Work in Progress
Is there a recipe for happiness when a mother can’t eat, and a daughter can’t stop? In this brave, funny novel, a 12-year-old girl searches for acceptance when being bite-sized seems the only choice.
Eden Sterling is an aspiring chef who is starved for her mother’s approval– a mother who hopes body shaming will keep her daughter out of the kitchen. Then the tables turn. Mom is diagnosed with anorexia and Eden hopes her cooking will save her life. First stop is a kid’s culinary school to improve her skills only to meet Chloe, a skinny rival who knows how to sharpen a knife… and her tongue. It’s time for Eden to prove food is not her enemy unless what if it is. After learning she will face Chloe in the baking competition Chloe is a lock to win, Eden binge-eats food trays sent for her family. And as if there isn’t enough heat in the kitchen, Eden’s dessert-phobic Mom unexpectedly shows up at the competition just as Chloe accuses Eden of cheating. Will Eden get her sweet ending or let her dreams go up in flames to finally earn her mother’s praise?
Sleepaway camp was such a huge part of my life my parents told everyone, “Eden lives ten months for two.” So, so true. Nothing was better than hanging out at the lake, sharing secrets and laughing so hard my stomach hurt. For some reason everything was funnier at camp.
Until the summer of seventh grade.
The girls I had waited all year to hang with changed so much I thought I’d been assigned to the wrong bunk. Instead of winning another Gaga Ball championship they wanted the trophy for Best Flirts in Skirts. And why spend rainy afternoons tie-dying hoodies when we could practice putting on fake eyelashes? Clearly, someone had decided boys were all that mattered and by someone I meant Ava Zelinsky. When she unpacked, I counted three kinds of mousse, a suitcase filled with makeup and enough outfits to dress the fourteen of us.
Not that this explained my misery.
It was the whispering behind my back when I changed clothes and my so-called friends leaving for activities without me. Plus, how many times did I have to ask them to scoot over at our dining table?
After a week, I couldn’t take the rudeness and begged my two besties to tell me my crime. At first, Olivia and Hannah said they had no idea what I was talking about, but those girls knew everything like who sucked their thumb, pretended to have cramps and were hoping for their first good kiss. What they didn’t know was I had an awesome plan to win everyone back.
Overnight I would turn into the new and improved Eden Sterling like a boring cereal box that suddenly had a fun prize inside. If I guessed right, they would want to go zip lining with Adventure Girl. Take a canoe ride with Nature Nerd. Bake brownies with the Dessert Diva.
This was so going to work.
The next morning on the way to breakfast I inhaled the crisp mountain air, picked flowers and admired the wild berries that twinkled like holiday lights. Then I heard my name called and my mood brightened. Did I already have followers?
“We’ll tell you what happened,” an out of breath Hannah said when she caught up.
“But you can’t repeat this,” Olivia huffed.
I felt breathless too. “I won’t.”
Olivia looked around to make sure no one could hear. “So, Ava started a group chat before camp and said to ghost you.”
Don’t cry, don’t cry, don’t cry. “Why?”
“We thought it was dumb, but she said you don’t care about your looks.”
“Because I’m not into makeup?”
“Because you need to go on a diet,” Hannah whispered.
I kicked a pebble so hard it ricocheted off a tree. Unlike at home, camp was the one place everyone had always liked me the way I was.
“Don’t worry,” Olivia said. “We told her you want to be a chef so, of course, you have to try everything.”
I did want to be a chef. What I didn’t want was to spend the summer feeling bad about myself. “Do you think… should I lose weight?”
Hannah tapped her lips. “Maybe like five pounds.”
“But only if you want to,” Olivia said. “We’re not all supposed to look alike.”
“Thanks,” I replied. “Could you also tell Ava I’m going to be a famous chef with my own TV show? If she wants tickets, she has to stop treating me like dirt.”
The warning worked! That night, Ava asked me to hang out on the porch and I felt like a genius for doing my own problem solving. Then I discovered the invitation was a set-up so our bunk could play “You’re Hot! You’re Not.” It was a stupid game where the girls got to vote on which of your body parts were good and which ones needed help.
Guess who lost points for having a jiggly belly and weird shaped boobs?
When it was Ava’s turn, I thought about mentioning her weird-shaped eyes but didn’t want to get sent back to Lonelyville. Instead I told her she was fine the way she was, that we all were, and our looks should be the least interesting thing about us. It was a lesson I learned from my grandmother, Glamma, who had won three beauty contests and used the prize money to pay for law school.
Oops. Team Ava did not appreciate this important tip because the next day they left a note on my pillow. Eden!!! We think you should wear a bathing suit under your clothes so it holds in your big stomach !!!
