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Book Report: Adolescent's recipes, school ma'am's memories fit the bill this week

Milkweed Editions of Minneapolis has figured out a way to kill two birds with one stone.

Milkweed is primarily known for adult fiction of high literary quality. Of course that doesn't always guarantee huge financial returns. But Milkweed is flexible and in this age of niche marketing, they've struck on cramming two niches into one book.

"The Crepe Maker's Bond" ($16.95 cloth), is by Julie Crabtree, who earlier won Milkweed's Prize for children's literature with a novel, "Discovering Pig Magic." Her new book is aimed at middle schoolers, adolescents. And it's also aimed at readers who like to cook, whether they be young or old.

This charming novel introduces us to Ariel, an eighth grader who also is the "head chef" in her family's kitchen. When she isn't whipping up cucumber salads, fettuccini carbonara and fish tacos, she's hanging out with her school pals, Nicki and M.

Now M has to move away from the San Francisco Bay area and Ariel comes up with a plan to keep her in the neighborhood. Why can't M come and live with Ariel's family for the year?

Good idea, I figured. I remember kids whose parents were transferred from my home town to some place where the kids didn't want to finish school. So they camped out in a pal's house.

Unfortunately in Ariel's case, proximity to M breeds contempt and the novel's thrust is to reveal how the situation works out.

And then, of course, there are recipes for the readers who don't give a hoot about adolescence and its problems. I was taken by both niches, but got a bang out of Crabtree's take on how an adolescent would write a cookbook: Like her recipe for "Crazy-Good Sausage Lasagna" or "Ryan's Peanut Butter Pie with Reese's Crumbles" or "Couscous Salad with Optimistic Olives and Fearless Feta" or "Ariel's Excellent Fried Egg Sandwich," which requires more than egg and bread. Try adding a slice of tomato and a slice of cheddar. I did and I loved it.

Crabtree includes tips on how to crush Ritz crackers: Put them in a Ziploc bag and "whack it with the bottom of a heavy pan until the crackers are pulverized. It can be quite therapeutic making your own crumbs this way," says Ariel.

Oh, and let's not forget Ariel's "The Crepes of Wrath." I believe I read Steinbeck's "Grapes of Wrath" when I was in eighth grade.

My wife's aunt Elsie Pirsig kept a fascinating diary of being a rural school teacher in Iowa and Minnesota during the Great Depression. She filled several tablets of her adventures.

One of my favorites came when she and her students were snowed in during one of the great blizzards. Elsie didn't risk letting them go out to the outhouse for fear they might not find their way back. So she fashioned an outhouse right in the one room school's cloak room.

Her next problem? Getting the girls to use it for fear the boys would hear them tinkle.

"There was no such problem with the boys," Aunt Elsie commented wryly.

I only wish a publisher would pick up on them as they picked up on "An Iowa School Ma'am: Letters of Elizabeth 'Bess' Corey, 1904-1908," edited by Philip L. Gerber and Charlotte Wright (University of Iowa Press, no price).

A few years ago, Gerber and Wright edited Corey's letters home when she trekked out to South Dakota in 1909 to homestead.

Now they've edited a "prequel," which reveals the feisty young lady setting out to teach in a rural school in 1904, preceded by an essay about the state of rural teaching at the turn of the century and how ill-prepared many of the instructors were.

Bess Corey had a problem with spelling, punctuation and grammar.

In one letter she writes to "Pa and Ma and the Rest" that she traveled through four or five feet of snow to get to Avoca for a talent contest.

"The speaking was alright, but there wasn't many pleased with the way the honors were given. Minnie Cissna won the gold medal everyone thought that was all right but everyone thought that Harry Hecter ought to have had the honors ahead of Glen Carey....There was one girl who sang a German song, or was to rather, she did sing at the preliminary contest and did fine but when she came on the stage Monday she seemed to be alright but at the end of the first verse she stopped in the middle of a word and her head fell forward on her breast and then she turned and walked off the stage and before she got out of sight she fell in a dead faint. I haven't heard from her since."

Dave would like to hear from you. Phone him at 715-426-9554.