by Ellen Mulholland (@thisgirlclimbs)

Editor: Kaitlyn Johnson (@kaitylynne13)
Middle Grade Contemporary Fantasy


When twelve-year-old Magenta Wise’s parents announce they’re moving four hundred miles so her selective mute sister can attend a special school, her dreams of attending the Ramsey Duffles Junior Bakers Academy deflate like a soufflé. Her only beacon of hope comes in the form of a magical lemon tree growing in her new home’s backyard—complete with creepy blackbird guardians.

Upon finding the companion lemon tree recipe book, Magenta and her baking assistant sister eagerly experiment for the perfect recipe to win the Duffles Academy competition. But the book doesn’t make things easy. After turning a cat invisible, cursing her nemesis with lemon peel skin, and levitating a newfound friend, the book is stolen, threatening Magenta’s confidence in her own talent and her tenuous place in the academy.

With her sister at her side—proving not everyone needs a touch of magic to feel “good enough”—Magenta must learn that sometimes the most magical thing of all is believing in herself.

THE MAGICAL LEMON TREE RECIPE BOOK is a Middle Grade Contemporary Fantasy novel, complete at 56,170 words with series potential, and will appeal to fans of The Truth About Twinkie Pie and The Peculiar Incident on Shady Street.

First Five Pages

1. The scoop

Teetering on my Doc Martens, I survey the scant crowd for my parents. My sister tugs the edge of my black apron and points at the red tape on the cafeteria floor that tells all bake-off contestants where to stand.

“Thanks for being my wing girl, Cy.” I wipe the last fork on my yellow- and white-striped towel, set it tines down on the plate next to the other two, and step back.

If I can repeat last year and beat these four kids, I’m golden.

The seventh grader to my left baked a chocolate cake. Boring. Her top layer leans against a thick raspberry center. A sixth grade boy to my right licks his finger and wipes a smear of apple filling from the edge of his pie plate. Disgusting. Two eighth grade girls in matching green skirts with cherry appliqués sneer at me as they center their cherry tarts on the table. The crisscross pastry shines like nail polish.

Another sweep of the room for my parents, but if they’re here, they must be invisible. After school, I found a note saying they had an appointment and to look after my sister.

As I grip my stained recipe journal, Cy squeezes my arm and a stout judge whisks away my slices of pie. I’ve only lost one baking contest since I first started competing—thanks to some hotshot six-year-old whose meringue impressed the judges so much, they barely spared two seconds on my chocolate pudding pie. I was five with a stolen recipe from Betty Crocker.

The next day, I buried that second place trophy in my underwear drawer, asked Santa for a cookbook, and my baking changed forever. Cookbooks are magic.

I hold my breath and channel my inner Ramsey Duffles. Baker extraordinaire. I always cry at the end of his show, Junior Baker, Primed and Ready, because I hate seeing anyone lose.

With all three judges sequestered in the kitchen, noise in the room rises like bread. Fewer than thirty people scatter the West Middle cafeteria, including the five contestants.

Bake-offs are as popular as a math test.

I examine my pie minus the judges' slices. The lemon filling glistens, not too thick, not too thin, holding its form perfectly, and the meringue billows without a single bead damaging its surface. A soldier ready for inspection. "You know baking powder's my secret weapon for a light pastry."

Cy nods, her eyes fixed on the girl in the green skirt.

"That eighth grader is not winning. She baked a fruit pie. Fruit pies never win bake-offs." Even though, technically speaking, this is a fruit pie, but I shake my head, as much to convince Cy as myself. "Lemons are different. It isn't like you can see them in there. I mean, it's juice and zest, not gooey apple slices or globs of over-sweetened cherries."

My sister leans toward me and whispers, "Stop fussing, Magenta."

Three words. A world record for Cyan Wise. She isn't much of a talker in public; most selective mutes aren't.

I nudge the toe of my boot over the red line and turn the pie so the cut side faces out. "It's more impressive to the judges." I step back. "To see the inside and all its perfection. I mean, what's the point of blending those yolks to form a gelatinous wall of glory if no one sees it?"

Cy brushes back a flop of dark hair and smiles like she gets me, but she's just being a good sister. Like always.

I hug her with one arm. "I know you'd rather be home watching YouTube channels of how to beat the next level in Super Mario or whatever. Thanks for being here with me."

Another smile.

"But, seriously, have you ever seen a more stellar meringue? Not a single drop of yolk in the whites. That's the key. Even a speck of yolk stops the whites from. . ."

Cy's eyes widen.

"I'll stop. The judges should be out any minute." I shift my attention to holding my breath and channel my inner Ramsey Duffles. "You don't think my recipes are getting. . . boring?"

Cy shakes her head and licks her lips.

"Cuz there's only so many ways to whip a meringue or top a cupcake." Too bad tonight's prize isn't a recipe book. I hug my journal to my chest. Everything in this has been done.

My sister crosses her fingers. And her eyes. And her legs.

"Now you look like you need to go the bathroom." I nudge her and she giggles, then uncrosses everything. "Besides, I don't need luck or magic to win. I've got skillzzz."

The judges retreat from the kitchen, huddled together in private conversation, then stand in front of the tables with the other contestants.

After one more scan for my parents, I grab Cy's hand, and, despite what I just said, I pray to the baking gods I win. Cy leans in closer, sucks in a breath, and exhales.

"I want you to win." The words float across her thin lips like tiny swirls of caramel, steadily crawling inside my ear.

The round judge clears her throat and taps a fork against a clean plate. My nerves bounce inside me, so I close my eyes and count lemons like sheep.

The next minute, Cy hugs me so hard, I can't breathe. She only releases me when the judge walks toward me holding a shiny brass spatula.

