Cookbook Review: A Literary Picnic by Alison Walsh

In a digital world, I tend to collect recipes from the internet. Where my mom had a row of cookbooks, I have a Pinterest board.

That isn’t to say print cookbooks don’t have a place in my kitchen. I have four – a tried-and-true Better Homes & Gardens cookbook inherited from a grandparent, a staple-bound Southern cooking pamphlet my husband found at a secondhand book sale, and two of Alison Walsh’s cookbooks: A Literary Tea Party and A Literary Holiday Cookbook

In March, Alison Walsh released her third literary cookbook. This time, the author and chef ventured into independent publishing to release the e-book A Literary Picnic

Even though the majority of my go-to recipes are in a digital format, I’m somewhat disappointed there’s not a print edition of Walsh’s latest book. We’re a literature-loving household, so her cookbooks are on display in our kitchen. I wish I could add the latest edition to the shelf, but alas. 

When it comes to practical use, though, the cookbook is handy because it’s accessible from my phone. My common practice in the kitchen is to prop my phone on the counter and open recipes on the screen, so it fits my habits nicely.

The cookbook features five picnic menus inspired by classic children’s literature: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, common fairy tales, The Tale of Peter Rabbit, The Secret Garden and Winnie-the-Pooh. Each menu is broken down into five items: appetizer, entree, side dish, dessert, and beverage. In the author’s note, Walsh points out the majority of the recipes are finger foods. That’s user-friendly for picnics.

At the beginning of each recipe is a quote from the respective story, which feeds insight into the menu selection. For example, the passage at the beginning of the Alice in Wonderland Mushroom Scones recipe reads,  “After a while she remembered that she still held the pieces of mushroom in her hands, and she set to work very carefully nibbling first at one and then the other.”

The recipes are well-planned to fit their literary themes. Whether it’s the heart-shaped tarts on the Alice in Wonderland menu, key-shaped crackers on The Secret Garden menu, or the bunny-shaped hand pies for Peter Rabbit, the meal’s connection to its story is immediately recognizable. And the flavors tie into the stories, too – the ingredients are inspired by the characters and settings. The Winnie the Pooh menu, for example, prominently incorporates honey (or “hunny,” as Pooh would inevitably spell it).  

Throughout the cookbook, users will find blue notes in the margins that offer a variety of tips to use leftover ingredients instead of discarding them, such as using trimmed bread crusts to make bread crumbs or what to do with homemade marshmallows if they start to turn stale.

The recipe instructions are written in a manner that’s friendly for beginning bakers; however, several of the menus include recipes that may be tricky for kitchen novices. A first-time pastry maker could probably assemble Rapunzel’s Braided Pastries, but I wager it will take a lot of practice before the final product looks like Walsh’s photo. Then there are higher level recipes like the Vanilla Bean Marshmallow Bunnies. The ambitious voice in my head says, “Cute! Let’s try it!” The realistic voice in my head says, “Let’s work our way up to that one.” 

Some of the recipes will have novice bakers like me on the hunt for unfamiliar ingredients. I was especially intrigued by the color-changing Drink Me Potion for the Alice-themed picnic. It’s a four-ingredient beverage, which seems simple enough, but I had never heard of butterfly pea flower blossoms. I opened my Kroger app to see if the local store carries the ingredient and had a momentary shock when I saw 17 ounces of butterfly pea flower powder costs $87.31. Luckily that’s not the ingredient I needed (the recipe calls for the flowers, not the powder), but a quick search of local stores revealed it’s not stocked on shelves in my area. Fortunately, they are available (and affordable) online. Before scheduling a picnic, be sure to read the recipes closely and plan ahead to stock your cupboard.

One of my favorite recipes in the book is a relatively simple sugar cookie recipe. What makes it stand out is the way Walsh instructs bakers to pipe their own swans, which are then stood upright in a blue cookie to look like they’re swimming on a pond. As someone who bakes Christmas sugar cookies once a year and always uses a cookie cutter, this recipe created a lightbulb moment for me. I can pipe cookies into my own shapes! I’ve always just rolled the dough into balls or relied on cookie cutters.

One of the delights of a new cookbook is finding a recipe that I never knew existed. A Literary Picnic introduced me to fruit leather (it looks like a homemade Fruit Roll-Up), which takes only three ingredients per batch. It may prove more challenging in the kitchen than it sounds on paper, but I’m looking forward to the experiment. 

