Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Who Needs Another Mother?

This one was inspired by two great tastes that probably DON'T taste great together: the no-nonsense prose style of Paula Danziger... aaaaand kidnapping. For those of you who don't remember, kidnapping was HUGE in the '80s! It was like the Snuggie of 20 years ago. (Speaking of Snuggies, you could probably use one to lure unsuspecting children into your windowless van. "Want to try on my blanky? It has SLEEVES! Sleeves filled with candy!!!" Just brainstorming here...)

Nothing conspicuous about this, no siree.

[My mom gave us very strict instructions not to take any candy or other gifts from strangers. "And if someone tells you they'll take you to the toy store and buy you any toy you want," she prompted, "what do you say?" My sister quickly answered, "Thank you!"]

The late '80s and early '90s gave us a veritable smorgasbord of child stealing. For instance:
  • In The Face on the Milk Carton, a teen girl sees her face on—you guessed it!—one of those Missing Child ads that were all the rage on dairy containers of the '80s. [Sidenote: What was up with that? The ones with the creepy age-progression photos were the worst/best. I was always hoping I'd recognize someone, because solving a crime at age 10 would have completely ruled.] Anyway, this book was awesome because the girl might have been kidnapped by Hare Krishnas (the hell?!), plus it was made into a TV movie starring Kellie Martin! Double the awesome! EDIT: I don't know HOW, but I forgot that the movie also had a CHARACTER NAMED SADA in it, making it awesome to the infinite power. Is it out on DVD yet?!
  • How about the Diff'rent Strokes episode where Sam gets kidnapped? The kidnapper uses the old "Can you help me find my lost puppy?" line. Of course, the villains are just some sad couple who want to replace their dead son—not murderous child molesters like the kidnappers in real life.
  • And of course there was I Know My First Name Is Steven, the TV miniseries in which Luke Edwards/Corky Nemec DOES get kidnapped by a child molester, because it's based on a true story. This miniseries scared the piss out of me. Almost as much as the one where Farrah Fawcett shoots her kids while "Hungry Like the Wolf" is playing. ALMOST.
Who Needs Another Mother? took more of the "lighthearted" Diff'rent Strokes–style approach to kidnapping, by which I mean the 'nappees didn't get touched in bad places or end up in a dumpster outside Burger King with their fingertips chopped off. (Fact: I've watched waaay too many true crime shows.) Nay, they were kidnapped out of LOVE!

But actually, we won't get to most of that. What we WILL get to is gratuitous descriptions of masticated potato chips and fat men in mismatched Hawaiian print. The kidnapping thing? Myeah, not so much.

Who Needs Another Mother?

School was out.

I graduated from fifth grade.

I'm scared about going to middle school.

So the key to writing like Paula Danziger is to use the first person, present tense. Obviously. But I was unaware that you also have to keep all of your paragraphs annoyingly short.

Today is the last day of school. Now I'm walking home. Well, what's going to be my home when Alicia hears about her uncle's will.

Alicia is my mom.

I don't remember calling her mom. I don't remember calling her anything but Alicia.

That's our first—and, actually, in these three chapters, ONLY—clue that Alicia is in fact NOT her mom. I seem to have called upon a reserve of subtlety previously absent in my writing—a subtlety wholly unhelpful for the purposes of the Kidnapping Foreshadowing.

I have a sister.

Her name is Justine.

Alicia calls her Tina.

I call her Brat.

Brat is a boy-crazy little snot. She wants to be a cheerleader. It's sexist to be a cheerleader. Besides, she's only 10.

A cheerleading Brat? I can't stop picturing this:


Also, is she wearing HIGH-TOP CHUCK TAYLORS? I don't want to think about this for too long.

I open the door.

"It's about time." Brat yells from the kitchen. She walks in, stuffing her face with potato chips. The pig. How does she stay so skinny?

Ummm... she's 10?

I ignore her.

"The house?" I ask Alicia.

"I'm glad you asked that question." says Alicia. She isn't smiling. "My uncle didn't leave me the house."

Brat pretends to faint in a chair.

A potato chip piece flies out of her mouth and onto my chin. How disgusting.
[I second that...] I wipe it off.

"Did he leave you anything?" I ask.

Alicia sticks her tongue in her cheek. That's her annoying habit. "Well, this is so embarrassing." begins Alicia. "No. My uncle didn't leave me anything."

I'd like to know how they weaseled their way into the house in the first place. That Alicia must be one sweet-talkin' kidnapper.

"WHAT." I screech.

"Erin, calm down." Alicia says. She's blushing.

"Sorry, Alicia." I tell her.

