liba was cool.”
Flora said, “My dad told me that Liba got her sailing license and she’s taking a gap year from college. She’s sailing some rich person’s boat from Rhode Island to the Caribbean.”
Clara looked confused. “Why doesn’t Señor Rich Person take his boat to the Caribbean himself?”
Flora said, “It could be a she.”
Clara pursed her lips. “Fine, Señora Rich Person.”
She shrugged. “I guess it’s a thing. They’re too busy or something, so they hire people to sail their boats from here to their homes in the islands.”
“You get paid to sail someone else’s fancy boat? How much?”
Flora said, “I have no idea. But I want that job.”
Flora felt her phone buzz. It was a text from her mother. “¿Dónde estás?”
She stepped out of the boat. “It’s my mom. I better get home.”
“Me too,” Clara said.
They walked home, talking the whole way about boats and how they couldn’t wait until they were old enough to take a year off of school and get paid cold, hard cash to lounge about on a boat all day. Being in the fifth grade was fun. But being teenagers together was going to be everything.


Chapter 2

Flora’s House


The brown shingled cottage where Flora lived with her parents and older sister looked almost like every other house in their little seaside village. But what Flora liked about her house was that there was a secret behind it. When you went into the house and through the back door, there was a stone path that led to another brown shingled house, one that was much bigger. That house belonged to her uncle Rogelio and his family—-and that house had a private path to the beach.
Sunday dinners were always at Flora’s house, even if it was smaller. The kitchen was cozier and it spilled onto a patio that they used nearly year round. That November afternoon was no different, Flora’s mother calling out, “¡Maylin! ¡Flora! Necesito su ayuda.”
Maylin was Flora’s older sister. She was awful. Flora was convinced that if they ever performed surgery on her only sibling, they would find out that there was a hard, cold rock where Maylin’s heart should be. To say Maylin was mean was a gross understatement. She was stingy. And a tattletale. And of course, Maylin was their parents’ favorite. Flora wondered what you called someone who was the teacher’s pet, but with parents. “Parents’ pet” didn’t sound right. But there had to be a word. Whatever it was, Maylin was it.
Flora’s sister came into the kitchen and said, “Pero Mami, no puedo. I just painted my nails.”
Her mother said, “Okay, Flora, you’ll be my helper today.” Flora couldn’t believe it. Maylin was fourteen going on full-blown diva. She was a genius at doing as little around the house as humanly possible.
This time, however, Flora wasn’t having it. “Mami, her nails? Really?” Then, just to prove that there was hateration where her heart should be, Maylin winked at Flora as she floated up the stairs to her room.

* * *

Flora’s mother stood at the kitchen island, chopping potatoes.
“Come, sit,” she said, gesturing to the high--back stool next to the island.
“What are you making?” Flora asked, feeling thankful all of a sudden for the time alone with her mother.
Damaris Delfina LeFevre was a cardiothoracic surgeon, which meant she operated on hearts. She went to bed early during the week and spent long hours at the hospital. The weekends were usually all for family time. But Maylin was turning fifteen that spring and so every Saturday, it seemed, Flora’s mother was tied up with quinceañera planning.
To be fair to Maylin, the whole quince setup had built--in telenovela level drama. The birthday girl is attended to by a court of fourteen friends and family members—-seven damas and seven chambelanes. The court all wore matching outfits, there was a DJ, choreographed dances, catering, gift bags for guests. It was a thing.
“What are you making for tonight?” Flora asked as her mother handed her a bowl of meat that Flora began to roll into tiny meatballs. “Besides these albóndigas?”
“I thought I’d keep it simple,” her mother said. “Just tapas: patatas bravas, croquetas, albóndigas, a cheese and meat plate, and an arroz negro with seafood.”
Flora grinned. “Mami, your definition of simple and my definition of simple are not the same.”
Her mother said, “I like cooking. It relaxes me.”
Flora looked at her mother and asked, “Mami, does your work stress you out?”
Her mother lined the perfectly cut potatoes on a tray and paused before she answered. “Yes and no. It’s delicate work, and that’s stressful. But créeme Floracita, there is nothing like holding a human heart in your hand. It’s the most beautiful thing in the world.”
Flora thought for a second and said, “But when you’re holding the heart in your hand, it’s covered in blood, right?”
Her mother nodded.
Flora shook her head. “That’s just disgusting.”
Her mother laughed and shook her head. “Es un milagro, but I can totally see how you might find it a little disgusting.”
At that moment, Maylin the Maleficent walked into the kitchen.
“What’s disgusting?” she said, reaching for a bag of tortilla chips on the counter.
“Your face,” Flora whispered, smiling sweetly.
“Mami!” Maylin called out plaintively. “Did you hear that? Did you hear how she talks to me?”
“Kidding,” Flora said as she jumped off the barstool.
But as she went to the kitchen sink to wash her hands, she felt a swell of pride.
By her count, the day’s score was Flora--1. Maylin--0.