If I had kids at home, I would love to do a summer parent/child book club by letting my kids pick one of the stories that inspired Walsh, then read it together and host a picnic as a finale. Walsh’s picnics would make a great capstone activity related to children’s literature – in fact, for an extra learning experience, kids could help prepare some of the simpler recipes, such as Chamomile Muffins.

Be sure to check out her list of cooking tips at the back of the book – they’re helpful, both in relation to her recipes and in general. Walsh also includes product links to special tools and ingredients (including those elusive butterfly pea flower blossoms I was hunting for).

To buy the cookbook, visit Alison Walsh’s blog at or buy it via Amazon.


Disclaimer: I received a free digital copy of A Literary Picnic in exchange for an honest and unbiased review.

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Missing deadlines, shelving a manuscript, and getting back on track with The Mountain of Dempsey Molehill

It’s been almost four years to the day that I introduced the cast of my next middle grade novel, The Mountain of Dempsey Molehill.

I started writing the book in 2016, with plans to release it in 2018. I missed that deadline, but instead of tabling the project, I revised the game plan. I kept working on the first draft, revising the direction certain chapters took and fixing plot holes spotted by a workshopping group.

By summer 2019, I was a year past my initial deadline, but I had an updated draft. I enlisted Hannah Jones for the cover illustration and started working on the back end of independent publishing.

As I went about buying and registering ISBNs, setting up the metadata, and prepping the book’s layout, something still felt off. A voice in the back of my head nagged that the story wasn’t ready yet. Revisions were still needed. I felt growing pressure to release the book because I had been working on it for three years, but I couldn’t shake that nagging voice. I finally decided to postpone the release for a few more months. I would step away from the manuscript, look at it with fresh eyes, make any final adjustments, and then release it in early 2020.

Then 2020 … well, happened.

The COVID-19 pandemic turned my home and work life inside-out. The total disruption to routine, coupled with the fears and stress of a global health crisis, took a toll on my mental health for several months. Once life settled into a semblance of routine again, I had no desire or inspiration to finish Dempsey’s story. I pushed that book deep into a drawer and switched gears entirely. I dropped all children’s book projects and instead devoted the next two and a half years to an adult urban fantasy novel.

In January this year, I was sorting through papers in my home office when I found a printed proof of The Mountain of Dempsey Molehill. I started paging through it, and I finally realized what had felt off. The entire book is narrated by Dempsey, but we never really get to know him among the cast of colorful and crazy characters around him. The tone of the book was that of a distant observer, rather than someone who is up close and personal to the action and who would have reactions and emotions.

In a burst of inspiration, I rewrote the prologue and the first chapter in a week. I devised a grand plan of rewriting and revising one chapter a week, workshopping the new version by early summer, and releasing the book this fall.

Then life got in the way again. Overtime at the office and a kidney stone that required surgery pushed Dempsey off my radar for a few months.

By the time I could revisit the Molehills, my chapter-a-week schedule was tattered. It was demoralizing to realize that, once again, I would miss the book release deadline I imposed. It was almost tempting to shelve the manuscript again.


The thing is, I still believe in Dempsey’s story. I love the novel and want it to find its reader base beyond my writers group. Progress has been frustratingly slow at times, but at the end of the day I have to remind myself: Progress is progress. If all I’ve written in a week is a paragraph, that’s a paragraph more than I had last week. If a project sits on shelf for three months, there’s nothing to stop me from dusting it off and picking up where I left off.

In my case, postponing the project offered the chance to improve it. Missed deadlines gave me time to step away from the book and see it with fresh eyes. When The Mountain of Dempsey Molehill finally sees itself inked and bound, it will be a better version than its earlier self.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from years working in the newspaper and magazine industry, a missed deadline can cause headaches and challenges to catch up. But never once, in the thousands of papers and publications I’ve helped produce, has a missed deadline resulted in the project failing to hit the stands. My teammates and I have said more than once, “It always comes together in the end.”

The Molehill family’s story has had long delays and missed deadlines by years, but I’ve pulled it off the shelf again and am fanning the dust out of the pages. Rewrites are underway. While I won’t commit to a 2023 release, I will commit to Dempsey’s story being told.

Hopefully it just won’t take another four years.

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Why you should be reading aloud with older kids, too

I clearly remember the first time I read the Enchanted Forest Chronicles by Patricia C. Wrede.

