[review + author chat] Margo Sorenson on Little Calabash

Aloha, Friends! If you’re in the mood for a little taste of sunny Hawaii, you’ve come to the right place: Margo Sorenson is back to talk about her latest picture book, Little Calabash (Island Heritage, 2020).

This sweet and satisfying story, illustrated in vibrant, fruity colors by Anneth Lagamo, will delight young readers who enjoy anthropomorphic characters, lively wordplay, and kicking back in the kitchen. 🙂

It’s Keoki’s birthday, and his mom is busy making some delicious treats for his party: haupia pudding, starfruit cookies, and mango cupcakes with guava frosting. As she stirs, mixes, grates, rolls, and pours, she uses a number of different kitchen utensils and calabashes.

But not Little Calabash. He wants to help too, but so far he’s been left out. Is he too small to be of use? Does this mean he isn’t special like the other calabashes?

Some are not so sympathetic.

“Stop your whining,” said the goblet.

You need to chill out,” the refrigerator said, frostily.

“Quit trying to stir up trouble,” said the wooden spoon.

Little Calabash felt a tear form.

Yet others are supportive and encouraging, like the coffee pot, who whispers, “Perk up, kid. You are special. Keep believing in yourself. You’ll see.”

Little Calabash keeps his hopes up, determined to be used for the party. He’s stuck in the back of the shelf, behind the bigger calabashes. Keoki’s mom won’t use him if she can’t find him, right? So he gradually wiggles his way to the front of the cupboard shelf, inch by inch, paying no attention to naysayers like the frying pan, toaster, and teaspoon, who says, “You just don’t measure up.”

Will Little Calabash’s initiative finally pay off? How does Little Calabash make Keoki feel like a big kid on his birthday?

While Margo shows off her skills as an enthusiastic punster, Anneth fills the kitchen with cheeky, emotive culinary characters who sparkle with personality. Kids will never look at kitchen paraphernalia the same way ever again, not after they’ve heard the cocoa mug, mixer, and colander have their say.

Everything has a face, and the various expressions make each piece distinctive. Kids will love poring over the illustrations to check out every tiny detail. Who wouldn’t be tickled by laughing eggs and chopsticks, adorable marshmallows, and an entire platter of smiley fruit? The can opener appears to be quite friendly, while the colander is decidedly aloof. Even the little cork in the olive oil bottle is grinning, while the other calabashes, in all their winsome brownness, come off as warm and lovable.

Kids will root for Little Calabash as they’re reminded that everyone counts, no matter their size. They’ll enjoy pointing out all the different pieces of kitchen equipment and will likely have a good chuckle over the punny dialogue. They can also find out more about the island treats mentioned in the story in the lip-smacking glossary.

Now, let’s hear what Margo has to say about writing the book. We thank her for sharing lots of personal photos and a favorite recipe from Hawaii. And yes, she has her very own calabash!

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(Background photo mural of Mokolua Islands by Judy Richardson)

What initially inspired this story? Did you have a theme in mind, or did you want to write about calabashes?

This story began with the title of “Little Cup.” I often write about kids overcoming obstacles and becoming part of a team, but, in that version, the story just didn’t seem to resonate with editors. I think it was because it didn’t have a “hook,” something that would give it some “snap,” to set it apart from the rest of the manuscripts editors were receiving. It was sort of an “oatmeal” story, as I used to tell my English students.

Then, it occurred to me that if I could give it a Hawaiian setting, thus giving it some snap, that might help it to stand out from the crowd, and Little Calabash took front and center stage. 

Office that Margo shares with her husband Jim

I picked a calabash because calabashes can symbolize “ohana”– family –in Hawaii. In the islands, “calabash cousin” (friends who often share meals together from the same calabash serving dish) is a beloved expression, and I love the symbolism of shared meals, because they bring people together. 

I have fond memories of all the shared meals (often with chopsticks, of course!) with our friends on the islands….precious times. When people introduce their friends as “calabash cousins,” you know they are dear friends. So, in Little Calabash, the fact that a calabash is so important speaks to the importance of ohana — family feeling — which is a special quality of life in Hawaii, one that we treasure.

Margo and her husband Jim at their 50th Anniversary Party in Kailua, which was attended by lots of local friends and mainland family members.

Looks like you had a lot of fun with wordplay. Did you begin using it from the beginning, or did it evolve with subsequent drafts? 