"I'm sorry, Alicia." mimmicks Brat, pretending to cry. Brat also wants to be an actress, which will never happen because she can't act.

"I'm sorry, too." says Alicia, looking around. "Think of all the space."

I do.

Alicia is what some people would call a struggling artist. So we usually don't have a lot of money. I mean we buy food and clothes and shoes and art supplies and stuff. It's not like we're poor.

Homeless, yes.

Poor, no.

They are SO poor.

"So where are we going to live?" asks Brat. The snot. I was just about to say that.

"I'm glad you asked that question, Tina." says Alicia. She is sticking her tongue in her cheek.

Not a good sign.

"After I found out about Uncle Frank's will, it was about 1:00 so I decided to do some house-hunting." Alicia starts smiling. "And I found the perfect place. You guys are gonna love it."


Uh, you'd think whole "homeless" thing would make Erin a little less picky. Who's the friggin' brat now?

Chapter Two

The place Alicia found wasn't just any place. Alicia lived in a boarding house before I was born. So this was kind of like a boarding house. Except it was like an apartment building too. It was a mansion.

The people who owned the house rented out the rooms, except they decided to put a sink and stove in each "apartment". So then it wasn't a boarding house or apartment building.

So, it's a mansion that's been converted into apartments. In other words, EXACTLY LIKE AN APARTMENT BUILDING. I lived in a house, so I didn't understand such distinctions.

Alicia wanted to rent half of the attic. There were four rooms in the attic, two big, two small, and one bathroom. Some people named the Walker's had rented the other half. Half was one big room and one small room. They had to share the bathroom.

A Quick Lesson in Being Poor: Poor people can't afford their own bathrooms.

Alicia decided to rent it that night. She asked them to get her a pole to hang a curtain on.

...And starving artists can't afford their own curtain rods.

When we get home, to Uncle Frank's home, we pack right away. I'm finished at 10:52.

Brat went to sleep at 9:47, but she's not done packing. Alicia calls for my help.

"I'm having a nervous breakdown." says Alicia. She is packing the dishes. "I'm having my mid-life crisis."

I believe Alicia is in her mid-30s.

"Really, Alicia." I say. "You're more responsible than that." I'm smiling.

"Erin." Alicia says. "Don't you lecture me about responsibility. Even if it is in humor." She isn't smiling.

That really hurt me.

It's like she can lecture us about anything and then we make a joke and she jumps on our backs and says don't lecture her, but she can lecture us, even if we were only joking.

It's like Erin keeps repeating herself and talking in circles and saying the same thing over and over.

What am I saying we for?

I meant me.

As you can see, I wasn't big on editing.

So I left Alicia to finish packing by herself. I always leave when I'm mad at her. Because when she does things like that it bugs me.

This is how mature kidnapper/kidnappee relationships work. Take note.

Now it's 9:14.

Brat finished packing 18 minutes ago.

Alicia stayed up last night and finished.

We eat doughnuts for breakfast. I eat the maple one. Maple is my favorite kind of doughnut.

Brat likes chocolate with chocolate sprinkles.

All that chocolate is going to catch up with her.

She'll have a million zits because she ate chocolate doughnuts for breakfast all this week. I can't wait to see her face next week.

Dude. She's 10. Plus, chocolate doesn't cause acne. That's an urban myth perpetrated by YA literature of the '80s.

* * * * *

Now we moved. We don't have any furniture, so we didn't need a truck or van or anything.

A Quick Lesson in Being Poor: Furniture? Nope. Can't afford it. But at least there's money for shoes and art supplies. And maple doughnuts!

We brought boxes over in Alicia's neon pink bug.

A pink Volkswagen?!?! Alicia is shattering all KINDS of kidnapper stereotypes!

But I bet she'll still give you free candy.

We get over to the house. The number on our door is 16. That's Brat's lucky number. YUCK.

Alicia wants us to seperate the big room in half. Half will be the bedroom and the other half will be Alicia's studio.

That's why she asked for the curtain pole thing.

She has me and Brat working away on sewing a loop in some old sheets.

The things we do for that woman.

There is a Knock at the door.

"Keep sewing." says Alicia. She runs to the door.

"Slavedriver." Brat whispers.

Aha! So maybe Alicia is part of some CHILD SLAVERY RING???

It's Mr Walker.

He looks really weird. He's really fat with tiny glasses. He's
[wearing?] bulging Hawaiin print shirt and shorts that don't match. And he's wearing sandals. Can you believe it? SANDALS?

Oy, the mandals.

Although Mr. Walker was probably wearing Birkenstock knockoffs. Am I right or am I right?

I don't think I want to live next door to them.

