Nevada Sharp has a Master of Library and Information Science degree. She has been a children's librarian for 25 years.
Why Narrative Nonfiction?
It’s no wonder educators have begun to focus more and more on teaching children how to read and understand nonfiction texts. They will be called upon throughout their lives to read nonfiction and interpret factual information, whether they are trying to assemble a bicycle or understand the news of the day. And besides, many kids just enjoy learning facts about their world. Topics like dinosaurs, building with Legos, or drawing have always been perennial favorites with children.
When nonfiction uses narrative techniques to convey its information, it is especially accessible to children because the format is one they are already familiar with from the stories they know. Narrative nonfiction relates a true story using many of the techniques of fiction: plot, setting, characterization, and conflict.
10 Great Children's Books About Food and Cooking
The books reviewed here tell the story of people who were innovators in the realm of food and cooking. Children are sure to find a favorite here. They can learn how their favorite foods—like nachos or popsicles—came to be. They can also find out how Americans were introduced to new foods like kiwi fruit or ramen.
What I especially like about books on this subject is that they model for children how to use persistence, creativity, and resilience to solve problems.
While scrolling through this article, you can see that I start with books for young children around four or five years old and move on to progressively older books until you reach those written for children up through ages nine or ten.
1. The Boy Who Invented the Popsicle: The Cool Science Behind Frank Epperson’s Famous Frozen Treat by Anne Renaud
Format: picture book biography
Subjects: food, science experiments, inventors
The Boy Who Invented the Popsicle is a great way to introduce children to science, especially the science of liquids. It’s also a fun read for any kid who likes to experiment, tinker, or eat a popsicle on a hot day.
This jaunty book begins with an illustration of young Frank Epperson saying, “I want to be a great inventor!” He is a curious, active boy who thinks about all kinds of questions; "Do goldfish sleep?” or “Do woodpeckers get headaches from pecking all day?” He loves to tinker and invent, and what he most likes is trying out his concoctions of flavored soda water on his little brother.
One day the kids in the neighborhood had the idea to put together their own amusement park, and Frank volunteered to make a stand for his soda waters. When it became unusually cold for San Francisco that evening, he decided to experiment and see what would happen if he left his concoction out all night in the freezing weather. When he checked on it the next morning, he discovered that the flavored soda water had frozen on the end of the spoon he had left in the glass, making it look like a frozen lollipop. “Frank had invented a frozen drink on a stick!”
Now the story skips ahead several years to a time when Frank is grown up and married with five children. He decides the time is right to work on his frozen drink. After some experimentation and tinkering, he finally has an ice pop that works. At first, he tried calling them “Ep-sicles,” but his children were always saying, “Pop, can we have a 'sicle?” so he changed the name to Popsicle.
As children make their way through the book, they will find different experiments the author has provided that help them learn about the scientific principles on which the Popsicle was developed. They can learn concepts such as why water and oil don’t mix, how they can make flavored soda water, and the reason why salt lowers the freezing point of water.
The color palette of illustrations is reminiscent of “the olden days” but also captures the exuberance and action of the story. The book includes a thorough author’s note that gives more information on Epperson’s story. She also includes a photograph that shows him selling popsicles, as well as a vintage advertisement. All in all, this is a fun book that works in quite a bit of practical science along the way.
2. Try It! How Frieda Caplan Changed the Way We Eat by Mara Rockliff
Format: picture book biography
Subjects: food, novelty, diverse foods, women in business
When introducing this book to children, I think it would be fun to bring in some of the foods mentioned in the book, maybe some kiwifruit, sugar snap peas, jicama, Asian pears, or yellow tomatoes. Try It! takes us back to 1962 when a woman named Frieda Caplan started her own produce stand at a time when all the men running stands just stocked things like apples, bananas, potatoes, and tomatoes. Frieda thought that people might like to try something a little different—like mushrooms.
