This series has just the right mix of ingredients for tween readers: a thoughtful, considerate protagonist, distinct characters, each with their own flavor, fun times, steady pacing, and a pinch of secrets. Serious matters are treated with compassion and truth: After her parents divorce, Hayley, her younger sister, Chloe, and her mom move in with her grandmother. Money is tight, and Hayley's mom goes on the hunt for a new job. Meanwhile, Hayley's dad has a new girlfriend, Annie, who is ten years younger than him, and Hayley's not comfortable around her at first. There are both serious and fun things going on at school, too, when they try to ban bake sales and cupcakes, when they decide to change their school mascot, when crushes are crushing.
Bakers and foodies will definitely want to take a bite out of these books. Hayley makes traditional favorites as well as special treats, and recipes are sprinkled throughout the books. In an effort to create unique and memorable cupcakes, Hayley also experiments with different ingredients, even those traditionally included in breakfast meals. She is happy to try out new recipes for people with different tastes and food sensitivities. In book #1, Save the Cupcake!, she whips up gluten-free chocolate cupcakes for a classmate.
With Hayley, Lisa Papademetriou has created a protagonist that's likeable, kind, and realistic. Hayley is mature to a degree, and she's very observant of those around her, but she is sometimes reluctant to made bold moves, especially if she thinks it will shake things up even more. Hayley tells her story in first person narrative. She occasionally offers "Confessions" between chapters, quick considerations or flashbacks that reveal the truth behind what she's doing or what she's done, things that have happened with or to her family or her friends.
The book's supporting characters come in all shapes and sizes, with diverse backgrounds, interests, accents, and abilities. Hayley's proper British grandmother is courted by Mr. Malik, who is from Pakistan. One of Hayley's best friends, Marco, is fiercely protective of his older sister, Sarah, who is autistic. Hayley's classmate, Kyle, is visually impaired; he can see a little - "large shapes, some colors" - and he recognizes voices instantly. (There's a wonderful moment in the second book when he's playing piano with Hayley, and he says he can hear Hayley's sadness in her fingertips.) Hayley's little sister, Chloe, befriends Rupert, a quiet boy with glasses. Annie, Hayley's father's girlfriend, moved to America from Thailand when she was younger.
Now I see that those friends were just like...like old shoes. Even if you still want to wear them, they don't fit anymore. - Page 207, Save the Cupcake!
Many books, shows, and movies have characters that seem to travel in packs, while in real life, a lot of people have friends in different places that they hang out with at different times and consult for different things. I really liked the way Papademetriou develops and details friendships. Over the course of the series, Hayley grows apart from some of her old friends and closer to others, and the one-on-one scenes are great. Hayley has history with her long-time friends Artie and Marco; she knows their families, their strengths and their weaknesses, and they know hers. Scenes with Artie can be painfully true as they drift apart. Quiet moments with Marco say so much, such a contrast to when other people make his temper flare. Hayley's new friend, Meghan, apparently went into my closet without asking:
I'm really liking Meghan's look. She's wearing a black dress and pink-and-black striped tights with chunky Mary Janes. - Page 136 of Save the Cupcake!
Other reasons I like Meghan:
And I'm suddenly glad that Megan is a little bossy, because she takes my arm and guides me through the front door, which is just what I needed, but I didn't know it. - Page 137, Save the Cupcake!
"You just have a lot of ideas and a lot of energy." - Page 124, Taking the Cake!
"Look at all the stars. [...] Isn't it amazing to think about how old they are? [...] It takes the light millions of years to reach us. Some of these stars haven't existed for centuries, but we can still see them." (Meghan)
"Like ghosts." (Hayley)
"Only their light is real. Real for us."
"But that's what a ghost is, right? Something that's still real for whoever's seeing it. Even if it doesn't exist anymore."
She turns to me. "You're deep, Hayley."
"I'm not trying to be." - Pages 137-138, Save the Cupcake!
“What makes these fish Swedish? How can I tell if they’re truly from Sweden? Like, what if these fish are being misrepresented as Swedish, and they’re actually Norwegian? Do they have little fish passports?” - Page 44, Something New
Papademetriou doesn't shy away from telling it like it is. Hayley is old enough and astute enough to figure out why her parents divorced, and she's even more aware of them as people now, not just her parents but people who might not always make the "best" decisions. What's right is not always easy. The topic of bullying is also addressed, as Chloe switched elementary schools because she was getting teased by three girls who used to be her best friends:
But one of them turned on her, and then the other two did, too. And it was awful. Chloe was too sad and too shy to try to make friends with anyone else. Those mean girls teased her for her clothes, her freckles - even the fact that our parents were getting divorced. Chloe started to shrivel up under their words, like a plant that isn't getting any water or light. - bold emphasis mine, Page 59, Save the Cupcake!
Lunchtime scenes in the school cafeteria are especially good examples of Papademetriou's grasp of middle school life, capturing both carefree and painful moments. The opening scene of the second book, Taking the Cake!, is simply great.
I very much appreciate the fact that, throughout the series, Hayley is aware that money has been tight since the divorce – that her mom is working hard to make ends meet, and that her father makes more money than her mother does. Unfortunately, her father often forgets to pay his share of the bills - for the dentist, necessary school supplies, and so forth - which makes Hayley uncomfortable. Contemporary books for kids don’t always address the topic of money (let alone different streams of income) unless it is the main plotline, but kids are typically aware of their parents’ economic status, even if it’s just a general “we have lots of money/very little money/we’re okay/we get by” notion. Every single day, there are kids who have no problem asking their parents for lunch money or pocket change, while others hold their tongue, knowing every penny counts in their household.
Hayley works hard at school and at home. In the fourth book, Something New, she is advanced in her Spanish course. She knows the price of a new, higher-level Spanish textbook is too high for her mom to afford, while her father would gladly, easily pay for her tuition at a pricey private school, a place which does not interest Hayley in the least. Hayley considers what money can and can't do for you:
Here’s the thing about money: People always say it can’t buy happiness. But I’m not sure that’s exactly true. I don’t think that being rich guarantees that you’ll have a perfect life, or that being poor will make you miserable. But I do know that not having money means you have to miss out on things sometimes. And not all of these things are shallow. Sometimes, they’re important things. But you have to miss out, anyway. – Pages 22-23, Something New
When preparing for her upcoming nuptials, Gran continues to be sensible, eschewing extravagant wedding plans in favor of something simple:
“That’s the sort of thing people say when they have a great deal of money, and very little sense. I happen to have a great deal of sense and little money. And I don’t see why I should spend heaps of money, time, and energy on something I don’t want.” – Page 159 of Something New
For all these reasons and more, I encourage you to sample the Confectionately Yours series by Lisa Papademetriou. I have included this sweet series on my list of Middle School Must-Haves as well as my Cooking Up a Storm booklist. I hope you'll give it a try, and that it suits your tastes!
Fun fact: The recipes were created by the author's sister, Zoë Papademetriou!
The books also have mouth-watering covers. If you have a sweet tooth, you'll probably wish that Michael Frost's photo covers were as edible as the wallpaper in Willy Wonka's factory. Yum.
Confectionately Yours series by Lisa Papademetriou
- #1: Save the Cupcake!
- #2: Taking the Cake!
- #3: Sugar and Spice
- #4: Something New
Read my interview with Lisa Papademetriou.