“Dim Sum Palace”
X. Fang
Tundra Books
48 pages
$18.99
Ages 3-7

“Goodnight, my little dumpling,” Liddy’s mother says to her daughter at bedtime. And what a little dumpling she is! In the best tradition of Chinese food, she is doughy and plump, good enough to eat. Liddy tries to fall asleep – but she can’t. Visions of custard bao dance in her head – not to mention tomorrow’s promised trip to the Dim Sum Palace restaurant.

Even before we meet Liddy – before we get to page one of X. Fang’s ode to Chinese food – we are greeted with end papers that depict 40 different delicacies, from shrimp dumpling to green tea rice balls. We are clearly in for a tasty treat.

The book, by mid-coast Maine visual artist X. Fang (aka Susan), is also a love letter to Maurice Sendak’s “In the Night Kitchen.” It follows Liddy as she is lured from bed by the scent of cooking, into the kitchen of a real palace – “where there were two busy chefs making dim sum. There were baos, buns and bowls of congee! Dumplings, shumai and lots of sweet treats!”

A miniature Liddy clambers happily over the gigantic ingredients in her pajamas. But then (like Sendak’s Mickey) she falls into a bowl of ingredients, unseen by the chefs. She is stuffed into a dumpling and served up to the real Empress – “truly “good enough to eat.”

She survives of course, and the ending – a visit to the Dim Sum Palace restaurant – is a bit anti-climactic, as it’s not a patch on her dream palace. But the food is good, and that’s all that matters in this celebration of Chinese cooking.

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The colorful and simple stylized illustrations by Fang perfectly capture the outsize, surreal quality of dreams. While most of them are not as richly imagined or as luscious as Sendak’s, the double-page spread of the chefs surrounded by dough could have come straight from the Night Kitchen. All told, Fang’s debut solo picture book is a treat for all the senses.

“Shad Hadid and the Alchemists of Alexandria”
George Jreije
HarperCollins
373 pages
$13.59 (hardcover); $7.99 (paperback)
Ages 8-12

“Shad Hadid and the Forbidden Alchemies”
George Jreije
HarperCollins
$15.99
344 pages
Ages 8-12

Food is also a central focus in former Maine resident George Jreije’s debut novels about Shad Hadid, a Lebanese boy who flees to Portland. He lives with his grandmother, who imbues in him a love of baking Arab pastries. As cooking is really about transformation, Shad is able to apply these same skills to alchemy when he is invited to study the ancient art at the mysterious Alexandria Academy in Egypt (which he reaches not by train from platform 9 3/4 but – wonderfully – by submarine). Once there, he does endless battle with the shadowy forces of evil necromancers.

This is not great literature. The writing is decidedly amateurish (and the editing shockingly non-existent). The minor characters are one-dimensional recruits from the Scooby Doo school of casting (there’s the Brainy one, the Sleepy one, the Gay one, the Snobby one, etc.). And Jreije struggles to escape the influence, not of necromancers but of J.K. Rowling, whose long shadow looms over an entire genre of “school of magic” children’s books.

But the real charm of the Shad series is its celebration of Lebanese food and culture. Jreije sprinkles his pages with references to Middle Eastern meals and delicacies like baklava that will make any reader drool. He adds dashes of Arab words and phrases throughout (though inexplicably Shad’s favorite exclamation is “holy canoli”). And he spices up the second novel by moving the action to Lebanon. Along the way we visit Tripoli, Beirut, a cedar forest and the Jeita Grotto. Here the writing deepens a little as Jreige is able to flesh out his characters, especially Shad’s family and the boy’s budding romance with a former middle school antagonist.

The sweet core of the series is Shad’s growing awareness of the importance of his heritage, his family, his new friends – and the happiness that cooking brings him. Rowling – no great prose stylist herself – has proven it is the story that matters, not the writing. She is a master storyteller. Jreije is more of an apprentice, but like Shad he has found the recipe for an elixir that will entertain fans of fantasy, one that is both sweet and spicy, and as stuffed with action as a Lebanese grape leaf is with pine nuts and rice.

Amy MacDonald is a children’s author and freelance writer. She lives in Portland.


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