Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Bread and Jam for Frances

Sometimes, I think my kids are going to develop vitamin deficiencies. I worry constantly about how much brown food they eat. And about how little colorful food they eat (I'm told rainbow sprinkles is not what they mean when they tell you to "eat a rainbow of food."). My pediatrician assures me that "toddlers seem to grow on air," and that my job is to just keep offering a variety of foods at every meal, and not fight about it. And that I shouldn't worry. But, telling me not to worry is like telling me not to breathe. It's just what I do.

On yet another night when my children ate little other than noodles for dinner, they chose Bread and Jam for Frances for their bedtime story. The book was new to our house, and it was our first time reading it--my first, as well as theirs. I'm not sure who enjoyed the story more. I suspect it might have been me, but just by a narrow margin.

Frances is a little girl (well, a badger, actually, but a thoroughly anthroprmorphized badger). She is a very, very picky eater. It seems whatever her family eats, she sings a hilarious little song about it, and then just eats bread and jam instead. Until her mother gets fed up with it. At which point she decides that Frances will only be offered bread and jam each meal. At first, this pleases Frances immensely. Until it doesn't. And then she finally relents and starts trying new things.

I seriously love this book. A lot. It might actually be my favorite children's book at the moment. Why? Let me count the ways.

1. Frances. Though this book is older (originally published in 1964), Frances is a very modern little girl. She is smart, outspoken, and very funny. I love her little songs. She sings to her soft-boiled egg, "I do not like the way you slide. I do not like your soft inside. I do not like you lots of ways. And I could go for many days, Without eggs." I feel the same way, though I never put the reasons quite so elegantly. Another song has become a family refrain for us (often when we make a meal that produces way too many servings of leftovers). "Jam for snacks and jam for meals. I know how a jam jar feels--FULL...OF...JAM!" I love it. I just cannot get enough of Frances and her sassy songs.

2. Frances's mother. She is quite a character. A character I identify with and appreciate. It is also obvious where Frances got her sense of humor. After a few meals and snacks of bread and jam, Frances asks her mother, "Aren't you worried that maybe I will get sick and all my teeth will fall out from eating so much bread and jam?" Her mother answers, "I don't think that will happen for quite a while. So eat it all up and enjoy it." I actually laughed out loud at that scene the first time I read it. Mother has the best semi-sarcastic, understated, funny lines. She is so much fun to read.

3. Food. I am a sucker for books about food. (As evidenced by my 350+ cookbooks. But that is a whole different blog, and probably a problem.) This book shows such respect for good food. And the foods are delightfully dated. How early 1960s Frances and Albert's lunches are! So fun! At the end of the book, Frances has a thermos with cream of tomato soup, a lobster-salad sandwich on thin white bread, celery, carrot sticks, black olives, two plums, a tiny basket of cherries, and vanilla pudding with chocolate sprinkles. Albert has a cream cheese-cucumber-and-tomato sandwich on rye bread, a pickle, a hard-boiled egg (with a cardboard shaker of salt to go with it), a bunch of grapes, a tangerine, a cup of custard, and a thermos of milk. So elaborate. So unlike Lunchables. You could almost see a Betty Draper-type housewife lovingly packing such a lunch. My foodie self is completely enamoured with the retro foods, so carefully described, in this book.

4. The lesson. Even with Frances being a little sassy, the point comes across loud and clear. Food is fun. Bread and jam gets boring. Try something new. You might even like it. Oh, and don't underestimate Mother. She will win. Every time.

If you have a fussy eater, you need to go read this book. Even if it doesn't change your child's mind, you will empathize, and get a good laugh in the process. Perhaps we should all start singing little songs to our meals.

Monday, April 7, 2014

The Matzah Man

I love seasonal and holiday books. They are a weakness I have, whether or not my kids enjoy them as much as I do. Thanksgiving books? We must have ten. Halloween books? Probably twenty. Books about falling leaves, snowman building, flowers blooming? A shelf's worth, at least. But, when it comes to Jewish holidays, we run into a problem. Namely, that books for those holidays are hard to find, in general. And, finding good books--books that have actual stories and are engaging--is nearly impossible.

Whenever I find a Hanukkah book at a yard sale or used bookstore, I buy it. I hope for the best. I am often disappointed. We do have some gems, though. I also pick up any book that so much as mentions Passover. They are even harder to find. And almost every one of them is a recitation of "this is what we do on Passover, and why."

I understand why the books are like this. Simply put, Jews are a minority, and our holidays and customs are not familiar to most Americans. So, where an author can weave a fanciful story about Christmas--without ever having to explain how or why it is celebrated--writing a story about Passover the same way would not fly. Most readers would be lost. What is matzah? Why are they sitting around a table with that funny plate? And, so, almost every Passover book I have found is a list of customs and facts. "We ask four questions. These are the symbols on the Seder plate, and what they mean." I understand the need for these. But, for Jewish children who already live the customs (and have them explained every year, two nights in a row, at the Seder table), I wanted something more. I wanted something fun.

Last year, only a few days after Passover, I went to the Used Book Superstore, and I hit gold. There, among the "spring holiday" display, was The Matzah Man by Naomi Howland. This book is exactly what I had been looking for. It is a fun take on that Christmas-y story The Gingerbread Man. Instead of a gingerbread man, we have a matzah man. Instead of the well-known taunt, "Run, run as fast as you can. You can't catch me. I'm the Gingerbread Man," we have, "Hot from the oven I jumped and ran, So clever and quick, I'm the Matzah Man." This book is pure perfection. Finally, a fun, rollicking story for Passover.

One of the things I love so much about this book is that it touches upon the cultural aspects of Passover without getting very religious and preachy. Through the course of the book we see the matzah baker, Cousin Tillie making brisket, Auntie Bertha shopping in brand new shoes, Grandpapa Solly chopping onions for gefilte fish, Miss Axelrod making matzah ball soup, and finally Mendel Fox, who tricks the Matzah Man into hiding under the matzah cover at his Seder table. (We also see a red hen and goat along the way, who, as far as I know, have nothing at all to do with Passover.) I like that we see the foods of Passover. We see people preparing for a joyous meal--cooking, getting dressed into new holiday clothes, making their way to a common Passover table. We get to see all of this without a discussion of plagues, or slavery, or fleeing before the bread could rise. Which is nice. Because sometimes, you just want a nice holiday story for the kids without all the heavy religious explanations. (And, yes, I know that those heavy religious explanations have their place--they just don't need to be the only literature out there.)

This week, my son's preschool teacher asked me if I have a Passover book that she can share with this class. My son is the only Jewish child in the class, and I wanted to steer clear of anything too religion-heavy. I was so happy to have this story to offer. It is fun. It mirrors a familiar tale. And it shows a table full of happy family, sharing a Passover meal on the last page. It is exactly the representation of our holiday that I would like to present to people who have never seen it before. I am so thankful to Naomi Howland for making it available to us.