The Pancake King by Phyllis LaFarge, pictures by Seymour Chwast
Back in 2012 I reviewed the fantastic lift-the-flap book Get Dressed! by Seymour Chwast and learned about his work with AIGA, the group that designed many of the symbol signs we see on the road now, as well as his other design work, including creating new fonts. Chwast's illustration style reminds me of the picture books I read as a child, back in the 1970s, and I was very excited when Princeton Architectural Press decided to reissue The Pancake King, originally published in 1971 and written by Phyllis LaFarge. Chwast's illustrations are very much of the time, with bulgy bodies, big heads, cartoonish settings and a color palette you don't see too often these days.
One thing I often notice when I read a picture book that is a few decades old is the length of the text. This is probably because, while working for a literary agent, I learned that, with few exceptions, the length of picture books being published to day is set at an industry standard of 1,500 words. This means that favorites of mine, like William Steig and Bill Peet probably wouldn't find a publisher if they were starting their careers today. While this definitely saddens me, reading picture books out loud professionally for over twenty years now (and parentally for just as long) I understand the value of a shorter book. But, after reading the research of David Liben on how to bridge the 30 Million Word Gap that exists for children who come from socioeconomically challenged families and the powerful effects of reading out loud to children grades K - 2 for up to two hours a day (from a text 2 - 3 grade levels above the audience) for closing that word gap, I have begun to rethink my relationship with longer picture books. Longer picture books tend to have richer vocabulary and, as Liben notes, children learn new vocabulary more readily when they hear it spoken, rather than when they encounter it in a text they are reading, which makes perfect sense. Hearing a new word spoken (or read out loud) the child learns how it is pronounced and, based on context, gathers an understanding of the meaning of the word. So with this in mind, I begin my review of The Pancake King, which has a lot of words!
Henry Edgewood's odyssey beings simply enough. When he tells his mother he would rather have pancakes than the poached eggs she is making for breakfast, she responds, "Then you'll have to make them yourself." And he does, making, "three little pancakes and five big ones." The same thing happens when lunch rolls around, this time with a creative flair. Henry begins eating pancakes three times a day, making, "buckwheat pancakes, blueberry pancakes, cornmeal pancakes, and even blini." He also becomes quite a skilled flipper. With a special spin, Henry could flip a pancake right into the mouth of his dog, Ezra, who was always at his side.
Quickly, word of Henry's pancake prowess gets around and there are always guests at his table enjoying his pancakes. One day, while Henry is making a batch of Swedish pancakes, Mr. Arthur J. Jinker of Jinker Enterprises arrives with a tempting offer. Henry's mother is excited, but Ezra is suspicious. Jinker leaves behind a contract that has, "Nothing too binding," in it, with the promise to return.
Soon, Henry, with Ezra by his side, is a celebrity chef, long before there was even such a thing. He is flipping pancakes on a float in a parade, participating in pancake cook-ins, and the subject of songs, fan clubs, posters, and buttons and a forty-three restaurant chain named after him. There is even a Henry Edgewood Pancake King doll! A very special invitation from the White House (including a ride on Air Force One) to make pancakes for a special brunch where international ambassadors will be in attendance is both exhilarating and life changing for Henry. Henry returns home, having lost his pancake mojo, and locks himself in his room. Emerging a few days later to find his parents at breakfast eating boiled eggs, Henry says, "I'm having waffles for breakfast."
More books by Seymour Chwast
Source: Review Copy