Brenda Ferber's debut novel, Julia's Kitchen, isn't quite what I was expecting from the cover (which shows a girl taking a heart-shaped cookie out of the oven). But it is wonderful! Julia's Kitchen is about 11-year-old Cara Segal, and how she and her father cope with the sudden deaths of Cara's mother and younger sister in a house fire. Cara struggles to understand her own feelings, questions a God who could allow something like this to happen, and keeps secrets from her now distant and shell-shocked father. Eventually, however, Cara finds a way to adapt by honoring lessons that her mother taught her, and doing something that she loves and finds valuable.
It's been a long time since a book made me cry like this one did. But they're good tears, tears that come at the end, as Cara is making progress, and connecting with the people left in her life. The first part of the book, when Cara learns about the fire, is shocking, but handled in a gentle manner. Cara is so bewildered that her grief is blunted for the reader. After that the sadness is mingled with day to day activities, and eventually with fond memories, and is never too much for the reader to bear.
Julia's Kitchen won the 2007 Sydney Taylor Book Award, which recognizes the best in Jewish children's literature. Cara's Jewishness is an essential part of the story. The community from their local Synagogue supports Cara and her father in their tragedy. They follow the Jewish customs of mourning. Cara analyzes her feelings about God, in light of the events. She misses the food-related rituals that her mother celebrated, and eventually learns from her grandmother how to make challah. The details about Cara's family's Jewish customs are organic to the story, never over-explained or feeling "educational". The funeral details, in particular, give Cara, and the reader, something to focus on besides sadness. Here's an example:
"We weren't allowed to get any food for ourselves or help with the dishes or anything. Friends and relatives did it all. We didn't have to greet anyone or say thank you either. I liked those customs." (Page 24)
This is a book that truly touches the heart, in part because of the subject matter, and in part because Cara feels so real. Brenda Ferber has a knack for conveying the voice of an eleven-year-old girl, with straightforward language, and realistic concerns. There's a storyline in which Cara and her best friend, Marlee, have a fight, and that fight has just the right degree of emotional importance, relative to the larger events of the story. I like that Marlee doesn't treat Cara with kid gloves, and that Cara's dad isn't perfect. But the best part of the book, for me, is the way that Cara's joy bubbles forth, in spite of her grief, when she does what her mother loves, and feels her mother in her heart.
"All at once I felt my whole body tingle. I knew it seemed crazy, but I felt as if Mom were there with me in the kitchen. No, not just in the kitchen, but inside of me, helping me along." (Page 108)
Despite the pitch-perfect 11-year-old voice and well-rounded characters, I wouldn't recommend Julia's Kitchen for everyone. It is quite a tear-jerker, and younger kids might find it too difficult to read about the loss of a parent AND a sibling in a realistic setting (loss is easier to tolerate in a fantasy environment, I think). But for anyone who can handle a bit of sadness, and likes a good cry now and then, Julia's Kitchen is not to be missed. Pair it with Bridge to Terebithia, snuggle up on your couch, and keep some tissues ready. You won't be disappointed. This one is a keeper.
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication Date: March 2006
Source of Book: A review copy from the author
Awards: This book won the 2007 Sydney Taylor Book Award for Older Readers. The Sydney Taylor Book Award recognizes the best in Jewish children's literature.
Other Blog Reviews: Young Readers (also posted at Deliciously Clean Reads), Chasing Ray, A Readable Feast, Cynsations
Author Interviews: GregLSBlog, Prairie Wind
© 2009 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.