My daughter loved Bliss, the story of the Bliss family who runs a magical bakery. When the parents are called away to help a neighboring town, the four kids—Thyme (Ty), Rosemary (Rose), Sage (uh, Sage), and Parsley (Leigh)—are left on their own to keep things running, along with Chip and Mrs. Carlson who have no idea magic actually exists, despite helping out with a magical bakery. As soon as their parents are gone, an entrancing woman calling herself Aunt Lily shows up and offers to help out. And when Rose wants to try out magic herself because her parents have never let her, Aunt Lily is more than happy to encourage her to break the rules.
Told through 12 year old Rose’s eyes, it’s a light and funny book that also explores issues of responsibility and growing up, particularly the tension of wanting more trust from your parents and chafing against the perceived lack of maturity in your siblings.
SPOILER ALERT: Things you might want to know before suggesting this to your kid
The parents don’t know that Aunt Lily has arrived. The kids feel strange about it, but they are quite literally under a spell that makes it hard for them to say no to her, and impossible for them to tell their parents about her. The reader is well aware that Lily is untrustworthy because otherwise we wouldn’t really have a story, but she’s also not evil so much as self-centered.
Lily is very attractive and she uses that to her advantage, making even boys swoon a bit over her. Rose has a crush on Devin, the cute boy whose family runs a rival donut bakery. Ty is a local heartthrob—when the kids start making magical baked goods, he thinks it’s funny to give muffins to all the girls that make them desperate to kiss him, even though you’d think he hardly needs to. Rose and Ty make the love muffins to try to get two older people to admit their feelings for each other.
When the kids start messing with the magic recipes, they have good intentions—at least for the most part. But they’re misguided and in over their heads, and things go ridiculously wrong. It’s mostly funny, but there are also some lessons about leaving things well enough alone when you don’t actually know what you’re doing.
Rose doesn’t think she’s very pretty. She’s the responsible child, where Ty is handsome and gets away with everything, Sage is a funny troublemaker, and Leigh is the cute baby who also gets away with everything. Rose is convinced that part of her problem is that she isn’t pretty like other girls. This leads to some self esteem issues, and also sets her up for beautiful Aunt Lily to find ways to flatter Rose into making decisions she’s not sure are good ones. There’s also a voice in the basement that speaks to a person’s deep desires and it offers to make Rose beautiful—the voice seems to mostly be foreshadowing for future books, but it’s a literal voice for what people want.
Rose’s mom notes that Rose isn’t like other girls and in the same breath mentions that Rose is good at math—this sets up the idea that pretty girls aren’t good at math, and girls who are good at math aren’t pretty. I don’t think this was on purpose, but it bugged me.
Being the Responsible One
In addition to being beautiful, Rose wants her parents to acknowledge what a help Rose is, how responsible she is, and let her start doing magic with them. Because they haven’t allowed her to do this, she gets the idea that she should try magic anyway and then they’ll see that she can handle it. Of course things don’t quite work out that way, but it seems clear to me that this is partially on Rose’s parents—they probably should have offered her more responsibility when she asked for it, and then she would have learned to use magic under their guidance.
Rose frequently feels put upon, knowing that she can only barely depend on anyone else to help out. If she doesn’t do it, particularly when her parents are gone, no one will. It does feel like there’s a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy here—her siblings know she’ll do things, so they don’t feel the need to. Lily plays on this a bit, telling Rose how talented and wonderful she is. This is really tempting to Rose who more than anything wants affirmation from others.
While there are a lot of fairly traditional gender lines, there are also some exceptions. Lily stands out partially because she’s such a strong, unusual, and confident person. Mr. Bliss took his wife’s name when they got married—she comes from the magical family and Bliss was the name on the bakery and therefore it was important to keep that name.
In the end, the three older siblings do pull together to undo the messes they’ve made. When Lily offers Rose the chance to leave with her at the cost of her family forgetting that she ever existed, Rose is tempted but chooses to stay with her family in the end. When offered the life she thought she wanted, she realizes she’s happy with what she has.
Mrs. Carlson calls Lily a “harlot” in passing—more insult than accusation. My daughter was unfamiliar with the term but was a bit shocked when she looked it up!
It’s a cute story with lots going on, but nothing very dark. Even with scary voices in the basement and a mysterious spellcasting aunt, things never get truly dark. It sets up the next adventure as Rose, ever the responsible one, wants to make up for letting Lily get her hands on the magic cookbook. The sibling relationships are fairly realistic and easy to identify with. It’s appropriate for maybe 8 and up.