A Shopful of Bigfoots
by Mat Larkin
I’m working on a scene in a new middle grade novel, and I don’t want to make a big deal out of it but it’s going brilliantly, when suddenly my main character, twelve year-old Attica Stone, takes off her red nose, puts down the tyrannosaur’s jaw bone and says ‘wait, what’s this all about?’
This surprises me so much I nearly type her off a cliff. ‘Well it’s …’ I start uncertainly. ‘See … the bad guy’s hiding in the cave with the time machine, and –’
‘No no no,’ says Attica. ‘I don’t mean this.’ She waves her hand around the savannah setting. ‘I think we can all agree this isn’t working. I mean, time travel? With clowns? Bit early in your career to be this desperate, isn’t it?’
‘I could maybe set it at the zoo?’ I say.
‘Yeah, that’s dynamite,’ says Attica. ‘The thing is, we’ve been meaning to ask you something.’
Attica looks one way and the other, and nods. From behind rocks and trees and mastodons appear all the characters I’ve ever written. My characters. The ones that I have copyright clearance for.
‘You see,’ says Pri Kohli, hero of The Orchard Underground, ‘you keep chucking us into bizarre situations.’
‘What?’ I say, aghast. ‘No I don’t!’
‘You split my pants in front of Attica!’ complains Pri. ‘Also, I nearly got eaten by a monster.’
‘The pants thing was funny and you know it,’ I say. ‘And you didn’t nearly eaten by a monster, that was just –’
‘Spoilers!’ cries Jinni Miscamble, running a hand through curly red hair like fireworks.
‘Who are you?’ asks Pri.
‘Sweetie, I’m the hero of his next one, The Chameleon Thief,’ she beams.
‘No you’re not, you’re the bad guy!’ says Attica.
‘I’m just misunderstood,’ sniffs Jinni.
‘Wait,’ says Pri. ‘Am I not in the next one?’
‘Look,’ I stammer, ‘I –’
‘Well I don’t know you,’ says a kid in a top hat and black cape.
Pri jerks a thumb at him. ‘Who’s this guy?’
‘The Non-Believable Neil, Master Illusionist in Training,’ the kid says. He reaches up his sleeve. ‘Is this your wallet, sir?’
He yanks out a bunch of plastic flowers. Behind him, his best friend Snez rolls her eyes and yeets a dinosaur skull over the horizon. ‘Can someone just ask him?’ she says.
‘Ask me what?’ I say. ‘What’s going on?’
‘Cool your horses,’ says Attica. ‘We need to elect someone to speak for us.’
My characters huddle together. ‘Could you … give us a little space?’ Jinni asks.
‘Oh!’ I say. ‘Sorry.’ I walk across the room. Nothing happens for a moment, because I’m not typing anything, so I come back. The huddle has broken up, and a scruffy figure in a duffel coat steps forward to speak.
‘So, y’know Bigfoot, right?’
The others sigh. This is Slotcar, my resident weirdo. ‘Yeah?’ I say.
‘Well, the thing is,’ she says, ‘when a Bigfoot’s wanderin’ around the forest alone, bein’ a monster, he does whatever he wants, doesn’t he? We don’t even know he’s there.’
‘Slotcar,’ Pri mutters impatiently. Attica shushes him.
‘It’s only when monster-hunters take grainy photos of him and plaster casts of his shoe size, and show them to people, that he becomes a big deal. Cos now he’s a story, isn’t he? And we’re makin’ up the story about him, so we can make him into anythin’ we want. Which is dead good, because everyone loves a story. Especially if it’s got a monster in. Monster stories are brilliant. There’s this one about a massive hamburger that –’
‘SLOTCAR,’ says Jinni.
‘Right. So the question is: how come we’re your Bigfoots?’
I squeeze the bridge of my nose. ‘Can anyone else ask me?’ I say.
‘Ugh – what’s the point of us as characters?’ Attica bursts out. The others nod. ‘You keep tipping our lives upside down and chucking us into adventures. And I’m not complaining – you know me, greatest Adventure Nerd in town. But …’
Pri pipes up. ‘Why? Why tell stories about us? Is it just for your own fun? Cos it’s kind of weird if it’s just because you like it.’
