The Cookie Crumbles

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    Book Trailer

    Press Release: Award-winning authors team up on middle-grade mystery (includes information about the book, author bios, and a Q&A with Alechia and Tracy)

    Activity: The Cookie Crumbles Crossword Puzzle and Answer Key

    More about Alechia and Tracy



    Generally speaking, cookies don’t kill people.

    Cookies save people. Cookies are the reason some people get out of bed in the morning. You’ve got chocolate cookies, vanilla cookies, breakfast cookies, macarons, alfajores, whoopie pies, and all kinds in between. I mean, you can basically have an entire conversation with someone just by exchanging cookies.

    Side note: I wish I could eat a cookie right now. My nerves need one.

    Anyway, as you can tell, and as Stevie Wonder once said—which I’m paraphrasing—I was made to love cookies. I was made to make them. Sell them. Become a cookie tycoon, CEO of Cookie Corp. My future will be full of cookies.

    So it was a terrible surprise when some people claimed that one of my cookies nearly killed someone.

    Like, huge surprise.

    I know it wasn’t my fault (not everyone is convinced), but my best friend, Lucy—journalist extraordinaire in training—wants to write a story about the competition anyway. When she shoved a pen at me earlier and said that writing this all down would give us a timeline for the entire first day, I said yes, though it made me nervous. Lucy may think that we have to solve this before someone tries to dish out another service of death or . . . I get arrested, but if there’s one thing I know, it’s best to let sleeping dogs lie. Or is it lay? Doesn’t matter, you know what I mean.

    Lucy’s pretty smart. So she knows how bad this could be for me if they investigate. I trust she’s doing all this for the right reasons, which is why I’m here bent over a notebook, detailing our first and worst day at the Golden Cookie Competition.

    Gulp, my mouth’s as dry as a low-fat shortbread.

    Right. Let’s go all the way back to before we arrived at Sunderland Academy. That’s the best place to start. No attempted murder (yet), only excitement.

    And this time I’ll try not to mention cookies so much.


    IT WAS EARLY on a summery Friday morning, and I was at home, draped over my bed, thinking about life and the upcoming competition that weekend. I’d already entered and placed first in the qualification round for our town; now I just needed to compete for the chance of a lifetime. The chance to do great, big things.

    The chance to win not only the coveted Golden Cookie award, but a free ride to Sunderland Academy next year.

    One of the best, and therefore most expensive, boarding high schools in the country that, bonus, had one of the best precollege journalism programs. Lucy had already gotten accepted a few months ago, though her parents hadn’t quite figured out how to afford it yet—which was why she was coming along to the competition.

    More on that later.

    Anyway, Lucy and I wouldn’t be going to high school for another year. Thanks to weirdly drawn school district lines, this would be our last year at the same school—possibly in the same town too—if we didn’t figure out how to go to Sunderland together. And that’d be a disaster.

    If I got into Sunderland, we’d share a dorm, catch the bus home on the weekends, and continue along with the great-ness that is our friendship.

    We needed to go to school together. Outside of Mom, Lucy was all I had.

    Lucy lived on the other side of town. She had a nice house and a nice dog—unlike my cat, Catsby, who bit me every time I came too close to her fluffy tummy. Lucy had it all. Good grades, oodles of friends, shiny black hair that still looked beautiful after a sudden, terrible gust of wind, and a wardrobe of well-fitting clothes. But she wanted more, and she was far too ambitious for her own good.

    She wanted to be the next Barbara Walters or, better yet, Ariella Wilborn. I’d never heard anyone talk about a journalist the way Lucy talked about Ariella Wilborn, like she’s Captain Marvel.

    While Lucy had ambition, talent, and smarts, I had cookies. Everybody’s got their thing, the special talent they’ll use for the rest of their lives, right? Well, food? That was my thing.

