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Karen Chan
What's That?
Karen Chan, author
Jax loves the food his family cooks. But when his grandmother packs his favorite Chinese dishes for his first day of school, Jax discovers his lunch looks very different from what the rest of his classmates are eating. Embarrassed to eat his food, Jax finds himself sitting alone. When Meena sits next to him, the two strike an unexpected friendship over their lunches, sharing a mutual joy of time spent in the kitchen and the delicious meals they eat with their families. What’s That? is a heartwarming story about the foods that make up who we are and how the meals we eat can bring us together.
In Chan’s sweet picture book, a little boy named Jax meets a new friend when they bond over their love of food on the first day of school. Growing up with a family that loves to prepare meals together–and a grandmother who is an “expert chef”–Jax has “discerning taste,” which means he appreciates a lot of items pickier eaters won’t touch: “He fancied Camembert and spicy tofu stew. He also ate green hummus well before he learned to chew.” His grandma loads his lunchbox with her “greatest hits”: “asty lu rou fan, so good it made rice sing” and “a chewy cong you bing!” When mealtime rolls around, Jax can’t wait to enjoy these special treats.

Helpful lessons for readers come when Jax, at school, notices no one else has a meal like his and faces a brief lapse of confidence. The other children in the cafeteria munch on sandwiches, pizza, and juice boxes. Suddenly, Jax wishes his food looked like everyone else’s– especially when some nearby kids notice his assortment of goodies and say that his lunch looks weird. Then friendly, confident Meena sits down beside him and lays out a special homemade spread of her own–daal and rice, fragrant with “curry leaves and mustard seeds and spice.” The two talk animatedly about their favorite foods and become fast friends.

Basia Tran’s detailed, expressive illustrations make this book extra special, showing Meena and Jax cooking at home in well-appointed kitchens, sipping hot and sour rasam on the back of a scaly dragon, and playing at school in an expansive, colorful landscape where the trees look like gumdrops and the planets sit low and clearly visible in the sky. Ultimately What’s That? demonstrates the vital role food plays in how we connect to our families and our cultures–as well as how we come to know and love each other and our selves.

Takeaway: In Chan’s sweet picture book, a little boy who feels ostracized for his homemade food bonds with a new friend.

Great for fans of: Debbie Min’s The Yuckiest Lunch Box, Grace Lin’s The Ugly Vegetables.

Production grades
Cover: B+
Design and typography: A
Illustrations: A
Editing: A
Marketing copy: A-