Though the book opens with Ruthie and her father at the hospital visiting Ruthie’s grandmother, laid up with pneumonia, this isn’t a coping-with-death book. Bubbe’s not failing, she’s a finagler. Unsatisfied by hospital food (“a person could starve to death here”), she sends Ruthie to her apartment to prepare a pot of borscht. Ruthie has never made borscht before, so luckily (or is it?) Grandma’s yenta neighbors — the self-anointed Empress, First Lady, and Tsarina of Borscht — come around to offer their culinary expertise. The conflicting advice — onions? no onions! sugar? no, honey! lemons?! — leaves Ruthie’s head spinning until her own instincts kick in. Back at the hospital, after presenting her concoction to the expert (“for borscht, I am the Queen”), Ruthie is promptly rewarded with her own honorific of princess, not to mention another assignment: “You know, tomorrow I might like a noodle pudding.” Schubert’s characters, and the interactions among them, feel entirely authentic; the family dynamic is apparent (Ruthie’s father: “Soup from beets?…Yuck”), while Grandma’s three cronies just can’t help themselves when it comes to one-upmanship. Christensen’s illustrations, with their sketchlike dark lines and subdued hues enhanced by pinky-red beet-colored accents, reflect the comfortable disarray of Ruthie’s family life. “Ruthie’s Borscht (with help from Grandma)” recipe is included on the jacket.
From the November/December 2011 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.