    Not only cookies. In my spare time on the weekends, I’d (illegally) staged at restaurants around town. I’d learned how to make a mean spicy salmon roll with red pepper aioli, fry chicken according to an old Black woman’s great-grand-mother’s recipe (the trick was marinating it in milk), and construct a mouthwatering burger using the right ratios of different types of ground beef. I’d assisted in dinner rushes, meal prep, and once, when Mom was working, I snuck out at five a.m. to help the local baker with his daily bread bake.

    Food was so totally my thing.

    And that was another reason I had to go to Sunderland: its superstar culinary program would boost my special talents so I’d get to bake, expertly and happily, for the rest of my life.

    “Laila, you packed? You need anything?” Mom walked into my room, the braids on her hair disheveled and flapping all over the place. She was in her nursing scrubs, and there were dark circles under her eyes, though she hadn’t yet left for work at the hospital on the other side of our small sub-urb, Fable Creek.

    I had just been thinking I could’ve used a new pair of shoes to replace my tight-around-the-toes ones, but they weren’t a priority. “Nope, got everything I need.”

    She’d been single momming me since Dad passed away from cancer when I was seven. We lost our house because of the medical and funeral bills, and then we got evicted from our last apartment. Mom was a guilty wreck about it. She thought it was all her fault everything fell apart. It was my job to let her know it wasn’t, that we could still achieve big things even if we had to start from a lower ledge than everyone else. Me winning the Golden Cookie would be good for her too.

    And until then, I could stretch my time with these small shoes a little longer.

    “How are you feeling about the competition?” She sat down on the edge of my bed and brushed a few frizzy curls behind my ear. I looked up into her hazel eyes. My eyes were all Dad’s: dark brown to match our dark brown skin and dark brown hair; I was a walking chocolate bar. While Mom was lithe and fragile, I was thick. Kids at school used to say it’s because I ate all the time (I didn’t), but now I knew that was how my body was, and Mom’s was different. Despite those differences, I still looked like her. The same nose, same knobby chin, same Cupid’s bow lips.

    “I’m fine,” I answered, closing my eyes as she patted my head. “Maybe a bit nervous.”

    “You were nervous when you had to qualify, remember?” She nudged my shoulder. “And you came in first place.

    You didn’t break a sweat.”

    I looked at her and smiled as a knot formed in the pit of my stomach. “Yeah, but all the kids going to the competition are winners too.” What I don’t mention is that all of them are rich and talented and come from upper-crust families.

    They have all the advantages. Unlike us. “They’re the best of the best.”

    “Hmm,” she hummed. “So are you.”

    That seemed to untwist the knot a little bit. Maybe she was right about all that other stuff not mattering in the kitchen. It wasn’t about where we’ve been, but where we’re going. “I can do this. And besides, Lucy’ll be there.”

    “You two . . .” Mom shook her head. “You can’t be apart, huh?”

    “She’s my person,” I retorted. “She gets me.” And I got her too. The thought of not going to school with her made me feel like I was stuck in a black hole of sadness. The same way I felt for a few months after Dad died. Like my world was getting smaller and smaller and I’d be left all alone, floating in space.

    Mom, using the last few moments she had before starting a long shift, helped me finish packing my bag. She carefully folded my purple apron, which Dad bought me when I started to cook and Lucy helped remake into a larger one.

    That way Dad would always be with me, cheering me on.

    “You’re brave and talented, Laila, and there’s nowhere you can’t go. Nothing you can’t do,” he used to say. Whenever I was feeling lonely and lost, I tried to remember that. Repeat it aloud until I felt it.

    “When’s the van coming?” Mom asked when my clothes were neatly folded. She rose and put her hands on her back, stretching.

    I sat on my suitcase to try to get it flat. Sure, we’d be gone only three days, but I needed my supplies. Specific extracts I’d made myself, like my lemon oil with lemon verbena leaves and my peachy vanilla. The competition rules said we couldn’t bring in our own materials, but I got special permission for these because Sunderland’s kitchen didn’t carry them. “In ten minutes.”