I was about 9 years old, tucked away in the odds-and-ends room of my childhood home, surrounded by shelves and Sterilite plastic totes filled with extra toys, out-of-season holiday decorations, and dozens of books. I sat on a hard vanity chair dragged from the bathroom across the hall. The house’s spare bed was also in the odds-and-ends room, but that’s where my sister was sitting.

The sharpest memory of all from my first encounter with the Enchanted Forest is that I wasn’t the one actually reading the words on the page.

I don’t recall the details of how we found ourselves squirreled away together in the spare room, my older sister reading the chapter book series aloud to me. I know fuzzy details: My sister loved the books and rereading them. There was a three-year age gap between us, and we were had reached the tipping point where she, as a middle schooler, and I, as a grade schooler, were forking apart in interests.

By some stroke of luck, she offered to read the 200-plus-page books to me. I leapt at the chance. So there we were, spending after-school afternoons and weekends sharing her favorite series of books.

The four-book series became one of my favorites, too. Whether by merit of the stories themselves or through the bond of reading together, I can’t say. But nearly twenty-five years later, they still hold a special place on my bookshelf.

Perfect Timing

The timing of my sister reading the Enchanted Forest Chronicles fits into a larger scheme of reading trends.

Scholastic’s Kids and Family Reading Report coined the term “decline by nine.” Research shows this is the time in a child’s reading life when reading books for fun begins to drop. Fifty-seven percent of eight-year-olds read for fun; that number plunges to thirty-five percent of nine-year-olds.

There’s another trend that begins around age nine that may or may not be linked — the research doesn’t directly address it. Read-aloud sessions between parents and children are common in a child’s developmental years and on the rise for six- to eight-year-olds, but read-aloud sessions rapidly decline as a child ages. Notably, this begins around age nine. The same age when reading for fun diminishes.

“Continuing this habit are key factors in predicting whether or not children ages 6–11 will be frequent readers,” the Kids and Family Reading Report says.

Furthermore, the report says: “Taking a closer look at families’ habits during read-aloud time, this research reveals it is a highly interactive experience — it’s a partnership. Children choose books, kids and parents ask questions of each other, turn pages and punctuate the experience with sound effects. This interactivity fuels the child-parent bond that children express when asked to describe why they love(d) read-aloud time .”

In my case, a sister instead of a parent read aloud, but the impact is the same. The reading sessions provided invaluable bonding time. She was always ready to end them long before I was (although, to be fair, she was the one getting the dry mouth and hoarse throat after humoring my begs of, “Just one more chapter. Please?” multiple times.)

Multiple Benefits

Beyond building strong family bonds and a love of books, read-aloud sessions offer young readers a variety of other benefits.

Melissa Taylor, a teacher and writer, cites six additional benefits children absorb from a family member reading aloud:

  • Lets children experience the joy of the story.
  • Models fluent reading.
  • Helps expand the child’s vocabulary.
  • Exposes children to new authors, books, and genres.
  • Builds awareness and empathy.
  • Improves long-term reading success.

My Enchanted Forest reading sessions could check every item on the list. Experienced the joy of the story? Absolutely. Expanded my vocabulary? When I later read the books on my own, I could pronounce all of the words since I had already heard my sister say them. Exposed me to a new author? Yes; I went on to read several other Patricia C. Wrede novels, including another favorite, “Mairelon the Magician.”

Read Aloud into Teen Years

Jim Trelease, author of “The Read-Aloud Handbook,” told KQED news writer Holly Korbey reading aloud to children who are capable of reading on their own has emotional and academic benefits. He recommended reading aloud together into the teen years, as much as age fourteen.

The benefit of this, Trelease said, is because children’s reading level doesn’t catch up to their listening level until they reach eighth grade; he cited a 1984 study that found children can comprehend reading material beyond their reading comprehension level if they are read aloud. Young students can more easily decode meaning from higher-level material by hearing it first instead of reading it first.

“You have to hear it before you can speak it, and you have to speak it before you can read it. Reading at this level happens through the ear,” Trelease told KQED.

A Sense of Simple Pleasure

Read-aloud sessions have had a long-term impact in my love of books. In fact, I would say the childhood experience of sharing and bonding over books with family members is a significant reason I became a writer as well as a reader.

A final anecdote: One of my kindergarten memories is repeatedly checking out a tattered copy of the 1947 book “Downy Duck Grows Up.” The 176-page book has only one or two sentences per page, but it makes for a semi-lengthy read-aloud. I renewed it frequently and asked family members to read it over and over. It’s a family joke these days that everyone groaned when they saw me come home from school with that book in tow, but that book stuck with me so much that I ordered a used copy as an adult.

