Minette’s Feast: The Delicious Story of Julia Child and Her Cat. 2012. Susanna Reich. Illustrated by Amy Bates. New York: Abrams Books for Young Readers. 40 pages.

Genre: Non-fiction, picture book

Ages: Grade K and up. The reading level makes this text accessible for younger readers, though there is a sprinkling of French language here and there (the setting is Paris). Readers are supported through contextual definitions and a glossary to assist with both meaning and pronunciations.  Of course, Minette’s owner is the iconic Julia Child, making the story equally appealing to older students, adults, foodies, and aspiring chefs.

Features: Afterword (Julia Child’s life after Paris), Notes, Sources, Glossary and Pronunciation Guide, Author’s Note

Summary

Susanna Reich’s latest book should come with several warning labels.

WARNING: Experiencing this book may lead to a strong desire for international travel, especially to the city of lights, Paris, France.

WARNING: Do not read this book on an empty stomach. You may be overcome with hunger pangs for rich, savory foods!

WARNING: Reading this book may lead you to your kitchen resulting in a flurry of slicing, blanching, roasting, and whisking, and of course, many dishes to wash.

WARNING: Dog lovers may find themselves feeling a bit warm and fuzzy about cats in general, and specifically, a cat named Minette. Be careful not to do anything rash, like rushing out to get a cat. (Not all cats are as charming as Minette. Trust me.)

Though I remember watching the PBS series, The French Chef with Julia Child, I never knew she had a cat or anything about her personal life. She was always just the tall, wacky cooking lady whose voice I loved to imitate. Recently, with the film Julie & Julia and several books, viewers and readers have had the opportunity to learn a great deal about the person behind the cooking legend. Susanna Reich’s latest book, Minette’s Feast: The Delicious Story of Julia Child and Her Cat, offers readers a close up view—thanks in no small part to Amy Bates’ tender, detailed illustrations—into Julia’s life in Paris, and the roots of her love for cooking. Susanna’s factual story of Julia Child’s training, perseverance, and ultimate rise to cooking fame, comes to readers through the equally factual story of Julia’s adopted cat, Minette, “the luckiest cat in Paris.” Now, you might think that a cat living with someone who loves to cook would grow fat and spoiled on all the rich food being prepared daily right in front of her. Not Minette! She is a finicky French cat, who may sample a taste here and there but much prefers to follow her hunting instincts and dine on a bird or mouse. Readers, however, will wish they could join Julia and her husband Paul at the dining room table for a plateful of anything she is serving.  Ooh-la-la! Bon Appétit!

In the Classroom

1. Background. Julia was born in the United States—Pasadena, California—but is living in Paris, France, as readers meet her and Minette. How many of your students know where France is? What do they know about France and Paris? Are any of them familiar with the Eiffel Tower—name or shape? Locate both the country and the city on a map. Perhaps some of your younger students have seen Disney’s The Aristocats. (Yes, it’s a cartoon, but it may serve as a beginning reference point.) The focus of the book isn’t Paris, but the culture and setting are important to understanding the lives of both Minette and Julia. Paris is filled with outdoor restaurants and sidewalk cafés. Maybe some of your students have eaten at a sidewalk café. The internet is such a great resource for images, videos, and information that will help you with any frontloading your students may need to get the most out of this book. Some older students (and adults) may notice a couple artistic references/tributes by the illustrator. For instance, the drawing of Minette on the dedication page, I believe, is a tip of the hat to Theophile Steinlein’s “Le Chat Noir.” The advertising art of Alphonse Mucha (another possible inspiration) could be compared to Amy Bates’ watercolor/pen/ink illustrations.

2. Reading. As always, you’ll want to preview the book prior to sharing. I like to read picture books through at least twice before sharing them with students. During my second (or third) preview reading, I use sticky notes to mark pages/passages/illustrations I want to emphasize—interesting word choices, fluent sentences, particularly sharp details, evocative illustrations, any “extras” the book has to offer, etc. Don’t miss the opportunity to share Amy Bates’ illustrations—a document camera is a great tool for this, as is simply holding the book up or passing it around.  This book can be read easily in a single sitting yet may, in fact, require a second or third reading for the fun of experiencing all the tasty language.

3. Personal connections. How many of your students have cats for pets? What are the animals’ names? Is there a story behind each pet’s name? Minette’s full name is Minette Mimosa McWilliams Child. Check the Afterword section to find out how she earned the Mimosa part of her lengthy name. What do your students’ cats eat? Compare Minette’s dietary preferences with your students’ cats. The Child’s adopt Minette, who appears to be a stray cat. Are any of your students’ cats adopted, either from an agency or because they found a stray like Julia and Paul? Perhaps some of your students feel as if they were the ones being adopted by their cats. Do any of your students have an interest in cooking? What are of some of things they are both able and allowed to cook on their own? Are there student’s who like to watch cooking programs? Do they have a favorite celebrity chef—Rachel Ray, Bobby Flay, Jamie Oliver, etc.?

