Sarah van Dongen is a Dutch illustrator based in Amsterdam. She has been drawing and creating story-worlds since childhood, and has masters degrees in contemporary literature and in children’s books illustration. Her favorite themes to explore are gardens and food, social interactions and mental health, and childhood and imagination.

In The Neighborhood Surprise, she shows how food literally and figuratively nourishes community connections and respect. In the heart of a neighborly town, Koya and her friends love to visit Mrs. Fig, an older woman who tells them exciting stories, stitches them fantastic costumes, and bakes them delicious cookies. Van Dongen’s colorful, detailed pictures add to this delightful sense of neighbors feeling at home with each other. In one illustration, a child dances while dressed as a blue octopus with yellow polka-dots, another raises his hands and roars from inside a long-necked green dinosaur suit, and a third relaxes on the floor, sporting a snail shell and a headband with antennae. Meanwhile, Mrs. Fig sews away on another costume nearby, and her cat plays with yarn beneath the sewing machine.

When they learn to their dismay that Mrs. Fig is moving away, Koya and her friends organize a surprise going-away party. It’s in their preparations that we discover what makes this book most special. Koya knows that her friend Hassan is vegan, and asks her dad if they can make a vegan cake so that he can eat it, too. Another girl, Alex, instructs her parents to make a vegetable pie, because Mrs. Fig is vegetarian. This kind of knowledgeable respect about dietary preferences and needs — whether someone is gluten-free, allergic to peanuts, or doesn’t eat meat — has become more and more common among children, but it is rare to see a children’s book that picks up this element of caring for each other as a central theme.

After the story, which ends with happy plans for another party next year, van Dongen offers a two-page spread in which she introduces herself and helps explain in child-friendly terms what it means to be vegetarian or to be vegan. She asks why someone would choose to eat either of these ways, and explains, “It can be because they love animals too much to hurt them. Also animal farming can be harmful to our beautiful planet. So vegans prefer to eat vegetables and fruits to protect the environment.”

The Neighborhood Surprise is intended for children ages four to seven, and it’s suitable for even younger children because there’s so much to notice in the pictures. It makes an excellent introduction to vegetarian and vegan lifestyles both for those who might like to pursue them and those who simply want to be good neighbors. It also serves as an encouraging affirmation for any child who is already vegetarian or vegan and needs to know that it’s a choice worthy of respect.