Work in Progress
Girls in middle school all know their ABCs– angst, bewilderment and catastrophe. And sometimes that happens before lunch. But for 12-year-old Eden Sterling, the worst humiliation begins at home with a mother who fat-shames her. In this poignant novel about the maddening diet culture (37,400 words), readers meet an aspiring chef who is under pressure to fit the cookie-cutter mold. Will she follow her dream or give in to the nightmare? Written for ages 8-12, A LOT ON HER PLATE, tackles a timely subject with the three H’s: humor, heart and hope. Think THE GOODNIGHT STORIES FOR REBEL GIRLS meets FAT GIRL ON A PLANE.
When Eden Sterling and her brother fight, their lawyer/mom makes them present their case so she can render a verdict. But Eden doesn’t want a verdict. She wants a hug. At twelve, she feels so starved for affection she binge-watches the Food Network and dreams of hosting her own cooking show. If only her family didn’t refer to dinner as “feedin’ Eden time”. Then the tables turn. Her mother is diagnosed with anorexia and Eden tries to nurture her with her culinary skills. But in a home where the mother can’t eat, and the daughter can’t stop, there is no easy recipe for survival.
If Netflix made a TV show about my family, they would call it, The Sterling’s Are Insanely Busy. But I predict it would get cancelled after season one because we were also insanely boring. Every Sunday my mom gave out the new family calendar and it looked identical to one from the week before. Still, she’d beg us not to make changes because it would be like playing Jenga.
No worries. My dad barely glanced at the calendar. My fifteen-year-old brother, Jayden, couldn’t keep track if it was pinned to his shirt. And my life at twelve wasn’t so exciting that things happened unexpectedly. Yet I held out hope we were going to a Broadway show or trying a new restaurant, which explains why the first thing I learned to read wasn’t a book. It was a Google doc.
But one weekend life did not go as planned…
It was the Saturday of Labor Day and everyone was doing their “thing”. My mom was stretching before her run. My dad was mapping his bike ride to Brooklyn from our Upper East Side apartment. And Jayden was kicking a soccer ball in the hall because he thought he had practice later. He did not.
Other than binge-watching the Food Network and collecting recipes I didn’t have a “thing” so when my mom asked me to pick up a package in our lobby I said sure. Maybe I would bump into my building besties. Catch up with our doorman, Alonzo. I missed everyone after spending the summer at camp in Pennsylvania.
“Thank you, Eden,” Mom said. “By the way, the package is for you.”
I perked up. “What is it?”
“It’s for back-to-school. You’ll see.”
Sweet! I had begged for these white jeweled sneakers my best friend, Faith, thought would be perfect for my first-day outfit. Mom said they were too expensive but maybe they had gone on sale. Or, she could be surprising me with this awesome bag I found on line with shiny purple daisies and lots of secret compartments to hide snacks.
“Please hurry back,” she said. “It’s our special day with Glamma.”
Special? We were going bra shopping with my grandmother at the store she brought my mother to when she was my age. Good times! “Do we have to go today?”
“Yes. It’s on the calendar.”
There was no point arguing because unlike TV shows family plans were rarely cancelled. But for someone obsessed with mommy bloggers mine was clueless. Hadn’t she read posts about how demoralizing it was for girls to stand half naked in a dressing room while strangers debated their cup size? Plus, I would give it thirty seconds before Mom made a wish. Let Eden thin out. She’ll be so much happier.
What she meant was she would be so much happier because in Manhattan, skinny daughters were like penthouse apartments. If you had one you were the envy of those who didn’t.
“Can we at least go to Verizon after?” I asked. “My phone is always dying.”
“It’s always dying because you’re always on it.”
Run. Otherwise I’d get stuck listening to a lecture about the dangers of being a “screenager” and something called a dopamine brain. I tore out the door, pressed the elevator button and waited. And waited some more because one was always out of order. But was I allowed to ride the service elevator like Jayden? “You’re too young to fend off a creepy delivery guy,” Mom always said.
Wrong! I would crouch into a fighter pose and poke the guy’s eyes.
With no one in the hall watching I practiced my karate moves in front of the shimmery gold mirror. Ugh. They were laughable. What about my selfie pose? Hand on hip. Lips pursed. Wink, wink. Meet Eden Sterling, the most popular seventh grader at Greystone Day School.
Cut, cut, cut, the director would have yelled if my life was a TV show.
The truth was my snacks were popular than me. In the mood for Twizzlers? Find Eden. Thirsty? Eden has coconut water. Hopefully this wasn’t the reason hungry Henry Goodstein told Faith he liked me.
“Who cares why he likes you?” she said. “Now you’ll get your first kiss.”
“But I want it to be with Corey Boxer.”
“So? Practice on Henry and then you’ll be good at it with Corey.”
“Or, I could get a tutor,” I said.
Faith’s eyes lit. “They have those?”
