The element of surprise. You stumble upon a lot of picture books that handle this phenomenon rather clumsily or hurriedly, but there are some that pull it off with ease and with a subtlety that serves the story as a whole in really masterful ways.
One of my favorite new picture books for very young children does this, LeUyen Pham’s A Piece of Cake, which will be on shelves in a couple of weeks. It tells the story of a mouse, whose kindness propels him to bake a cake for his friend Little Bird’s birthday. On his way to Little Bird’s house, cake held high, Mouse passes his friends: Chicken, Squirrel, Bear, and Cow. Each animal offers to trade Mouse something for a piece of the delicious cake. Given that Mouse had used up everything in his pantry to bake this cake, I immediately, but mistakenly, assumed that Mouse was going to collect some eggs, nuts, honey and milk from these creatures. Then upon returning home, his pantry would be restored. Ho hum. I’ve read this story many times before, I thought.
But, no. Even though Chicken is surrounded by eggs, he offers Mouse [insert effective page turn here]…a cork! Squirrel lives in a sea of nuts but offers Mouse a wire. Bear keeps his honey but swaps a net for cake, and Cow is drowning in milk but gives Mouse a flyswatter.
Needless to say, Mouse arrives with no cake. He sadly tells Little Bird that he’d make him another cake if he hadn’t run out of baking supplies. Little Bird is resourceful, though. He thanks Mouse for the presents, and they head back the same way Mouse had come. When they pass Cow, who frantically searches for the cap to his soap bottle (he’s cleaning his milk jugs, you see), Little Bird offers him…the cork? Nope. The wire! “Yes,” Little Bird says, “for blowing bubbles with your soap!” Cow loves the idea and trades some milk for the wire.
On it goes—Bear, for one, is trying to shoo away the bees from his honey, but instead of giving him a fly swatter, Little Bird gives him the cork for closing up the hole of his hive—until the dynamic duo has everything they need to make another cake.
This is a clever plot that will keep very young children on their toes, keep them guessing, and perhaps even prompt discussions about creative (or practical, depending on your point of view) problem-solving. Best of all, it enthusiastically invites multiple reads. I’ve experienced this, having read it to a group of children who immediately wanted to read it again and ponder once more the unexpected swaps between the animals.
And LeUyen’s digitally-rendered cartoon art is bright and textured. For this story, she tells me, she worked on her computer from start to finish, which was new for her. “The logistics of the story,” she adds, “actually took much longer to figure out than rendering the book itself. I sat with my brother, who is an engineer, and we made a chart to figure out who would get what and to make sure that the same object wasn’t given back to the same animal—and the order in which it had to all occur had to make sense. We had drawn what looked to be about 25 Venn diagrams when we were all done.”
Phyllis Rowand’s It Is Night, illustrated by Laura Dronzek, has a much more subtle element of surprise in the bones of its story. This is the re-issue of a story originally published in 1953, and some editor somewhere was very wise to pair the tale with Dronzek.
“It is night,” the book opens. The author asks readers to consider where animals will sleep. Each question is followed by its own response on the following page. The words are gentle yet humorous in spots: A rabbit would sleep in a cage, except “he would want to eat it. And he couldn’t sleep in it and eat it too.” The text and art are the very definition of cozy: Think sleeping kittens in baskets with “wooly warmth”; seals resting on quiet beaches or safe in caves; and ducks with heads tucked under their wings. Throw in some jungle animals and a train. Rowand has a response for each, and Dronzek’s richly-colored, thickly-outlined illustrations, dominated by night-time shades, are comforting and snug, like a warm hug before bed.
The gentle surprise comes at the end. Rowand notes that all the beds named in the book would be great, but with a giant illustrated “NO!” we learn that they don’t actually sleep there. In the final full-page spread, we see they “sleep in the bed of one small child.” They are her favorite toys, train included, and the girl in bed doesn’t mind the crowding. She loves them all. She’s right where she needs to be in the best bed for her—and so are the creatures.
Two superb books for young readers. That they come from such talented authors and illustrators is no surprise.
A PIECE OF CAKE. Copyright © 2014 by LeUyen Pham. Published by Balzer + Bray/HarperCollins, New York. Reproduced by permission of LeUyen Pham.
Julie Danielson (Jules) conducts interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog primarily focused on illustration and picture books.