Ben and the Sudden Too-Big Familyby Colby Rodowsky
Ben's philosophy of life is that there are two categories of things that happen, the all-right stuff and the not-all-right stuff. Ben has always lived with just his dad, Mitch, which definitely falls into the all-right category. When Mitch meets Casey and they decide to get married, that turns out to be all right, too. Then Mitch and Casey decide to adopt a baby
Ben's philosophy of life is that there are two categories of things that happen, the all-right stuff and the not-all-right stuff. Ben has always lived with just his dad, Mitch, which definitely falls into the all-right category. When Mitch meets Casey and they decide to get married, that turns out to be all right, too. Then Mitch and Casey decide to adopt a baby from China, and Ben isn't sure which category the whole baby thing is going to fit into. After the baby comes home (it's all right), Casey and Mitch announce that the four of them – as a family – are going on vacation with Casey's family. All twenty-three of them! Ben is sure this will not be all right!
How eleven-year-old Ben finds his place in a crazy-big family makes this a funny novel about family and what it means to be a part of one.
“Rodowsky is in good form, crafting another book with a likable narrator.”—School Library Journal
“Veteran author Rodowsky again demonstrates her skill at bringing a low-key approach to possibly melodramatic events.” —The Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books
"Appealing." Kirkus Reviews
"Encapsulating the noise, chaos, mess and love that are all parts of being in a large family, this novel shows how some 'not all right' predicaments turn out 'all right' in the end." Publishers Weekly
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Ben and the Sudden Too-Big Family
By Colby Rodowsky
Farrar, Straus and GirouxCopyright © 2007 Colby Rodowsky
All rights reserved.
Fifteen Words or Less
It was in the just-after-the-holiday-break part of fourth grade when Mr. Kelly, our English teacher, told us to write our philosophy of life in fifteen words or less. I thought for a minute and then wrote, "Some things in life are all right and some things are not all right."
After that, I sat curling and uncurling the edge of my paper and wondering what I should have done with the extra word.
When everyone was finished, Mr. K. folded his arms, harrumphed a bit, the way he always does, and said, "Now elaborate on what you've written."
This led me to add, "What actually happens a lot is that the all-right stuff slides into the not-all-right stuff and what you end up with is a hodgepodge glop. And that's life."
By this time Mr. K. was walking up and down the aisle, looking over our shoulders, and when he got to me he said, "Pretty basic, Ben. Wouldn't you say?" Only I could tell right off that it was one of those questions that wasn't really a question and didn't need an answer. Then he snorted and moved on.
I always figured that that whole philosophy-of-life thing wasn't so much a real assignment as it was a way for Mr. Kelly to kill some dead time on a winter Friday afternoon. I mean, even though he collected our papers, we never got marks or comments, never had to turn them into essays or projects of any kind. If you ask me, it was a good fifteen words or less, plus elaboration, down the drain.
Oddly enough, though, those fourteen words attached themselves to the inside of my head like a refrigerator magnet, and from then on I set out to check everything that happened to me to see if it belonged in the all-right column or not-all-right column. The trouble was, I didn't exactly keep up with the sorting—all right, not all right—mostly, I guess, because during the next year and a half a lot went on in my life.
My name is Benjamin David Mitchell. My father is Mitch, making him Mitch Mitchell, except to people who don't know him well and then he's Bradley J. Mitchell. I'm told that when I was born (ten years before Mr. Kelly's down-the-drain assignment) my mother, Sara Jane, announced that there would be no shortcuts and I would forever be Benjamin David.
Then she died, in a car crash, when I was just over a year old, and left me with lots of pictures but no real memory of a mother. In fact, as far as I can remember, it's always just been me and my dad—Ben and Mitch—which, to my way of thinking, and maybe because I didn't know anything else, made for a pretty cool arrangement. So cool that in my entire life, ten years and counting, the all-right stuff had always been miles out in front of the not-all-right.
The first thing to know about my father is that he has taught history at MacCauley, a private boys' school in Baltimore, for absolute ages. Because of that, I get to go there for free, as a sort of perk or something. The only drawback is that I can never just go home and hang out after school. Instead I have to stick around—in the library or the locker room, or outside playing sports or watching the high school kids at football or lacrosse practice—till my father's ready to leave. After that, we head home together, fix supper, do homework, watch TV, play video games or read (Mitch way more than me), and go to bed. Weekends are pretty much the same, especially since MacCauley is the kind of school where a lot of stuff happens then. Like games and meets, fall fairs and spring fairs, shows and debates, and even car washes. And the dreaded Science Competition.
