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What I Call Life

What I Call Life

4.4 11
by Jill Wolfson

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I haven't even explained yet about the Knitting Lady. Who is she? How did I wind up on her doorstep? How did I meet the other girls who became my friends—no, they became more than friends—despite the fact that they drove me absolutely crazy.

I need to take a giant step back, return myself to the police car and explain how I, Cal


I haven't even explained yet about the Knitting Lady. Who is she? How did I wind up on her doorstep? How did I meet the other girls who became my friends—no, they became more than friends—despite the fact that they drove me absolutely crazy.

I need to take a giant step back, return myself to the police car and explain how I, Cal Lavender, came to be living a life that wasn't my own.

A witty and moving first novel that uncovers another side of the foster-care system

Cal Lavender is perfectly happy living her anonymous life, even if she does have to play mother to her own mother a whole lot more than an eleven-year-old should. But when Cal's mother has one of her "unfortunate episodes" in the middle of the public library, she is whisked off by the authorities and Cal is escorted to a seat in the back of a police car.

On "just a short, temporary detour from what I call life," Cal finds herself in a group home with four other girls, watched over by a strange old woman everyone refers to as the Knitting Lady. At first Cal can think of nothing but how to get out of this nuthouse. She knows she doesn't belong there. But it turns out that all the girls, and even the Knitting Lady, may have a lot more in common than they could have imagined.
A fresh new voice in middle-grade fiction—Jill Wolfson's unforgettable characters will blunder their way into readers' hearts.

Editorial Reviews

Children's Literature
Eleven-year-old Cal Lavender had been living her life more or less happily—until one fateful day when her mentally unstable mother has what Cal calls 'an episode' in a public library. The librarian's phone call to the police takes Cal's mother away in one patrol car, and whisks Cal away in the back of another cruiser to a brand new life in a group home, which houses four other girls from troubled family situations. From the moment she steps through the door, proud, independent Cal insists that none of what happens to her throughout this mistaken detour is part of her 'real life,' and that she will be going home to her mother very soon. Meanwhile, as she denies her reality, Cal gradually gets to know her four roommates and their life stories, as well as the Knitting Lady, an elderly woman who shares her knitting skills and kindness with the girls. The stories she tells them about two girls from long ago are set against the present-day stories of her struggling students. These interwoven narratives give readers an idea of what life is like for children and teens who find themselves navigating through the group home/foster parent labyrinth, both in modern times and the past. As readers follow Cal on her journey they learn the emotional costs, as well as the opportunity for cultivating personal strengths, and an appreciation of everyone's innate worth, regardless of his or her current situation. Well-told and thoughtful, the story unfolds in first person through Cal's eyes. Just one word of caution: there are some words in the text that may not be suitable for preteens. 2005, Henry Holt and Company, Ages 13 to 18.
—Dianne Ochiltree
School Library Journal
Gr 5–8
Jill Wolfson's novel (Holt, 2005) focuses on 11-year-old Cal Lavender who must adjust to living in a group home after her mentally ill mother has an "episode" while visiting the public library. Cal believes that her time at the Pumpkin House, as the group home is called, is sort of a time-out from her "real" life and that someday soon everything will go back to the way it was. At first, she refuses to believe that she has anything in common with the other girls in the home and tries to distance herself from them, but she can't pull this off for long. With the help of their guardian, an old woman they call the Knitting Lady, and the four girls living in the home, she learns that all of life's experiences help to shape who we are. The unusual mix of personalities at the Pumpkin House makes this an extraordinarily interesting story. Through her storytelling, the Knitting Lady helps the girls come to accept themselves, despite their problems. The Full Cast Family provides a splendid performance. Vaudeville style piano music punctuates the beginning and end of chapters. A good addition to middle school and public library collections.
—Kathy MillerCopyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Cal Lavender (11) has perfected what she calls "My Face for Unbearably Unpleasant and Embarrassing Situations," which unfortunately is coming in handy following her mother's latest public outburst. While the story never gives Betty, Cal's mother, a specific diagnosis, her mental health causes Cal to be taken into protective custody until such time as Betty is deemed a functioning parent. Assuming that her stay at the group home, dubbed the Pumpkin House, is simply a detour from her real life, Cal initially resists getting to know the other girls. These include Whitney, a girl with an imaginary sister and a motor mouth; Amber, who can't stop pulling out all of her hair; and Monica, who jumps at her own shadow. The head of the group home, simply known as The Knitting Lady, offers pearls of wisdom in the form of stories, offering the girls a glimpse into each other's lives. While the odd characters are interesting, it's the smart and unique voice that makes this story shine. (Fiction. 10-14)
From the Publisher