It boggles the mind to think that back in the 1960s, mushrooms weren’t found in many produce sections, but that is what we learn from this book. The author tells us, “The men at the market told her, ‘Nobody eats those.’ Frieda thought more people might eat mushrooms if they had the chance. Frieda was persistent. She liked selling mushrooms. And people started to like eating them. They ordered them at restaurants. They tossed them in their carts at the grocery store. They snatched them up at roadside stands. She sold so many mushrooms, people started calling her the Mushroom Queen.”
Soon it became known that Frieda would try anything, and some of the things that she introduced to the American palate were foods I mentioned at the beginning of this review, along with blood oranges, black radishes, seedless watermelon, red bananas, habanero peppers, dragon fruit, lychee (one of my personal favorites), passionfruit, star fruit, and donut peaches.
Giselle Potter’s illustrations picture the foods nicely and make it easy to talk with children about the fruits and vegetables, whether they have ever tried them, and which ones they like best. We also get a nice sense of Kaplan as she evaluates the variety of food she finds and convinces other people to try something new.
It’s a nice short nonfiction picture book that will intrigue children who have tried some of the foods and perhaps inspire them to become adventurous when they go to the supermarket.
3. Niki Nakayama: A Chef’s Tale in 13 Bites by Jamie Michalak & Debbie Michiko Florence
Format: picture book biography
Subjects: women, chefs, Japanese cooking, food
I always look for a relatable hook in narrative nonfiction, and the illustrations on the title page of Niki Nakayama—which shows all kinds of delectable-looking Japanese dishes—are as good as any hook I’ve seen. It’s worth a minute to show the children the pictures, ask them what they think is dishes are, and let them know that we’ll find out what kind of meal this is as we read the book.
On the first page, we see a woman cooking at a counter, and the writers use a rather clever technique of telling us that if we visited her restaurant, she would serve us 13 dishes, so they are going to tell us her story in 13 bites.
Over the next few pages, we learn that Niki’s parents were born in Japan and that her mother “cooked American food with a Japanese twist. Like meatloaf with soy sauce, rice instead of potatoes, and, on Thanksgiving, teriyaki turkey.” As a child, Niki liked to imagine, explore, and invent, especially when it came to making up her own recipes. But it seemed that no matter how hard she worked, her parents were more interested in what her brother could accomplish.
Niki thinks, “I’ll show them,” and travels to Tokyo, where she explores lots of different things. It is there she learns about a Japanese meal style called kaiseki, which is a way of telling a story through food. For instance, one of the meals she eats bursts with the flavors of tomato and corn, which tell the story of summer. She returns home determined to go to cooking school, even though people tell her that women can't be kaiseki chefs.
After some setbacks, Niki realizes her dream by opening her own restaurant. “She served 13 courses, making sure they flowed together like a stream. She cooked with the seasons. Summer meant sweet sorbet using carrots from her garden and bright yellow corn soup.” Now customers flow to her restaurant, and “every night, Chef Niki invents delicious dishes. She never serves the same meal to the customer twice.”
The illustrations in this book are just outstanding. They are lighthearted yet warm and full of energy, capturing the emotion of every scene and especially showing off the food in glorious color and detail. It made me want to hunt up Niki’s restaurant and give her amazing food a try.
It includes a timeline (where we find out that Niki is a James Beard finalist and has been awarded two Michelin stars), more information about Japanese terms used in the book, and a recipe for wonton pizza.
4. Nacho’s Nachos by Sandra Nickel
Format: picture book biography
Subjects: food, snacks, restaurants, Latinos, creativity
Most kids have probably eaten nachos, but they would probably be surprised to learn that the snacks are actually named for the fellow who developed them while working at a restaurant on the Texas/Mexico border in 1940. In Nacho’s Nachos, author Sandra Nickel tells the story behind the well-loved dish.
Turns out that nachos were put together by a man named Ignacio Anaya, whose nickname was “Nacho.” Author Sandra Nickel relates how he was born in northern Mexico, orphaned when young, and lived with his foster mother, a woman who cooked him delicious quesadillas.
The book fast-forwards several years, and Nacho is a 23-year-old restaurant worker who has a “special talent for making diners happy.” One day, a local woman comes into the restaurant with her friends and asks Nacho to come up with a new kind of snack for them to have. Turn the page, and we see Nacho discovering that the cooks have gone on break and the kitchen is empty. He racks his brain, trying to think of something he can make.
