holiday grab bag: Susan Branch’s Home for Christmas, Cranberry Tea Cake, a poem, and a wee blog break

“What one loves in childhood stays in the heart forever.” ~ Mary Jo Putney

Ho Ho Ho and Merry Merry!

How are you faring this holiday season? If you’re like me, you’re probably craving generous helpings of comfort, reassurance, and nostalgia to temper the reality of what has been the craziest, scariest, most distressing, heartbreaking, and unpredictable year ever.

As if she knew exactly what we needed, dear Susan Branch recently published Home for Christmas (Spring Street Publishing, 2020), a keepsake book that speaks to the very essence of the holiday: love, family, joy, cherished traditions and good food.

In a nutshell: good things come in small packages. There is so much more to this little book than meets the eye.

Yes, it contains Susan’s amiable handwritten text (does she ever get writer’s cramp?), a bevy of carefully chosen quotes, and of course, her charming watercolor illustrations.

She relates, in earnest and intricate detail, what her childhood Christmases were like, pointedly channeling her 9-year-old self in 1956.

Though I also loved her wonderful memoir trilogy, I found this book especially touching because her pure child’s heart fills every page.

Aside from being with family, when we say we want to be “home for Christmas,” perhaps what we truly mean is we wish we could be kids again, experiencing Christmas when it was magical, over-the-top exciting, and full of wonder. Before our adult selves equated the holiday with too much busyness, stress, reluctant obligations, and the whole bah-humbug thing, there was a time, when, with every ounce of our being, we believed.

Susan was inspired, in part, by Dorothy Thompson’s Once on Christmas (1938), which she had read to her nieces (photo by Susan Branch).

Just in case you’ve forgotten, Susan’s here to remind you — of the anticipation that steadily built to a fever pitch from right after Thanksgiving until the big day finally arrived.

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[zesty review + recipe] Our Little Kitchen by Jillian Tamaki

Tie on your apron!
Roll up your sleeves!
Pans are out, oven is hot.
The kitchen's all ready,
where do we start?

From its very first cheery HELLO! . . . to its final glorious SLURP!, this exuberant, soul-nourishing story demonstrates the good that can come when ordinary people work together to help others.

In Our Little Kitchen (Abrams BFYR, 2020), Caldecott honoree Jillian Tamaki takes us inside a bustling community kitchen, where every Wednesday a crew of hardworking volunteers prepares a meal for their neighbors.

They’re a resourceful, ethnically diverse bunch who get the job done with their no-nonsense brand of high energy, cacophonous teamwork.

Upon arrival, young and old waste no time in assessing available ingredients: “what we’ve grown, what we’ve kept, been given, and bought!”

In the garden they find ripe tomatoes and zucchini, though “the lettuce is holey,” the carrots too small. But in the fridge, a purple-haired teen boy jubilantly discovers carrots, celery and radishes.

They know how to make the best possible use of what’s on hand, cutting the brown bits off apples to make a sweet crumble, tossing day-old bread into the oven (“Soft and warm, good as new!”), and earnestly contemplating what to do with the abundance of food bank beans: “bean salad? bean soup? bean tacos? bean stew?”

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nine cool things on a tuesday

1. Happy December! Though the holidays will definitely feel different this year, we can still daydream about idyllic times past. No better way than to escape into Jane Newland’s art.

Fancy the peaceful countryside or a brisk winter walk? 🙂

You may remember when we featured Jane’s work last year. She’s from the UK and does all her work digitally. Her lovely scenes are calming and filled with exquisite detail.

Deep breath. Deep breath. Ahhhhh . . .

Check out her website shop to purchase prints, and for the latest, follow her on Instagram.

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2. Speaking of the holidays, here’s a sweet gift for a special friend (or why not treat yourself?). Yes, you deserve it. 🙂

Susan Branch’s latest book is called Home for Christmas (Spring Street Publishing, 2020):

A brand new book from  New York Times bestselling author and watercolor artist Susan Branch. Home for Christmas is a heart-warming tale of a childhood Christmas in the years after World War II, with Susan, her parents and her siblings. A book for all ages, told from a child’s perspective, filled with anticipation and hope, it’s a charming story about the enduring love of family that reads like a long illustrated letter. A beautiful Christmas gift, because we need a little EXTRA Christmas now. 

We certainly need an extra large dose of nostalgia this holiday season, especially since many of us will not be attending the usual in-person family gatherings. There’s nothing more comforting than fond memories, reminding us to cherish the times we’ve had and to give us hope that good times will come again.

You probably know I’m a longtime Susan Branch fan; can’t get enough of her charming hand-lettered books and watercolor art. I love her eternal optimism (“happy gene”) and as far as I know, no one does heartwarming better. Her gift books and cookbooks are all treasures. Add this one to your collection.

*More about this book in an upcoming post. 🙂

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[review] A Gift for Amma by Meera Sriram and Mariona Cabassa

It’s market day in India. Would you like to tag along as a young girl picks out a special gift for her mother?

Just to be clear, this is no ordinary outdoor market — at least not as it’s presented in this gorgeous new picture book by Meera Sriram and Mariona Cabassa.

The market in A Gift for Amma (Barefoot Books, 2020) is a bustling bazaar of blossoms, spices, powders, sweets, fabrics, and feathers — an eye-popping rainbow of luscious colors that rouse the senses.

Once we step into the world of this artfully crafted story, we find ourselves awash in fiery vermilion, cool terracotta and soothing indigo with an eager shopper as our guide.

She faces quite a conundrum though, since there are many wonderful things to choose from, and we can feel her energy and enthusiasm as she describes each item in terms of color:

SAFFRON orange strands in tiny scoops.
Would Amma like to season rice?

Orange marigolds swing over doors —
Swish, swish! Should I make her a garland?

With just two lines per page, Sriram’s spare, lyrical text powers an engaging narrative brimming with sensory details that make every scene come alive.

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[scrumptious review] The Tiny Baker by Hayley Barrett and Alison Jay

Are your antennae twitching? What’s the buzz?

It’s 3 p.m. and tea time!

Hope you’re wearing a fancy day dress and bonnet, maybe have a favorite parasol to twirl while you’re queuing up with all the other tony arthropods. Get ready to wrap your lips around trays and trays of delectable sweets!

In The Tiny Baker, a whimsically delicious new picture book by Hayley Barrett and Alison Jay (Barefoot Books, 2020), we are treated to a lyrical and visual feast that’s cuter than a bug’s ear.

The baker in question appears to be a honeybee, whose tearoom is always crawling with business.

Her customers line up in rows.
Antennae wave well-bred hellos.

They’re always elegantly dressed,
Silk gowns or trousers neatly pressed.

They wait to try her lemon tarts,
Her sugar-sprinkled cookie hearts,

To sample her pecan pralines
And nibble lacy florentines.

Just before she opens her doors, the bee baker makes sure her “pantry is pristine,” while her “spotty squad” of ladybug pastry chefs busily mix, whisk, and stir.

Then she’s happy to welcome and seat a group of elegant ants, mentioning her “sublime éclairs” while pouring them pink lemonade or freshly made rose-hip iced tea.

But “in the kitchen trouble brews”: a fragrant breeze brings urgent news, prompting the ladybug assistants to suddenly swarm off — every last one of them! Disaster!

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