"By turns heartbreaking and heartwarming—exactly like real life. Julie Bowe takes on the tough questions about what it means to be honest, to be a good friend, and to be a family, and offers answers that, while not always easy, are always true."—Linda Urban, author of Weekends with Max and A Crooked Kind of Perfect
"Bowe so masterfully took me inside the head and heart of Wren Jo Byrd that I felt like a ten year old again—and loved every minute."—Barbara O'Connor, author of How to Steal a Dog
It's the start of a new school year and Wren Jo Byrd is worried that everyone will find out her parents separated over the summer. No one knows the truth, not even her best friend, Amber. When even her new teacher refers to her mom as Mrs. Byrd, Wren decides to keep their divorce a total secret. But something else changed over the summer: A new girl named Marianna moved to town and wants to be Amber's next bff. And because of her fib, Wren can't do anything about it. From take-out dinners with Mom to the tiny room she gets at Dad's new place, nothing is the same for Wren anymore. But while Marianna makes everything harder at first, Wren soon learns that Marianna once had to ask many of the same questions—the big ones, as well as the little ones—that Wren is asking now.
Set in Wisconsin, with wonderfully nuanced characters—from the bossy new girl, who acts big but has a secret of her own, to the sporty girl who acts little and shy but who becomes an unexpected friend—this is a book about much more than divorce.
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Can Two Make a Family?
Lots of things have changed since my last first week of school.
• Most of my baby teeth have fallen out and the big ones are filling in.
• My jeans still fit, but they are shorter.
• My hair is long enough to tie under my chin.
• I have a new favorite color—orange (sorry, blue).
• Amber and I got our ears pierced. (Afterward, we hyperventilated for a while.)
• My parents gave me my own phone. Amber has the same one.
But all those changes seem little compared to the big change that happened over the summer. Dad moved out. When your parents decide to get a divorce, someone has to leave.
Now big things—like meeting my new teacher, and finding my desk, and wondering if my friends are allowed to wear tinted lip gloss to school this year—seem little. And little things—like family photos disappearing from the refrigerator door, and not hearing Dad’s truck pull into the driveway, and not smelling his spicy chili simmering on the stove—seem big.
First, Dad lived at a hotel. Then he moved in with some friends. Now it’s September and he’s renting a cabin across the lake from our house. I mean, Mom’s house. I mean, my house. I mean, I don’t know what I mean.
Mom and Dad told me they were getting a divorce on the first day of summer vacation, which used to be my favorite day of the year. I was eating a bowl of fruity cereal. I remember because as soon as they said that word—divorce—I dribbled pink milk down the front of my sparkly koala bear shirt. The one I got when Amber invited me to spend spring break at a resort with her family. We both got the same shirt and pretended we were sisters. Mom and Dad kept talking, but I stopped listening and ran to the bathroom and threw up even though I didn’t have the flu or anything. Fruity cereal does not taste good on its way out of your stomach, but it’s still just as bright.
Mom and Dad told me that everything would be okay, and nothing was my fault, and they both loved me very much.
But nothing was okay.
I’m part of this family too. I should get a say in the big stuff.
My mom is the head librarian at the Oak Hill Public Library, and she’s always telling me to look things up for myself. I looked up the word divorce in the big, fat dictionary that sits on a fancy pedestal at the back of her library. It’s not like I’d never heard that word before. I mean, I watch TV. But I didn’t really know what it meant, or exactly how to spell it. After a few tries, I found it.
• A complete separation between two things
• To dissolve a marriage
Then I looked up the word dissolve.
• To break up
• To melt
• To disappear
If you ask me, dissolve is a dumb word for divorce because it doesn’t make things melt and disappear like ice cream or cotton candy. Divorce makes everything hard and sour, like a jawbreaker you have to keep hidden in your cheek so it doesn’t get stuck in your throat.
After Dad started looking for a place to rent, and taught me how to use my new phone, Mom hauled a big suitcase down from the attic and told me I had to go stay with my grandparents in the city while she and Dad had lawyer meetings and divided up all their stuff.
