Cara Segal is a born worrier. She figures her worrying works like a whisper in God's ear - if Cara's concerned about car crashes, kidnappings, or murders, she lets God know, and he always spares her. But Cara never thought to worry about a fire. And one night while she's sleeping at a friend's house, her house catches fire, and her mother and younger sister are both killed. Throughout shiva, the initial Jewish mourning period, Cara can't help wondering about God's role in the tragedy. And what is her father's role in her life now? He walks around like a ghost and refuses to talk about the fire. Cara longs for her family and her home, where sweet smells filled the house as Cara's mom filled orders for her catering business, Julia's Kitchen. Then one day a call comes in for a cookie order, and Cara gets a wild idea. Maybe by bringing back Julia's Kitchen, she can find a way to reconnect with everything she's lost.
Complete with a glossary of Hebrew and Yiddish terms and a recipe for chocolate chip cookies, this debut novel is a joyous tribute to the resiliency of the human spirit.
Julia's Kitchen is a 2007 Bank Street - Best Children's Book of the Year.
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About the Author
BRENDA A. FERBER received the Sydney Taylor Manuscript Award for Julia's Kitchen. She lives in Deerfield, Illinois.
I grew up in Highland Park, Illinois, the third of four children. My dad is a doctor, and my mom is an artist. Even though our family had its share of fights, I thought it was the greatest family in the world. I always felt loved and knew I could accomplish whatever I set my mind to. My mom says I was a natural born leader, but my brother and sisters say I liked to boss people around. I guess it goes to show you how important point of view can be!
I'm close with all my siblings, but my younger sister, Micky, and I are best friends. We look so much alike that people often ask us if we're twins. Sometimes we say yes! When we were kids, Micky and I shared a bedroom, and I used to make up stories for her at bedtime. I was never very good at figuring out the endings to my stories, so I'd tell Micky to go to sleep and dream the end. When I wasn't making up stories, I was reading to Micky or to myself. I didn't always have my nose in a book, though. I played with friends (four-square and anything make-believe were my favorite games), went to Hebrew school, took tennis lessons and theater classes, wrote in my diary, and, best of all, went to summer camp in northern Wisconsin.
When I reached my teens, my dreams of becoming an author drifted away. I focused my energy instead of fitting in with the crowd. Who had time to write stories when there were parties, sleepovers, homework, tests, report cards, permanent records, SATs, and such? And an even bigger question: Who was I to think I had the talent to become an author? The confident part of me had gone into hiding.
Thankfully, I rediscovered my confidence and happiness at the University of Michigan, even though I kept my author dream safely filed under "Outlandish childhood aspirations that will come true only if all the planets align properly, I find a four-leaf clover, and a guardian angel puts in a good word for me." I loved everything about college, from the classes to the people to the football team. I made lifelong friends, and best of all, I met Alan, this cute, smart, funny guy who eventually became my husband.
After graduation, Alan and I moved to Chicago. I worked at an advertising agency but quit when I gave birth to twins. A year and a half later, we had a third child. I was up to my eyeballs in diapers and babies who all needed my attention. Not quite the perfect time to write, but being around kids and books reignited my old writing fantasy. I was determined to give it a shot no matter how bad the odds of success were. I hired a babysitter for three hours each week, and that became my writing time. It wasn't much, but it was wonderful, refreshing, and mine.
I started out writing stories that were accepted by Ladybug magazine. I also wrote several picture book manuscripts that collected 130 rejection letters over the course of three years! I immersed myself in children's fiction at our library. Wow! What amazing authors I found . . . Kate DiCamillo, Sharon Creech, Patricia MacLachlan, Linda Sue Park, Jack Gantos, Lois Lowry . . . I wanted to do what they did. I wanted to write novels that could touch a child's heart and soul. Eventually I found the courage to try.
I don't know much about planets, clover, or guardian angels, but I feel like the luckiest person in the world. I have a healthy, loving family, and I've made my childhood dream come true. What more could a person want?
BRENDA A. FERBER received the Sydney Taylor Manuscript Award for Julia's Kitchen. She lives in Deerfield, Illinois.
Read an Excerpt
By Brenda A. Ferber
Farrar, Straus and GirouxCopyright © 2006 Brenda A. Ferber
All rights reserved.
The last picture I glued into my scrapbook that Sunday morning at Marlee's was of Mom, Dad, Janie, and me at a Cubs game in the summer. I had given my camera to a lady sitting in front of us, and she had snapped a good one. We were all smiling, no one blinked, and you could even see the mustard Janie had dripped on her shirt.
"Cute picture, Cara," Marlee said. We were sprawled on her bedroom floor, surrounded by papers, stickers, markers, and glue.