I blink. ‘You … you really don’t know?’
They all shrug.
‘I can’t believe I haven’t explained this,’ I say. ‘I do it because … wait. Waitwaitwait. I’ve got a brilliant idea. Come with me. I’ll show you what you’re for!’
I leap up from my desk, grab my jacket and run out the door.
There’s another pause.
‘Does …’ Neil says, ‘… does he think we can just do stuff after he leaves?’
In another part of town, the Little Bookroom is bustling. Leesa, Michael and Alison, who are real people I don’t have copyright clearance on, are busy putting new books on shelves and giving expert advice to curious customers.
The door bursts open. ‘BOOOOOM,’ cries Attica Stone, ‘it me!’ She pauses for effect before adding, ‘And these characters! Also this guy. He says you can tell us what we’re for. Hi!’
All my characters follow her inside, followed by me, feeling far too nervous for someone who only just had this brilliant idea fifteen lines ago.
‘Hellooooooo, Attica Stone!’ Leesa matches Attica’s energy as she comes out from behind the counter, arms stretched wide for a group hug, to greet everyone.
‘Wait, so you already know us?’ says Pri.
‘Of course!’ smiles Michael. They take a copy of The Orchard Underground down from a shelf. ‘You’re on the cover, see?’
Pri comes face to face with himself. ‘I don’t look anything like that,’ he says.
Snez peers over his shoulder. ‘You’re not that tall, for a start.’
‘At least I’m on the cover.’
‘I’m on the next one’s cover.’ She eyes the cover again. ‘Bigger than that.’
In the next aisle, Alison is showing a kid the new Edwina Wyatt book. ‘A new Magnolia Moon!’ the kid squeals! ‘Yay!’
Magnolia appears next to him and squeezes his hand. Attica peers at Magnolia, and the illustration of her on the cover. ‘Hang on,’ she says. ‘Why are there drawings of characters on the cover? Why not put on the actual, y’know, us?’
‘Aha!’ I say. ‘We’re getting there. Because you’re characters, you look different to everyone who reads the book! I give little clues about your appearance, but I like to leave a lot of it up to the readers. Every reader has their own version of you in their head, and each one is exactly right. Get it?’
Slotcar nods wisely. ‘Just like Bigfoot,’ she says.
‘No,’ I say, ‘it’s – actually, you know what? That’s pretty much exactly what it’s like,’ I say. ‘I give people glimpses of you, like Bigfoot in the woods, and they fill in the rest. There are thousands of different version of you out there, in kids’ heads. All because I said, for example, one of you has sci-fi fairy floss hair. Isn’t it brilliant?’
Attica shoves her hand in her quiff. ‘How absolutely dare you,’ she says.
Michael sends a teen out the door, holding hands with Jane Doe and Violet from Jeremy Lachlan’s Jane Doe and the Cradle of All Worlds.
‘They seemed cool,’ says Snez. ‘It’s a shame we couldn’t meet them.’
‘They’re not my characters,’ I say. ‘I could get sued if they hang around in my story!’
Michael rolls their eyes. ‘So, what has Mat told you about what you’re for?’
‘He says we’re drawings of Bigfoot,’ says Slotcar.
Michael looks at me and sighs. ‘Why don’t I show you something?’ they say. ‘Follow me.’
They lead everyone up an excitingly steep set of stairs to a big room, where a gang of kids is sitting around a table with Leesa. One turns around and grins. ‘Pri, Slotcar, I remember you!’ she says. ‘We did your book!’
‘Attica Stone!’ cries another one. ‘Is your hair a different colour?’
‘For everyone, apparently.’
‘I wrote a story with you in it once,’ the kid says. ‘But I put you in the Nevermoor universe.’
‘I remember that!’ says Attica. ‘How do I remember that?’
‘Because you were there,’ I tell her. ‘If someone writes you, that’s you.’
‘Oh. Anyway, what are you all doing up here?’
All the kids hold up copies of the same book. ‘Book club!’ says one.
‘Lovely!’ beams Jinni. ‘What’s that?’
