The town of Apple Valley is abuzz as a new family moves in. The Diaz’ are a Mexican family comprised of newly divorced Isabel and her son, Miguel. The townspeople are curious about these recent additions and tongues are wagging. The one that’s wagging the most is Lynn Shoe’s, who stops Joe, the mailman, to fill him in on the new neighbors. Behind her at morning roll call, Mr. Shoe hands out chore duties for the day to his children. Down the street, Isabel is moving into her cottage and moving trucks are parked outside her door.
Aunt Polly is roused from her garden as Joe, having left Lynn Shoe prattling on, walks up to the fence carrying her mail. She goes over with a bouquet of flowers she has gathered. Joe thinks the flowers are for him but she chuckles and tells him she’s been assembling a welcome basket for her new neighbors. To Joe’s dismay, Aunt Polly’s dogs give him more attention than he wants. As he tries to get them down, he starts mumbling about newcomers and how he feels the whole place is going to get overpopulated, the town will lose its quality of life, and so on. Aunt Polly is both amused and annoyed by his ranting. She knows he means no harm; however, she chides him as she takes the letter from him. She reminds him how hard it was for him when he was first hired at the post office. Joe mumbles an agreement and sticks around to see what the letter holds. Aunt Polly unfolds the special letter and, upon so doing, a scene unveils.
In the local park, the neighborhood kids notice the new kid, Miguel, from afar. He walks home by himself from school. He has a unique style of dress with Latino flair. The kids look at him curiously and Keisha comments that she’s noticed the new kid doesn’t talk much and that he kept to himself all day in school. In order to get the scoop on Miguel, she approaches him. However, when she speaks, she uses American slang words that Miguel is not familiar with so he doesn’t respond immediately. Keisha mistakes Miguel’s hesitancy for a rebuff and quickly gives up. Annoyed, she walks off, concluding that Miguel is just a snob.
Uncle Pete brings a snack to Aunt Polly who sits on the porch swing, knitting. Aunt Polly seems preoccupied so Uncle Pete sits down beside her to ask what’s wrong. Aunt Polly recalls when they first came to town and how people misunderstood them. Uncle Pete reminds her of how she won the town over with her many kind gestures, including a book donation to the public library. “They never knew about all those places to travel,” he says. He leaves to check on his goodies cooking in the kitchen. Aunt Polly retrieves a pen and paper from her apron, quickly writes a letter, and returns both to her pocket.
The neighborhood kids, who call themselves the Cousins Club, have a special new hideout after a skunk invaded their treehouse on the town green. It is a group of bushes in the backyard of what was a vacant cottage close to Aunt Polly’s. The kids use the cottage’s mailbox to receive Aunt Polly’s mysterious notes. Unfortunately, this happens to be the cottage that the Diaz’ have just moved into.
Mia, Dante, Keisha, Madison, Lincoln, and Louis are all together in their hideout. Dante is showing them a card trick that Uncle Pete taught him when they hear a scraping noise. Isabel appears before them with a rake above her head and surprises them. Her hair is disheveled from clearing out the shrubs so she appears frightening to the kids when really she is equally startled. The kids start running away when Keisha notices that the mailbox flag is up to signal new mail. She yells to the other kids, “We can’t go without our mail, yo!” Everyone stops dead in their tracks and turns toward the mailbox. As the kids cheer her on, Keisha runs to the mailbox to retrieve a letter – to Isabel’s horror. She calls after the kids that it’s her mail. As they run off, Keisha exclaims, “It’s for me, a shout-out from AP!”
Gathered in the park, the kids grumble about being kicked out of their bush hideout. Mia tries cheering everyone up by suggesting a game. Madison proposes soccer, her favorite sport, but suddenly remembers that in her frantic rush out of their hideout, she left her soccer ball behind. Dante devises a plan to get it back but he gets frustrated when none of his methods will avoid running into Isabel. With a sigh, Keisha exclaims, “We dug ourselves a ditch, we’ll never get past that – ” “Keisha!” Dante stops her mid-sentence. “What? I was going to say ‘witch’,” Keisha responds slyly. Ever resourceful, Mia suggests using a can to replace the soccer ball and heads over to the nearest trash bin to find one. Just as she’s elbows deep in trash, Vivian walks by with Blossom, her West Highland White terrier. She stops in front of Mia and remarks on how disgusting Mia is for digging through the trash. Mia ignores Vivian and gives a gleeful yelp as she finds a can halfway down through the trash.
Keisha, bummed about losing the hideout and uninterested in joining the game, decides to part ways with the rest of the gang. Mia calls out to her that they are headed over to Aunt Polly’s and to meet them there since Aunt Polly has offered to take them on a picnic. The gang starts kicking the can in the direction of Aunt Polly’s. Mia’s mention of Aunt Polly reminds Keisha of the letter. She pulls it out, relieved to have salvaged it. Once opened, a visual representation of “Don’t judge a book by its cover” comes to life. Keisha closes the letter and looks at it quizzically. She walks out of the park and spots Miguel coming in her direction, kicking a soccer ball. Not usually impressed with athletic abilities, Keisha can’t help but stop to check out Miguel’s swift moves. However, she decides to go in the opposite direction to avoid Miguel, mumbling the whole way about how that snooty new kid took away their hideout.