Because I am a hapless punster (just ask my family!), I couldn’t help it, right from the beginning. In fact, my editor at Island Heritage politely asked if I minded cutting out a few of them (yes, there were more!). I agreed to cutting just a few, because our Adorables (grandchildren) loved the puns. “It’s a jokey-kind of book,” they said, and I couldn’t deprive them of that. 😉

Tell us about a time in your childhood when you felt left out or when believing in yourself paid off.

I felt left out when my family moved to the US from Italy (we were there with the Diplomatic Service) when I was seven. I had never lived full-time in the US before, though I had visited my grandparents each year for a few weeks on “home leave” from the Diplomatic Service. 

When I arrived, I was totally clueless, never having used a telephone by myself, my family hadn’t owned a TV, and I’d never seen a 45 RPM record, much less heard of Elvis Presley. Whatever “being cool” was, I had no idea–I probably thought it was a temperature in Celsius. 

Five-year-old Margo with her first car in Bari, Italy

I didn’t attend an American school full-time until the fifth grade, (I was home-schooled for a year and a-half) and I had already skipped a grade, so I was nine, a year younger than everyone else (not a plus!). When I finally got to go to school, I found, in addition to all my other sad cultural deficiencies, I was also the only kid in my class who spoke three languages and thought that was normal; back in Italy, most of  my friends did, too. Just imagine how well I fit into my fifth grade class. 😉 

I quickly learned to be very quiet and, eventually, that took care of the “left out” feeling! 🙂 We all know there are times when kids — even the ones who are “popular”– feel isolated and alone, and trying to help them feel a part of a “team” is important.

Little Calabash finally makes his own way by himself, (*spoiler alert*), but he does have encouragement from some of his kitchen friends, like the coffee pot who tells him to “perk up.” I hope young readers will see the value of encouraging others and creating a feeling of “ohana” and teamwork.

Please describe and share a fond memory about your calabash.

The Punahou School (high school) Speech and Debate Team, (which I co-coached along with two of my amazing faculty colleagues, Paula Hodges and Darlee Kishimoto), gave me the calabash as a going-away gift, because our family was moving to the Mainland. It was so much fun coaching those students; they made me laugh with their witticisms and definitely kept me on my toes. 

The treasured calabash they gave me, on display in our living room, reminds me of those wonderful times teaching at Punahou, which is indeed an amazing “ohana” in and of itself, of working with those very talented kids on the team, and of our family’s ten aloha-filled  years in the islands.

What do you like most about Anneth Lagamo’s illustrations? Did anything surprise you? Do you have a favorite spread?

I love everything about her illustrations — they are so whimsical. She gives humdrum kitchen appliances such vibrancy and life, (will you ever look at a can opener in the same way again?), and she drew the calabashes each with their own personalities — they are very special, and that did surprise me.

My favorite illustration is the one showing the joy on Keoki’s face when he gets his own little calabash for his birthday cupcake — mirrored by the joyful expression on Little Calabash’s own face.

This is the first time I’ve noticed your use of a Hawaiian middle name on a book cover. What does it mean, how did you acquire it, and why did you decide to include it?

My Hawaiian name, Leipua’ala (lasting gifts for children), given to me by dear Hawaiian family friends, means a great deal to me. I’d always wanted one, because of the tradition it represents and because Hawaii is in my heart, but, according to Hawaiian tradition, you cannot make up your own name; it must be given to you by a Hawaiian.

Many years ago, I told my dear friend, Wendy Haunani, that I wished I had one. Her son, Punawai, whom I’ve known since he was four, graduated in Hawaiian Studies from the University of Hawaii. Shortly thereafter, he and his wife, Hokulani, gifted me the name.

Margo’s Hawaiian name is engraved on this beautiful bracelet.

My friends presented their explanation of my name in this way: “The lei represents the books you create which are gifts for the younger generation. The pua are all the children to whom you dedicate your work. And the fragrance or ‘ala is the lasting imagery from your books the children will take with them into adulthood.” 

According to Hawaiian custom, it is mine legally to use in any situation, and my Island Heritage publishers were delighted, because it added a Hawaiian flavor to my very Norwegian name. I feel very honored to be able to use it, and I treasure the tradition that it represents. 

Do you have any suggestions for using Little Calabash in the classroom?

