Filled with reverse Parent Trap-like pranks, The Stepmom Shake-Up is a hilarious and heartfelt look at what it means to be a family.
Grace + Dad = the perfect team
After Grace's mom died, she and her dad grew extra close. They have special nicknames and are always busy with new projects--like building a puppy condo for their dog, Potus--and they love learning random facts about the US presidents. Grace thinks her little family of two is perfect.
Then some committee members at church suggest it's time for Dad to start dating again. And Dad agrees! Grace knows that adding a new member to the team will end in disaster.
No problem! She and her best friend have a plan:
Operation: Stepmom Shake-Up
But what if a little shake-up is exactly what Grace's family needs?
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Space for Possibilities
The Christmas tree teetered on the edge of disaster as Dad and I heaved it up the tight attic staircase.
“You got it?” Dad’s muffled voice came from behind the box he was shoving through the door.
“Um, sort of?” I said, trying to get a good grip on the box.
“Come on, Grace, use those muscles!” Dad said, and then he gave the box a last big push and he and the Christmas tree tumbled onto the rough wooden floor.
“Whew,” he said, wiping sweat and dust from his face. “Hey, Grace, why did the muscle miss class?”
I itched my nose. “I feel a dad joke coming on. . . .”
“Because it wasn’t a tendon.” Dad smiled, his mouth and eyes wide, waiting for me to burst into laughter.
Instead I groaned. “Remind me again why we don’t just leave that thing set up all the time?”
Dad shrugged. Our beagle, Potus, had squeezed past me and was happily sniffing around a mountain of cardboard boxes. “It’s bigger up here than I remembered . . . ,” I said.
Dad snorted and shoved the Christmas tree box toward the far wall. The attic has vaulted ceilings and two dirty windows that face the front of the house. The piles of junk were balanced on plywood to keep them from falling through the unfinished floor. I brushed a spiderweb out of my hair without flinching. “I like it.”
Dad glanced at me with a puzzled look. “What exactly do you like?”
“This space! It’s big up here. Way bigger than my room. It could fit a bunch more bookshelves, and maybe a couch. Plus, I could set up my sewing machine. . . .”
The sewing machine was a gift my grandma sent me last Christmas. My plan was to make historically accurate costumes so I could talk my dad into doing some cosplay. Technically, cosplay is when you dress up like characters from a movie, book, or video game, but I thought historical figures should count too. This attic space would give me room to really spread out, unlike my bedroom, which was basically a closet with a bed in it.
Dad scratched his head. “You want to clean this up?”
I grinned and bounced on my heels. “Fun project, huh? You’ve been saying we need a new one.” Dad and I are always doing “projects.” We’d just completed a deluxe dog condo for Potus and presented it to him with a big bow on it for Christmas. Potus was very impressed with our craftsmanship. He gave it two paws up.
Dad blew a raspberry, taking in the city of boxes, the cobwebs, and the unfinished--okay, fine, probably unsafe--status of the attic. “A project is right.”
“Come on, can’t you see it? We’ll move this stuff to the basement. Add some walls and floors.”
“And update the electrical, and add insulation, new light fixtures . . .” Dad ticked things off on his fingers, but I could see the wheels turning in his head. Once he caught the vision for things I wanted to create, I could usually drag him on board.
“Hmm,” he said, which was as good as a yes. He reached into the nearest box and pulled out a dusty leather-bound book. “Some of this stuff has been up here for a very long time.”
The house we live in once belonged to my grandparents. They gave it to my parents as a wedding present. It’s over a hundred years old, full of creaks and quirks and cramped bedrooms that can’t support the many hobbies of a sixth-grade girl.
“What about this: We finish this area and make it my room, and then you can have my old room for an office. You’ve always wanted an office. Think of all the space you would have to practice your sermons!”
Dad is the pastor of the First Baptist Church in town. He spends a lot of time poring over books on our dining room table and pacing in front of our living room couch inventing illustrations, those funny and often embarrassing little stories that are part of a sermon.
He flipped through the book in his hand, deep concentration screwing up his face. “I think this diary belonged to your four-times-great-grandmother. It says Juliet Martin here.”
I leaned over and took a peek at the scrawled handwriting. “Cool!” The pages were all yellowy and water stained, and the date on the first entry was March 7, 1904. As I lifted the journal out of Dad’s hands, a photograph freed itself from the pages and drifted to the floor. Potus sniffed at the picture and I bent to pick it up.