4. Comparing Day-to-Day Life. Julia and her husband, Paul, love to spend their weekends strolling down the streets of Paris. These walks always included taking in a fine meal from one of the many cafes they discovered during their wanderings. That sounds very pleasant and leisurely to me, yet it’s very different from the way I spend most of my weekends. How does this compare with the way your students spend their Saturdays and Sundays? Do any of your students have parents who work during the weekend? Are there students in your classroom who participate in sports activities on Saturdays or spend part of their weekend time at church or involved in church functions? Julia also spends part of each day shopping at the marketplace or going to individual shops for bread, meat, milk, and other necessaries. (Be sure to check out the glossary in the back for pronunciation help with the French names for each of the shops.) Students could compare this with the way that their family shops for food. Do any of them help with the shopping—pushing the cart, retrieving items from the shelf, or checking items off a list?  There is also a page where the author tells about Julia and Paul’s apartment. This description begins as a series of complaints—it’s cold, dark, lacking important amenities—and ends with the wonderful line, “But this was home…” Students could imitate this page about something from their own life (home, family, etc.) focusing first on honest complaints and finishing with an equally honest, realistic, assessment—But he’s my big brother…But it’s the only car we have…But at least I get to talk to her on the phone once a week…Writing about real life experiences, even things which may sound too dull and ordinary, allows students to energize their writing with authentic details, the kind readers can connect with in a personal way.

5. Word Choice #1—Adjectives. Each word a writer chooses is important, of course, and the words used to describe the people, places, things, and animals are especially important if readers are going to be able to see and understand what the writer is describing. Ask your students to pay close attention to the words chosen to describe both Minette’s personality and the way she looks. Your students could draw pictures of “Mischievous Minette,” or “Energetic Minette.” After hearing Minette’s story and seeing the illustrations, are there any other describing words that would also help complete the “picture” of Minette?  Students could write reflective pieces describing themselves—physical and/or personality—to practice choosing the just-right adjectives to help readers understand them better. You could also have students write about a partner, and with their partner’s permission, share their writing aloud.

6. Word Choice #2—Adjectives, Verbs, and Terminology. The Common Core Language Standards focus a great deal on, not only word meaning, but also word relationships, nuances in meaning, and using words acquired through reading and being read to. As you might imagine in a book about Julia Child, Susanna Reich’s writing is practically a compendium of food terminology, filling readers’ senses with sights, tastes, smells, textures, from the moment an ingredient is selected in its rawest form, to the final moment when it slides into a waiting mouth. Eliminate these words or diminish them in any way, and the reader’s experience suffers. Have students discuss the difference between the author’s actual words describing Minette’s whiskers, nose, and paws with a weaker, repetitive substitute: …Minette’s nice whiskers, her nice nose, and her nice paws.  Since verbs are the engine of every sentence, and are chosen to bring a topic to life for readers, I suggest working with your students to create a chart of Cooking Verbs (plucked, blended, whisking, etc.) and a chart of Minette’s Verbs, (gnawing, dancing, prancing, etc.) These charts could become part of your classroom word wall, a reminder of the importance of choosing the right action word, and a daily reference for your writers. Students could work in groups to learn meanings of a selected set of the chart’s words to act out for their class. Physically demonstrating the differences between verbs—blending and whisking, dancing and prancing, etc.—is a great way for students to understand word meanings, nuances, and relationships, and promote their use in student writing. And it’s a lot of fun.

7. Word Choice, Figurative Language, and Sentence Fluency. If I haven’t made it clear already, this book has to be read aloud, more than once, and even performed in parts by students. There’s so much to discover—the variety of sentence beginnings, length and structure, purposeful repetition of sentence beginnings and structure, and the use of alliteration/assonance/consonance. (There is a beautifully long sentence that contains mayonnaise, hollandaise, cassoulets, and more!) The author uses these techniques skillfully to bring rhythm and movement to each page and involve readers in the dance/music of cooking.

8. Organization/Ending. Make sure you linger on both the beginning and ending of this book to help students hear and feel how the author has brought them full circle. By repeating at the end, nearly word for word (and rather poetically), the language from the beginning, Susanna Reich underlines for readers the wonderful Parisian life that Minette leads with Julia and Paul.

9. Writing/Fun. Here are a few quick ideas to extend the ideas from this book and have some fun. Fun is good.

a) Create a class cookbook with favorite recipes from students. Have them plan the                   organization and layout.

b) Explore what your students know about table manners, for both formal and informal                   situations. Watch a video, then practice at lunch.

c) Find videos of Julia Child in action from her PBS cooking shows. Compare the real Julia                   with the way she is portrayed by illustrator Amy Bates.

10. Further Research—Biography. Share all the extras this book has to offer: Afterword, Notes (In this section, be sure students hear what the author says about the source of this book’s dialogue.), Glossary/Pronunciation Guide, and Author’s Note.  Discuss with students the depth of knowledge required by biographical writers like Susanna Reich. Ask your students if they think she included everything she learned about Minette and Julia Child in this book. Discuss why she might have decided to leave some information out.

11. More About the Author and Illustrator. Be sure to visit Susanna Reich, learn more about her, and check out all the cool books she has written, at www.susannareich.com For more information about the books and art of illustrator Amy Bates, go to www.amybates.com

(A special thanks to both Susanna Reich and Abrams Publishing for providing us at Gurus with a copy of Minette’s Feast.)

Coming up on Gurus . . .Look for a discussion of the often underrated importance of narrative writing in the classroom—coming soon. And we’ll continue making connections to the Common Core as we go along. Please remember, for the BEST in workshops integrating traits, standards, literature, process and workshop, phone us at 503-579-3034. See you next time, and bring friends! Give every child a voice…

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