Miguel notices Keisha and thinks this may be his chance to make a better impression but sees that she is being purposely evasive. Upset, he heads toward an old apple tree on the edge of the park, sits down against it, and watches Keisha leave. He heaves a sigh of frustration and then looking up, he realizes he’s sitting under a smelly, run-down treehouse. He jumps up and climbs into the tree.
Keisha goes to Aunt Polly’s house to question why she sent the letter. All the neighborhood kids have already gathered there. Aunt Polly immediately engages Keisha’s help in preparing their picnic lunches. Keisha describes to Aunt Polly the incident with Isabel. The version she gives describes Isabel as a wild woman who came out of nowhere and lunged at them. Mia tells her not to exaggerate; in reality, Isabel is a petite woman and was just as shocked as they were. Frustrated, Keisha continues to relay how this same supposedly harmless person caused them to lose their secret hideout. Mia tells her that Aunt Polly has just agreed to help them find a new one. They decide to go look before they have their picnic since the new hideout could also turn out to be a great picnic spot.
Together they set off to search for their new hideout. On their hike, they come to the little wooden footbridge that crosses over the brook. Unfortunately it has been blocked off for repairs. Dejected, the children look at Aunt Polly. She points down the brook to an old log covering the expanse of the water. They make their way down to the log and Aunt Polly suggests to Louis, who is nearest the log, to step on it lightly with one foot to make sure it is safe. With trepidation, Dante suggests finding an alternate route; the log does not seem sturdy enough. Keisha agrees, telling of all the accidents that have happened here that she has overheard from the townspeople. Louis takes the first step onto the log, starts crossing, then turns back and exclaims, “The log’s safe. It’s okay to cross this way.” All the kids cross except Keisha, who hesitates next to Aunt Polly. Aunt Polly tells her it is good to be cautious but that you often have to test things out yourself. Though the log appears slippery and loose, she’s crossed over it herself in the past when the bridge was down. Once they are safe on the other side, Keisha mutters how looks can be deceiving. Aunt Polly agrees and tells her that it can apply to people, too. She opens her heart button and, in so doing, releases her bright red shawl. With a flourish, the shawl whisks around all of them and sweeps them up to another realm.
The children wonder where they are. They see a small black girl walking between two lines of people who are yelling at her. They watch federal marshals escort the elementary student into her school. An angry mob is screaming, “Two, four, six, eight! We don’t want to integrate!” Keisha notices that the girl is whispering something and asks Aunt Polly if she heard what the girl said. Aunt Polly tells her to ask the young girl herself as she and the kids follow the girl into the classroom.
The children are alone with the young girl. Keisha is especially interested in the girl because she looks similar to her and immediately wants to know everything about her. She sits right next to the girl and asks her what her name is. The girl doesn’t respond but instead stares in amazement at the other children, surprised they are attending class with her. Keisha takes the girl’s silence as a snub and gives up. Still confused as to where they are, Keisha seeks answers from Aunt Polly, who explains that they are in New Orleans in 1957. Shyly, the girl finally responds to Keisha, “I’m Ruby.” Taken aback that she’s answered, Keisha puts her hand out and introduces herself. She proceeds to inform Ruby about everyone else in the group and their relationships. Surveying the multicultural group, Ruby asks, “You are all friends?” “‘Course we are, gal,” Keisha responds. “Where’re your pals?” Ruby responds that the other students’ parents won’t let them come to school. Louis and Dante look at each other confused. Then they smile and exclaim together, “Wow, I wish I had parents who didn’t want me to go to school!” Keisha slowly catches on. Quietly she says, “No, it’s not cool when you are why kids aren’t allowed in school.” “I know what’s up with their parents,” Keisha continues, “It’s because Ruby is…different.” Dante and Louis look sheepish as they realize they might have hurt Ruby’s feelings. Ruby notices this and says, “Don’t worry. My mommy’s really proud of me coming to school. She says I’m very brave.”
The angry mob surrounds the fence of the recess yard. The kids are horrified at their vicious words. Ruby jumps rope, ignoring the verbal abuse. The kids walk over to her and ask her if they can join in a jump rope game. Ecstatic to have other kids wanting to play with her, she exclaims, “You want to play with me… even in front of all these people?” Mia says, “Sure! Why not?!”
As they begin jumping rope, Keisha and Mia bond with Ruby. Keisha says that sometimes people are quick to jump to conclusions and she hopes the others will give her a chance. Ruby tells Keisha that she tries to ignore the hurtful words people call her but sometimes it’s tough. Keisha tells Ruby that people call her names, too, sometimes. Even though it’s hard, she tries not to let it bother her. Like Ruby, she ignores them and it seems to work.
