Niki Nakayama: A Chef’s Tale in 13 Bites by Jamie Michalak

Cover image for Niki Nakayama.

Niki Nakayama: A Chef’s Tale in 13 Bites by Jamie Michalak & Debbi Michiko Florence, illustrated by Yuko Jones (9780374313876)

Told in a series of meals and food, this is the story of how she rose to become a great Japanese-American chef. Starting with growing up in LA to parents who came from Japan, eating American food with a Japanese influence. Niki wanted to do her own thing, deciding not to go into the family seafood warehouse business and showing her family that she could be as successful as her older brother was expected to be. After high school, she traveled to Japan and discovered the art and flow of the kaiseki feast, a series of dishes that told a story. She went to culinary school, worked as the lone woman in a sushi restaurant, and then went on to learn kaiseki, even though no women did that either. Niki returned to LA to open a restaurant, first serving sushi to prove to her family she could do it, and then finally, opening the kaiseki restaurant she always wanted.

Using the food itself to form the structure for this picture book biography makes for a delicious journey through Nakayama’s life. Her family may not have believed in her, but Nakayama had enough determination and resilience herself to make it. Powered by her love of food and its ability to bring people together, her story shows how small steps in a journey can become destinations and life callings.

The illustrations are bright and full of foodie warmth. They focus on Nakayama herself both with her family and on her journeys. The food is central too, dishes that are colorful, steaming, luscious. Using clever frames of restaurant doorways, prep counters and plates, the illustrations always come back to Nakayama and her food.

A brilliant look at an inspiring figure in food who did it her own way. Appropriate for ages 4-7.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Farrar Straus Giroux.

May Your Life be Deliciosa by Michael Genhart

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May Your Life be Deliciosa by Michael Genhart, illustrated by Loris Lora (9781951836221)

Rosie’s family gathers every Christmas Eve to make tamales with her Abuela. She and her sister soak and clean the corn husks, her cousins chop onions and garlic, her aunt roasts the chiles, her mother prepares the masa dough, and her Abuela cooks the meat filling. The recipe with its secret seasonings isn’t written down anywhere, but her grandmother shares it with everyone in the family. Every year her grandmother shares a story about making the tamales. It wishes everyone that they are flexible, secure, proud, satisfied, loved and supported by family. Now the time has come to make dozens and dozens of tamales together with no recipe, just using your senses. Soon they get to practice patience as good smells fill the house. Finally it is time to eat!

Told with a deep sense of family and generational wisdom, this picture book celebrates time spent around the holidays together. Centered around the grandmother, this book gives her space to share not only her recipe but also her insights into what is important in life. The stories are shared as she creates the first tamale, tying them closely to what she is making with the protective layer, the olive at the heart, the corn, and more. It’s no surprise when you reach the Author’s Note that this is based on his own experiences in his Abuela’s kitchen growing up.

Lora’s illustrations show a multi-generational family and are inspired by her own Mexican family. Using bright yellows, warm oranges, and rich browns, she creates scenes where you can almost smell the spices. The stories are done in a mix of color and black and white, framing them as their own special time.

Full of love, food and warmth. Appropriate for ages 3-5.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Abrams.

Jazz for Lunch! by Jarrett Dapier

Cover image for Jazz for Lunch.

Jazz for Lunch! by Jarrett Dapier, illustrated by Eugenia Mello (9781534454088)

A boy heads with their Auntie Nina to a jazz club for lunch. The musicians play while the chefs in the kitchen cook, their sounds mixing together. But it’s so crowded that they can’t get to the front and can’t get any food either. It gets hot too, so the two head out and Auntie Nina has a new plan. The next day, the two of them set up in the kitchen. They listen to jazz on the stereo and start cooking together. There is cinnamon, peanuts, chicken, cheese, and much more, as they name the dishes after jazz icons. Soon it is the boy’s turn to have a drum solo played on the pots and pans. A knock comes on the door, and it’s all of the jazz musicians from the club. They share a great meal together. Now what’s for dinner?

This book cleverly demonstrates the improvisation of jazz music through having to change their plans for the day. That theme is also part of their cooking as their free-flowing style continues there with plenty of style. The text throughout the book has rhyme and rhythm. Dapier uses repetition of the phrase “Jazz for lunch!” throughout the book to great effect.

Mello’s illustrations are filled with bright colors of saffron, tomato, melon and blueberry. The illustrations swirl with movement, whether it is music moving through the air or ingredients dancing into the pan.

