Food for Thought

When renowned Oglala Lako­ta chef Sean Sher­man reflects upon his culi­nary jour­ney return­ing to indige­nous ingre­di­ents to cre­ate inno­v­a­tive, tra­di­tion­al­ly-inspired dish­es, he recalls, “In an epiphany, I tast­ed how food weaves peo­ple togeth­er, con­nects fam­i­lies through gen­er­a­tions, is a life force of iden­ti­ty and social struc­ture. (1) These for­mi­da­ble themes are cen­tral to recent Calde­cott Award books that delve into tra­di­tions around food, fam­i­lies, and friends.

WatercressThis pic­ture book sam­pling begins with the 2022 Calde­cott Medal book Water­cress, writ­ten by Andrea Wang and illus­trat­ed by Jason Chin. Inspired by author Wang’s child­hood expe­ri­ences, the sto­ry recounts a girl’s shame as her fam­i­ly stops on the side of the road to gath­er water­cress. Once home at the din­ner table with her par­ents and broth­er, the girl refus­es to touch the greens. Her moth­er takes this oppor­tu­ni­ty to share the sto­ry of her own child­hood, expe­ri­enc­ing China’s great famine and an indeli­ble loss.

For the water­col­or illus­tra­tions (2) ren­dered in a real­is­tic style, Chin choos­es a “col­or palette heavy in yel­low ochre, which reminds me of old pho­tographs and 1970s décor, and cerulean blue, which is sim­i­lar to the blue often used in Chi­nese paint­ings.” (3) Because the sto­ry moves between the Amer­i­can Mid­west and Chi­na, the illus­tra­tor “tried to incor­po­rate some aes­thet­ic ele­ments from Chi­nese painting…[with] many soft wash­es and emp­ty spaces … to rep­re­sent the theme of mem­o­ry that runs through­out the sto­ry.” (4) Chin uses a com­bi­na­tion of West­ern and Chi­nese brush­es to ”make the art a kind of visu­al blend­ing of cul­ture.” (5)

illustration from Watercress
illus­tra­tion copy­right © Jason Chin, from Water­cress, writ­ten by Andrea Wang,
pub­lished by Neal Porter Books / Hol­i­day House, 2021

In a sto­ry cen­tered on emo­tion, rather than action, sub­tle hor­i­zon­tal and diag­o­nal lines lead read­ers’ eyes across the images. Page lay­outs vary from expan­sive full-bleed dou­ble-page spreads to restrained sin­gle-page spreads. Par­tic­u­lar­ly strik­ing is the image of the fam­i­ly prepar­ing to for­age on the ver­so, with stalks of corn meld­ing to bam­boo on the ver­so, which shows the moth­er and her broth­er as chil­dren gath­er­ing wood out­side their Chi­nese vil­lage. Here, warm pas­tels trans­form to sepia tones to indi­cate the shift in time and place, fore­shad­ow­ing the inte­ri­or home scenes from Chi­na lat­er in the book. The wrap­around dust jack­et echoes this ear­li­er spread, with chang­ing veg­e­ta­tion sep­a­rat­ing the Amer­i­can pro­tag­o­nist on the cov­er and sib­lings in Chi­na on the back. Remov­ing the dust jack­et reveals a cov­er filled with wild watercress.

In the cre­ation of most pic­ture books, the author and illus­tra­tor do not com­mu­ni­cate direct­ly, instead work through an edi­tor. How­ev­er, after Chin agreed to take on the project, Wang sent him sev­er­al fam­i­ly pho­tos and rec­om­mend­ed that he vis­it the Peabody Essex Muse­um and the Har­vard Uni­ver­si­ty Yench­ing Library for visu­al research on Chi­na. These resources helped Chin learn about “cul­ture and his­to­ry so that the images would be accu­rate, but also so I could get to know where these char­ac­ters were from and who they were.” (6) This Calde­cott Medal book, “both an apol­o­gy and love let­ter to [Wang’s] par­ents,” (7) has the unique dis­tinc­tion of also gar­ner­ing a New­bery Hon­or for its dis­tin­guished con­tri­bu­tion to Amer­i­can lit­er­a­ture for children.