Why did it stick with me? In this case, it certainly wasn’t the story. (In fact, I honestly couldn’t remember a thing about the story when I ordered my copy.) Instead, it was the memory of togetherness.

Never underestimate the power of reading together. It’s memorable, and it hard-wires an association between simple pleasure and the act of reading.

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Meet the Molehills: Sneak peek behind the book cover

Molehill starts with M. And mischief starts with Molehills.

The Molehills will be arriving on bookshelves this summer in “The Mountain of Dempsey Molehill.” But just who is the Molehill family?

Get a sneak peek of who you’ll meet between the book covers.

Dempsey Molehill

Dempsey is smack dab in the middle of five children. As much as he wants to be considered one of the “older kids” with his older brother, Brom, and older sister, Tilly, he has a knack for getting into mischief with younger siblings Penn and Bandi.

Dempsey shares the story of a year in his family’s life when his dad runs for mayor. Try as they might to stay on their best behavior, the Molehill gang can’t help causing chaos.


Penn Molehill

Penn is Dempsey’s younger brother and the fourth of the Molehill children. He’s a bit shy, and sometimes Dempsey thinks he’s a pest, but he’s always ready to follow his big brother’s lead … even when it leads to a backyard snowmageddon or scandalizing the elderly women of the Pickettstown Rosary Society. As sweet as Penn can be, he shouldn’t be underestimated. Sometimes nice guys really do win.


Bandi Molehill

Her birth certificate says Bandi. Her mom says her name was meant to be Brandi, but her dad jokes it was supposed to be Bandit … which is more accurate. At six years old, Bandi is a wildcat of a kindergartner. No pair of shoes will stay on her feet. No brush will make it through her tangles. And no one better mess with the light of her life: her cranky one-eared cat, Scrap. Bandi’s love for animals and disregard for rules has a way of getting her into scrapes — and Dempsey usually has to get her out of them.


Tilly Molehill

As the second-oldest Molehill sibling, Tilly is straight-laced and responsible … and exasperated with the younger trio’s knack for trouble. Dempsey thinks she’s just boring “Frilly Tilly” now that she’s in high school (after all, who wants a big sister who cares about cooking and boys instead of fun and games?), but even the most reliable Molehills have a trick or two up their sleeves now and then.


Brom Molehill

The eldest Molehill sibling is practically a grownup — at nineteen years old, he still lives at home, but he can’t be bothered with wrangling the rest of the gang.

Between shifts at the local hardware store, Brom is left in charge of the siblings. His only rules are don’t break any bones or commit any crimes. But his babysitting style has a way of leaving the door open for a lot of havoc…


Harwood Molehill

Harwood Molehill is the father of the five Molehill kids. He’s a gentle, fair-minded person who can’t stand to see anyone’s individuality be crushed. When neighborhood friend Bo Jasper isn’t allowed to paint his house green, Harwood decides to run for mayor against longtime Mayor Jim Picketts. But his fight to change the rules so Bo can get his green house is an uphill battle … especially when his family can’t seem to stay out of the newspaper for their hijinks.


Susan Molehill

Dempsey’s mom is the glue that keeps the Molehill household together. She’s Harwood’s number one supporter on the campaign trail and works hard to put the best Molehill foot forward.

Susan has her work cut out for her with this group, but she loves her family and will stand by them through any situation.


“The Mountain of Dempsey Molehill” is a middle grade novel about a big family, major mischief, and standing up for each other. If Jeanne Birdsall’s “The Penderwicks” children were raised by Richard Peck’s Grandma Dowdel (“A Long Way from Chicago”), you’d get the Molehill kids.

[Big thanks to Hannah Jones Illustration for the character illustrations. Watch for more updates on “The Mountain of Dempsey Molehill,” including a cover release in the coming months!]

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Rebranding future books under a new imprint

The past three years have been devoted to work on The Mountain of Dempsey Molehill. First writing it, then rewriting … and rewriting … and editing … and rewriting … and editing … and …

You get the picture.

But there has been more going on behind the scenes than just novel writing. In between rounds of editing and revising, I had to make an important decision about the next step: Do I pitch the manuscript to an agent in pursuit of traditional publishing, or do I continue on my path of independent publishing?

