special delivery

The days of sending physical letters in the mail are almost done (if not gone already), but I still wax nostalgic for “real mail.” It might have something to do with all of those international pen pals I kept in touch with as a preteen, and definitely has something to do with The Jolly Postman, still one of my favorite picture books ever. When I saw a picture book with a postage stamp cover, I had to take a look. I could keep Philip C. Stead’s Special Delivery on my coffee table forever, if only for Matthew Cordell’s fantastic illustrations.

special delivery by philip c. stead, illustrated by matthew cordell
Sadie is on her way to deliver an elephant to her Great-Aunt Josephine, who lives completely alone and can really use the company. She tries everything from mailing the elephant to boarding a plane, a train, and an alligator to get to her aunt's home. Along the way she meets an array of interesting characters, including an odd postal worker and a gang of bandit monkeys, who all help her get where she is going. This eccentric and hilarious story from Philip C. Stead, the author of the Caldecott-winning A Sick Day for Amos McGee and illustrator Matthew Cordell will surprise and entertain from beginning to end.

Sadie is determined to send her Great-Aunt Josephine an elephant, to alleviate her loneliness (of course! what a thoughtful grand-niece…). She first tries to send the elephant by post, but the amount of stamps needed more than fill a wheelbarrow – that won’t work! Sadie soon takes matters into her own (creative) hands, and she and the elephant travel far and wide by plane, train and ice cream truck, meeting many interesting creatures and characters along the way. 

In Special Delivery, Stead has created an outlandish adventure that will appeal to animal lovers and travelers alike. The narrative is a bit disjointed in parts, as Sadie and her elephant jump from one unlikely scenario to another. Some transitions and conversations are left to the imagination. That said, Stead’s story tickles the imagination, and will likely prompt the telling of other tall tales among its readers.  It’s inspirational like that.

The real star of this book? Matthew Cordell’s illustrations. They have a deliciously old-fashioned feel, in a style that reminded me of Bill Peet.  Sadie is the main (human) character, but I found myself looking at the animals on each page first – their expressions as they have these unusual adventures are hilarious and spot-on. Other fun details in the art: Words made out of train smoke, stamps upon stamps, and the unexpected reunion scene at the end, when the reader finally learns the “real” story.

Special Delivery does what the best picture books do so well: it inspires imagination and creativity, while telling a silly story that will spark questions and laughter. It may not have been my exact cup of tea, but it’s sure to become the favorite book of many children this year.

Recommended for: young readers, and parents/teachers/interested adults looking for books that will speak to an adventurous spirit.

Fine print: I received an ARC of this book from the publisher for review consideration.  I did not receive any compensation for this post.

kolaches

One of my friends has started a bit of a tradition. She plans a big party for a specific occasion or theme. I ask what I can bring. She gives me a baking project. I make something new-to-me and find out what 20 random taste-testers (ahem, partygoers!) think of that item. In the end, we both win! Oh, and the parties are usually fun too.

kolaches

Last year for her Texas Independence Day party Leigh had me make sausage and cheese bites. This year she suggested kolaches. Which I had never heard of before.  Turns out, they’re very popular at Texas potlucks (for good reason). They’re like little homemade Hot Pockets®, except 20 times more delicious.

Kolaches (adapted from a Homemade Mamas recipe)

INGREDIENTS

Dough
1 packet of active dry yeast
1/4 cup warm water
1/2 cup sugar, plus 1/4 teaspoon for proofing the yeast
3/4 cup warm milk
4 cups of all-purpose flour
3 eggs (2 for dough, 1 for egg wash)
1/2 cup unsalted butter, melted
1 teaspoon of salt

Filling
14 oz. to 1 lb. of skinless Polish sausage, fully cooked
8 oz. shredded cheese (I used a Mexican cheese blend)
Pepperoncini or jalapeño peppers, to taste

DIRECTIONS

Proof the yeast by adding the contents of the yeast packet to a very warm 1/4 cup of water and 1/4 teaspoon of sugar (I always do this in my liquid measuring cup).  Yeast should start rising/bubbling within five minutes. Once you’re sure you’ve got an active batch, combine yeast, warm milk, the rest of the sugar and one cup of flour in a large bowl. Cover and let it rise for at least 30 minutes (or until doubled in size).


In a small bowl beat the 2 eggs, then add the 1/2 cup of melted butter and salt and blend well. Add the egg mixture to the yeast mixture and mix until thoroughly incorporated. Stir in the flour, 1/2 cup at a time. Amount of flour for the right dough consistency may vary, and you may need to knead it in with your hands. You want to end up with soft, slightly sticky dough.

