Want to keep reading?

You've reached the end of your complimentary access. Subscribe for as little as $4/month.

Aready a Subscriber ? Sign In

“Cheating” by Kyler Min, age 8, follows two central characters in a dystopian future where people travel between multiple planets. The story is divided into sections, and each section follows one of two characters: Evelyn or Kyler. We open with a sequence about Evelyn, a second-grader who is preparing to take a test to get into the Gifted and Honors program at her school. Evelyn’s classmate, Sophie, often cheats off of her tests. At the end of the first section, Evelyn’s parents tell her that whether or not she gets into the gifted program, they still love her and will take her to the food festival on planet Keplar-15u. 

We then switch to the story of Kyler, who lives on planet Keplar-22b and is a student in the Gifted and Honors program. Students in the program never see their parents and are also expected not to take medicine—the teachers say they have to be strong enough mentally and physically not to get sick. Kyler’s friend hears of a bad disease going around and so sneaks Kyler a pill. Kyler does not take it, but one day, he comes down with the bad disease. He takes the pill secretly and recovers. In the final scene of the story, Evelyn makes it into the Gifted and Honors Program and goes with her parents to the food festival. There, they find a box labeled “Kyler”—a certified organic human. It is also revealed that Sophie, who had tried to cheat off Evelyn’s test, did not make it into the honors program.

What makes this world believable? 

A big component of world-building, especially when you are creating a fantastical world, is pairing believable details with the more “out there” ones. In his story, Kyler Min strikes this balance beautifully. Take, for instance, spaceships. In the world of the story, the characters often travel or communicate between multiple planets and must travel by spaceship. A spaceship is not something most of us have seen in person. But there’s something very familiar about the spaceships in “Cheating.” 

The State Honor Roll had always been a topic during Kyler’s video conversations with his parents—they were very proud that Kyler had been selected as an honor student. They told Kyler that they had put a bumper sticker on their space shuttle. During one video chat, Kyler’s mom was even wearing a T-shirt that read “Proud Mother of an Honor Student.” 

The bumper sticker is clearly a nod to a phenomenon here on Earth, where parents often put stickers like these on their cars. A car is not a space shuttle, but we can clearly see the parallel, and as a result we move from an unfamiliar idea—space shuttles—to a much more familiar one—minivans. Further, every other detail in this passage, from Kyler’s mother’s shirt to the video chat, feel familiar to the world the readers live in. By having the space shuttle be the one unusual feature of the paragraph, and by helping us contextualize that spaceships are kind of like cars, the reader can suspend their disbelief more easily.

Another moment where the writer compellingly pairs ordinary with extraordinary to produce a convincing world is the moment where Kyler gets sick.

“Blow,” Mrs. King ordered as she handed Kyler yet another tissue. He had already used up two boxes of tissues. He guessed that he had finally developed an allergy to the wild plants around the playground, as many older students had.

I’m a big boy now, Kyler thought to himself. He also felt a little sorry because he had laughed at those big kids who suffered from allergies every spring. How could I have been so mean?

Soon after this moment, it becomes clear that Kyler actually doesn’t have allergies at all—he is suffering from a serious illness. But by letting Kyler be wrong, we learn more details about the world he lives in. Wild plants grow around the recess playground. The older students have seasonal allergies—and Kyler had felt that this was something to make fun of. This helps reinforce a larger truth about the world of the story: that susceptibility to illness of any kind is considered a sign of weakness. Kyler has picked up the ideas around him. We even learn something about Kyler as a person—he has the capacity to be both mean and empathetic. All of this from a few sentences about allergies!

Finally, the story is full of lots of memorable moments of detail. Pills in this world can be chewed up like candy and taste just as good. Just like with cars, sometimes parents let their kids steer the spaceship. Like fruits and vegetables, humans can bear certificates proving they are organic. Evelyn’s parents’ spaceship is called an Odyssey, just like the Honda minivan—and when Evelyn makes the honor roll, they even put a bumper sticker on it. All of these details help paint a world that reminds us a little of our own. 

Discussion questions:

  • Do you think Kyler’s decision to take the blue pill was believable, considering the fact that he had always been encouraged to be “mentally strong”? If so, how does the writer make his decision feel believable? If not, what doesn’t feel convincing about it?
  • Were there any other moments where the writer used familiar images or ideas to make sense of something otherworldly?
  • A big part of world-building is the order in which we are introduced to things. In this story, does the order in which the author reveals details help develop the world of the story?

The Great Imperfect World


Evelyn could never forget Sophie’s eyes—they were like black holes that sucked up every answer that Evelyn had written down. Even though Mrs. Walls watched the students closely, Sophie still managed to glance around the privacy boards a few times.

It was at the beginning of the second grade, when all the students took a test called MRA. The student with the highest score in the class would be selected to join the Gifted and Honors Class.

After Evelyn returned home, her mom asked, “How was your test?”