Chapter 3

La Familia

It was Flora’s job to set the table for family suppers. She placed each dish on the long oak dining table in front of the door that led out to the garden. Her father made that table, as he had made almost everything in their house. He liked to say he was a carpenter, but she thought of him as an artist. He designed all kinds of furniture and his work was so popular that just the year before, he’d been able to open his own shop on Canal Street, the main street in town.
Flora ran her finger along the pale wood grain. There was something about her father’s furniture that felt even more beautiful to her, as if he had made it just for her.
As she placed the forks on top of the navy--blue linen napkins, she could hear the family and friends arriving through the back door of the house. There was her tío Rogelio—-tall and handsome, with the same dark skin and wavy hair as her mother. There was her uncle’s husband, her tío Luca—-he was a former ballet dancer and everything about the way he moved was smooth and elegant. Luca was holding their baby girl. The baby was named Damaris Delfina, after Flora’s mother. But everyone called the baby Delfina or Fina, for short.
Next to arrive was her grandmother. Abuela lived nearby in a town called Mystic. Flora ran up to her and gave her a squeeze. Even when it was freezing out, her grandmother smelled like summer, like agua de pipa and fresh cut ginger and how in the summer, in Rhode Island, everywhere you looked there were trees that sprayed white and yellow blossoms across bright green lawns.
“Bienvenida, Abuela,” she said, taking in her scent.
Her grandmother pulled her away and looked at her in disbelief. “Ay niña, you’re almost as tall as me!”
It was true. At ten, Flora was nearly as tall as her grandmother. But as she pointed out: “Abuela, I hate to be the one to break it to you, but you’re also super short.”
Her abuela puffed out her chest and said, “¡No me digas! When I stand on the ladder that is my heart, I’m six feet tall.”
“Oh Abuela, you’re so silly,” Flora said, kissing her on the cheek.
The door creaked open again and the kitchen filled with more guests. There was her tía Janet and her husband, Tío Aarón. They weren’t really her aunt and uncle, but she’d been taught to call every adult from Panama aunt or uncle. Flora didn’t mind—she liked the idea of being from a place so small and tightly knit that anyone who lived there could be considered family.
Abuela had brought along the guy she called “my gentleman friend.” His name was Mr. Carter. Since he wasn’t from Panama, Flora’s mother said it was okay to call him Mr. Carter and so she did.
Mr. Carter sat in the living room with Flora’s father, examining a piece of wood that Papá was crafting into a side table.
“Flora! Maylin! Cozy, cozy!” her mother called out.
Flora knew that meant she and her sister were to add the four folding chairs that were kept in the basement to the dining room table.
Maylin called out, “Tía Janet is braiding my hair, can’t Flora do it?”
Flora didn’t even wait for her mother to respond “No hay problema.” Sometimes Flora wondered if Maylin was not actually her sister but a real life princess that her parents had been charged to raise, like Princess Leia in the Obi Wan Kenobi series. It was like she could Jedi mind trick everyone around her. After she’d squeezed the folding chairs in between the wooden chairs with the cloud--gray cushions her father had made, Flora went to the cabinet with the dishes. She counted out ten bone--white plates and ten blue ombre napkins.
Her mother brought a tray of patatas bravas to the table and looked at Flora’s handiwork approvingly. “So good,” she said, kissing her on the forehead. “Flora, tú eres formidable.”
The guests all poured into the dining room and Flora sat between her dad and her tío Luca.
As they passed serving platters back and forth, her abuela asked, “Ay, Flora, dime. ¿Cómo está tu español?”
Flora shrugged. “Pretty good. Tomo clases cada sábado.”
Maylin looked at her scornfully. “And yet, your accent remains tan feo.”
Flora flinched. It was true, her accent was a little different from the rest of the family’s. She’d never be truly bilingual, but at least she tried. It wasn’t her fault that she’d been born in Boston and raised in Rhode Island. Just because her accent wasn’t flawless didn’t mean it was ugly.
Nobody criticized Maylin for being so hurtful. Rather her tía Janet just encouraged her by asking, “And Maylin, how goes planning for your quince?”
Flora wanted to do one of those slow--motion dives across the table to stop the words from coming out of her tía’s mouth. Once Maylin started talking about her quince, there would be no way to put the quincezilla back into the bottle. But it was too late.
“Gracias, Tía,” Maylin said, as if she were on stage and someone had just handed her a big, shiny gold award. “I don’t have to tell you, but planning a quince is a full--time job. There are so many damas and chambelanes to dress and instruct what to do. One of my damas has already missed two dance classes. I called her up and said, ‘Chica, if you think I’m going to let you embarrass me at my quince, you have another thing coming.’ ”
For the rest of dinner, it was the Maylin show, and Flora wished there were a trapdoor beneath her seat, a way to escape the room that had, all of a sudden, started to feel Alice in Wonderland small.
Finally, when the platters were filled with nothing but crumbs and the remnants of fresh herbs that her mother had used to season each dish, she was sprung free. Her father said, “Flora, help me clear the table, querida.”
Flora nodded and collected the plates as Maylin pattered on. “I’ve had no luck finding a dress. Tú sabes, tengo un estilo muy refinado and I don’t want to just recycle a poofy prom dress the way so many girls do.”
As Flora stood side by side in the kitchen with her father, he said, “It’s not easy being in the middle.”
Flora was confused. “What do you mean?”
“Well, Maylin is the oldest.”
Flora said, “She’s also self-centered más que nada. Continue.”
Her father said, “You have Maylin on one hand and now Delfina is the baby.”
Flora was going to be starting middle school in a year. She certainly wasn’t worried about not being the baby of the family.
Her father was nothing if not perceptive. He said, “I know I’m not explaining it perfectly, but I guess what I’m trying to say is that when I was a kid, I felt stuck in the middle. My brother Ben was older and a soccer star. My little brother Dimitry was younger but he was a musical prodigy from the age of four. It took me a while to find my thing. But I also came to realize that there’s kind of a magic to being in the middle. I was surrounded by a lot of love.”
Listening to the orchestra of voices coming from the dining room, Flora knew her father wasn’t wrong. She did feel surrounded by love.
Then Maylin called out from the dining room, “Flora, bring us some water.”
Her father gave her a look that said “Cálmate.”
She wanted to take the jug of water out of the fridge and slam it on the table. But instead she handed it to her father, who took it into the dining room.
She opened the calendar on her father’s iPad and did some quick math. Only 912 days until Maylin went to college. Then she would be the only kid/teenager in the house. She could hardly wait. It was going to be awesome.

