Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘children’s books’

25 SEPTEMBER, 2014

Real Recipes from Roald Dahl’s Beloved Children’s Books

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From Willy Wonka’s Nutty Crunch Surprise to Bird Pie à la The Twits.

As a lover of both children’s books and unusual cookbooks — particularly those that bring literature and art to the kitchen, such as Salvador Dalí’s little-known erotic recipes, the vintage gem Artists’ and Writers’ Cookbook, young Andy Warhol’s, illustrated cookery, the treats from the Modern Art Cookbook, and especially Dinah Fried’s magnificent photographs of meals from famous fiction — I was instantly smitten with Roald Dahl’s Revolting Recipes (public library): a compendium of recipes for treats that appear in Dahl’s beloved children’s books, affectionately compiled and made cookable by Dahl’s widow, Felicity.

For double delight, the recipes — ranging from Willy Wonka’s Nutty Crunch Surprise to Lickable Wallpaper — are garnished with illustrations by the great Sir Quentin Blake, who had previously illustrated most of Dahl’s stories (as well as Sylvia Plath’s little-known children’s book and the first Dr. Seuss book not illustrated by Geisel himself).

The concept for the cookbook came to the Dahls shortly before Roald’s death in 1990, as they were writing a memoir of sorts about the foods they loved. Friends kept suggesting that they should consider writing a recipe book for children, based on the many fanciful edibles in Dahl’s books. But whenever the idea resurfaced, Roald would bury his face in his hands and gasp to his wife, “Oh no, Liccy, the work! The thought daunts me!”

A few weeks after his death, as Mrs. Dahl was making her way through the grief, she noticed a neat pile of papers in the corner of her desk. Listed on the sheets was every single food ever consumed in Roald’s books. Atop the pile was a note in her husband’s handwriting: “It’s a great idea, but God knows how you will do it.”

For Felicity, there was no choice but to do it.

In the introduction to this gem of a result, she lovingly remembers her husband’s relationship to treats as both a token of the quirky habits to which many writers are prone and a testament to his immeasurable, mischievous generosity of spirit:

Treats were an essential part of Roald’s life — never too many, never too few, and always perfectly timed. He made you feel like a king receiving the finest gift in the land.

A treat could be a wine gum lifted silently in the middle of the night out of a large sweet jar kept permanently by his bedside. It could be a lobster and oyster feast placed on the table after a secret visit to the fishmonger, his favorite shop. It could be the first new potato, broad bean, or lettuce from the garden, a basket of field mushrooms, or a superb conker. A different kind of treat would be an unannounced visit to a school, causing chaos to teachers and, I suspect, a great deal of fun for the children.

Here is but a sampler taste of the full spread of delights:

WILLY WONKA’S NUTTY CRUNCH SURPRISE
(From Charlie and the Chocolate Factory)

Serves 8

You will need:

Pyrex bowl
small saucepan
8×10 inch shallow pan
wax paper

7 ounces semisweet chocolate, broken into small pieces
4 tablespoons (½ stick) unsalted butter
5 tablespoons light corn syrup
3 ounces slivered almonds
6 plain vanilla cookies (Rich Tea biscuits are good) or graham crackers, finely crushed
1 ounce Rice Krispies
a few drops of vanilla extract

For the nutty crunch:

2 tablespoons water
½ cup sugar
2 ounces slivered almonds, finely chopped

For the chocolate coating:

7 ounces milk chocolate, broken into small pieces.