    “Good luck, honey.” She put a hand on my shoulder as I stood up. “I believe in you. And remember, I’ll be at work tonight, and then the Emergency Nurses of America conference this weekend. So only call if you need to, okay? Lucy’s parents said they’d be watching the live stream and sitting by the phone if you girls want anything.”

    I agreed and swept her up in the most rib-shattering hug I could manage. She gasped only once. “Love you, Mom. I got this, promise.” I meant it. This was the opportunity of a lifetime, and there was no way I’d let it pass me by.

    She kissed my cheek and took off as the sun began to peek through the fog. And I thought, as I brought my suitcase onto the porch, watching her leave, Wow, it’s chilly for a summer morning. Unusual.  But had I known the weekend that was about to happen, I would have realized that unusual was definitely better than attempted murder.

    Most things are better than murder.

    A van pulled up outside my house at exactly half-past seven. It was a white van, the kind that schools use for teachers’ night out. I knew because one night while I was helping at our local gastropub, I caught the teachers having a dinner meeting and getting a little too liberal with the cocktails.

    They piled in the van after. Most likely this van. Remembering how queasy they looked, I was apprehensive about sliding inside now.

    Until Lucy came out and scrutinized my suitcase. She scrunched her flat, light brown nose. “It’s only three days.”

    I shoved my suitcase in the back and jumped into the van. “You’ll thank me if you need to look up a baking term in one of my cookbooks.” Meanwhile, I eyed her backpack as I buckled myself in. “Let me guess, you brought empty notebooks, a voice recorder, one hoodie, one pair of jeans, and a few books about the science of journalism.”

    She gave me a sheepish grin that all but confirmed it.

    “The necessities.”

    We settled into our seats in a row in front of two other contestants, from two different middle schools. Lucy had made a dossier on each of these other soon-to-be eighth graders and had me study them for their weaknesses. She was always prepared like that.

    I peered behind us. The blond girl with gold, cupcake-shaped earrings was Philippa Willingsworth—a future debutante, because those existed and people were them. She was so well-off she went to a private academy two towns over, where only the rich lived. They had a multilevel Star-bucks and overpriced mall stores hanging out on their main street. Worst of all, she was good. Supergood. The kind of good where she’d most likely have her own restaurant one day. So good she didn’t need the scholarship. She didn’t need to compete.

    Her weakness: couldn’t make a Bavarian mousse to save her life.

    And then there was Micah Dae, cradling some weird plant on his lap. He was from the sister burb of Fable Creek called Fable Falls, where middle-class families were living their best lives. His parents owned a casual dining restaurant, where he worked the cash register three nights a week in between Junior Botany Society meetings. Despite being a nerd, or maybe because he was a nerd, he was totally cute.

    His weakness: a bit too classic (aka boring) with his flavor choices.

    All in all, with the other two contestants arriving at Sunderland in a different van, I liked my odds. Which was probably what both Micah and Philippa were thinking as they sized me up.

    Micah glanced up at me and my brain blanked. “I brought some cookies for everyone. As a way to . . . like . . .

    say hi.” He shifted the plant off his lap and dug out a small plastic bag of mangled, crumbly dark brown cookies from his hoodie pocket.

    They didn’t look  enticing, but I accepted one to be polite.

    So did Lucy and Philippa.

    Once I took a bite of the soft, light cookie, I realized my initial assessment was wrong. Very wrong. They were ginger-molasses cookies, which sounded standard, but they contained a whole lot of delicious spices I was sure Micah thought was his secret blend.

    Micah and the other contestants didn’t know my strengths and weaknesses because they didn’t have a dossier made by their best friend about me. But if they did, they’d know that I had a baking superpower: I could take a bite of something and be able to tell exactly what was in it. I never missed an ingredient. Which was why I was able to quickly figure out that these cookies had the traditional seasonings of allspice, nutmeg, ginger, and cardamom, but also some Chinese five-spice powder: a blend of ground cloves, special peppercorns, fennel, star anise, and a cinnamon stick. It was a perfectly warm explosion of flavor.

