the kitchen is heating up

During the Covid lockdown, my now 14 year old got very interested in cooking and my 10 year old enjoyed helping out, sometimes. We signed J up for some online classes and got some kits in the mail and she was on her way. So it doesn’t surprise me that I started noticing a slew of books that had a theme of kids in the kitchen. Actually, this is one that I’ve wanted to write for a while, but a few new books coming out pushed me forward. (Side note – if you have a kid who wants to start cooking, check out The Dynamite Shop, I can’t say enough wonderful things about them).

All You Knead is Love was published in March, when I was deep in my final semester of grad school. I read the book before it came out (thank you NetGalley), but never had a chance to get my thoughts together. So I read it again last week and still came away thinking it was a fabulous new middle grade title. Tanya Guerrero has written a multi-layered book that breaks your heart and gives you joy at the same time. Imagine being put on an airplane headed for Spain to a grandmother that you barely know. You don’t understand why you are being sent away, but don’t exactly feel wanted. That is how we first meet 12 year old Alba in this powerful coming-of-age novel. Alba is used to running away from the constant fighting in her NY home, running away from not being the girly girl that her father wants. She still has the urge to run, but in Barcelona she starts having relationships with the people around her and finds solace in a bakery owned by her mother’s estranged best friend. She begins to learn more about her mother while learning more about herself and a budding love of baking. She finds a home and a community in Spain, but can that continue when her mother reappears? All You Knead is Love is a wonderful story of discovering your passions, opening up to a community, and second chances at happiness.

A large number of books that feature cooking also feature cooking contents, which my kids love to watch. One new book is $150,000 Rugelach by Allison & Wayne Marks (August 31, 2021, Little Bee Books). This sweet book brings together two very different young chefs for a cooking competition. 11 year old Jack Fineman dreams of being a world famous chef a la his idol, Phineas Farnsworth III. He buys all of the tools and thinks bigger is always better. He gets paired with Jillian Mermelstein, also in 6th grade, who is the new-girl-in-town, her mother just died, and who bakes from the heart. In the process of trying to find the “just right” recipe to use on the televised competition, they learn more about each other, their reasons behind entering the competition, and even about their pasts. Jillian’s grandma Rita adds an adult’s wisdom in a quirky, fun manner. The story is written with wit and joy, a fun ride for kids who enjoy books like the Tapper Twins and the 13 Story Treehouse.

Cooking is often important because of the way it relates to our cultures. Food is a part of who we are and where we are from. In the wonderful book A Place at the Table, Saadia Faruqi and Laura Shovan show that importance when Sixth-graders Sara, a Pakistani American, and Elizabeth, a white, Jewish girl meet when they take a South Asian cooking class taught by Sara’s mom. Sara doesn’t want to take her mother’s class, actually she hates cooking, but winds up helping out when there is an uneven number of students. Elizabeth is taking the class to spend time with her best friend who has started hanging out with a more popular girl and to get away from the sadness that permeates her house due to her mother’s depression. Both girls are “different” due to their religions and both girls are struggling in their own ways socially. They are not even sure if they can trust each other enough to participate in a cooking contest together. This book manages to tackle a wide range of subjects without feeling pedantic. Some of the struggles are based on religious and cultural issues and some are simply the difficulty of being a sixth grade girl. The fact that it is told from two voices, and from two authors, only gives it extra power. This is an absolute must read for the middle grade audience.

Another kids book that has a competition at it’s center is The Last Super Chef by Chris Negron. This was a cute concept, though I admit that there were a lot of things that didn’t work for me. Young Curtis Pith dreams of being a chef, not just because he enjoys it, though he really does, but because he thinks that it is in his blood. He believes that Super Chef Lucas Taylor is his father. When the Super Chef announces that not only will this be his last season but that he is hosting a competition for 5 kids who could be the next chef, Curtis feels that he has to be in the competition. Fast forward through Curtis, his sister, and his best friend breaking into their landlord’s house across the street, and he somehow makes it into the competition. Curtis is used to people fawning over his food, but once at the competition he realizes that while all of his self-taught knowledge is great, the others have had more training from family and more access to expensive ingredients. This is a humbling experience that Curtis needed to go through and that many tweens face. Curtis struggles with the competition as his obsession with telling Taylor that he is his son and staying on task don’t always work well in combination. The experience of being in a cooking competition is nothing like Curtis expected, but the story is one of life not always turning out the way you want it to.

For an incredibly different style of competition, Alice Fleck’s Recipe for Disaster provides for a surprisingly fun and unique tale. Alice’s father is a culinary historian (is that a job?!?) and the two make Victorian dishes together for fun. When his new girlfriend surprises them by entering them in a TV show, Alice is horrified. Alice has been bullied for her culinary knowledge and just wants to be invisible. Things go from bad to worse when the friendly TV show Culinary Chronicles is suddenly transformed into Culinary Combat with a fierce judge and a new host who keeps changing the rules of the show in order to increase drama. Set at a Victorian festival in a potentially haunted hotel, Alice faces her fears on the set of the show as well as off when she makes 2 new friends. When it appears that someone is sabotaging the show, the 3 put on their detective hats to discover the culprit. Well-paced and fun, Alice learns to stand up for herself and also comes to accept, and even like, her father’s new girlfriend. This is a great MG read!