  1. Put the semisweet chocolate, butter, and corn syrup in a Pyrex bowl and place in a saucepan of simmering water. Stir occasionally until melted. (Or place the bowl in a microwave oven and cook on high for about 1 ½ minutes)
  2. Add the almonds, crushed cookies, Rice Krispies, and vanilla extract and mix well.
  3. Spoon the mixture into a shallow pan lined with wax paper. Press the mixture down firmly with the back of a fork, creating a level surface.
  4. Refrigerate until cool, then cut into bars.
  5. Once the bars are ready, make the nutty crunch. Begin by placing the water and sugar in a small saucepan. Cook over low heat until the sugar has dissolved. Do not stir, but occasionally swirl the pan around gently. Once the sugar has dissolved, increase the heat and stir constantly until the sugar caramelizes and turns golden brown, about 2 to 3 minutes.
  6. Remove from the heat. Working quickly, add the chopped almonds, stir thoroughly, and dip one end of each bar in the mixture. Place the bars on a sheet of buttered wax paper to set.
  7. Melt the milk chocolate in a Pyrex bowl set in a saucepan of simmering water, or microwave as above. Once it has melted, remove from the heat and dip the other end of each bar in the chocolate.
  8. Let the bars cool on a sheet of wax paper.

FRESH MUDBURGERS
(From James and the Giant Peach)

Makes 10 mudburgers

You will need:

mixing bowl
grill or nonstick skillet

1 ½ pounds ground beef
1 medium onion, chopped
3 tablespoons tomato paste
2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
2 to 3 tablespoons capers, drained
¼ cup chopped fresh parsley
salt and pepper
1 egg, beaten
relish (optional)

  1. In a mixing bowl, break up the ground beef.
  2. Add all the ingredients except the egg and gently mix together.
  3. Add the egg, mix thoroughly, and pat into mudburgers.
  4. Preheat the grill and grill for 4–5 minutes on each side, or fry in a nonstick skillet.
    Serve in a bun with a “revolting” garnish. Relish is ideal!

BUNCE’S DOUGHNUTS
(From Fantastic Mr. Fox)

Makes 12 to 14

You will need:

food processor (optional)
plastic wrap
rolling pin
two round cookie cutters, 1 ¼ inches and 2 ½ inches
large bowl

½ cup light brown sugar, firmly packed
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 egg, lightly beaten
1 pound all-purpose flour
½ tablespoon baking powder
½ tablespoon cinnamon
a large pinch of salt
2 tablespoons hot water
¼ teaspoon vanilla extract
½ cup milk
vegetable oil for deep frying
sugar for coating

These are best eaten warm. The dough needs to be made and refrigerated for at least two hours before cooking, and will keep overnight in the refrigerator.

  1. Cream the brown sugar and butter until pale and creamy — this can be done using a food processor.
  2. Gradually add the egg until blended.
  3. Add the remaining ingredients. The dough should be fairly stiff but smooth.
  4. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 2 hours
  5. Divide the dough in half and return one half to the refrigerator.
  6. On a floured surface roll out the other half of the dough to a quarter-inch thick. With the cutters cut out as many doughnuts as possible, using the large one to cut the doughnut shape and the smaller one to make the hole.
  7. Gather up the scraps and roll and cut out as many additional doughnuts as possible. Repeat the rolling and cutting with the remaining half of the dough.
  8. Heat the vegetable oil to 375ºF.
  9. Fry the doughnuts in small batches, turning once, until deep golden brown.
  10. Drain on paper towels.
  11. Put the sugar in a bowl and add a few doughnuts at a time, shaking them in the sugar until coated. Serve immediately.

BIRD PIE
(From The Twits)

Serves 4 to 6

You will need:

large saucepan
blackbird (a black pastry funnel found in specialty cooks’ shops and mail order catalogs)
9-inch pie dish
rolling pin

¼ cup pearl barley
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 onion, finely chopped
1 pound turkey breast, cut into thin strips
12 ounces pork sausage meat
2 tablespoons chopped fresh sage (optional)
5 ounces sour cream
5 ounces plain yogurt
1 level teaspoon cornstarch, mixed with 1 teaspoon cold water
½ cup chicken stock
2 eggs, one beaten, one hard-boiled and chopped
salt and pepper
2 ounces ham, chopped
9 ounces ready-made puff pastry or instant biscuit dough
1 egg yolk
8 parsley sprigs with the leaves pinched off or colored pipe cleaners