    We all demolished our cookies in seconds. Philippa tossed him a glance and then stared out the window without another word. Probably grasping that Micah was real competition. Lucy, on the other hand, looked somewhat relieved.

    The ginger might’ve temporarily helped calm her upset stomach. While my own stomach soured as I began recalibrating.

    In Micah’s dossier, it said his weakness was that he was too classic with his flavor choices. If these cookies were any indication, the dossier didn’t consider how badly he and the other contestants wanted to win or that a weakness at his level still produced seriously good cookies. Now I had to think about my own weaknesses and wonder if they affected my baking as much as his seemed not to.

    Mine: tended to panic under pressure and would literally do anything for Mom and Lucy. And little did they know that one of them was sitting beside me, still the teensiest bit green, clutching a book about cookies.

    Lucy’s: had no idea about cooking, baking, cookies, or the food community, but desperately wanted to get a broad range of writing samples together for Sunderland’s Ariella Wilborn Journalism Scholarship by next week. She already had half a dozen pieces from her time on the school paper. I thought they were all great, but the coach that the scholarship committee provided to help guide students with their applications had said Lucy’s pieces might all be too similar or simple for the scholarship. Based on the coach’s assessment, this was Lucy’s last, best chance to write some new pieces showcasing a wide variety of her skills: something scholarship-worthy. She was in it to win it this weekend as much as I was.

    “Thanks for the cookie. It was delicious.” I put the cheer-iest tone in my voice as I spoke to Micah. He nodded before settling into his seat and putting his plant on his lap. I tried to keep cool as I turned my back on my rivals. “How long does it take to get there?”

    Lucy glanced down at her phone. “It’s normally an hour, but with all the construction on the highway, my map app says we’ll be there in two hours.”

    “Ugh, two hours in a van?” Philippa sighed loudly. “I could’ve had my driver take me, but I was trying to escape my family. I didn’t need their . . . pressure, you know?” She smiled, and I felt it was suspicious, because why, if she had her own ride, would she opt for the van? It was likely because she wanted to suss us all out, get a feel for the competition.

    When we didn’t return her smile, she sniffed. “Anyway, I didn’t think it was going to take this long. Probably should’ve gone with the driver—would’ve taken the same time, but at least it would have been more comfortable.”

    Micah only cocked an eyebrow at no one in particular, yanked his hood down over his short black hair, and turned on his side away from us. I guess he was done saying hello.

    And I thought, Wow. He’s so cute.  But also, Why isn’t he more excited?  This was the competition of a lifetime. You’d think he’d take this chance to figure us all out so he could beat us later. Instead, he seemed bored. Weird, right?

    Although maybe he was just tired. Or maybe he was shy and giving the cookies was the most he could do? I didn’t know. Didn’t really matter, because I was focused on winning. No matter what.


    Thunder cracks overhead. We received reports that the streets are flooded. The cellular service bars still flit from one to nothing on my phone. Laila, the other competitors, and I have all been stuck in our rooms since the police and the EMTs left. The authorities spent some time interviewing everyone and documenting evidence while the EMTs checked vitals and scribbled on charts, but then the lights flickered from the growing storm.

    They quickly took the victim away on a stretcher and fled before the rain got worse, but not before promising to send more investigators.

    But I know how to read between the lines, or, in this case, the way the authorities wouldn’t make eye contact with any of us and the way they hunched together and whispered their hypotheses to each other. I knew they were hiding something, so I snuck closer, pretending to retrieve my pen from the worktable (in reality, I brought a thousand pens with me). That’s when I caught the unmistakable, chill -inducing mention of “foul play.”

    Someone set out to cause harm, and it’s still unknown who that someone is.

