Posts Tagged ‘book reviews’

Illustration by Alice and Martin Provensen (1940′s)

The heavenly aroma of my fresh apple pie in the oven — slices of Granny Smiths bub bub bubbling in their buttery sweet cinnamon-y syrup — reminded me that I haven’t served up a good old fashioned pie picture book roundup in a long time.

Since Fall and especially November are all about pie, why not indulge?

The fillings of these lovingly baked picture books are laced with some irresistibly delicious zero-calorie ingredients: rollicking good fun, tender moments between parent and child, wild dreaminess, an itch to satisfy, surprise and wonder, friendship and community, suspense — proof positive that making and eating pie are cherished social events capable of bringing out the best in all of us.

Whether monstrous or teeny-tiny, the bakers and eaters in these stories know a good thing when they see, smell, feel, hear and taste it.

Mmmmm, pie. Did you save your fork?

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1. Richard Scarry’s The Great Pie Robbery (Sterling, 2014).

scarryMeet super-sleuths Sam Cat and Dudley Pig: they’re after the bad guys who stole yummy pies from Ma Dog’s bakery! But when the robbers run into a restaurant where ALL the diners have cherry pie-covered faces, how will Sam and Dudley catch their thieves? With a squinch and a crash and a great big cruuuunch, the bumbling detectives cook up deliciously comic fun!

The cherry pie stained animal snouts alone are worth the price of admission in this zany crooky caper. Kids will love poring over the vintage Scarry fetchingly detailed ink drawings. There’s a monkey wearing three wristwatches for crying out loud! Love that everyone has his own pie, no messing about with wimpy pieces. Uh-huh.

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2. Pie’s in the Oven by Betty G. Birney and Holly Meade (Houghton Mifflin, 1996).

birneyA young boy revels in the cheerful atmosphere among family and friends at Grandma’s house while she bakes apple pies. This celebration of food, with its enormous cast of colorful characters and lively read-aloud text, is full of child appeal. Because so many people arrive to eat Grandma’s pie, the plate is empty before the little boy gets any, but Grandma has a surprise in the oven.

A quintessential pie-is-meant-to-be-shared story complete with huggable pie-baking grandma, happy talky friends and neighbors, and the aroma of warm apple pie wafting through every page. Meade’s appealing paper collages underscore the warm and welcoming tone of the story, while Birney’s text, a rhythmic counterpoint of simple narration and the boy’s inner thoughts, captures his infectious anticipation and pie’s inherent power to summon and satisfy.

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3. Ugly Pie by Lisa Wheeler and Heather Solomon (Harcourt, 2010).

uglyOl’ Bear wakes one morning with a hankering for Ugly Pie, so he goes on a search from neighbor to neighbor. All he finds are pies that please the eye and . . . ingredients? Wait a second. Maybe it’s time for Ol’ Bear to start cookin’ up something ugly himself! Ol’ Bear shares that Ugly Pie with his generous neighbors–and he shares his secret recipe, too, in the back of this book.


A fun, folksy read aloud with its bouncy rhythm, lilting refrain, and Ol’ Bear’s down-home rural dialect. Meandering through the countryside with a bevy of woodland creatures following him, the rather rotund protagonist passes up homemade pumpkin, rhubarb and honey pies and mixes up some ugly-lookin’ ingredients to make his own deeeelicious pie. The wee critters helping Ol’ Bear mix and roll dough are too adorable (tiny squirrel paws patting pie dough!) A givin’ love fest, right friendly.

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4. Thelonius Monster’s Sky-High Fly Pie by Judy Sierra and Edward Koren (Alfred A. Knopf, 2006).

Judy Sierra’s funny read-aloud romp presents a monster that children will love as he makes a goo-filled crust, lures hundreds and thousands of succulent flies into it, and invites his “disgusting-ist” friends and relations to a gala fly-pie party. “How it glistens! And listen—it hums!” shout the ravenous monsters. But just as his guests are about to dig in—the pie flies off. “Bye, bye, fly pie.”


This “revolting rhyme” oozes kid appeal from every crack in its crust and is disgustingly delicious in every way. Just thinking about “a crust of astonishing SIZE” dripping with molasses and sugar and honey and glue makes my compound eyes twitchity twitch with excitement. Never has “hundreds and thousands of succulent flies” stuck to goo playing orchestral instruments appeared so grossly appetizing. Can you smell the sewer and manure? A pie made of flies that flies? Too brilliant. And Koren’s hairy monsters wielding giant forks are absolutely charming. Do I even have to mention how much I love the changing font sizes which effectively ramp up the fun and drama to the story’s triumphant conclusion? :)

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5. Sweet Dream Pie by Audrey Wood and Mark Teague (Scholastic, 1998).

woodImagine a pie made of chocolate, gumdrops, licorice — and every sweet ingredient you love. Bestselling author Audrey Wood teams up with popular illustrator Mark Teague to concoct a tale about a pie so irresistible it can’t be forgotten — and the sweet dreams that result. Here is an entertaining story for bedtime or anytime — that children and adults will share again and again. Pa Brindle helps Ma bake her irresistible sweet dream pie, and the whole neighborhood is affected.