Dad’s eyes widened. “That’s a picture of Juliet!” Dad and I are both huge history buffs, and he has done a lot of research into our family tree. The girl in the picture didn’t look much older than me. She wore a high-collar lace dress and held a parasol. Her lips curled into a mischievous smile. I flipped the picture over. She had scrawled on the back that it was taken on her sixteenth birthday at the St. Louis World’s Fair. Great-Grandma had a wicked glint in her eye that made me wonder if she’d gotten into any trouble during her visit to the fair.
“What a find!” Dad said, shaking his head at the picture.
“There could be more cool stuff up here that we don’t even know about. If we make this our latest and greatest project, we can go through everything, decide what to keep and what to get rid of. Plus, you’ll get your new office. . . .”
I grinned at Dad, eyebrows raised in my most puppy-dog expression. Potus tilted his head adorably, although I doubted he even knew what we were begging for.
“Fine,” Dad said, unable to resist our charm. “Grab a box and take it down with you. We’ve got a lot of junk to sift through.”
“Dad, your Pop-Tart is smoking,” I yelled, pouring myself a nice, nonflaming bowl of Cocoa Puffs.
“What! No!” Dad barreled down the stairs, tie hanging loosely around his neck. “I set it at five!”
“Five minutes is too long for a Pop-Tart.”
“Not minutes. Degrees of toastiness. Like on a scale of one to ten. So a five would be perfectly medium-ly toasted.”
“We’ve had this discussion before,” I said, my mouth full of cereal.
Dad gripped the toaster pastry by two fingers and flung it into the sink, then ran his burnt fingers under the cool water. “So cereal, then. Good choice.”
I pushed the box across the table, and he dumped some in a bowl.
“And they say we need to learn how to cook.” He grinned at me over the milk.
“Who says that?”
“Who are they?”
“People who say things.”
I knew he was kidding, but it still bugged me a little. Ever since my mom died three years ago, people always try to tell Dad and me what we need to do.
“Got your sermon ready to go?”
Dad nodded. “I’m speaking on Psalm Thirty-Seven. The four Fs of Christianity.”
I raised my eyebrows. “And they are?”
He ticked off the points on his fingers. “Fear not, fret not, faint not, and . . . fart not?”
I choked, a Cocoa Puff going down the wrong pipe. “What!”
He squinted at something scribbled on his hand. “Oh, oops. I think that last one was forget not.”
“Well, forget not the last F. And don’t say fart in church.” I smiled sweetly at him and shoveled a spoonful of cereal into my mouth.
“Don’t worry, I’ll make it clear as mud.” Dad started to straighten his tie.
“Wait. Stop.” I stared hard at the hideous tie hanging around his neck.
Dad glanced down at the red-and-green monstrosity. “You got me this for Christmas!”
“Dad, it’s January. And it was kind of a joke.”
“Oh, I see. Now that Christmas is over, we’re supposed to forget all about the little baby Jesus’s birthday?”
“Kinda.” I nodded.
Dad sighed but pulled the tie off his neck. “What about your outfit?” His eyes narrowed at me.
I inspected my polka-dot leggings, my button-down shirt with the sequined birds, and my striped knee socks. “What’s wrong with my outfit?”
“Never mind,” he mumbled, and headed upstairs to get a less seasonal tie.
There was a knock at the kitchen door. Potus barked his fool head off until I shushed him. I flung the door open and threw my arms around my best friend, Bea.
“Hey, Team Gravy!” Bea said.
Team Gravy is this thing my dad made up by squishing our names together. Grace plus my dad’s name, Davy. It’s silly, but it sort of stuck.
Bea shuffled into the warm, messy kitchen. “I thought I’d catch a ride with you guys, since I gotta be at church early this morning.” Her guitar case bumped against her leg, and her arms were full of sheet music.
Today she’d be performing a classical rendition of the Josh Groban hit “You Raise Me Up.” Although completely against her rock-and-roll sentiment, it was the only song the deacons allowed from her list of suggestions. Luckily, no one was singing, so we wouldn’t be subjected to the sappy words.
“Hey, come look at this!” I said, grabbing Bea’s hand and dragging her to the pull-down attic stairs. She was all worried about spiders, but I managed to get her up there. “Can’t you just see it?” I said as I walked her through the plans for the space. My eyes drifted from rafters to floor, and I pointed out where I’d put my bed, my bookshelves, my desk, and my sewing table.