Pity there was no emoji for people who didn’t get jokes. But maybe Faith was right. If my first make out moment was with Henry, who cared if I was a classic underachiever.
Finally, the elevator opened.
“Good morning, Mademoiselle,” Alonzo bowed as I walked past his gleaming desk and plopped into my favorite red leather chair. I had forgotten how much I loved the glass sculptures and tall vases filled with rose-colored bouquets. And even though our lobby looked like other fancy doorman buildings, only ours served tea and scones every day at four.
“Alonzo! What is up?”
“The sky is up. The stock market is up and…”
“The ratings are up.” I finished his sentence because it made him happy to talk about his son, a TV actor. Maybe one day he would star in The Sterling’s Are Insanely Busy.
“Are you here for your package?” Alonzo asked.
“And to hang out.” Then I heard a familiar squeal. “It’s Eee-din!” Four-year-old Cooper ran over with his two-year-old sister tagging behind.
I got up so they could knock me over for a group hug. “It’s Cooper and Riley!”
Their mom, Shari, clapped. “My mother’s helper is back. We missed you so much.”
“Missed you guys, too. And thanks for sending me extra canteen money.”
“Oh, to be a kid again,” she said. “You can eat all the candy you want.”
Have you met my mom? Eden, check the label. How many carbs per serving?
“Guess what else I missed?” Shari asked. “Your great recipe finds. Got any new ones?”
“A few,” I said. “But they look really hard.”
“I’m sure you’ll figure them out before me.”
I smiled while trying to solve a mystery. How could a famous magazine editor believe in me when my own mother didn’t? Not joking. Mom laughed when I told her I wanted to be the next Rachel Ray.
“And remember,” Shari said, “it takes years to become a great chef, but you still have to be fierce while you’re learning.”
I liked the sound of that but had no clue where fierceness came from. Did you have to be born with it? Or, hope overnight your brain got magically updated to the 2.0 version of yourself? Congrats, Eden! The courage app has been installed.
If only I could ask Shari if her mom ever made her feel like a loser, but Riley and Cooper were tugging at her. Then Alonzo returned from the mailroom with the box. Yasss! It looked like the right size for sneakers and a bag.
“It’s heavy,” he said. “Can you manage?”
Lip gloss. That would remind him I was no longer five. “Thanks. I’m good.”
I ran to the elevator just as our retired neighbor, Mrs. Elder, and her miniature poodle, Millie, stepped off. I loved when a pet and their person resembled each other as they did with their chocolate brown curls and round behinds. “Give me kisses,” I nuzzled Millie, certain she would not think I needed a tutor. “Did you behave for the groomer?”
“She did, “Mrs. Elder said. “And I’m glad I ran into you because I’m baking apple pies tomorrow. Care to assist?”
“Yes, please!” I loved, loved, loved baking with her as she taught me the best tricks. Plus, she had these lucky measuring spoons which felt magical in my hands (even if she wouldn’t tell me what made them lucky). I just had to hope Mom wouldn’t turn the invitation into a teaching moment about butter insuring a relationship with a cardiologist. It would also help my case if she was in a good mood when I walked in.
“What took so long?” Mom yelled. “I asked you to come right back up.”
“Sorry. I was saying hi to everyone. Can I open the box now?”
“Eden, we’re late. Do you need to pee?”
“No, but can we stop for bagels?”
When she didn’t answer right away, it meant she was adding the calories in a scooped-out poppy seed with tuna and swiss cheese. “Why don’t you grab a yogurt instead?” she finally said.
“Because yogurt isn’t filling. At best it’s an appetizer.”
“Fine. Open the package.”
I had no idea what my dream sneakers had to do with starvation, but I punched a hole through the center of the box and ripped open a flap. It made my heart quicken to imagine how many likes I’d get when I posted a picture of my fashionable feet. Then I pulled out a squishy package and read the label. Ugh. Not sneakers. Protein shakes? I felt my eyeballs sting.
“Mom? Were you ever twelve?”
Of course,” she said. “And I remember it well.”
“So, you remember wanting cute sneakers and getting fake food instead?”
“Once again you’re overreacting.”
Maybe. But that didn’t give her permission to humiliate me. “I just don’t get what these have to do with school. Wait. Do they taste like science experiments?”
“No, Eden. Studies show that students who start the day boosting their metabolism are more alert and perform better on tests.”
Studies also showed what daughters of diet-crazed mothers knew. Boosting metabolism was code for losing weight and mine thought I was fat. “You are the worst!” I ran to my room and slammed the door.
“I miss the terrible twos,” she yelled. “C’mon, Eden. Glamma is waiting. You need bras.”
“Yeah, Eden,” Jayden mimicked from his room. “You need bras.”
“Knock it off, J,” my dad called from the kitchen. Then he mumbled something to Mom. But when you are in the next room in an old building the heating vents tell all. “Go easy on her, Lori. She doesn’t even know yet.”