What happens when you leave your home, your culture, and your beloved grandmother? How does a young Taiwanese girl deal with moving to America where the foods that she eats are different, her parents rules are stricter, and the way of life just seems foreign? These are some of the themes in Measuring Up, a graphic novel by Lily LaMotte and Ann Xu. The story gets moved along by a cooking competition that Cici enters. Cici used to cook with her Ama (grandmother) and she enters the competition in the hopes of winning the money and being able to fly Ama to Seattle for her father’s birthday. Measuring Up is a great story of finding your own voice, representing your culture, and the power of food to bring people together.

Dusti Bowling has started writing a series about Aven Green, of the wonderful Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus, aimed at slightly younger readers. In these great transitional books, Aven and friends are in third grade and dealing with life. The newest installation is Aven Green: Baking Machine (8/17/21 Sterling Children’s Books). In this story, Aven is excited to participate in a local baking competition for kids. She enlists three of her friends and they try to come up with the winning entry. Each kid brings any necessary ingredients over to Aven’s and the plan is to make all 4 and then vote. Unfortunately, Aven struggles with the idea that she isn’t the boss and also has an unwillingness to try things that she doesn’t like. When one friend says they are making milk barfi, an Indian fudge-like dessert, the group laughs at the idea that it sounds like barf. But what really throws Aven over the edge is the idea of making a dessert with raisins. Her behavior is pretty awful and her friends get upset with her and decide to enter the competition without her. When Aven talks to another classmate about the competition, he mentions a family dessert of steamed bean cakes, prompting another bad response from Aven. Fortunately, an afternoon with her great-grandmother and some gently teaching help Aven see that her discomfort in trying something new was hurtful to her friends and that she will never know what she likes and doesn’t like if she isn’t willing to try. Bowling puts forth some wonderful life lessons for kids wrapped up in a sweet story.

For those still wanting illustrations in their books a la Diary of a Wimpy Kid and 13-story Tree House, Remy Lai has provided readers with the wonderful and moving Pie in the Sky. This story focuses on two Chinese brothers who move to Australia after their father dies. They don’t speak the language and are struggling to fit in. To distract himself from the loneliness, Jingwen daydreams about making all the cakes on the menu of Pie in the Sky, the bakery his father had planned to open before he unexpectedly passed away. The only problem is his mother has laid down one major rule: the brothers are not to use the oven while she’s at work. As Jingwen and Yanghao bake elaborate cakes, they’ll have to cook up elaborate excuses to keep the cake making a secret from Mama. A powerful book that gives dashes of humor while taking on a serious topic.

Both of my girls have enjoyed the three book series Next Best Junior Chef by Charise Mericle Harper. The first book, Lights, Camera, Cook! features four tween contestants—energetic Tate, charming Rae, worldly Caroline, and hyper-competitive Oliver—who are all about to enter a televised cooking competition. What will the kids cook up? How will they all get along on- and off-camera? Which junior chef will have the grit—and maybe the grits—to make it through each challenge? And which junior chef will have to hang their apron up for good? A fun series, this is great for young chefs who like humorous stories.

A few years ago, we found the fun book All Four Stars by Tara Dairman. The story is about a young foodie living in the suburbs of New York who is banned from her family’s kitchen after an unfortunate accident. Her parents don’t understand her love of food and cooking and would prefer a diet of items from fast food chains. A writing contest and a teacher who makes her try a little harder bring out the budding food writer. When her essay contest entry accidentally makes it to the food editor’s hands instead, she has to see if she can figure out how to write the real deal. This is an incredibly sweet and fun read for middle-grade and is the first of a four book series. J read it when she was 12 and gave it a 5 star review.

For those who enjoy cooking as well as a good fantasy, Baker’s Magic by Diane Zahler will fit the bill. This book tells the story of Bee, an orphan in a poor, crumbling kingdom. In desperation, she steals a bun from a bakery, and to her surprise, the baker offers her a place at his shop. As she learns to bake, Bee discovers that she has a magical power. When a new friend desperately needs her help against an evil mage, Bee wonders what an orphan girl with only a small bit of magic can do. Baker’s Magic manages to tell a captivating story with characters that you want to cheer for. What’s more, there are princesses, pirates, a quest, and a whole lot of baked goods. This was an exceptionally fun middle grade read and would be a great read aloud for younger kids.

Anna Meriano’s A Dash of Trouble, the first book in the Love, Sugar, Magic series, is a fun look at baking, magic, family, and friendship. Leo is a young, Mexican girl whose family just so happens to be brujas (witches) and spread their magic via their baking. Leo doesn’t know this fact when she tries repeatedly to be able to help with the cooking for the Dia de los Muertos celebration. When she learns about the magic, she of course uses it to help a friend and it backfires. This is a great story of sisterhood and the value of friendship while also reminding us that sometimes we need a little help learning a new power.


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