Reviews

*“Chambers places universal friendship trials within the specific joy and beauty of an Afro-Panamanian family, capturing the deep, intense emotions of childhood bonds. Rim’s delightful illustrations punctuate the text and capture the mood of the characters’ journeys. . . . Funny, heartwarming, and sweet.”—Kirkus Reviews, starred review

“Pencil-like b&w sketches from Rim pepper vivacious prose by Chambers, punctuating Flora’s moments of elation and sorrow as she works to navigate her shifting relationships. Realistic familial dynamics and a fair amount of tween antics from Flora and company add verve to this warm friendship story.”—Publishers Weekly

“Chambers has captured the many real and raw feelings that a child may experience when a friend is moving. Paired with the splendid illustrations by Rim that enhance the story, this is a delightful look into the special connections one can have with friends and family.”—Booklist

“The girls’ friendship is full of inside jokes and heartwarming anecdotes, and both pals are realistic modern tweens, writing code in Scratch, practicing TikTok dances, and skateboarding. The mix of Spanish and English dialogue between the friends shows their growing Spanish language skills, and their relationships with their Latinx mothers deftly convey the parent/child dynamic of second-generation kids trying to honor their heritage. Having a close friend move away in childhood is a common theme in middle grade and YA lit, and Chambers’ compassionate look at Clara and Flora’s relationship may make the journey more bearable for those facing a similar scenario.”—BCCB

Author

© Jason Clampet
Veronica Chambers is a prolific author, best known for her critically acclaimed memoir Mama's Girl. She coauthored the award-winning memoir Yes, Chef with chef Marcus Samuelsson, as well as Samuelsson's young-adult memoir Make It Messy, and has collaborated on four New York Times bestsellers, most recently 32 Yolks, which she cowrote with chef Eric Ripert. She has been a senior editor at the New York Times MagazineNewsweek, and Glamour. Born in Panama and raised in Brooklyn, she writes often about her Afro-Latina heritage. She speaks, reads, and writes Spanish, but she is truly fluent in Spanglish. She is currently a John S. Knight journalism fellow at Stanford University. Her upcoming novel is The Go-Between. View titles by Veronica Chambers