Will Learn for Food

My family is privileged to live in the area for what is widely recognized as the best public elementary school in the greater Fairbanks region. The typical background for the kids here is pretty well off, safe and stable, and primarily white with a good chunk of Native kids and a handful of other minorities. They are, as a general rule, sheltered and somewhat pampered by their highly educated, socially liberal, and deeply involved parents.

We at the library have a hard time getting these students to check out books about kids outside of their own demographic. I mean, if there’s like a sentient teddy bear or an anthropomorphized talking sunflower seed, sure, they’ll check that out. But if there’s a Japanese kid on the cover, that’s a hard sell. If there’s a Black kid on the cover, hard sell. A character in a hijab, hard sell. They’ll read the books when we push them into their sticky little hands, but they aren’t the kinds of books that they just pick up and read on their own.

The librarian and I bemoan this phenomenon together a lot and are constantly coming up with schemes to get the students to read all the amazing gems of books that they aren’t interested in without some prodding. One year for Valentine’s Day, we did blind dates with books where the students only knew a vague description of the books they were selecting from. We did a similar venture for an upcoming winter break where we wrapped books in gift wrap with descriptions, and the kids were snapping them up faster than I could wrap them. And—who’d have thought?—once the kids started reading these books about The Other, they enjoyed the stories and characters immensely, accepting their differences (and similarities) without blinking. Weird!

We do what we can.

Recently, the librarian wrote up a glowing review for Jasmine Toguchi: Mochi Queen in which she lamented how little circulation the series gets. And this sparked an idea!

We have tons of books in the library that deserve more circulation, that are from a culture that could use a bit more representation, and that have food as a central theme in the story. Three books immediately popped in my head: Cora Cooks Pancit by Dorina K. Lazo Gilmore; Jasmine Toguchi: Mochi Queen by Debbi Michiko Florence (obviously, haha); and Fry Bread: A Native American Family Story by Kevin Noble Maillard. Two of those three even come with a recipe in the back of the book!

I’ve taught quite a few after school classes over the years, but the most popular one—by orders of magnitude—has to be French Pastries. I usually teach it twice a year and it always fills up in literal minutes, and then I get to listen to the musical tones of a kid or two weeping in the front office because they didn’t get their form in fast enough to make the cut.

The secret of my popularity is food. Could we use that same trick to drum up interest for some of these awesome foodie books?

Food is really cool because it is so intrinsic to culture. Food says a lot about the way you were raised, what brings you comfort, the ways in which you celebrate. Along with housing and clothing, food is a huge product of the place where you live, the way your ancestors survived, and the network of community and sharing. By teaching the students about the foods of different cultures, we are giving ourselves an easy in for teaching about the people and their way of life as well.

Children’s books are really just windows and mirrors: mirrors that reflect back your own world and the ways of navigating it, and windows into other worlds and their value and beauty. Most of the kids at our school have plenty of mirrors around. By adding some windows to their repertoire, we teach empathy and understanding across cultural lines. We can teach kids that ‘different’ doesn’t mean ‘weird’ (and ‘not a chicken nugget’ doesn’t mean ‘inedible’).

So yeah. We’re roughing out a plan for a cooking class wherein each week, we pick a different book from a different culture with food as a central idea. We make the food and read the book (or parts if it’s bigger) and talk about the characters and their world while we eat. (The eating part is important.) It has all the elements to be a hit.

Now we just need to pick our titles and assess the difficulty/time required for each recipe. In addition to the three I’ve already mentioned, we’re also considering the November cakes from Maggie Stiefvater’s Scorpio Races (a YA novel with a splash of Celtic mythology *chortles*), but I don’t know if that’s so much to get the kids interested in Irish/Scottish culture, or just because the librarian and I want to eat November cakes.

What do you think? We don’t have any shortage of titles, but do you know a tasty kids’ book that we should consider? Let me know in the comments below!

And until next week, happy writing!

2 thoughts on “Will Learn for Food

  1. I love this idea! I wonder if our library down in Anchorage would do something like this. I don’t think my kids are particularly picky readers, but they seem to gloss over all these books that I’m trying to shove into our basket. Something hands-on like this would get them more excited about the books they wouldn’t immediately pick up.

    • Yeah! I’m always using calories to trick my kids into doing what I want them to, haha, and they love cooking.

      Even if the library doesn’t have the means to do whole classes, just sampling the foods from the books would be a fun library activity. I bet if you talked to one of the children’s librarians about the idea, they might be willing to work with you to set something up. But be wary–they might ask you to help out! ;D

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