For Ages
8 to 12

What are the essential ingredients that make a family? Eleven-year-old Mo is making up her own recipe in this unforgettable story that's a little sweet, a little sour, and totally delicious.

Nan was all the family Mo ever needed. But suddenly she’s gone, and Mo finds herself in foster care after her uncle decides she’s not worth sticking around for.
     Nan left her a notebook and advised her to get a hobby, like ferret racing or palm reading.
     But how could a hobby fix anything in her newly topsy-turvy life?
Then Mo finds a handmade cookbook filled with someone else’s family recipes. Even though Nan never cooked, Mo can’t tear her eyes away. Not so much from the recipes, but the stories attached to them. Though, when she makes herself a pot of soup, it is every bit as comforting as the recipe notes said.
     Soon Mo finds herself asking everyone she meets for their family recipes. Teaching herself to make them. Collecting the stories behind them. Building a website to share them. And, okay, secretly hoping that a long-lost relative will find her and give her a family recipe all her own.
     But when everything starts to unravel again, Mo realizes that if she wants a family recipe—or a real family—she’s going to have to make it up herself.

An Excerpt fromLasagna Means I Love You

Thursday, June 8

Dear Nan,

You died on a Tuesday.

Given how much you hated Tuesdays, it makes sense it would cement its place in history as the worst day ever.

Uncle Bill gave me this notebook--the special one you got for me--right after your funeral. That was about a month ago now. I like the cats and the laser beams on the cover, and I’ve already stuck a Jets sticker on the back. I think I’ve read the letter you wrote for me on the first few pages over thirty times. I even have parts of it memorized. I’m sorry it’s taken me so long to write back. Maybe you weren’t expecting me to write you a letter. Maybe you were hoping I would fill the pages with thoughts about the new hobby you asked me to start.

I know learning how to knit tiny sweaters for stressed and featherless rescue parrots helped distract you after Mom died. I know that’s why you want me to start a hobby. (For the record, I couldn’t care less about ferret-racing or palm-reading, but thanks for the suggestions.)

So much has happened that I don’t have any space in my brain for a new hobby, no matter how much you think it will help. I’ve been dreading writing to you about what’s been going on because almost none of it is good news. But I need your advice, which is why I’m writing you this letter in the first place.

In fourth grade, when we were doing that essay project, Ms. Lee (my ELA teacher--do you remember her?) told us that using lots of interesting details and dialogue could help make our writing feel real. And if I make it real enough, maybe you’ll find a way to answer me back. You even said yourself, if anyone can find a way to communicate from the afterlife, it’s you. All I know is that I need to feel like that’s possible right now really, really badly.

So I’m going to try to write about it exactly like it happened.

The first piece of bad news is that your funeral wasn’t anything like what you wanted it to be. There were no disco balls, no open bar, no karaoke. It was so serious. So final. You would have hated it.

Uncle Bill made me wear black. When I told him it wasn’t anything like what you would have wanted, he said, “If it’d been the funeral Ma wanted, Elton John would have performed.”

I crossed my arms. “Then you should have hired Elton John.”

He rolled his eyes at me. “Aw, c’mon. Not you, too.”

I can’t remember much from the actual funeral. Crystal and her family came, including her grandparents, two of her cousins, and her four-day-old baby brother, Charlie. Crystal sat next to me and never once let go of my hand, even though she hates how my palms always get so sweaty. What I can remember most is how swollen and puffy my face felt, and that the “visiting area” smelled like old soup and stale coffee.

Uncle Bill and I went straight back to our apartment after the funeral was over. That leads me to my second piece of bad news.

I flopped down on the couch without taking off my shoes, which I know is a bad habit. But even the idea of reaching down to slip them off seemed like too much effort. My whole body was buzzing with exhaustion. Even my brain. Most of all my brain. “I could sleep for a million years.”

“Yeah. Hey, Mo, can we talk?”

Uncle Bill had his shoes on, too. He also still had on his suit jacket, even though it was a muggy, too-hot-for-May day. He kept rubbing the palm of his hand back and forth across his shaved head.

