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Book Reviews

Salma the Syrian Chef

by Danny Ramadan and Anna Bron (ill.)

Bilal Cooks Daal

by Aisha Saeed and Anoosha Syed (ill.)

Amy Wu and the Perfect Bao

by Kat Zhang and Charlene Chua (ill.)

The kitchen can be one of the first places where kids experience a real sense of accomplishment and belonging. A trio of new picture books, featuring food from around the world, shows how cooking helps children forge connections at home and beyond.

Amy Wu and the Perfect Bao by Texas author Kat Zhang and Singaporean-Canadian illustrator Charlene Chua opens with a smiling white cat demonstrating that bao, or Chinese dumplings, are pronounced like the verb to “bow.” This sets the stage for an effervescent and lively story of a young girl named Amy, capable in all areas except in making bao with her family. It’s the filling-to-dumpling ratio and the art of pinching that gives Amy the most trouble, until she uses her problem-solving skills to come up with a satisfying solution.

The secret sauce here is Chua’s digital artwork, which lifts the text into a rollicking experience that is part food tutorial, part action adventure. The colours are bubble-gum bright, the characters’ expressions are big, and the perspectives are bold and unexpected. Chua turns dumpling construction into edge-of-your-seat stuff, from Amy’s hopeful nose and pigtails poking above the countertop as the dough rises, to the extreme close-ups of Amy’s determined pinching and her narrowed, frustrated eyes in response to her family’s ineffective advice. Plus, Chua manages to make even a leaky, malformed bao look totally mouth-watering.

While Amy’s story is about sharing food with family, the six-year-old boy protagonist in Bilal Cooks Daal – by Pakistani-American writer Aisha Saeed and Pakistani-Canadian illustrator Anoosha Syed – welcomes others into the kitchen. Bilal’s friends are surprised when his father asks him to help prepare dinner so early in the day. But Bilal responds, in what will become a familiar refrain, that “daal takes time.” He describes the dish as “nutty and creamy and warm like soup” and invites everyone inside to help cook. Although there is a brief moment where Bilal’s friends seem hesitant about the new food experience, all ends well with the children proclaiming, “We had to wait, but, Bilal you were right – daal tastes great!”

This burst of rhyme and repetition makes the story engaging and accessible for a young audience. Syed’s digital illustrations also help explain concepts that some readers may not be familiar with, including a beautifully composed picture that shows the names and colours of the different lentils, beans, and pulses that can be used to make daal. With a background in animation, Syed maintains ample movement and vivacity in her work, creating a tone that is much more joyful than instructive.

Sometimes it takes more than family and friends to make a traditional dish. In Salma the Syrian Chef, by Syrian-Canadian author Danny Ramadan and Vancouver illustrator Anna Bron, a young girl must rely on her burgeoning community to get a special meal on the table. Salma and her mother, recently relocated from Damascus, are living in a welcome centre in Vancouver. Mama has been “empty of joy” since the move, so Salma decides that she will make foul shami (Damascene fava beans) to brighten her mood. It is not easy for a young newcomer with little English to plan, prepare, and cook a meal, but Ramadan shows Salma asking for help and coming up with her own solutions, including drawing pictures of ingredients that she only knows the Arabic words for. Salma is deeply relatable in her determination, frustration, and sensitivity, especially in moments when things do not go as planned.

Bron’s illustration style is realistic but brightly expressive, reminiscent of Chris Van Dusen or Molly Idle. Her education and background in animation show in the lively composition of each spread, which looks perfectly paused at the most affecting moment of a film scene. She also employs subtle, geometric borders that feel directly inspired by Islamic art, which effectively link Salma’s past and present homes (although the book could have benefitted from an illustrator’s note speaking to the research and authenticity of this imagery).

All are welcome at the table in these tales, which strike a careful balance between explaining dishes to readers and presenting an entertaining kitchen narrative. Amy, Bilal, and Salma’s stories show the inextricable link between food and culture and how cooking plays a part in coming of age, deepening friendships, and grieving the loss of home.