What Cupcakes Taught Me about Life and Literature

When I was in the fourth grade, a couple of the moms made several visits to our class to teach us “life skills.” They addressed topics like how to make new friends, to be kind to others and so on. During one visit they announced the final week would include a cupcake party, and we were each to place an advance order so they would know how many to bake. Most kids ordered chocolate. A handful of us ordered vanilla, and we were promptly derided. That’s boring, the chocolate-eaters said. Vanilla isn’t even a real flavor.

The next week, the moms arrived bearing their tasty treats. The vanilla cupcakes had whipped cream frosting and rainbow sprinkles. The chocolate cupcakes were plain. And the rumblings soon began. What? No fair! How come you got frosting? Trade with me.

No trades, we vanilla-eaters gloated. That’s what you get for ordering stupid-old chocolate. We have frosting, and you don’t.

The adults let us grumble and gloat for a bit, then put an end to it. Quiet down and eat your cupcakes, they said. So we did. And a funny thing happened. The chocolate-eaters soon discovered a delicious surprise. The moms had baked M&M candies into the bottoms of their cupcakes. A rich, colorful, chocolate
bonus. Huzzah! Chocolate was the best choice after all, or so the complainers said.

That’s when the moms explained their little experiment to us. Explained how important it is to be grateful for what we receive, even when we might feel someone else has something better. Explained that sometimes, even when life seems most unfair, we could discover something unexpected, something wonderful, something better than what we thought we wanted.

Blah, blah, blah.

At the time, the message was lost on us kids. We mostly felt manipulated, used, a bit like lab rats. Yet, their lesson seeped into my subconscious and stayed with me. They were right, of course. It’s not always easy advice to follow, but they were 100 percent spot on.

As adults, too often, we’re not a whole lot more mature than that group of fourth graders — criticizing, teasing and judging others for their choices. I’ve most recently experienced this phenomenon during discussions about books and the differences between commercial and literary fiction. People are quick to condemn others’ reading preferences. You like literary fiction? That’s so boring. Oh, you read chick lit. Those books are trashy. Is that sci-fi? Why waste your time reading about something that could never really happen?

Why can’t we just say, Hey! You’re reading a book. Cool. How is it?

With the explosion of audiobooks, e-books, and print-on-demand publishing technology, books have become much more accessible than they once were. There are literally millions of books out there. Far too many for one person to ever read. So why not celebrate the variety? Maybe that so-called boring literary novel, if you take the time to savor it, just might have a  delicious, satisfying surprise in the end. And perhaps the chick lit that seems to be all whipped cream and sprinkles just might satisfy your craving for a happy ending.

Those of us who write for a living, or aspire to, would be especially wise to heed this advice.

For one thing, reading a wide range of genres expands our minds, introduces us to new ideas and teaches us about good writing (or, sometimes, about not-so-good writing, but that’s also a beneficial thing). A voracious reading appetite just might lead us to discover something unexpected, something wonderful, something better than what we thought we wanted from a book. That makes us stronger writers.

For another thing, having respect for all kinds of readers empowers us to break barriers and attract fans to our stories that we might not have anticipated. My debut historical novel, for example, was marketed as women’s fiction. Yet, I’ve received several amazing, thoughtful reviews from male readers who were moved by the book’s multiple perspectives on slavery and freedom, and its universal themes of self-reliance, perseverance and hope.

It’s just like those bakeries that have sprung up all over the place that serve only cupcakes. You know the ones. Dozens of flavors and combinations. Red velvet, pumpkin, peanut butter chocolate, lemon-ginger, you name it. It blows my fourth-grade mind.

Eat whatever cupcake you want, and read whatever book you like. Don’t judge others for their choices. And don’t be afraid to sample something different once in a while. Have a chai latte cupcake with your historical fiction, or try a rocky road cupcake with your paranormal thriller. It’s all good.

p.s. A shout-out and long-overdue thank you to my fourth grade teacher at Madison Park Elementary School, Mrs. Kuzmanoff, and the moms, Mrs. Free and Mrs. Lawson, who took the time to share their talents and insights (and cupcakes) with us kids.


