Up until now, growing up has been relatively easy for 12-year-old Ellie Tremont. Her schoolteacher parents are fine, as parents go. She may not be a popular girl, but she is popular enough, pretty enough and contented enough. She does have a troubling habit of lying to her parents, but it is all within the limits of normal, like watching TV when her parents tell her she is "on her honor" to turn it off. Ellie seems neither troubled nor troubling, but her boring life is about to change.
Enter Tommy Bowers, the 14-year-old foster son of Ellie's neighbor. Complete with a mysterious past, a bad reputation, floppy black hair and a handsome dimple, Tommy has an open manner and smooth talk that completely capture Ellie. When she first meets him, Tommy offers her a cigarette. "I just carry cigarettes and candy to make friends," he says. Soon, Tommy is offering Ellie more than that.
When Tommy wants to start a summer camp for the neighborhood children, under the porch of the elderly and deaf Watson sisters' house, Ellie is thrilled to be co-director. But, when the two of them set off to buy the required lollipops for their magic garden, Ellie is faced with her own moral quandary. Tommy effortlessly shoplifts two bags of candy and appears neither sorry nor worried about his behavior. For all her young teen angst, Ellie does know right from wrong. Her friend's shoplifting troubles her. But, more than that, she is unhappy with her own reaction, which has been to say nothing about Tommy's behavior. Little by little, Ellie and her parents come to realize that Tommy is neither a good boy nor a bad boy. He is just a boy, a victim of some very bad luck, in search of a family. Living on the edge of adulthood is uncertain, emotional and sometimes traumatic. Shreve captures Ellie's hopes and fears with an intensely introspective first-person point of view that brings the reader the immediacy of this important time of life.