The rest is history. He hits on the idea of taking some freshly fried corn tortillas, and—remembering his foster mother’s quesadillas—he puts grated cheese and pickled jalapeno peppers on top. The customers love the dish and soon, “Nacho’s Special” is on the restaurant's menu. People from all over come to try the snack, including famous people like President Lyndon Johnson and actor John Wayne.
Nacho’s dish soon became popular worldwide and became known simply as “nachos.”
Illustrator Oliver Dominquez’s lively art captures the atmosphere of the Texas border in the 1940s. The book includes a recipe for nachos and the afterword has a picture of Nacho and his family.
5. Born Hungry: Julia Child Becomes “The French Chef” by Alex Prud’homme
Format: picture book biography
Subjects: food, chefs, France, French cooking
People love cooking shows, and children will no doubt be interested in the woman who pioneered the idea of cooking for an audience and broadcasting the performance. The story of Julia Child’s life has the added benefit of showing children that a person can always pick up a new skill and, with lots of practice, can become quite good at it.
In Born Hungry, we first meet Julia when she is a young teen who “wore size twelve sneakers, stood six feet, two inches tall, played basketball, laughed loudly, and was curious about everything.” We are told that because of all this activity, she had quite a healthy appetite. But she didn’t learn to prepare food at home because her parents don't cook. All she knew how to do was to boil water and make toast. She said, “I was born hungry, not a cook.”
Looking for adventure, Julia volunteered for a U.S. spy agency when she grew up and was stationed in the country that is now Sri Lanka. There, she met her future husband, Paul Child. During this time, she also created her first recipe, but it wasn’t for anything that a human would want to eat: She mixed some chemicals to make a “cake” that sailors could put in the water to repel sharks.
After Julia and Paul married, Julia tried to cook for him, but her attempts at making cow brains simmered in red wine didn’t go well. They ended up eating cheese and crackers.
When she and Paul traveled to France, they ate wonderful meals—dishes like roasted pheasant, lobster, frogs’ legs, potatoes in cream sauce, light lemon tarts, and rich chocolate cake—meals that convinced Julia to sign up for classes at the well-regarded Le Cordon Bleu cooking school. She was the only woman in the class, but she worked hard and learned to “dice, fold, marinate, poach, puree, and sauté.” She learned to make all sorts of dishes, from vichyssoise to caramelized apple tart.
When she got back to America, she opened a cooking school with some French friends of hers. At the end of the book, we learn “Julia Child encouraged her students to work hard—to use the best tools, to take risks, to never apologize for cooking mistakes, and—more than anything—to have fun!”
6. Magic Ramen: the Story of Momofuku Ando by Andrea Wang
Format: picture book biography;
Subjects: Japan, WWII, food
Instant ramen noodles have been on grocery store shelves for so long that it seems like they have always existed. But Magic Ramen shows how this took concentrated work and experimentation by one determined and persistent man.
This true story begins with a Japanese man named Momofuku Ando who walked through the rubble in Osaka, Japan shortly after World War II and saw poor people who had to wait in long lines just to buy a bowl of ramen soup that he thought was priced way too high. He thought, “The world is peaceful only when everyone has enough to eat.” And he decided he would spend his life making good and affordable food.
It was challenging to make the noodles quick to prepare. He tried different ideas for months but couldn’t get anything to work. Then, he got an idea when he was watching his wife cooking tempura. He would fry them! He determined that if he fried the noodles, the process would create tiny holes which would allow them to soak up hot water more quickly and make the noodles soft and edible. After another year of working on the idea, he finally had instant ramen. The people in Japan were amazed at this new product and called it maho no ramen or “magic ramen.”
Ando’s invention took a while to catch on since it was more expensive than restaurant ramen at first. But the price went down as more and more people bought it, and the rest is history.
The illustrations capture Ando’s exuberance as he works on his creation, setting the scenes and conveying everyone’s expressions.
