In the age of Mapquest and global-positioning systems, I still love the Rand McNally road atlas. The whole, crazy country is contained between its two covers. The strange place names and geographical quirks, the weirdly shaped states–as well as the orderly square ones. The fact that you can plot a trip from here to anywhere and get there eventually.
Picture books, I think, can be a thrifty form of travel. Without leaving the house you can cross a continent, venture out to sea (or under it), go back in time or into space. How to Make a Cherry Pie and See the U.S.A. was my attempt to write a sequel to How to Make an Apple Pie and See the World that didn't just repeat the same formula in a new locale with a different dessert.
This time, I began with a recipe. This time, the baker has all the ingredients–but is lacking the bowl, spoons, and other cooking tools to complete the cherry pie. The result is part road trip, part tutorial–a "scenic" jaunt around the U.S.A., if not exactly the shortest route.
I harkened back to the family vacations of my youth. In the backseat of the Chevy Malibu, counting cows or playing tic-tac-toe, stopping at all the roadside attractions. Scenic overlooks! Snack bars! Petting Zoos! Souvenirs!
We visited historic sites, museums and monuments, planetariums and movie studios, national parks and amusement parks. We went to the seashore and drove up at least one snow-topped mountain in summer. From the car windows, we saw farms, forests, big cities and small towns, oil refineries, skyscrapers, and bridges.
But we also toured the symbols of American industry–Hoover Dam, the Golden Gate Bridge, the Corning Glass factory. We volunteered for quality control at the Hershey Chocolate works. We panned for "gold" at Knott's Berry Farm.
The book attempts to tell kids where stuff comes from (aside from Wal-Mart, or China) and how our natural resources are turned into everything we use in our daily lives. How a plastic spoon or toy starts out as crude oil from deep underground, or the raw materials for glass are found in the sand on a beach. There is a very subtle message on recycling (see if you can find it), but that is not the purpose of this book. Of course, one hopes that as kids learn that real trees, mountains, and earth are used up to make common household items, that will help them understand the importance of conservation.
Although its purpose is to inform, I've tried to include enough oddball humor and detours along the road to prevent it from being just another "educational" vacation (we've all had those). In the end, the task at hand–collecting the materials to make the tools to bake the cherry pie–is also an excuse to travel this amazing, captivating country, an expansive and surprising America that no 32-page book can ever hope to capture or contain.