“Talk about what?” As you know, Uncle Bill always rubs his head when he’s bluffing in poker and is about to lose big. The fact that he was doing it now was making me nervous. “Is everything okay?”

He stopped rubbing his head and started pacing. He’d been acting weird all day, but I’d chalked it up to funeral stuff and being sad. I waited for him to say something, but he just kept pacing.

“Uncle Bill? What is it?” I asked again. “Are you sick, too, or something?”

“No. God no. It’s not that. It’s . . . listen. I love you, Mo. You know that, right?”

I nodded. I wasn’t entirely sure where he was going with all this, but if I close my eyes and try to remember, this is when the pit in my stomach started. The pit that hasn’t gone away since Uncle Bill and I had this conversation.

“Okay.” He sat down on the edge of the coffee table facing me. “So I’m Army, right? I’m a single man in the army. A single man in the army who barely scraped by with a high school diploma.”

“Yeah,” I said. “And?”

“I’ve been over this backwards, sideways, and upside down. I haven’t slept in days thinking about it. But I keep coming to the same conclusion.”

“What conclusion?”

“That I’m not the right person to take care of you.”

“What?” I sat up, and it was like the exhaustion I’d felt only moments earlier slipped off like a blanket. My heart was pounding now. “What do you mean?”

“I’ve got no other skills. No other ways to make money. I made a commitment to our country, and I’m on a real path for the first time in my life. If I agreed to be your guardian, I’d have to give it up. And then what? Without the army, I wouldn’t know how to take care of you. Of us.”

“But what about the money Nan left you?” I asked. “She said she’d made sure you could afford to take care of me. She told me that.”

“The money won’t last forever,” Billy said. “But listen, we can split it. You can use your half for college. You’d be the first of us Gallaghers to go. Wouldn’t that be something?”

“I already have a college fund,” I told him. “Nan’s friend Rose left it to me.”

He rubbed his face. “Of course you already have a college fund.”

My face got hot. He said it like it was a bad thing. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Nothing. Forget I said that. The bottom line is that this is just the way it has to be.”

“But there’s no one else but you,” I said.

“I know.” He rubbed his face again. “I know that. And I’m sorry. But there are probably a lot of good families out there who would love to have a kid as great as you. Who are a lot better equipped to take care of you full-time than your ol’ uncle Billy.”

He smiled and pretended to knock me on the chin, but I couldn’t smile back at him.

How could I? I could barely breathe.

So, that’s what happened. That’s the biggest, baddest news I have for you. I know you planned everything based on the fact that Uncle Bill was going to come back and live with me. Here, in New York City, in our apartment. But I guess life doesn’t always work out the way you expect it to.

I have so much more to tell you, but my fingers are cramping up and I need a break. I can’t remember the last time I wrote this much by hand.

Before I go, I need you to know one more thing: My heart isn’t nearly as big as you said it was in your letter. My heart isn’t a mansion, or a skyscraper, or the size of New York City. It’s small and hard, like a lump of coal. Okay--maybe it’s not that small. But I do know for a fact it’s only the size of our apartment. The apartment that fit you and me and our lives perfectly, like a hug. The apartment I’ll probably have to move out of soon and will never see again.

This is why I can’t make any promises about starting a new hobby. I wouldn’t even know where to begin. How to begin.

Unless my hobby could be inventing a time machine, so I could travel into the past to live with you. Before all this. Would that work?

Love,

Mo

Friday, June 9

Dear Nan,

Okay, I rested and iced my hand with an old bag of peas I found shoved in the back of the freezer. I’m ready to tell you the rest.

A few days after that terrible conversation, Uncle Bill and I went to our first meeting. Maybe he thought it would be easy to hand me over to the city, but apparently it’s not easy at all. It’s a whole big process.

I know I should try to be positive, but it was awful. Everything about it was awful.The front door of the building was made of glass, and it was cracked, like someone had swung a baseball bat at it. It was all taped up, in multiple neat layers, like a different someone had tried to fix it as carefully as possible. But the tape looked worn and old, like it’d been put up a long time ago.