“Wolfson paints her characters with delightful authenticity. Her debut novel is a treasure of quiet good humor and skillful storytelling that conveys subtle messages about kindness, compassion, and the gift of family regardless of its configuration.” —Booklist, Starred Review

“Wolfson's first novel is a grand-slam home run. Her wonderfully kooky characters, her fast-paced, witty dialogue, and her realistic depiction of emotional growth in severely damaged children keep the reader laughing and crying on every page. In the fine tradition of Holden Caulfield and Huckleberry Finn, Cal is loveably unforgettable. Somewhere, perhaps inside of every reader, is a child who will be reaffirmed by this exceptional piece of middle school fiction.” —VOYA

“Thankfully, books like Wolfson's--issue-oriented and therapeutic--give all kids an enjoyable way to begin to understand the complications of living. Her book specifically is a small miracle for how gently it exposes the wounds of being a foster kid.” —Santa Cruz Sentinel

Product Details

Henry Holt and Co. (BYR)
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256 KB
Age Range:
8 - 12 Years

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Read an Excerpt



Everyone is always living her story.

When I first heard this, I thought: What kind of nutty philosophy is that? Who would buy it? Everyone? Always?

All I had to do was look at my own personal situation to see how wrongheaded this kind of thinking happened to be. I looked around at where I was living at the time and with whom I was living and shook my head. No, sir. This isn't MY story. This is nothing like MY life.

My life—what I call life—had been running its usual course up until recently. Until everything came to a complete and total halt. That was the day my mother happened to have one of her episodes in full public view at the library (more on that later). I, for a fact, knew that things weren't as bad as they might look. Anyone who knew my mother knew that she'd snap out of it eventually. She always did.

But certain people in the library didn't look too kindly on some of the things she was doing during her episode. So these certain people called the police, and, while one of the officers whisked my mother one way, another whisked me outside and loaded me into the back seat of his patrol car.

That had been my first time ever in a police car, and, while I suppose that most eleven-year-old girls would have thrown a full-blown emotional conniption, I didn't put up a fuss, no fuss at all.

Which brings me back to the subject of life stories. If I was going to tell mine, that's one of the first things I would put in about myself: Cal Lavender is known far and wide for never fussing.

No crying. No whining. No complaining. No fuss. Not even when she has to sit in a police car, breathing in the smell of sweat, stale cigarettes, and worn, cracked leather. Whew! I'll tell you one thing. If that vehicle is any indication of what the rest of the police cars in our city are like, they could definitely use a good airing out. But even though I have the ability to clean up far worse messes, I wasn't about to volunteer to do it. Let that officer and his criminal riders clean out their own car.

There was a sharp crackle of static from the police radio, and that's when I decided that I would fold up and die right then and there if the policeman put on the siren. I cringed at the thought of being paraded through downtown in such an embarrassing manner, especially so soon after the previous embarrassing situation at the library. (Like I already said, more on that later.)

That's another thing you could put in any story about my life: Cal Lavender hates it when nosy strangers think itis perfectly okay to stare at people in situations that they know nothing about.

But thank goodness the siren didn't happen. There were only the usual traffic noises. I was perfectly anonymous, just the way I like to be. I pressed my nose against the window. I looked out at the streaks of stores and buses and people rushing by, but nobody could see in. For all anyone knew, the car contained a cold-blooded killer/ arsonist/drug dealer on her way to the electric chair, instead of an eleven-year-old girl with a mother who unfortunately happens to have episodes every once in a while. Which, to my way of thinking, does not come anywhere near qualifying as a criminal offense.

