Cookbooks for kids have long been standard fare on bookstore shelves, but a different variety of cooking-related children’s books, serving up a food-fiction fusion, has moved to the front burner recently. Kids’ fascination with celebrity chefs they know from TV cooking programs and with cooking competition shows that pit aspiring chefs against one another – an offshoot of perennially popular reality show contests – and society’s and the media’s current focus on healthy eating and childhood obesity all appear to be helping to shape a new generation of foodies – and feeding a budding publishing trend.
Veera Hiranandani, a former book editor, mother of two “emerging foodies,” and author of Grosset & Dunlap’s Phoebe G. Green chapter-book series, has a multiple-dimensioned perspective on this genre. In Phoebe’s recently released third adventure, A Passport to Pastries, the food-loving heroine visits Paris, where she discovers French cuisine and makes a new friend who’s an escargot connoisseur. “A lot of books peg kids as picky eaters who won’t touch ‘yucky’ green foods,” the author says, “but I know that a lot of kids, including my own, are adventurous eaters and are very interested in food and cooking.” That inspired her to create a story about a girl who wants to experiment and try new foods. “And somehow Phoebe’s spunkiness drove me to create more food adventures for her.”
Hiranandani noted that such TV offerings as Food Network’s Chopped and Gordon Ramsay’s MasterChef Junior on Fox “absolutely” hooked her daughter, now 11, and nine-year-old son, on cooking. “We wanted a change from cartoons when watching TV together, and found that cooking shows are a great base for family entertainment,” she explained. “A lot of reality shows are not appropriate for kids, but these cooking shows are, and the combination of the food and competition aspects really engage adults and kids. And I think it’s great that some shows are catering to kids, and targeting their interests.”
Making the Message Go Down Easy
The author credited Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! healthy-eating initiative for raising parents’ and kids’ nutrition consciousness, and emphasized the importance of delivering that message in a kid-friendly way. “With the Phoebe G. Green series, I didn’t want to make the emphasis on being healthy too heavy, and make the stories nutrition lessons,” she said. “I wanted to show that loving real food and wanting to cook it happens naturally. Phoebe takes real pleasure in eating healthy food – that is the most important thing – and the fact that it’s also good for her is a wonderful byproduct.”
Joan Powers, group editorial director for Candlewick Entertainment, also underscored the importance of introducing children to nutrition in an entertaining rather than a didactic way. The books on her list, which are based on content available in other media, exemplify that philosophy. Fitting this bill is Fizzy’s Lunch Lab, a spinoff of the PBS Kids Web site of the same title, which offers videos, music, interactive games, recipes, and food facts. The book series launched last spring with Super Supper Throwdown and continues with Nelly Nitpick: Kid Food Critic, which will be released in April.
The series features Professor Fizzy, who cooks up meals with his Lunch Labbers in a super high-tech kitchen and must contend with the villainous Fast Food Freddy. In Nelly Nitpick, the culinary crew’s challenge is to convert this fussy young food critic into a vegetable lover. “The series is very over-the-top and funny, and is a great combination of nutrition information and fun,” said Powers. “The first book, Super Supper Throwdown, was inspired by reality TV cooking shows, which we know kids love. These books encourage healthy eating habits in a way that is not preachy – and kids really get the message.”
Entertainment and Encouragement: Winning Ingredients
A chef with a magic pot named Pot is on a quest to locate new ingredients, find monsters to have for and/or to dinner, and to save the day through cooking in Rutabaga the Adventure Chef, the debut book in a middle-grade, graphic-novel series by Eric Colossal. Out this month, the novel contains “recipes that combine real ingredients, fantasy ingredients, and real ingredients that sound fantastical,” according to Amulet.
Charles Kochman, editorial director of Abrams ComicArts, who acquired and edited Jeff Kinney's Diary of a Wimpy Kid series and oversees Amulet's graphic novel releases, said that Colossal's art and writing styles, rather than Rutabaga's food-centric theme, initially drew him to the book.
“When we signed it up, we were not thinking in terms of trends but, as always, we were looking for something that hadn’t been done before,” he said. “Eric is both a gifted writer and a talented artist with a distinct and very different style, and his characters are quirky and bizarre. It was that, and the hero’s fantasy adventure quest, that first attracted us to the book. But the recipes at the back help kids engage with Rutabaga, and will prompt them to do some cooking with their parents.” The chef and Pot return in a second, still untitled, food-themed adventure in spring 2016.