I love G-ma and G-pa, but going away when everything was falling apart felt like the biggest mistake in the world. But I still had to go.
I missed Amber’s birthday.
And swimming lessons.
And fireworks over Pickerel Lake.
And Phoebe Bartlett’s Fourth of July cookout.
And the summer reading party at the library.
Mom gave me hardly any warning, so there wasn’t even time to say good-bye to anyone. I saw my school friends Phoebe and Eleanor riding their bikes when Mom was driving me to my grandparents’ house. They were wearing swimsuits and flip-flops, with beach towels around their necks, so I knew they were on their way to the pool. Amber was probably meeting them there because we are all friends. I almost waved to them, but then I thought, What if Mom stops so I can talk to them? How can I tell my friends I’m going away because my mom and dad are getting divorced?
So I scrunched down in my seat as Mom drove past.
Amber sent me texts, but I didn’t know how to answer. So I didn’t.
When I finally got to come home, Dad’s desk was gone. So was his recliner. There were gaps on our bookshelf, like missing teeth. His lucky baseball cap wasn’t hanging on the hook by the back door, and none of his clothes were in the laundry. My favorite goofy picture of us—the one Mom took of him and me at the water park when I was finally big enough to go on the logjam ride—was nowhere. I guess it was Dad’s favorite picture too.
Last night, Mom wrote a reminder and stuck it to the fridge with a smiley face magnet.
Wren’s Weekly Schedule
Monday–Thursday: Meet Mom at the library after school.
Friday: Ride Bus #5 to your dad’s place.
Saturday–Sunday: Stay with your dad.
I walk over to the fridge and turn the smiley face magnet upside down.
Mom already bought me another toothbrush, extra hair bands, and new pajamas. She packed them in the cinch sack I use for sleepovers. Before this summer, Amber and I had sleepovers practically every weekend. Her family is big and loud, but it never feels crowded there. Not like my house, which sometimes feels crowded even though only three people live here. I mean, two people now. Is two even enough for a family?
“Chop-chop, Wren,” Mom says, taking a slice of pizza from the take-out box on the kitchen counter. “Family Night starts in fifteen minutes. I’ve got to make a couple phone calls, then we’ll head over to school.” She checks her phone for messages.
“What about Dad?” I ask. “Isn’t he coming with us?”
“I already told you, Wren,” Mom says, glancing up as she scrolls. “I gave him your schedule. He can meet us there.”
“But why can’t he come here first? There’s lots of pizza. He’s probably hungry.”
“He’s not hungry,” Mom says.
“How do you know?” I ask. “Have you talked to him?”
Mom sighs and clicks off her screen. “No, Wren. But I’m sure he’s eating supper at his . . . cabin. Now finish eating. We’re running late.”
Mom heads into the living room with her phone to her ear.
I push the pizza box away.
“Mew? Meew?” Shakespeare pitter-patters across the kitchen floor and rubs a figure eight around my ankles. I pick him up and stroke his pussy-willow-white fur. “No, I’m not hungry,” I reply to my cat. “Yes, my stomach feels icky again.”
When I hear Mom’s voice a moment later, I let myself hope that it’s Dad she’s talking to. “Maybe she decided to call him,” I whisper to Shakespeare. “There’s still time for him to stop by. We can go together.”
But then I hear Mom say big words like interrogatories and financial portfolios and equalization of investments, so I know it’s just her lawyer again. They never use little words when they talk.
Shakespeare purrs and licks my cheek. His tongue feels as scratchy as Dad’s whiskers used to feel at the end of the day.
Shakespeare meows again, and I give him a piece of pepperoni. It’s against our family rules to feed him from the table. But I’m not eating at the table. I’m at the kitchen counter. And there’s no real family here anymore anyway. It’s just me.
What’s a Diva?
As we head out the door for Family Night, I ask Mom if I can bring Shakespeare along.
“No, Wren,” she says. “Family Night is no place for a cat.”
“But he can stay in the car until we’re done. I’ll put him in his carrier with some toys. Please? Can I?”
“Wren, I gave you my answer.” Mom takes a little mirror and a lipstick from her purse and puts some on. She checks her reflection, then sighs like she isn’t crazy about what she sees.
