Derek Fallon discovers all the angst that comes with being twelve—he just wants to feel grown up, but life gets in the way with a series of mishaps that make him look like a baby. He passes out during a worm dissection in science class, falls flat on his face in gym class and gets a fat lip that causes him to lisp all day, and his plans for a monster-truck party turn into a bouncy house disaster. Why isn't being in middle school as great as Derek imagined? Thankfully, with a little help from his friends—and, ironically, a Toys for Tots fundraiser—things seem like they could start shaping up at last.
My Life as a Joke by Janet and Jake Tashjian is a Christy Ottaviano Book
“Readers will connect with likable Derek and his efforts to improve himself that don't ever go right . . . It's sure to be a hit with fans of the previous installments.” —School Library Journal
"A kinder, gentler Wimpy Kid with all the fun and more plot." —Kirkus Reviews, starred review on My Life as a Book
Don't forget the rest of the My Life series!
My Life as a Book
My Life as a Stuntman
My Life as a Cartoonist
My Life as a Joke
My Life as a Gamer
My Life as a Ninja
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My Life as a Joke
By Janet Tashjian
Henry Holt and CompanyCopyright © 2014 Jake Tashjian
All rights reserved.
A Time to Celebrate
"This is going to be a great year — I can feel it!" I watch the hands of the clock as they inch toward midnight.
Yesterday we stocked up on goodies: pepperoni pizza, strawberries and whipped cream, pistachios, coconut ice cream, double chocolate chip cookies, and celery. (I know that celery doesn't sound like much of a treat, but I like to take giant crunchy bites, let the stalk hang out of my mouth, and pretend I'm a newspaper editor in an old-fashioned movie smoking a cigar and barking out orders to a roomful of reporters. Don't ask.)
My mother wears a checkered blue dress she got on sale in the Beverly Center. She tells Dad and me how the dress was marked down four times — which is unfortunately the number of times she tells the story now. The silver earrings Dad gave her for Christmas dangle from her ears, and she wears pointy high-heel shoes; it's strange to see her in anything besides the comfortable flats she wears in her veterinary practice most days.
My dad excuses himself to run upstairs and change his shirt. He says it's because he's chilly but I think it's because in our jeans and T-shirts, we look more informal than Mom, and he knows how much she likes any excuse to dress up. I take the hint and sneak into my room to change.
When I come back downstairs, my mother stops lighting the candles on the mantelpiece. "Derek, you're wearing your suit!"
The only other time I've worn this suit was to Mr. Mitchell's funeral last September. Mr. Mitchell was our next-door neighbor for the entire time we've lived in this house. His obituary said he died "after a long illness," but anybody in our neighborhood could've told you it was from a brain tumor. Ms. Carlton across the street organized an alternating weekly meal calendar so Mrs. Mitchell didn't have to worry about cooking. Even though we and the other neighbors ended up cooking meals for three months, nobody complained. THAT'S how nice the Mitchells are.
I grab my lapels and spin around. "It's New Year's Eve!"
Somehow this coming year already seems different. I know I'm only twelve, but it's as if I'm about to catapult into feeling less like a little kid and more like an older one. I'll be a teenager soon, almost as cool as the upper classmen I sometimes watch from the corner of my eye at school. I could never talk with my friends Matt or Umberto about this. Carly, however, would love to sink her teeth into this subject. But the thought of discussing how mature we can be makes me whip off my suit jacket and start jumping on the couch. I grab the bag of confetti my dad went to three stores to find and toss handfuls around the room. My mutt, Bodi, barks and tries to jump onto the couch with me.
"Hey, I thought we were waiting until midnight." Dad looks at my mother with his Something-Is-Wrong-with-Our-Son face.
"Happy New Year!" I jump off the couch and run into the kitchen to get my capuchin monkey, Frank.
"Derek!" My mother's voice is a bit louder than my father's. "I hope you're not taking Frank out of his cage."
