I resisted the lure of Julie Sternberg's Like Pickle Juice on a Cookie for a few weeks. But it kept staring out at me from the top shelf of the bookstore where I work. People would walk by it and read the title out loud and laugh. Then I would remember how much I loved illustrator Matthew Cordell's picture book, Trouble Gum for both its humor and humanity and how much the pigs in the story reminded me of the truly brilliant author and illustrator William Steig. I even read about the Evolution of a Cover over at Mishaps and Adventures, the blog of the art director for the publisher, Amulet/Abrams. What was holding me back? I just didn't want to read another book about a little girl. Ridiculous, I know, since the job I have given myself with this blog is to do that very thing. But, sometimes I just get so tired of real life and the stories of real kids. And I was tired. But not too tired, fortunately. Like Pickle Juice on a Cookie is an absolute gem and a wonder. It is the kind of book that will leave you, if you are anything like main character Eleanor Abigail Kane's mother, crying a little bit at happy endings. I cry at happy endings and I cry at sad parts and poignant parts and Like Pickle Juice on a Cookie has all of these. Matthew Cordell's pitch perfect illustrations will show you that Like Pickle Juice on a Cookie also has funny bits and sweet spots. And, while Like Pickle Juice on a Cookie is not a verse novel, it is verse-like and therefore fits in with this genre as well as National Poetry Month! Finally, Sternberg's book is exactly the kind of book I am always on the lookout for - a well written, entertaining, high quality story for emerging readers who are ready to tackle chapter books.
In Like Pickle Juice on a Cookie Eleanor tells us about losing her beloved babysitter, Bibi. The first page of the book, which is also all of chapter one, shows a glum Eleanor who tells the reader, "I had a bad August. A very bad August. As bad as pickle juice on a cookie. As bad as a spiderweb on your leg. As bad as the black parts of a banana. I hope your August was better. I really do." By that last line, "I really do," I was won over by Eleanor and her straightforward, honest tenor and couldn't wait to see how her story would unfold. As the Publisher's Weekly review put it so wonderfully, Like Pickle Juice on a Cookie is "no less resonant for its simplicity and accessibility, Eleanor's ingenuous free-verse monologue should strike a chord with readers, especially those who have had to cope with the loss of a loved one." It is Eleanor's voice that carries this novel and carries it well. Even if hers is a reluctant, hesitant, resistant, sometimes grieving voice, what makes Like Pickle Juice on a Cookie work, what makes it poignant, is the fact the Eleanor's voice is so real. As Julie Danielson writes in the preface to her interview with Sternberg and Cordell on her blog 7 Impossible Things, Sternberg captures a sensitive child's first experience with loss with "veracity; in the hands of lesser author, we could easily see a forced kids-say-the-darndest-things kind of characterization, affected whimsy, and an insincere, imposed quirkiness for Eleanor." Yet, Danielson continues, Sternberg is able to "capture with a spare, lyrical text the seemingly little moments of childhood that add up to so much for those experiencing them. Sternberg must know children and know them well, as her ability to capture the details that matter to them makes this book an engaging read."
What moved me most about this book was seeing how the adults in Eleanor's life were gentle and loving with her, much like the parents I so admire in the Frances books by Russell Hoban, doing their best to guide her through this difficult separation from the only babysitter she has ever known. However, they are also firm in the one or two moments where Eleanor acts out. When she slams her dresser drawer the first night her new babysitter Natalie is with her, Natalie says, "We don't slam drawers. Please try again, more gently." Natalie is understanding and respectful of Eleanor's attachment to and deep love for Bibi and gives her the space and the time to heal and adjust but also doesn't let her emotions get out of control. The two bond during their daily wait on a bench infront of Eleanor's apartment in Brooklyn for the mail carrier, Val, to deliver the response to a letter Eleanor writes to Bibi at the start of the month sine Eleanor is reluctant to travel anywhere or do anything that will remind her of Bibi.
One of my favorite moments of the book comes when Natalie shares her photo album filled with pictures of flowers she had taken from all over the state. Asking for her help in cataloguing the flowers of Brooklyn, Natalie gets Eleanor to take a walk and she notices things she had never looked at before. Eleanor also notices that they have walked past Roma Pizza, Bibi's favorite place to eat. This reminds Eleanor of the way that Bibi would hold her hand as they took walks and say, "This is the best hand. I love this hand." Eleanor takes a deep breath and tells Natalie that she misses Bibi. "Of course you do," Natalie says, "First babysitters are very special. I know I'm not Bibi. And I'll never be your first babysitter. But I'll try to be an excellent second babysitter. Does that sound okay?"
A short book, Like Pickle Juice on a Cookie is filled with so many moments (and illustrations) I could share here. If you do get this book for your child, I strongly encourage you to read it yourself. It might bring up some interesting discussions between you and your child, but even if it doesn't, I think its value lies in having met Eleanor and shared her experiences for a little while. It's so easy to forget, intentionally or not, the difficult parts of childhood. I am always in awe of authors who seem to remember and convey it so well in their writing. If you liked this book, don't miss The Book of Coupons by Susie Morgenstern. Also short and sweet, this book is a little bit more playful but just as thought provoking.
Don't miss Julie Sternberg's website which has a great design as well as the best author bio I have read in a while. Sternberg describes her childhood framing it with five books she read that were important to her and how they shaped her - then always encouraging the reader to read them as well. Be sure to checkout Matthew Cordell's blog for the latest news and some sneak peeks, like these two magnificent paintings below.