(New York, NY—August 2019): In FREE LUNCH (Norton Young Readers; on-sale 9/10/19), debut author Rex Ogle vividly conveys the immediacy of physical hunger and the humiliation of revealing it every day in the school lunch line, along with a more profound hunger: that of a child for love and care from his parent. This story rings so true in its portrayal of poverty and the familial strains that can result from living in the economic margins, because it is. This is Rex’s story.
But this is not Rex’s story alone; 43.1 million people are living in a state of poverty, 14.5 million of them are under the age of 18. But when he was embarking on his sixth-grade year in Texas, Rex had no idea that there were also other children, let alone millions of others, in such need.
“The worst part of living like this is thinking as I did—that I was alone, that I was shameful, and that I had less worth because of the situation into which I was born,” explained Rex. “But that couldn’t be further from the truth. No child should feel alone. Or ashamed. Or worthless. They need to know that their circumstances are not their fault.”
This moving memoir covers Rex’s journey through his first semester of middle-school as he navigates the inherent physical and emotional growth pains that come with this phase of life, along with the societal pressures he feels showing up at school in worn clothes that don’t fit properly and with the occasional black eye he receives from speaking his mind at home —all in addition to requesting free lunch. Rex is now an adult who traversed middle school and found his way out of poverty, but the struggles of his youth have shaped who is as a man today, and how he views the world around him.
“One day, when I was riding on the subway in New York City, I saw a little girl tug on her mom’s sleeve and heard her say, ‘I’m hungry.’ Her mom hugged her, but didn’t say anything,” explained Rex when asked why he decided to write Free Lunch. “I didn’t know their situation, but it struck me that my story needed to be shared. I wanted other kids to know that it’s okay to be hungry. That they are not alone. And there is hope.”
Rex is a former book editor who now lives in Los Angeles with his partner. He enjoys hiking with friends and his dog, devouring books, and cooking.
Free Lunch is unsparing and harshly realistic. It is also frequently funny, and threaded with hope and moments of grace. Free Lunch is a welcome addition to the growing cannon of youth memoirs, and Rex’s powerful, lyrical storytelling shines a light on those living in the shadows.
I’m delighted to welcome author Rex Ogle to Booksaremycwtches with an extract from his book Free Lunch.
It’s raining cats and dogs this morning. I don’t have an umbrella. By the time I get to the school bus, I’m soaked through. At first I think it’s kinda funny. I squish under my arms and make fart noises and everyone on the bus laughs. An hour later, at school, I’m still wet. My shoes squeak loud when I walk, and my fingers are all wrinkled. My first class, the room is freezing, like how I imagine the North Pole in the dead of winter, Santa’s elves hiding for cover. The giant Texas- sized air conditioners hum loud, but I can barely hear anything over the chattering of my teeth. Shivering so hard I think my goose bumps are gonna stay there forever. Finally the bell rings and I run to the bathroom. My lips are blue in the mirror so I take off my clothes and run them under the heated hand dryer. Every time someone comes in, they look at me like I’m crazy. When I get to third period, Mrs. Winstead says, “You’re tardy.”
“What’s that mean?” I ask.
Everyone laughs at me. Turns out tardy is some dumb, fancy way of saying late. I don’t know why she couldn’t just say that. At least it’s Friday. It’s been a sucky first week. I’ve barely seen my friends from last year. Todd and Zach have different schedules. So does Liam, but he saves me a seat at the
lunch table when he can. In fifth grade, the four of us had Mrs. Kingston. We goofed off every day together. During and after school. Now we don’t have any of the same classes. “Ogle!” I turn around and it’s Zach. We bump fists. I was just thinking about him, but I don’t say that. Don’t want to sound, you know, gay or something.
He says, “I haven’t seen you all week. Where’ve you been hiding?”
“Nowhere. This school is ginormous. There’s so many students.”
“Tell me about it. Hey, you heading to lunch? Let’s sit together.”
I’m excited to sit with Zach. I hope we can find Liam and Todd. We can sit together, like old times. Then I remember the whole Free Lunch thing. Zach is hilarious, but he makes fun of people for just about anything. Last year, he found out I still played with action figures and he never let it go. He still brings it up. If he finds out about my being in the Free Lunch Program, I’ll never hear the end of it.
Maybe if I go after him, and he doesn’t wait for me—
“Ladies first,” he says as we get in the lunch line.
I start sweating. I say, “Then you should go first.”
“No way,” Zach says. “You’re more girly than me.”
“No, I’m not!” I snap. More defensive than I mean to be.
Zach copies me, but in a high girl voice. “No, I’m not!”
The two seventh graders behind us laugh. I can feel my face burning red. I hate this. I’m not even hungry now. I feel sick. If I stay, Zach will make fun of me. If I leave, he’ll make fun of me. So
I stay. I stand up a little straighter and push my chin out, the way Zach stands.
He notices and says, “Don’t copy me, weirdo.”
“I’m not,” I sneer. I pick up the plastic lunch tray and go through the line. I nod to the lunch lady. “I’ll take the chicken nuggets.”
“I’ll take the chicken nuggets,” Zach repeats in his high girl voice. Last summer, I would’ve thought that was funny. But not now. Everything feels like it sucks these days. When I’m about to pay, I say: “I forgot my silverware. I have to go back and get it. Why don’t you pay, and go find us a table,
I’ll catch up.”
“OK, stupid,” Zach says.
I take my time picking out a fork, watching as Zach pays the
cashier and leaves. Then, I get back in line.
“Two dollars,” the cashier says.
I try hard not to roll my eyes or growl or snap. Every day, the cashier and I have the exact same conversation. Why can’t she just remember? “Free Lunch Program,” I say as quickly and quietly as
possible. The two seventh graders behind me are talking, but I’m pretty sure they exchange a glance.
“Name?” the cashier asks.
She adds the checkmark.
Walking to catch up with Zach, I finally catch my breath again. I wonder if I’ll have to go through this every single time I want to have lunch with a friend.
You can purchase Free Lunch from Amazon