The pandemic predicament for Bath’s Patten Free Library was that books could still go out—ordered online and left outside for pickup by appointment—but people could not come in. A number of the library’s live programs had been wildly popular, with human interaction as critically important as finding books or sitting quietly and reading. So the staff struggled to come up with ways to keep the library community engaged—and the library alive and well.

Starry Night Event

Trying to think outside the box led the staff literally outside. The staff determined that a locked building was no reason to keep people away. They could hold their programs outdoors—in the library’s beautifully manicured park,  at the Gazebo, among the greenery and around the sculpture fountain. The staff decided to test this novel idea with an event called Starry Night, giving new meaning to a word often used to describe literary greats. Here, borrowing the Mexican holiday tradition of luminarias, hundreds of lit candles inside paper bags illuminated the park’s gracious features and meandering pathways.

With candlelight and colored lights festooning the park’s trees, the dark chill of a December evening did not deter people from showing up for stroll. “People were so happy to have a reason to get out to walk, along with a safe place to do it,” the library’s Assistant Director Roberta Jordan said of the evening’s remarkable success.

She recalls that the staff was so heartened by Starry Night, they arranged for an early spring event with a more literary spin. Dubbed Poetry in the Park, in honor of April’s designation as National Poetry Month, it offered an ever-changing array of famous poems posted on boards along pathways. Part of the fun was a blank journal, which was affixed to 
the side of the outdoor book drop encouraging visitors to inscribe a line or two of their own.

Thanks to the pop-up format, the Poetry Walk beckoned people to come back to the library again and again to find “the beauty and strength in poetry … in the nooks and crannies of the park.” And they did.

But winters are long across Maine. Of course there was also the inevitable ZOOM. Among the library’s ventures into online programming was the hugely successful transfer of its in-house Saturday morning Town History Series. The five towns the library serves—Arrowsic, Bath, Georgetown, West Bath and Woolwich—are arguably Maine's most historic, so weekly for 17 years, the library has sponsored a Town History Series: weekly talks by knowledgeable residents from each member town. The Saturday morning events had always drawn sizable and enthusiastic crowds. Now, to the staff’s amazement, the talks on Zoom were attracting an even larger audience—in part because they were able to partner with Bath Community TV, which simulcast them live on television, too.

Edible Book Contest

What really took the cake was the Edible Book Contest. “We were trying to figure out what people could do home alone that would keep them connected to the library,” Jordan said. “With April school vacation time, we pictured kids at home by themselves, needing fun things to do.” The Edible Book Contest was not original. It had been gaining momentum nationwide across college campuses, and the library had hosted it once for tweens who wanted a baking competition. But at that time it took place in the library, with each tween making the exact same design with no parental help. With a few tweaks, this looked to the staff to be the perfect at-home family event for school break.

In early April, the library issued the challenge: Bake a cake and decorate it to look like the cover of your favorite book. Competition was open to all library members, had no entry fees and was to be judged by category: best family effort, best professional, best young adult (teen), best youth (fifth grade and under), etc.

This time, instead of asking everyone to bake and “decorate” the same book cover, the contest invited creativity, individuality and originality. The only “rule” was to “choose your favorite book.” As icing on the proverbial cake, the library used its weekly newsletter to treat contestants and all card-carrying members to a series of cake-baking videos made for the occasion by two Bath high school students with local home baker Katie Thayer, who had often brought her creations to share at library programs.

Thayer, who is self-taught, says she’s passionate about baking partly because a baker needs to be a chemist, and chemistry was her strong suit in high school. “Friends would message me what they saw on the ‘Great British Baking Show’ or other programs like it. I’d watch, and then go try it out until I finally got it right. About three and a half years ago, I had a craving for macarons. Nobody around here sold them. And people said ‘nobody’ could make them because they were too difficult and the weather, as in humidity, can really mess things up. Well, that sounded like a challenge to me. So I made them. And I made them again and again until they were perfect. And as soon as they were, I sold them immediately. That did it; I went and got licensed.”

She is now transitioning from 18 years as a professional nanny to a new career as professional baker. “That is going to be who I am, how I am known.” Her macarons are sold at the Bath Sweet Shoppe and by special order, in weekly Treat Boxes with four desserts. Also wildly popular: her cream puffs and royal icing decorated sugar cookies.

Thayer says she always enjoyed bringing her latest creations to the Patten Library, which holds a special place in her heart. Years ago as a home-schooled student, she says, “the library gave me a lot, and it’s great to find a way of giving back.” “ It helped that she was recommended by one of the library’s generous sponsors: the kitchen store Now You’re Cooking, in Bath. And after years of experience as a nanny, she’s a natural on camera in instructional videos designed to help the Edible Book contestants.

In the end, 17 cakes were submitted (by photograph) to the competition. Katie Thayer was the judge, aided by contest initiator Roberta Jordan and Reference Librarian Pam Barry. The chosen books ranged from Moby Dick, Charlotte’s Web and the dystopian classic 1984, although the cakes beneath the dashing covers were mostly the same: vanilla layers. For their efforts and artistry, each entrant was given a gift certificate to Mockingbird Bookstore on Bath’s Front Street.