But it's too late — Frank is now sitting on my shoulder, grabbing the confetti as I hurl it into the air.
"You might be a little overtired," my father says.
"It's only eleven thirty," I answer. "I'm not tired at all. In fact, I think we need more snacks."
My mother gazes at the half-empty trays of food we've been munching on for hours.
"We need to start the New Year with sliders," I suggest.
My parents look at each other, deciding what to do. On the one hand, it's late. On the other hand, they've been encouraging me lately to cook some simple meals.
"Okay," Mom finally says. "But wear an apron so you don't stain your clothes."
I take out the apron Dad uses to barbecue that says THIS GUY LOVES BACON and tie it around my waist. My mother gets a package of ground beef from the fridge, but I wave her away, saying I can do it myself. She scoops Frank into her arms and heads to the living room with my father.
I keep my eye on the clock as I form the beef into little patties. My mother pretends she's not looking into the kitchen, but I can tell she is. She doesn't realize that when it comes to hamburgers — even mini ones — I know what I'm doing.
It's ten minutes to midnight and the burgers are almost done when I'm suddenly faced with a crisis. WHERE IS THE KETCHUP? I rummage through the fridge, pulling out bottles and jars of condiments.
"Six minutes to go!" Dad calls.
From over my shoulder, I see my mom hold up her glass and my father pop open the bottles to prepare for midnight. (Champagne for them; sparkling cider for me.)
But before I can join them, an annoyingly loud BEEP BEEP BEEP fills the house.
I cover my ears with my hands as my mom runs into the kitchen.
"Derek, how many times have we talked about turning on the vent when you cook hamburgers?" She waves the dishtowel at the smoke detector. "Jeremy, can you shut this off?"
My father pokes the broomstick at the smoke detector while I hastily remove the now-burnt burgers from the stove. But the charred meat is the least of my problems — Bodi and Frank are going ballistic from all the noise. I try to seize Frank but he's in the living room, shrieking almost as loudly as the smoke alarm. The television only adds to the noise when the two hosts start the countdown.
"10! 9! 8! ..."
Frank jumps into my arms, colliding with the remote on the way. He must've hit the channel button because the TV screen's now full of static and hissing noisily.
"What on earth is going on?" my mother shouts from the kitchen.
My father is on the stepladder, prying the battery out of the smoke detector. When it finally stops beeping, my mother hurries into the living room and presses different buttons on the three remotes until the screen returns to the special at L.A. Live.
"There you have it!" the host announces. "A New Year's celebration for the books!"
"I think that's the most spectacular fireworks show we've ever seen!" The other host waves to the crowds kissing and having fun at the strike of midnight we missed.
"Happy New Year." My mom's acting happy as she makes the toast, but it's hard to miss the annoyance behind her smile. After we all hug, she puts Frank back in his cage and tells me it's time for bed.
I pull out the bag I have hidden behind the couch. "Here's what I was thinking — since Frank wears a diaper, he can be Baby New Year and Bodi can be Father Time." I hold out the sash and cotton-ball beard I made earlier.
"Bed," my father says.
Bodi follows dutifully behind me as I storm through the living room. I make a big show of grabbing a burnt slider from the pan to take with me upstairs.
I get into my pajamas and shove my suit underneath the stand of my aquarium. Why did I think this year was going to be different? Why did I think I'd finally get to be in charge of my own life? This year's going to be another 365 days of taking orders, going to school, doing chores, reading books, doing homework, etc., etc., etc.
They should change "Happy New Year" to "Ha Ha! You Think This Year Will Be Different but Don't Fool Yourself — You're Still a Kid."
Happy New Year? I don't think so.CHAPTER 2
Tomorrow's Not Much Better
I haven't watched parades on TV since I was little and my father doesn't follow football, so New Year's Day is surprisingly quiet. I don't know why I thought that just because the calendar changed, my daily life would be altered too. I take Bodi to the dog park same as I always do, pick up his poop the way I have for years. When I come back to the house, my mom's got on her woolen sweater and sunglasses.