"Congratulations, Miss Wise, two-time West LA Middle School Junior Baker. Next year, you might not have any competitors." The judge grins and hands me my award. "You're going to scare them all away."

I shake her hand while Cy grips my other arm, squeezing it in pulses of excitement. She doesn’t say a word in front of the judges. If she did, that’d take the cake.

Another glance past the small crowd moving toward the staging table of desserts, but still no Mom or Dad. Winning's great, but it'd be better if my parents were here.

We exit the cafeteria and step onto the sidewalk. "At least Mom has to sign my Duffles application now. There’s no way she won’t let me go to that baking camp now," I tell Cy.

The late afternoon sun melts onto the horizon like orange marmalade as families exit the parking lot. Two blackbirds circle overhead. One sports a bright yellow stripe on its tail feathers and two horn-like ones atop his head.

They dart straight up into the sky.

Dad waves us over to where he stands next to our hideous yellow Pacer that rises like a lemon from the ancient days of 1976. "Sorry we're late."

Cy hands him the golden spatula—okay, brass—and points to the tiny writing etched on its handle.

"Look here, our girl, two-time West LA Junior Baker." Dad hugs me, and my anger melts.

Mom leans over and plants a kiss on my cheek. "Magenta, that's amazing."

Before I can raise the whole Duffles thing, my parents usher us into the car and off to Emil's for a little celebrating.

"Store that shiny pancake flipper somewhere safe," Dad says as we buckle our seat belts. Safety First should be etched on his tombstone.

Our tinny car tools down the street, and David Bowie dances inside the door speakers. Dad won't trade our yellow Pacer, but he'll upgrade the stereo system. Ever since he and Mom discovered satellite radio, it's nonstop "oh, you'll love this; we danced to it at prom," or "girls, this is the song Mom and Dad first kissed to."

I lean toward Cy and whisper, "Think I should ask Mom about Duffles now?"

She shakes her head then turns and stares out the window as if the answers are painted on passing cars.

If I spend the summer in the hills at the baking academy, who's going to look after my silent ten-year-old sister? Dad says she'll talk when she wants to. That's what the "selective" part means. Until then, they expect me to look out for her. Be her voice. I'd tell them that's their job, but I'd rather not say anything that might keep them from signing my application.

When I discovered the Ramsey Duffles Junior Bakers Academy in the Hollywood Hills so close to home, it was like a gift. The summer session is perfect.

"Just wait, Cy, when I'm a world-famous baker, I'm going to bake a magical pie that gives you your voice back. Then I'll probably wish I hadn't, because you won't stop talking and everyone will shout, 'shut it, kid, stop yer yammering.'"

I say the last part like a gangster in a Bugs Bunny cartoon; it's one of Cy's favorites.

We pull into Emil's parking lot, and I calculate the myriad ways to persuade my parents that summer is for improving my baking skills and that Cy's old enough to watch herself. As for the tuition, I've got a few dollars saved. Maybe they'll chip in the rest.

Mom takes Cy to the front counter, so she can drool over the exquisitely decorated pastries and pies. The entire room smells like honey and melted butter.

"Let's take this table by the window." Dad pulls out a chair, and I sit.

Straightforward is best, Mom always says.

"So, Dad, you know how I've been wanting to get into the Duffles academy? And how it's close to home? And he only admits a select few?" I twirl the metal fork on the paper napkin until it strangles itself. I set it down and straighten the napkin. "So, I was thinking—"

"Listen, honey. I. . . we. . ." Dad straightens his neck like he needs to loosen his tie. But he isn't wearing one. "The reason Mom and I weren't at your baking show—"

"Bake-off," I interrupt.

"Bake-off. The reason is, well, we were with a realtor."

My heart skips a beat. "Realtor? You mean, a client?"

Dad's face is pale. "Um, no. Magenta, look, you want your sister to get help, right?"

I nod despite the fact that my sister says she doesn't need fixing.

"The therapist says kids like Cyan can open up. Sometimes after puberty." He clears his throat and glances at Cy and Mom, who ogle rows of petit fours and trays of sugar cookies.

But I'm trying to figure out why Dad's face is all twisted like he's just eaten an entire bag of Lemonheads.

"You see, we found a new school for her. It's year-round." He studies the trimmed ends of his fingernails and rubs imaginary dirt off his thumb.

"Year-round?" As in, she goes during the summer? I wish I had my application right now, so I could get his signature. "That means I can go."

He pushes back in his chair and drums his fingers on the edge of the table. "To the summer camp with that crazy chef?"

"Academy. And baker. Ramsey Duffles. But, yeah. If Cy's in school during the summer, that means I'm free. I can go." I'm ready to burst.

"Well, there's one thing about her new school." He scoots his chair back toward the table.

Please don't say it's a family program. We've tried that.

"It's not exactly in Los Angeles." He folds his hands.

"San Diego?" That'd be a nightmare because freeways are more clogged than a pastry tube.

"A little farther than that. And in the other direction."

"What, like. . ." I cock my head, visualizing a map of Southern California. "Ventura?"

Mom and Cy set down a plate of eclairs. Emil's specialty. But my mind's stewing over Dad's nervousness and Cy's new school.

My sister sits in the chair next to me, and I wonder if she knows.

Last summer, while we prepped a batch of snickerdoodles, she kept moving the smaller ones to the center. "Safer in the middle," she told me. I'd asked her if she didn't feel safe in the world and if that's why she won't talk much. She shrugged and shoved two cookies in her mouth.

Dad turns to Mom. "I'm telling Magenta about Cy's new school."

My sister's flat expression says all. She knows.

Mom slices an eclair in half. "Yes, well, it's great news, really. For the family." She sets a half each onto two plates. One for me, one for Cy.

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