‘It’s where we all read the same book and then we get together and talk about it,’ says another kid. They hold up their copy. ‘This month it’s Seven Wherewithal Way, by Samantha-Ellen Bound.’
Neil takes the book, waves his hand mysteriously over it and tosses it into the air. It vanishes.
‘That’s impressive!’ says Michael.
‘Thanks,’ says Neil, staring up into space, ‘What’s really impressive is that it was supposed to turn into a white dove.’
‘Oh. Well, I still like the trick. Where’s the book?’
‘Hard to say. Can you can fix that in the computer?’
Michael thinks about this. ‘We don’t really have a code for “book impossibly vanished by fictional character”,’ they say. ‘Leave it with me.’
‘This book club thing sounds fun,’ says Snez. ‘Do you all already know each other?’
‘No,’ says a kid. ‘We’re all from different schools and areas, but we met here, talking about books. Now we’re friends!’
‘Because you hang out together?’
‘Because we all love stories!’
From across the room, Ferd, Celeste and Esme from Seven Wherewithal Way wave. Before I can stop them, they start talking.
‘Hi,’ says Esme.
‘Hiya,’ says Pri. ‘Your book seems cool.’
‘Yours too,’ says Celeste. ‘Want to do a crossover story one day?’
‘Maybe another time,’ says Neil. He jerks a thumb at me. ‘He’s got us doing clowns and time travel.’
‘Oh my,’ says Ferd. ‘Sounds extraordinary! Good luck.’
Attica shrugs. ‘I’ll talk him out of it. He does what I tell him, mostly.’
‘Hey,’ I say. ‘I write you, I’m in charge.’
‘Oh yeah?’ says Snez. ‘How do you fancy being in charge of a book with no one in it?’
I eyeball my characters. They eyeball me back. I’m outnumbered.
‘Look,’ I say, ‘would you at least stop talking to characters from other people’s books? Come downstairs, and don’t talk to anyone I didn’t invent.’
‘Ugh, fine,’ says Attica.
Back downstairs, she turns to Leesa. ‘You seem pretty amazing, why don’t you tell us what this guy is clearly struggling with? What am I for? What are kids’ stories for? What’s this shop for?’
Leesa smiles warmly. ‘I think you probably already know. What have you all seen since you got here?’
‘That one kid was super excited about their favourite character’s new story,’ says Neil.
‘And that teenager left with some new characters,’ says Snez.
‘I liked it when the book club kids said they made friends here because they like stories,’ says Jinni.
‘I found this dead good book on monsters,’ says Slotcar. ‘I like monsters.’
‘Everyone looked pretty happy,’ says Attica.
‘Then you do get it!’ beams Leesa. ‘Attica Stone, you are an adventurer, but you’re also an adventure. You all are! To the children who come in here, you’re a new friend, and a way of making friends, and a connection to things that are impossible, and a way of imagining what might be possible after all. You’re excitement and fun, you’re every wild emotion and every kind of joy. You make kids’ lives richer, Attica. You make kids happy.’
A quiet falls over the shop. I try to sniffle quietly.
‘Just like Bigfoots,’ murmurs Slotcar.
Attica looks serious. ‘So that’s what we’re for,’ she says softly. She looks up at Leesa, and Michael, and Alison. ‘And what you’re for, is introducing kids to us.’
They nod. ‘We’re pretty good at it, too,’ says Alison.
‘Okay,’ says Attica. ‘You talked me into it. I’m in.’ She turns to the other characters. ‘Are you in?’
‘All in, sweetie,’ says Jinni.
‘I was never out,’ says Slotcar.
‘Good.’ Attica points at me. ‘Right, you. Get on with it. Chuck us into weird adventures, make us look ridiculous. Tear Pri’s pants again if you have to.’
Pri stirs. ‘Wait, don’t –’
‘Let’s do it!’ says Attica.
Now’s my moment. I straighten up triumphantly. ‘Here’s the thing,’ I say smugly, and gesture around the shop. ‘You’re already in your latest adventure!’
My characters look around. My unauthorised, fictional versions of Leesa, Alison, Michael look around. There’s a brief silence.