"Come on, guys," she says. "We're off to Pasadena."
My dad and I wait for the other shoe to drop.
She answers our silent question by waving her arms like some guy on a runway guiding in planes. "The floats!"
At first I think she's talking about ice cream, but then I realize she wants to check out all the floats at the Rose Bowl. After the parade is done, they cordon off several streets where the town parks all the floats. Every year Mom wants us to see them up close, and every year my dad and I find a way to wriggle out of it.
"I think it's supposed to rain." I point to the sky, which is perfectly blue.
"The weather report said the winds are up through the pass," my dad adds. "They were warning people about driving in the Valley."
My mother puts her hands on her hips, clearly displeased. "I'm not taking no for an answer this year."
"We really want to go," my father lies. "I'm just worried about those winds. The meteorologist said they were blowing up to seventy miles per hour."
"Then pack your parachutes," my mother says. "And I'll drive." She scoops up her keys from the angel statue near the door. "Come on, guys. Chop, chop."
The mistake my dad and I made was not anticipating my mom's annual plea earlier. Every year it's the same thing: She tells us how the floats are made with zillions of real flowers and how each town entering the parade spends months turning plants, herbs, stones, bark, leaves, and petals into painstaking designs. I'm sure thousands of people worked really hard on these floats; it's just not how I want to spend one of my days off from school. Isn't holiday vacation short enough as it is without looking at a carnation windmill?
My dad throws on his sweatshirt and tucks his longish hair into the UCLA baseball cap I got him for Christmas. "Maybe after all these years of avoiding this, it'll be fun."
And maybe this is the year that reading becomes easy and I suddenly turn into the smartest kid in my class.
"Come on," he says. "Mom does enough stuff for us. It's only fair."
I put on my own cap before Dad starts listing all the skateboard parks my mother drives me to.
My mother fills two travel cups with coffee and asks if I want to call a friend to join us. I tell her Matt is still at his grandmother's house and Umberto's at his uncle's.
"I bet Carly would love to see the floats up close," my mother continues. "Her mom's a landscaper. Carly probably inherited her love of plants."
I text Carly, shrugging to let my mother know I'm only doing it because she asked me to, not because it's a good idea. Carly texts me back immediately that she can be ready in ten minutes. That's a great un-girly thing about Carly — she's always prepared to walk out the door at a moment's notice if somebody's up for adventure. (Not that staring at a bunch of immobile floats is anybody's idea of exciting, but you get the idea.)
Since Carly's coming with us, my mom cleans out her SUV. It overflows with CDs (yes, she still uses them), tissue boxes, empty water bottles, and cardboard coffee cups. She tosses the trash into the barrel and brushes clumps of Bodi's hair off the backseat.
"Maybe YOU should enter the parade next year." I hold up several crumpled grocery receipts and empty granola bar wrappers. "You've got enough stuff in here to decorate ten floats."
"I think that's an excellent idea. Why don't we pick up an application while we're there today."
I whip around to see if she's kidding and thankfully she is.
My father climbs into the front seat with the fat holiday newspaper on his lap. It's mostly ads, but he'll read every inch of it anyway.
It's so strange how my parents are both avid readers and I still struggle to read the books assigned in class. From a genetic point of view, shouldn't Mom's DNA combined with Dad's DNA almost GUARANTEE I'd be a good reader? It's a subject I'd like to read more about if — oh yeah — reading wasn't such a chore. (I think that's what they call a Catch-22, a phrase that's probably based on yet another book I'll be unable to read.)
Carly climbs into the car as excited as if we were going to an all-you-can-eat-pizza-and-sundae party. She says hello to my parents, then gestures to her pants, which are some kind of stretchy, floral fabric. "I can't think of a better way to bring in the New Year than with flowers!"
Asking Carly to come along on a forced outing with my parents was a terrible idea.