A delightful jazz riff on food. Appropriate for ages 3-6.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Atheneum.

Let Me Fix You a Plate by Elizabeth Lily

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Let Me Fix You a Plate by Elizabeth Lily (9780823443253)

A family packs up and heads out on their annual trip. After driving for hours, it is dark when they reach West Virginia. The dark midnight kitchen is warm and light as the children doze off. In the morning, there is sausage, blackberry jam and coffee for Papaw and dad. The children help Mamaw make banana pudding. After three days, it’s time to leave and head to Florida. Their Abuela hugs them and invites them in for food. The midnight kitchen is full of Spanish words, tostones, and flan. In the morning there is fresh juice and arepas. The house fills with people, dancing and music and snacks eaten behind the couch. The trip comes to an end with full bellies but already missing all of the food and family. They get home late, and their own midnight kitchen fills with waffles before bed.

An ode to great food and grandparents, this picture book explores the connection between food and family, creating strong memories that linger once you return home and can still taste on your tongue. Told from the point of view of one of the children, the book looks at arrival at night to each home, the transformation in the morning, and then the special treats shared at each place. The homes may differ in terms of food, faith and language, but throughout the emphasis is sharing traditions, spending time together, and eating.

The illustrations are a joy, depicting such warm kitchens and filled with small details that create a real feeling of each home. The end pages in the book feature the various elements of each of the homes, including the tractor cups, coal minor portrait and cat plates in West Virginia and the toston press, rosary, and little house in Florida. The deep colors, friendly faces and warm hugs shown also demonstrate the love and connection with all of the homes.

Warm, loving and delicious. Appropriate for ages 3-5.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Neal Porter Books.

Paletero Man by Lucky Diaz

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Paletero Man by Lucky Diaz, illustrated by Micah Player (9780063014442)

It’s the hottest day in the hottest month in Los Angeles, so a boy heads out with his money to find the paletero cart, hoping that his favorite flavor is still available. The first cart that he finds is the tamale cart, but that’s not what he wants today. Ms. Lee has Korean BBQ for sale, but he won’t even stop for a sample. He runs past the bike shop too, not stopping to visit. Finally, he finds Paletero Joe in the park and there is still some pineapple flavor left. But when he reaches into his pocket, all of his money is gone. Luckily, all of the business owners he ran past noticed him dropping his money and are all there at the park to return it to him.

A story of delicious food set against the urban LA cityscape, this picture book shows a strong, connected and diverse community. The various foods from different cultures are all celebrated as the narrator dashes past them looking for his desired cool treat. Diaz manages to write a rhyming picture book that is merry and bright, never becoming sing-songy but instead incorporating Spanish to create many of the rhymes.

The illustrations cleverly show the money dropping out the boy’s pockets though readers may miss it the first time they read the book. The illustrations are bold and bright, reflecting the colors of the paletero and showing the diverse people in a bright and friendly urban neighborhood.

A great read-aloud just right if you have popsicles to share. Appropriate for ages 2-4.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by HarperCollins.

When Lola Visits by Michelle Sterling

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When Lola Visits by Michelle Sterling, illustrated by Aaron Asis (9780062972859)

A little girl’s grandmother, Lola, always comes to visit in the summer. The first thing she does when she arrives for the summer is to make mango jam. Summer smells like that jam and also the sampaguita soap that she uses. Lola’s suitcase carries other smells like dried squid and candy. Summer smells like cassava cake hot from the oven. It smells of chlorine from lessons at the pool and sunscreen on the beach. It smells of all sorts of food, even limes on the trees. Summer ends with the smell of sticky rain while saying goodbye to Lola at the airport. The house becomes grayer and quieter. The breezes are colder. Summer ends with return to school and the last bites of summer in mango jam.

Sterling creates a symphony of senses in this picture book that celebrates the food of the Philippines and shares a special connection made every summer between grandmother and granddaughter. Using food to add taste and smell to the summer setting works particularly well. The food bridges nicely into other summer scents of pools, lakes and beaches, creating an entire world of experience that is universal but also wonderfully specific.

Asis’ illustrations are done in gouache and digital art. With light brush strokes, he creates cabinets, tree branches, pool water and cooling cakes. This light touch adds to the summery feel of the book, inviting us all to feel a bit more sunshine and brightness.

