One Visit with Candace Fleming and Clever Jack
Before Breakfast (Served with Golden-Sweet Cake
and Succulent Strawberries)

h1 October 20th, 2010 by jules

(Click to enlarge and see spread from which this illustration comes.)

This morning’s post is dedicated to a new picture book, Clever Jack Takes the Cake (Schwartz & Wade, August 2010), which jumped up and surprised me and was placed, soon after I first read it a few weeks ago, in the Top 10 Jules’s Favorite Picture Books of 2010 list in my noggin. I know: I speak in hyperbole. Is anyone actually keeping count of my 2010 favorites? Really, though. Hyperbole aside, this book is a winner on so many levels that it is a true joy to read. And I just noticed that it’s been met with a whole host of starred reviews, so it looks like I’m not alone in my adoration for it. (“The creators of Muncha! Muncha! Muncha! celebrate storytelling with a sparkling specimen of that very thing,” writes Publishers Weekly.)

Actually, I shouldn’t say the book surprised me, because it comes from the multi-faceted Candace Fleming, pictured here, who has brought readers a slew of acclaimed titles previous to now (don’t miss her site for a listing of her biographies, historical picture books, novels, and picture books), and illustrator G. Brian Karas, who is—as I’ve already made clear—a long-time favorite illustrator of mine. And the book really—you knew this was coming—takes. the. cake. OH YES, I said it. OUCH.

This, as you’ll read below, since Candace stopped by to tell me a bit about it, is an original fairy tale. The book tells the story of a poor boy, named Jack, who is invited by His Majesty the King to the Princess’s tenth birthday party. Too poor to buy anything “fine enough to give her,” he tells his mother he will make her a cake. He takes his few belongings—a spinning wheel, a threadbare quilt, a pitted ax—and trades them for sugar, flour, eggs, and the sweetest milk. He gathers walnuts, dips candles, and finds the “reddest, juiciest, most succulent strawberry in the land,” making one fine birthday cake, topped with that delicious strawberry, which declares—in walnuts—“HAPPY BIRTHDAY PRINCESS.” On the way to see her and deliver his made-from-scratch baked delight, things don’t go so swimmingly: Four-and-twenty blackbirds steal the walnuts; a troll takes half the cake; he has to burn his candles in the dark forest just to see his way; and an old gypsy woman, joined by her wheezing concertina and Samson, a large bear, manage to take the last of the cake.

I typically don’t like to give away picture book endings here at 7-Imp—so that the story can unfold for you when you read it for yourself—but I can’t NOT tell you about this perfectly charming ending: Since he’s left with his one succulent strawberry, seeing as how Samson hates fruit and had spit it out, Jack forges onward, thinking he’ll give the strawberry to the Princess. Much to his dismay, Jack discovers after he finally arrives at the castle that the princess, having been given “the most magnificent treasures,” all of which had bored her, is allergic to strawberries. Kneeling before her with nothing in hand, he explains to her how it is that he got there, what he encountered, and why he’s empty-handed. And do you know what the Princess does? She laughs, claps her hands in delight, and says, “a story!…And an adventure story at that! What a fine gift.”

OH YES SHE DOES. Didn’t I tell you? Flawless ending.

And Brian’s gouache and pencil illustrations? Well, Candace mentions the brilliance of that below, and I’ve gone on and on, so let me give the cyber-floor—rather, breakfast table—to her. I thank her for stopping by…

* * * * * * *

Candace: Why did I write Clever Jack Takes The Cake? Mostly for fun, but also because I wanted to try my hand at writing a fairy tale. I do that a lot as a writer—challenge myself to try new things—and tackling a fairy tale was definitely a new thing. So, how to begin?

“Then he set to work, churning, chopping, blending, baking.”
(Click to super-size spread.)

I knew I wanted my story to have a classical feel, incorporating such wonderfully delicious fairy tale elements as four-and-twenty blackbirds, enchanted forests, and hairy trolls. On the other hand, I wanted it to be totally original, a story like no other. I began writing and, within a few weeks, had a tale. But let me tell you a curious truth about writers — they are the stories they write, the fictions they spin. And when I read back what I had written, I realized I had created a fairy tale about… me. Weird, but true! The story is filled with my favorite things — journeys and birthdays and cake. The princess, taking after my son Scott, is allergic to strawberries. And Jack? Just like me, he good-naturedly follows life’s road, gathering experiences he can spin into tales.

‘Get back!’ hollered Jack. ‘I’m taking this cake to the princess.’ ‘Aw-caw-caw-caw-caw!’ cackled the birds. And as quickly as they had come, they were gone, taking with them the walnuts that spelled ‘Happy Birthday, Princess.'”
(Click to enlarge spread.)