“But why can’t Shakespeare come?” I persist. “If Dad were here, he wouldn’t care.”
“Your dad isn’t here,” Mom replies, snapping the clasp on her purse. “Now, chop-chop or we’ll be late.” She picks up her keys and opens the back door. “Grab a jacket, it’s getting chilly.”
Mom heads out.
I stomp behind her, leaving Shakespeare and my jacket at home.
On the way to my school, I call Amber. I’ve been texting her since I got back, but she hasn’t answered me. I never called Amber from G-ma and G-pa’s. Not once. Amber hates crying. I did a lot of crying over the summer.
I was hoping we could meet our new teacher together. We wanted Mr. Ortega because he’s super-nice and wears funny ties and has an old-time popcorn machine in his classroom for Friday after-noon movies. But Amber, Phoebe, Eleanor, and I got Ms. Little instead. Mom showed me the class list that came in the mail when I was gone. Ms. Little is brand-new, so I don’t know if she’s nice or funny or if she even likes popcorn. At least I get to be with my friends.
Finally, on the fifth ring, Amber answers her phone.
“Hi, it’s me,” I say. “Didn’t you get my messages?”
There’s a pause, then Amber says, “Oh . . . hi. Yes, I got them. I was too busy to answer. You know how it is.”
“Amber, I’m so sorry I didn’t tell you I was going away. I was super-sad to miss your birthday.”
“Not sad enough to call me or send a card,” she says coolly.
“I started to text you a bunch of times . . . every-thing has been crazy lately . . . I—” But I can’t talk about my messed-up family when Mom is in the car. “I . . . uh . . . how was everything while I was gone?”
“It. Was. Excellent,” Amber replies. “Except I am So. Bummed. I don’t want school to start! Marianna and I went swimming Ev-Ree Day.”
I frown into my phone. “Why are you talking like a robot? Who is Marianna?”
“This is how I talk now, Wren,” Amber says, like she bought a new voice when she did her school shopping. “Marianna moved to Oak Hill this summer. She is the coolest girl Ev-Er. A total Dee-Va.”
I’m not exactly sure what a diva is, but I think it has something to do with opera. Maybe the new girl likes to sing?
Amber starts gushing more details about Marianna. “. . . moved here from Seattle . . . gobs of friends . . . tons of cool clothes . . .”
I half listen as I take the phone away from my ear and lean forward so I can see Mom from the backseat. She’s clenching the steering wheel even though there is almost no traffic. I notice she isn’t wearing her wedding ring anymore. “Mom? What’s a diva?”
Mom turns down the radio a notch and glances over her shoulder. “Look it up,” she replies.
I sit back with a sigh.
Amber is still talking. “. . . and then Marianna double-dog dared me to hide some older boys’ beach towels in the bushes! Oh-Em-Gee! We were laughing hysterically when they couldn’t find them and had to drip all the way home . . .”
I tap D-E-E-V-A into my phone’s dictionary. It fixes my spelling mistake.
• A glamorous and popular female performer
• Prima donna
Diva means queen, I say to myself. I wonder if the new girl lives in a castle.
“O-Em-Gee!” Amber’s voice cuts through the hum of the car. “Marianna just texted me! Later!”
I press the phone to my ear again. “Wait! I’m almost at the school. Meet me by the—”
But Amber is gone.
As Mom pulls into the Oak Hill Elementary parking lot a minute later, I see Amber thumbing her phone while walking inside with her parents, and Ivory and Slate, her sister and brother. Ivory goes to the middle school next door. Slate is starting kindergarten.
Lots of other kids are arriving with their families too. Oak Hill is small, so I recognize most of them as I look across the lot. I see Bo and Ty from my class, walking inside. Sometimes I call them Bowtie because they are always together. Bo’s dad holds the door open for his mom and Ty’s parents. And there’s Ruby Olson, tossing a foam football around with her brothers; and Noah, another boy from my class. The Olsons’ football bonks Noah’s big sister on the head, so she hollers at them, and they all crack up.
