May 19, 2010
Julia’s Kitchen, Pre-Teen Food for Thought

I learned about Julia’s Kitchen by Brenda A. Ferber when West Vigo Middle School chose it for a Food for Thought partnership project. I looked up the book, which was a Young Hoosier Book Award Nominee, and before I knew it, I had read the whole thing. Following the school’s goal of reading and writing across the curriculum, West Vigo plans to use the novel for a school-wide read, class discussions, book reports, and book talks in the library. It’s an excellent choice. Here’s why:

  • Eleven-year-old Cara Segal is a pre-teen whose angst comes from a genuinely heart-wrenching situation: her mother and younger sister have just died in a house fire. Cara’s reaction is utter bewilderment, not helped by the adults around her, especially her overwhelmed and guilt-ridden father. She has to find her own way in a new life, experiencing trials and errors but developing her coping skills.
  • Cara’s family is Jewish. The book depicts and interprets this particular heritage—with its traditions of mourning, religious observance, and family gatherings—so that a non-Jewish reader can learn about and appreciate what it has to offer. The book also includes a glossary of Hebrew and Yiddish words.
  • Cara’s mother had just launched a small catering business that she called “Julia’s Kitchen.” and it was becoming well-known locally for its beautiful gift baskets of cookies. On an impulse, Cara takes a phone order and agrees to create and deliver a basket to the mother of a newborn baby. The young entrepreneur is on her way…if she can figure out how to get the ingredients, bake and decorate the cookies, take the bus across town, collect her fee, and thus keep the business going.

A book that moves from sadness and despair to triumph and reconciliation, Julia’s Kitchen is a treat and a great reading project for middle school students. It ends with a recipe for Cara’s Chocolate-Chip Cookies, which the participating students can make with their parents. Perhaps they will also try Cara’s final and most meaningful baking project – the challah for Shabbat.

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