How My Parents Learned to Eat
written by Ina R. Friedman
illustrated by Allen Say

Ina R. Friedman's How My Parents Learned to Eat
Illustrated by Allen Say

Children's book review by Suzanne Holland

Ages 4-8

An American sailor and Japanese schoolgirl bridge cultural differences

Courtship is not always easy!

Couples have to get to know each other’s likes and dislikes. They have to meet potential in-laws (that’s a biggie!). In most cases, sharing a meal is a natural part of the process.

In the delightful How My Parents Learned to Eat, the biggest obstacle a young couple must overcome is eating together.

Why? Because the man is an American sailor in Japan and the woman is Japanese. Friedman introduces us to the challenges of cultural dining.

The couple’s young daughter tells the story. The language is simple, perfectly appropriate to the voice of a possible eight year old.

Her father and mother like each other very much, but each is wondering why they never eat together.

John is afraid he won’t know how to use chopsticks, and decides not to ask Aiko out. Aiko thinks John might embarrassed if she cannot use a knife and fork. This problem might never be resolved but for John’s orders to leave Japan in three weeks.

Three weeks! If he wants to marry Aiko, he’d better learn how to use chopsticks pretty quickly!

The portrayal of how they learned to eat is the essence of the story, and it is handled delicately and humorously.

John spends hours at a restaurant manipulating the chopsticks. Aiko runs to her uncle, who had spent time in England, for a little hands on training. Unfortunately for Aiko, Uncle had learned to eat Continental style! Aiko has to try to eat her peas with the inverted fork.

Review continues below.

collaged images from How My Parents Learned to Eat

She is bewildered by the array of utensils. She says to Uncle “A chopstick is a chopstick. I can eat everything with two chopsticks.”

The course of true love never runs smooth!

The big night finally arrives and two confident people walk into a Western restaurant.

Aiko and John laugh about the peas and decide that when they are married they will eat with chopsticks and silverware!! As the daughter proudly explains, that’s exactly what they do!

Allen Say has provided little vignettes of Japanese culture. A restaurant scene, a market place, clothes and facial features are carefully captured in soft colors. The feel is both respectful and accurate.

How My Parents Learned to Eat is a sincere and simple story that can open discussions about food preferences, cultural identity and being open to new experiences. It would be an asset for a teacher who is promoting diversity (which we all should do!), and for families with dissimilar backgrounds.

The one detail that seemed odd to me is that Aiko was a student when she met John. Presumably, that means late high school, or even college, but she is shown in a uniform that looks grade school. However, that could be another point of discussion about different countries.

This book was a Reading Rainbow selection. I definitely recommend How My Parents Learned to Eat, by Ina Friedman!

More picture books about other places and times.

Read more of Suzanne's reviews.

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