Then Attica clears her throat. ‘We couldn’t try the clown time travel again, could we?’
‘What?’ I say. ‘I thought you hated that?’
‘Well maybe not that,’ says Neil, ‘but something a bit more wild and adventurous? I mean it’s nice here, but it’s starting to feel a bit …’
‘… massively self-indulgent?’ suggests Michael.
‘You didn’t hear me say that,’ says Neil.
I gasp. ‘But this is lovely and magical and sweet, and writing a new book is hard! I want to stay!’
‘Tough,’ says Snez. ‘Come on, do your job, get us in trouble!’
I fold my arms. ‘I like it here,’ I say. ‘I get to be a character and everything.’
Attica looks around the bookshelves of the Little Bookroom, and at the others. ‘I think we all know how to make him stop writing this story, don’t we?’
The others nod. She grins wildly.
And then all my characters, and the fictional versions of the Little Bookroom staff, start running around the shop, opening books and releasing their characters.
Their copyrighted characters. Which I don’t have permission to write.
The shop starts to fill with other author’s characters. A little girl and her monster best friend start chatting with Huda and her little brother. A flight of Cally Black’s crow-like aliens fly scarily by while Nat Amoore’s pranksters plot mischief and Zana Fraillon’s Curiosities settle on their shoulders. Friday Barnes, Pepper Stark and Stella Montgomery swap notes on their investigations, while Fiona Hardy’s film crew sets up to follow the Wolves of Greycoat Hall in their own reality series.
More dragons fly by than can be easily identified.
‘No no no no NO!’ I say, rushing around in a panic. ‘I don’t own any of these characters! No one say anything or describe anyone, or I’ll get in trouble!’
‘Then put us back in our stories!’ yells Attica Stone.
‘Have it your way, then!’
The books keep opening, and soon the shop is full. Beloved characters flood out onto St Georges Road, stopping traffic, climbing trees, filling the suburb, the city, the world.
And I realise it doesn’t matter if I stop writing this story, because I don’t own it. Whatever adventures I send my small handful of characters on, wherever they are, stories and characters and joy will continue to flood out of the doors of the Little Bookroom, into the lives of children.
‘Okay then,’ I say to my characters. ‘That’ll do. Time to get to work.’
‘Brilliant,’ says Slotcar. ‘I’m gonna be a Bigfoot.’
Attica Stone grins. ‘Dynamite,’ she says.
Mat Larkin writes children’s adventure stories with heart. After starting out on the Zac Power junior fiction series, his debut middle-grade novel, The Orchard Underground, is a much-loved favourite recommendation of The Little Bookroom. His follow-up, The Chameleon Thief, will be published in 2022. Mat lives and works on unceded Wurundjeri land in Naarm-Melbourne.
Mat also wrote a guest post for us which is a list of recommendations and an accompanying article: Stories for Beautiful, Wonderful Weirdos
An explosive, suspenseful and utterly brilliant middle-grade mystery for fans of Louis Sachar’s Holes.
Not-quite twelve year-old Pri Kohli knows the town of Dunn’s Orchard better than anyone. After all, he was the first kid ever to live there. He knows its mysteries (none), its secrets (also none) and the best ways to have fun in it (climb a big tree and sit there).
So why can’t he answer newcomer Attica Stone’s simple question: if the town’s called Dunn’s Orchard, where’s the orchard?
As Pri and Attica go in search of forbidden fruit, they uncover stranger mysteries: a robot caterpillar, a mayor with a murky past, a Possibly Real Actual Boogeyman and a house made of doors in a haunted wood. But what will Pri and Attica do when they discover the biggest secret of all – that something truly magical is about to be destroyed, and the only way to save it could be by destroying the town itself?
Mat Larkin’s stunning debut is a big-hearted, wildly surprising and deliciously well-plotted mystery for readers aged 8+ about the joy of discovery, and digging just that little bit deeper to uncover the truth.
Cover illustration by Marco Guadalupi
This is a short story by local author Mat Larkin, author of The Orchard Underground, written as part of his Virtual Writer in Residence program in partnership with The Little Bookroom and the Melbourne UNESCO City of Literature Office, November 2021.