    We’ve been asked to stay in our rooms as a safety measure, in case the power goes out. But with a suspicious accident and worsening weather, we don’t know if the competition is still happening tomorrow.

    With nowhere to go, Laila and I have only one thing to do: write down everything. Laila doesn’t seem to be as enthusiastic as I am about diving into the details of this near tragedy. But it’s the only way we’ll get to the bottom of this and, maybe, the only way we can keep ourselves safe.


    THE BUMPY ROADS up to Sunderland Academy set off an epic bout of car sickness. Laila waving the dossiers in my face and trying to get me to read a whole tiny-print book on cookies made it much, much worse. Micah’s ginger cookie, though delicious, helped for only a few precious minutes.

    I unlatched the window, pushed it open to its maximum two inches, and tried to inhale as much fresh air as possible.

    “Better?” Laila asked.

    “Blargh” is all I managed to respond. The air outside was heavy, not as refreshing as it could have been. I blamed the humidity on the dark clouds overhead: good thing this competition was indoors. Conveniently all in one building, in fact. We wouldn’t have to leave for anything.

    The van bucked as we sped down empty roads and rolled over the narrow stone bridge to the Sunderland campus. The main road was under construction, the school administrators and city officials taking advantage of summer break to complete its major roadwork. The campus would be all ours for the Golden Cookie Competition.

    Normally, the campus would be limited to only the competitors, two judges, and a competition coordinator, but I asked to go on behalf of our school paper. For the Ariella Wilborn Journalism Scholarship I desperately needed to attend Sunderland, I had to show off some of my other writing skills, not just the ones used to write about the sixth-grade candy fundraiser or the caption for the picture of the new snake in Mr. Reyes’s classroom. This high-stakes cookie competition would be one great way to flex my sensory-detail muscles. Plus, it’d give me an opportunity to firm up the surprise profile I was doing on Laila, not just for the scholarship writing sample but for submission to our town paper as well: Laila deserved all the good coverage for how hard she’s been working on her baking. She deserved all the good everything after how tough a time she and her mom have had the past few years.

    When our newspaper staff adviser and I spoke to the Sunderland administrators, they were more than happy to have me come too, especially after I mentioned it’d be a sneak peek of what my high school years there would look like.

    And lucky for me, Laila was assigned a double room with two twin beds, so it’d be like one big sleepover. Well, one big sleepover that my whole future at Sunderland with my best friend was riding on.

    So there I was, scrunched in the back seat, trying not to vomit, attempting to brainstorm any other ideas for impress-ing the Sunderland scholarship committee. The image of Tonya, the scholarship coach, flipping through my portfolio was burned into my brain. She’d graduated from Sunderland a decade ago and was excited to “give back” by helping future students. But that excitement faded along with her smile as she turned the pages of my application package.

    Then she had gently asked whether my printer had malfunctioned and failed to print the rest of my work.

    No, the truth was that my existing portfolio felt as flimsy and fleeting as cotton candy, but that wasn’t my fault. It was Peter’s, our jerk of an editor in chief for the school paper.

    He shut me out as coeditor yet somehow still held a grudge against me for rejecting his invitation to the school dance.

    He made sure I covered only the dullest of newspaper-related tasks. Nagging the school clubs for their event schedules and rewriting the maintenance staff’s updates on the resodding of the field? That was all me. I never got the cheating scandals, the protests against the school dress code, the allegations of discrimination in the academic heptathlon team.

    Luckily, someone in the Sunderland admissions committee saw the potential in me and my stellar grades: I pinched myself twice when I learned I got into their journalism program, home of my no-nonsense, respected-everywhere newscaster idol, Ariella Wilborn. But the price tag of this place was too high. My parents had already told me my options were this scholarship or them putting their money into moving us to a better school district across the state as soon as the end of summer.

    For any hope of following my dreams at Sunderland and staying best friends with Laila, I needed to prove to the scholarship committee that I could live up to the admissions folks’ faith in me. According to Tonya, that meant demonstrating I was a serious journalist who could cover a whole range of topics well, not just prettily arrange a schedule of the volleyball team’s next home games.