Keisha asks her what she was saying when she came into school that morning. Ruby tells them that every day she’s been saying a little prayer for the people to be forgiven. At that moment, Aunt Polly blows the whistle for the end of recess. She tells Ruby to keep up her courage and things will work out. Ruby smiles. Aunt Polly touches her heart button and whisks the kids back to Apple Valley.
Mia says how much she likes Ruby and that the others probably would, too, if they only tried. Aunt Polly tells them that Ruby remained brave. It’s hard when you are faced with prejudice from people who have never met you. Fortunately, she was able to get through the hardest times with the loving support of her family and friends. Eventually the rest of the community became less intolerant and gradually allowed their children back into the school. The Cousins all agree about the importance of accepting others. Looking down at the jump rope that Ruby gave to her as they left the schoolyard, Keisha remarks on how sad it was that no one even gave her a chance because of the way she looked. Though she comes from the same background as Ruby, she was lucky not to have experienced such terrible prejudice growing up in Apple Valley. She also comments that six months is a long time for people to begrudge a newcomer, “Half a year! Little Ruby’s gotta fear…”
Suddenly the kids remember about their search for a new hideout and are frustrated that they still haven’t found one. Aunt Polly tells them that maybe their new place is right under their noses. Keisha disagrees and exclaims how incredibly fabulous their old one was and that they’ll never find a suitable replacement.
Aunt Polly leads them back to the edge of town and straight to the old treehouse. Voila! It appears the new kid Miguel has discovered the old smelly treehouse and has tidied it up, even nailing a few boards up the tree to serve as a ladder. Shyly, Miguel asks the kids if they want to come up. Dante asks him how he got rid of the skunk smell as he had tried every trick in the book before they finally abandoned the treehouse. Miguel tells them there wasn’t a skunk around when he found the place. It just smelled like one so that’s why his mom’s fragrant sachets are hanging from the branches. Keisha still holds the jump rope that was given to her by Ruby. She tells Miguel that maybe the jump rope should hang from one of the branches as an easy escape from the treehouse. Miguel thinks it’s a great idea. Mia whispers to Miguel that Dante has some cologne in his drawer at home and she might be able to snag some for the treehouse. Dante squints his eyes at his giggling impish sister. “Don’t even think about it, Mia,” he says. The kids all laugh.
Mia asks Miguel if he wants to join them on their picnic. When she mentions the picnic, they realize Aunt Polly has disappeared so they head back to her house. Miguel walks a little behind, kicking his soccer ball the whole way. Keisha notices he’s lagging behind and stops to wait for him. She asks if Miguel would let them use his newly discovered treehouse as their hideout and Miguel agrees. Keisha says it’s just perfect but, after a pause, remembers it’s missing their all-important mailbox.
The children, Aunt Polly and Uncle Pete enjoy a wonderful spread. Uncle Pete has concocted a few of his Cajun specialties for their picnic. Uncle Pete offers an unusual looking dish to Keisha, who hesitates for a moment but then reaches for it to try a taste.
While they are talking, Miguel struggles a bit with his English. Keisha learns that Miguel appeared standoffish because he was unsure of his English. She offers to help him learn to rap if Miguel shows her some of the fancy soccer moves she saw him doing earlier in the park. Mia raises her eyebrows, surprised at her friend’s sudden interest in sports but glad she’s making an effort. Keisha apologizes to Miguel, saying that she judged him wrongly and hopes Miguel will give her a second chance. Miguel starts to say something but hesitates before finishing his sentence. Mia chimes in to complete it as if she was reading his mind. He starts to say something else and she finishes it again. Then Mia starts to say something and, to everyone’s surprise, Miguel finishes her sentence. They seem to be doing a bit of a duet. Keisha giggles, “That rap was smooth, ain’t that the truth!” Looking at Miguel, she tells Mia that they found themselves another player. Miguel grins.
On the topic of duets, Aunt Polly tells the children she has thought of a new song for her band, Polly & the Crackers, and wants their opinion on it. Knowingly, Uncle Pete pulls out his banjo. The song is a humorous one about misunderstandings and gets the kids laughing again. Keisha and Mia follow with a rap parody of a similar theme. This time Miguel joins in. Miguel tells Aunt Polly that his mother, Isabel, is also musically inclined and plays the upright bass. Keisha is impressed. She comments that an upright bass is a big instrument for such a small woman. Aunt Polly and the kids look at each other and smile. Aunt Polly tells Miguel that she will invite Isabel over to play music with them.
Aunt Polly then presents the children with a gift for their new hideout. It’s a plain cardboard box. Once opened, they see a brightly colored pail. When they question what it is, she says it’s a way for them to continue corresponding with each other. They become excited to have a ‘mail-pail’ of their very own. Keisha says that she knew there was something special in the box because it came from Aunt Polly and because “You can’t judge a book by the way it looks, huh, Aunt Polly?” Aunt Polly winks at her.