  1. Simmer the pearl barley in water for about 20 minutes, or until soft.
  2. In a large saucepan melt the butter and gently fry the onion until soft. Add the turkey strips and fry quickly until golden.
  3. Remove the saucepan from the heat and add the sausage meat. Mix well.
  4. Add the sage (if using), sour cream, yogurt, cornstarch mixture, chicken stock, and beaten egg. Season to taste with salt and pepper and mix thoroughly.
  5. Place the blackbird in the middle of the pie dish. Surround with the turkey mixture. Sprinkle on the chopped ham, followed by the chopped egg.
  6. Preheat oven to 400ºF
  7. Roll out the pastry to a circle 1/8 inch thick. Make sure it is at least one inch wider than the pie dish all the way around.
  8. Cut the extra one inch from the pastry in one long circular strip (it should be slightly larger than the rim of the pie dish). Brush the pie dish rim with egg yolk, press the pastry strip down onto the rim, and brush the strip with egg yolk.
  9. Lift the remaining pastry carefully (you can drape it over the rolling pin) and lay it over the turkey mixture. Cut a slit in the center and ease the blackbird’s beak through the pastry, taking care not to stretch it. Press the pastry down firmly along the rim and cut away any excess. Use a fork to crimp the edge.
  10. Glaze the pastry with egg yolk and scatter the pearl barely on top. Form a “worm” out of a strip of pastry, glaze it with egg yolk, and place it inside the bird’s beak.
  11. Refrigerate the pie for ten minutes.
  12. Bake for 30 to 40 minutes, or until the pastry is well risen and golden brown.
  13. Stick the stripped parsley stalks, or folded pipe cleaners, in pairs into the pastry crust to look like birds’ legs. If you like, singe the ends to look like toes.

Roald Dahl’s Revolting Recipes is deeply delectable in its entirety. Complement it with 11 rules for a perfect meal from the Futurist Cookbook, George Orwell’s dessert recipes, and the endlessly delightful Alice in Wonderland Cookbook.

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23 SEPTEMBER, 2014

Professor Astro Cat’s Frontiers of Space: Imaginative and Illuminating Children’s Book Tickles Our Zest for the Cosmos

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Rocket fuel for the souls of budding Sagans.

In reflecting on the story of the Golden Record, Carl Sagan, in his infinite poetic powers, celebrated our destiny as “a species endowed with hope and perseverance, at least a little intelligence, substantial generosity and a palpable zest to make contact with the cosmos.” Given how gravely space exploration has plummeted down the hierarchy of cultural priorities in the decades since Sagan’s time, how can we hope to imbue the hearts of the next generation of astronauts, policy makers, and cosmic explorers with the passionate poetics of Sagan’s conviction, with the same exhilarating longing to reach for and embrace the stars?

Professor Astro Cat’s Frontiers of Space (public library), written by quantum computer scientist Dominic Walliman and designed and illustrated by Ben Newman, is a heartening step in the direction of an answer. Both modern in its scientific spirit and with a sensibility modeled after the delightful mid-century children’s books from the Golden Age of space exploration, it tickles young readers — as well as their space-enchanted parents — into precisely that “palpable zest to make contact with the cosmos.”

From clever visualizations of the scale of the universe to an illuminating primer on how stars are born to an illustrated anatomy of NASA’s Curiosity Rover, the book combines solid science (pause for a moment to consider the size of the gaseous giant Jupiter, inside which 1,300 Earths can fit) with curious untrivia (I find poetic symbolism in the fact, previously unknown to me, that Venus spins in the opposite direction to all other planets in the Solar System, and how neat to know that the surface of the moon equals the size of Africa), binding it all together with subtle humor and wholehearted joy in learning.

What makes the book particularly wonderful is that it refuses to do the great disservice to science that textbooks often do, which is to insinuate having all the answers. Instead, it embraces the awareness that science thrives on “thoroughly conscious ignorance” and dedicates a good portion of the story to as-yet unanswered questions, like whether there is other intelligent life in the universe and what the human future in space might look like if we transplanted our civilization on other planets.