"My mother and I went a few years ago — it was great," Carly continues. "I'm going to take pictures."
My mom pulls onto the highway. "Then lettuce get on our way." She nudges my dad, who smiles at her pun.
I show Carly the new app on my phone to steer the conversation away from my mom's lame joke, but Carly's already taken the bait.
"I hear they use lots of vegetables," Carly says. "I can't wait to see what will turnip."
My mother laughs her big, horsey laugh, and I realize I'm now in this for the duration. Even worse, my dad decides to join in the punathon.
"The plum tree is ripe," he says. "It might be time to prune."
"I'm really taking a lichen to that tree," my mother continues.
Carly seems stumped, but of course she's not. "The apple crossed the street to get to the other cider the road," she says triumphantly.
Even from staring at the back of her head, I can tell my mom's super brain can generate a million of these stupid jokes. "I heard one palm tree asked another palm tree for a date," she says.
Dad puts his paper down. "I can't cedar forest for the trees."
"Come on, Derek," Carly says. "It won't take any thyme for you to catch up."
I stare out the window, trying to assess how many bones I'll break if I hurl myself out of the car at the next corner. I grab the stack of papers shoved next to Dad's seat.
"Weed it and reap," my mother says.
Carly pounds on the armrest as if that's the funniest thing she's ever heard. "Good one, Mrs. Fallon. I have to write some of these down." She starts rapidly entering the info into her phone.
"As if those jokes weren't lame enough, you want to preserve them?" I ask.
But in typical Carly fashion, she gets to the bottom of what I really think about all this. "Sorry," she apologizes. "We don't mean to make you feel left out."
Before I can lie and tell her of COURSE I don't feel left out, that the last thing I want to do is play their crummy little game, my mother interrupts.
"Carly's right, Derek," Mom says. "We might've gotten a little carried away."
My mom can't help herself. "Yeah, with fronds like us, who needs anemones?"
Carly lets out a squeal of laughter; my father bangs his fists on the dashboard.
I am off from school for THIS? All I want is for everybody to leaf me alone.
A Parade That's Parked Isn't Really a Parade
Despite all my grumbling, it's a crisp, sunny day and even the five-block walk doesn't bother me. To be honest, it has less to do with the fresh air than with all the food carts of fried dough, kettle corn, and lemonade that have sprouted up on every street corner. By the time we get to where the floats are, I've eaten enough snacks to rival Halloween.
After that dopey car ride, I figured Carly would be holding hands with both of my parents, probably with them lifting her up and swinging her between them the way they used to do with me when I was little. But my parents are holding hands alone, walking leisurely behind us while Carly and I inspect the floats.
"The town hall on that float is constructed of rows of apples," she says. "And that dog is made out of bark."
Excerpted from My Life as a Joke by Janet Tashjian. Copyright © 2014 Jake Tashjian. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
A Time to Celebrate,
Tomorrow's Not Much Better,
A Parade That's Parked Isn't Really a Parade,
Back to School,
There's No F-U-N in the Word "Committee",
This Is a First,
A Special Doll,
Matt Weighs In,
Look at All These Toys!,
A Tough Audience,
Acting Mature Was an Immature Idea,
I've Never Held This Much Money,
A Second Impression,
A Reason Not to Brag,
Lying to Friends and Family,
The Event of the Year,
Not Exactly What I'd Planned,
The Other Shoe Drops,
Another Teaching Moment,
A Different Plan,
A Last Resort,
I Am Now a Worker Bee,
Matt Goes Crazy,
The Big Event,
Hope and Flower,
Better Late Than Never,
A Neighbor Leaves,
Sometimes It's Okay to Be the Punchline,
Sneak peek: MY LIFE AS A GAMER,
About the Author,
About the Illustrator,
Other Books by Janet Tashjian,
Praise for My Life as a Book,
Praise for My Life as a Stuntboy,
Praise for My Life as a Cartoonist,