The whole sidewalk is filling up with moms and dads walking together, and kids darting ahead, excited to show their families the way to their classrooms.
We get out of the car and I search around for Dad, but I don’t see him anywhere. I don’t see anyone who looks like a diva either.
I glance back at Mom. Her eyes look far away as she takes in all the families too. Then she shifts her purse to her shoulder and straightens her blazer. “Chop-chop, Wren,” she says, taking my hand. “Time to meet your teacher.”
Ms. Little is standing just outside our coatroom door, greeting everyone as Mom and I walk down the hallway. A bunch of people, including Amber and her family, are crowded around her, so I can’t see exactly what she looks like. But I catch a glimpse of short, brownish hair, and a bubble-gum-pink blouse. As we get closer, I can see that Phoebe and Eleanor aren’t here yet, but Bowtie, Noah, and another boy, Mitchell, are there. They are standing still and smiling sweetly, which is total make-believe from how they usually act. I crane my neck, looking up and down the hall. Still no Dad.
“He’s probably just running late,” Mom says, giving me a sideways glance. Sometimes she knows what I’m thinking without me saying a word. “You know how he loves to talk on and on with people.”
Dad is a building contractor, which means he fixes lots of houses. Almost everyone in town knows him. He’s always waving at people from his truck, or stopping at the café to chat with them over coffee. The way Mom says it, though, makes me wonder if Dad will be here at all. The lawyers decided Mom would be in charge of me during the week. Dad is in charge of me on the weekends. It’s Tuesday today, so Mom is in charge. Maybe it’s against the rules for Dad to see me?
I’m just about to text him to say I don’t care about the rules, and I want him to come, when Mom shoos my phone away and pulls me toward my new teacher. “Hello, Ms. Little, I’m Emily Byrd,” Mom says as they shake hands. “Wren’s mom.”
“It’s very nice to meet you, Mrs. Byrd!” Ms. Little says cheerfully.
She must not know about the divorce. I look at my mom.
“It’s very nice to meet you too,” Mom replies.
Ms. Little doesn’t know. And Mom didn’t tell her.
Ms. Little smiles at me. “Welcome, Wren! I’m so happy you’re in my class. We’ll do big things this year!” She smiles again, which makes her pretty pink cheeks go up and her green eyes crinkle and the teeny diamond on her eyebrow sparkle. Her nail polish sparkles too. So do her shiny bubble-gum-pink shoes.
School hasn’t even started yet and already my teacher sparkles. I smile back at her. “Is that a real diamond?” I ask, looking at her eyebrow again.
Mom tenses next to me. “Wren,” she says, like my question is silly.
I duck my eyes. But Ms. Little just laughs lightly. “No, it’s not real,” she tells me, “but your question makes me wonder where real diamonds come from. We’ll have to look that up sometime, Wren.”
“Hey, Squirt!” a familiar voice calls out.
I turn like a flash and see Dad walking toward us.
“Dad!” I shout, running to meet him even though it’s against the rules to run in the hallways, and even though I’ve told him a million times not to call me Squirt in public anymore. But right now, I don’t care about school rules or babyish nicknames. All I care about is seeing him.
I jump into his arms like a kindergartener. He gives my cheek a whisker rub. “I didn’t think you’d come!” I say, hugging his neck.
“What?” Dad says. “I wouldn’t miss your big day for the world.” He hitches me up a notch higher. “Uff! Did you eat rocks for supper?”
I giggle. “I had pizza. What did you have?”
“Same same!” Dad says. “We’re two peas in a pod.”
I smile and hug his neck again. It smells like sawdust and soap. My favorite smell.
As Dad sets me down, he leans in and squints one eye like he does when he’s going to joke around. “So what do we think of your new teacher?” He looks down the hallway, eyeing Ms. Little suspiciously. “Is she a keeper, or do I have to have a talk with the principal?”
I giggle again and shake my head. “She’s nice. I like her.”
I take his hand and introduce him to Ms. Little. Then I watch as he and Mom stand side by side, talking with my teacher about boring school stuff, like lunch money, student activity cards, and bus routes.
If you didn’t know it, you’d think he never left.