The book includes a pronunciation guide and more information about Ando and his noodles. I liked learning that Japanese astronauts ate instant ramen in outer space aboard the US space shuttle Discovery in 2005. As author Andrea Wang notes, “Ando’s instant ramen is not only magic, it’s out of the world!”
7. The Hole Story of the Doughnut by Pat Miller
Format: picture book biography
Subjects: food, sailors
This short and lively story doesn’t start the way you think it would. We learn about the “master mariner” Hanson Crockett Gregory and how he left his family farm when he was just 13 and went to sea, rising in the ranks until he was a captain at age 19. He distinguished himself by saving a number of Spanish Sailors from drowning and received a medal for heroism from Queen Isabella II.
All very nice for him, but we are interested in the doughnuts. The Hole Story of the Doughnut backtracks to when Captain Gregory was a 16-year-old cook’s assistant. He would help the cook make fried cakes every morning, dropping balls of sweetened dough into hot oil. They would be nice and crisp around the edges, but “Their raw centers, heavy with grease, made them drop like cannonballs in the stomach. Sailors called them ‘sinkers.’”
The enterprising young man had an idea one day and took the top off of a pepper can to use to cut round holes in the middle of each cake. The sailors loved the fully-cooked cakes, and “A new breakfast tradition was born.” Gregory told his mother about his discovery, and soon she was cooking up large batches of these “holey cakes” to sell in stores and on the docks to sailors.
The accompanying illustrations are bright, bold, and imbued with a sense of whimsy and humor.
The book includes an author’s note that gives more information about Captain Gregory, a timeline, and a selected bibliography.
8. Mountain Chef: How One Man Lost His Groceries, Changed His Plans, and Helped Cook Up the National Park Service by Annette Bay Pimentel
Format: picture book biography
Subjects: mountain cooks, Chinese-Americans, national parks
Mountain Chef is a book that imparts appreciation for so many things at once: the contributions of Chinese-Americans, the nature found in America’s National Parks, and the resilience needed to rescue a situation when mishaps occur.
We start with a boy named Tie Sing, a boy born in Nevada who grows into a cook who “stirred silky sauces, broiled succulent steaks, and tossed crisp salads.” He becomes known as the best trail cook in California.
In 1915 he gets his biggest job as a cook for an expedition that the millionaire Stephen Mather organized to take lawmakers on tour through the American west (specifically the part of California that is now Sequoia National Park) to convince them to establish a national park service. Mather knew that well-fed politicians would be easier to convince.
Tie Sing planned an elaborate menu for the 30 people on the trip, a menu which included dishes like Lyonnaise potatoes, peaches and cream, frogs’ legs, and English plum pudding with brandy sauce.
Author Pimentel describes how hard Sing and his assistant worked making fires, cooking food, carrying water for washing, and mixing up batches of sourdough. Things go well until one day when a mule with “all of the fanciest food on its back” escapes from his tether and can't be found. Sing can't make fancy appetizers that evening, but he still has well-cooked staples: moist chicken, velvety gravy, light sourdough rolls, and all-American apple pie.
Misfortune hits again when a mule falls from the trail and clatters down to the bottom. The mule is okay, but some of the food is banged up, and some is ruined. Again, Sing concocts a satisfying meal from his bruised apples and the biscuits he pulled together.
On the last night, he makes fortune cookies for everyone, inserting sayings that extoll the beauty of the mountains. A year later, Congress brings into being the National Park Service. Sing was honored in Yosemite National Park with a mountain that is now named Sing Peak. Pimentel tells us, “It was named for Tie Sing, a mountain-loving American who knew how to plan.”
The book includes photographs of Tie Sing along with answers to questions children might have, like, “Was Tie Sing real?” or “How did Tie Sing keep the meat from going bad without ice or refrigeration?” It also includes more information about people who were on the trip and a selected bibliography.
9. Who Was Milton Hershey? by James Buckley Jr.
Format: chapter book biography
Subjects: chocolate, businessmen, Hershey Pennsylvania
Who Was Milton Hershey? is part of the wildly popular biography series that relates the lives of notable people in a beginning chapter book form using relatively large print and numerous illustrations.