I guess I'd have to say that good old MacCauley has always been the center of our universe, which isn't nearly as lame as it sounds. I mean, we have a lot of neighbors, too, and get together with them for cookouts and crab feasts and New Year's celebrations. We lend them ladders and snow shovels, and we borrow rakes and duct tape from them, so it all works really well.
And in the family department we have Aunt Jo and Uncle Charlie and their two sons. Scott and Stan are eighteen and nineteen, so not exactly the kind of cousins I can hang out with, but through the years they've been really okay, plus they've given me a bunch of outgrown stuff—like bikes and sleds and skateboards. Besides, their house was where we went for all the heavy-duty celebrating, like Thanksgiving and Christmas, Mitch's birthday, and mine, too. Aunt Jo is Mitch's older (and only) sister and she has this mother-hen thing, always checking to see if we eat enough broccoli and go to the dentist twice a year.
She was also the one who, ages back, introduced my father to my mother and, if you ask me, I think Aunt Jo had thoughts about doing something like that again. For a while now she's been on a mission to "find someone for Mitch" and there's been a steady parade of lawyers, paralegals, librarians, teachers, and even a poet. There've been blondes, brunettes, and three redheads. Sometimes Mitch would ask them out a time or two. Sometimes not. But he was never really interested.
Until the day, not long after Mr. Kelly's assignment, that we stopped at the Bread Basket.CHAPTER 2
The Bread Basket
You know how some days stick out in your mind and others just go along and eventually lump together? Well, the Bread Basket day was an all-time sticker-outer.
Mitch and I were on our way home from school with nothing much to look forward to but his leftover vegetable stew (heavy on the okra) from the night before. We'd just dropped a movie off at Blockbuster and turned onto Falls Road when Mitch screeched the car over to the curb and said, "Well, will you look at that."
"That what?" I said, hardly glancing up from my science test, where I'd been trying to figure out why Mrs. Savopoulos had given me a B– instead of the A that, in my wildest dreams, I was sure I deserved.
"That that. How can you miss it?"
And then I saw it—this egg-yolk-yellow house with green trim all around and pots of funky fake flowers out in front. "Where'd that come from?" I asked. "It wasn't there before."
"Yeah, it probably was," said Mitch. "I seem to remember some ramshackly frame house of no particular color. We just never really noticed it, I guess."
"Yeah—so?" I said, turning the science test upside down to see if the B– turned into an A that way.
"Look at the sign. Read it," my father said.
"The Bread Basket," I read out loud.
"Breads, Rolls, Sweets,
I stared at the sign a while longer before asking, "What're 'Enticements'? And what're 'Props.'?"
"'Props.' are proprietors, owners, and let's go in and see what 'Enticements' are," said Mitch, already halfway out of the car. "We've got that leftover stew for supper and could use a loaf of good bread."
And from that day on, we ate a lot more bread than ever before. Also rolls and sweets. "Enticements" turned out to be giftie kinds of things—spicy-smelling tins of teas that weren't your basic Liptons, little boxes of chocolates and packs of wafers, even teapots and dish-drying towels. Stuff. Certainly nothing I'd ever have thought Mitch would've cared about, except that the first time we went into the Bread Basket we met C. Coleman, Prop. Casey.
And, as I said, we were suddenly into bread. But we didn't just grab a loaf and go either, the way we would've at 7-Eleven or Super Fresh. Each time we went in, we took to lingering while Mitch talked to Casey. In the beginning it was all about bread, but then they got into the Orioles, the latest movie at the Senator or the Charles, and P. D. James mysteries. They even had a conversation about the proper way to visit a museum and whether, at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., it was better to spend all your time in one building or to hop around from place to place, seeing little bits of lots of things.
For example, Mitch would say, in his firmest history-teacher voice, "With the Smithsonian, the thing that counts is an early start. You've got to be over in Washington by the time the doors open so you can dig in. You've got to spend the whole day in one museum— American History or Natural History or whatever—but the point is, you have to hunker down and just breathe it all in. And even then, one day doesn't begin to do it ..." He stopped and shrugged his shoulders. "Now, if you could manage to come back the next day, and the next—same place—maybe in six months or so you'd begin to make a dent."
Then Casey would say, "Oh, nooooo. Too intense. I'm more a bit-of-this-and-a-dab-of-that kind of museum visitor. A couple of hours at Air and Space, a stop at the Hirshhorn, a tour of the sculpture garden, and plenty of time for lunch." Then she'd look over to where I was playing on the floor with her cat, Half-a-Loaf, and wink.