I did what any hurt girl would do. I headed to the furthest bathroom from our bunk and quiet-cried into scratchy toilet paper. I knew all about humiliation because I had an older brother who called me names, a mother who pressured me to be perfect and friends who teased me about wearing the same outfit twice in a row. But none of that stung as bad as this. The girls I had spent four summers with, the ones I had trusted with my secrets and kept company when they were homesick were willing to throw away our friendship for AWFUL Ava Zelinsky.
If only I had known being twelve was so much harder than being eleven.
As I sat atop the toilet, I wished I could be an influencer with a million followers so they would beg to hang out with me and then get a text from my assistant, Julia. No wait. Julianna!
JULIANNA: Sorry fans. Eden and her rescue dogs are headed to Miami for a big bash with Nick Jonas. Raincheck?
But how could I be an influencer if I was the worst at sports, singing or knowing which clothes went with what shoes? Time for Plan B.
That night I announced a bunk event where everyone could take turns taming my crazy curls before evening activity. So fun! Sadly, not even Olivia and Hannah volunteered, and my weekly phone calls home sounded like a country song. “Why can’t I leave? Oh, please let me leave…”
Then Mom, a lawyer like her mother, would give her closing argument. “Sorry, Eden. I’m swamped with cases.”
“And the city is stifling,” Dad said. “At least camp has a lake and a pool.”
Jayden, my fifteen-year-old bro, let the defense rest. “Dude! No one misses you.”
What hurt worse than my family not caring about my happiness was worrying Ava was right about my loser looks. If only I had been lucky enough to inherit Mom and Glamma’s thinny-thin bodies instead of Dad’s short, round Sterling genes because this was also true.
My Glamma was now a judge but so was everyone else.
Seriously. Why did people think they could decide how I looked or dressed? Why did they get to put me down if my ideas were different than theirs? And why, why, why did they act like they were so much better than me when they weren’t perfect either?
I spent the rest of the summer trying to figure that out but by the last day my only answer was to run for the bus. No way would I hang around for the bunk’s final friendship circle and watch the hugging, crying and fake goodbyes. Love you… I’ll text you every day. Then I snuck on and discovered Shauna Becker had beaten me to it.
Like me, she lived on Manhattan’s Upper East Side and loved animals. Unlike me, she was a year older and brave enough to pick up crickets by their legs.
“Okay if I sit with you?” I asked.
“Totally okay,” she said. “Just like last year.”
“True… good summer?”
She pressed her nose to the window. “If you like crying. You?”
“Worst one of my life,” I said.
“So, you’re not coming back?” she asked.
“I’d rather repeat sixth grade.”
Finally, the bus rolled down the narrow dirt roads past the Pennsylvania mountains and I could feel myself breathing again. Soon I would be seeing my real friends, sleeping in my comfy bed and cooking with Mrs. Adler. She was our down the hall neighbor who had been giving me lessons since I could stand on her kitchen chair and stir.
But it was also time to rehearse a speech in my head.
Mom hadn’t come on visiting day because of a bad cold and I was still steamed she had abandoned me, her only daughter, on the most important day of camp. I was also annoyed she thought I was dumb enough to believe her story when last year she had won a big trial in the middle of having the flu.
Wait. Would she grant my one wish if I dropped the charges?
I had begged to go to cooking school, but nothing could beat Mom’s defense strategy which sounded like, wait for it, a song from our favorite musical, HAMILTON. Classes are expensive. Your schedule is full. They use butter in their dishes which goes against my wishes because if food isn’t nutritious who cares if it’s delicious…
Shauna nudged me. “Earth to Eden. Last year we talked the entire ride home.”
I opened my eyes. “Because last year was awesome. This year everyone changed, and it made me a nervous wreck. What was the worst part for you?”
“I only get to pick one thing? Let’s see. They called me Insect Girl and put bugs in my bed… spread a rumor I had a contagious rash…cut my bangs in my sleep…”
“Sorry you had to go through that.”
“It’s fine,” she said. “I deleted everyone from my phone.”
“Good idea,” I said as I got a text. It was from my best friend, Faith Feldman, who was also heading home from camp. She had sent a GIF to celebrate our annual family reunion dinner which meant we were only hours from devouring the best mozzarella sticks on the planet. And before I knew it the bus arrived at our pickup spot.
Shauna rolled her eyes. “Someone’s parents showed up in a stretch limo.”
“Gross,” I said. “Why do rich people have to be show-offs?”
Soon we were bounding down the steps and searching for our families. Mom would be easy to find in a crowd because she was basketball tall and Dad insisted on bringing balloons even though I had told him it was mortifying. Then I heard my name and turned to see a frail looking woman waving beside the long, black limousine. A woman I barely recognized.