    Next to me, Laila gasped. “There it is!”

    The tree-lined road spilled the van out onto the sprawling Sunderland campus, all white pillars and stately red brick.

    Even Micah, who I swear had been fast asleep for the last two hours, yanked his hood off to peer out of the window as we pulled into the cul-de-sac for the residence halls. Wide, empty walkways crisscrossed the expanse of neatly trimmed grass around us. The only person in sight was a man in his thirties, in a gold-and-black-striped collared shirt and dark slacks despite the heat, waving at us.

    The van slowed to a stop, and I couldn’t have stumbled out of that back seat fast enough. My foot caught on a seat belt, and the only thing keeping me from splatting onto the asphalt was the man’s quick grasp of my forearm.

    “Are you all right?” he asked. “You look ill.” His pale white skin was flushed red from the heat, as if he realized too late that dark fabric was not the best choice for this summer weather. His short, wavy black hair clung to his temples with sweat, and his round-rimmed glasses were slightly fogged up.

    “If Lucy’s sick, maybe she shouldn’t be here,” Philippa said, taking a step back from me. “We can’t have her spread-ing whatever it is. I’d hate for anything to happen to the judges.”

    I glared at her before throwing a thankful smile at my hero of the minute. “I’m fine. And I’m just here to observe, not bake. Don’t mind me.”

    “She gets carsick,” Laila said, coming to my aid like she always did.

    Laila handed me my duffel bag as our driver, Coach Clark, the wrestling coach and culinary arts instructor, closed the back of the van.

    “I’ll see you kids on Sunday afternoon,” he said, already punching the address of our school into his phone.

    “Wait, you’re not staying?” Laila asked.

    Coach Clark slid into the driver’s seat and buckled himself in. “Nope. School’s only paying me to drive here and back, then doing it again after the competition. I’d love to stay and chat, but those rain clouds . . .”

    He didn’t finish his sentence. The van lurched forward and he sped back through the school’s iron gates, the only car on the road as far as the eye could see.

    The man who caught me stepped back and swept his arms out like he was performing a magic trick. “Welcome, all, to Sunderland Academy, home of the Golden Cookie Competition.” He paused for applause, and Laila was the only one who obliged. “I’m Noah St. John, assistant to Chef Remi Boucre, one of our esteemed judges. I’m also coordinator of this year’s competition, so I’ll fill you in on our schedule. First we’ll deposit your belongings in your rooms, then it’s off to the kitchen for your first round.”

    Micah blinked. “Wow, we’re really diving right in, then.”

    Noah smiled wide. “Of course we are! We only have three days and six challenges to assess which of you five competitors deserves a full-ride admission to this acclaimed institution.” Everyone shifted on their feet at the intensity of the schedule, and Noah cocked an eyebrow. “That’s right, six challenges to test your skills. In the mornings you’ll perform a technical feat of the judges’ choosing, and in the afternoons you’ll make a showstopping masterpiece that’ll demonstrate your talent and artistry. Now, if you please, follow me.”

    Then he spun and marched toward the residence hall.

    He held the door open for us, Philippa taking selfies, Micah describing our surroundings to his potted plant, and Laila with her jaw open, like she was trying to inhale every detail of the place. Laila and I left our bags in our assigned dorm room. Two boring, matching desks and beds hugged the plain white walls, and a wide window overlooked a shut-off fountain in the courtyard. All the competitors were clustered together on the same floor of this vacant residence hall. It was unnerving, our small group alone in this massive building, but the noise of everyone else knocking their luggage around helped disguise the emptiness.

    Noah was rushing us to the kitchen, so I had only a minute to dig out my notebook. I also grabbed the digital SLR

    camera that the school newspaper adviser made my parents and me sign a dozen liability forms for before checking it out. It took a few more seconds to find an extra pen under all those packets of SkyFlakes crackers my well-meaning grandma had apparently snuck into my luggage. Laila spent that minute fishing her purple polka-dot apron out of her unnecessarily large suitcase.

