BON APPETIT!: THE DELICIOUS LIFE OF JULIA CHILD by Jessie Hartland (Schwartz & Wade)
When I first opened this book, I thought, "Dommage! Ca, ce n'est pas bon pour à haute voix," which, if my hackneyed recollection of high school French is correct, probably means "dang it, this isn't good for reading aloud." The handwritten pages are splayed with text veering from handwritten cursive to print, information boxed off helter-skelter and doodle-y artwork plopped down at will with text squeezed in around it. If I didn't know better, I would have thought I was looking over my notes from one of our teacher's meetings. Yes, I am aware that crazy, swirly lettering that makes a flipping concrete poem out of three-fourths of everything is trés trés chic (oh, thanks a million, Lauren Child), but librarians everywhere already have a hard enough time reading sideways, without creative people deviating from the road map of conventional page layouts and fonts, thanks anyway.
But if it is not initially a great read-aloud, it is a superior read a-quiet. Pages packed to distraction with lively art and action are as hard to stop consuming as the buttery sole menuiere served in Rouen to Julia Child, revealed in the book as a transformative meal on the road to sharing her love of the cuisine through cookbooks and television. Three things about this book are especially delicious: 1) not only does this book document well the hard work and serendipity that made Julia Child a culinary icon, it captures a freewheeling, spontaneous and joyful effervescence that is hard not to trust as a good reflection of the book's subject and 2) it also really shows, apart from being a gourmande extraordinaire, what an amazing world traveler and adventurer Julia Child was, especially for the time in which she lived. The bottom of the pages serving as a sort of passport for readers to check the geography of Julia's latest chapter. Most of all, 3), this book takes a subject and a story, full of editors and travel and falling in love and a double-page play-by-play of the creation of a galantine in aspic, which might be a bit sophisticated (sluggish?) for the picture-book palate, mais non, Hartland deftly seasons it to age-appropriate taste. Fans of Maira Kalman's boxy, folksy, stylized art and Marjorie Priceman's propensity for twirly-whirlies will find Ms. Hartland's style trés charmant, and being among those fans, I concur. I loved Julia's affection for cats told wordlessly in the illustrations, the coquettish backward-facing eyeballing between Julia and her husband/beau, and most of all, Julia Child's quote: "Don't apologize for your cooking mistakes. It is what it is." That page alone, and certainly that lesson, is worth twice the price of the book.
I was wrong to wrinkle my nose at what I initially saw being served. If you release expectations of a conventional picture book read-aloud biography and approach it more as a graphic novel, all cupboards will open for you. And while reading to one's self is probably the preferred mode here, don't abandon all hope of group sharing; just as Julia Child had to make recipes over and over to discover the very best way to do her art, it may take a little practice to get the lay of the pages' landscapes and achieve a signature perfection at storytime. Worth any extra effort by readers, this book is an inspiring homage to more than a master chef, but a master at being alive. Both children and adults alike will undoubtedly come away with some dreamy aspiration: "hey, I would like to throw a party...I would like to travel...I would like to be a spy...I would like to write a book..." Just remember, Julia did it all. Thanks for the reminder, Jessie Hartland. Bibliographies, links and leads comprise backmatter/dessert. Yum.
MINETTE'S FEAST: THE DELICIOUS STORY OF JULIA CHILD AND HER CAT by Susanna Reich, illustrated by Amy Bates (Abrams).
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