Friday, September 30, 2016

Summer in a Bowl {A Children's Book Review}

It's not everyday I am given the opportunity to review a children's book, in fact this is the first time I've ever done one, but I am thrilled to be able to so ... it's such a fun book!

Joan Leotta, author
First, a bit about the author, Joan Leotta. Including essays, poetry, short stories and young adult fiction, Joan is a versatile and award-winning author, poet, and story performer. She has been playing with words on paper and on stage from the first time she could hold a pen and climb, and gathers inspiration for writing and performing from everyday incidents and objects. She has been a story performer, mostly for children, for more than thirty years--including historic characters and folklore shows. To her credit are four young adult novels, numerous plays and poems, and a picture book called "WHOOSH!"

Joan attended Ohio University and Johns Hopkins, where she concentrated on international relations and economics. Joan grew up in Pittsburgh now lives, and spends a lot of time walking the North Carolina beaches, with her husband Joe. Her motto is "encouraging others through pen and performance."

Joan Leotta crafted this tale from her own memories of gardening and occasionally cooking with her Aunt Mary and the countless times she tired new things and foods at her father's urging. Joan has a strong commitment to using natural foods and to providing wonderful meals for family and friends. Joan writes food articles for the local newspaper and is on the Board of the Waccamaw Slow Food USA Chapter.

Her latest book, Summer in a Bowl is a delightful story about a young girl, Rosa, and her Aunt Mary. Rosa visits one day during the summer months and helps Aunt Mary harvest a few things from their garden, which is then made into this delicious soup. Rosa is hesitant to taste it at first until her father tries a bowl and enjoys it, so Rosa tentatively tries it and likes it. “What do you call this?” Rosa asked.“Summer in a bowl,” Aunt Mary said. “Once the vegetables make friends, they make a soup that tastes like summer.”

It's a sweet story about gardening with children, and teaching them to eat healthy food, without going overboard or being pushy. Rosa is curious to try it because she helped collect the vegetables and helped her Aunt Mary cook them ... sometimes that's all it takes; someone with the wisdom to guide a child, all while making it fun to learn and experience new tastes.

In your new book, Summer in a Bowl, you talk very fondly of Aunt Mary. Who was she and what are your fondest memories of your time spent with her?

So glad to have a chance to spotlight the real Aunt Mary! She was my Uncle Ernie's wife, my mother's sister-in-law and the mother of three of my dear cousins—John, Diane and Ernie. Aunt Mary died of cancer when I was a young woman.

Aunt Mary was an avid gardener, and a wonderful person. She made it possible for me to be a Brownie Scout when my Mom (who worked) was unable to take me to meetings. Aunt Mary did make that soup and my Dad did taste a bowl of it on one memorable afternoon when I was four or five years old.

Aunt Mary with Joan's cousin, Diane

Yes, the day memorialized in the book, really did happen! However, in real life that hot late summer day was not part of a regular babysitting arrangement. Yes, I did help her harvest and I did watch as she made the soup. Years later I remembered that afternoon and how Aunt Mary made "menestre" and began to work on making it myself.

Fast forward another number of years and my cousin Diane and I were talking and she mentioned she did not have her Mom's recipe for soup. The soup in the book, and repeated here, is exactly the same as the one Aunt Mary used to make. I simplified it a bit so it would be easier to make with children. In general the creative process does sometimes need to take a few liberties with reality.

Do you thinking gardening with children, or teaching children where their food comes from, is essential in our world today?

We are in a health crisis in the US ... too much sugar, too much artificial food. Real food is important for everyones health and a good place to start is in childhood, building good habits of eating early makes it easier to have good habits when we are older. Gardening makes that food farm connection, and can be done even in a city! Yep, containers, in apartments, small rectangles of veggies in a tiny house garden –city kids who live in food deserts can have a real food experience of their own with just a bit of thought.

Plus, once they make that connection and once they grow something they are more likely to try it ... though my own heroine, Rosa, needs her Dad's good example to give her the final impetus to try the vegetable soup!

Literacy is vital to all of us. What makes children’s books in particular so vital?

Children's books are the way children become interested n books as a source of ideas. I write books that share a loving (real or almost real) experience of mine, hoping to give children something to identify with ... my family is like that! Or to use as a refuge when their own lives are not so much fun ... I wish my family was like that! Adults often use books in this way as well.

Books teach analysis, order in thought, self-expression. This new book has space for the child who owns it to add in their own ideas. It is my hope that children will come to this book sitting on the lap of a parent or favorite Aunt, reinforcing books as a form of love, while also coming to an interest in gardening and healthy eating.

Joan's soup bowl ready to make Aunt Mary's Summer in a Bowl Soup

Aunt Mary's Summer in a Bowl Soup 
(recipe compliments of Joan Leotta)
Serves four or two and two portions to freeze

6 cups water or low sodium, no-msg, chicken broth
4 tbls olive oil
1 onion, sliced
1 clove garlic, diced
2 stalks celery, diced
2 carrots, diced
4 cups cut up greens of any kind from the garden-combination of kale and baby spinach.
2 fresh tomatoes cut up salt and pepper to taste
Salt and pepper to taste
Optional, 1 medium yellow squash and 1 medium zucchini, diced.

Put the large pot on stove. Add olive oil. Sauté the onion and garlic together until onion soft, about three minutes. Add celery and carrots sauté, for three minutes. If you are using either or both squashes, add now. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Add greens, sauté  for one minute Add water (or non-msg low sodium chicken broth). Add cut up tomatoes (this will make the broth golden colored); Stir well.

Cook on medium heat for at least two hours, stirring every twenty minutes or so. Before serving, taste and add more salt and pepper as desired.

Serve while hot. Store leftover soup in the refrigerator, or ladle into containers and freeze.

Joan's Tips on Gardening with Children 

The tips below are about using gardening to grow relationships with each other and food rather than about learning the finer points of gardening.

  • Talk with your child about what will fit best in the size of the child’s plot/pot and how long each will take to go from seed to plant.
  • Define all gardening terms for your child.
  • Visit the garden daily. Mark off the visits on a little calendar.
  • Use a combination of seeds and “starter” plants to demonstrate more rapid progress.
  • Write down or draw pictures (for pre-readers) to illustrate the child’s specific daily duties for: feeding, watering, thinning and weeding. Do not use chemicals to weed or feed since these could be harmful to the child.
  • Be sure to supervise thinning and weeding the first few times to avoid errors.
  • When “crops” come in, talk about the uses of that herb or vegetable or flower.
  • Select recipes together and use the item in a meal.
  • If you are growing flowers, pick and give them to someone. Use them to decorate the table.
  • Take photos at each stage to document the experience so the child will be able to enjoy the experience over and over again.

Your state’s agricultural extension service is another good place to find gardening information that is specific to your part of the country.

Summer in a Bowl Book Giveaway! Enter to win a FREE autographed copy for yourself, your children, nieces, nephews or grandchildren.

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For more about Joan Leotta
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