Berry Song

An inter­gen­er­a­tional for­ag­ing tale that sets a more joy­ful mood is Berry Song. Author-illus­tra­tor Michaela Goade’s 2023 Calde­cott Hon­or book exudes delight and rev­er­ence as a girl and her grand­moth­er gath­er berries through­out the year. Organ­ic shapes and curved lines dom­i­nate the lush water­col­or and mixed media illus­tra­tions (8) that reflect the col­ors of the sea­sons in a blend of real­is­tic and sur­re­al­is­tic styles.

Set in the Ton­gass Nation­al For­est in south­east Alas­ka, the home of Goade’s Tlin­git rel­a­tives and where she was born and raised, the sto­ry cel­e­brates the abun­dance of the land. Here, the berries sing, the gath­er­ers sing, and the ances­tors sing. With each sea­son, a lilt­ing chant flows across the page, nam­ing the berries that will fill the pair’s buck­ets. The page designs include a vari­ety of full-bleed and framed dou­ble-page and sin­gle page spreads, with leaves, nee­dles, and moss blan­ket­ing each image. Trans­par­ent, almost ghost­ly, leaves appear in the for­est and even upon the faces and hair of the grand­moth­er and child, while ethe­re­al white or rose light infus­es each illus­tra­tion. “[T]he wide, wild sea” and wind­ing rivers roll across many spreads, rein­forc­ing the con­nec­tion between land and water. The sto­ry ends with the pro­tag­o­nist lead­ing a younger sib­ling into the for­est to share her knowl­edge of and love for berry-gath­er­ing, car­ry­ing on the fam­i­ly and cul­tur­al tradition.

illustration from Berry Song
illus­tra­tion copy­right © Michaela Goade from Berry Song, writ­ten by Michaela Goade,
pub­lished by Lit­tle, Brown / Hachette, 2022

Berries and their plants fill the front and back end­pa­pers, iden­ti­fied in Tlin­git and Eng­lish. The front of the book jack­et fea­tures the grand­moth­er and grand­child peek­ing out from berry bush­es; remov­ing the jack­et shows the cov­er image with the girl and her sis­ter amidst the berries, the new gen­er­a­tion of gatherers.

Of Tlin­git and Hai­da her­itage, Goade was the first BIPOC woman illus­tra­tor to win the Calde­cott Medal in 2021 for We Are Water Pro­tec­tors. She came to book illus­tra­tion as a visu­al artist and admits that she need­ed to learn the nuance of the craft. “[Pic­ture book illus­tra­tion is] its own art form [with] things like the page turn and pac­ing and nar­ra­tive sto­ry­telling and all of these dif­fer­ent ele­ments that I wasn’t famil­iar with.” (9) Berry Song is her first self-authored pic­ture book. “…[G]oing into the expe­ri­ence of writ­ing the sto­ry and then illus­trat­ing it…just felt like com­ing home. Like I could take all of that expe­ri­ence and return to where I start­ed illus­trat­ing and where I grew up.” (10)

A Big Mooncake for Little Star

Author-illus­tra­tor Grace Lin also explores a fam­i­ly and cul­tur­al tra­di­tion in A Big Moon­cake for Lit­tle Star, a 2019 Calde­cott Hon­or book. For the Asian Moon Fes­ti­val, a girl and her moth­er make an enor­mous moon­cake. Mama asks Lit­tle Star not to touch the treat, but the girl can’t resist temp­ta­tion, nib­bling bits of the big moon­cake perched high in the sky each night.

