Review Essay: Julie, Julia, and Simca

Book reviewed:  Julia, Child – Kyo Maclear and Julie Morstad, Tundra Books, Random House of Canada, 2014

When you find an illustrator whom you like, the subject matter brought to life by her drawings is not always significant.  I am not a fine food enthusiast, a collector of cookbooks, or a follower of the late Julia Child.  I am awed, however, by the children’s book artistry of Julie Morstad, whose pictures accompany works by several different authors: Sara O’Leary, Caroline Woodward, Laurel Snyder, and here, Kyo Maclear.

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In any successful author-illustrator partnership the two talents involved need to work together seamlessly, yet at the same time be identifiably separate. In some cases either text or image may stand out more; sometimes one is so strong that a book can survive a forgettable other.  Julie Morstad ‘s pictures are provocative delights which appeal directly to a child’s sensibility while at the same time sailing over their young heads directly to adult readers. All the authors with whom she works complement her images, which are idiosyncratic, but also adaptable. Let me describe one.

In the middle of Julia, Child, a book which the introduction tells us “contains no true knowledge of (the real) Julia Child and should be taken with a grain of salt and perhaps even a generous pat of butter,” there is a two-page spread straight out of child’s imagination. It depicts a long covered table on top of which an angry and attractive woman dressed in a cinched-waist suit, high heels, and a 1950s calot hat hits a sullen seated man over the head with a baguette. Under the table Julia, a child, and her best friend Simca peer from upwards, frowning at this indecipherable scene of adult idiocy. Julie is dressed in blue jeans, a red tee shirt and a smartly tied blue scarf. Simca has large round glasses which cover her petite face.  They manage to decode the lunacy which they are observing:  ‘“The problem, said Julia, “is that too many grown-ups don’t have the proper ingredients.”   The following pages show both girls cooking; this time Julia is wearing roller skates.  A shelf holds black and white outlined jars containing minimal touches of pastel color and ingredients labeled “wonder, slow down, imagination, sweetness, fun, savor and yippee.”

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Julia reaches one hand up towards them like a ballerina, while Simca patiently fills cupcake tins with petits gateaux. On the next pages they serve this delicacy, upon which butterflies have alighted, to a glamorous starlet, a sturdy woman with a floral head covering, and a French sailor with a three day growth of beard.  No adults interfere with their creative generosity: ‘”There is plenty for us all,” announced Julia, so the grown-ups would get over their feelings of never-enoughness.”

If the book sounds affected or pretentious, it isn’t.  Think of Ludwig Bemelmans’s Madeline, Kay Thompson’s Eloise, Maira Kalman’s cartoon fables, and 1960s French language textbooks.  Think of Julie Morstad!

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