Right away, author James Buckley Jr. reels children in by describing how different candy stores were in 1900 from the way they are today. You could only buy candy in a special store (not the grocery store or the drugstore), and it was displayed behind a glass counter or in glass jars.
Children will be most surprised, though, when they learn that most stores didn’t sell any chocolate. It is such a mainstay of our candy universe today, but it turns out that Milton Hershey had everything to do with the fact that today, we can find chocolate bars almost everywhere.
As the book begins, we learn that young Milton didn’t grow up in the happiest of homes. His father had a series of business failures, and his parents split up when their son was ten years old. When young Milton was 12, his mother decided it was time for him to get a real job. After a failed start as a printer, he found his stride working at an ice cream shop that also sold candy. He had the opportunity to experiment with making different kinds of candy, and by the time he was 19, he had opened his own candy shop in Philadelphia.
Children will learn that, like many entrepreneurs, Hershey had his ups and downs. He opened a couple of candy shops that did well for a while, but he had to close them because they didn’t make enough money. But along the way, he learned to make caramel candies and finally set up an operation in Lancaster, Pennsylvania that had lasting success and made him one of the richest people in town.
After visiting the world’s fair in Chicago, he became enamored with this new treat called “chocolate” after seeing a German company's sculpture of chocolate that was four stories high! They had also set up the machinery for a complete factory that made chocolates. Hershey visited for hours at a time and asked quite a few questions. Then he took a big chance, sold his caramel company, and bought the entire chocolate factory he had seen at the fair. He developed the chocolate bar that came individually wrapped and also the Hershey’s Kiss, so named because when it dropped on the conveyor belt and made a little noise that sounded like a kiss.
One of the biggest surprises for me was to learn how much Hershey cared about community. He built a factory town, which wasn’t unusual, but he took great pains to make it a pleasant and helpful place to live. He made comfortable and attractive houses that had electricity and indoor plumbing at a time when neither was common. Even today, some of the town’s street lights are shaped like Hershey’s kisses. He included parks, theaters, a library, a post office, a bank, and a zoo. (The monkeys escaped a lot, but people would just call the zoo when they saw them running about town.) He gave the workers bonuses from the profits of his company. He built an amusement park and also a school for orphaned boys. Because he willed his money to that school, today it is one of the best-endowed schools in the nation.
He also went into action to help his workers during the Depression, building a luxury hotel so that they would all be able to make money working for the construction company that was building it.
All in all, it’s a fast-paced and interesting book with illustrations on almost every page that help bring this remarkable man to life.
10. Mistakes That Worked: The World’s Familiar Inventions and How They Came to Be by Charlotte Foltz Jones
Format: chapter book nonfiction
Subjects: food, inventions
I love the premise of this book: when we make mistakes, it gives us an opportunity to look at things with fresh eyes, and we might just find something good and useful. The author quotes Bertolt Brecht in her introduction: “Intelligence is not to make no mistakes, but quickly to see how to make them good.”
It might not sound all that great to have to eat mistakes, but the first 30 pages of Mistakes That Worked are dedicated to mishaps that resulted in tasty food. Each instance gets two or three pages, making these short entries ideal for reading to kids for a quick introduction to the concept of trying out ideas and making the best of mistakes.
The topics in the food section include frozen dinner rolls, cheese, chocolate chip cookies, Coca-Cola, doughnut holes, fudge, ice cream cones, maple syrup, Popsicles, potato chips, sandwiches, tea, and tea bags.
Many of the stories are tied to specific people and are well-documented, such as Ruth Wakefield’s invention of chocolate chip cookies at the Toll House Inn or Frank Epperson leaving a drink concoction outdoors overnight in the freezing cold and coming up with the Popsicle.
Others are more like well-worn legends, such as the unnamed ancient Arabian traveler who developed cheese after pouring some milk for storage in a sheep’s stomach.
All are related in a lively style, and the author includes numerous illustrations, occasional recipes, and little “fun facts” sidebars.
© 2022 Nevada Sharp