This tall tale of a pie story has all the fixins of a dream come true — having your neighbor bake a giant pie filled with every confection you’ve ever loved and then being able to gorge yourself on as many pieces as you like. You don’t even mind how pie preparation affects everyone in the neighborhood — a chocolate tornado and clouds of powdered sugar whirling down the street, the sweltering heat wave triggered by the oven. But instead of sweet dreams, your dreams are so wild they have to be swept away by Ma Brindle. There’s wonder and suspense in the baking, but the journey from sated to deflated ultimately makes for a strange story. To the ending I say, Huh?

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6. Pecan Pie Baby by Jacqueline Woodson and Sophie Blackall (G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2010).

All anyone wants to talk about with Mama is the new “ding-dang baby” that’s on the way, and Gia is getting sick of it! If her new sibling is already such a big deal, what’s going to happen to Gia’s nice, cozy life with Mama once the baby is born?

pecanYou just wanna scoop this tender heartwarming story right up in your arms and hug hug it. Hello, this is Jacqueline Woodson, who is brilliant at capturing the little girl’s worry, concerns and jealousy  about the new baby on the way, as well as her mother’s reassuring presence, patience, and unwavering love. Having the girl refer to her new sibling as the “ding-dang baby” gives her character an immediate, believable voice. Her emphatic use of this moniker encapsulizes her frustration, jealousy and underlying fear of change.


Of course I love Woodson’s use of pecan pie — a shared delight between mother and child to cement their special bond, and eventually this sweet comfort food, as it is shared among the “three” of them, helps smooth the transition. Sophie Blackall’s beautifully warm and expressive illustrations perfectly complement this masterfully executed story.

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7. James Bear’s Pie by Jim Latimer and Betsy Franco-Feeny (Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1992).

Tired of eating grass and alfalfa, James Bear–with the help of his friends Skunk and Aloysius Crow–bakes a pie so big that he almost gets lost inside it.

jamesComic exaggeration seems to be a favorite device in tasty pie stories, and though this oldie but goodie is long by today’s picture book standards (especially for the littlest munchkins), it’s worth a look. I like the earnest friendship established between James Bear and Skunk early on, the gentle bumbling nature of JB, and the fact that a creature much smaller than he is (Crow) ultimately rescues him. There is a refreshing innocence about these animals — it is with good intentions that Crow suggests James make a “bread-crust pie” since he doesn’t have a pie cookbook on hand.

Bear using thirty-six cakes of yeast instead of six cakes accounts for the uncontrolled expanding of the dough, which engulfs him after he’s gorged himself on at least 11 pieces of pie. Kids will love the giant ever growing pie and imagining what it would be like to be trapped inside among piles of soybeans and raisins. We can all relate to being tired of the same-old, same-old, and it’s reassuring to know that our friends will help us out should we venture a change. I like Franco-Feeny’s charming illustrations, which remind me of Jan Brett without the decorative borders. A cozy read aloud perfect for a Fall day.

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8. Tiny Pie by Mark Bailey, Michael Oatman and Edward Hemingway (Running Press Kids, 2013).

tinyLittle Ellie the elephant is the only kid at a grown-up party. No one is paying any attention to poor Ellie, and she can’t reach the food! Why must everything be for big people? Then to Ellie’s surprise, she discovers a little chef mouse inside a hole in the wall, and he’s filming a cooking show! Ellie can see that his sharp senses are key ingredients for a successful tiny pie. Will this be the perfect snack that’s just her size? As an added treat, Alice Waters has contributed a delicious tiny apple pie recipe perfect for little hands (and big appetites)!

An endlessly charming, too adorable for words tale that speaks to a child’s craving for empowerment: ” . . . if you’re big enough to eat dessert, then you can make it too.”

Just as the giant monster pies in the other stories proved irresistible, the tiny pies in this story, prepared by a wise mouse chef for his enthusiastic whiskered audience-turned-party guests are a most delicious way to show kids that “Whether you are big, small, short, or tall, you will always find the perfect dish.”


I love elephants to begin with and seeing the nattily dressed mice partying in the kitchen with their tiny pies was a big win-win for me. Hemingway’s retro backdrop adds loads of visual appeal, while Bailey and Oatman’s endearing narrative with its question-answer format and appeal to the five senses is a heart stealer. Alice Waters’s Tiny Pie Recipe in the back is for turnovers rather than double crust pies as shown in the story, and seems too complicated for young bakers to attempt without lots of grown-up help. Still, the fact that the mouse party seemed like a lot more fun than the adult party should satisfy and delight tiny pie lovers everywhere. Bonus: fabuloso party illustration hidden beneath the dust jacket. Part of the proceeds from the sale of this book goes to the Edible Schoolyard Project. :)

All for pie and pie for all!

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Copyright © 2014 Jama Rattigan of Jama’s Alphabet Soup. All rights reserved.

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Ciao a tutti! Hello Everyone!

Today we’re happy to be celebrating the official release of Spaghetti Smiles by Margo Sorenson and David Harrington (Pelican Publishing Co., 2014).