The visu­al nar­ra­tive begins in the word­less front end­pa­pers and title page that fol­low the prepa­ra­tion of the moon­cake before the text begins. Lin recounts how this sto­ry “could only be told with [a] pic­ture book — we read the sto­ry of Lit­tle Star sneak­ing bites of the moon­cake — but we see how her bites make the cake into the phas­es of the moon and the crumbs become stars. With­out the pic­ture book for­mat to tell and slow­ly reveal both sto­ries, the book would lose all won­der and artistry.” (11) At the end of the tale, Mama and Lit­tle Star embark on mak­ing anoth­er moon­cake, and the sto­ry comes full cir­cle with the back end­pa­pers, iden­ti­cal to those in the front.

illustration from A Big Mooncake for Little Star
illus­tra­tion copy­right © Grace Lin from A Big Moon­cake for Lit­tle Star.
pub­lished by Lit­tle, Brown / Hachette, 2018

Lin uses a lim­it­ed palette of gold­en hues, black, and tan, with some whites and blues. Pop­ping off the page, the gouache paint­ings on white water­col­or paper (12) are set direct­ly on vel­vety black back­grounds. Spare com­po­si­tions and implied hor­i­zon­tal and diag­o­nal lines con­vey a play­ful nar­ra­tive on the long hor­i­zon­tal dou­ble-page spreads. Lin describes her style for this “fan­tas­ti­cal sto­ry” as mag­i­cal real­ism. (13)

Not sur­pris­ing­ly, the­mat­ic shapes recur through­out the sto­ry, with the cir­cu­lar round moon and its var­i­ous phas­es, and the stars of Lit­tle Star’s and Mama’s paja­mas. Fine splat­ter­ing of crumbs dance across the pages like the Milky Way. The dust jack­et and book cov­er rein­force these fea­tures: the dust jack­et is almost filled by the tit­u­lar moon­cake, while the wrap­around cov­er repli­cates the spread of Lit­tle Star munch­ing on the var­i­ous phas­es of the wan­ing mooncake.

The author-illus­tra­tor calls the book a “love let­ter” to her daugh­ter, who pro­vid­ed inspi­ra­tion for the sto­ry when the two first made moon­cakes togeth­er while Lin told the tra­di­tion­al sto­ries of the Moon Lady and the Jade Rab­bit. The pic­ture book is also her homage to Robert McCloskey’s Blue­ber­ries for Sal, a clas­sic that she “loved as a child, yet yearned to see some­one that look[ed] like me — some­one Asian — in.” (14) The kitchen scene depict­ed on the end­pa­pers for … Moon­cake … mir­rors that por­trayed on the end­pa­pers for Blue­ber­ries … and also includes hid­den ref­er­ences to the 1949 Calde­cott Hon­or book. (15)

endpaper illustration from A Big Mooncake for Little Star
end­pa­per illus­tra­tion copy­right © Grace Lin from A Big Moon­cake for Lit­tle Star. pub­lished by Lit­tle, Brown / Hachette, 2018
A Different Pond
illus­tra­tion copy­right © Thi Bui, from In the Small, Small Pond, writ­ten by Bao Phi, Cap­stone Young Read­ers, 2017

Thank You, Omu!

In con­trast to an inti­mate, whim­si­cal moth­er-daugh­ter bed­time sto­ry, Thank You Omu! intro­duces a gen­er­ous cook and the myr­i­ad res­i­dents in her bustling neigh­bor­hood. When Omu decides to make “a thick red stew in a big fat pot for a nice evening meal” for her­self, the entic­ing smell draws young and old to her door. With each arrival, bowl by bowl, Omu shares her stew until noth­ing remains for her. How­ev­er, appre­cia­tive neigh­bors have not for­got­ten the woman’s kindness.

