Publishers Weekly® Reviews
- Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page .
- Review Date: 2011-08-29
- Reviewer: Staff
Delightfully quirky characters populate the 1950s-era small town of Ipswitch, Pa., beginning with 10-year-old Alice’s aunt Polly, pie baker extraordinaire, who confounds her family and neighbors by giving away—rather than selling—her shop’s mouthwatering pies. Astonishingly, her nonprofit business flourishes, lifting the town’s economy and fame, as Polly repeatedly wins the coveted Blueberry Award. Polly’s death leads to widespread grieving, as well as anxiety about Ipswitch’s future. Humor and mystery ensue when the town learns that Polly inexplicably bequeathed her secret piecrust recipe to her grouchy cat, Lardo, and Lardo to Alice. In response, adults indulge in behavior ranging from bizarre to criminal: the entire town begins baking pies, someone catnaps Lardo and ransacks Polly’s store, and Alice’s unpleasant and money-grubbing mother becomes even more so, feeling jilted by being left out of Polly’s will. Alice and her friend Charlie become amateur sleuths and prevail over adult immaturity, while Polly’s generous spirit resonates from beyond the grave. With pie recipes introducing each chapter, Weeks’s (As Simple as It Seems) novel stimulates both sweet tooths and sweet nostalgia. Ages 9–12. (Oct.)
A nostalgic slice of life
Much of the time, Sarah Weeks feels like she’s still in middle school. As the author of some 50 books for kids, that’s a very good—almost essential—thing.
“I remember what it feels like to make believe,” Weeks explains during a call to her home in Nyack, New York. It’s an attitude that has stood her in good stead over the last 20 years, during which she has written picture books and middle-grade novels, including the award-winner So B. It and her new novel, Pie.
To write for kids, Weeks says, “you have to have arrested development on some level. It probably makes me annoying to live with, because I’m basically a kid. I think of myself as being very deeply rooted in sixth grade.”
When it came to writing Pie, the author says it “was by far the most fun I’ve ever had writing a book.” It’s certainly fun to read: Pie combines stories of family, food and friendship with comical shenanigans and well-crafted characters—including a mysterious pastry thief and a cranky cat named Lardo.
Things start to get strange when Aunt Polly bequeaths her prized pie crust recipe to her cranky cat.
There are pie recipes, too. The first, apple pie, was provided by Weeks; for the rest, she “wrote to friends and family and teachers and schools I’d visited. . . . I got back recipes, stories and lots of pictures of pies.”
Pie has long been part of the author’s life: Growing up, she and her mother baked together, and Weeks bakes for her own family. But despite the pastry’s prominence in Pie, the author says, “It was not my intention to write a book about pie, but to write about gratitude. I have a huge amount to be grateful for.”
Alice, the young heroine of the book, learns gratitude from her beloved Aunt Polly, who shows her by example the joy of doing things for the experience, whether or not it results in plaudits or paydays. Polly is the Pie Queen of Ipswitch, Pennsylvania. People come from near and far to bring Polly fresh ingredients that she makes into delicious pies. This makes her visitors very happy—but leaves Alice’s mother feeling jealous. And when Polly dies in 1955, she leaves her Blueberry Award-winning pie crust recipe to her cat, Lardo . . . and she leaves Lardo to Alice.
That’s when things start to get strange. There’s a green Chevrolet rolling slowly through town, Alice’s mother insists on baking pies (even though she’s terrible at it), and it turns out Alice’s friend Charlie possesses strong amateur detective skills (which come in very handy).
Although Alice’s life gets chaotic after her aunt’s passing, the goings-on are set against a simpler backdrop: a small town in the 1950s. “I was born in 1955, and Pie takes place there,” Weeks says. “I wanted to set it in a time where there were no worries about cell phones, computers, Google.”
She also kept research to a minimum. “I’m very lazy about it,” she says with a laugh. “My dad was always reading the newspaper, and I watched ‘Sky King’ every day. I used references that were actually relevant, rather than searching to find things.”
In fact, this focus-on-the-actual approach is what got Weeks started as an author. For many years, she was a singer-songwriter. Then she met an editor who suggested she turn her songs into books: “It was a fairly direct translation, because many of my first picture books had a CD in the back with me singing. I segued to picture books without songs, and then chapter books.”
Weeks had two young sons when she started writing, and they weren’t big readers—a boon to her writing, too. “The way they fought and talked to each other was very funny. It was a goldmine—I could put embarrassing things in my books and they’d have no idea. They know now, though. Gabe got a girlfriend, and she started reading all my books.”
Although her own kids are on to her, Weeks’ abiding fascination with the younger set provides ample story fodder. “I’m interested in what makes them tick. I like the weird kids, the ones that do something unusual.”
Perhaps that explains her fondness for the final recipe in Pie: Peanut Butter Raspberry Cream Pie. “It’s the one I feel most grateful for, from a teacher whose school I visited in Illinois. Her grandma was a little senile and mixed up two recipes. We now call it PBJ.”
If events thus far are any indication, Weeks will get to taste plenty more pie—unusual or otherwise—as the word spreads about Pie. Her publisher, Scholastic, hosted a “Pie Palooza,” she’s scheduled to judge a pie contest in Connecticut and she will visit “everywhere there’s pie.”
Here’s hoping the crusts are flaky and delicious, just like the ones on Aunt Polly’s award winners.