Even as I asked myself the question, I knew the answer deep down. I was already making plans to hire an artist for cover art, and renewing my Adobe Creative Cloud subscription for layout, and mentally logging design elements I liked in other middle grade novels. I began planning a release date and jotting marketing campaign notes on slips of paper that I later misplaced.

As much as I love the writing process as an author, I equally love — or dare I say, moreso love? — the production process of designing and crafting a book. That is just as much an art as writing, and one I find immensely satisfying.

My first foray into independent publishing was with Sarah & Katy and the Imagination Blankets, which I published through CreateSpace. As I waded into the self-publishing industry for the first time, I didn’t immediately register my own imprint. However, for Sarah & Katy and the Book of Blank, I created JSB Independent Books.

Why I’m changing the name

JSB Independent Books was a brand that didn’t have a lot of thought or meaning behind it — I simply created it so the publisher wouldn’t be listed as CreateSpace, which serves only as the print-on-demand service and not as the publisher or copyright holder. The name of the imprint was derived from my initials — Julie Stroebel Barichello.

When I made the choice to continue independent publishing with The Mountain of Dempsey Molehill, I decided it was also time to seriously consider branding a new personal imprint for future projects. While JSB Independent Books wasn’t a terrible banner to fly over my work, it also wasn’t strong. I discovered my typewriter key logo looked uncomfortably similar to Little, Brown and Company’s logo. The initials JSB also aren’t unique in the literary world. A Chicago-based author and illustrator publishes under the name JSB. Then there’s author James Scott Bell, who writes books on writing and has a page on his website named JSB’s Books on Writing. There’s author J.S.B. Morse. And let’s not overlook the wholesale book dealer JSB Books LLC in Arkansas.

The market feels a little congested with fellow JSBs. That led to several weeks of searching for an idea for a new imprint name. One that reflected myself as a writer and my work.

Inspiration for the new imprint

As a middle grade author, I searched my mental archive of my own middle grade years, searching for a piece of inspiration. Something that summarized my grade school and junior high life. What element of my youth could be a unique publishing name? What could encapsulate who I am as a writer? What was I interested in back then? Who was I back then?

The answer to that last question is remarkably obvious. I was a Stroebel.

That one word — that past identity — took root in my mind. Even though there are several authors with the surname Stroebel (and the alternative spelling Strobel), a quick Google search didn’t find any publishing companies with a similar name. And Stroebel summarizes so much my childhood self. There were other Julies in my school, but the only Stroebels were my sisters and me. I took pride in being called by my surname and the derivative nickname Strobes.

I’ve also taken care to incorporate Stroebel into my writing career — as a young writer, I imagined seeing Julie Stroebel on the cover of a book. Hence the reason why I have a mouthful of an author name; I wanted to honor both my maiden and married surnames, so I used them both as my author identity for the Sarah & Katy books.

My earliest identity as a writer is now the inspiration of my newly formed imprint: Stroebel Independent Books.

Q. Will Stroebel stay in your author name?

I’m still trying to decide on that one. While I like the consistency of keeping the same author name I used for the Sarah & Katy books, the name Julie Stroebel Barichello is a mouthful for young readers. I’ve considered moving forward with separating Stroebel as my publishing branding and Barichello as my author name.

Beyond the name

Once I settled on a name for my imprint, I had another element to consider: a logo.

The visual aspect was harder to pin down than a name. What sort of image would illustrate the name Stroebel? Even though the product I’m selling is a book, I didn’t necessarily want to incorporate a book into my logo. So I wracked my brain for a visual element that could tie into being a Stroebel.

It took a while for the next lightning bolt of inspiration to zap my brain.

One of the reasons I was determined to incorporate Stroebel into my publishing life is to carry forward my family’s legacy. With three daughters, my dad’s line of the Stroebel surname ends at his branch of the family tree. So even though I’m legally a Barichello these days, I would keep the name alive for one more generation in our branch.

It occurred to me as I focused on the Stroebel part of my identity that I was overlooking my mom’s side of the family. Just as I parted with Stroebel to become a Barichello, she parted with Haislip to become a Stroebel.

But I’m equal parts Stroebel and Haislip blood. So I started hunting for ways to incorporate Haislip into my publishing branding.

Thankfully, Haislip offers a bit more pleasing visual element than Stroebel. The only definition I could find for the Stroebel surname was “person with bushy or bristly hair; son of Strubo.” That doesn’t inspire elegant logo art. But Haislip — meaning “dwellers of hazel valley”– offered an idea: a hazel leaf.

Thus, I introduce my new imprint name and logo.

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