Encouraging kids to lend a hand in the kitchen is a key way to whet their appetites for eating healthily and adventurously, Hiranandani pointed out. Her son, initially reluctant to try new foods, developed a more sophisticated palette when he discovered he loved to cook. “That really helped him to branch out with what he eats,” she observed. “Cooking is an empowering thing for kids, and I find that my son is much more likely to try new foods if he had a part in making them. It’s really wonderful.”
The author doesn’t view kids’ burgeoning interest in cooking and reading food-themed stories as a mere flash in the pan. “I’m so happy to see that kids have been inspired by the whole-foods movement, since they are the ones who will carry these ideas forward,” she said. “I definitely don’t think this is a trend that is going away, which is a very good thing.” Revealing similar confidence in the viability of the genre, Powers adds, “I do think this trend will continue. We’re hoping to offer kids a full meal – not just a snack.”
A Book Buffet
Here’s a sampling of recently or soon-to-be published novels geared toward young foodies. For those inspired to don toques, most of the books include recipes – some from the kitchens of chefs whose TV shows have made them household names. Save room for a second helping: next week we dig into new food-flavored nonfiction.
Phoebe G. Green #3: A Passport to Pastries by Veera Hiranandani, illus. by Joelle Dreidemy. Grosset & Dunlap, $12.99 Feb. ISBN 978-0-4484-6700-9; paper $4.99 ISBN 978-0-4484-6699-6; Phoebe G. Green #4: Cooking Club Chaos by Hiranandani, illus. by Dreidemy. Grosset & Dunlap, $12.99 June ISBN 978-0-4484-6702-3; paper $4.99 ISBN 978-0-4484-6701-6
Fizzy’s Lunch Lab #2: Nelly Nitpick, Kid Food Critic, illus. by Lunch Lab. Candlewick, $14.99 Apr. ISBN 978-0-7636-7280-5; paper $5.99 ISBN 978-0-7636-6885-3
Rutabaga the Adventure Chef: Book 1 by Eric Colossal. Abrams/Amulet, $9.95 paper Mar. ISBN 978-1-4197-1597-6
The Saturday Cooking Club: Kitchen Chaos by Deborah A. Levine and JillEllyn Riley. S&S/Aladdin, $17.99 Feb. ISBN 978-1-4424-9939-3; paper $7.99 ISBN 978-1-4424-9940-9. This series launch introduces a trio of mothers and daughters who enroll in a cooking class taught by a celebrity chef.
Cupcake Cousins # 2: Summer Showers by Kate Hannigan, illus. by Brooke Boynton Hughes. Disney-Hyperion, $16.99 June ISBN 978-1-4847-1662-5. While on summer vacation, two cousins who love to bake solve the mystery of a missing heirloom.
Cupcake Diaries: Alexis’s Cupcake Cupid by Coco Simon. Simon Spotlight, $17.99 Feb. ISBN 978-1-4814-2865-1; paper $6.99 ISBN 978-1-4814-2864-4; Cupcake Diaries: Katie Sprinkled Secrets by Simon. Simon Spotlight, $17.99 June ISBN 978-1-4814-2920-7; paper $6.99 ISBN 978-1-4814-2919-1. The culinary adventures of the members of the Cupcake Club continue in these series additions.
The Truth About Twinkie Pie by Kat Yeh. Little, Brown, $17 Jan. 978-0-316-23662-1. In this debut novel about friendship and family, the lives of two sisters change after they win big prize money in a national cooking contest.
Recipe for Adventure #5: Rio de Janeiro! by Giada De Laurentiis, illus. by Francesca Gambatesa. Grosset & Dunlap, $16.99 Jan. ISBN 978-0-4484-8205-7; paper $6.99 ISBN 978-0-4484-8204-0; Recipe for Adventure #6: Hawaii! by De Laurentiis, illus. by Gambatesa. Grosset & Dunlap, $16.99 May ISBN 9780-4484-8392-4; paper $6.99 ISBN 978-0-4484-8391-7. Alfie and Emilia continue their culinary travels in two new locales.
Nonna Tell Me a Story: Lidia’s Egg-citing Farm Adventure by Lidia Bastianich, illus. by Renée Graef. Running Press, $16.95 Feb. ISBN 978-0-7624-5126-5. Nonna has her grandchildren over for a sleepover and shares egg recipes in this latest tale from this celebrity chef.