Mmmmmm! There’s nothing like the tantalizing aroma of a brand new picture book to put me in a happy holiday mood. Even better when it’s been cooked up by two immensely talented women — multiple Emmy award winner Sonia Manzano and two-time Caldecott Honor recipient Marjorie Priceman.
Miracle on 133rd Street (Atheneum, 2015) contains just the right ingredients for a satisfying, heartwarming read: family, friends, neighbors, sharing, a little bit of magic, music, and even a mustached pizza chef!
Most important, this story is about the power of food — to soothe the savage breast, bring people together, and beget joy.
The food in question is a roast. A BIG roast. One that’s too big to fit in the oven. It’s Christmas Eve and Mami is beside herself. She’s also homesick for Puerto Rico, where she could have easily cooked the roast outside. Jokingly, young José says what they need is a big pizza oven. Papi thinks that’s actually a good idea, so they put the roast in a big box to take it to Regular Ray’s Pizzeria.
On the way downstairs, Papi and José encounter some of the neighbors who live in their apartment building. The holidays are often a stressful time, and people are out of sorts. Mrs. Whitman’s kids are driving her crazy, the Santiagos are lonely, the Wozenskys and DiPalmas are worried about money, Ms. Simon is fed up with shopping. Pretty hard to get into the Christmas spirit.
Outside, the falling snow is making others grumpy, but Papi and José merrily trek to the pizzeria. Kind Mr. Ray agrees to lend them his big oven, and while they are waiting for the roast to cook, José falls asleep next to Mr. Ray’s Christmas tree. Three hours later, he’s awakened by
A most glorious scent. A scent so garlicky and olive oily and delicious it made you want to eat — even if you weren’t hungry. A bouquet that made you feel excited, except you didn’t know why. A smell that made you feel something wonderful could happen, but you didn’t know what.
The aroma seemed to lift José to his feet and wrap itself around all of them like a scarf.
Oh, can’t you just about smell it too? Papi invites Mr. Ray to help them eat the roast, so the three of them make their way back home neath a clear blue-black sky with bright stars. As the heavenly aroma envelopes them, they dreamily drift and weave and waft along, their feet barely touching the ground. One whiff, and Mr. Happy the Christmas tree seller decides to give a disgruntled customer a free tree. One whiff, and people stop bickering and begin remembering good things. Neighbors open their doors to ask, “Is that a roast I smell?” They cannot help themselves; they’re all entranced by the magical scent.
As Papi invites them all over to share the wondrous roast, they bring cookies, cakes, their guitars, their good will. Now the swoony smelling roast reminds Mami of home, and miraculously everyone fits into one tiny apartment, where they all celebrate a gloriously happy, chatty, utterly delicious Christmas together.
Ms. Manzano (“Maria” from Sesame Street) has written a beautiful, timeless story that embraces the values we all hold dear. I love her diverse cast of characters, their interesting personalities, and the realistic way she’s portrayed them — everyday people stressed out by the holidays, and who, very much like us, sometimes need a little nudge to get into the holiday spirit.
I am guessing — judging by the smell being “garlicky and olive oily” — that she’s referring to the roast being seasoned with a Puerto Rican style adobo-mojado, a wet rub consisting of crushed garlic, olive oil, salt, pepper, oregano-brujo, and perhaps a little citrus juice. No matter if the roast in the story is pork, beef, veal or vegan — it nonetheless signifies comfort, happy memories, special occasions, and togetherness.
As a longtime Marjorie Priceman fan, I was thrilled to see her exuberant gouache paintings with their dazzling, vibrant colors, swirly lines and trademark whimsy. Her cheery, festive pictures dotted with fat snowflakes and brimming with likable, energetic people are instantly uplifting. She has splendidly captured both the hectic holiday bustle as well as the warmth of community.
I especially love the aroma-laden swirls emanating from the roast, and the Chagallesque pictures of blissful people floating on air behind it. A most satisfying feast of a book that’ll remind you of all the times a delicious aroma made you stop in your tracks and forget everything else. Here’s to an unforgettable holiday dinner: when you walk in the door, may you be compelled to say, “Mmmmmm! Something smells good!”
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MIRACLE ON 133rd STREET
written by Sonia Manzano
illustrated by Marjorie Priceman
published by Atheneum BFYR, September 2015
Picture Book for ages 4-8, 48 pp.
**Starred Reviews from Booklist, Kirkus, and Publishers Weekly
Copyright © 2015 Jama Rattigan of Jama’s Alphabet Soup. All rights reserved.