When my editor, Anne Schwartz, told me that Brian was going to do the illustrations for Clever Jack, I knew they’d be terrific. I’ve worked with him before, and he never disappoints. But when I saw the finished art…. Wow! Is it kosher to say I think it’s the best thing he’s ever done? The art has a charming simplicity without ever being simplistic. Does that make sense? With just a few lines and dabs of color, he manages to create an entire whimsical, timeless world. And it’s deceptive, because while it’s simple (and exactly right for the story), it’s also sophisticated. Take, for example, the endpapers. Notice how they lead the reader into the story, telling the tale even before my words begin, and how they carry the reader through the story and eventually out of it, adding an ending beyond the one I wrote. In essence, Brian has created a story path that the reader can follow from beginning to end. Amazing, huh?

And that last picture! Can I wax poetic about that very last picture?

I think it’s pure genius. There sits Jack and the princess, so involved in their story that neither of them has bothered to take even one bite of their cake. Notice how the princess is leaning forward and how a strand of her hair has come loose. Isn’t that wonderful? It’s so simple, yet so exactly expresses the joy of a telling and/or hearing a good story. I adore it.

And here’s the best part –- a sort of perfect symmetry if you will. On my last birthday, Eric (Rohmann) handed me an ordinary-shaped box wrapped in bright paper. What’s this? I wondered. A skirt? Another pair of jeans? Then I ripped off the paper and, lo and behold, there was Jack and the princess and their untouched cake … the original artwork! I was stunned and thrilled. It seems he and Brian (along with my friends at Schwartz-Wade) had colluded to give me the best birthday present ever. Aren’t I blessed?

‘PATOOIE!’ ‘But not the strawberry,’ said the gypsy. ‘Samson hates fruit.'”
(Click to enlarge spread.)

Right this minute (and I do mean this very minute -– I just pushed aside the manuscript and Anne’s editorial comments to write {this}), I’m working on a ghost story. Literally. That is, teenage ghosts tell the story. As for its title, I still haven’t landed on one, although the book will be making its debut in Fall, 2012. Once I’ve finished those revisions, I’ll be starting work on a middle grade novel based on a true event about a runaway girl who made her way up the Hudson River to Canada with a trained bear who escaped from New York City’s Barnum Museum in 1864. Cool, huh? I also have a new biography coming out this March, called Amelia Lost: The Life and Disappearance of Amelia Earhart, and—this is soooo exciting!—my first-ever collaboration with Eric Rohmann will be out in the Fall, 2012. It’s called, Oh, No!

* * * * * * *

CLEVER JACK TAKES THE CAKE. Copyright © 2010 by Candace Fleming. Illustrations © 2010 by G. Brian Karas. Illustrations reproduced by permission of the publisher, Schwartz & Wade Books, New York.

Photo of Ms. Fleming courtesy of the author.

11 comments to “One Visit with Candace Fleming and Clever Jack
Before Breakfast (Served with Golden-Sweet Cake
and Succulent Strawberries)”

  1. Since my writing about a Texas farm family is set in Amelia’s era (and even features a one-time appearance of the Lindberghs), I’m interested in hearing of your new book. I always encourage my college students to read a bio of that remarkable woman.

    Interesting marriage, too.

  2. I’ve been waiting very patiently for this book to arrive at the library, but it hasn’t yet. Sigh, sigh, sigh.

    I still feel like it’s a crime Karas hasn’t gotten a Caldecott. Maybe this could be his year?

  3. High crime. I’m in agreement with that.

    Adrienne, I think you’ll love this book. If you don’t, you can punch me in the face. That’s how confident I feel about it.

  4. Oh, those very tall pieces of cake! Mmmmm, yummy. Must see this one :)!

  5. Love this book so much–a lovely marriage of words and art.

  6. I’m taking this one to read for my “Promise to Read” visits here in the school district. Cannot wait to read it to the kids.

  7. I am so glad you gave the ending away – it makes me more motivated to find the book!

  8. […] Candace Fleming (October 20, 2010) on Clever Jack Takes the Cake and working with illustrator G. Brian […]

  9. I just reviewed this book for our library system and I can’t WAIT to share it with kids! Bravo! GREAT book!

  10. Love, love, love that image with the blackbirds!!

  11. […] spread(Click to enlarge)   Last month, Schwartz & Wade Books released Candace Fleming’s Oh, No!, illustrated by Caldecott Medalist Eric Rohmann. Last year—hey, I see it was on my […]

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