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Review of the Day: Chef Roy Choi and the Street Food Remix by Jacqueline Briggs Martin and June Jo Lee

RoyChoi1Chef Roy Choi and the Street Food Remix
By Jacqueline Briggs Martin and June Jo Lee
Illustrated by Man One
Readers to Eaters
$18.95
ISBN: 978-0-9836615-9-7
Ages 5-10
On shelves now.

A kid walked up to my Reference Desk. Looked me square in the eye. Said, “I need a biography…” “Sure thing!” I chirruped. That’s an easy request. We’ve biographies galore in the library, after all. Surely one would please this customer. Yet the little guy just shook his head and continued, “I need a biography . . . about someone who isn’t dead.” Ah. That. Sure, we were able to load him down with a fair number of books (and didn’t he look happy when we did!) but the question stung. Why are publishers so keen on putting out biographies of dead people? I understand how hard it is to convey a person’s life work when they themselves are capable of doing even bigger and better things in the future. Yet when a picture book biography is done, and done well, there’s only one word for it: magic! And Chef Roy Choi and the Street Food Remi taps into that magic space very well. Very well indeed.

Born in Seoul, Korea to loving family, Roy Choi moved to L.A. when he was only two. There he grew to love his mother’s cooking, but when the family moved into a pricier neighborhood, young Roy was cast adrift. He spent years trying to find his path. At last, Roy was inspired to become a chef, and not just any chef. With much practice he was a rousing success. He made food for movie stars. He made food for thousands of diners. But even the fanciest job can wear you down. In time, Roy needed to reconnect with eaters. So he and partner started a fleet of food trucks that would mix element of Mexican and Korean food. Trucks that started out in high residential neighborhoods now serve neighborhoods that don’t get a lot of attention from high-end cooks. And Roy, in many ways, has become the people’s chef.

It makes me happy to think that author Jacqueline Briggs Martin was one of the brains behind this book. She has loads of talent to draw from, after all. For example, it’s so interesting to watch how Briggs conveys the passage of time and huge life events with as few words as possible. Just admire, for a moment, the succinct beauty of these four sentences:

“Neighborhood changed. Restaurant closed.
Parents’ new jewelry business. Big house in the ‘burbs.”

That’s tight, to the point, and eschews unnecessary, time-consuming text. Instead, you have everything you need to know in one quick, tidy little package.

Then there are the choices she’s made as a biographer. I was talking with an author of nonfiction the other day about fake dialogue in children’s nonfiction picture books. As a librarian, I hate the stuff. It feels like a cheap way to write nonfiction for kids. Her perspective was similar but different. As she put it, she would LOVE to fictionalize aspects of one subject’s life, or another. But that’s the problem. You can’t be inauthentic just because it’s the easy way to go. As I read through Briggs’ book, this conversation came back to me. Briggs has been in the picture book nonfiction game longer than most. She’s no fresh-faced newbie but an expert with experience tucked away under her belt. As such, she can include factual information that could potentially derail her thesis and present it in a clever manner. One example of this that comes to mind is the moment when Chef Choi is offered the chance to open a Korean barbecue taco truck. Since Choi is the hero of our story it would be the easiest thing in the world to let the reader assume that the truck was his idea in the first place. Instead, Martin makes it clear that he was a key element, just not the brainchild.  Alas Briggs doesn’t credit his partner by name in the text. To find that out you have to go to the Bibliography in the back and locate the L.A. Times article, “Roy Choi and Daniel Patterson try to start a healthful fast-food revolution in Watts with Locol.”

Ms. Martin is not the sole author on this book. Equal billing is credited to one June Jo Lee. At the outset I wondered why. Surely Ms. Briggs Martin was capable of a stand up and cheer job solo, right? So I read through both of their Authors’ Notes to get a sense of the publisher’s thought process. As it happens, Ms. Lee was born in the 1970s in South Korea, much as Roy was. She also attended elementary school in California when he did, and she takes pains to explain how changes in the 1965 immigration laws were responsible for their families’ moves. Though her note does not specify why Ms. Lee was brought on to the project, Ms. Martin’s does. Jacqueline mentions that “June Jo Lee generously shared as much information about Korean food, as well as many insights into Korean culture, and spoke movingly of the challenges of being a first generation Korean in America.” So much so that she is no mere consultant but a full co-author with everything that that entails.

The “remix” as a teaching tool is a relatively new idea, even as the actual concept is as old as civilization itself. Whether your child attends a progressive school, a public one, a charter school, or any other, you’re going to find an increased attention on the educational benefits of encouraging children to mix, match, meld, melt, and generally combine disparate but complementary elements of the curriculum into something entirely new. Finding books for a remix curriculum, however, can be just as tricky. I’ve been pleased to see a rise in “maker” culture in our children’s literature, but for whatever reason insufficient praise has been lauded upon those remix geniuses of history. Roy may deal in street food, but as June Jo Lee says in her Author’s Note, “This mix of flavors reflects the new America today.” Adult readers that encounter this will find it difficult not to extrapolate further, knowing all too well that there are people here in America that would find such mixes highly disturbing because of what they imply. For my own part, I wanted to include some readalikes in this review of other books that show off fascinating contemporary remixes for kids. Shockingly few come to mind.

There’s also a very real economic message behind Chef Choi’s story. One of the first things you read about him in this book is that “He’s cooked in fancy restaurants, for rock stars and royalty. But he’d rather cook on a truck,” and then, “He wants outsiders, low-riders, kids, teens, shufflers, and skateboarders to have food cooked with care, with love, with sohn-maash.” Now here’s where it gets tricky. The one thing you do NOT want to do with a book like this is to paint Roy as some kind of food truck savior, bringing his greatness to the little people below. The book is refreshingly devoid of pity for the working class. It’s businesslike in its story. As it says, Roy and Chef DP opened in lower-income neighborhoods to, “feed good food, create worthy jobs, and bring smiles.”

The idea to give the job of picture book illustration to a graffiti artist is not new, but this may be its most successful application. Man One only met Roy Choi when the Kogi trucks were first taking off, but he’s been a strong supporter of them from the start. In this book, he incorporates a lot of mixed media, as well as a tagging style, to distinguish Roy’s tale from the pack. As a result you’ll see things like blank cassette tapes serving as a seemingly white background on the cover, ramen endpapers, and blank stickers “that are commonly used in street art” alongside the cooking poems of the book. Interestingly, Man One is strongest not when he’s depicting people (some faces give him a particular bit of trouble) but angles, new perspectives, energy, color, life, and vitality. In his Illustrator’s Note at the book’s end he says that, “I tried to give the viewer a little taste of the unique landscape that exists in L.A.”. So that’s another thing. I have never, ever, in all my livelong days seen a book praise Los Angeles as seriously and proudly as Man One does here. This isn’t just an ode to Chef Roy Choi. It’s a love letter to his city as well.

Even if books featuring an array of different kinds of remixes never increase in numbers, at least kids have this one. Visually peppy with a message that deserves to be heard by people of all economic backgrounds, this is one of those nonfiction picture books I can hand to any librarian or child and walk away knowing they’ll love it as much as I do. No matter who you are or how much you have, you can make an impact in the world around you. Roy did. And what’s more, his impact has been noticeably delicious. Great good stuff, all around.

On shelves now.

Source: Final copy sent from publisher for review.

Like This? Then Try:

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  • Food Trucks! by Mike Todd
  • Radiant Child: The Story of Young Artist Jean-Michel Basquiat by Javaka Steptoe
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About Elizabeth Bird

Elizabeth Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.