Posts Tagged ‘book reviews’

Put on your aprons and dancing shoes, it’s time to SALSA!

So pleased to see another yummy book in Jorge Argueta’s popular bilingual Cooking Poem Series. Previously, Jorge treated us to Sopa de frijoles/Bean Soup (2009), Arroz con leche/Rice Pudding (2010), Guacamole (2012), and Tamalitos (2013). Mmmmm!

Now, with Salsa (Groundwood Books, 2015), illustrated by Pura Belpré winner Duncan Tonatiuh, Argueta infuses his lyrical, lip-smacking recipe with savory musical instruments, lively rhythms, a wealth of sensory details, and just the right amount of spice to make readers crave more.

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A young boy first describes the molcajete, a type of stone bowl dating back to the time of the ancient Aztec, Mayan, and Nahua peoples used to grind tomatoes, corn, chilies, vegetables and spices. He mentions how every weekend his family uses their molcajete to make salsa while they sing and dance.

Before proceeding, he and his sister “play” the ingredients from their very own “salsa orchestra”:

I am ready with four tomatoes.
They are bongos and kettledrums.
My onion is a maraca.
Cloves of garlic are trumpets,
and the cilantro is the orchestra conductor
with his shaggy, green hair.


Ya tengo listos cuatro tomates.
Son bongos y timbales.
La cebolla es una maraca.
Los ajos son trompetas,
y el cilantro un director de orquesta
con su pelo verde todo despeinado.


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Once, when we were living in England, Len and I discovered some wild blackberry bushes growing in Wimbledon Common across the street from the school where I was teaching. I was excited because I’d never even seen a blackberry in person before, let alone eat one, and I remembered that famous last line from The Tale of Peter Rabbit:

Flopsy, Mopsy, and Cotton-tail had bread and milk and blackberries for supper.

The ones we picked were a little sour, but good with sugar and a dollop of cream. Because of that fond memory, I’ll always associate blackberries with England. I also like to tell the story of how because we didn’t have a whisk or rotary beater in our little flat, Len whipped the cream with a fork! I knew then I had to marry that man with his power arm. :)

Thus enamored of blackberries, I recently devoured a gorgeous new picture book by Emily Jenkins and Sophie Blackall featuring A Fine Dessert called blackberry fool, a decadent English sweet dating back to the 16th century consisting of blackberries, cream and sugar.

In this wholly delectable story, we are treated to not one, but FOUR servings of blackberry fool prepared by four families from four different centuries. Such a tasty slice of food and social history! The families all follow the same recipe steps, but of course ingredient sourcing, methods, tools, and technology change through time. They’re united by their love of this dessert and the joy, anticipation and satisfaction that come with making it. No surprise — they all love to lick the bowl — viable proof that some things never change. :)


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Stories about runaway food — whether pancakes, bannocks, rice cakes, latkes, tortillas or gingerbread men — have long delighted children of all ages. Though Queen Elizabeth I is credited with the first man-shaped gingerbread cookie, portraying the Gingerbread Boy as a story hero is a uniquely American invention. The cheeky, spicy guy first appeared in print in an 1875 issue of St. Nicholas Magazine, and he’s been running and taunting readers ever since.

In the charmingly clever interactive mystery Catch that Cookie (2014), which was inspired by author Hallie Durand’s son, young Marshall doesn’t believe gingerbread men can walk or run. Sure, he’s heard all the stories his teacher Mrs. Gray has shared with the class, but Marshall doesn’t buy any of it. Cookies are for eating, period.

When it’s time for them to make their own gingerbread boys, Marshall enjoys mixing the dough (Mrs. Gray tells him he “rocked” it), and decorating his little man with “good stuff”: six raisins for eyes and a special silver-ball belt. But later when Mrs. Gray unlocks the oven to retrieve the baked cookies, they’re gone!


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Most of us remember when we first read Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, and how it profoundly changed and affected us. It’s just that kind of book.

I was in sixth grade and read it for Mrs. Whang’s English class. We were all a little afraid of Mrs. Whang — she was notorious for being unfailingly strict and rarely smiled. No matter the assignment, only the best would do. For Little Women, we were divided into groups of four and asked to act out our favorite scene(s).

We decided on the first chapter and I was to play Jo. We dressed up in long skirts and shawls and I remember bounding onto the “stage” in my best tomboy fashion and blurting out, “Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents.” So began a lifelong love for all of Alcott’s books and a fierce yearning for the quintessential New England Christmas — a dreamlike fantasy of snow-blanketed landscapes and cozy fires, something about as foreign as you can imagine when you live in the land of palm trees and eternal summers.

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Heather Vogel Frederick’s new picture book adaptation of the Christmas episode from Little Women is a lovely way to meet the March sisters for the first time and bask in cherished holiday scenes brimming with the spirit of giving and gratitude. Frederick interweaves key elements from Alcott’s novel as she distills the essence of this holiday story (Beth’s frail health, Father away at war, Jo and Laurie’s friendship, Jo cutting and selling her hair, making do with what they have).


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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.

*   *   *

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.

*    *    *

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?

*   *   *

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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