The meeting itself was awful, too. I met my caseworker for the first time. His name is Rowan. He seems nice enough, but he was distracted, and his clothes were wrinkled and oversized. His pants were too big and it looked like he slept in his shirt. And he seemed tired, like I was one of a hundred kids he’d had to meet with that day. I’ve been to one other meeting with him since that first one, and he was all wrinkled and tired again. You would have nicknamed him Rumpled Rowan and made it funny.

But it’s a whole mess, because apparently you were never listed as my official guardian. I didn’t know that. Did you know that? They asked a lot of questions about other people in my life, relatives, and all that. I guess they want to see if they can get me a place to stay with someone I know before they drop me in with strangers.

“My mom died when I was little. That’s why I live--lived--with my grandma in the first place,” I explained.

Rumpled Rowan tapped a pen against a stack of paper on the table in front of him. “Well, then, obviously it can’t be your mom, because . . .” He trailed off, motioning at me with his hands, like he was trying to point at the words I’d just said. “So what about your father? When was the last time you had contact with him?”

I’m starting to get the feeling that people don’t like to say the word “died,” do they? Like they think it might be contagious or something. News flash! I wanted to tell him. It is contagious. It’s the most contagious thing in the world. But instead I only shook my head and said, “No. It can’t be my father, either.”

“Why not?”

I wasn’t sure what to say. That I hadn’t seen him since I was five? That I can barely remember his last visit? What I can remember is him taking me out, right after Christmas, for a hot dog that he put way too much mustard on. I remember him stealing twenty dollars from your purse when he dropped me back off, and the Christmas card that he signed “Johnny” instead of “Dad.”

“I haven’t seen or talked to him in a really long time,” I finally said.

Rumpled Rowan made a note. “Okay. Even though he’s not on your birth certificate, we still have to try to find him.”

“I wouldn’t want that,” I said quickly. “To stay with him, I mean. Even if you did find him.”

Rumpled Rowan made another note. “Okay. Good to know. Is there anyone else you feel a connection to? A favorite neighbor? A friend of your grandma’s?”

First I thought about your poker-night friends. They were always nice to me, but no offense, the idea of asking to go live with any of them makes me want to crawl out of my skin.

I can’t stay with your online pen pals. Roger, for obvious reasons. (I doubt they’d let a kid move into a maximum-security prison, no matter how innocent you think Roger is.) And not grandDAMN09496 either, mainly because I don’t know her real name or where she lives. Or if she’s even a she.

Then I thought again about Rose. With her cats and her six-floor brownstone and all her fancy furniture. Her rare-beetle collection and her booming laugh that seemed too big to be coming from her frail body. I wish it could have been her.

“My grandma’s best friend in the city was an older lady,” I finally said. “She left me money for college. But she’s gone, too.”

“Okay. Don’t worry,” he told me. “We’ll figure something out.”

Everyone at Wallace has been really nice, and they haven’t made me come back to school after . . . after everything. I have some take-home work, but not much. I’m glad I don’t have to face anyone. I’m not sure I could. Even Crystal. I haven’t told her about any of this yet. She calls me every single day to check on me, and usually texts throughout school even though she’s not supposed to. And every day, I almost blurt it out. There’s only another week left of classes before summer starts, and I know my chance to tell her while she’s still here is slipping away, because she leaves for China the day after school ends. She’s been looking forward to this trip to see some of her second cousins for three years, ever since COVID ruined and rescheduled it again and again.

And now that they can finally go, without complications, I don’t want to be the reason it’s ruined again. Because I know if I tell her, she’ll feel bad and sad for me while she’s away. I can’t let my bad news be a rain cloud over her summer.

And to be honest, I don’t want to say the words out loud. Foster care. Because if I say them out loud, it’ll make it real.

Wish me luck with all of this. And maybe wish that Uncle Billy starts feeling overwhelmed enough to call this whole thing off. Half the time, I hear him muttering about forms and certificates and files he’s trying to find in your room. Maybe he’ll get so annoyed and fed up that he’ll throw up his hands and say, “You know what, forget it, I’ll stay.”

Love,

Mo

Sunday, June 25

Dear Nan,

Well, it happened.

Uncle Billy did get fed up with all the meetings and court dates and the waiting we’ve had to do. Except it didn’t end with him telling me he was going to stay.