Who can resist? From the moment we spy the surface of a flour-dusted table or counter, often with the help of a sturdy chair if we are young, we all want to take part in the beguiling art of food. No wonder a slew of picture books immerses young readers in the sensory joys of cooking and baking. One notable standout is Fry Bread, written by Kevin Noble Maillard and illustrated by Caldecott Honor and Pura Belpré Award winner Juana Martinez-Neal. While dough squishes and oil pops in the skillet, the child narrator guides us through the essential steps of making this tribal staple and Nana explains the significance of fry bread to Native American culture. Done in acrylics, colored pencils, and graphite on hand-textured paper, Martinez-Neal’s vividly tactile images sweep from the warm kitchen to a storytelling circle of children crouched before a backdrop of cave paintings to a double-page spread evocative of the Vietnam War memorial, where parents show their children a majestic list of Indigenous nations and tribal communities within the U.S. Another fresh and powerful layout sprinkles the diverse child characters across a beautiful map of all the places Native Americans call home.
In What’s Your Favorite Food? fourteen beloved children’s book artists, including Eric Carle, craft an enthusiastic case for their favorite foods and why they love them. Each unique spread plays with different typefaces, designs, visual styles, and mediums. Brigette Barrager’s celebration of berries is anchored by a girl we glimpse through the handle of a basket of ravishing berries. The position and shape of the child’s head, hair, arms, and hand lead us across the page as she reaches for one more ripe fruit. The illustration glows with juicy scarlet, luminously intense indigos, and deep forest greens. Dabs of white flowers and butterflies and smeary italic headline type suggest that bowl of berries might taste even better with a heavy dollop of whipped cream.
And let’s not leave this charming picture book without mentioning Isabelle Arsenault’s tribute to chocolate cake. Feast your eyes on two layers of dense dark chocolate capped with highly textured cocoa swirls enhanced by a dramatic range of values. Just a single slice remains on the elegant cake stand, which appears poised to carry its heavenly contents straight up to dessert heaven. Royalties from the book will benefit The Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art.
With her older Filipino siblings all away, Cora finally gets her chance to be a real cook in Cora Cooks Pancit, written by Dorina K. Lazo Gilmore and illustrated by Kristi Valiant. Valiant’s bright spreads depict the charming, high-energy young girl as she learns the ropes of this savory traditional dish. After proudly donning grandfather Lolo’s red apron, Cora discovers that her mother learned how to make pancit as a child from Lolo, who cooked for farmworkers after emigrating to California. The story palette shimmers with gold, yellow, orange and turquoise, and page after page underscores the close relationship that Cora and her mother share as they chop vegetables, shred chicken and soak the noodles. After a busy afternoon in the kitchen, it’s time for the ultimate test as Cora’s large family returns home, hungry for dinner. Cora chews her lip and we readers hold our breath. Another page turn, and Cora’s beaming face as her family eagerly slurps up the pancit tells us all we need to know.
In Too Many Tamales, Buenos Aires-born illustrator Ed Martinez brings a rich, painterly approach to Gary Soto’s humorous holiday tale of a little girl who loses her mother’s wedding ring while making tamales. Martinez confides in the book notes that he and his wife, artist Deborah Chabrian, cooked and ate more tamales than they ever dreamed of while creating the book’s oil paintings. A strong, unified palette of complementary pairings of red and green enliven the highly representational story spreads, which Martinez suffuses in warm, golden light. In one closeup of Maria and her cousins, Martinez intentionally blurs the tamales in the foreground to focus on the pained expressions of the children trying to find the lost diamond ring. By the story’s end, the children have eaten way more tamales than they’ve bargained for, but the rest of us will be ready to head out to our favorite Mexican restaurant.