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Rules For Life

Rules # 41: If it’s dirty, wash it. If it’s hungry, feed it. If it’s broke, it’s Jason.

Izzy’s mother had a rule for every circumstance, and since her death Izzy has used those rules to get by. But now her dad is planning to get married—to a woman Izzy barely knows, her friend, Mrs. Mac, is sneaking contraband sausage and her big brother Jason is…well, being Jason. As Izzy tries to fix things she discovers that sometimes you have to make up the rules as you go along.

A touching, often funny story of love an acceptance, Rules for Life is a reminder that while we can’t choose the family we were born with, we can choose the people we take along for the ride.

October 2004
Orca Book Publishers
ISBN 1-55143-350-8
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“…a moving and sophisticated storyline.”
School Library Journal

“…captures the realities of teenage life honestly and forces the reader to redefine the meaning of family.”
Canadian Children’s Book News

“…a satisfyingly prickly family drama,”
The Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books

YALSA Teen Top Ten list nominee
CCBC Our Choice
ALA Best Books for Young Adults
Stellar Book Award nominee


I knew my father had had sex the minute I walked into the kitchen. It wasn’t as though he was smoking a cigarette and basking in the afterglow. It was more subtle than that.

But I knew.

It was his hair. Dad is really particular about his hair. It’s strawberry blonde, like mine. He spends more money on shampoo and conditioner and gel than I ever would. I just wash mine and twist it up in the back. He goes to a stylist at a salon where you have to make an appointment two weeks in advance. I go to the walk-in barber and take whoever has a free chair.

Dad wears his hair sort of long for someone who’s forty. And the whole left side was flattened against his head with a few pieces coming out at weird angles, like he’d slept on it funny. Which meant he’d slept somewhere else, because the first thing he would have done here when he got up, was shower and fix his hair.

So I knew he’d had sex. Plus I could see the neck of his tee shirt in the vee of his sweater. It was inside out.

And backwards.

I got my cereal out of the cupboard—two blobs of shredded wheat—boiled water in the microwave, poured in on my cereal and drained it off. My breakfast looked like a dish of soggy hay. It’s what I’ve eaten every morning since I was four. My mother always made it. I ate it. When she wasn’t here anymore, I made it.

A bowl of fibre to start the day was one of my mother’s rules. She had a lot of rules, and if you asked her why about any of them she’d smile and say, “Because I’m the Supreme Ruler of the Universe, that’s why.”

And I almost thought she was, until two years ago when she died, and the universe didn’t even slow down, not for a second. It just kept on going.

But I liked knowing my mother’s rules, even the weird ones that I didn’t really get. So I started writing them down—all that I could remember—in a little red notebook I kept on my dresser. I got up to fifty-three.

One of my mom’s rules—it’s number eleven on my list—is, Don’t talk to Izzy in the morning. Now it’s not like I’m some kind of foul, nasty person when I first get up. It’s just that I like to think about things and chew and not talk for a while. Shredded wheat takes lots of chewing, you know. And the more you chew, the bigger it gets.

So my dad didn’t say anything to me. He sat at the end of the table with his smushed hair and his turned around tee shirt and a big, goony grin on his face.

After half a dozen spoonfuls I glanced over at him and his face flushed, as though he knew that I knew what he’d been doing. The thing is, we talk about everything. My friends either think it’s so cool or deeply weird, but realistically who else am I going to talk to? My mother is dead. Unless I want to hand out three ninety-nine a minute to the Psychic Seers Network we’re not going to be doing a whole lot of talking. And my big brother Jason is not someone you talk to. He’s usually someone you talk about.

So my dad and I have this deal. I can tell him anything, and he can tell me anything, and neither of us tells anybody else.

Dad cleared his throat a couple of times. It sounded like Spencer, my cat, trying to hack up a fur-ball.

“I spent the night with Anne and I think I’m in love with her,” he said. (My dad, not the cat.) He said the words so fast it took me a few seconds to sort them out into some kind of sense.

I looked at him again. Who was Anne?

“No. No, I don’t think I love her. I know I do.” He looked surprised by what he’d just said. “Truth is, Izzy, I liked Anne from the moment I met her. I always felt great around her. She’s kind, she’s gentle, she’s smart. So we started spending all this time together, as friends. And I thought that was all it was going to be.”

He got the dopey look again. I’d finally put a face to the name. Anne.

My dad is a consultant on a TV show where these two designers go around decorating rooms for people. It sounds boring but the two guys are so funny and they bicker like an old married couple, so lots of people tune in who would probably never watch that kind of program. Anne had started working on the show at the first of the year.

Say the guys are decorating a bathroom and they decide to put the toilet paper in a basket. Anne was the one who went from store to store to find the best toilet paper baskets and then dragged them back to the office. Another day she might be looking for old lava lamps or handmade quilts. I’d met her once or maybe twice. All I could remember was someone about my height with short, dark hair.

“I always felt happy when I knew I was going to see her,” Dad said. “I felt…like a teenager again. And then one day I kissed her and I couldn’t stop.”

He couldn’t seem to stop talking, either. I mean I know in the abstract that my father has sex. He’s a guy. He’s good looking. He’s not that old. But I don’t want to know he’s doing it. I don’t want any details. Just because we talk about everything doesn’t mean he has to tell me everything. I don’t want to start thinking about body parts and sweaty sheets.

So I nodded. I couldn’t talk anyway. I had a mouthful of shredded wheat that wasn’t getting any smaller no matter how much I chewed. And if you can’t say something nice…(Rule # 6.)

“I’m going to ask Anne to marry me,” Dad said.

I did a cartoon spit-take. Milk and strings of cereal sprayed everywhere. “Marry you?” I choked out.

Copyright © 2004 Darlene Ryan