Author: Gary Soto
Illustrator: Richard Jones
As 2006 starts, Jess McConnell finds herself at the beginning of a huge adventure: she's going with her archaologist parents on a five-month dig in Belize. She's excited for the variety of firsts she'll experience, from her first time out the country to her first time being homeschooled to her first time without her older brother and sister to boss her around (she'll miss them, but being the youngest child, not their bossiness). Her grandmother will watch the sixteen- and seventeen-year-old Heather and Jason back home in Michigan, while ten-year-old Jess gets her chance to be more on her own.
In Belize, Jess has quite a bit of culture shock, as one would expect, but adjusts quickly. She thinks often of her friends and family back home, and misses them, but also loves all the new things she's experiencing. Her homeschooling is going well, she gets along with the people at the dig site, and she's even made friends with a tame spider monkey. Still, after a while it gets hard for Jess to see her parents spending so much time with the artifacts belonging to a long-gone civilization than with their daughter who's right there with them. So Jess is thrilled to meet Sarita, another ten-year-old who lives nearby. The girls bond over soccer, then their knowledge of the ancient Mayans, then their love of nature, and quickly become close friends. During a heavy rainstorm, the girls find a young parrot fledgling that's been knocked out of its nest. Under the direction of one of the workers at the dig site, they care for the bird until it can be taken to a zoo in Belize.
Sarita invites Jess to spend a few nights with her family. Jess gets to learn a lot with her friend, seeing how Sarita's family keeps up the traditional Mayan lifestyle (they also have some modern conveniences like cell phones) and exploring a cave system. As they explore the jungle around Sarita's house, the two girls happen upon the entrance to cave Sarita's family has never noticed before. It's full of Mayan artifacts! Before Jess can tell her parents about it, some looters (who heard about it from another couple who saw the cave) make off with some smaller pieces. But enough remains to make a huge find. Another first for Jess: her first archeological discovery!
Elyse is a ten-year-old whose parents are archeologists, like Jess. Her parents are also excavating a site in Belize, and have been for years. Elysa and her older brother and sister spend two months every year in Belize with their parents, helping on the dig site (the rest of the year the family lives in Florida). Like Jess, Elyse gets to experience many things most kids her age wouldn't, and gets to help on the digs.
Dedicated to "Idalia, Patricia,Sandra, and Gina, the best darn teachers of Hebbronville, Texas."
Jess is Japanese on her mother's side and Scottish on her father's side.
Jess plays soccer, most likely forward from how she talks about it.
During the trip, Jess keeps a running list of the "firsts" that she experiences. One of the less fun firsts is getting bit by fire ants. My baby niece got attacked by fire ants several weeks ago; just nine months old. They were at a playground (in Texas). She's okay now, but was less than pleased initially.
I hope Jess and her parents wrote a nice thank you note to Jess's teacher for the lesson plan she put together to last Jess the rest of the school year. Jess emails assignments to her teacher, too. That's a lot of work. Sounds like a good teacher.
No deaths have been attributed to tarantula bites, but anecdotes suggest that some people can be allergic to their bites like some people are allergic to otherwise-non-deadly bee stings. In addition, the bites can leave people vulnerable to infection, and tarantula bristles can make people break out in itchy rashes and hives.