MG Must Read – “All Four Stars” By Tara Dairman

From world-traveler and adventurous eater Tara Dairman comes the delightful tale of Gladys Gatsby who is growing up gourmet in a fast food world.

Think of your favorite stories as a kid – the ones that made you smile, the ones that made you feel at home, the ones that made you think, “Oh, that’s me!” Maybe they were Roald Dahl tales; maybe Beverly Cleary holds that honor; maybe it was E.L. Konigsburg who knew the inner you.

This is that kind of story.

First, there’s plucky, identifiable, just-the-right-amount-of-different, “Oh, that’s me!” Gladys Gatsby. While I never set my kitchen on fire the way Gladys does in the very first chapter, my obsessions at her age were squarely my own, and everyone, I think, will find something in common with her joyful, unstoppable passion.

Her parents are delightfully useless. They aren’t quite as horrible as, say, the parents in “Matilda” but there are definite echoes. Inept, tin eared, and willfully ignorant of their daughter’s inner life, they are perfect suburban drones. Hungry? Let’s get some greasy fried stuff. Never mind that it’s killing us.

In fact, the novel is full of richly drawn, multi-cultural minor characters, each with his or her own unique voice and inner life. In a single phone conversation, Gladys’ Aunt Lydia reveals her free spirit and her love for her niece; she is a full realized character even though she can’t be with Gladys in person. This is truly great writing. (Fingers crossed, by the way, for more of Aunt Lydia in the sequel!)

From the awful kitchen blunder that introduces us to Gladys, to the misunderstanding that makes her dream of writing restaurant reviews for The New York Standard a possibility, to the mishaps that dog her steps as she undertakes her first assignment – a trip into Manhattan to review the desserts at Classy Cakes – the plot moves at just the right pace and with a generous amount of good natured humor.

Tara’s descriptions are so vivid, you feel like you are right there with Gladys. On page 225, she describes a limousine that pulls up in front of Gladys’ house: “[Gladys] had seen limos on TV and in movies and was expecting it to be black or white, but to her surprise it was eggplant purple with green trim, as if Barney the Dinosaur had swallowed a stretched-out Cadillac.” Wow!

Writing about food is hard. How do you describe the taste, smell, and texture of a food to someone who has never had that experience? Tara nails it. Here’s one of my favorite examples, from page 220: “As Charissa chewed her first bite, her face went through many expressions. She puckered up at the tang of the rhubarb, but then smiled at the sweetness of the berries; her eyes lit up at a hint of cinnamon, then closed dreamily as the nutty topping crunched between her teeth.” Mmmmm. Can I have some?

It’s tempting to give this book “All Four Stars,” but Goodreads’ top rating is 5 stars, and I prefer a more nuanced scale of 10. So, Gladys Gatsby, on Goodreads I’m giving you 5 stars, and here I’m giving you 10, and I’m going to recommend you to every middle grade reader I run into from now on.

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