Work in Progress
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. Maybe it’s getting to use Mrs. Adler’s lucky spoons, or tasting the magical dishes that come out of her oven, but Eden dreams of one day winning cooking competitions. Trouble is, she keeps gaining weight and friends bully her for not caring about her looks. Making matters worse, the dress she 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 an eating disorder that requires an intervention. But with Mom in treatment, Eden enjoys her first taste of freedom and secretly checks out a kids’ cooking school. It’s the best hanging out with foodies like herself until Chloe, a skinny rival, body shames Eden in front of boy crush, Henry. Eden feels so humiliated she convinces herself that everyone is right. It’s time to follow a diet influencer and to give up her passion for cooking. But when Eden and Henry are urged to enter the baking contest Chloe wins every year, suddenly it is game on. Or is it? After Chloe sabotages Team Eden, Eden must finally decide. Will she go for the sweet ending she deserves or let Chloe send her dream 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 whole entire summer and made me never want to come back. If only I’d thought of the idea sooner. Not on the last day when I was rushing around my bunk searching for everything 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 I wrote. A list that was supposed to be 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.”
Other campers thought the lake was gross since living things could touch you, but not me. My best afternoons were spent drifting in a rowboat, talking to sea creatures and dreaming my best dreams. Especially the one where I post a cooking video that gets a million likes.
Focus, Eden, my 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 as I watched the papers scatter, I still felt the hurt in my heart. The hurt of a deep-down truth.
Memories couldn’t be buried at sea.
Like the memory of Ava Ackerman stealing the list off my bed on the first day and reading it aloud. “Guys!” her whiny voice echoed through the cabin. “Want to know Eden’s favorite things about herself? It’s hilarious.”
Or the memory of me trying to grab the paper before Ava climbed onto a top bunk.
“#3!” she yelled. “My toes line up perfectly like a xylophone… #7! My eyebrows used to look like fuzzy caterpillars but now I get them threaded…”
Mostly the memory of being confused because Ava was my best friend at camp. The girl who spent our first few summers clinging to me like a big sister even though she was three months older… the girl who secretly begged me to help her when she wet her bed. Which. I. Did.
“Stop!” I cried when Ava kept reading. “It’s private.”
“We thought your favorite thing was stuffing your face.”
Everyone laughed and I felt my face heat up like an air fryer. But when I stared at the screen door and thought about bolting, another deep-down truth kept my feet glued to the floor. Running away would open the door to more bullying. Also, this was very bad for my brand.
I had worked so hard to be the girl everyone liked.
Finally, our counselor, Lydia from London, took the list from Ava and put her arm around my shoulder. “Here you go, love. Shall we find a safe spot for this?”
What about a safe space for me? Especially since Ava was light sabering her glare in my direction. “In case you didn’t know,” she said, “we each picked a diet influencer so we can see who loses the most weight.”
I peeked to see who else thought that starving ourselves was stupid, but eleven girls stared at their UGGS like they were sharing a brain. Wait! Had there had been an alien abduction with stops in New York and New Jersey on the way to the Pennsylvania mountains? What if the girls had been swapped for ones who didn’t know our favorite bunk activity? Hint: baking cupcakes and eating frosting out of the cans.
Fifty-one long days later, I watched the last of the soggy papers vanish and raced to the bunk for my backpack. With any luck I had missed our final friendship circle, and everyone was standing around the pickleball courts waiting for the closing ceremony.
But when I reached our back porch, my stomach bounced like a pickleball getting whacked over the net. The circle was just starting, and Lydia from London waved me over. “You made it, love. Come join us.”
The girls gripped hands like when we used to play Red Rover.
“Make room!” Lydia ordered.
Ava laughed. “A lot of room.”
My heart cracked like an egg. Would I ever forget her rudeness? The way everyone judged me because Ava did? Not that these girls were perfect either. One had teeny-weeny bug eyes, another had the worst breath and no matter how many times Ava washed her hair it was greasy enough to fry that egg.
Somehow, like discovering buried treasure, I found what I had been searching for all summer. Okay, my whole life. Courage!
“Buh-bye losers!” I said as I ran inside for my bag. “See you never…”
The screen door slammed, and soon the lake breeze was at my back, pushing my short legs up Dead Man’s Curve. Then as if my feet had grown wings, I sprinted behind the dining hall, in front of the main office past the infirmary with the nice nurses who played Spit with me when I was having a panic attack. And just as 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 who were fun, and sweet and wanted to look different instead of being copycats.
“Thank you so, so much,” I said to the driver for letting me board early. And that was before spotting Piper and Sabrina Cabrera, the messy bun twins. They were my faves from culinary arts classes, AKA Josie’s Kitchen, and I raced down the empty aisle.
“You guys,” I squealed. “You’re escapees too!”
Piper yawned. “This place is dead to me.”
“I deleted everyone from my phone,” Sabrina said.
“Didn’t know you hated camp as much as me,” I replied.
“Never wanted to come,” Piper said.
Sabrina made smoochy lips. “Our mom made us so she could honeymoon all summer with Gussss.”
“I used to love it here,” I said. “Still can’t believe how mean and cliquey everyone was.”
“Why didn’t you leave?” Piper asked.
I bit a nail. “Plan A was to beg my parents on visiting day. Then my mom couldn’t come because of a bad cold, and my dad said there would be nothing for me to do at home.”
“What was Plan B?” Sabrina asked.
I plopped onto the seat across from them. “To think of a better Plan A.”
I liked making Piper and Sabrina laugh, but after everyone else boarded, the bus winded down the narrow dirt road and Piper said something that interrupted my good mood. “Our mom signed us up for an after-school cooking class. Get your mom to sign you up too.”
“It’s called Copper Spoon Culinary,” Sabrina said. “Want the link?”
“Sure,” I replied even though I was sure I didn’t.
They knew I dreamed of having my own cooking channel and winning competitions. They didn’t know my mom, Lori Sterling, Queen of Hydration, would never let me go to a cooking school because she had a different dream. Instead of being a lawyer, I think she secretly wished she could be a diet coach, and I would be her client. Eden, honey. The more water you drink, the fuller you’ll feel.
The second my phone shook Piper leaned over to click on the link. “Doesn’t their kitchen look epic?”
My shoulders dropped. “Totally epic.” But it was the picture of kid foodies making creamy crepe Suzettes that made me want to dive inside the pictures.
“So, you’ll ask your mom?” Piper said.
Piper and Sabrina wouldn’t understand my mother’s crazy food rules, but Faith Feldman would. My bestie from home (an actual forever friend) could do the most hilarious Lori Sterling impressions where she’d scrunch her eyebrows and say, Girls! Must you use two pieces of bread to make a sandwich?
Luckily, Faith was also heading home from camp. The one her mom went to, so she had to go there too. Booo to be being apart for the summer but at least now we had our phones back.
EDEN: Did you have fun??? Did you MISS ME???
“Please answer,” I whispered. “Please, please, please.”