________________ CM . . . . Volume XXIV Number 25 . . . . March 2, 2018


Lights, Camera, Cook! (Next Best Junior Chef).

Charise Mericle Harper. Illustrated by Aurélie Blard-Quintard.
New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (Distributed in Canada by Raincoast Books), 2017.
184 pp., hardcover, $17.99.
ISBN 978-0-54491269-1.

Subject Headings:
Grief-Juvenile fiction.
Cooking-Juvenile fiction.
Television-Production and direction-Juvenile fiction.
Friendship-Juvenile fiction.

Grades 4-8 / Ages 9-13.

Review by Mary Thomas.

*** /4



The Heat is On. (Next Best Junior Chef, Episode 2).

Charise Mericle Harper. Illustrated by Aurélie Blard-Quintard.
New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (Distributed in Canada by Raincoast Books), 2017.
184 pp., hardcover & e-book, $17.99 (hc.).
ISBN 978-0-54498028-0 (hc.), ISBN 978-1-32891642-6 (e-book).

Grades 4-8 / Ages 9-13.

Review by Mary Thomas.

*** /4

Reviewed from Advance Reading Copy.



The filming studio was a hive of activity. And then …





There was silence. Everyone waited.

"Welcome to
Next Best Junior Chef, where all the action is in the kitchen!" The announcer's voice filled the air with energy and excitement. "This week, four young chefs will battle it out in a series of challenges that will test their culinary skills, knowledge, and creativity. Thursday's challenge will send one chef home, and the three remaining contestants will be one step closer to the final elimination round. Pick your favourites now, because one of these talented chefs WILL BE the Next Best Junior Chef!

"Our four young chefs have survived countless interviews, taste tests, and chopping challenges. They can purée, sauté, broil, bake, and fry with skill beyond their years. They're the cream of the crop, and they can't wait to get cooking. So, let's meet our competitors."

The junior chefs were lined up and ready outside the big doorway of the filming studio. As soon as the announcer called their names, they'd come in, one at a time, for a grand entrance. Chef Nancy had prepared them, because once the cameras were rolling, everything had to be perfect. (From
Lights, Camera, Cook!.)

[The announcer continued], "The winner of
Next Best Junior Chef will receive two life changing prizes: a custom food truck and a guest spot on Adventures in Cooking when it begins filming this summer in Italy!"

Chef Gary stepped forward, his arms opened wide. "Welcome, young chefs! Are we all excited to be back?"


He rubbed his hands. "Are you ready for the surprises? The unexpected? The twists and turns?"

"Yes, Chef!"

"Hmmm." Chef Gary studied the contestants and stroked his chin. "Not so enthusiastic that time. Well, you're probably right to be worried. This is not going to be easy. It will be challenging and –"

"FUN!" interrupted Chef Aimee. "We're going to have fun. … I promise!" (From
The Heat is On.)

If you were to guess which the two most popular varieties of television programs were, you might well nominate cooking programs and week by week elimination contests. In Britain, where I am at the moment, that means something like The Great British Bake Off! In YA literature, it seems to mean this series of books of which I have the first two in hand.

      In the "Next Best Junior Chef" series, readers meet four kids, two boys and two girls, who have qualified for this cookery competition which purports to determine, of course, the next Best Junior Chef. Selected bits of the process are to be filmed for television. One of the competitors will be eliminated each week, until only the champion remains. Readers see behind the scenes, both the cooking and the interpersonal interactions among these people the competitors themselves, their mentor (Chef Nancy), the judges, and the television producer. These grown ups all have slightly different agendas for the series/competition. Chef Nancy wants everyone to get along and have a good time with as few hurt feelings as possible; the judges want to discover a superlative cook; and the TV man wants some drama. The children, naturally, just want to win. Not all these goals are mutually compatible, obviously, but, on the whole, the mentor wins out.

      Of course, being eliminated is no fun for the one eliminated and no fun for anyone else either actually, including the reader. The kids do all get to like each other, though some more than others, and the reader certainly enjoys all of them. There's Oliver, the King of Calm, who never gets flustered and has had lessons from all the best people. Then there's Tate, the youngest, whose knife skills are amazing at an age (nine!) when most mothers are saying to their offspring, "No dear. Not until you're older." Caroline, whose mother is a chef, has lived and breathed cooking all her life, and there's Rae whose Italian grandmother and neighbours of various other ethnicities have inspired the way she relates to food. Different people, different backgrounds, great cooks, and they should all win and all get prizes.

      With the set up as arranged here, in fact they all do do just that. There are mini challenges throughout the weeks also captured on film that allow all the young chefs to show off their strengths and earn prizes of their choice from a "gadget wall" covered with wonderful cooking tools. I was particularly impressed by the way some of the challenges were set up, creativity in concept leading to creativity in the kitchen. How can choosing the name for a cute little puppy tie in with inventing a new dish? (Spoiler alert: those inventive recipes were not for doggy treats!) Does all fast food sold at country fairs have to be deep fried just because it is served on a stick? No indeed! Oliver's "steak bites with a topping of blue cheese butter and a sprinkling of crushed walnuts" and Caroline's skewers of three crepe dumplings each with a different cheesy filling had never seen a deep fryer, but just the descriptions had me salivating all over the pages.

      The books do have their flaws. Character development doesn't really happen; the kids keep the traits they started with, with very little depth added. However the plots are great, the action swift, and the mistakes funny. And while the details of some of the dishes may be over the heads of some of the younger, or even older, readers, I can see some horizons being expanded by mentions of aioli, curry mint ice cream, and Korean Gochujang chili paste. It's a great series so far; I hope the third book finishes things off with a bang.


Mary Thomas is a librarian and a home cook in Winnnipeg, MB,, but she doesn't think her julienned turnip would be up to Tate's standards.

To comment on this title or this review, contact cm@umanitoba.ca.

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