Eventually these conversations led to the three of us going to a movie at the Senator or the Charles, or down to the harbor, and once even to the Smithsonian, where Casey and I took the hop-around approach, with time out for lunch, and Mitch buried himself in Natural History till it was time to go home.
We did things together like that for a couple of months or so, and—duh—for a while I thought that was the way it was supposed to be. Mitch, Casey, and Ben. Then one night at a baseball game, just after opening day, I looked over from watching the O's manager and the umpire going at it, and saw my father holding Casey's hand and sort of stroking her fingers. Double-duh. There's something going on here, I thought in my best genius mode.
Anyway, that's when Aunt Jo and I put our heads together, and the next time (and the one after that, and the one after that, and so on) Mitch mentioned something for the three of us to do, I was suddenly busy. In fact, from then on, I spent a lot more time with Aunt Jo and Uncle Charlie, which they said was all to the good on account of, with Stan away at college and Scott busy with senior-year stuff, their house had been much too quiet lately. And as for me, I got to play a ton more video games than I would have at home and I got to watch a pile of movies. It was all part of my great disappearing-third-person act.CHAPTER 3
I don't actually know how long this kind of thing usually takes—the going out and all, I mean. But if you ask me, it was pretty quick from when Aunt Jo and I decided to, as she put it, "give Mitch and Casey some time to themselves" to when my father settled down for a talk one night.
I was at the kitchen table studying for my science exam, which was the next day and seemed to be looming over me like a giant volcano about to erupt, when Mitch pulled out a chair and sat across from me, saying, "Well, Ben, I'd like for the two of us to have a talk."
Right away there were a couple of things wrong with that whole scenario. One was that, to my father's way of thinking, there was nothing more important than studying for an exam, and I'm pretty sure that even if the house was on fire he'd think twice about disturbing me to mention it. And two was that, since when did Mitch ever announce that he and I were having a talk? Up to now, if he had something to say, he just said it. No big deal.
"About what?" I said, closing my science book on my finger and trying to remember how many essay questions Mrs. Savopoulos had said were going to be on the exam and how many were going to be the fill-in-the-blank kind.
"Yes, uh, well, uh, I thought maybe it was time for us to ... well, you know ... there's something ..." My-father-the-articulate-one, the former debate champion, seemed to be drowning in words right before my eyes.
"Yeah?" And even as I asked the question I was flipping through things in my head, trying to figure what kind of trouble I might be in. I mean, as far as I could remember, it'd been a while since any teacher had threatened to "talk to your father, young man." My room wasn't in any worse shape than usual, and I was pretty sure I'd put the recycling stuff out the night before last.
"Yes. Well. I was thinking ... We were thinking ..." He stopped, took a deep breath, stared at the clock on the microwave, and then said, "How would it be if I married Casey?"
Married Casey. The words shot through my head like lightning bolts.
"If you married Casey?" I echoed. "It'd be cool."
"I thought you'd feel that way," said Mitch, letting out a giant sigh. "I'm glad you do. And you know, Ben, it'll just be—"
"But, hey, we'll still live here, won't we? In this house?" I suddenly asked.
"Of course we will. Casey knows this is your home. Our home. Anyway, she'll give up her apartment and she and Half-a-Loaf will move in with us. We'll probably want to do a few things around the house and ..."
I yanked my finger out of my science book, totally losing my place, and sat back, only half listening to my father as he went on about fresh paint and our having to work at putting the toilet seat down and how, no matter what, the bread would be better. And all the while he was talking, I was thinking about Casey. About how she was tall, with freckles, and hair the color of straw and sun, and how she mostly wore jeans and T-shirts and, when she was at the Bread Basket, a giant white apron. I thought about how she had seen all the Lord of the Rings movies a bunch of times over, the same as I had, and had even read the books. Which I hadn't quite gotten to yet. And how she liked the Orioles and didn't like the Yankees, mostly because they were the Yankees, and knew that the best parts of ice hockey games were the fights.
I nodded and said, "Yeah, definitely cool."
"... Of course, bound to be changes. There always are," said Mitch, in a finishing-up way that gave me the clue that maybe I'd missed something. Maybe something important.
"Changes? What kind of changes? I thought you said—the house and all—something about a little paint and well, yeah, the toilet seat."
"The house'll be fine, and Casey will move in, the way I said." But then my-father-the-history-teacher took over. "Change is inevitable. Life evolves. And as we go along, we have to adapt, to adjust, because in the normal progression things shift and, well, change."
"How?" I asked. "Change how?"
"Okay, look at it this way. For a lot of years there've been just the two of us, Ben. Now there'll be three, and maybe someday four," he said.
"Four? Half-a-Loaf won't be a problem," I said.
