Maddi’s Fridge by Lois Brandt and Vin Vogel – Review by Kate Schwarz
For most of my adult life when I grabbed a book to read, I chose nonfiction. I’d tell my too-cool younger self and my friends that there were too many true stories that I felt I should know. Too much information that I needed. Too many facts to jam into my head. Fiction was simply not for me. During those days of reading important, fact-filled nonfiction, I did Good Work and read Important Books as a volunteer in Kolkata, India, and Uttaradit, Thailand. In a closer-to-home adventure, I taught in American public schools in Georgia. First-hand, I soaked up many complicated, wonderful, difficult experiences in the world.
And then—zip, zap, zoom!—my world shrank.
I returned to the United States, married, and became a mom of three in what now seems one short blink of an eye. In a second blink, I find myself happily reading picture book after picture book night after night to my trio of kids, and our suburban zip code. Since we don’t get out much, I face an interesting conundrum: how can I expand their horizon and introduce them to people, places, and situations without the pain and expense of packing up and hitting the road (especially when nonfiction books can feel too intense)?
The answer patiently sat waiting, as it has for others before me, in the genre of books that I shunned as a too-cool world traveller: fiction. In fiction, I can expose my kids to the many situations and circumstances that sit beyond our comfortable existence. We can talk about things that feel foreign but are very real. I am starting to tell them bigger stories from the world from the safest place in the world: their mother’s lap.
Maddi’s Fridge (Flashlight Press, 2014) is a fine, recent example of a picture book that can expose children like mine to circumstances that are hopefully foreign to them: child hunger. This very believable story is inspired by author Lois Brandt’s own experience looking into the refrigerator of her friend and finding one single, small carton of milk.
The story: Friends Sofia and Maddi race to the playground; it’s Sofia who beats Maddi to the climbing wall. But it’s Maddi who scrambles up to the top of the wall first. This isn’t the first time that Sofia is left, frustrated, at the bottom. Maddi encourages her, but Sofia’s annoyed and in need of a break. A snack is what she needs to recover. She and Maddi race to Maddi’s house for a snack. Once again, Sofia wins and gets there first. When Sofia opens her friend’s refrigerator, she stops in her tracks.
It’s almost completely empty. Just one single, small carton of milk.
In appropriate, honest language, Maddi explains to Sofia that her family doesn’t have enough money for food, and the milk is for her little brother, because “he’s still growing.” Maddi makes Sofia promise not to tell anyone. Sofia runs home, but her mind remains in front of Maddi’s refrigerator. As she enters her own well-stocked kitchen and eats a nutritious dinner, all she can think about is her friend’s empty cupboards and stomach.
For a few days, thoughtful Sofia attempts to bring food to Maddi. But she chooses all the wrong things: fish (too stinky!), eggs (too cracky!), and finally burritos (yes! something good for backpacks and kids!). Finally, she admits to her mother—and breaks her promise to Maddi—about why she’s pilfering food from her family’s kitchen. Sofia and her mother buy groceries and take them to Maddi’s house. Maddi’s mother accepts the groceries and shares a cup of coffee while the kids play together.
There is a definite relief when, at the end of the book, illustrator Vin Vogel draws a full refrigerator in Maddi’s house. For young readers, this sort of resolution is necessary. We older readers understand that the groceries Sofia’s family takes to Maddi’s family are just a quick, band-aid type of fix on a larger problem. But books such as Maddi’s Fridge help young and old readers feel something for the characters. They inspire and encourage empathic responses to serious problems. We old readers can guide those young readers through the Author’s Note at the end of the book where Brandt points us to ways we can help, too.
Our refrigerator and those in my kids’ friends’ kitchens are chock full of organic, lush produce, dairy, and meat. How else but through fiction can I transport my kids to a house where kids aren’t so fortunate? Where a child’s stomach may rumble for a snack but there’s nothing for them to eat? I’m grateful to fiction and Maddi’s Fridge for giving me a way.
Kate Schwarz is a writer, mom, and wife living in Great Falls, VA. In addition to being a big reader to her three small children, Kate is a coffee drinker, distance runner, Crossfitter, and blogger of raising kids with books at www.katesbookery.blogspot.com.