Clever Jack Takes the Cake by Candace Fleming and G Brian Karas came out in the summer of 2010 and got a lot of well deserved attention in the blogosphere. However, it was one of those (many) books that I intend to order in for story time when I go to work and then completely forget. Somehow, during that 12 minute drive everything I had been thinking about at home evaporates. Fortunately, Clever Jack Takes the Cake popped up on my radar again and I was able to follow through and read it at story time. It is as fabulous as all the reviews claim! And it has the feel of an instant classic, a phrase I do not use lightly.
The story begins with an invitation to the Princess's tenth birthday party. Sadly, Jack's mother tells him that he cannot go to the party because they have nothing to give for a present. But, as he will prove again and again over the course of the book, he's not called Clever Jack for nothing! First, Jack sells or barters the few things that he and his mother do have for ingredients to make a cake. And what a cake it is! Jack dips his own candles, spells out "Happy Birthday Princess" with walnuts he has traded for and he finds the ripest, reddest strawberry to decorate the top of the cake. Please with his gift, he heads out for the castle and party.
Things do not go well for Jack on his way to the party, though. A flock of crows steal the walnuts, an Ogre is appeased with the bottom layer of the cake, Jack has to burn the candles to make his way through the dark, dark woods. A dancing bear eats the top layer but spits out the strawberry. He doesn't like fruit.
When Jack arrives at the castle a guard lands the final blow, telling him that the Princess is deathly allergic to strawberries and eats it himself. Sadly, Jack makes his way to the receiving line. When it's his turn to present his gift to the Princess who, thus far, has been looking extremely bored by the gifts she has been given, he tells her his tale of woe.
Happily, the Princess is delighted by Jack's story and proclaims it the best gift of all.
Fleming's story is perfection itself and when I read it at story time my audience was rapt. It has all the right elements to make it interesting to a diverse crowd - a clever boy, a princess, a delicious looking cake, and lots of suspense and excitement from a flock of crows, an ogre and a gypsy woman with a dancing bear. As an adult, parent and picture book lover, the ending of Clever Jack Takes the Cake is my favorite part, especially as we head in to this consumerist season. Indeed, the story is the best gift of all! If you want to know more about Fleming and how she came to write this book, there is a great interview over at the always excellent 7 Impossible Things.
G Brian Karas (who has teamed up with Candace Fleming before on Muncha! Muncha! Muncha! and Tippy-Tippy-Tippy, Hide! Mr McGreeley is a farmer with a rabbit problem that is not exactly a Peter Rabbit kind of Mr McGregor kind of situation. I have had great fun reading both of these books at story time as well) provides superb illustrations for this story. Clever Jack Takes the Cake, as with most fairy tale-type stories, could have gone in a much darker and scarier direction than the one Karas chose. However, Karas' painterly illustrations remain playful, especially in his presentation of the people in the story. The scarier moments (the crows, the dark woods) are a bit suspenseful but that sweet cake and Jack's face let you know that everything will be ok.
You may recognize Candace Flemings name. She is a very diverse author who, besides excellent picture books, has written the very fun The Fabled Fourth Graders of Aesop Elementary School who go on to become fabled fifth graders in a second book. Fleming is also a respected author of non-fiction books. I was completely absorbed by Lincolns: A Scrapbook Look at Abraham and Mary, which came out in 2009 in time for the 200th anniversary of Lincoln's birth. This year Fleming published Amelia Lost: the Life and Disappearance of Amelia Earhart, which has received several awards and great reviews. Like Harry Houdini, Amelia Earhart seems to be endlessly, continually fascinating to young (and old) readers alike. Can't wait to get my hands on this book!