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Review: Clever Jack Takes the Cake

By Phoebe Vreeland, The Children’s Book Review
Published: January 6, 2010

Clever Jack Takes the Cake

By Candace Fleming (Author), G. Brian Karas (Illustrator)

Reading level: Ages 4-8

Hardcover: 40 pages

Publisher: Schwartz & Wade (August 24, 2010)

Source: Publisher

Children love to hear a good story.  Conversely, some children are quite good at telling stories, often spinning a yarn not only to entertain but to get themselves out of a pickle.  Author Candace Fleming apparently was one of those children. From a very young age she told great tales.   Fortunately, Candace’s parents called her “imaginative” and encouraged her to write her stories down.  In fifth grade, she wrote a ten page mystery so clever that it was “awarded” a Newbery. (She actually peeled it off the cover of the class copy of The Witch of Blackbird Pond.) A lover of history, language, and literature, today Fleming writes award-winning books for children of all ages.

Clever Jack Takes the Cake is her most recent collaboration with illustrator G. Brian Karas.  Previously, the team had great success with Muncha! Muncha! Muncha! and its sequel Tippy-Tippy-Tippy, Hide! This new book is an original fairy tale replete with classic characters and a noble message.  Karas is a prolific illustrator and children’s author who has received copious awards and honors.  He typically renders his drawings in pencil and gouache in a style that has proven appealing to the child’s eye.  Fairy tales aren’t new for Karas who has illustrated several of the fractured variety for Frances Minters.  Sleepless Beauty, whose villain caught my eye thanks to a New York Times review, appealed to urban Manhattan-ites.  But Fleming’s fairy tale takes place “long ago” and Karas’ pallet of sepia and gold establishes just the right “Once upon a time” feel.

The story begins when a poor boy named Jack receives an invitation to the princess’ tenth birthday celebration.  His mother says, “What a shame you can’t go…we’ve nothing fine enough to give her and no money to buy a gift.”  This doesn’t deter Jack.  Jack is a resourceful, “glass half full” kind of lad—scrappy and creative.  By the end of the day, after trading his few belongings and putting in a bit of hard work, he has made a beautiful birthday cake adorned with the reddest, juiciest, most succulent strawberry in the land.  A cake so fine it puts a proud smile on his mother’s weary face.

Illustration by G. Brian Karas

But as he sets off for the celebration early the next morning he encounters a series of obstacles between his cottage and the castle.  Just as he thinks to stop in a meadow and pick flowers for the princess—wasn’t that what got Little Red Riding Hood into trouble?—four and twenty black birds swoop down and whisk off the walnuts he’d used to write out his birthday message.  Here Karas’ wonderful illustration pictured from above shows poor Jack trying to fend off a maelstrom of beaks and wings.  Afterward, a wild-haired troll demands a toll to cross his bridge.  Jack’s quick thinking saves half the cake which he then bravely carries through a dark, dark wood as the wind warns him to turn back.  Once again, Jack is determined and keeps his wits about him.  Out of the woods, he next confronts Samson the dancing bear.  This is the singular moment when Jack’s easy going spirit causes him to let his guard down.

In previous books, Fleming has celebrated her love of word play, onomatopoeia and the musicality of language.  Gabriella’s Song and Muncha! Muncha! Muncha! are good examples.  In Clever Jack Takes the Cake, word play is toned down until the old gypsy woman with her concertina and Samson the dancing bear appear.  Then, Fleming amps up the musicality.  Words grow in size and expressiveness, distracting the reader just as Jack is distracted by the duo.  Dancing has made Samson hungry and the cake is finally history.  Luckily for Jack, the bear hates fruit and spits out the strawberry with a great big “PATOOIE!”  Karas brilliantly depicts tiny Jack as he runs to catch the giant airborne berry.

After each of these set backs, Jack’s gift is diminished, but his spirit never is.  He arrives at the castle with only the strawberry to present to the princess and a castle guard tells him that she is allergic to the fruit and then eats it himself.  Nevertheless, Jack courageously approaches the throne empty handed.  Fortunately for Jack, the castle-bound princess has grown bored with court life and weary of jewels and riches. His explanation of why he has no gift is received as the most valuable gift, “A Story!”  A friendship is forged, the two seem fast friends and from the look of the end pages, Jack and the Princess walk right off into the twilight, telling stories happily ever after.

Storyteller Fleming knows the importance of pacing and this book reads beautifully.  Karas’ varied perspectives and flowing composition keep pace.  Clever Jack Takes the Cake draws on the combined experience of two great talents.  Simple, yet well crafted, this fairy tale will appeal to both boys and girls.

Clever Candace has an educators guide on her website which offers lesson plans in teaching children to write their own stories as well as a reader’s theater play. (I can imagine fights over who gets to play Samson!)  This book is sure to become a classroom favorite.

Add this book to your collection: Clever Jack Takes the Cake

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Visit: Karas’ website

Visit: Fleming’s website

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