By Lauren Goldberg, Curriculum Coordinator
Donna Santomasso is standing over the stove in the Kindergarten common area, stirring a pot of steaming broth. The aroma is a blend of rich, hearty vegetables and something a bit more exotic (dried scallops, it turns out). On the counter next to her is a pile of chopped greens and cubes of something that looks like a combination of a zucchini and a cucumber. On this special day, the soup she's making will become part of a celebratory lunch.
Before lunch, however, there will be a presentation by a celebrity guest in the Twichell Room: acclaimed author-illustrator Grace Lin, who spent a fun and enlightening day at Foote on May 7. And many days before that, there was a read-aloud and a beautiful art project with Karla, featuring the same vegetables that have now found their way into the soup.
It is, of course, "ugly vegetable" soup, the recipe at the heart of Grace Lin's popular children's book The Ugly Vegetables. In April, Karla read the book to the class and then brought out samples of each of the vegetables for the children to observe and paint in their first observational still life lesson.
"Karla had all the vegetables, and we got to choose what to paint!" a child tells me excitedly. The students learned the Chinese names and the characteristics of these foods: the squash/cucumber called chian tsay that has a bright reddish interior; the leafy torng hau; and the bitter melon called sy gua, along with several other leafy, fragrant, bumpy, crunchy specimens.
Karla brought a chart with diagrams to class so that the young artists could identify each vegetable. After the children painted the vegetables, Donna and Karla froze them to save for the soup."When we were painting them, we didn't know we were going to have soup," one child mused. "But we wanted to welcome Grace Lin, so that's why Donna made soup," explained another eager Kindergartner.
And indeed, Grace Lin—the author-illustrator of The Ugly Vegetables, Dim Sum for Everyone, the Ling and Ting series, The Year of the Dog, Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, and many other favorites—came to Foote. She offered a series of presentations for students in the Lower School, tailored to the grade level and interests of each group. For the youngest children, Ms. Lin explained the process of transforming a story from an idea to a published book. She invited children to the front of the room to role-play the parts of editor, art director, designer, printer, and binder of her book. The students were amazed to learn that it takes at least a year for a book to go through this process ("like a Torah!" exclaimed one young scholar).
With each group, Ms. Lin discussed her childhood and her experiences as the only Asian family in her upstate New York hometown. She talked about her journey to embrace and learn about her culture, and the ways that traditional stories and fairy tales helped her find a way into her heritage. Many of her books incorporate elements of these ancient Chinese legends in new ways. The children were enthralled by her presentation and by the approachable way that she explained the publishing process. To end each session, she taught the students how to draw an image from one of her books. The Kindergarten and first grade group learned to draw a dog to match the figure on the cover of The Year of the Dog.
Back in the Kindergarten classrooms, everyone settled down for lunch. The teachers carried trays of soup to each table. Most of the children were very excited to try the dish, but some were hesitant. "You can try it, and if you think, 'it's not really my favorite,' you can put it aside," said Kindergarten teacher Susan Keegan to one skeptical diner. "The water part is delicious!" exclaimed a child. Across the room, a boy leaned back in his chair. "I'm savoring this," he said.