“It was good.” Evelyn frowned. “I tried my best, but the questions were difficult.”

“Really?” Mom said. “Can you give me some examples of the hard ones?”

“‘Give a few examples of human evolution.’”

“That’s challenging. I don’t expect anyone else in your class can answer that, except you!”

“But I think Sophie answered it correctly,” Evelyn said.

“How do you know?” asked Mom. “Did she tell you her answers?”

“No, but I saw Sophie peeking through the privacy board,” Evelyn said. “She could see all my answers.”

“Wow, she is some person!” Dad smirked, joining the conversation. “You just transferred to this school, but she already knows that you are academically inclined. She also knows you are the type of person who will not tell on her. Finally, she can make quick moves—even under great pressure. She will make a great politician in the future!”

“Stop it, Dad!” Evelyn said. “Maybe her score will be higher than mine. Maybe she will go to the gifted class.”

Mom put her arms around Evelyn and said, “No matter if you are selected or not, we are always proud of you! We are still going to the food festival on Kepler-15u next year, like we promised!”

“Thank you so much!” Evelyn cried. “I love you!”

*          *          *

There were two basketball courts, a play castle, and three sets of swings on the playground of Stenwood Elementary School. They were not that fancy, but still, the playground was the students’ favorite area. If the weather was good, the students were allowed to play there during recess. In one corner of the playground, behind a blue steel bench, was Kyler and Arjun’s “secret base,” which the boys called KSB1.

On one sunny morning, the playground was crowded with many kids playing tag. Kyler and Arjun knelt inside KSB1, not wanting any taggers to see them. That was when Arjun dug into his pocket and took out a shiny blue pill with letters printed on it.

“What is that?” Kyler asked.

“Mrs. Romero gave these pills to us yesterday. She said if we take them, we won’t be sick during the spring season. This year, the germs could be more dangerous than ever,” Arjun explained.

“But Mrs. King said I shouldn’t rely on pills to fight any disease,” Kyler said.

Kyler was a student from Mrs. King’s Gifted and Honors Class. Kyler and his classmates were in the advanced academic program. They exercised outdoors much more frequently than regular students, ate only organic foods, and most importantly, fought all kinds of diseases without the help of any pills.

“You have to be physically and mentally strong,” Mrs. King had said to Kyler quite a few times. “As a reward, you will earn a special medal upon graduation. Your parents will also receive a golden certificate from the state!”

Kyler had never seen his parents in person. Stenwood parents worked on a remote planet called Kepler-15u, which was 350 light-years away from Kepler-22b. Students could video chat with their parents every week, but they couldn’t meet them in person until graduation, when a space cruiser would take them to Kepler-15u.

The State Honor Roll had always been a topic during Kyler’s video conversations with his parents—they were very proud that Kyler had been selected as an honor student. They told Kyler that they had put a bumper sticker on their space shuttle. During one video chat, Kyler’s mom was even wearing a T-shirt that read “Proud Mother of an Honor Student.” Kyler could not imagine how thrilled his parents would be if he earned the medal. He had dreamt about that moment so many times.

“I know—you’re one of those dudes,” Arjun grinned, “But you’re the only normal ‘honor’ student I have ever seen. Take the pill anyway. Mrs. Romero said that this time the germs can be fatal. It’s better to be prepared.”

“What about you—if I take your pill . . . ?” Kyler asked.

“Uhmm, it’s ok.” Arjun tilted his head sideways. “I can tell Mrs. Romero I lost my pill. She’ll give me another one.”

Arjun tilted his head to the other side. “One pill is enough to keep you healthy for a whole season, but Haithem has taken a few pills already. He thought they tasted better than candy. Nobody cares much about regular students anyway.”

“Thanks, bro,” Kyler said. “You make a great friend!”

“Shhhh. Hide quickly! Shlock is coming. We don’t want to be tagged!” Arjun exclaimed.

Both boys stopped talking. They peered through the holes to check the taggers. Kyler didn’t plan to take the pill, but he truly appreciated Arjun as a friend.

I wish I could still have Arjun in the neighborhood after graduation, Kyler thought, so that we can still be good friends.

*          *          *

“Blow,” Mrs. King ordered as she handed Kyler yet another tissue. He had already used up two boxes of tissues. He guessed that he had finally developed an allergy to the wild plants around the playground, as many older students had.

I’m a big boy now, Kyler thought to himself. He also felt a little sorry because he had laughed at those big kids who suffered from allergies every spring. How could I have been so mean?

However, a few days later, the allergy that seemed mild in the beginning became serious, and more and more kids in Kyler’s class developed similar symptoms.

“A cup of tea a day will keep the pills away,” Mrs. King chanted. These days, she prepared a lot of organic green tea for her students. She even put some organic honey crystals in it, and the students loved it. Although Mrs. King smiled to her students as usual, Kyler felt that she was really worried about something.