I can see teachers asking kids to name a time when they saw someone else (many kids don’t want to admit they themselves feel that way!) being left out, describe it, and then ask them what they would offer to do for that child or to say to him or her. That would help kids focus on empathy and understanding and give them a clear choice of action.

Skype visit with NY first graders

Another activity would be to ask kids to make up their own puns with objects in the classroom saying things to Little Calabash to help them tap their creativity and silliness.

What do you hope kids will take away from this book? 

I hope that they will feel encouraged to never give up, to encourage others, to create a sense of ohana — and also to engage in silly word play.

School visit at Ladera Ranch ES in California

Please share a favorite recipe from Hawaii, and provide a little backstory about it.

Fried rice is one of our family’s favorite recipes, and it’s from Hawaiian friends, of course. We have fond memories of so many meals shared with friends that included fried rice, so just making it brings back wonderful memories. When we first moved to Kauai and opened an American Savings bank account, we got a free rice cooker. That is the very same rice cooker we’re still using, forty-plus years later! Our daughters learned how to wash the rice when they could first stand up, and they each have their own rice cookers, now, of course. It is a heartwarming meal and makes fabulous leftovers–serve it in a calabash for all your calabash cousins, and make your own “ohana” memories!

Local-Style Da Kine Fried Rice

  • Servings: four
  • Difficulty: average
  • Print

Ingredients

  • pot of cooked rice (about 2-2/3 cups raw)
  • 2 tablespoons sesame oil
  • 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 5 large eggs
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 5 slices bacon
  • 1/4 cup green onions, chopped

Directions

  1. Cook a pot of short grain rice and let it cool overnight or longer in the fridge in a ziplock.
  2. In saute pan, put about 2 T each sesame oil and vegetable oil. Heat.
  3. Beat five eggs briefly with a fork and 1 teaspoon salt and pour into oil. Cook as if you are making scrambled eggs.
  4. Remove eggs from pan with slotted spoon and put in bowl. Keep the oil in the pan.
  5. Cut up five slices of bacon into 1/2″ pieces. Put in sauce pan and fry till crisp. Remove to same bowl as eggs.
  6. Put rice into saute pan and fry for about ten or fifteen minutes, turning every now and then.
  7. Put bacon and eggs back into pan and add about 1/4 cup or more chopped green onion.
  8. Simmer, stirring every fifteen minutes or so, for about 45 minutes.
  9. Grab your chopsticks!
~ from Margo Sorenson, author of Little Calabash, as posted at Jama’s Alphabet Soup

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LITTLE CALABASH
written by Margo Leipua’ala Sorenson
illustrated by Anneth Lagamo
published by Island Heritage, 2020
Picture Book for ages 4-8, 24 pp.

*You may also order by phone via the Island Heritage Toll Free Customer Service No: (800) 468-2800


♥️ Visit Margo Sorenson’s Official Website to learn more about all her books, and for information about school visits via Skype or Zoom.

♥️ Read my earlier interview with Margo about Aloha for Carol Ann, where she discusses the spirit of aloha and lists her favorite Hawaiian foods.

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*Interior spreads from Little Calabash copyright © 2020 Island Heritage. All rights reserved.

**Copyright © 2021 Jama Rattigan of Jama’s Alphabet Soup. All rights reserved.

22 thoughts on “[review + author chat] Margo Sorenson on Little Calabash

  1. Congrats on this cute looking book, Margo, from a fellow punster! I love your Hawaii photos and really wish I had my own calabash . . .

    Like

  2. What a wonderful review of a very delightful book! Great interview, too. Margo is truly an amazing author with an admirably rich background. She is such an asset to the children’s book community!

    Like

  3. Margo’s clever words and Anneth’s creative illustrations make what looks like a really special book, Jama. I agree with Margo that I won’t ever look at a can opener the same again & as Margo writes: “Try to keep an open mind”. I will! Thanks for sharing this, Jama!

    Like

  4. What a wonderful interview! Love how punny Margo is and Little Calabash is adorable.
    Congratulations Margo!!! I enjoyed learning more about you. Now I’m off to the library to get a copy.

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  5. I love your book Margo, and will order it soon! Thanks for sharing your story with us, and we’ll be thinking of you and Jim when we visit Kauai in June. Bud and Marilyn

    Like

  6. Simply delightful! I agree with your ‘Adorables”! Kitchen items will never be the same after reading the “jokey book”. The message also comes across loud and clear.

    Like

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