May 07, 2009


This Little Bunny Can Bake. By Janet Stein. Schwartz & Wade. $15.99.

I’m Your Peanut Butter Big Brother. By Selina Alko. Knopf. $16.99.

     Food takes on very different meanings in these two books, one of which is actually about baking and the other of which revolves around a woman with “one in the oven,” as pregnancy sometimes used to be described. This Little Bunny Can Bake takes place in a cooking class in which only the little bunny pays attention and follows the rules, while the other students of master pastry maker Chef George drift into their own worlds and come up with some really strange desserts. The dog is determined to make something that involves shoes, the spoonbill wants to be sure fish are included, the tiger is looking forward to meat, and so on. Chef George, a wise if put-upon owl, offers the students a blackboard filled with a complete explanation of the elements of dessert creation – all of them accurate, as it happens (contrasts, sensory stimulation, textures and so forth). But only the little bunny – who alone is shown in color, with all the other characters drawn in black-and-white – pays close attention, takes notes and absorbs the information. Chef George realizes that he needs to take the class back to basics, and he tries to do so, offering nine of his own books of recipes for the students to study. But they – again, except for the bunny – play games, take naps or are otherwise unfocused. When it comes time to “train your noses,” only the bunny takes the blindfold test seriously – everyone else smells what he or she wants or expects to smell (for example, the mouse, holding a banana, thinks he smells cheese). Actual baking – measurement, mixing and all the rest – goes no better, and pretty much everything turns out to be a mess, except for the little bunny’s cake with the message “This Little Bunny Can Bake” on it. Everyone, including Chef George, eats some and enjoys it – a happy (and yummy) ending indeed. The “photos” of the other students’ concoctions, at the end of the book, are very funny – and Janet Stein includes eight real recipes on the inside front and back covers, from cream cheese tarts to chocolate meringue cookies. Kids who act like the little bunny and follow the recipes carefully – with adult supervision – will be able to make some very tasty desserts, inspired by Stein’s own experiences at a cooking school in Barcelona, Spain.

     Food is a metaphor rather than something to be really eaten in I’m Your Peanut Butter Big Brother, a story about the many possible appearances of interracial children. Selina Alko, a Caucasian woman married to an African-American man, was inspired by her own family’s makeup to create this story of a boy who awaits his soon-to-be-born brother or sister while wondering which foods he or she will resemble. He explains that he himself is a blend of “semisweet dark Daddy chocolate bar and strawberry ice cream Mama’s milk.” Will the new baby, he wonders, be “coffee with lots and lots of cream,” or perhaps “ginger cookie brown”? Will his or her eyes look like “hot cocoa footballs set wide apart or a perfect pair of pennies”? “Will you be my vanilla bean ice cream sibling or super-rich double chocolate fudge?” he wonders. Alko’s amusingly offbeat drawings – father looking like stars in a night sky, mother like the sun; contrasting ice-cream cones, one pointy sugar and one flat-bottomed cake; beach and playground scenes filled with different-looking people enjoying themselves as part of the same family – nicely complement her offbeat writing, which contains such phrases as “cappuccino-frosted ‘fro” and “pecan elastic band Sebastian.” The message of absolute acceptance of differences is delivered quietly and poetically, and after the new baby sister is born, the final picture of the boy encircling the little girl in his arms makes a lovely ending to a gently touching presentation of interracial family life.

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