Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Minette's Feast

It is interesting to me how sometimes related books come into your life.  Does this ever happen to you?  You read a fictional book set in South Africa, for instance, and then you come across an informational book on Desmond Tutu.  Or you pick up two seemingly unrelated books from your library's new books shelf and they have a historical figure in common.  That happened to me not that long ago when I read Dodger (a Printz Honor winner) and Splendors and Glooms (a Newbery Honor winner) and found the same character (a historical figure) in both.  I love when connections between books reveal themselves.  This year while I was on the Cybils Nonfiction Picture Book panel, it happened again.  Two picture books on Julia Child were nominated - Bon Appetit! by Jessie Hartland and the book I am going to write about today, Minette's Feast.

When the books arrived in the mail, I couldn't wait to read them.  After all, I discovered Julia Child at about the same time everyone else did - when the book Julie and Julia: My Year of Cooking Dangerously came out.  My then-husband bought it for me since it combined some of my loves - cooking, reading and blogging.  I continued to read about Julia's life over the years, and couldn't wait to see how it was interpreted for children.

But then I began to wonder if children would sustain the same interest in the subject of Julia Child as I had.  After all, I was interested in how Julia learned to cook, her cool job during WWII, and her connection with France.  Would a child (remember these are nonfiction picture books) be interested in any of that?  If Gloria and Frances are any indication, they don't care how their food is made or what technique I used, just that it is served in a timely fashion!  I don't have a good sense of whether kids really would seek out books about Julia Child, but I suspect not.  So Reich uses a different point of view to examine Child's life - through the eyes of her cat.

Even before Minette comes to live with Julia and her husband, their life in Paris is full of cats.  When they walk down the road, cats peek out of the alley; they curl up on seats in the cafe.  And then the couple decides that "A house without a cat is like life without sunshine" and adopt Minette.

When Minette first comes to live with them, Julia isn't a cook.  And that is fine with Minette, who would prefer to hunt her own birds and mice to eat.  But soon Julia becomes inspired by living in France, exploring the markets and getting advice from the locals.  She wants to really learn to cook, and enrolls at Le Cordon Bleu.  All of the enticing smells are alluring to Minette, but ultimately Minette prefers mouse.  Then one day Julia brings home a large cut of meat.  As she prepares it, Minette shows interest, perching on Julia's shoulder while she cooks.  It develops its flavor on the windowsill for three whole days.  Julia serves the meat to dinner guests who rave over it.  When all the leftovers are finally gone, Minette gets what she's been waiting for - the bone!  She rubs on the bone, chews on the bone, and plays with the bone.  In the end, no matter how much Minette loves that bone, though, she would still rather eat mouse.

Reich's writing brings life and rhythm to the story.  Many of the cooking terms are alliterative, and lend a swinging rhythm to the reader's voice.  For instance, as Julia learns to cook, "She baked and blanched, blended and boiled, drained and dried, dusted and fried."  It's quite a feat to assemble a dinner, and this particular combination of words emphasizes the whirlwind effort Julia goes through.  Reich also uses the terms appropriately and the rhymes make them fun to say.

The same thing happens when Minette is given the bone, with a tiny bit of meat left on.  She sniffs, then pounces, then attacks: "She frisked and flounced, darted and batted.  She tiptoed and hopped, danced and pranced."  Here, too, Reich uses lists of words to convey movement.  The words flow together effortlessly, like a dance.  You can envision Minette (or any cat, really) attacking, prancing and hopping.  These are typical cat behaviors that any cat owner will be familiar with.  After all of Minette's effort, "she licked herself all over and took a nice long nap".  That sentence is all cat!  

My only complaint about the writing is that this mysterious cut of meat that Julia prepares for three days is never named in the text.  We can tell that the meat is delicious - not only do the guests rave about the meat, but Julia and Paul savor the leftovers for days before Minette gets the bone.  We see Julia preparing the meat - both rubbing it with herbs and spices before its time on the windowsill and cooking it with vegetables.  But this recipe is never named (nor is any other).  Child's techniques are described, but it seems like this would be an appetizing place for a recipe.

Minette is the star of the illustrations too.  Bates creates these in pencil and watercolors, and they are fairly realistic.  I've talked before about books with historical figures in them (like The Fantastic Jungles of Henri Rousseau) and Bates does a great job of drawing Julia Child and giving readers the impression of her personality without perfectly imitating her.  This allows Bates to work within her own style, but still give a feeling of authenticity to her illustrations.  And she also adds period detail, bringing France to life for readers.

Bates also does a terrific job of conveying Minette's personality through her illustrations.  In the scene at the end of the story, when Minette attacks the bone, there are a multitude of spot illustrations scattered across the page.  You can clearly see the frenzy of activity, legs akimbo and whiskers twitching.  Minette's movements are hilarious and very realistic.  The final full-page spread shows Minette eye to eye with a mouse clutching a crumb of cheese.  It encapsulates Minette's personality perfectly.

The back matter is rich in this book.  There is a two page afterword that summarizes Child's life.   Reich includes notes of all the citations for the quotes used in the story - she used quite a few, and I love seeing them treated seriously here.  There are also additional sources of information on Child's life, including a link to an online exhibit of Child's home.  And there is a glossary and pronunciation guide for many French  terms used in the story.  I didn't talk about it, but I really appreciated the way Reich not only used many French phrases and vocabulary, but also incorporated their definitions in context very naturally.

The last piece of back matter is very important to me.  It gives the author's personal connection to the story - Reich met Julia Child in 1993.  But it also explains why Reich created this story, and how she used Minette to make the story more relatable to children.  Reich notes "...Julia never actually said that Minette preferred mouse."  So some of this story is fictionalized, but I still think it does a good job of bringing the unusual aspects of Child's time in France to life for children.  I am still not wholly convinced that a child would request a book about Julia Child, but this one does combine facts with fictional elements in a natural way.  And its strong back matter satisfies my expectations for children wanting to continue their research.  It's a book that will stay in my collection of books about Julia Child.

Minette's Feast: The Delicious Story of Julia Child and her Cat.  Susanna Reich; illustrated by Amy Bates.  Abrams, 2012.

sent by the publisher for  Cybils consideration

Note: I am on the Cybils Nonfiction Picture Book panel, but this blog post does not represent the committee's thoughts about the book.  It only represents my personal ideas and thoughts.

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