    Then Noah led the way to a set of double doors, which he pulled open to reveal a bright, airy space dotted with six spotless workstations. Each featured its own huge, gleaming mixer, and below the workstations sat big plastic flour and sugar bins and half racks for the competitors’ creations.

    Laila murmured something about Hobart, but my eyes instead went to the two other competitors already there.

    The girl, short with wavy black hair and teal-rimmed glasses, jumped to her feet when we entered, like we’d startled her. “Hi, I’m Maeve Issawi,” she said quietly.

    The other competitor took a moment to drag his cold, green eyes away from his phone to greet us. “Jaden.”

    Laila stiffened when Jaden’s gaze landed on her.

    “You again,” he muttered.

    His words struck me as odd. There was definitely a story between them that I didn’t know about yet, and it seemed to have not been a happy ending. I’d have to ask Laila later. I wondered why she hadn’t said anything to me about it before.

    We all introduced ourselves, and Jaden raised a perfectly arched, dark brown eyebrow when it was my turn.

    “She’s not a competitor?” he asked. “Then what’s she doing here?”

    “I’m writing a piece on the competition for our school paper.”

    Jaden crossed his arms. “No one else came with a press crew. She shouldn’t be allowed to stay.” He swiveled his gaze to Laila. “You trying to cheat again or something? Is that what she’s here for?”

    Laila gasped before her face set in a narrow-eyed, clenched-jawed, you’d-better-get-out-of-the-way grimace.

    “Ha. You wish I needed to cheat to beat you because you’re a poor loser.” She let a long breath loose. “Everyone here got in because of pure talent.”

    Laila was right. The dossiers I’d compiled on all the competitors proved that this group was the best of the best.

    Just-turned-thirteen Maeve Issawi may have stood three inches shorter than the rest of us, but my research showed she was a whiz in a chemistry lab and a giant in the kitchen.

    She was from the same town as Philippa, but with Maeve’s quirky, secondhand-store style, you wouldn’t guess her family to be the luxury-living, ramen-fusion mogul Issawis known all over the world.

    Her weakness: one small mishap could throw off her concentration entirely, which could be lethal in a timed competition like Golden Cookie.

    Not to say that Jaden Parker wasn’t a serious competitor, though. He tagged along on his indie-filmmaker parents’

    treks across the world, honing his baking skills and picking up techniques along the way. He’d won several competitions before too, though not against Laila, it seemed.

    His weakness: he was a little too lofty with his flavor combinations.

    “Now, now, no need for that kind of conflict here.” Noah stepped in, his voice kind. He had his hands splayed out, like he was trying to calm some wild tigers instead of a group of middle schoolers. “This is a friendly competition. Yes, one of you will be named the winner each day, with an overall winner named on Sunday, but it’s our hope that you all win by forming lasting bonds from our weekend here together.”

    Laila and I smiled at each other, but over her shoulder, I caught Jaden rolling his eyes. None of us were here to make friends, and I couldn’t wait to see Laila wipe the floor with the likes of this Jaden guy. Then Laila’s gaze slipped away from me, and I almost laughed to see where it landed: on Micah, who was rolling up his sleeves to reveal the muscles in his forearms.

    Noah, satisfied that the competitors weren’t going to tear each other apart, lowered his hands. “Miss Lucy is staying. The Sunderland administration approved this exception weeks ago. As for the rest of you, go ahead and find your stations. The judges will be here shortly.”

    I spotted Laila’s name in fancy black cursive on a white card, perched atop one of the long wooden benches, and Laila practically skipped over to it. While she skimmed her fingertips across her workspace, I glanced around for an out-of-the-way place to post up and observe.