Chapter Three

Mr. Walker's creepy family is walking in. Mrs. Walker is wearing a gray skirt and a white blouse. The skirt comes down to her ankles. She has straight gray and blond hair that comes down to her chin.

Mrs. Walker is hold a fat, almost bald baby in diapers. "I'm Carolyn and this is Clyde." Mrs. Walker says. She's pointing at the baby. The baby, Clyde, looks like Mr. Walker, with a frizzy puff of red hair on top of his head and gray eyes.

Be careful, little Clyde! Your new neighbor likes to STEAL KIDS!

Mrs. Walker pushes a girl in. "I'm Veronica." says the girl. She hands Alicia Something covered in foil. "Happy house-warming." she mutters, staring at her feet.

How ominous is it that the Something is capitalized? I fear it might be a Severed Head. Or a Tupperware's Worth of Pig Blood. Happy housewarming!

"You'll have to excuse Veronica." says Mrs. Walker, glaring at her. She's not in a very good mood."

I don't know what to make of Veronica. She's still staring at her feet. She has gray eyes and snarled red hair that comes down to her shoulders. She probably hasn't brushed it in weeks. She's very skinny and wearing a dirty green shirt with green and white striped shorts. And her shins are all black and blue. She's carrying yellow plastic sunglasses.

A Quick Lesson in Being Poor: Poor people are dirty and don't brush their hair. But they have rad sunglasses!

"And this is my son, Joel." says Mrs. Walker. "He's thirteen." She winks. What a major geek. I feel sorry for her kids.

Joel has red hair that's straight and brown eyes. He looks thirteen, with a lot of zits.

And that's where it ends. But I swear to you, this WAS going to be about kidnapping. Eventually. At some point. For sure. The preadolescent promo material gives us a glimpse of the drama that was to come:


Erin and her sister, Justine, have lived all their lives with their mother, Alicia. Alicia is an artist and she never has very much money. So when they settle down in an apartment, Erin feels at home for the first time. She has even met her first friend since second grade. Then they find out Alicia isn't their real mother. Their mother disappeared and their baby-sitter, Alicia took them and kept them after their mother returned. The court gives them back to their real mother. Living with their new family is anything but easy. Erin is ready to give up. Who needs another mother? Not Erin. She just wants Alicia.

[I axed the "She just wants Alicia" line because I thought it made Erin sound like a big lesbian. I wish I was joking.]

So, hmmm. Their mother "disappeared" and their babysitter—instead of calling the police like ANY SANE INDIVIDUAL—was all, "What happened to my employer? Don't know. Oh well, guess I better keep these kids and move out of state and change our identities and relocate every few months." (Where was their mother anyway? Did SHE get kidnapped too?! Because a kidnapping within a kidnapping would be pretty stellar.)

I have no idea how the kidnapping was going to be revealed. I probably—you're going to be shocked!—hadn't thought that far ahead. The Face on the Milk Carton wasn't published until 1990, so that idea wasn't yet mine to steal.

I do remember that Erin and Justine were going to be returned to their real mother, who lived in Friendship, NY (but of course!) with her new hubby and his two kids. (What was up with Erin and Justine's dad? Bah! Who cares?)

I love how the promo material implies that the meat of the conflict is about whether Erin wants to stay with her real mom or return to Alicia. Like Alicia wouldn't be LOCKED UP IN FRIGGIN' PRISON.

NEXT TIME: Guest author Michelle treats us to an array of awesomeness, including a tale about Shorlock Homes the Cowgirl. That's right. Shorlock Homes. The COWGIRL. Get psyched!

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Ivy Twists

I'M BACK! I didn't mean to be gone so long, but extracurricular activities topped with an arm pain flare-up kind of effed me up for a while. You don't even want to KNOW how many unread items I have in Google Reader. But enough of the excuses! Let's hit the proverbial road and learn more about the 5th grade residents of Friendship, NY.

If Friendship were a TV show, this one might qualify as a Very Special Episode. Unintentionally. Now I'm not really up on the latest version of the DSM, but it doesn't take a psychiatrist to figure out that young Ivy Swanson is maaaaaaybe teetering on the edge of dissociative identity disorder (or, in 1989 parlance, MULTIPLE PERSONALITY DISORDER) here. Seriously, guys. There are imaginary friends and then there's.... THIS.


dear jo,

i wish you didn't have to move. you're my best friend i mean life isn't fair. i wish your parents would go to you know where. [Whoa! I think she might mean H-E-double hockey sticks!] no offense, jo. i mean well it's not their fault i'm just mad about the whole thing really. this isn't the right thing to do. promise you'll never get another best friend, ok. well see you soon. i will. i will see you. bye for now.

