Work in Progress
What happens when a mother can’t eat and her daughter can’t stop? In Tough Cookie, a 12-year-old girl starved for approval is challenged by diet culture and the fear of giving in to fit in.
Eden Sterling has been cooking with her neighbor, Mrs. Adler, since she was old enough to stand on a kitchen chair and stir. Then Mrs. Adler passes down her grandmother’s lucky measuring spoons to Eden and suddenly the talented young chef believes the spoons will help her win competitions. That is until she gains weight and gets bullied by camp friends for caring more about food than her looks. Making matters worse, the dress Eden needs for her aunt’s wedding must be ordered larger and Mom not only fumes she faints. Turns out that Mom isn’t just fatphobic, she has a heart condition caused by an eating disorder and requires a long hospital stay. But while Mom is in recovery, Eden gets her first taste of freedom. She secretly checks out a kids’ cooking school and discovers that Copper Spoon Culinary is her Disney – a place to hang with kid foodies like her. If only Chloe, a three-time cooking champion, wouldn’t keep body shaming Eden in front of boy crush, Henry. Soon Eden will have to decide if she is a tough cookie who deserves a sweet ending or a talented chef whose dream of winning competitions is about to go up in flames.
Excerpt (Warning: subject matter explores disordered eating)
The lake at sleepaway camp was too beautiful to throw random stuff into… until I needed to make something disappear. Something that wrecked my entire summer and guaranteed I could never come back. If only I’d thought of the idea sooner. Not on the last day when I was rushing around my cabin searching for things my “forever friends” borrowed without asking. But with the closing ceremonies starting soon it felt like a now or never kind of situation.
I had to drown the list. The one that was supposed to be kept TOP SECRET.
After stuffing the paper into my pocket, I raced down to the dock and cheered because the waterfront was empty. Duh. Everyone else was running around sobbing and taking selfies.
“Goodbye sparkly green waves,” I whispered into the wind. “I’ll never forget you.”
Most campers thought the lake was gross when living things touched you, but not me. My best days were spent drifting in a kayak, playing with emotional support turtles and dreaming my best dreams. Especially the one where I post a cooking video that gets a million likes.
Focus, Eden, my anxious brain said. Sink the stupid list.
Bit by bit I ripped it into tiny shreds and stretched my right arm to the sky, letting pink pieces fly like confetti. But even as the papers scattered, I still felt the hurt in my heart. The hurt of a deep-down truth.
Memories can’t be buried at sea.
Like the memory of the first day when Awful Ava Ackerman stole the list from my bed and read it aloud. “Guys!” her whiny voice echoed through the cabin. “Want to know Eden’s ten favorite things about herself? # 3 is hilarious.”
Or the memory of me trying to grab the paper before Ava climbed onto a top bunk.
“My toes line up perfectly like a xylophone,” Ava yelled. “#7! My eyebrows used to look like fuzzy caterpillars until I got them threaded…”
“Stop!” I cried. “This is private.”
Ava smirked. “Doesn’t say so. And isn’t your favorite thing stuffing your face?”
I stared at the screen door and wanted to bolt but another deep-down truth kept my feet glued to the floor. Running would open the door to more bullying. Then our counselor would have to get Marla, the mental health lady, to lecture us about respecting each other’s feelings and that night I’d mysteriously find Oreo crumbs in my sheets.
Plus, being a coward was bad for my brand.
For the past three summers I had worked so, so hard to be the cool friend everyone wanted. The one who brought yummy desserts from culinary arts and lent my hair straightener until it turned into a sparkler and died.
Finally, our counselor, Lydia from London, took the list from Ava and handed it to me. “Here you go, love,” she said. “Shall we find a safe spot for this?”
What about a safe space for me? Especially with Ava light sabering her nasty glare into my eyes. “Just so you know, we each picked a diet influencer to see who loses the most weight.”
“I hope you win,” I said. So, there’s a lot less of you.
Then I peeked to see who else thought that starving ourselves was stupid, but when all eleven girls stared at their flip flops it made me wonder if they were sharing a brain. Or maybe there had been an alien abduction with stops in New York and New Jersey on the way to the Pennsylvania mountains and they were imposters.
Didn’t matter anymore. After fifty-seven of the longest days of my life camp was o-v-e-r. All I had to do was get my bag from my bunk and sneak onto the bus before anyone spotted me. Hopefully our last friendship circle was over, and everyone had left for the pickleball courts to wait for the closing ceremony to begin.
But when I reached our back porch, my stomach bounced like a pickleball getting whacked over the net. The circle was just starting.
Lydia from London waved. “You made it, love. Come join us.”
Everyone gripped hands like when we used to play Red Rover.
“Make room!” Lydia ordered.
Ava glared. “A lot of room.”
The girls laughed and I wished I knew how it was possible to despise them and be insanely jealous of them. For starters, ever since the camp director gave up on enforcing the no butts/boobs/bellies dress code they all looked Instagram-perfect in their tiny t-shirts and shorts. Plus, the way they clung to each other like life jackets hit me hard. Not one of them would want to wrap their arm around me.
Wait. None of them were literally perfect.
One girl could slay a dragon with her breath (and not just in the morning). Another was a bra stuffer, which hello, did she not realize her boobs never looked even? And no matter how many times Awful Ava washed her hair it was greasy enough to fry an egg.
Not that I cared that they weren’t perfect. Didn’t care that I wasn’t either because it was the weird stuff that made us interesting. And shouldn’t we be allowed to like ourselves without getting an attitude about it?
Suddenly, like a bear waking from hibernation, I snapped out of my camp coma and raced inside the cabin for my bag. “Buh-bye losers!” I shouted. “See you never…”
That was the bravest thing I had done all summer and my excitement plus the breeze at my back, pushed my short legs up Dead Man’s Curve as if my feet had grown wings. Soon, I was sprinting past the dining hall, in front of the main office behind the infirmary with the nice nurses who played cards with me when I was sick of feeling anxious. And just when my shins burned, I spotted a bus with the most beautiful sign. MANHATTAN.
Or as I called it, Best City on the Planet.
In a few hours I would be back with my people. Friends that laughed with me, not at me if I did something dumb… friends that wanted to look different instead of being copycats. Well not freak flag different but enough to feel a teeny bit unique.
Then I had another thought and it made me stop and catch my breath. Was I serious about never coming back to my happy place? Never biting into toasted marshmallows at a campfire? Inhaling sweet-smelling wild berries after it rained? Fixing broken flip flops with colorful tape from the Art Barn…
I stole a last glance at the peaceful lake and felt a new deep-down truth creep inside my hurting heart. The summer of seventh grade had ended my childhood, like forever, and the rest of my life would be totally new and different and probably not in a good way.
Unless, what if being older meant I magically learned how to dress myself? To flirt? To figure out how to tame my mop top curls so they didn’t look like they hit a downed power line?
I raced to the bus, excited to start my new life, a life that would be so much more fun and amazing… until I tripped over a fallen tree branch and stared at my bloody knees.
Even though my childhood was over my bad luck was not. Got it.