"Thanks," I said. "Will you help me write 'Go Cubs!' here, but turn the 'o' into a baseball and the exclamation mark into a bat?" Marlee was much more artistic than I was, and I loved her handwriting.
"Sure," Marlee said as she picked up a blue marker.
Just then we heard Marlee's mom call from the kitchen, "Pancakes, hot off the griddle!"
Mrs. Rosen didn't have to ask us twice. We left our scrapbooks and headed into the kitchen, where Marlee's mom served up pancakes shaped like Mickey Mouse heads.
Marlee rolled her eyes and cut the ears off her pancake right away. "She is so embarrassing," Marlee whispered.
I laughed and nodded. Mrs. Rosen's first name was Minnie, and she loved everything Disney. Now that we were eleven, it drove Marlee crazy, but I still thought it was funny.
The phone rang, and Mrs. Rosen picked it up while I smothered my pancake with maple syrup. I was about to pop a bite into my mouth when I heard her gasp.
Marlee and I looked up. Mrs. Rosen turned her back to us. "Oh no," she said into the phone. "Oh ... no ..."
The next batch of pancakes started smoking on the griddle. Marlee and I stared at each other. Max, Marlee's twelve-year-old brother, came into the kitchen, wrinkled his nose, and said, "What's burning?"
"Shh!" Marlee and I both said at once. We pointed with our eyes toward Mrs. Rosen, who turned off the electric griddle but left the pancakes smoldering while she continued her phone conversation. She kept saying "Yes," "I see," and "Oh no." Then she said, "I'm so sorry, David."
That was when my stomach dropped. David was my dad.
Mrs. Rosen hung up the phone and slowly scraped the pancakes into the sink. The room became silent. The smell of burnt pancakes filled the air. Ten loud seconds ticked by on the Alice in Wonderland kitchen clock.
Then Mrs. Rosen turned and walked toward me. She sat down and touched my hand. "Cara, honey, that was your dad. He's at the hospital."
"Is he okay?" I asked, my heart racing.
"He's fine," Mrs. Rosen said. She took a deep breath. "But early this morning there was a fire. At your house."
Mrs. Rosen nodded. "You need to go to the hospital. I'll take you there."
Suddenly I felt sick to my stomach. "What about my mom? And Janie? Are they okay?"
Mrs. Rosen pressed her lips together. "Your dad just wanted me to get you to the hospital, sweetie. I really don't know all the details, but we can be there in five minutes. Okay?"
"I'm coming, too," Marlee said.
"No," Mrs. Rosen said. "You'll stay here."
I dressed quickly and got into Mrs. Rosen's minivan, and we headed to Walden Hospital. Even in my winter coat, hat, and gloves, I couldn't stop shaking. Mrs. Rosen tapped her fingers on the steering wheel as we drove.
I pictured Janie, just eight years old, and my mom in hospital beds hooked up to tubes and machines. I concentrated on that picture. I imagined it floating up to God and poking him in his side. Take care of them, I thought.
I was used to picturing disasters. I did it a lot. Once, Mom and Dad went to a friend's wedding in San Diego, and Janie and I had to stay with Nana and Papa in Chicago. Even though we lived just a few suburbs away from them, they were not our favorite grandparents. I wondered what might happen if Mom and Dad didn't come back. Would we be stuck with Nana and Papa forever? All weekend long I imagined our parents' plane crashing or their hotel blowing up. When they finally got home safely, I felt so grateful. And, in a way, powerful. It was as if my worries had acted like little whispers in God's ear, nudging him into action.
It worked so well that I tried it again. And again. And again. Every time I worried, things turned out fine. I figured I was God's helper. I worried, and he swooped in to take care of everything. In the last couple of years I'd prevented hundreds of car crashes, kidnappings, and murders with my morbid imagination.
I had to admit, though, this time was different. This time the bad thing had already happened. I'd never thought to worry about a fire. So now I could only wonder if God had been there, helping. Please, God, tell me you helped my family this morning, I prayed.
But my gut told me Mom and Janie were not okay. Mrs. Rosen would have said so if they were. Or she would have turned on the radio, or made small talk, or something. Instead, she just kept glancing at me with a face full of concern, saying nothing at all.
I stared out the window at the morning light. The sun reflected off the freshly fallen snow, making it so bright it hurt my eyes. How different from the gray January days we'd been having. Maybe God was giving me a sign. Maybe everything would be okay. I took a deep breath and told myself to calm down. Everything would be fine. It had to be.
* * *
My legs wobbled as we rushed into the emergency waiting room and looked around. There were two firefighters talking to an old man who was slumped in a chair with his face in his hands. He lifted his head, and I stopped in my tracks. It was Dad. His hair looked gray instead of brown. His eyes were red and puffy. His whole face looked older, like Papa's.
"Dad," I said, running into his arms, "what happened?"