Knead dough for about 10 minutes either on a well-floured surface or in the bowl (adding more flour as necessary). Place dough in a well-greased bowl – I used a liberal coating of olive oil to do the trick. Cover bowl with plastic wrap and let rise until doubled in size. The original recipe said that would take about an hour, but I let it rise for three hours while I watched a playoff hockey game and it was fine.


While dough is rising, prepare the filling. Slice the sausage lengthwise, then chop into smaller pieces. Mix together the sausage, cheese and diced peppers in a medium bowl and set aside.

After dough has risen, punch it down. Now you’re ready for kolache construction! Pull off egg-sized pieces, and using your hands, flatten them out into disks, about four inches in diameter. Place 1 1/2 to 2 tablespoons of filling in the middle of the disk, and close the dough around the filling. Pinch dough shut and place seam side down on a baking sheet. Cover with plastic wrap and let rise for 20 minutes. In the meantime, preheat oven 375 degrees F.


Beat the third egg in a small bowl. Before you place the kolaches in the oven, brush tops with egg wash. Bake for 13 to 18 minutes. Tops should be lightly golden brown when done. Let cool for five minutes on the baking sheets, then transfer to cooling rack. Wait 10 minutes, then enjoy! Makes 24 kolaches.

Real talk time: This recipe is flipping delicious. It was a huge hit at the party. It was also somewhat stressful to make (for me, because I don’t usually bother with bread dough). I had to schedule in time for dough to rise, and my first two packets of yeast were duds. So I was running behind, I had other plans during the day, and I ended up leaving the dough to rise on my counter for three hours. Oops! Luckily, it all worked out. Another confession: I used Papa John’s pepperoncini peppers left over from the delivery boxes the night before, because I’m lazy. But hey, that bite of spice was perfect.

kolaches

In all, this is a major crowd-pleaser of a recipe. And the ingredients are easy to source. It may become one I pull out for special occasions when I’m away from my own kitchen (Christmas, Thanksgiving & the 4th of July, hmmm?), because while it’s not exactly simple, it’s uncomplicated and delicious. And technically, it’s finger food.

Recommended for: parties, and any other occasion when you want to wow the crowd with savory finger food.

Interested in other food-related posts? Check out Beth Fish Reads’ Weekend Cooking!

six years is quite a while

It has been quiet at Adventures of Cecelia Bedelia over the past six months.  And that’s okay.  Life (even reading life!) changes.  That said, I’m here.  I’ve been going to book club and checking Twitter and Tumblr for the latest news from my fellow readers and bloggers.  I’ve been thinking about blogging recently, too.  Unfortunately, my reading pace hasn’t picked up much.  Still, Sunday was my six year blogging anniversary, and it seemed like the kind of thing I should write about. 

Six years (whoa. dude.)!  For my five year anniversary I wrote about five authors that blogging introduced me to.  This time around I’ll feature six more.  As I said last year, one of the best parts about blogging is that I’m constantly discovering new favorites.  I may not have read every book in these authors’ backlists yet, but the ones I have, I loved.  And to quote myself, “I trust their stories: for entertainment, wisdom, emotion, and always, always, beautiful writing.”

Merrie Haskell – I always have been (and likely always will be) a soft touch when it comes to fairy tales.  Haskell writes really lovely middle grade retellings of my favorites, and she includes strong doses of history, mysticism and other elements mixed in with the magic.  I liked her debut, The Princess Curse, but I fell irrevocably in love with The Castle Behind Thorns.  I know her books will be auto-buys for years to come.

Frank Cottrell Boyce – I very much appreciate books that are smart, feeling AND funny.  It takes a lot of skill to balance those elements, and if I had to pick one writer for young readers who gets it right every time, I’d point to Frank Cottrell Boyce.  He charmed me with Cosmic, his tale of outer space and family dynamics, and his upcoming The Astounding Broccoli Boy is just as charming.

Sylvia Izzo Hunter – I read a book* this past fall that was 100% a Cecelia book.  Meaning, I fell in love with it immediately, was not disappointed when I finished it, and I keep thinking about it after the fact.  I shall be following Hunter’s career with hungry eyes.

*The book!  Was!  The Midnight Queen!

Kate Elliott – Before I began blogging I had no idea that there were book communities online.  Obviously I learned the error of my ways, and began participating in the bookternet.  I also began noticing that these online communities were finding ways to meet up in person.  What were BEA and ALA?  I researched.  I went to ALA Annual (my first conference!) in 2010.  I was a hot mess, let me tell you.  I was a newbie blogger wandering the exhibit floor, wearing a tiny denim skirt and flip flops, surprised/pleased/terrified to find that booths were just giving away books.  One of those books was Kate Elliott’s Cold Magic.  I had no idea that she’d written previous books, I just liked the look of that one.  And I’ve liked her books (and her fantastic online presence) ever since.

