Any time you and your munchkins are in the mood to eat out, no need to call ahead, dress up, or risk the ho-hum food often found on children’s menus.
Just skip over to your local library and grab a few of these tasty picture books for meals that will excite, inspire, and feed the imagination. I’ve been doing my own literary restaurant tour the past few weeks, and am happy to report there are mucho picture books featuring chefs and restaurants. Most of them seem to favor cafés and diners, with lots of animal characters and cumulative tales ramping up the action with every bite.
Strange and wonderful things happen in restaurants, in real life and in books. Though every good picture book features a world unto itself, the world of a restaurant book is a natural gathering place for adventure-hungry, curious, mischievous, sly, zany and sometimes dangerous characters. It’s the perfect set-up for an unexpected occurrence, a dramatic entrance, or a lesson on table manners. I got to dine at all these places, eat/read my fill, and it didn’t cost me a dime. So take a seat (your table here is always ready), tuck in your napkins, and enjoy!
THE BEST RESTAURANT IN THE WORLD by Michelle Schwarz, pictures by Roland Harvey (Dutton, 2002). The perfect antidote for boring restaurants serving boring food and filled with boring conversation is the Super Sailing Sea Restaurant. Be patient, wait on the beach, and if you’re lucky, little round Chef Peppi will come ashore in his tin tub to pick you up for a feast beyond your wildest dreams: cotton candy clouds, fish made of Jello tasting like anything you could wish for, floating chocolate castles, and a special dessert that can only be found at the bottom of the ocean (seaweed sprinkled with jimmies — salty, sweet, colorful and round). Harvey’s droll, highly detailed pencil and watercolor illos are ice-creamy delicious. An Australian import that will set imaginations soaring.
INSIDE THE SLIDY DINER by Laurel Snyder, pictures by Jaime Zollars (Tricycle Press, 2008). Deliciously disgusting in all its greasy, slimy, insect-ridden glory, the Slidy Diner is a must stop if you’re in the mood for an unforgettable meal. Join Edie, who transgressed over a stolen lemon drop and is happy to describe the place, the customers, and the food (?) she knows all too well. On the menu: recycled sticky buns covered in bugs, pumpkin asparagus pie with unidentified crunchy-bit topping, Greasily Niblets, hive-inducing coffee, ladyfingers and the house specialty, Lumps and Dumplins. Compelling, highly original and darkly comic, strange is as strange does. Every word works, the illos take us beyond, and we’ll never know — real or imaginary? Brilliant work by two former waitresses; definitely not a chain restaurant ☺! (Faboo review at 7-Imp.)
A CRAZY DAY AT THE CRITTER CAFÉ by Barbara Odanaka, pictures by Lee White (Margaret K. McElderry Books, 2009). What happens when a bus full of hungry animals breaks down outside the Critter Café? A quiet little spot turns into maniacal mayhem! How do the waiters satisfy rowdy raccoons, an elephant band, macaws, turtles, lizards, lambs, penguins, zebras, kangaroos, rams, and a swishing, zooming, clickety-clack skateboarding cow?! Noisy, squawky, howling, crawling, yipping, squeaking, grumbling, demanding critters with an attitude explode from the pages of this rhyming riff guaranteed to knock the socks off the read-aloud crowd. If you don’t mind the noise, and crave apple pie, cherry strudel, chips and salsa, root beer floats and strawberry sundaes, this is the place for you. You gotta love those pencil thin moustaches on the cook and waiter and the frenzied crescendo of fun. Mind the flying food and go for it!
BIG JIMMY’S KUM KAU CHINESE TAKE OUT by Ted Lewin (HarperCollins, 2002). This is one book you’ll want to “take out” again and again. A young boy describes what goes on behind the scenes in his family’s take-out restaurant. From first delivery of goods early in the morning, to watching the eight cooks chop, steam, fry, and sizzle such mouthwatering dishes as Buddha’s Delight, Subgum Chow Mai Fun, and Moo Goo Gai Pan in woks resembling mini volcanoes, this story will definitely have readers drooling and begging for Chinese food.
Lewin created the illos from photographs taken at the real Kum Kau Restaurant, which he frequents in his own neighborhood in Brooklyn. There are fascinating glimpses of cooks chopping and slicing big piles of chicken, pork, flank steak, green peppers, broccoli, and cabbage. And because it’s a neighborhood restaurant, we meet the regular customers, who are known by their orders. A surprise ending reveals the boy’s favorite dish. With cool Chinese take-out menu endpapers and a recipe for Buddha’s Delight. Yummers!
TROUBLE AT THE DINOSAUR CAFE by Brian Moses, pictures by Garry Parsons (Walker & Company, 2006). Uh-oh. Readers with prehistoric appetites who like their meals flavored with danger and suspense will gobble up this terrifying tale. A bunch of peace loving plant eaters must contend with ravenous Tyrannosaurus, who after reading the menu and eating it, decides he must have MEAT! Growling and threatening Steggy, Iggy and Patty with instant extinction, he is eventually brought to his knees by Terry Triceratops, who saves his friends from becoming dinosaur stew. Parsons uses perspective to great effect in capturing the gigantic terribleness of Tyrannosaurus, and the facial expressions of the other dinosaurs convincingly depict fear, determination, and finally victory. Told in rhyming couplets, this will make for a highly dramatic read aloud, with a big laugh at the end. Readers will definitely ask for seconds.
MINNIE’S DINER: A MULTIPLYING MENU by Dayle Ann Dodds, pictures by John Manders (Candlewick Press, 2004). If, like the Brothers McFay, you’re itchin’ for some hot cherry pies and some other diner grub, head on down to Minnie’s Diner. There, you’ll delight in this funny, rollicking rhyming tale of five brothers who neglect their chores once they get a whiff of Minnie’s cooking. It starts with little Will, who leaves his cow-milking and follows his nose to the diner, where he orders “1 soup, 1 salad, 1 sandwich, some fries, and 1 of her special hot cherry pies.”
The concept of doubling reigns supreme as each brother, twice as big as the one before, orders twice as much food, leaving poor Minnie tottering under a huge tray of dishes. Cartoony illos showing eye-popping quantities and farm hands in blue overalls are sure to work up a decidedly down-home appetite. Where else could you order 32 bowls of tomato soup?
♥ I think that’s enough for one sitting. Go ahead — get up, walk around, burp a few times. Stay tuned for Picture Book Restaurants, Part Two, coming soon to a stovetop laptop near you.
Copyright © 2009 Jama Rattigan of jama rattigan’s alphabet soup. All rights reserved.