Author Ying Chang Compenstine with cooking students in a Singapore classroom. Courtesy of Ying Chang Compenstine

Picture books about food have been entertaining children for generations — you can probably name one… or maybe a dozen.  “Cooking the Books,” a program on May 6 at this year’s Bay Area Book Festival, will give kids the chance to actually taste some of the ideas from five award-winning picture book authors, who aim to make healthy eating fun and creative.

Cooking the Books: A Celebration of Picture Books and Food, Sat., May 6, 1-2:30 p.m. Children’s Room at the Berkeley Public Library. Families can pop in any time during the 90 minutes. Free.

The 90-minute drop-in session, a partnership between the festival and the Berkeley Public Library, will use a mobile kitchen called the Charlie Cart in the Central Library’s Children’s Room. Authors Charlotte Cheng, Ying Chang Compestine, Katherine Pryor, Aliza Sokolow, and Shuli de la Fuente-Lau are sharing samples and playful activities.

Aliza Sokolow. Courtesy of Aliza Sokolow

Aliza Sokolow, an Emmy-winning and James Beard Media Award–winning food stylist, knows a thing or two about making all sorts of dishes look, well, good enough to eat. Inspired by her work on the TV program “Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution” to help kids eat well, her debut, This Is What I Eat: Fun Activities for Mindful Eating, is a brightly colorful introduction to healthy eating for the entire family.

Her plan for the event? “I will be doing an apple tasting. I have a little questionnaire that goes along with it about types, colors, flavors, shapes and sizes. Though an apple is a single fruit, there are 7,500 different types!”

Ying Chang Compenstine, an award-winning novelist, former food editor at Martha Stewart’s Whole Living magazine, and a leading authority on Asian cuisine, is no stranger to working with young cooks in the kitchen. A native of Wuhan, China, she’s led cooking demonstrations in schools worldwide. 

Rooted in the Chinese tradition of celebrating birthdays with long noodles — the longer the noodle, the longer and happier the life, according to custom — her book Dragon Noodle Party is “a way to combine Chinese food, the Zodiac, and most importantly, the value of sharing.”

For Compenstine, writing Dragon Noodle Party was a process suffused with memories of her grandmother, who’d serve up the titular Dragon Beard Noodles — “long and thin, resembling the beard of a Chinese dragon” — for birthday celebrations. 

Her plan? “A chopstick contest! It’s going to be so much fun.”

The Taiwanese Night Market. Credit: Charlotte Cheng

Charlotte Cheng’s Night Market Rescue aims to expand kids’ palates. Her picture book was inspired by the vivid sights, sounds and smells of the Taiwanese night markets and meals of her childhood. “From squid and pork jerky, to ginger tea and boba, sharing this food was a chance for my family to bond and make memories together.”

She’ll be handing out Taiwanese treats.

Katherine Pryor’s Spring is for Strawberries celebrates the seasonality of produce through the lens of an urban farmer’s market.

“One of my most transformative memories is when my parents revamped a community garden,” she says. “I remember running from plot to plot with my friends, a bunch of city kids who finally had space to explore. We’d pick fresh green beans and cherry tomatoes still warm from the sun. I loved that a few seeds could create food from dirt.”

Katherine Pryor eats kale flowers with youngsters at a school garden visit. Credit: Katherine Pryor

“Allowing kids to grow and harvest food is an incredible way to get them excited about eating it,” Pryor said. “Kids are fearless in a school garden  — I see them eating all kinds of things they might turn their noses up at if it were presented on a plate.”

She’ll distribute strawberry samples — an encouragement for kids and parents to pop over to Berkeley’s Farmers’ Market (Saturdays, 10 a.m.-3 p.m.), a 3-minute stroll across the park, where kids just might feel empowered to ask the farmers just how their food grows. (Bonus: the Berkeley Public Library hosts a storytime at the Farmers’ Market most Saturdays at 10:30 am.)

Shuli de la Fuente-Lau. Courtesy of Shuli de la Fuente-Lau

Shuli de la Fuente-Lau’s How We Eat depicts the many different ways that children and families eat: whether with bottles, spoons, GI tubes, forks, cups, or hands, or through nursing, spoon-feeding, or checking ingredient lists for allergens. The book offers fun introductions to sushi, arepas, artichokes, dosas, dumplings and other foods that might not be familiar. De la Fuente-Lau says she wrote the book for families whose experiences are often missing from mainstream presentations of eating. All parents will leave the program with prompts and guides to inspire family discussions about food, ability, and culture.

De la Fuente-Lau’s message is one that transcends all cuisines: “Being fed is being loved, however that looks.” 

Folio Books will sell the authors’ books on site. “Cooking the Books” is just one of more than 30 free book festival sessions for kids — from toddlers to teens — on May 6–7. That includes programs all day Saturday at the Library, and many more on Sunday in Civic Center Park.

Grownups can satisfy their own hunger for culinary history at “Tasting History,” 3:30 p.m. Saturday at the Freight & Salvage. YouTube phenom Max Miller will share tantalizing historical tidbits, such as the evolution of pizza and the world’s oldest beer recipe. Elsewhere at the festival, authors Dorothee Elmiger and Jori Lewis will unpack the fraught origins of sugar and peanuts at “Hidden Histories,” at 4 p.m., Saturday, at the Brower Center’s Tamalpais Room. 

Find nearly 100 other programs at the upcoming Bay Area Book Festival.

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