To cre­ate the bold abstract col­lages for this 2019 Calde­cott Hon­or book, author-illus­tra­tor Oge Mora uses acrylic paint, chi­na mark­ers, pas­tels, pat­terned paper, and old-book clip­pings. (16) Mora explains that “The thing I love most about col­lage is that you can’t mas­ter it. You can put all the inten­tion you desire into it, and the medi­um will find new and inven­tive ways to hum­ble you every time. The medi­um’s abil­i­ty to sur­prise me makes it so excit­ing.” (17)

All the illus­tra­tions are full-bleed dou­ble-page spreads that can­not con­tain the allure of Omu’s stew. Mora gives read­ers a clue to the next guest to arrive, always in view on the pre­vi­ous page. The front end­pa­pers show an aer­i­al view of Omu’s neigh­bor­hood in the day­time as the aro­ma wafts through, while the back end­pa­pers show the neigh­bor­hood at night, chron­i­cling the time­frame of the story.

illustration from Thank You, Omu
illus­tra­tion copy­right © Oge Mora from Thank You, Omu!,
pub­lished by Lit­tle, Brown / Hachette, 2018

Mora’s grand­moth­er pro­vid­ed the impe­tus for the sto­ry. The book began as a sin­gle illus­tra­tion of the woman’s stew, a piece Mora com­plet­ed for a class assign­ment at the Rhode Island School of Design. For the final project, Mora expand­ed the image into a pic­ture book dum­my, which caught the eye of a vis­it­ing art direc­tor from Lit­tle, Brown. By the next semes­ter, the stu­dent artist was edit­ing the man­u­script and cre­at­ing sketch­es for the pub­lish­er. (18) In the Author’s Note, Mora relates how her grand­moth­er loved to cook and share the boun­ties: “Every­one in the com­mu­ni­ty had a seat at my grandmother’s table,” the same giv­ing spir­it that the fic­tion­al Omu radi­ates. “Omu” is the word for “queen” in the Niger­ian lan­guage of Igbo; how­ev­er, as a child, Mora used the term for her Grandma.

illustration from Thank You, Omu
illus­tra­tion copy­right © Oge Mora from Thank You, Omu!,
pub­lished by Lit­tle, Brown / Hachette, 2018

In clos­ing, chef and human­i­tar­i­an José Andrés rec­og­nizes “the pow­er of food to evoke mem­o­ry, to bring peo­ple togeth­er, to trans­port you to oth­er places.” (19) These Calde­cott Award books hold this same pow­er and offer nour­ish­ment to the soul. Bön appétit!

More Caldecott Books Featuring Food

Bang, Mol­ly. The Grey Lady and the Straw­ber­ry Snatch­er. New York: Four Winds, 1980. (1981 Calde­cott Honor)

Brown, Mar­cia. Stone Soup. New York: Scrib­n­er, 1947. (1948 Calde­cott Honor)

de la Peña, Matt. Last Stop on Mar­ket Street. Illus­trat­ed by Chris­t­ian Robin­son. New York: Putnam’s Sons/Penguin, 2015. (2016 Calde­cott Honor)

de Pao­la, Tomie. Stre­ga Nona. Hobo­ken, NJ: Pren­tice-Hall, 1975. (1976 Calde­cott Honor)

Goff­stein, M.B. Fish for Sup­per. New York: Dial, 1976. (1977 Calde­cott Honor)

Phi, Bao. A Dif­fer­ent Pond. Illus­trat­ed by Thi Bui. Manka­to, MN: Cap­stone, 2017. (2018 Calde­cott Hon­or) Author Andrea Wang con­sid­ers this book her “men­tor text” for Water­cress. (20)

Reynolds, Aaron. Creepy Car­rots!, Illus­trat­ed by Peter Brown. New York: Simon & Schus­ter, 2012. (2013 Calde­cott Honor)

Sawyer, Ruth. Jour­ney Cake, Ho! Illus­trat­ed by Robert McCloskey. New York: Viking, 1953. (1954 Calde­cott Honor)

Scheer, Julian. Rain Makes Apple­sauce. Illus­trat­ed by Mar­vin Bileck. New York: Hol­i­day House, 1964. (1965 Calde­cott Honor)

Sendak, Mau­rice. In the Night Kitchen. New York: Harp­er and Row, 1970. (1971 Calde­cott Honor)

Books Cited

The Sioux Chef's Indigenous KitchenGoade, Michaela. Berry Song. New York: Lit­tle, Brown/Hachette, 2022.

