Work in Progress
What happens when a mother can’t eat, and her daughter can’t stop? In the middle grade novel, TOUGH COOKIE, a 12-year-old girl who is starved for approval confronts diet culture and the challenge of giving in to fit in.
Eden Sterling has been cooking with her neighbor, Mrs. Adler, since she could stand on a kitchen chair and stir. Then Mrs. Adler passes down her grandmother’s lucky measuring spoons and suddenly Eden dreams of winning competitions. If only she could stop gaining weight. Camp friends bully her for caring more about food than her looks and soon after the dress that Eden needs for a family wedding must be ordered larger. Even worse, when Eden twirls in the silky gown at the store, her disappointed Almond Mom faints.
Mom is not only fat-phobic she has a heart condition caused by her eating disorder and gets rushed to the hospital. But while Mom is in recovery, Eden secretly checks out a kids’ cooking school and discovers that Copper Spoon Culinary is her Disney – a magical place to hang with foodies like her. She even enters Cook-a-Licious, a baking competition, and her confidence soars… until the big day.
Chloe, the three-time champion, body shames Eden in front of Eden’s boy crush/partner and steals her lucky spoons. Now Eden will have to decide if she is a tough cookie who deserves a sweet ending or if she will crumble under the pressure of striving for thinness like her mother.
Excerpt (Warning: subject matter explores disordered eating)
The minty green 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 racing around our 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 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 favorite days were spent drifting in a kayak, talking to 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 Ava 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? Number three is hilarious… My toes line up perfectly like a xylophone.”
Or the memory of me trying to grab the paper before Ava climbed onto her top bunk.
#7!” she yelled. “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?”
The other girls laughed so she wouldn’t turn on them next. But the worst part was I could feel my face flashing like a neon sign everyone could read. SHAME… MORTIFICATION… SHAME… MORTIFICATION…
I remember staring at the screen door wanting 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 ask Marla, the mental health lady, to lecture us about respecting each other’s feelings and that night I would mysteriously find crumbled Oreos in my bed.
Plus, being a coward wouldn’t be good for my brand.
Not after spending the past few summers trying to be more relevant than I was at school. A fancy private school where there were two kinds of kids– super achievers who were inventing ways to save the world and my friends who were pretty much clueless.
That’s why I lived ten months for two. Camp was the one place where forgettable kids like me could suddenly be the cool friend everyone needed. A discovery I made after sneaking yummy desserts from culinary arts into the cabin and lending out my flat iron until it turned into a sparkler and died.
Thankfully our counselor, Lydia from London, took the list back. “Here you go, love,” she said. “Shall we find a safe spot for this?”
What about a safe space for me? Especially after Ava light sabered 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.
Finally, the longest summer of my life was over, and all I had to do was get my bag and hop on the bus. I just hoped that when I got to my cabin everyone else was standing around the pickleball courts waiting for the closing ceremony to begin.
Then I reached our back porch and felt my stomach bounce like a pickleball getting whacked over the net. Our bunk’s final friendship circle was just starting.
Lydia from London waved. “You made it, love. Come join us.”
The girls gripped hands like in the days we used to play Red Rover.
“Make room for Eden,” Lydia ordered.
Ava coughed. “A lot of room.”
Of course, everyone laughed, which made me wonder how I could despise these girls and be jealous at the same time. Especially after camp stopped enforcing the no butts/boobs/bellies dress code and they all looked so Instagram-perfect in their tiny t-shirts and shorts.
Wish I knew how it was decided which girls got to be born lucky while the rest of us were like, sorry, better luck next time. Because hello? The system wasn’t fair. We should either all get to look perfect or none of us should. But what really hit hard was the way these girls clung to each other like life jackets.
Would anyone welcome me into the circle?
Like Ella, who secretly begged for my help when she wet her bed. Or Charlotte who loved my gold-dipped friendship bracelets and begged me to make her one. Oh, and Sarah, who got a nasty infection from wearing fake eyelashes and picked me to put in her antibiotic drops.
But when Ella, Charlotte and Sarah peeked at Ava for the okay to let me join in she mouthed no, and it snapped me out of my camp coma. “Buh-bye psychos!” I shouted as I ran inside for my bag. “Good talk!”
Pretty much that was the bravest thing I had done all summer and with the breeze at my back, it 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 tired of being lonely. 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 that laughed with me, not at me if I did something dumb… friends that wanted to look different, so we weren’t boring. But the next thought made me stop running and catch my breath.
Was I serious about never coming back? Never biting into toasty marshmallows at campfire night or fixing broken flip flops with colorful tape from the Art Barn?
I stole a glance at the purple mountains and felt a new deep-down truth creep inside my heart. My childhood was over and there was nothing I could do about it. I just wish I’d been warned like when there was a deadline for sign-ups. Eden! Only three days left before everything you know changes forever.
Unless… what if being older meant I finally learned how to dress myself? To flirt? To tame my curls so they didn’t look electrified?
I hurried to the bus, excited about the good possibilities when I tripped over a branch and felt blood dribble down my legs. Maybe my childhood was over, but my bad luck was not.