Delicious and sensory, this book is a treat. Appropriate for ages 3-5.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Katherine Tegen Books.

Applesauce Is Fun to Wear by Nancy Raines Day

Cover image for Applesauce Is Fun to Wear.

Applesauce Is Fun to Wear by Nancy Raines Day, illustrated by Jane Massey (9781951836054)

In this charmer of a picture book, toddlers wear all sorts of food. Applesauce in the hair and toast as a nice flat hat. Milk can make a mustache and yogurt can cover your tummy. Mashed banana makes a great set of gloves for your hands and ice cream can cool your toes. Peas are great to roll on the floor and spaghetti makes celebratory confetti. Chocolate cake covers your face. Then it’s all cleaned up in the end with bubbles in the tub.

Simple and engaging, this title has fun and rollicking rhymes for toddlers to enjoy. The delight in messiness is great fun, with a focus on foods that littles ones will likely have enjoyed already. After all, it’s a lot more fun to wear your food than eat it sometimes.

Massey’s illustrations add to the appeal of the title with a diverse cast of toddlers show using simple lines and colors. They are merry in their messes. She has caught the naughty grins of children having great fun.

A terrific toddler read for those who don’t mind a mess. Appropriate for ages 1-3.

Reviewed from copy provided by Cameron Kids.

Free by Sam Usher

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Free by Sam Usher (9781536217049)

The grandson and grandpa from Usher’s Seasons series return with the first in a new series. One of the birds outside was sick, so the boy and his Granddad made a cozy bed for it and read a book of bird facts. After having some water, the little bird was feeling better and they put him back outside. Now it was time for breakfast and they made pancakes together. The bird returned for a breakfast of berries. At lunch, they built triple-decker sandwiches and the bird returned again. They took him back outside to help him find his friends. At tea time, the bird returned again and they did some more research. Now it was time for them to help the little bird return to the tree he needed, so they set off to reach the top of the mountain. Happily, the bird’s many friends were there to greet him and shared their midnight feast with the humans too.

Usher blends the mundane and the imaginative into a seamless story that glides from the normal happening of finding a sick bird and steadily becomes something magical and wondrous. I loved Usher’s first book series and am so pleased to see him return with another series with these charming characters, the boy with big ideas, the grandfather who grounds him and the magic that takes over both their lives at times. The writing is simple and lovely. The focus on meals here is a treat that will have readers wanting to make their own pancakes, triple-deckers and tea.

The art is a delightful mix of smaller illustrations on white backgrounds and full-page illustrations that show the garden at Granddad’s house. There is an endearing quality to the images that show the beautiful relationship of the grandfather and grandson.

A joy to see beloved characters return. Make sure to have tea and snacks on hand when you share this one. Appropriate for ages 3-5.

Reviewed from copy provided by Templar.

Try It!: How Frieda Caplan Changed the Way We Eat by Mara Rockliff

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Try It!: How Frieda Caplan Changed the Way We Eat by Mara Rockliff, illustrated by Giselle Potter (9781534460072)

When Frieda Caplan started working at the Seventh Street produce market in Los Angeles, there were only potatoes, bananas, tomatoes and apples for sale. Caplan thought it might be work giving something new a try. So she started selling mushrooms. Soon she was known as the Mushroom Queen and had her own stall at the market. She became known as a person who would taste anything and started selling kiwis, jicama, blood oranges, Asian pears and much more. Over the years she introduced consumers to many new things, including seedless watermelons in 1962, horned melon in 1984, and fresh lychee in 2015. Caplan’s daughters now work with her in her produce stall, introducing finds of their own and offering their unique and informed view of what the next big thing might be.

Rockliff offers a dynamic look at the woman who changed how America eats fruits and vegetables. Her fearless approach to trying new things combined with a deep instinct about what will work for the market. Beautifully, the book focuses on Caplan herself but also richly shows the things that she introduced to American stores. Readers are sure to find new fruits and vegetables on the pages here, and perhaps be brave enough to try then when they make their way to supermarkets across the country.

Potter’s illustrations are richly colored and warm. They show Caplan in the 1950s when she started and then steadily move forward in time, nicely showing the time period through the clothing of the people. The fruits and vegetables are rainbow bright and nicely labeled with their name and the year that Caplan discovered them for the U.S. market.

Bright, intelligent and full of juicy details. Appropriate for ages 4-6.

Reviewed from copy provided by Simon & Schuster.