TOP TEN BOOKS ABOUT KIDS WHO COOK (AND BAKE) BY SALLY ENGELFRIED
When I host elementary school class visits at my library, one of the most frequent questions I hear in the nonfiction section is “Where are the cookbooks?” The popularity of competition cooking shows like MasterChef Junior or The Great British Baking Show may help fuel this interest, but whatever the reason, it’s a great idea to encourage it. As the books in this list show, learning their way around a kitchen not only teaches kids practical math skills and health awareness, it can also build confidence and self-sufficiency and inspire creativity and cultural respect.
This list features fiction and graphic novel stories about children cooking and baking to process grief, make friends, win contests, and find their place in their family or the world. This is a diverse list of books that includes kids who are immigrants, kids from blended families, and kids who are bicultural, among others. Some stories involve the hard work of perfecting a recipe the old-fashioned way, while others use magic or science fiction to add spice to the narrative. All of these books are great examples of the deep reach of cooking and how it can be used as a positive force in young people’s lives.
Pie in the Sky by Remy Lai
In this graphic novel/text hybrid, Jingwen moves to a new country after his father dies. Jingwen hates school, especially because he doesn’t speak English—and it doesn’t help that his pesty little brother is learning the language much faster than he is. Jingwen decides to bake each of his father’s favorite cakes and reluctantly allows his brother to help. Their baking sessions bring them closer to each other and ultimately help Jingwen process his grief and sense of isolation, all with humor and compassion.
Measuring Up by Lily LaMotte and Ann Xu
In this graphic novel, Cici relocates from Taiwan to Seattle and struggles with feeling lonely. She especially misses cooking with A-má, her grandma back home, so she enters a cooking contest in hopes of winning the prize money that will allow A-má to visit. New friends at school help her feel less alone, and working hard at the contest increases her confidence. Readers will root for Cici all the way.
All You Knead Is Love by Tanya Guerrero
When Alba is sent to Spain to live with her Filipino-Spanish grandmother, she feels abandoned by her mother, but baking bread with her mother’s former best friend comforts Alba and helps her begin to navigate the road toward forgiveness. Despite the difficult topics of domestic and emotional abuse included, this is a reassuring book that focuses on self-acceptance. (The audiobook version of this book, read by Becca Q. Co is especially wonderful!)
From the Desk of Zoe Washington by Janae Marks
Zoe is excited to begin her internship at a local bakery in hopes that she can prove to her parents she is responsible enough to compete on the Food Network’s Kids Bake Challenge. When she receives a letter from her incarcerated biological dad, however, her focus changes to uncovering the truth about his past—even if it might mean giving up her baking dream.
A Dash of Trouble by Anna Meriano; illustrations by Mirelle Ortega
In this first entry in the Love, Sugar, Magic trilogy, Leo (short for Leonora) is tired of being told she is too young to bake for Amor y Azúcar Panadería, her family’s bakery. When she discovers her five older sisters and mother are actually brujas (witches), she sneaks a spell book and starts conjuring her own magical recipes, with extremely mixed results! Spanish expressions (and spells, of course) are sprinkled throughout this warm, funny family story.
Chef Yasmina and the Potato Panic by Wauter Mannaert
In this fanciful graphic novel translated from Dutch, vegetable-loving cook Yasmina discovers an evil corporation is destroying local community gardens and planting strangely addictive potatoes that make people act like dogs. Yasmina unites her gardening friends to help her solve the mystery of the crime.
Summer of a Thousand Pies by Margaret Dilloway
Child Welfare sends Cady to live with Aunt Shell because her alcoholic father can’t take care of her. Cady takes to her aunt and her new home quickly, enjoying a new sense of belonging and finding family she can depend on. When she learns her aunt’s pie shop is failing, she resolves to save it, which in turn helps her process her mixed emotions toward her father.
A Dash of Dragon by Heidi Lang and Kati Bartkowski
In this first book in an unusual fantasy trilogy, Lailu is a talented chef who specializes in both the hunting and cooking of fantastical beasts such as krakens. A fighter for food justice who believes it’s the right of all to eat well, Lailu helps her boss stand up to the Elven mafia (yes, that’s a mafia made up of elves) in order to keep their restaurant afloat.
Midsummer’s Mayhem by Rajani LaRocca
Creative baker Mimi hopes winning a baking contest run by a famous chef will turn her talented big family’s attention on her for once, but she must reckon with a string of strange happenings that are reminiscent of the play her brother is currently acting in, A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The backmatter has a baking glossary and includes some of the Indian foods that Mimi loves.
Lights, Camera, Cook! By Carise Mericle Harper; illustrations by Aurélie Blard-Quintard
The first in the three-part Next Best Junior Chef trilogy, this illustrated novel follows Rae, Tate, Caroline, and Oliver as they compete in a televised cooking contest. Just as in a genuine reality show, contestants share their thoughts about each other and the contest with the audience (readers). Also as in a reality show, one person is eliminated from the contest in each book. Though of course each kid wants to win the contest, the focus is on friendship and having fun while cooking.
Sally Engelfried (@SalllyE) is a children’s librarian at Oakland Public Library, where she also works as the school librarian for two elementary schools. Her debut middle grade novel, Learning to Fall, will be out with Little, Brown in Fall 2022.