Death by Eggplant
By Susan Heyboer O'Keefe
(Roaring Brook Press, Hardcover, 9781596430112, 144pp.)
Publication Date: August 12, 2004
List Price: $15.95*
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"It was last-period math, with summer vacation close enough to touch. My daydream was just getting to the part where the cute cooking groupies show me around Stockholm after the Nobel Prize awards dinner. Then Mrs. Menendez 's voice went up a notch, and the groupies vanished. Algebra could scare anyone away."
All Bertie wants to do is become a Certified Master Chef, host his own prime-time cooking show, own a four-star restaurant, and write a best-selling cookbook. But first, he has to pass eighth grade!
Bertie Hooks has to keep his dream of becoming a world-class chef - how nerdy is that? - a secret, especially from Nick Dekker, his mortal enemy. You'll laugh, you'll cry, you'll beg for cupcakes, as this hilarious journey to self-confidence takes a few detours along the way.
Susan Heyboer O'Keefe is the author of more than a dozen books for children, including the best-selling counting book One Hungry Monster and the upcoming More Hungry Monsters. She lives in Edgewater, NJ.
Publishers Weekly The narrator of O'Keefe's (My Life and Death by Alexandra Canarsie) appealingly outlandish novel is an aspiring young chef who prepares extravagant meals for his workaholic actuary father and his eccentric mother (she teaches a class on "Uncovering the Real You" and attends one on "Exploring Past Lives"). Yet Bertie hides his passion for cooking from his classmates, especially Nick (his "mortal enem[y]... ever since kindergarten"). Bertie's devotion to his culinary pursuits leaves little time for schoolwork, and his slipping grades prompt his teacher to give him a chance to earn extra credit. His project: to care for a bag of flour, a "brand-new baby girl," which he must return in 10 days in perfect condition. The stew thickens when the teacher, fed up with Nick's antics, gives him a flour baby as well--a punishment Nick blames on Bertie. Meanwhile, Bertie's mother, who is in her "Egyptian craze," names his ward Cleopatra and decides that she is the flour baby's mother. The plot's comical twists border on the slapstick: when Bertie receives an envelope from the CIA (Culinary Institute of America), his mother believes he plans to run away to be a spy; and when Nick purloins Cleopatra, Bertie takes Nick's good-natured mother as a willing hostage in order to secure his flour baby's return. A soupon of silliness and hefty helpings of genuine humor will whet the appetites of young readers who crave light yet satisfying fare. Ages 8-12. School Library Journal Grade 5-8–Bertie Hooks's mother is obsessed with her past lives and wants her son to be a dream analyst. His father is possessed by percentages and wants him to be an insurance actuary. Bertie just wants to cook. He dreams about attending the Culinary Institute of America and becoming a famous chef. First, however, he must pass the eighth grade and it's not looking good. His teacher has given him an extra-credit assignment: caring for a flour-sack baby for 10 days. His mother dubs it Cleopatra in honor of her past Egyptian identity. Worse, his mortal enemy, Nick Dekker, is determined to undermine the project. Bertie's infatuation with Indra, his rival's sometimes girlfriend, also complicates matters. His mother's over-the-top adoption of Cleo as her own daughter soon has Bertie talking to the flour sack himself, and finding that Cleo is the only one who actually listens to him. When Nick kidnaps "her," Bertie rouses his parents from their self-absorption and enlists their assistance in taking a hostage of his own–Nick's mother. This novel cooks along at a rolling boil. Although the secondary characters are a little under baked, Bertie's turmoil as he works through issues of self-esteem and identity are well done. O'Keefe keeps the comic tension simmering through slightly improbable yet entertaining plot twists and tosses in lots of great food info in the process. Serve this one up to readers looking for a laugh.–