You play dirty pool, Charise Mericle Harper. It isn’t enough that you’ve a brand new and very sparkly picture book out. Oh no. You had to go and write one about a cupcake. Cupcakes! The world’s most perfect, most delicious food. How is any gatekeeper of children’s literature (teachers, parents, librarians, booksellers, etc.) going to resist a book that stars the world’s ultimate tasty treat? Unfair, say I. Then I remember that there’s nothing stopping the other authors out there from writing their own cupcake-based books. Ms. Harper just happened to be the one to realize the potential. The result is a book that is smart, funny, and as simple as the vanilla cupcake on its cover. In a word: sweet.
When Cupcake was baked everything was awesome. He introduced himself to all his siblings (Rainbow-Sprinkles Cupcake, Chocolatey Chocolate Cupcake, Stripy Cupcake, etc.) and was perfectly happy with his lot. That is, until the end of the day when all the other cupcakes got picked and Cupcake was left sitting by himself. Joined by an equally plain candle the two decide that what Cupcake needs is a special topping. Pickles don’t seem to work. Spaghetti? Not so much. And don’t even talk about the incident with the squirrel. However, when Candle sees a nut left on the top of Cupcake he goes up there to take it off . . . then realizes something. The final shot is of the candle yelling with triumph, "Tomorrow let’s try a potato!"
I first fell for the seemingly simple style of Ms. Harper when she wrote the Fashion Kitty graphic novels. Those were books that I was fairly certain I would hate right off the bat. Fashion meets comics meets kitties How on earth could that be good Doggone it if the woman doesn’t know how to write a funny story though. I still quote the line "I love you but I’d really like to eat you " out of context all the time earning me many a pitying stare from the passersby . Her Just Grace books are another great example. Seemingly simple on the outside. Surprisingly witty and vivacious on the inside. Cupcake is definitely of the same ilk.
Ms. Harper’s artistic style reminds me of nothing so much as a variation on that of fellow author/illustrator Meghan McCarthy. Of course, while Ms. McCarthy does mostly non-fiction picture books, Harper sits squarely in the realm of the fictional. At first this book looks pretty straightforward too. Hand drawn art (colored in by PhotoShop). That sort of thing. But there’s also a bit of mixed media here as well. The tablecloth where much of the action takes place looks like a real tablecloth. It’s probably also PhotoShopped, but who cares? This is a book where the art serves to show off the personality of the characters. And if there’s one thing Ms. Harper excels at, it’s personality.
I’ll level with you here. As I flipped through the book on an initial pass I was pretty sure that I knew what the ending would be. That’s right. I was basically reading the book like a five-year-old. "Surely the ending will be that the candle realizes that it’s the perfect topping for the cupcake," I thought smugly. In fact (and this kind of kills me) I did the worst possible thing a librarian can do when reading a picture book. I got to the penultimate page and then . . . and then . . . I PUT IT DOWN. That’s right! I didn’t even get to the ending. I just put it down and walked away. It wasn’t until later that a small pocket of my brain thought, "Wait a minute. This is Charise Mericle Harper we’re dealing with. What are the chances that she didn’t end the book with the expected coup d’état? So I raced back, checked, and sure as shooting it was a surprise ending. D’oh! Fooled like a little kid! Let’s hope that your preschoolers have a bit more picture book savvy than I did when they read this book.
There are plenty of books out there where the main characters don’t want to get eaten. My thinking is that in this story Vanilla Cupcake really hasn’t thought through all the potential ramifications of being a fancy dessert. Really, the book that this reminded me of the most was Arnie the Doughnut. Cupcake is clearly a distant relative of Arnie, though Arnie is far more aware of his potential fate than this book’s tasty treat. Whatever the case, I kind of love the lack of a moral in this story. It easily could have swerved in the direction of the old lesson, "Just because you’re plain looking you can still have a great personality" (most books tiptoe around these exact words, but that tends to be the general gist). This book shows someone who is outwardly plain at the start and remains outwardly plain at the end with a fellow plain friend. Moral schmoral. This is just fun storytelling. It gets to fool the reader and make the child who picks up this book feel smarter than a cupcake. What’s better than that?
The sole flaw with the book, as I see it, is that after you stare at the cover for a couple minutes you suddenly want nothing more than to get your hands on a delicious vanilla cupcake of your own. Fortunately there’s a recipe at the back (complete with a cupcake toting squirrel) for making your own "Deliciously Plain Vanilla Cupcakes" with their own "Deliciously Plain Buttercream Frosting". So you lack for nothing, really. It’s a funny story about an unlikely edible hero (my favorite kind of hero) and a problem that kids will be able to solve while the main characters remain ignorant. What’s not to love? As per the usual Charise Mericle Harper fare, this is just fun fun fun. Deliciously so.
On shelves now.
Source: Hardcover copy sent from author.
- Note too that this is not the first time Ms. Harper has illustrated a cupcake.