What Can I Get You? July 29, 2012Posted by ccbooks in Book Reviews.
I’ve never had the desire to work in a restaurant, despite the fact that being a waitress is a time-honored cliche of working in theater. This is mostly due to my certainty that I would break lots of dishes or drop things on people. However, after reading several older and newer YA books about working in a restaurant, I find myself almost wanting to pull out an order pad and put on an apron.
YA author Sarah Dessen has talked often on her blog about working as a waitress at a Mexican cafe in North Carolina when she was a young adult. Her appreciation for the hard work of people in the food business comes out in many of her books.
Colie is staying with her aunt for the summer in Colby, a beach town that is the setting for multiple books by Dessen. Almost by accident, she is hired to work at the Last Chance Bar and Grill, where her two fellow waitresses, Morgan and Isabel, teach her about friendship and standing up for yourself. Colie describes working during a rush as “It was Us against Them, clearly, and for once I was part of Us. I didn’t really know what I was doing; I had to go on faith. So I just handed out my drinks and grabbed the phone when it screamed, wrapping the cord around my wrist and stabbing the pen Morgan had tossed me in my hair, the same way Isabel wore hers, and fought on.” Maybe one reason the restaurant setting works so well for YA is because that feeling of Us vs. Them is universal in adolescence. Colie is a sympathetic character because the reader knows her feelings of being left out and will cheer for her as she finds a place where she can be confident and proud.
Dessen’s latest book stars Mclean, whose father works as a consultant who advises failing restaurants. Luna Blu, an Italian place, is his latest project, and Mclean has to put up with all the employee drama as he tries to make changes and get the business back on its feet. Dessen uses the workers at the restaurant and their many mistakes to make the point that “…people add a flavor and personality…that cannot be quantified on a piece of paper.” Friends and family aren’t perfect, but the work that it takes to maintain connections with them is worth it, as Mclean learns over the course of the story.
If Mclean gets free food as a perk of being connected to a restaurant, Fern has to deal with the embarrassment of being featured in commercials for one. Her father is constantly dragging the family into schemes for bringing more customers to Harry’s, the burger and ice cream place that he runs. Fern and her siblings view the restaurant as more of a burden than anything else, as they are featured in a commercial, on an ice cream truck sign and possibly on ice cream tub labels. But when the absolute worst possible tragedy happens, it is the restaurant workers, as well as her family and friends who give Fern the strength to go on. With spot-on sibling dialogue and sensitively handled coming of age topics, this new book by Jo Knowles is perfect for middle-school readers transitioning into YA literature.
My favorite teen waitress has to be Hope Yancey, from Joan Bauer’s heartwarming novel Hope Was Here. As part of a story of small town friends, food and politics, Bauer delivers an impressive lesson in local campaigning and the power of community. Hope and her aunt Addie have moved from New York City to the small town of Mulhoney, Wisconsin, where they help run the Welcome Stairways diner while the owner, G.T. Stoop, fights simultaneously against cancer and a corrupt mayor. After years of moving around the country, from restaurant to restaurant, waitressing is what gives Hope confidence. She describes her love of food service with some great images, including this passage about opening in the morning. “There’s something about diner setup that soothes the soul. Something about making good coffee in a huge urn glistening in fluorescent light, something sweet about filling syrup pitchers and lining them on the back counter like soldiers ready to advance. It gives you courage to face another day.”
If you’re hungry for some strong teen characters who know how to stay true to themselves and serve good food, pick up one of these great reads.