With shows like "MasterChef Junior" ruling our televisions, children today clearly have a strong grasp of the concept of the "celebrity chef."
Now, thanks to a new biography geared toward younger readers, food-loving kids can also get to know the woman who helped start it all: the lovable and undeniably talented Julia Child.
"Julia Child: An Extraordinary Life in Words and Pictures" is the work of author Erin Hagar, a Rodgers Forge resident, and illustrator Joanna Gorham. The book tells the story of Child's life, from her childhood in Pasadena, Calif., until her death in 2004.
The biography, which is written for readers ages 8 to 13, peppers Hagar's engaging words with Gorham's charming illustrations. Child's nine decades were filled with adventures that make great stories and pictures. The book brings to life her time overseas with the proto-CIA Office of Strategic Services, her marriage to Paul Child and their years in Paris, where she discovered a love of cooking and began to write "Mastering the Art of French Cooking," and her breakout success as a television chef on Boston public television.
Before starting her research, Hagar was familiar with Julia Child as a television chef, though she wasn't aware of all of her accomplishments.
"I didn't know anything about her time in World War II or how old she was, relatively speaking, when she landed on cooking and writing the book and becoming a household name," she says.
That Child discovered her path later in life is one of the lessons Hagar hopes young readers take away from the book.
"It's great to know you don't have to have your whole life figured out by the time you're 18 or 21," she says. "You can have lots of experiences and take a while to find the passion that drives you. Kids are under a lot of pressure to specialize and pick one thing they're good at — but sometimes it takes a while to figure that out."
Hagar also admires Child's work ethic. "The other thing that resonates is how tirelessly she worked," she notes. "The book ["Mastering the Art of French Cooking"] took seven years of testing recipes over and over again. Then once that took off, she put the same energy into promoting the book and the TV show."
Though Child is sometimes portrayed as flighty, Hagar says she discovered that the chef was actually "meticulously organized and detail-oriented."
Before writing, Hagar dove into Child's life, reading the autobiography the chef wrote with her nephew as well as numerous other biographies, and immersing herself in Child's papers, which are kept at the Schlesinger Library at Radcliffe College. There, surrounded by letters and photos, she found even more inspiration.
"It's a treasure-trove," she says, noting that her research left her with an impression of a woman with a lovable nature, a passion for her calling and an utter lack of pretension — a magnetic combination of characteristics that helped her appeal to Americans of all ages. "The most exciting thing I found was letters from kids to Julia, which shows that she resonated with that age group, even in the '60s. They were just the sweetest letters, from kids working on cooking badges for Girl Scouts or who watched the show with their grandmothers."
Hagar is now in the process of publishing her next book for children between 8 and 13 — an age group she calls "the best readers in the world." This one is an illustrated nonfiction work about the Farmerettes of the Woman's Land Army of America, a group of World War I women who took over farm work during the war.
"It's a great girl-power story about overcoming obstacles so you can do the job," she says.
It seems like a fitting follow-up to a story about a woman who taught herself — and America — how to cook and how to learn to love it.