“And where will you put your presidential bobbleheads?” Bea smirked. Side effect of being history-obsessed: I have collected thirty-nine presidential bobblehead dolls.
I tapped my chin. “We might have to fashion some sort of shelving unit just for that purpose.”
Bea’s eyebrows knit together. “Is it safe up here? I mean, are there smoke detectors and carbon monoxide detectors and a rope ladder in case you have to escape out the window?”
I laughed. Bea worries just like a grown-up sometimes. “Yeah, I promise, it will pass a safety inspection when we’re done. Don’t put your feet anywhere except on these cross boards for now. You’ll go right through the ceiling.”
She smiled. “Well, if anyone can turn this dusty mess into the world’s coolest bedroom, it’s you and your dad.”
I grinned. “Thanks.”
Bea looked at her watch. “We’d better get going. I wanna have time to warm up.”
We loaded into Dad’s black pickup, with Bea’s guitar stowed in the back and her sheet music tucked between us. Our house is only three blocks from First Baptist, so some mornings we walk. But today it was pitch dark, plus it was drizzling and super cold, so we were grateful for the canned heat of the truck.
Silence tucked around us like a blanket as we passed the misty graveyard where my mom is buried. I didn’t want to think about her in the ground when it was so cold outside. I had to keep reminding myself she wasn’t really there at all. Her soul was having a good old time in heaven with Jesus.
Sometimes I’m super jealous of Jesus.
I don’t cry much anymore. Not every single day, like I used to. Me and Dad have managed to find our own rhythm in the last three years. We feed ourselves (badly), we work (his sermons, my school stuff), and we entertain ourselves (by trying to see who can memorize the most random presidential facts). We’ve been doing okay, just so long as neither of us shook things up.
I watched the ice-slicked headstones fade in the fog as we turned the last corner and the church came into view.
First Baptist of Springdale is a large redbrick building off the main square in our smallish town. I say smallish, because we have a Walmart, and a couple of four-way stops, and a pretty big college that adds a few thousand people to our population during the school year. But there’s only one high school, so me and my classmates will be together for the long haul. Too bad for Sammy, the kid who ate glue in kindergarten, because people don’t forget stuff like that. Or stuff like you used to have a mom, but now you don’t.
Dad parked the truck and helped Bea lift her case while I fumbled with the keys to get the main doors open. It’s a small town but a big church, so we lock the doors when there isn’t anything going on.
It was quiet and peaceful inside the empty building. Bea headed to the sanctuary to practice. I went to work flipping on lights while Dad cranked up the heat.
I know some kids don’t like going to church. They’d rather have a second Saturday, playing sports or hanging out with friends. But I can’t imagine my life without Sundays at church. This building, and the people who visit it on foggy, cold mornings, take up a huge part of my heart. I belong here, just as much as the Bibles and hymnals.
My feet paused in the hallway when I heard voices. Maybe a staff member had slipped in after us. Something about the hushed tone made me want to eavesdrop.
“Maybe you should just tell him. . . .”
“Tell Pastor Davy?”
“He should know.”
A chill went up my spine. The voices were talking about my dad, and they seemed worried. And worried grown-up voices make my palms slick with sweat.
“Fine. Let’s meet after service.”
Footsteps clomped down the hall and disappeared up a stairway. I stayed frozen to the spot, wondering what in the world the pastor needed to know.
When you’re the preacher’s kid, you’re always the last person on the planet to get to leave the church after a service. My dad has to shake hands with every single member. He even takes a minute to pray with some people. I usually hang out in the back of the sanctuary, in the very last pew, bouncing my knees and wiggling my toes inside my too-tight shoes until he’s finally done.
“Hey, Grace,” a warm, familiar voice said over my shoulder.
I looked up from the notebook I was doodling in and smiled at Miss O’Connor, my history teacher.
“I like your picture. Is that James Madison?” she asked. Only Miss O’Connor would be able to pick our fourth president out of a lineup.
“Yeah. I’ve been working on drawings of the six presidents named James.”
Miss O’Connor screwed up her face and squinted at the ceiling. “Madison, Monroe, Polk, Buchanan, Garfield, and Carter.”
“That’s correct. A-plus for you.” I laughed as she plopped down next to me in the pew. Unlike most people who attend the First Baptist Church, Miss O’Connor doesn’t do much to dress up for the Lord’s Day. Her dark curls were crammed into a messy bun, and she wore jeans and a sparkly purple sweater.