My father stood up, walked around the table, and then sat down again, leaning in to face me. "Not the cat," he said. "I'm talking about another child."
"Another child? What child? Casey doesn't have a kid."
"No," said Dad. "But she's always wanted one. Before we even met, she had made plans to adopt a child from China. And now we're weighing the options, trying to decide whether to go ahead with the plans. Somewhere down the road."
"Down the road," I said, and right away that fourth person—that kid—was safely lumped in with all the other down-the-road things in my life, like high school and driving a car and staying up all night on New Year's Eve. "Yeah. Okay, and like I said, that'll be cool."
Just at that moment, tomorrow's science exam seemed a lot more important and a lot more looming, and I reached for my textbook, flipping the pages until I found my place.
* * *
And so we had a wedding. It took place at the courthouse downtown on a Thursday afternoon and was, as Casey described it, one step up from an elopement.
"I know a bunch of people in my family aren't going to like this," she had told me when I'd been hanging out at the Bread Basket one day the week before. "But with different ones living in North Carolina and Pennsylvania and Delaware and even Connecticut—well, this will just be easier. Besides, your dad and I want to keep it small. And intimate. Believe me, Ben, my family can be a little overwhelming all at once."
I'd never actually been to a wedding before, but this one definitely seemed okay. Aunt Jo and Uncle Charlie were there, and Nanny and Fred, too. They were Casey's parents, and I knew from the times I'd already met them that they were really nice. D. Lynam, Prop. (Debbie, the other owner of the Bread Basket), and her husband were there, too, on account of Debbie was the best lady or whatever you call it. And three of the teachers from school, because my father said he couldn't not invite them.
Then, at the very last minute, Casey's sister Lois rushed in saying, "I just hopped on a train in Philadelphia and came down for the wedding." With that, she swooped around the room kissing everyone in sight—except me because I hid behind my father.
And speaking of me, I was the best man and got to stand up front next to Mitch and hand him the ring when the time came.
Afterward, we had dinner in Little Italy, and when it was over Mitch and Casey went to New York for a long weekend. I went home with Aunt Jo and Uncle Charlie, and that night I dreamed about bread and a blurry mob of relatives being doled out on a spoon and what it'd be like to have Casey and Half-a-Loaf living with us. I woke up feeling glad from the inside out and thought how maybe Mitch was wrong and things weren't really going to change all that much.
Excerpted from Ben and the Sudden Too-Big Family by Colby Rodowsky. Copyright © 2007 Colby Rodowsky. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
COLBY RODOWSKY is the author of many distinguished books for children and young adults, such as That Fernhill Summer, which The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books praised as a "character-driven novel about the complicated connections of family." She lives in Baltimore, Maryland.
Whenever I try to piece together anything even slightly resembling an autobiographical sketch, I find that a lot of my remembering has to do with books: what I read (almost anything); where I read (almost anywhere); and why.
Why is the key. It has, in part, to do with being an only child, often alone.
I spent a part of every summer visiting my grandmother on the eastern shore of Virginia, where the days were long and hot and there was absolutely nothing to do. Nothing to do, that is, until I discovered the library that had been a church (open three afternoons a week, and with the fiction section two steps up, where the altar used to be), and for the off-days, my grandmother's attic (and all the books my mother and aunt had read as children). It's no wonder that that library and attic keep turning up in the things I write.
There is, after all, something to be said for aloneness, at least in my case, because it led to books. I like to think that there is a lovely distinction between aloneness and loneliness, and the real reader will rejoice in the one and never know the other.
Anyway, I read. (Well, I did other things, too: jumped rope and collected bottle caps and paper dolls.) I grew up in Baltimore, New York, Washington, D.C., and Baltimore again; went to college (majoring in English); and taught school (third grade and then Special Education). I got married (to a lawyer who is now a judge) and had six children (five girls and one boy) and learned to make cupcakes and Halloween costumes and peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches. I still read. In order to find time for reading, I had to make sure the children had something to do -- so I cultivated readers. Believe it or not, in a household of eight, we all managed to find time for a little aloneness.
But there was something else that kept prodding me: the books I hadn't written yet. Once, when I was about ten years old, I woke my mother in the middle of the night and said, "Who shall I dedicate my first book to?" And she, with great practicality, said,"Why don't you write it first." And went back to sleep.
So, when the children were old enough to make their own cupcakes and Halloween costumes, I did. I have been writing ever since and hope to keep it up for a long time to come.
The children are grown now and there are five sons-in-law, a daughter-in-law, and thirteen grandchildren.
There are new readers in the family to encourage, to foster.
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