Within a few days, he couldn’t go to class as he had started to cough, and then his body burned with a high fever. Above the headboard of each student’s bed, there was a red button. If a student pressed the button, the health assistant would come to take care of him. Kyler would not even raise his head to look at it, but he could see the button clearly in his mind. He knew that if he pressed it, he would get treatment immediately, but that also meant he would have to be transferred to a regular class.

“I will never press that button. Never!”

“I will never let my parents down; I would rather die as an honor student, or—wait a minute . . .”

A terrifying idea popped into Kyler’s head. The idea was so crazy that he even forgot he was in pain.

Why don’t I take Arjun’s pill?

Kyler had totally forgotten about the pill. The idea sounded so absurd when Kyler was healthy, but now he felt the pill was calling his name from the nightstand.

Kyler used all of his energy to open the drawer and take out the blue pill. His whole body started to shiver, partly because of the fever, partly because of the excitement over doing such a bad thing. He put the pill in his mouth and started to chew.

It does taste better than candy— Haithem was right! Kyler thought before he passed out.

The next morning, Kyler woke up with his pajamas soaked with sweat. He found Mrs. King peeking her head in.

“Good morning, Mrs. King,” Kyler said. “It’s so good to see you.”

“I’m so glad you’re better.” Mrs. King looked at Kyler through her still-sleepy eyes and breathed a sigh of relief. She had been up since midnight last night, as many of her students had pressed their red buttons for help. Mrs. King had been checking one bedroom after another the entire night long with the school health assistant.

Mrs. King gently placed her palm over Kyler’s forehead and quickly drew it back, as if scalded.

“What?” Kyler asked, “Do I still have a fever?”

“Ha, got ya!” Mrs. King laughed. “Your temperature is totally normal! You scared me to death last night.”

Mrs. King gave Kyler a gentle hug. “I knew you were my strongest boy! I think you can come back to class soon. Without you, the classroom has been so quiet!”

Two days later, when Kyler returned to his classroom, he found that there were only 11 students left. The rest had been transferred to regular classes. Also, Kyler noticed that his friend Leya was no longer showing up during recess, and she was not even in a regular class. Leya had been such a tough girl, tougher than most boys—she never minded the bug bites on her arms, the same ones that bothered Kyler so much.

When he asked Mrs. King about Leya, she patted Kyler’s head and pointed to a faint star over the treetop. “She is with her parents right now on planet Kepler-15u. She could not study in Stenwood anymore.”

These days, Mrs. King had been so busy taking care of her sick students that she felt her energy was running low.

“It’s time to request a new battery set at the next teacher workday,” Mrs. King said to herself.

*          *          *

Evelyn’s family received her MRA report by the end of the year. Her score was very high, but, to be safe, they waited for the official notification in April to celebrate her gifted and honors status. Evelyn’s parents were so proud that they put a “Gifted and Honors Parents” bumper sticker on their old Odyssey spaceship.

The spaceship had been serving the family for a few years. It was a family spaceship that could travel at a top speed of warp six. Evelyn’s daddy was docking the ship at the main harbor of planet Kepler-15u when Evelyn asked, “Can I park the ship please? I’ll be extra careful.”

“Okay, but I’ll keep my feet on the pedals,” Daddy said. “You can take the steering stick.”

Evelyn sat on her dad’s lap and started to steer the ship. The ship swayed left and right until it finally rumbled to a stop. Mom rose from the passenger seat and started to check the video she had just shot.

“I can guarantee you that no part of Dad is in this video. I will send the video to Grandpa. He’ll think that you can land the ship all by yourself!” Mom winked at Evelyn, and they both laughed.

“Come on, move. Let’s get into the city quickly. The food festival ceremony is about to start,” said Dad.

Evelyn and her family shoved their way through the crowd and entered a big building with a “Larry’s Teeter” logo. The family passed by the human section. On the shelves, different grades of humans were displayed inside shiny crystal boxes. The most expensive ones carried beautiful organic certificates. “Human raised with 100% organic diet. No antibiotics, no antivirus, no added hormones” read a banner printed at the bottom of the boxes.

Name: Kyler
Sex: Male
Age: 12.
Certified Organic Human,
Certification No. 2244703,
Stenwood Farm, Planet Kepler-22b.

On the back, it said, “Best by: 06203342.”

The boy’s certificate reminded Evelyn of her MRA test. When she answered the question about the origin of the human race, she had written down Kepler-22b. But, in the last minutes before she submitted her test papers, when Sophie wasn’t peeking, Evelyn erased the answer and wrote down “EARTH.”

Evelyn shook her head as a faint smile appeared on her face. Maybe that was the reason why she, not Sophie, had been selected to be a gifted and honors student.

Kyler Min
Kyler Min, 8
Vienna, VA

Margaret Fulop
Margaret Fulop, 11
Lexington, MA