A dozen of Thayer’s macarons went to the Best in Show winner, Declan, a rising high school freshman. Declan (last names were kept private.) created a three-dimensional cake with an avalanche of white icing to illustrate Charlie Thorne and the Last Equation, by Stuart Gibbs.

The Youth category prize went to a very creative (and patient) Charli, who fashioned a perfect swan out of black fondant icing to convey not the cover of Keeper of the Lost Cities, by Shannon Messenger, but the book’s Black Swan organization. In a contemporary twist, the icing illustrated the book’s hashtag, not its title. The book is popular in Young Adult fiction. Charli beat out two other Keeper of the Lost Cities cakes.

There was a tie in the Family category between the Kirk family’s superb cover rendition of Robert Lopshire’s Put Me in the Zoo that showed real mastery of icing, and the Ritchie family’s illustration of  E.B. White’s beloved Charlotte’s Web—not the cover, but the story inside, complete with an intricate, delicate black spider web spelling out those famous words: Some Pig.

In the special Looks Like the Real Cover category, four awards were handed out for perfect matches: the braces Cate managed on Smile by Raina Telgemeier; friends Lily and Elizabeth’s hands for Twilight by Stephanie Meier; Frida’s perfect replication of the well-dressed bear for Spy School Goes South by Stuart Gibbs; and Emma’s coloring for George Orwell’s 1984. The high school junior who doesn’t bake that often says it wasn’t too difficult to get the color to match, although the gray lining of the eyes was the hardest bit.

“To get the color right, I mixed the white and black from around the iris with a toothpick until it looked good. What required the most patience though was spreading the red frosting. For some reason the cake didn’t like my frosting, so it kept either sliding off or crumbling the cake edges. It took nearly half an hour, but eventually I managed to frost the top and two sides of the cake, giving up on the other two edges. In the picture I submitted of the cake, I arranged everything so it all appeared neat. But as soon as I set the camera down, the frosting fell off the sides.”

Emma says she chose 1984 because her class had just finished reading it.I was intrigued by the dystopian environment and how much of it we can recognize in everyday life. “It helped that my copy of the book has a nice, simple cover which was easy to replicate on the cake. It was definitely a challenge, but I’d take part in the Edible Book Contest again. Since I love books and making a mess in the kitchen, it’s too much fun to resist.”

Eleventh grader Iris’s Atlas Shrugged is an astonishing round ball of cake decorated to look like the Earth as viewed from above. The cake, which sits atop a toy weightlifting Atlas, won the Young Adult category. Iris said that making and decorating the spectacular orb was no problem because she’s been baking a lot since sixth grade, and happened to have a ball- shaped mold.” “Ayn Rand is my favorite author. I like The Fountainhead best, but I had the perfect mold for Atlas Shrugged. It was a lot of fun to think about these books in such a different way.”

The winner in the Professional category isn’t professionally trained. Like Katie Thayer, Sarah Maciejewski learned on her own. She started baking about 12 years ago, mostly breads for her family, until she applied for a baking job at Mae’s Café in downtown Bath and learned it was for a cake baker/decorator. Undeterred, she got the job and took it— quickly learning everything necessary and starting to experiment on her own. Like Katie, Sarah began to bring homemade treats to the library around holidays and Friday coffee with patrons. “They already served coffee. I thought it would be nice to have some good cookies to go with it.”

After Sarah left her job at Mae’s, she continued baking at home—beginning to wonder if she could paint with food coloring on icing the way artists use watercolors on paper. The answer is in her winning entry for Watership Down, made with food coloring on marshmallow fondant icing accented by toy rabbits and piped buttercream grass (Wilton tip #233). Sarah chose the beloved Richard Adams book having  just reread it, after adopting a rabbit as the family pet. “I remembered how much I’d liked that book when I was younger,” she said, “I love those noble rabbits, and found it a perfect, calming book for 2020. I painted the cake based on the animated-movie version of the mythology.” No vanilla here. The cake underneath is pure chocolate.

Sarah’s three children submitted their own chocolate cakes, totally without her help. The youngest, Ben, 8, entered I Survived the Great Chicago Fire, 1871, by Lauren Tarshis in the Youth category. In his words, “I wanted to stick a bunch of matches in a cake.” Indeed, for the photo submission the cake appears to have been set on fire. Ben said that afterward, when he got to devour this handiwork, the Rice Krispies he used to hold those the matches in place tasted burnt.

All contestants agreed the contest was good fun: a deliciously enjoyable learning event they look forward to participating in again, especially because they got to make the cake and eat it, too. Meanwhile, the library staff has set up summer events that include puppet shows and magic shows in the gazebo, Zoom book and movie clubs, chess in the park and June's grand kickoff: Ultimate Park Games. “We did a good pivot,” Roberta Jordan says with pride.

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