By Maureen Tai, 15 April 2018
“I’m in a baking rut. I got up early to make a new recipe but I just made a mess. I wish I could make something besides the usual baked goods.” – Cupcake
Several years ago at a writers convention, I discovered that a charmingly soft-spoken children’s book historian (I’ll call him Mr. M) and I shared a common love – reading comics and graphic novels.
We talked excitedly about the comics of the past – Beano, Dandy and Richie Rich – and the exciting graphic novelists of the present – Kazu Kibuishi, Raina Telgemeier and the incomparable Shaun Tan. In an embarrassing flash of hindsight, it was probably me who gushed excitedly while Mr. M – whom I found out afterwards is one of the world’s pre-eminent authorities on children’s books – kindly indulged me. Bake Sale was his parting recommendation, and Sara Varon’s endearing novel found a home in my library not long after that chance encounter.
The main character is Cupcake, a pink frosted cupcake with a cherry on top. He runs a small bakery in New York City, whose denizens are anthropomorphized fruits, vegetables and other food – a slice of cake, a fried chicken drumstick, a tetra-pack carton of milk, a groundnut (complete with top hat, glasses, walking stick and wingtips), a hamburger … you get the drift. Each character’s name is simply what it is: Cupcake’s best friend is Eggplant, Cupcake’s idol is the world famous Turkish Delight, and his regular customers are Sugar (in a 2 lb. pack) and Egg.
The easy, relaxed and in many ways, enviable, friendship between Cupcake and Eggplant forms the backdrop for this story. The two hang out at Eisenstein’s Sandwich after work, and head for band practice in the evenings with Avocado, Brown Egg, Doughnut and Pear. They leaf through magazines together, sweat it out at the Turkish Baths and chat on the phone (ah, those glorious pre-Whatsapp days!). When Eggplant invites Cupcake to accompany him to Istanbul to visit his aunt and to meet Cupcake’s idol, Turkish Delight, it is a dream come true. Finally, a chance to be inspired to greater culinary feats! Cupcake’s wildly beating heart can barely be stilled!
What follows is the gentle tale of what the resourceful Cupcake doggedly does and sacrifices in order to realize his dream. Memorable stories, however, are never the straightforward ones. We remember when dreams are dashed and hope turns to bitter disappointment. Protagonists who embark on quests sometimes discover that they already have what they were looking for all along.
Sara’s deceptively simple illustrations are sweet and unassuming. Like the tasty morsels she portrays, Bake Sale is a delightful confection that you’ll want to partake of again and again.
For ages 7 and up.