14 thoughts on “What Cupcakes Taught Me about Life and Literature

  1. I had a very well thought-out comment in response to this and then I read “chai latte cupcake” at the bottom and now all I can think is, “OMG I WANT!”
    But I couldn’t agree more on everything. Genre judging is my biggest literary pet peeve of all. I’ve learned so much from writers of all backgrounds and all genres; I don’t see the point in pitting one against the other, as if one is superior. This applies not only to readers but to writers as well…it bothers me when certain genres don’t get the respect they deserve–I suspect that people who make comments like that haven’t even read books in that genre, and even if they had, who can possibly read enough book to generalize on an entire genre made up of hundreds of thousands of works?
    Everyone needs to just eat a cupcake and chill.

  2. What a fabulous post, Jessica. Not only are my tastebuds watering, but I’m also hankering for some good fiction. I’ve only, in the past few years, branched out in the kinds of books I’ve read, and you’re right: each offers its own level of satisfaction and lessons learned.
    I think I’ll take your advice and have cupcakes the next time I read! 🙂

  3. Ha ha, doesn’t a chai latte cupcake sound amazing? I actually saw that on a menu somewhere!
    Regarding judging genres, I have to admit, I’m guilty of that myself from time to time. Maybe this post was atonement for that in some way. I agree. We all need to eat a cupcake and chill. And I’m working hard to follow my own advice. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Natalia!

  4. I LOVED this post Jessica! What a great analogy! I think you are spot on when you say that we should embrace what we love whatever the genre and be willing to try the “plain chocolate” as well. I have been pleasantly surprised by many books I thought I wasn’t going to like.

  5. Great post and oh so true. I’m so happy I’ve opened up my mind to so many different books. One of my favorites now is new authors…who knew I was missing so much. I like expanding my horizons!

  6. Thanks, Anita. You make a great point about trying new authors, as well. I think a lot of us tend to settle in with authors we know we enjoy. But trying something new, even within a familiar genre, can often bring a nice surprise. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  7. Jessica-
    Wonderful post! I adore cupcakes and the lesson is perfect!
    Sometimes we judge books by the cover or the label (we shouldn’t, but it happens) and sometimes other people judge us for what we read. I adore reading- but my tastes run to the lighter side of books, the ones that make you feel all happy and cozy (although I do love a good mystery/suspense as well!) Through blogging, I’m able to experience and broaden my horizons. Over a year ago, if you’d told me about a historical fiction book, I might have crinkled my nose- now, b/c I’m seeing great books in that genre- I like it. While I welcome new authors to my book shelves- I never want to miss out on the old favorites- the ones who started my love of reading. Some days I’m in the mood for that chocolate cupcake- and others, that vanilla with the sprinkles and frosting hits the spot!

  8. Thank you, Tamara! That’s the wonderful thing about books — there are so many choices out there to fit whatever mood we’re in. And the important thing, to me, is that people read – something new, something old, whatever. It’s just so good for our minds and our psyches on so many levels. Thanks for taking the time to share your insights!

  9. What a yummy post!! Last year, I pushed myself into reading a genre I haven’t touched for many years, murder mysteries. And I loved it! I totally disappeared into Louise Penny’s fabulous “Three Pines” puzzlers that always left me guessing, as well as studying how she dropped hints that I completely missed. Entertaining and educational. You are spot on. Just read, people.
    Also, my mind is blown that you remember the moms’ names from back in fourth grade!!

  10. Hi Lori, thanks so much reading and commenting. Great point about learning different writing tricks by reading different genres. Mystery writers are masters are hint dropping, but that can be a wonderful quality in other genres and authors would be wise to understand and master it.
    And yes, those moms were awesome, and I was friends with their sons. So they hold a special place in both my memory and my heart.

What are your thoughts?