Poor Gladys. She had no idea what she was in for when she became friends with rich, popular Charissa Bentley.
For her twelfth birthday, not only does Gladys get a super dinner out in New York City — naturally, at the place her restaurant critic alter-ego “G. Gatsby” has been tasked with reviewing — but she gets the “funnest” gift ever: free admission for the summer at Charissa’s family’s day camp, Camp Bentley. A whole summer of swimming, and crafts, and sports… Gladys can’t imagine anything worse. But Charissa has another surprise in store: as a CIT (counselor in training), Gladys will spend her mornings working, and with Gladys’ talents as a cook, where else should she be assigned but the camp’s kitchen?
Mrs. Spinelli rules the camp kitchen like a nasty school lunch lady out of every kid’s nightmare. “Salty meat on white bread and nothing too fancy, that’s what the kids go for,” she says (p. 71). In Mrs. Spinelli’s kitchen, the apples are all mushy Red Delicious, the lettuce is wilted Iceberg, and the cheese is only American. Gladys despairs.
To make matters worse, Camp Bentley has a celebrity guest that summer: teen superstar Hamilton Herbertson, whose recent best-selling novel Zombieland USA has given him a rather enlarged ego.
As a writer working towards getting published, I personally hate Hamilton Herbertson more than anyone should ever hate a character in a children’s book.
This kid… ugh. I can’t even.
Adding complications to complexity, Gladys is assigned a Herculean — perhaps impossible — restaurant review assignment: she has to find the best hot dog in New York, a city known for its umbrella’d hot dog carts on every corner.
I won’t spoil any of the many delights there are to be found as the book unfolds with Gladys adjusting to life at summer camp, creatively fulfilling the challenge of her hot dog assignment (did you know just how many different ways there are to make and top a hot dog?) and dealing with both jealous coworkers and the pangs of twelve year old friendships.
Even more than the first Gladys novel “All Four Stars,” “The Stars of Summer” is about relationships and how complicated they can be. How you can love your friends but feel uncomfortable with how they behave. How your parents can be a frustrating and comforting at the very same time. How you can like someone but not “like” like him. Or maybe you do but you can’t admit it because of how your friends might react. Gladys takes very real, very believable steps into these deeper waters of middle school emotion without losing a scrap of her smart, funny self.
One of the great things about these books is that the author imbues them with a touch of humor for the adults who may be reading along or reading aloud with younger readers. Rory Graham, the brash host of “Purgatory Pantry,” resembles a female Gordon Ramsey of “Hell’s Kitchen” with long green-polished nails. At a critical juncture in the book, her guest chef on the show is Christoph von Schnitz, the Sausage King of Dusseldorf. The tagline of his trendy new hot dog restaurant? “The Best Wurst in New York!” (Full disclosure: I almost snorted breakfast cereal out of my nose when I read that). Not that kids won’t get it — some of them will — but it adds to the pleasure in a book when there are layers of meaning. (The saga of Hamilton’s writing career, and his big ego, are definitely meaningful to anyone who has ever struggled and striven to get a book published. Thank you, Tara.)
Another thing I love about these books, and about Gladys, is how masterfully the author avoids the pitfalls of writing a “strong female character.” Too many authors have decided that in order to be “strong,” a female character has to be, well, a boy. She has to be tough, unemotional, and rigid, and of course, she has to wield some kind of weapon. For too long, strength has been defined in children’s literature as masculinity. No. Women have their own strength, and Gladys has that in spades. She knows her own mind. She comes to grips with her fears and faces them. She relies on her friends and finds commonality with those who seem to be completely unlike herself. She won’t let anyone or anything stop her from getting what she wants. That’s a strong female character. That’s a role model for our girls.
Plus, this book made me laugh out loud, and it made me cry a little. Can’t beat that.