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The Philly Story Behind the New Children’s Book ‘Nonna Makes a Salad’

The charming new book has a fun back story.

What do you get when you combine a cheese expert, a fashion illustrator, and a magazine publisher with an artistic vision? When it happens in Philly, you get the wonderfully imaginative and visually stunning Nonna Makes a Salad, making its debut at Joan Shepp this Saturday with an afternoon of family fun.


The book is the result of a brilliant collaboration between three local personalities. Hunter Fike—a Certified Cheese Professional at Philly’s beloved DiBruno Brothers for nearly two decades—created and wrote the story; the fabulous fashion illustrator Denise Fike—who just happens to be Hunter Fike’s mother—illustrated it.


The third and final piece of the puzzle is South Philly’s own Eddie Keels, publisher of Philly Current magazine, a fresh take on celebrating Philadelphia through compelling visuals and stories.


The story begins ordinarily enough, with a scenario that will be very familiar to parents reading along. A kid and his friend are hungry, but don’t want to eat anything in the kitchen. Suddenly, Nonna, “with her penchant for showing up out of thin air,” comes to take them to the zoo (unspecified, but your kids will instantly recognize the Victorian entry gate to place it in Philadelphia).


There, she leads the friends on a hilarious, rhyming, and somewhat macabre exploration of the animals and how she could prepare each one as a meal. Of course, the kids take issue with every dish, be it “Giraffe Stroganoff” or “Zebra Tandoori,” and decide to go home and just eat a salad after all. If the story sounds a little dark, the way it is presented with lush and highly stylized illustrations results in a tone that is more silly than sinister.


Darkness is just part of the fun, as Nonna fits somewhere between Dr. Seuss and Edward Gorey.  The book refreshingly does not talk down to kids, and certainly does not shy away from challenging words. Hunter Fike clearly demonstrates a confidence in children and their parents to learn from context and experience.


As Keels, the book’s publisher, explained, “This is a children’s book, but it is not a baby book. Not every book for young humans needs to be ‘this is a moon.’”


The hope is that both kids and parents will get something out of it, and—at least in my experience reading it to my daughter—they accomplished this goal beautifully.


So how did this fantastic story come to be? It all started when Hunter Fike was reading The Cat in the Hat to his oldest son, James. That book ends with the question “What would you do if your mother asked you?” which James found unsatisfactory.


“He hates that ending!” Fike said. “You can’t end a book like that!”


So he set out to write a better story.


On a bus ride to the Fancy Food Show, and missing his son while on his business trip, he wrote what was originally intended as a new ending to Dr. Seuss’ story, complete with fantastical rhyming and outlandish situations. Soon, James and James’ best friend Myles replaced Thing 1 and Thing 2 as the protagonists, and Denise Fike took the place of the Cat in the Hat as the magical and whimsical figure that makes things happen. Hunter Fike sent his mother the story, asking her to read it to James, whom she was babysitting at the time.


But Denise Fike saw much more than just a family bedtime story, and took it upon herself to illustrate it. As is her method of working from live models (perhaps she has had you pose for her at a swanky party over the years), Denise worked from thousands of photographs of her grandson and his friend to make the story’s singsong words come to surreal life.


She even had her husband take pictures of her acting out the different parts of the book in her home and garden in order to draw “Nonna,” who appears in Denise Fike’s signature style: a chic black ensemble topped off with a statement hat.


Finally, Keels did the layout to pull it all together, and published it as a Philly Current product. As with the magazine, much attention is on the aesthetic.


“It’s as beautiful as a coffee table book,” Keels said.


He and Denise Fike had previously worked together when she did cover art for the magazine years ago, and they had been meaning to collaborate again. This was the perfect opportunity, bringing together three people from three different worlds to create something truly unique. The intention is to make this a series, so this is not the last you have seen of Nonna and her antics!


The book launch party for Nonna Makes a Salad will be held on Saturday, February 17, from noon to 4 pm at Rittenhouse boutique Joan Shepp. The party will feature readings every half-hour, a photo booth, light bites, and live one-of-a-kind fashion illustrations by Denise Fike. Best of all, you can pick up a signed copy of the new book to take home and enjoy over and over, and 10 percent of all sales benefit the Ronald McDonald House.


Photographs by Laura Swartz. All illustration by Denise Fike.

Contributing Writer