Your Very Best Friend,


God, I was really a huge fan of unnecessary punctuation, wasn't I?

I put the letter to Jo in my basket. I keep all my special stuff in my basket.

I also had a "special place" where I kept top-secret items—except instead of a basket it was a purple tin featuring a jazzy saxophone [please pause for a moment and try to imagine that in all of its 1989 glory], and it was EXTRA special because it had once been filled with chocolate-covered pretzels instead of secrets! Yum!

I don't really have a best friend named Jo but I wish I did.

Here's where The Crazy starts.

I don't even have a best friend. But I keep on dreaming. Jo is an old dream. When I was little she was my imaginary friend.

Now, I'd like to state for the record that there's nothing inherently wrong with imaginary friends. In fact, they're generally very healthy. I even had one myself when I was in preschool. His name was Jonka, and he lived in my basement with his wife and their 500 children. (300 were girls, and 200 were boys. Because girls are better.) Oh, and also, he looked like Ziggy.

Jonka! My old (imaginary) friend!

The problem is that Ivy takes it to a Whole New Level—a level that involves keeping a diary about your fake friend's many adventures. Actually, I wonder what Jonka's diary would have been like...
Hung out next to the washing machine with my 500 kids. AGAIN. Really need to talk to the wife about birth control. The 4-year-old came down and talked to me for two minutes. No one else seems to realize I'm here. CHRIST, what I wouldn't do to get out of this fucking basement.
Jo helped me through kindergarten, but in first grade Jo stopped coming to school. I started writing stories about my best friend, Jo Ann. Jo was so real to me. She still is. I know just what she looks like. She has red hair that's usually up in a ponytail and she has brown eyes that look like melted chocolate.

Uh, why am I comparing organs to foodstuffs? I point the finger of blame squarely at Ann M. Martin. Damn Claudia Kishi and her damn almond-shaped eyes...

Jo's birthday is on July 5th 1977 and right now she's almost 10 and she's in fourth grade just like me except she started early. The summer after first grade, Jo began to keep a diary. The diary was all about Jo's life and her friends. She went to my school and she was very popular.

So Ivy has an imaginary friend who lives a parallel—but much cooler—life? Jo is rapidly becoming this story's younger, less bloody Tyler Durden.

Jo has a mother and a father and a big sister named Lindsay. I stopped calling Jo a dream. To me she wasn't a dream. She was real in my eyes.

What do you think those eyes look like? A pair of green M&Ms maybe?

I began calling everything about Jo "twists". It was something new and Jo was so lively and so much fun that the word seemed to fit her.

Lively AND fun!

But now I am starting to think Jo is a little babyish. So I made her move away. Jo moved away to Florida yesterday. Her dad is a photographer and he moved the whole family down there because that's where he's working down in Florida on another assignment. I wish I could make Jo move back, but twists are something I can't change no matter what.

The first rule of twists is that you can't talk about twists. The second rule of twists is that you can't talk about twists. The third rule is that twists can't be changed. The fourth rule is that if things are getting a touch babyish, you can ship your alter ego off to Florida on a photo assignment. A PERMANENT assignment.

Learn at your own risk! Apparently there's no going back.

So this is what the letter at the beginning referred to, when Ivy wished to damn Jo's (made-up!) parents to the depths of hell and then made her promise she'd never get another best friend. Even though she's, y'know, NOT REAL. Because that's not babyish at all.

And you wouldn't believe what Jo wrote in her diary today!

You know what else isn't babyish? Continuing to write in your pretend friend's diary!

Here's what it said:

Dear Diary.

I can't believe we moved. Mom and Dad never tell me and Lindsay anything! And already I miss Ivy. New York is so far away! But today I met this girl named Alora and she is very nice. Alora is such a pretty name. I think Alora and I are going to be good friends. VERY good friends. [AHEM.] And my kitten, Mouse loves the new house. So do I! My new room is the best. The kids at school are real nice and already I'm a hit! Maybe things aren't as bad as I thought!


The 1 & The Only,

Jo Ann Maureen Memphis

And then there's a drawing of her prettily named (but equally fictitious) ladyfriend:

Nice barrettes. Too bad they're not real.

This one definitely ended prematurely. I really wanted to see Ivy get jealous about the relationship between two entirely fabricated persons. You KNOW she was about to lose her shit. I imagine it would have been like an elementary school version of that made-for-TV movie where Nancy McKeon all of a sudden becomes schizophrenic. Because that? Was awesome.

NEXT TIME: While we're on a roll with the Very Special, how about a kidnapping book? Or, more accurately, a book that's SUPPOSED to be about kidnapping, but never really gets there?