a list of…five snapshots along my European itinerary!

At the end of this week, I’m packing my bags and getting on a jet plane, heading off to Germany for a much-anticipated visit to my daughter.  By the time I return, I’ll have strolled along the Seine, hiked in the Swiss alps, boated down the Grand Canal in Venice, craned my neck in the Sistene Chapel, adored incredible Raphael paintings, and hopefully sampled gelato across Italy!  I won’t be blogging for a few weeks — just enjoying great company, great scenery, great art.  Today, I’ve listed one delightful book from each of five exciting stops along our route, beginning with…

Minette’s Feast: The Delicious Story of Julia Child and Her Cat, by Susanna Reich, illustrated by Amy Bates

This is a story with two heroines:  one, a vivacious, extraordinarily-creative, 6’2″ woman named Julia, the other a soft, extraordinarily-content, tortoiseshell cat named Minette.  Minette Mimosa McWilliams Child, to be precise.

Minette is lucky enough to belong to the Paris household of Julia Child.  Amid the whiskings and stirrings, sauteeings and roastings undertaken by Julia in her little, upstairs kitchen, Minette lounges, delicately tasting the savory tidbits offered her from one of the world’s most famous, most beloved, cooks.

However.  Despite all those delicious sauces and stews and creams and crepes…Minette might be hard-pressed to declare any of them better than her very favorite morsel of all:  mouse.

Ahhhh!  This is an incredibly delightful book!  Do you love Julia Child?!  You really ought to read it.  It’s a lovely, enjoyable story of Julia’s life, with the addition of her (for real) cat to entice younger listeners, and snippets of Julia’s own words which lend glorious personality.  Amy Bates’ charming pencil and watercolor illustrations are done in warm, Tuscan colors, and capture the bustling, classy Julia we all love, as well as the antics of her mouse-alicious cat.  A fantastic afterword gives many more interesting details of Julia’s life, and a glossary provides pronunciations and definitions for the French vocabulary sprinkled throughout the text.  A yummy treat through and through!  

The Magic Meadow, written and illustrated by Ingri and Edgar Parin d’Aulaire

The breathtaking alpine meadows of Switzerland are the setting for this vintage classic from 1957 by the d’Aulaires.  Peterli is a young boy who lives in a small chalet high in the alps with his grandfather and their fat, sleek cows and goats.  With Peterli as the common thread, the d’Aulaires cleverly weave into this book information about Swiss heroes, folk tales, and the way of life in these alpine villages. 

The story of William Tell and the formation of Switzerland, the myths of Princess Spring and King Ice, alpenhorns and goat herding, canton politics and monasteries with Saint Bernard rescuers, cheesemaking and the language variations in Switzerland, the landmarks of Berne and Geneva…all this and more is cheerfully stitched together into a story format.  It’s an old-fashioned, pleasant read that paints an interesting, even though a bit outdated, portrait of Switzerland.  

The d’Aulaires are one of children’s literature’s most well-loved teams; this volume is the result of a year spent in Switzerland, spun together via their fabulous talents of storytelling and illustration.  Typical of their books, the illustrations alternate between black-and-white  and vivid color, all displaying their trademark style.  The details are fascinating, and the boldness is highly appealing to children.  This one is more difficult to locate than many d’Aulaire titles, but we’ve enjoyed our library-sale copy over the years.

The Orphan Singer, written and illustrated by Emily Arnold McCully

Venice.  City of water and gondoliers, golden sunlight and rosy canalside palazzos, and of course — music.  The fictional Dolci family of this story are music afficionados like all their Venetian neighbors.  In fact, their children are gifted singers.  Unfortunately Antonio, their son, has no choice but to shoulder the trade of his father.  But Nina, with her angelic voice has one, heartwrenching, option:  if her parents abandon her to the school for foundling girls, she can receive some of the best musical training in Europe.

With a view to her future, that is what her loving parents do, and in all the years of Nina’s training, they find ways to keep in contact with her.  Meanwhile, Nina flourishes in the world of the ospedalo and the choral school, becoming a famous soloist and repaying her family’s sacrifices in unexpected ways.

Emily McCully is a fabulous storyteller.  Nina’s is an exciting  story, full of historical detail and Venetian color.  An Author’s Note gives more in-depth information about the eighteenth century orphanages of Venice and the maestros who taught these incredible female musicians.  McCully’s sun-dappled, watercolor and tempera illustrations capture the architecture and clothing, period instruments and romance of Venice.  Put some Vivaldi on and soak up this story with kids ages 5 and up.

This is Rome, written and illustrated by Miroslav Sasek

Here’s another classic, from 1960.  M. Sasek’s sensational guides to some of the great cities of the world are simply fantastic.  This joyous tribute to Rome swings with a modern, 60s vibe that is oh-so hip; cool, urban sophistication enlivens every page; the dashing mixed media illustrations feature Sasek’s bold, classy paintings sprinkled with a number of photos, traipsing us around the highlights of Rome from Michelangelo’s sculpture to darkened catacombs, zippy red Vespas to the moonlit Trevi Fountain.  His style is a distinct pleasure.

The simple, conversational narrative tells us what we’re seeing without belaboring any points.  Well-designed page layouts rivet our attention on one sight, and then the next, and the next, pulling us by the hand on our sweet tour.  Check this one out, and then find your way to other cities via M. Sasek.  

Pippo the Fool, by Tracey E. Fern, illustrated by Pau Estrada

In 1420, work began on the monolithic duomo designed by Filippo Brunelleschi to cap the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence; the cathedral had been waiting for more than one hundred years.  Finally, someone has devised a way to build an enormous dome in a manner fitting the elegance of the cathedral itself.

Brunelleschi was an incredibly ingenuous guy — “a goldsmith, clockmaker, sculptor, and inventor [whose] true love was architecture.”  In designing this dome, he overcame tremendous mathematical, architectural obstacles.  His gorgeous project remains one of the masterpieces of the world.

Pippo the Fool tells the other side of Brunelleschi’s  story.  The mocking he received, the disbelief of the city fathers over his new-fangled construction plans, and the intense desire he had to receive proper credit for his stunning, thorough, ideas.  It’s a pleasant, humorous, colorful story, with an exaggerated villain, a determined underdog , and a fascinating, easily approachable account of Brunelleschi’s strategy and materials and methods, culminating in a glorious triumph.

Estrada’s watercolor and gouache illustrations pair with the text perfectly.  His characters have a humorous quality that will engage young listeners, while his architectural details, Renaissance costumes, and views of ancient Florence give loveliness and authenticity.  This is an excellent team effort, and one that would fit perfectly into any study of Renaissance Italy, by the way.  Kindergarten and up.  An informative Author’s Note provides more historical details, and the Illustrator’s Note is delightful and points us to details we might otherwise miss.  

Here are Amazon links for this Grand Tour of titles:

Minette’s Feast: The Delicious Story of Julia Child and Her Cat

The Magic Meadow

The orphan singer

This is Rome

Pippo the Fool (Junior Library Guild Selection (Charlesbridge Paper))