You don’t need a meat thermometer to know that cooking is a red hot part of pop culture. From bestselling cookbooks to addictive TV cooking competitions, foodies today can have their fill reading and watching all things culinary. But did you know that even elementary school-age kids can get a taste of today’s sizzling trends?
Don’t hide your knives — I’m not talking about letting your 9-year-old go to town with your Ginsus while watching The Food Network. Instead, consider letting him crack open a book … or six. Recent years have seen the publication of a number of food-themed fiction books for middle-grade readers (ages 9 through 12), like Pie by Sarah Weeks, Cupcake Cousins by Kate Hannigan, The Neil Flambé series by Kevin Sylvester and The Recipe for Adventure series by celebrity chef Giada De Laurentis.
The newest entrée into this delectable literary landscape comes courtesy of an author I happen to know personally: my old college buddy Tara Dairman. Dairman’s debut middle-grade novel All Four Stars chronicles the adventures of a sixth-grader who, thanks to an unlikely series of events, suddenly becomes a professional food critic for a major New York City newspaper. What 11-year-old Gladys Gatsby lacks in kitchen privileges, she more than makes up for with a precocious passion for cuisine … unlike her fast-food-loving parents, who would rather see their daughter out with friends than indoors with a flambé torch.
All Four Stars comes out July 10 and it’s already gotten rave reviews so I cooked up some questions — yeah, that’s pretty much the only kind of cooking I do — for Dairman about her novel, how it might influence young readers, and how a certain boy wizard fits into the mix. Warning: There are some light spoilers ahead, but they’ll only whet your appetite for the book.
The plot of All Four Stars is deliciously inventive. Did any sort of real-life incident involving children inspire you?
The real-life experience that helped inspire All Four Stars actually had to do with my old job as a magazine editor. Several freelancers wrote articles for me, but I usually communicated with them only by e-mail; most of them, I’d never met in person or even spoke to on the phone. So it struck me one day that I could probably be tricked into publishing a kid if her writing samples were strong enough and she sent professional-sounding e-mails. And if I could be tricked, why not an editor at New York’s most important newspaper? Suddenly, I had a great premise for a novel on my hands.
There are, as you’d expect, a variety of dishes described in the book. Have you tried all of them?
In the case of the foreign foods I included in the book, I believe that I’ve sampled them all, either during my travels around the world or in restaurants in New York. But some of the creative desserts that Gladys tries at Classy Cakes I made up, just putting flavors together that sounded tasty. Now I’ve been working to develop recipes for some of those invented dishes!
Your description of the meal at Gladys’ friend Parm’s house was particularly mouth-watering. Of the various ethnic and regional cuisines you’ve sampled, is Indian your favorite?
It’s a close call for me between Indian and Ethiopian, but with its sheer variety of delicious dishes, Indian probably wins out.
Do you think the book will inspire young readers to be more adventurous in their own food choices? If they don’t happen to live near hubs of gastronomic diversity — i.e. Manhattan — or can’t afford to eat out, is there anything you suggest to help them satisfy their curious palates?
I hope that it may inspire readers to try some new dishes! And as for those who can’t eat out, perhaps they’ll decide to try preparing a new recipe. With so many recipes available online these days, and companies shipping ethnic groceries and spices just about anywhere, it’s easier than ever before to experiment with new ingredients and flavors at home.
Let’s talk about Gladys’ life at school. The school social dynamic seems very real. Did you draw from your own grade school memories to create it?
Absolutely. The social hierarchy of the sixth-grade cafeteria table will be seared into my brain forever, I think! It’s a pretty tough time if you don’t have many friends, or are just trying to fly under the radar of the more powerful kids. I was fairly miserable at that age, and was definitely able to draw on those strong emotions when writing Gladys’s story.
The character of Charissa is especially intriguing. Are we supposed to infer that Charissa’s “mean girl” behavior is caused, at least in part, by the fact that her wealthy parents deprive her of satisfying meals? Should someone in East Dumpsford be calling child protective services?
I don’t think she’s quite that deprived (but thank you for your concern!). Yes, at least part of her attitude can be attributed to her meager school lunches. I get grumpy pretty quickly when I’m hungry, so I decided to share that characteristic with Charissa. But with all the other kids paying her tribute with their desserts, and with her access to her parents’ credit card, she doesn’t let herself go too hungry.
While Gladys has a sophisticated palate, her parents are another story. Are your descriptions of Gladys’ parents an indictment of today’s fast food culture?
I see how they could be read as such. However, I don’t write with an agenda. More than anything else, Gladys’s parents’ eating habits were inspired by those of my own family growing up — we relied heavily on take-out food and the microwave. I think that, in the 80′s, when I grew up, there was a sort of backlash against cooking. It was seen, at least by some families, as just another household chore that no one should have to get stuck with, rather than an art form, or a chance for the family to work together, or an important practice for health. So I’m glad to see the culture shifting somewhat now, back to appreciating home cooking.
Gladys rebels against her parents’ food preferences. How does she fit into the pantheon of famous rebels in children’s literature?
I love writing middle-grade literature because that’s the age where kids really start thinking about their places in the world, testing out their skills … and realizing that maybe adults don’t actually know everything. My very favorite classic middle-grade heroines and heroes — Matilda, Harriet the Spy, Harry Potter — all feature kids who realize that the time has come to start taking matters into their own hands. I see Gladys fitting firmly into that tradition, but instead of her milieu being, say, a magical world, it’s the all-too-real world of food. And since we all eat, every day, I think that her struggles and triumphs will resonate with a lot of readers.
Did it cross your mind that the book might encourage real tweens to bluff their way into plum writing assignments in professional publications? Frankly, the journalism market is tight as it is and we don’t need the competition!
Ha! No, I’m not really concerned. I assume that most publications would require a resume and do better background checking on their potential job candidates than The New York Standard does in All Four Stars. While I strove to make Gladys’s path to publication as plausible as possible in the book, I still wouldn’t say it rises to the level of pure realism. Anyone seeking to use the novel as a manual for journalistic trickery will be sorely disappointed.
The book concludes with a bit of a cliff hanger and you’ve signed on for another Gladys book. Did you know you were going to be writing a sequel when you penned the ending?
I hoped that I would be asked to write a sequel, but I didn’t know for sure yet. It’s funny — some readers see the ending as a cliffhanger, and others feel like it wraps the story up well. Luckily, there will be a sequel, so hopefully all parties will be satisfied knowing that the story will continue if they’d like to read more.
As you mentioned, you’re a Harry Potter fan. If Gladys Gatsby and Harry Potter went head to head in an “Iron Chef” type competition, who would win?
Oh, wow — great question. Well, I would think that magic would give Harry an edge … but I don’t remember him being particularly adept at household spells, or at following the recipes in Potions! Gladys, on the other hand, has plenty of experience cooking under pressure. So I’m going to bet on Gladys for this one.
More from Alice: