recette pour un livre magnifique (recipe for a magnificent book)!

“At 8:30 the Morlaisses had supper. The menu was always the same: soup. Soup is easy to digest, it makes you grow, and it guarantees a good night’s sleep — that is, if it is salt- and pepper-free, of course.” ~ Secret Letters from 0 to 10 by Susie Morgenstern

      photo of Susie by styeb.

Well, I never thought this would happen in a million years.

I just read a story where I was actually glad when the main character stopped eating soup every night!

Just one of the many things that amazed me about Secret Letters from 0 to 10 by Susie Morgenstern (Putnam, 1998). Where have I been? Why hadn’t I ever encountered this multiple award winning gem before, or read anything else by Ms. Morgenstern? I loved loved this book — it totally satisfied my cravings for a deliciously engrossing, moving, masterfully crafted middle grade novel with a French twist.

And I owe it all to amazing author Anne Mazer, who answered my call for books set in France. So large is my love for this book, that it’s going to be really hard not using exclamation marks !!! after every sentence in this post!!

Breathe. Focus. Relax.

Secret Letters was originally written in French and translated by Gill Rosner. Seems both Susie (originally from New Jersey) and Gill live in Nice, France (my French Riviera envy is off the scale), and the book has won sixteen international awards including Le Prix Totem (French equivalent of the Newbery). Ooh-la-la!

Ten-year-old Ernest Morlaisse lives a very unadventurous, isolated life with his 80-year-old grandmother, Precious, who is a prisoner of the past. They rarely speak to each other as they follow their regimented, solitary routines each day. There are no friends, no TV or telephone, and for Ernest, no going out anywhere except for school. All this abruptly changes when Victoria de Montardent, a new girl in class, bulldozes her way into Ernest’s deprived existence.

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the best restaurant of all: cynthia rylant’s van gogh cafe

Why, hello!

Hope you had a grand Christmas. Glad you stopped in. Take a seat while I gently brush the cookie crumbs off your face. Please help yourself to a cup of coffee or tea and some buttermilk pancakes with scrambled eggs, cheddar, ham and green onions.

via pink_fish13

The last week of December is a funny, in-between kind of place. We’re saying goodbye to the old year while gearing up for the new. Pictured above is Vincent van Gogh’s favorite café in Arles, France. He immortalized it in his oil painting, “Café Terrace at Night,” (aka, “The Café Terrace on the Place du Forum”).

“Café Terrace at Night” (1888) lives at the Kröller-Müller Museum in the Netherlands.

In a letter to his sister, Van Gogh mentions how pleased he is to do a night painting without the use of black. The golden light from the lantern illuminates the terrace, facade, sidewalk and paving stones. This was the first time he used a starry background in a painting.

When I first read Cynthia Rylant’s beautifully crafted collection of vignettes more than 10 years ago, I didn’t realize there was a real Café Van Gogh. All I knew was that I wanted to visit the cafe she had created in Flowers, Kansas, for hers was a place of magic and miracles — an  obligatory stop for anyone searching for a reason to believe.

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the secret garden (part two): yorkshire culinary delights


“After a few days spent almost entirely out of doors Mary wakened one morning knowing what it was to be hungry, and when she sat down to her breakfast she did not glance disdainfully at her porridge and push it away, but took up her spoon and began to eat it and went on eating it until her bowl was empty.”

The Secret Garden is first and foremost about the wonder and magic of making things come alive — the blossoming of an abandoned garden and two lonely, neglected children. But food is also magical and plays a crucial role in the story. As the flowers and plants grow, so do Mary’s and Colin’s appetites — and who can blame them, with pails of fresh milk, homemade cottage bread slathered with raspberry jam and marmalade, buttered crumpets, currant buns, hot oatcakes, muffins, dough-cakes, and the all-important bowl of warm porridge, sweetened with treacle or brown sugar.

Oatmeal Porridge was eaten by both rich and poor in Yorkshire during Victorian times.
photo by Dave Knapik

My recent rereading of the novel yielded new insights about the self sufficiency of manor houses like Misselthwaite during Victorian times, and Burnett’s advocacy of homegrown and lovingly shared food as a key component in establishing physical and emotional health. We see Mary change from a sickly, sallow, ill-tempered waif, to a happy, engaged, more caring individual. Colin undergoes a dramatic transformation from a pessimistic, overprotected, bedridden tyrant to a budding evangelical Christian scientist. Purposeful activity centered around nature, lots of fresh air, exercise and companionship certainly contributed to healing, but so did unlimited access to a bounty of locally sourced nourishment.

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the secret garden (part one): another peek inside

“Then she slipped through it, and shut it behind her, and stood with her back against it, looking about her and breathing quite fast with excitement, and wonder, and delight. She was standing inside the secret garden.”  ~ Frances Hodgson Burnett

Illustration by Russell Barnett

Whenever I am asked to name my all-time favorite children’s book, I always say, The Secret Garden.

It’s not like I’ve read it more than three or four times in my entire life, or that I can quote key passages from it at the drop of a hat. And as soon as I mention it, a bevy of other beloved favorites come to mind — Little Women, Little House books, Ramona Quimby, Anne of Green GablesA Little Princess. I love them all — but somehow, The Secret Garden has the tightest grip on my child’s heart.

Original 1911 edition with illustrations by Troy Howell.

When I first read it, at the age of nine or ten, I knew nothing of the Yorkshire moors, gorse, heather, or the myriad flowers mentioned in the book except for roses. Instead of crocuses, snowdrops, lilacs, peonies and forget-me-nots, I had grown up with anthuriums, plumeria, bird-of-paradise. I had never seen a robin, fox, or crow. But I knew loneliness and had a big case of “it’s not fair,” and often wished I had the power to boss grown-ups around and make them listen to me. Oh, to have an Ayah or servants at my beck and call!

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