Dad held me close. He smelled like smoke. My stomach tightened. He didn't say anything for a minute. Then in a gravelly voice he mumbled into my hair, "There was a fire. A big fire."
I pulled away. "I know, I know. But where are Mom and Janie? Can I see them?"
The taller firefighter touched Dad's shoulder. "Mr. Segal," he said, "we can finish this later. Take your time with your daughter." He walked away with the other firefighter and Mrs. Rosen. Dad and I were left alone in the waiting room.
"Cara," he said softly, "I don't know how to ... I'm sorry, I ..." He sighed and looked at the floor.
I could barely breathe. "What?" I demanded. "Tell me."
Dad held both my hands and looked straight at me. "Mom and Janie didn't make it, Cara. They didn't make it out of the house."
My heart stopped.
I felt as if I were falling through the floor. I shook my head—no, no, no—and searched Dad's face for something that would make sense. "What do you mean?" I said. "What happened?"
He ran his hands through his hair. "They brought them here. They tried to save them. But they ... I'm sorry, Cara. It was too late."
"What do you mean?" I repeated, my voice growing stronger. "That can't be right!" The room started spinning, and I thought I was going to throw up. I pounded my fists against his chest. "Please, Daddy, tell me it's not true!"
I heard a buzzing in my ears, and then a high-pitched wail. A nurse came over and said, "Shh, honey, shh, it's all right," and then I realized I was the one making that sound. But I couldn't stop.
I felt Dad's arms around me. Mom and Janie couldn't really be dead, I thought. I just saw them yesterday. Where were you, God? Where were you when my house was burning?
* * *
Mrs. Rosen drove us the thirty minutes from the hospital to Nana and Papa's apartment in Chicago. When we walked in, my grandparents hugged me, but I didn't hug them back. I just stood there, staring at their orange shag carpeting, wondering how these old boring people could be alive if Mom and Janie were dead.
The apartment smelled like cooked broccoli, and Dad still smelled like smoke, and the two smells combined to make me nauseous. I went straight to the only comfortable place to sit—an oversized green chair that felt like velvet. Janie and I used to fight over that seat all the time. She'd yell, "I call the chair," as soon as we stepped through the front door. Then I'd say, "No calling," and beat her to the spot, sprawling out in it.
But now as I curled up in the chair, it seemed so big. Big enough to share.
I pretended there was a magic wall around me. I could see out, but nobody could see in. I became small. I became invisible.
Everyone whispered. They whispered about the fire, the hospital, and the funeral arrangements. No TV, no radio—just whispers interrupted by the telephone. Whenever it rang, I imagined Mom was calling to say she'd be over as soon as she picked up Janie from soccer or something. Marlee called, but I didn't want to talk to her. I didn't want to talk to anyone. I didn't want to think. I didn't want to breathe. I just wanted Mom and Janie.
That's how the first day passed.
* * *
The next day was Monday, a school day. I didn't go. I took my spot on the green chair first thing in the morning and picked at my nails. I realized I hadn't eaten since Saturday night or said a word to anyone since we left the hospital. Nana had made me drink some water, but it had tasted bad, like stale ice. A nagging question kept running through my head: How did Dad get out of the house without Mom and Janie? I wanted to ask him, but I couldn't. Dad seemed like a different person, like a faded photograph of himself.
I thought of all my photographs, all my scrapbooks, lost in the fire. I was left with only the one scrapbook and the box of supplies I'd taken to Marlee's.
Some friends of Nana and Papa's and a few people from our synagogue came by, including Rabbi Newlin. They brought casseroles and coffee cakes. Dad shook their hands and nodded politely from his seat next to the phone. I pretended to sleep behind my magic wall so they wouldn't talk to me. All the while I thought about Mom and Janie.
I saw Janie wearing her Cubs hat and throwing a ball in the air. I saw her playing soccer and running faster than any of the kids in her class, even faster than Justin Wittenberg, her best friend. I saw her sitting with Dad, watching sports on TV. I saw her leaning in the doorway of my room. Usually I'd tell her to get out, quit pestering me. But if I had nothing to do, I'd invite her in and she would look through my scrapbooks and laugh at my captions, and I'd feel cool.
I saw Mom in the kitchen, her curly brown hair pulled back in a ponytail like mine. I saw her cheeks smudged with flour or chocolate. A smile on her face. Baking. Always baking. Last year, after her cookies sold out faster than anything else at my school's Valentine's Day bake sale, she started her own business, Julia's Kitchen. She made gift baskets filled with her cookies and brownies. I helped whenever I could. She said I was her official egg-cracker and her unofficial spoon-licker.
They had to be alive. This had to be a mistake.
In the afternoon Dad and Papa went to the house to meet with the fire inspector and the man from the insurance agency. I wanted to go with them. I wanted to see our house with my own eyes. I even got up from my chair and silently put on my coat when I saw them getting ready to go. But Nana took the coat away and said, "No, David, she doesn't need to see."