This playful, lip-smacking story has been cooked up with just the right ingredients: a book lovin’ boy, a crazy-fun uncle, lots of savory, tomato-y, kiss-your-fingertips Italian food, the joys of reading with family, and the importance of a close-knit community.

But more about the book in a minute.

First, a few party accoutrements. :)


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Ahem. It’s time to sit up straight, place our napkins in our laps, and make polite conversation at the table.

Or, we can fling meatballs at each other.

I leave it to you to decide which would be more fun and/or politically correct. :)

To help make up your mind, why not take a bite or two of Dinner with the Highbrows: A Story About Good (or Bad) Manners (Henry Holt, 2014) by Kimberly Willis Holt and Kyrsten Brooker?

Bernard could hardly wait until next Saturday. He was invited to eat dinner with Gilbert Highbrow’s family. Bernard had never eaten at a friend’s house.

Bernard’s mom is all a-fluster. The Highbrows live in “a fine house” and only the best manners will do for such posh people. She coaches Bernard all week on the essentials: compliment and thank the hosts, say a blessing, no elbows on the table, don’t talk with your mouth full, no singing!, help clear the dishes. Bernard practices and practices, hoping he’ll be able to remember all the rules.

Illustrations © 2014 Kyrsten Brooker

On Saturday, he’s excited but nervous. When he finally gets to the Highbrows’, he’s greeted by shouts and cheers and quickly whisked off with the family to Antonio’s restaurant in a white limousine.


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Put on your aprons, lab coats and best bibs!

Ann McCallum and Leeza Hernandez, who tessellated our taste buds and dispelled our fear of polygons, fractions and tangrams with their delightful Eat Your Math Homework: Recipes for Hungry Minds (Charlesbridge, 2011), have just published a wonderful companion cookbook featuring six edible science projects.

In Eat Your Science Homework: Recipes for Inquiring Minds (Charlesbridge 2014), they serve up a bit of geology, chemistry, astrophysics and forensics, successfully turning “toil into tasty and drudgery into delicious.”

EYSH 6-7

When you think about it, the kitchen is the best laboratory around — a fun place to experiment with various ingredients and methods with delectable and sometimes surprising results. Ann’s recipes give upper elementary kids a chance to learn about The Scientific Method, Atoms and Molecules, Properties of Matter, Inherited Traits, Rocks and Minerals, and Our Solar System with hands-on activities in a familiar setting.

Author and Recipe Maven Ann McCallum shows off Atomic Popcorn Balls (photo by Tom Fedor/The Gazette)

A little puzzled about atoms, elements and molecules? Munch on a batch of Atomic Popcorn Balls. Ever wonder why oil and vinegar don’t like to mix? Dip some veggies into a honey barbecue sauce dressing while contemplating density. And what are black holes, anyway? See how gravity swallows up sausage bits right in your muffin tin. And I can’t think of a more appetizing way to understand sedimentary layers than by making a pan of pizza lasagna.  :)

Atomic Popcorn Balls photo by Ann McCallum


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Remember when I shared Diane DeCillis’s exquisite poem, “Opera Buffa”?

I’m still sighing over “gnocchi lifted itself off the fork” and that lovely Panna Cotta — “silky, quivering cream adorned with fresh berries.” Remember silly Antonio, who wasn’t interested in ordering dessert? You simply cannot trust a man who doesn’t like sweets!

After reading “Opera Buffa,” I yearned for more of Diane’s poetry, which is why I was ecstatic when her debut collection, Strings Attached (Wayne State University Press, 2014), was released in May.

What a beautiful, lush, finely crafted feast of brilliance!

Her 60+ poems tease the intellect, warm the heart, please the ear, whet the physical and spiritual appetites, and nourish artistic sensibilities with their worldly elegance, lyricism, surprising turns-of-phrase, and evocative narratives.

I love how Diane’s passions for art, music, literature, food and family inform structure, theme, cadence, image, and metaphor. As in “Opera Buffa,” the food-related poems are infused with tantalizing sensory detail, whether she muses about her Lebanese grandmother’s stuffed grape leaves or leban (yogurt), “ethereal profiteroles filled with crème de la moo,” or terrapin soup à la Babette’s Feast.

Pop culture and high art happily co-exist in the layers of Diane’s imagination as she riffs on the likes of Van Gogh, Cezanne, Picasso, Magritte, Duncan Hines Pineapple Cake Mix, Tab Hunter/ Sandra Dee in a fleabag motel, Chopin, Debussy, Rilke, Gertrude Stein, “Like Water for Chocolate,” “Punch Drunk Love.”

Stuffed Grape Leaves via Jean Rivot

Diane brings her own brand of self-deprecating humor to these poems (“What Would Hitchcock Do?”), but there are also poignant notes of longing for an absent father (“Finding Fathers”), the push-pull dynamics of generational clashes (“Milk”), the vagaries of love, the liberation of dreams, the richness of cultural heritage.

Today I’m happy to share one of several prose poems from Strings Attached, perhaps the “foodiest” in the collection. I love how Diane has composed this sensorial symphony of sounds, colors, flavors, aromas and textures, lovingly capturing a cherished moment in time. A masterful culinary canvas!

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