Since I work in the main branch of New York Public Library, sometimes I get to see the occasional celebrity. Not long ago, Mario Batali was in my children’s room with a carefully assembled group of adorable munchkins for a storytime photo op (he read Green Eggs and Ham and Bee-Bim Bop, in case you’re interested). For the most part I think the kids gathered were the children of parental cooking show fans. There was one kid who caught my eye, though. Decked out in a full chef outfit, from his white hat to his smock, one five-year-old was clearly a lifelong Mario Batali disciple. When Mario asked what a particular ingredient in Bee-Bim Bop might be, the child answered with zero hesitation, “BASIL!” I think often of that young man, particularly when I read books that have to deal with cooking. If only Cooking With Henry and Elliebelly had been out when Mr. Batali came to visit. Not only could I have suggested that he read it to the kids (which would have been a blast) but I bet that boy in the audience would have been delighted beyond measure to lay his hands on this story. Author Carolyn Parkhurst takes the idea of two kids playing TV, and turns it into a universal tale of big brotherhood vs. squirmy attention-sucking little sisterhood. Complemented by Dan Yaccarino’s pitch perfect pictures, your kid won’t have to own his own garlic press to get a kick out of this delightful new offering.
You’re just in time! Before us are our hosts, Henry and Elliebelly. Henry, age five, stands behind a table announcing the name of their show as his little sister Elliebelly (age two) proclaims loudly, “Cooking! I help!” A sweet red-haired, butterfly winged spawn of little sisterdom purgatory, Elliebelly’s cute as a bug’s ear but she is two, after all. So when Henry pulls out the chef hats, Elliebelly’s the one who gets him to change to pirate hats. Some mild food related mishaps render Elliebelly’s doll Baby Anne a bit worse for the wear, but in the end the pretend food is finally done. Fortunately there are some real world waffles to finish out the show, and our two hosts sign off with us until next time.
Carolyn Parkhurst is, at this precise moment in time, better known for her adult novel The Dogs of Babel. Cooking With Henry and Elliebelly, then, marks her departure into the world of children’s literature. For a lot of adult authors making the switch, the transition can be painful. Most of the time they’ll write some madcap fantasy novel that reads like a rip-off of Roald Dahl, Lewis Carroll, or some sad combination of both. To write a picture book takes a bit more finesse. I believe it was Mem Fox who once said that “Writing a picture book is like writing ‘War and Peace’ in Haiku.” Credit where credit’s due, Parkhurst makes an admirable stab at the genre. Her bio says that she has two children of her own, and the sheer authenticity of the dialogue here definitely makes me feel like we’re on familiar ground here. Write what you know? Don’t mind if she does! The back and forth between the five-year-old Henry and the two-year-old Elliebelly consistently rings true while Parkhurst wrings quite a few of laughs out of the storyline along the way. Henry’s sudden appearance wearing the pirate hat Elliebelly insisted he wear and their rendition of what a commercial sounds like (it’s basically Henry saying things like “Buy some pudding!” while Elliebelly repeats on a loop, “Now now now now now!!!”) are some of the high points.
One of the things I also like about this book is the way in which the off-screen mom is presented. Nine out of ten times, if an older brother complains about a younger sister to his mother, her reaction is going to be one of those horribly benign, “Be nice to your little sister” lines kids hate so much. Those lines certainly come out of the mouths of real mothers, but when a younger sibling really is being a pest, such statements are not particularly helpful. The fun thing about the mom in Cooking with Henry and Elliebelly is that her advice to Henry is far better than the average fictional mom, while still remaining just as unhelpful. When, for example, he complains about Elliebelly’s insistence ad nauseum that he wear a pirate hat during his “show”, he mom responds with, “Sweetie, she’s two. You don’t have to do what she says.” As an adult, I think that’s pretty good advice. As a kid, I’d probably be just as annoyed as Henry with its lack of Elliebelly-punishment related specificity.
Yaccarino’s style wouldn’t have been the first pairing I’d have come up with for this book, but as I read, it became clearer and clearer to me that putting him together with Parkhurst was something akin to inspired. In this book, Yacarrino adopts his standard and mildly retro black dot eyes and wide open mouth-style. And as the tale continues, this format becomes funnier and funnier. Because Elliebelly is two she is portrayed with a wild mop of unkempt hair and a black semi-circle of a mouth that sometimes seems to be permanently set to “open”. Her words are limited, so there’s a lot of holding objects up and proclaiming what they are, long and loud. That said, I like the emotional beats here. After Elliebelly has placed her doll Baby Anne in Henry’s mucky ingredients the next shot is of the toddler sitting, mildly morose, against the family dog. “Baby Anne take bath,” she says, almost distractedly. Clearly this new development has thrown her for a loop. Yaccarino’s body language speaks loads about her mood. With pictures alone he’s doing half the talking here.
The layout was a shock, though it took me all of two pages to get over it. For the most part, Yacarrino places his characters on a pure white background, letting the colors and action (such as it is) just pop. That’s cool, but there’s something about the first appearance of the words on the page that strikes the reader unawares. They’re so stark. They just run on the top of the page, black on white, apart from everything. You catch on to what’s happening pretty quickly, though. Henry’s words appear as bluntly as they do on the page because they need to be contrasted with Elliebelly’s. For every one of his sane “We need to wear chef hats” statements, Elliebelly is on hand to render an additional “NO CHEF HAT! PIRATE HAT!” in sweet, sharp, bright red contrast.
And now, an ode to endpapers. Oh endpapers. You beautiful, much forgotten little essential elements of the paper version of a book. Maybe someday we’ll live in a world where every word is digitized and ink on paper is an archaic remnant of the past. And maybe in this future endpapers will be long forgotten. A relic of a time when people needed interesting features to get them to the real text of any 32-page book. Should that day arrive, I hope that you will stop now and consider how important the proper use of endpapers really is. In the case of Henry and Elliebelly, the endpapers are a sight familiar to any parents’ eye. It’s the ephemera of children’s day-to-day lives. Sticky dripping juice boxes and Play-doh covered rolling pins. Cookies with single bits taken from them and rubber duckies floating in doggie drink bowls. Every bit of mess has its place on the white background. There is no overlap. It’s as if the mess has been separated with each object in its own particular sphere. That way, we’re able to view it with a kind of jaundiced eye. Parents will see the endpapers and recognize the enemy. Kids will see them and be plunged into an already familiar world. Well played, Yaccarino man.
For a while there I had a hard time reading the name “Elliebelly” without thinking of “Anibelly” from the Alvin Ho series by Lenore Look. She fulfills the same essential purpose too. Which is to say, she’s an annoying little sister. Still and all, I don’t think this book is going to appeal solely to kids with similar siblings of their own. It won’t really matter if a kid is an only child, eldest of four, or youngest of ten. Everyone can read this book and identify with the put upon Henry, even as they admire him for his noteworthy patience with the wide-eyed, wide-mouthed, winning little Elliebelly. If this were a real television show, I guarantee you’d watch it. Instead, I guess you’re just gonna have to settle for reading the book.
On shelves October 26th.
Source: Galley sent from publisher for review. Or possibly someone else. I’m a bit unclear.
Notes on the Cover: I just love how Elliebelly’s mouth becomes this gaping black wedge filling the entire lower left-hand portion of the cover in the midst of her wild red hair and outstretched, albeit stumpy, arms. This is the life of every older sibling synthesized into a single image. Woot, says I. Woot.
- Check out some fun behind-the-scenes sketches Yaccarino created for the book itself.
Aaaah. Perfect. The ideal book trailer for a title of this sort. Good times!