And Dad believed her.
The funeral would be tomorrow. Everything was happening too fast.
"Eat," Nana said, coming over to offer me a turkey sandwich. "You'll feel better if you eat, Cara, darling."
I pushed her hand away.
Nana set the plate on the coffee table and sighed. Then she sat down next to me.
I wondered what she knew about the fire. She and Dad had stayed up late last night. Maybe Dad had talked to her. Maybe she'd be able to explain it to me. I'd have to break out from behind the magic wall to find out. I'd have to speak an actual sentence. In my head I practiced. Nana, may I ask you something? Nana, may I ask you something? Then I cleared my throat and tried out my voice. "Nana? May I ask you something?" I sounded surprisingly normal.
"Of course, darling."
I swallowed hard. "How did Dad get out of the house without Mom and Janie?"
Nana frowned and straightened her back. "What kind of a question is that?" she asked.
"I don't know," I said, feeling suddenly as if I had done something wrong. "I just can't imagine how it all happened. I mean, why is he alive and they're not?"
"What, you think he didn't try to save them?" Nana's bony face twisted in anger. "Believe me, he tried. It's a miracle you're not an orphan."
"That's not what I meant, Nana," I said, blinking back tears.
"Well, that's how it sounded."
"I'm sorry, I just ..." I didn't finish my sentence. I didn't know what to say. How could I expect Nana to understand? She never listened to me.
"Why don't you eat, Cara?" she said again, pushing the plate my way.
I decided to stay behind my magic wall forever.
* * *
Later, when Dad and Papa returned, Bubbe and Zayde, Mom's parents, who lived in Florida, arrived with them. Bubbe dropped her small suitcase in the foyer and headed straight for me. She wasn't wearing any makeup. Her face looked pale, her skin papery thin. And her hazel eyes, so much like Mom's, were somehow different now, heavy. She sat on the edge of the chair, took my hands in hers, and looked at me without saying a word.
Those familiar eyes, speckled with green, yellow, and brown, reached me right through my magic wall. I knew for sure then, knew it with my whole body, that Mom and Janie were really dead. I buried my face in Bubbe's neck.
"I know," she said between my sobs. "Let it out, love, let it out. I'm here."
Zayde put his arms around us both, and we cried and rocked together until our sweaters were soaked with tears.
I stayed glued to Bubbe and Zayde the rest of the day. Bubbe rubbed my back, and Zayde told me stories from when Mom was little: about the time Mom threw up all over the stage in the middle of her second-grade concert, and the time she ran away from home to protest being an only child. I'd heard all the stories before, but I listened as if they were new.
"I remember when your mom first brought your dad home to meet us," Zayde said. "Remember, David?"
We looked at Dad. He blinked and shook his head, as though trying to wake up from a bad dream. Then he stood and left the room. Just like that.
My heart thunked against my ribs. How could it beat when it was breaking in pieces?
Bubbe patted my hand and said quietly, "It's hardest for him, love. He was there."
But I thought it was hardest for me. Because I wasn't.
At six o'clock the Rosens came by with some clothes for me and dinner from Mario's—pasta and salad. Mrs. Rosen and Nana headed to the kitchen, and Mr. Rosen sat with Bubbe, Zayde, and Papa around Papa's card table. Dad was in the den, napping or hiding, I wasn't sure which. Marlee squeezed in with me on the green chair, and Max sat on the sofa next to us. Marlee put her arm around me. I could tell by her eyes that she'd been crying. And she had the hiccups. Marlee always got the hiccups when she cried.
She said, "I can't believe it, Cara. It's so weird." Then she hiccuped real loud. She slapped her hand over her mouth, embarrassed.
Max shook his head at her. "Jeez, Marlee. Hold your breath or something."
Marlee plugged her nose and puffed her cheeks out. Her face turned as red as her hair, and her freckles practically popped off her cheeks. Now she was hiccuping big, silent hiccups.
The next thing I knew, I was laughing. Marlee let the air out of her cheeks, and she started laughing, too, and everyone in the room looked at us as if we were crazy.
"I'm sorry," Marlee said, trying to control herself.
"It's okay," I said.
And it really was. Because it was bad enough that Mom and Janie were dead, my house was gone, and Dad had pretty much checked out. At least Marlee was still Marlee.
The Rosens stayed for dinner, and I actually managed to eat. I was relieved when Dad came out of the den and joined us at the table. But then the grownups started talking about work and insurance stuff. Nobody mentioned Mom or Janie or the fire, which seemed awfully strange to me.
Excerpted from Julia's Kitchen by Brenda A. Ferber. Copyright © 2006 Brenda A. Ferber. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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