Lin, Grace. A Big Moon­cake for Lit­tle Star. New York: Lit­tle, Brown/Hachette, 2018.

Lind­strom, Car­ole. We Are Water Pro­tec­tors. Illus­trat­ed by Michaela Goade. New York: Roar­ing Brook, 2020.

McCloskey, Robert. Blue­ber­ries for Sal. New York: Viking, 1948.

Mora, Oge. Thank You, Omu! New York: Lit­tle, Brown/Hachette, 2018.

Sher­man, Sean, and Beth Doo­ley. The Sioux Chef’s Indige­nous Kitchen. Min­neapo­lis: Uni­ver­si­ty of Min­neso­ta Press, 2017.

Wang, Andrea. Water­cress. Illus­trat­ed by Jason Chin. New York: Neal Porter Books/Holiday House, 2021.

  1. Sean Sher­man and Beth Doo­ley, The Sioux Chef’s Indige­nous Kitchen (Min­neapo­lis: Uni­ver­si­ty of Min­neso­ta Press, 2017), 3.
  2. Andrea Wang, Water­cress, illus­trat­ed by Jason Chin (New York: Neal Porter Books/Holiday House, 2021).
  3. Andrea Wang.
  4. Andrea Wang and Jason Chin, “In Con­ver­sa­tion: Andrea Wang and Jason Chin,” Pub­lish­ers Week­ly, PWxyz, LLC, 16 March 2021.
  5. Andrea Wang and Jason Chin.
  6. Andrea Wang and Jason Chin.
  7. Andrea Wang.
  8. Michaela Goade, Berry Song (New York: Lit­tle, Brown/Hachette, 2022).
  9. She­li DeLaney, “In ‘Berry Song,’ Lingít illus­tra­tor Michaela Sheít.een Goade Shares Her Own Sto­ry,” KTOO, KTOO Pub­lic Media, 22 July 2022.
  10. DeLaney.
  11. Jess Townes, “Cov­er Pre­mière: A Big Moon­cake for Lit­tle Star,” All the Won­ders, All the Won­ders, 5 Octo­ber 2017.
  12. Grace Lin, A Big Moon­cake for Lit­tle Star (New York: Lit­tle, Brown/Hachette, 2018).
  13. Five Ques­tions for Grace Lin,” The Horn Book, The Horn Book, Inc., 14 Octo­ber 2020.
  14. Grace Lin and Alv­ina Ling, “In Con­ver­sa­tion: Grace Lin and Alv­ina Ling,” Pub­lish­ers Week­ly, PWxyz, LLC, 24 Sep­tem­ber 2019.
  15. Jess Townes.
  16. Oge Mora, Thank You, Omu! (New York: Lit­tle, Brown/Hachette, 2018).
  17. Amy Meythaler, “Oge Mora: Award-Win­ning Pic­ture Book Cre­ator Finds Her Place at the Right Time,” Mackin Com­mu­ni­ty, Mackin, 19 March 2020.
  18. Roger Sut­ton, “Oge Mora Talks with Roger,” The Horn Book, The Horn Book, Inc., 5 Sep­tem­ber 2018.
  19. 21 Best Chef José Andrés Quotes About Food, Life, & Pur­pose,” Good Good Good, Good Good Good, 18 Jan­u­ary 2023.
  20. Andrea Wang, “YOU ARE LIFE by Bao Phi and Han­nah Li,” Pic­ture Book Builders, Pic­ture Book Builders, 6 Sep­tem­ber 2022.
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4 months ago

I love sooo many of these books. “Thank You, Omu” is a new FAVORITE! When I read it to my grand­daugh­ters they repeat “Knock, knock, knock” and “thick red stew” as I come across those phras­es. So fun, and such a mean­ing­ful, impor­tant book to share.