    “Over here, Miss Lucy.” Noah beckoned to me from a station at the front of the room. “This is closer to where the judges will be. You can pull up a seat behind them and get a good view of the action. Just try not to distract the competitors while they’re working or block the live stream cameras.

    The connection on those is already spotty as it is.”

    I smiled, thankful for the inclusion. That brush with Jaden made me wonder if I was wasting my time even trying to make my portfolio shine with some new pieces—was I good enough to turn this weekend’s events into a reason for Sunderland to field my tuition for four years?—and I appreciated Noah’s kindness.

    I grabbed a three-legged stool nearby, and he was right: I did get a good view. I could see each of the competitors checking out their new homes for the next few days. In fact, everyone could see what everyone else was doing: not a moment of privacy, unless they walked into one of those fancy refrigerator closets at the back of the room. On the far wall was a digital clock that would count down, in red foot-high numbers, the time left in the round.

    The competition materials had proclaimed that this event would be live streamed for the first time this year, as a small consolation for the foundation requesting parents not attend.

    Apparently, in years prior, overzealous parents had yelled at their competitor kids in front of everyone and argued with the judges. Having a parent-free weekend did make this feel a little more summer-campy, but in a good way. Laila and I were going to get a real peek into what our unsupervised dorm-roomie life would be like in a couple of years.

    I balanced my notebook on my leg and began taking notes, while Noah went over the rules of the kitchen and the competition for everyone. He pointed to a thick white binder he’d placed on each workstation, complete with the many, many pages of Golden Cookie Competition rules, as well as Sunderland Academy policies for our summer stay.

    Sunderland had so many restrictions and requirements for not only the competitors but the people it appointed to carry out its famed competition. Maintaining its prestige through top talent, elite judges, and zero scandal was all in Sunderland’s plan to attract wealthy donors. From the looks of this high-tech kitchen, that plan was working.

    Three days, six rounds at either two or three hours each. Competitors would be judged on their skills: following directions, improvising flavors, adapting under pressure, and highlighting their kitchen prowess.

    And, as if on cue, in strode the two judges. I’d seen both on television in preparation for this weekend. One had worked on some great baking show in England as a guest judge and had her own Netflix series where she taught home cooks the basics with a sort of “everyone can cook” attitude. The other had his own shows on prime-time TV, where he yelled mercilessly at people. They even had to put up a “strong lan-guage” warning before each of his shows. And though he’s French, his command of English curses was admirable.

    Laila didn’t need dossiers on these two. She had memo-rized the judges’ loves and hates like they were player stats and she was betting all her allowance on the Super Bowl.

    Philippa, at the closest workstation to me, swept a glossy strand of blond hair behind her ear. “Oh my gosh. It’s him.

    It’s Chef Remi,” she whispered. Not quietly enough, though, because I heard her loud and clear.

    At first I thought it was awe on her face. Then I saw the pinch of her eyebrows. Another emotion, unnameable, lay just under the surface.

    But the sugary-sweet “Welcome, y’all!” of the thin, older white woman with silver Betty White curls brought out a smile in everyone. We all greeted her back, even Jaden, who for once looked interested in someone other than himself.

    “I’m Chef Polly Rose, and I am so tickled to be judging the work of you talented young folks,” she said, clasping her hands in front of her. Her signature charm bracelet, with miniature cake slices and cookie charms dangling from it, circled her petite wrist. “This weekend is going to be so much fun, I promise you.”

    Where she was bubbles, Chef Remi was a brick. “Fun?”

    Something about the sneer on his face made us feel guilty for having been enjoying ourselves moments earlier. Like when someone cool says that flare jeans are out of style and there you are, in all your flare-legged glory. As quickly as the smiles bloomed, they withered.

    “You are not here to have fun. You,” he said, eyeing each of the competitors, “are here to win.”

    The Great British Bake Off meets Knives Out in this fun and propulsive middle grade novel following two best friends who must solve the mystery behind a baking competition gone awry.