We first meet the main character of Sauerkraut, Hans Dieter Schenk, on the back cover of the book — he “is a maker-an inventor, someone who builds cool stuff.” Once we get into the pages of this novel, we learn that H.D. is a boy with brown skin, brown eyes, and naturally curly hair set in short locs. He’s Kikora’s son, Asad’s big brother and “that Black kid with the white dad and the weird name — the older one”. He’s a biracial kid, living with a German-American father and a African American mother in the U.S. while also aware that the world very much sees him as a Black boy. He’s likeable, a thinker, a planner, a builder and so much more. H.D. is the perfect personality to bring you into his world. Oh, and he wants to make sauerkraut with the help of his Oma’s ghost.
The Creators of Sauerkraut
Author Kelly Jones has experience writing children books with protagonist who are kids of color. She wrote the 12-year-old Latina Sophie in UNUSUAL CHICKENS FOR THE EXCEPTIONAL POULTRY FARMER . There is certainly care and consideration in the writing of H.D.’s character. His portrayal is thoughtful and nuanced, not forced or caricatured. I really enjoyed HD’s first meeting with the ghost that is revealed to be his Oma. With it he has some really hilarious color commentary to himself about speaking to your ancestors and how he knows for certain that he is not T’Challa aka Black Panther.
It’s great to see BNP fave Paul Davey‘s art on the cover and on the pages of Sauerkraut. Davey has been busy illustrating the cover of Iron Circus Comics’ FTL, Y’all! and more recently contributing art and character designs for EarthNight, a Nintendo Switch game that launches this year. Davey’s illustrations cover everything from goats, computer parts, and ghostly ancestors to expressions of comfort and solidarity. The cover itself stood out — young H.D. standing, spooked, but drawn by hands who knew how to bring a young boy of color to life.
H.D. Schenk and Oma
H.D.’s world is very like our own, a place populated with people of color, young people learning new things and older persons living full, capable lives helping out the young folks here and there. H.D. frequents his local library and makerspace. (In the Los Angeles Public Library System, we have the new Octavia Lab that has everthing from 3-D printers to laser cutters to audio/video analog-to-digital conversion machines). There’s a librarian who looks like H.D. He talks up the latest comics with him and wears novelty bow ties. There’s local businesses with folks working who are veterans and they aren’t all male, white or old. There’s a parent with a prosthesis who is not described as lacking in any way–a person busy with a family and their own business and hobbies. In the autobody shop of H.D.’s father, there is a female mechanic working and existing, busy with work in a male-dominated field that’s not so male-dominated anymore.
An extraordinary kid, H.D takes initiative, cherishes his friends young and
old young at heart and has a fun and fresh look at all things weird that happen in life. I loved his first interactions with the ghost in the pickling crock that is revealed to be his great-great grandmother. H.D. is also a kid who is concerned about being polite–even to ghosts–even if there is no true protocol. He’s keen on research, talking trips to the library and carrying out scientific experiments. He knows the importance of repairing his relationship with his best friend. He’s not afraid to ask for help. With posters of Miles Morales, Wakanda, and even NASA astronaut Leland Melvin (YES. That astronaut who famously included his dogs in his NASA portrait) on his walls, our boy is at that age where he’s striking off to start to make his own identity. H.D. is tired of being “Kikora’s son, Asad’s big brother and ‘that Black kid with the white dad and the weird name — the older one'”. He wants to stand out on his own and have people recognize him for his own talents and qualities.
Family at the Center of Everything
Where Sauerkraut really shines is in the second half where H.D. is either at home, surrounded by his family and best friend, or working on all the projects. He has a plethora of projects including helping his Oma and her mission to make Sauerkraut, helping his best friend Eli with prepping with his dance recital, finding the parts needed for the computer he wants to build, and cleaning out the basement of his uncle’s place — labor exchanged for cash he needs to purchase those computer parts. He’s a kid busy for the summer and he has to figure out how to schedule his days in such a way to get work done. Along the ride there is an emphasis on the big support system H.D. has and how important it is. From his parents to his elderly neighbor to his go-to electronics salesperson — H.D. is set with a community of people who support him, offer help and look after him. Most importantly, they don’t handhold him. He has autonomy to make decisions on his own. While everyone needs a support system, this is crucial part of this narrative. This is the tale of H.D. growing up and learning to lean away from others, to start forging his own identity.
Another bright spot of the book is the relationship that H.D. and his family come to have with ghost of his great-grandmother, Oma as he learns to call her. She comes to stay at the family house and learns how to interact with everyone, including adults. Even when the initial shock wears off, it is at times uncomfortable. There’s sadness and plenty of other, different emotions from a woman who isn’t alive anymore, but she still has the joy of connecting and reconnecting with family which makes the ride worth it. Some of my favorite scenes are of the family wall of photos that the Schenk family starts as a way to introduce Oma to this new branch of her family. It’s a heartfelt sequence that returns again and again. I loved reading it each time a new photo was added. What also should be noted is the sincere effort for this biracial child, H.D. to embrace and explore this branch of his heritage that he’s not super knowledgeable about: he practices his German with his elderly neighbor, he starts learning and tasting German foods and sweets thanks to Oma’s ghostly intervention. Being biracial means on some level hopefully being able to acknowledge both sides of one’s heritage and here Hans Dieter Schenk gets to do exactly that without sacrifice. It makes for a charming tale.
For Makers and Readers
Sauerkraut is a good read for makers of all kinds. Everyone in the book has their own talents, their own callings, hobbies and loves. This book features different people who like to make things — for H.D. it is him putting together a computer, and then learning how to make sauerkraut. For his Oma who has always loved making sauerkraut, it is learning how to make new tasty treats and also learning about the new world and all the new things to make and experience. There are those who make own their own dance recitals and numbers, folks who make old cars new with restoration, young folks who like to make obstacle courses for goats, even a silly little kid who likes to make jokes and a good time for everyone involved. The book goes to lengths to demostrate that everyone is good at something and that creative work is not just a one size fit. Plus, everyone can learn to make something new, with help, with sincerity and most importantly with family.
The best description of Sauerkraut is that it is a truly heart-warming book about a boy who learns just what he’s capable of and how to be confident in himself and his abilities. It is also a book of discovering familial bonds, redefining family and being that link in the chain. Lastly, it is a book about celebrating creative problem solving with a cast of well-developed and diverse characters. I loved reading about this community and support system that I want for everyone, fictional and not. A fun book full of goofiness and learning moments with a thoughtful representation of kids of color interested in S.T.E.M, of biracial kids being makers, and folks learning new ways to be part of a family and include others. Sauerkraut is a welcomed kid lit book.
Sauerkraut is coming to bookstores Sept. 10, 2019 from Knopf BFYR, an imprint of Randomhouse kids!
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Super excited to pick up more middle school reads/kid lit for BNP! Is grateful to receive an ARC of Sauerkraut illustrated by fave @mattahan And written by soon to be fave @curiosityjones ! • Sauerkraut features a brilliant kid Who is the maker, and inventor and wants to build his own computer and enter in the county fair. He’s attempting to earn money for the parts he needs by promising to clean out a basement and it is revealed that’s the ghost of his great great grandmother Who needs help in entering her famous recipe for sauerkraut in the county fair to win—billed as “A wonderfully goofy ghost tale that celebrates creative problem solving, family ties and makers of every variety”, I’m game to read it! #saukerkraut #kidlit #bnplit #pauldavey #kellyjones #biracialkids
See more of artist Paul Davey who is “inspired by subtleties of everyday interaction, relationships between colors and emotions, and exploring new means of creative expression” here on his personal site, Twitter, Instagram, and his Patreon.
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