Reggie McKnight, an eighth-grader at Brooklyn's Clarke Junior School, has a reputation to live down. Having thrown up onstage in front of the entire student body at the beginning of the year, Reggie, nicknamed "Pukey", just tries to stay under the radar to avoid the gibes of his unsympathetic peers. Fortunately, Ruthie Robertson, Reggie's best friend since kindergarten, is always around to defend him, as is Joe Castiglione, his collaborator on the superhero series Night Man.
It is election time at Clarke, and the principal stresses the need to foster a "spirit of community partnership and...leadership," in keeping with the school's "proud tradition of student involvement." Despite his admonition, front-runner Justin Walker puts together a campaign based on popularity. His opponent, the disagreeable and friendless Vicky Ross, shames Reggie into being her campaign manager; sadly, it quickly becomes evident that she is seeking the presidency only for her own benefit.
In contrast, Reggie is developing a sincere interest in the area of community service. At Clarke, eighth-graders are paired up as "Big Buddies" with kindergartners, and Reggie begins to foster a relationship with his Little Buddy, Charlie Calloway. Reggie's youth group at church is also doing a service project at the Olive Branch, a temporary housing facility for the homeless, interviewing residents to "give them a voice," and provide material for a documentary. When he visits the facility for the first time, Reggie is disturbed to find that, contrary to his expectations, the residents are just ordinary people who "could be (his) friend...family...(himself)," and, coincidentally, among the people residing there, are Charlie and his mother. Reggie is assigned to interview a crotchety, middle-aged man named George, who bitterly relates how he once had a good family and had even gone to college, but had succumbed to the pressures of life and turned to drinking and drugs. George reminds Reggie of his own father, who has been unemployed for some time, and he wonders why a loving, all-powerful God allows so much suffering in the world.
At school, Reggie is daily becoming more disillusioned with Vicky's campaign. In addition, he finds that he is growing apart from Joe C., who has less time for Night Man and is pursuing other interests. Sick of "how fake...school is," Reggie is drawn to the gritty reality of the Olive Branch, where he recognizes that the courage and tenacity shown by George and the other residents demonstrates "a kind of faith that (he's) never even thought about before." George has started a project with Charlie and the other kids at the shelter, working with them to create a huge, make-believe cardboard city, and he impresses upon Reggie that what he is doing is more important than their scheduled interview sessions, because the kids are not "okay," and they need him now. Reggie joins the group to help, and, caught up in the enthusiasm of Charlie and the others, almost forgets "the gray walls, the industrial-strength smell," and the brokenness of the people who surround them.
As Reggie and Ruthie pass the playground after school one day, they see Charlie being bullied by an eighth-grader, Donovan. Reggie leaps to Charlie's defense, verbally humiliating Donovan in front of an appreciative crowd. Later, in the cafeteria, Donovan instigates a spitball attack aimed at Vicky, and Reggie does nothing to defend her. Vicky subsequently fires Reggie as her campaign manager, and although Reggie is relieved, he is not proud that he did not stick up for her, and recognizes that while "she's all kinds of...
(The entire section is 1482 words.)