Professor Astro Cat’s Frontiers of Space comes from the treasure chest of British indie children’s book press Flying Eye Books, which also gave us that sweet celebration of connection and inner softness, the delightful field guide of mythic monsters, and the illustrated chronicle of Shackleton’s historic polar expedition.

Complement it with this remarkable vintage children’s book, which envisioned gender equality and ethnic diversity in space exploration decades before either became a reality, then revisit the wonderful You Are Stardust, which teaches kids about the universe in lyrical illustrated dioramas.

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17 SEPTEMBER, 2014

Rosie Revere, Engineer: A Stereotype-Defying Children’s Book Celebrating the Value of Failure

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An illustrated ode to the brilliant flops that pave the way for brilliant breakthroughs.

A few decades ago, it was a commendable feat for a children’s book to imagine such stereotype-defying notions as a man who does housework instead of his wife (Gone Is Gone, 1936), a black woman astronaut (Blast Off, 1973), a female architect (Need A House? Call Ms. Mouse, 1981), a same-sex family (Heather Has Two Mommies, 1989), or a female quantum physicist (Alice in Quantumland, 1995). And yet a decade and a half into the twenty-first century, we still settle for the profound failure of imagination that results in less than a third of contemporary children’s books featuring female protagonists, with a solid portion of those purveying limiting gender expectations.

Few creators have done more to enrich this impoverished landscape with imaginative alternatives than writer-illustrator duo Andrea Beaty and David Roberts, who also gave us the wonderful celebration of diversity Happy Birthday, Madame Chapeau. In Rosie Revere, Engineer (public library), they tell the enormously heartening story of little Rosie — quiet schoolgirl by day, fierce inventor of gizmos by night — who dreams of becoming a bona fide engineer and learns to embrace failure as a vital part of the invention journey. In an era when we are finally understanding just how essential failure is to creative breakthroughs yet we are battling a perilous epidemic of mindsets fixed on all-or-nothing success, the message of the book is doubly encouraging and important, beyond the obvious primary motif of defying gender stereotypes.

Rosie is a tinkerer — she likes to spend time alone in her attic, making things, making “fine inventions for her aunts and uncles.”

One autumn day, Rosie’s oldest relative — her great-great-aunt Rose, “a true dynamo” — comes for a visit and tells the little girl tales of her time building airplanes during WWII. (One can trace with great delight Roberts’s visual inspiration back to those terrific Library of Congress public domain images of women constructing aircrafts in the 1930s and 1940s.)

Captivated by the riveting stories, Rosie decides to build an airplane for her great-great-aunt to fly, then tests her arduously concocted contraption “to see the ridiculous flop it might turn out to be.”

The makeshift flying device takes off for a brief moment, then crash it does, leaving little Rosie teary-eyed over her failed invention, taking it for a sign that she’ll never be a successful engineer. But, to her surprise, Great-Great-Aunt Rose pulls her in for a tight hug, congratulating her on the “perfect first try”:

It crashed. That is true.
But first it did just what it needed to do.
Before it crashed, Rosie…
before that…
it flew!
Your brilliant first flop was a raging success!
Come on, let’s get busy and on to the next!

Heartened, Rosie realizes something with which even grownups struggle daily — the idea that “the only true failure can come if you quit.”

When she returns to school, Rosie’s dreams of becoming an engineer are more vibrant than ever, and she resumes her tinkering with the newfound awareness that “each perfect failure” is cause not for despair but for cheer.

Rosie Revere, Engineer is an immeasurable delight, to which this screen does no justice — highly recommended in its tangible, tinkerable-with totality. Complement it Mark Twain’s irreverent and empowering advice to little girls, then take a grownup look at the historical value of failure in creative success and what children can teach us about failure and personal growth.

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