Erin Bow – Dear Lord, does Erin Bow know how to write.  Her book Plain Kate is just… one of the best books I’ve ever read.  Yep, that’s a pretty good description.  I think it’s a mix of really knowing and loving language (Bow’s also a poet) and not shying away from the darkness of life.  I have her Sorrow’s Knot on the shelf, and I know it’ll be just as fantastic (all of my trusted sources say so), and there’s another book coming out soon.  All to say: if you haven’t read Bow yet, you should make the time.

Jonathan Stroud – Real talk time, subject: book acquisition.  I follow bloggers whose opinions I trust, yes.  And sometimes a book just sounds fantastic (aka it ticks all of the Cecelia crack boxes).  And sometimes I pick based on gorgeous cover art.  BUT.  Sometimes it takes an award to get a book on my radar (or in this case, a nomination for the CYBILS).  Stroud’s Lockwood & Co.: The Screaming Staircase was one of those.  Once I read it, I became its biggest fan.  I gave it to people for Christmas, I made a point to meet the author when he came on tour, and I haven’t stopped thinking about the fantasy world Stroud created.  That book made me a Stroud fan (for life).  I’m pretty happy about it.

These are some of my blogging author discoveries.  Who are yours?

beastkeeper

I love reading fairy tales, but I don't often think seriously about the curses and darkness in them. Evil is *evil,* no matter its flavor... (right? no, it’s not quite that simple). However, once in a long while I'll come across an exceptional story that makes me reconsider and truly examine darkness or an antagonist from all sides (and I'm not just talking about making them relatable). In those moments I know I've fallen in love with a book, and I think I understand and believe a bit more in magic.  Cat Hellisen's Beastkeeper is one of those captivating, intense books, and I can't get over how much I adored it.

beastkeeper by cat hellisen book cover
A haunting story of magic, curses, and dangerous family secrets.

Sarah has always been on the move. She's grown up lonely, longing for magic. She doesn't know that it's magic her parents are running from.

When Sarah's mother walks out on their family, all the strange old magic they have tried to hide from comes rising into their mundane world. Her father begins to change into something wild and beastly, but before his transformation is complete, he takes Sarah to live with grandparents she's never met.

Deep in the forest, in a crumbling ruin of a castle, Sarah begins to untangle the layers of curses affecting her family, until she discovers that the curse has carried over to her, too. The day she falls in love for the first time, Sarah will transform into a beast... unless she can figure out a way to break the curse forever.

Sarah lives a transient life – her parents regularly move house and uproot her from everything familiar.  Still, she’s been secure in her parents’ love.  Then one day, a curse comes home to roost.  Of course, Sarah doesn’t believe in curses (who does, in this day and age?).  But really, the proof is undeniable.  And though Sarah is young, she’s stubbornly determined to fix things and to be less alone. In her quest, she’ll unravel family history and grow up herself. Sarah’s story is a fairy tale of sorts, sure, but it’s also about secrets, and the little hidden places in the natural world and within us that make magic seem possible. It’s about the terrible and mundane reality of a family falling apart. And it’s about the fabric that stories are woven from, about unreliable narrators, and curiosity.

Like most fairy tales, the story has a brutal side.  I don’t mean brutal in the sense of “too much for young readers,” just in a “real life is actually 100% awful sometimes” sort of way.  Sarah’s journey is difficult, necessary, and engrossing.  Love and loving are strange things, and they don't care for how old or young you are. Curses are made of terrible desires, twisted and turned into things that humans should not feel.  The story has layers of motivation, ferocious emotion, and an ending that recalls my favorite childhood fantasies – open-ended and complex.

Hellisen fashions something new out of an old (familiar) tale with plot, yes, but also with exquisite language.  If you’ve been hungering for a book that reads like art, Beastkeeper is it. The words bring Sarah's world to life: jewel-bright, trembling, warm and cold, everything just as jagged and *feeling* as childhood. The absolute accuracy in which Hellisen describes Sarah’s first taste of despair, or determination, is devastating. I felt the awkwardness, urgency and empathy of my own preteen self rushing back in memory as I read.

In all, Beastkeeper is a magical, dark and terrible sort of enchantment – the kind that changes all it touches. I found it absolutely captivating.

Recommended for: readers over the age of ten who love fantasy, and anyone who enjoyed Erin Bow's Plain Kate or Ellen Potter’s The Humming Room.

Fine print: I received an ARC of this book from the publisher for review consideration.  I did not receive any compensation for this post.
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