There was once a time, best beloved, when the early chapter book section of your local lending library was a veritable wasteland of white characters. Oh, every once in a while you might be able to get your hands on Stories Julian Tells or My Name is Maria Isabel but by and large they were it, man. Then, in the last ten years or so, something changed. Suddenly there was an influx of great books starring kids of a diverse range of backgrounds and races. Different nationalities would sort of come up too (Younguncle Comes to Town, The White Elephant, Rickshaw Girl, etc.) but they remain, to this day, far less common. Then, two years ago, the amazing and delightful Anna Hibiscus by Atinuke hit American shores and the masses did rejoice. The series was remarkable, not just for the great writing and art, but because until that moment the idea of reading about a girl living in contemporary Africa was a dear and distant dream. Maybe that’s what helped to convince American publishers to bring over Alexander McCall Smith’s enjoyable early chapter book The Great Cake Mystery: Precious Ramotswe’s Very First Case. An early chapter book of a mystery starring his most famous character during her childhood, Smith isn’t entirely comfortable writing for a young audience, but this mini mystery and its jaw-dropping illustrations will please proto-detectives, both large and small.
Some people are good at noticing things. Take Precious Ramotswe. She’s the kind of girl who will seriously consider when someone might be lying or telling the truth. Prompted by her father to consider a future as a detective, Precious likes the idea but figures it’ll be years before she gets her first case. As it turns out, it happens a lot faster than she might think. At school a boy is accused of stealing sweets from his fellow students. Refusing to accept circumstantial evidence, Precious discovers the true culprits and devises a delightful solution to the sticky fingered thief problem.
Normally when an author of books for adults chooses to switch gears and write for children they choose one of the standard ten topics they (often mistakenly) think kids will enjoy. Then they simplify their language to the point of baby talk and create something dreadful. It doesn’t really matter how bad it is, of course. Adult fans will purchase the book for unsuspecting nieces, nephews, and grandchildren and the author will pocket the cool hard cash. I am pleased to report that for the most part Mr. Smith isn’t like those other authors. For one thing his blurb on this book states that “He is also the author of numerous children’s books,” though they have probably been published in countries other than America. And for another, what he’s done with The Great Cake Mystery is unique. He’s taken his own adult character, gone back in time to when she was just a child, and written her into an early chapter book mystery. It’s sort of brilliant. One begins to wonder how long it will be before others catch on and we start seeing L’il Jason Bourne, Kid Tom Ripley, and a ten-year-old Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (which is to say, Pippi Longstocking). Now I confess to you right here and now that I am at a distinct disadvantage when it comes to this particular character. I’ve never read The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency. As such, I know nothing about the character of Precious Ramotswe. So when I judge this book I, for better or worse, have nothing to compare it to. I can only see it as an eight-year-old reader might.
Now a kid coming to this book isn’t necessarily going to know that the character here has appeared as a grown-up in other novels. With that in mind, they might really enjoy how Smith chooses to start his story. Right off the bat he tells you that Precious will someday grow up to become a detective. I think kid readers would really get a kick out of that fact. Then we begin with Precious’s father telling her a story about his encounter with a lion. Truth be told it doesn’t have much bearing on the story and could come right out without a blink. Yet it’s so enjoyable that I’m glad it’s there, even if it’s utterly superfluous. The rest of the book sets up the schoolyard mystery, the false accusations, the true culprits, and the clever method of ensnaring them (literally). Kids adore mysteries and if you tell them that this one involves stolen cake and crazy monkeys, you might be able to ensnare them too.
There are a couple problems here and there, though. Chapter breaks appear out of the blue and feel almost as if the book were one long story and an editor came in later to chop things up a bit. The message is also pretty darn blunt. Subtlety is clearly not the name of the game. Also, Smith has an odd tendency to have his characters explain something to one another in service to the reader that would be incredibly obvious to them. You end up reading sentences like “I went up north to see my uncle, who lived way out in the country, or the bush as we call it in Africa, very far from everywhere.” That would be the equivalent of reading a book here in the States that says “I went to North Carolina to visit my uncle in the bush, or the country as we call it here in America.” He does it again two pages later when a character describes his sleeping mats and says, “They were much cooler than a bed and blankets in the hot weather, and easier to store too.” He’s saying this to Precious who would know perfectly well why a person sleeps on a mat. I’m all for explaining stuff like this to child readers, but there’s an art to working it into the text so that it makes sense. In the context that we’re reading it here, there’s no logic at work. It’s just an author being obvious and not attempting to work with his own characters naturally.
Let’s get something straight. Mr. Smith is a perfectly serviceable author. This book is written better in some places, worse in others, but all told it’s rather nice. His fans will pluck it up like so many of his other books. Yet the reason I dove for it as quickly as I did had nothing to do with the author and everything to do with the illustrator. Iain McIntosh has illustrated Mr. Smith’s adult novels in Britain for years. His style resembles deft woodcuts and the art inside is jaw dropping. Using just the colors red, black, and gray, McIntosh manages to create pictures that are gorgeous and funny all at once. They look rather classic, but there are some distinctly modern touches at work as well. For example, after discussing a chubby classmate’s bulging pockets an accompanying picture shows the boy but also includes an image of an old-timey hand pointing directly at his pocket. He also seems to have created the world’s most awesome monkeys. I mean that. There’s something about them that is just infinitely pleasing. All told, you’ll come to this book for the McCall Smith moniker, but you’ll stay because of the McIntosh art.
Aside from easy readers, good early chapter books are probably the most difficult fiction to write for kids. You have to keep your vocabulary limited but tackle relatively complex plots at the same time. It’s not easy. And sure, Mr. Smith may stumble from time to time, but in the end what he’s produced here is just a really fun read. Botswana heroines don’t appear as often as all that in children’s libraries or kids’ bookshelves after all. Wrapped in some awesome packaging, The Great Cake Mystery is a great read for young mystery addicts. Here’s hoping that in the future there will be other young Precious tales for them to discover as well.
On shelves April 3rd.
Source: Borrowed ARC from fellow librarian.
Notes on the Cover:
It’s a lovely little jacket, really colorful and nice. You appreciate it all the more when you see the other editions out there in the world:
My personal favorite is this one, though. It’s the same book but going by the name Precious and the Puggies and translated into “Scots”. The description reads: “This is a brand new, previously unpublished story from Alexander McCall Smith. A world first from Itchy Coo, this is a brand new book for younger readers, telling the story of the girlhood adventures of Precious Ramotswe, founder of the Number 1 Ladies” Detective Agency. Written by one of the world”s favourite authors, Alexander McCall Smith, and translated into Scots by award winning author, James Robertson, this story will not be available in any other language until 2011. The Scots is simple and accessible, and a glossary will be provided for those not familiar with Scots words.”
You can even read the first chapter of Precious and the Puggies here. Tis highly educational.
American audiences will be amused to see that illustrator Iain McIntosh is responsible for one book jacket that’s rather interesting in and of itself. In England the Jack Gantos novel (and Scott O’Dell Award winner) Dead End in Norvelt was published simply as Dead End (which, rumor has it, was the title Mr. Gantos preferred in the first place). Here is Mr. McIntosh’s jacket for that book: