Julia’s Kitchen by Brenda A. Ferber (FSG, 2006). Cara was away, visiting her best friend on the night of the fire. That’s why she wasn’t at home, why she doesn’t have all the answers. Why did her mom and little sister have to die? How could Dad have escaped when they didn’t? Why won’t he talk to her now? All these years, Cara thought she and God had an understanding. How could He have abandoned her family? As Cara struggles to understand, she realizes what she can do. She can save Julia’s Kitchen, the baking business her mom left behind. An honest, heartfelt story of grief, healing, and wrestling with faith. Ages 9-up. Highly recommended.
This tender, uplifting novel doesn’t gloss over loss, and ultimately, must answer hard questions about the details of characters’ deaths to find its hopeful resolution. It also reflects the reality that grief is as capable of separating survivors as it is of bringing them closer together.
The details of Cara’s Jewish family and community life are seamlessly interwoven and help ground the character and story. A glossary of Hebrew and Yiddish words is included in the back matter.
So often in mainstream children’s literature, religion–if mentioned at all–is addressed more as a backdrop or matter of identity than faith. I understand that religion can be a sensitive, divisive topic. But if we are to reflect our full reality and tap its potential for story, we must consider the role of faith in children’s lives. In addition, we can hope such an inclusive approach will facilitate understanding and respect.
Julia’s Kitchen is the first book to win both the Sydney Taylor Book Award for Older Readers (2007) and the Sydney Taylor Manuscript Award (2004). The Taylor Awards “recognize the best in Jewish children’s literature. Medals are awarded annually for outstanding books that authentically portray the Jewish experience.” See the complete list of 2007 winners (PDF file). Please seek out, study, and pass on these titles.
That said, Julia’s Kitchen is one of the best middle grade novels on any topic. I read it in one sitting (with much tissue and smiles), plan to re-read it, and will recommend it to writing students for study.
If I had read it in time, the novel would have been listed as a Cynsational Middle Grade of 2006 under “Honors.”
Julia’s Kitchen also was named a VOYA Top Shelf Fiction for Middle School Readers 2006 and a Junior Library Guild Selection 2006.
Vive La Paris! by Esme Raji Codell (Hyperion/Disney, 2006)(author interview) was an Sydney Taylor Award honor book in the same category. I’ve also had the honor of interviewing a few other Sydney Taylor authors: Esther Hershenhorn, Anna Olswanger, and Susan Goldman Rubin.