Every so often, I caught the policeman sneaking peeks at me through the rearview mirror. When he saw me looking back, he snapped his eyes away. But then he would look again when he thought I wasn't looking. Then I would snap my eyes away. We went back and forth like that for a while, until we stopped at a red light. This time, he didn't drop his eyes. "No problems back there—right, young lady?"

His eyes held on to mine, which made me feel kind of funny in the stomach, even though I'm sure I didn't show it. I have spent many hours in front of a mirror, imagining embarrassing situations even worse than this one and making sure that, whatever jumpy feeling was going oninside of me, I, Cal Lavender, would have the same fixed expression on my face. I call it My Face for Unbearably Unpleasant and Embarrassing Situations. It looks like this: Eyes like two black checkers. Mouth, a thin line with only the slightest curve at the corners. I'm naturally olive-skinned and thin, with one long eyebrow instead of the two short ones that ordinary people have. This gives me the ability to scowl without even trying. My mother, who has the same line across her forehead, says it's an awning over our eyes, protection against whatever life throws at us.

That's the face I showed the policeman, which made him cough nervously and then say, "Hey, would you like one of these breath-mint things? Sure, all kids like breath mints." A tin of Altoids landed next to me. I didn't touch it. "Not all kids think that their breath needs help," I said.

"No offense intended," he said back.

I forgave him. I had seen the name on his tag—Officer Quiggly—and immediately renamed him in my mind. Officer Quiggly Wiggly. That's another thing I inherited from my mother. She has a way of finding the perfect name for everyone, me included. (More on that later, too.)

Then there was more crackling from the radio. "Yeah, that's where we're headed," Quiggly Wiggly said into the receiver. The light changed to green, and the car moved forward.

Now, your average eleven-year-old would probably have been scared out of her wits, not knowing where she was headed, where the ride was taking her, not knowing what waited ahead.

But not me. Not Cal Lavender. I wasn't scared at all. My knees were aligned, my thighs pressing together and perfectly matched. My hands were folded on my lap.

Why should I have been scared? After all, this wasn't my story. This was just a short, temporary detour from what I call life.

Copyright © 2005 by Jill Wolfson

Meet the Author

Jill Wolfson's writing has appeared in Salon and the San Jose Mercury News. She lives in Santa Cruz, California. What I Call Life is her first novel.
Jill Wolfson is the author of the novel What I Call Life. Her writing has also appeared in Salon and the San Jose Mercury News. She lives in Santa Cruz, California.

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What I Call Life 4.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 11 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Good book
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Through the whoul story you meet a lot of people. Very short chapters. Very engoyable. MUST READ
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Im starting a new series and quittibg this review series and starting a new series. Its a summary/review type of series. If you want to check it out go to the hunger games
eldridgeamy More than 1 year ago
So the book starts with Cal, the main character, who doesn't really have a normal life. Her mom is pretty crazy, and into the story Cal having to live in a home with a few other girls, and the adult, a weird knitting lady telling the girls stories almost every night.. She lives there for a while, getting to know the girls there, and kind of living a normal teenage girl life. Eventually Cal reunites with her mother, but probably with a completely different perspective then before going to the home with the other girls. The book was kind of boring, and strange, and a little confusing to read. It was an easy book to finish but not really a good story read. It's not horrible, but I wouldn't recommend this to really anyone who want an interesting story.
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Guest More than 1 year ago
This book is touching, sad, and full of friendships you feel like you are a part of. I read this book and i just remembered it and this book would DEFINITLY make my top 10 books! I loved this book sooooo much! I recomend it to all girls o all ages who want a really good read!!!!!!
Guest More than 1 year ago
What I Call Life by Jill Wolfson is great, interesting, funny, and sometimes quite intense, easy to read page-turning novel. It¿s a story about a girl trying to live a new life at a group home with other girls with completely different personalities. Based on reality situations that can happen to anyone. It tells about how every horrible decision might always just have good aftermath.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This is a wonderful book that I think more people should read. Every sentence makes me want to keep reading. The book was amazing and that was all I have to say!
Guest More than 1 year ago
what I call life is one of the best books I have ever read. It tells the story of a girl going into her first foster home and her whimsical new encounters and adventures with Whitney, Fern, Monica, Amber, and The Knitting Lady. This book (again) is the best!