Maybe because I grew up in a household where we ate fruit for dessert, I didn’t have a lot of experience with cake. Classic all-American, Betty Crocker-style layer cakes —as high and round as a hatbox, thickly iced on the top and sides — to me, these desserts existed in the realm of the slightly unreal. I saw them on TV, under glass domes at diners, and most of all, in picture books. For the most part, these weren’t books about cakes. These exuberant confections — often pink, with a wiggly decorated border — were usually there as plot punctuation, existing somewhere in the background, maybe rounding out the scene of a party. But the page with the cake picture inevitably became my favorite part of the entire book.
I was recently reminded of this when I heard that Maira Kalman’s newest book was called, quite simply, Cake. It’s a combination of memoir, art book and cookbook that’s very Maira. After all, she’s been lovingly illustrating cakes — many in her children’s books — for years now.
Here are some of my favorite cakes in children’s books:
BIG MAX by Kin Platt, illustrated by Robert Lopshire (1965)
In the I Can Read book by Kin Platt, the King of Pooka Pooka’s pet elephant goes missing and it’s up to detective Big Max to find him. I was enthralled as much by Max’s sleuthing skills as by the birthday cake served at the end. This cake is about as big as a Goodyear tire and to my adult eyes now, looks about as tasty as one. But I know I dreamed about this confection and treasured the near-final scene showing Big Max licking frosting off his finger.
Go, Dog, Go! by P.D. Eastman (1961)
Then there’s the dog party scene in P.D. Eastman’s classic. I loved reading this book to my kids and we would always linger over the insane canine free-for-all at the end. At this tree-top party there are presents, a trampoline, a canon (!), a trapeeze and, of course, the main attraction: the layer cake (again, frosted pink). This one is the size of a wading pool and you could only describe the pieces being served as wedges (not slices). The dogs are literally leaping towards this cake from all directions.
Chicken Soup with Rice by Maurice Sendak (1962)
As a kid I loved the idea that you could bring a snowman inside your house, no problem. And it all made perfect sense, as long as you didn’t let the hot soup melt the snowman. I thought about what I’d do if I were in the house: I would first eat the soup, and then (duh) the cake.
Lyle and the Birthday Party by Bernard Waber (1966)
In this installation of the Lyle series, our favorite adopted crocodile starts to feel “mean, green jealous,” when he realizes he’s missing out on the inalienable right to a birthday party. In his fantasies, Mrs. Primm is lovingly decorating a homemade birthday cake for him. You have to love the way Lyle is clutching his hands and looking upon the thing in joyful disbelief. I feel like this is what it would be like to have Ina Garten making your cake.
A Birthday for Frances by Russell Hoban (1968)
Frances is seething with jealousy over her little sister Gloria’s birthday. Lillian Hoban gives us another giant pink-frosted cake (why were so many of these cakes pink?!) so big it takes two badgers to hoist it. Frances refuses to sing “Happy Birthday” with everybody else and sings her own version: Happy Chompo to me/ Is how it ought to be/ Happy Chompo to Frances/ Happy Chompo to me. (Chompo is the candy bar she was planning to give Gloria as a gift).
Thunder Cake by Patricia Polacco (1997)
Jumping ahead a few decades, there is this strawberry-topped chocolate cake that a grandmother and granddaughter bake during a thunderstorm in Patricia Polacco’s book. The combination of chocolate with “three overripe tomatoes” is so strange I need to imagine that it’s actually good, like green tomato pie a la Ma Ingalls. Polacco includes a recipe as well.
Thirteen Words by Lemony Snicket, illustrated by Maira Kalman (2010)
And now we come full circle. Illustrated by Maira Kalman, this not very plot-driven but totally delightful play on a word book creates a narrative about friendship based on thirteen key words: Bird, Despondent, Dog, Busy, Convertible, Goat, Hat, Haberdashery, Scarlet, Baby, Panache, Mezzo-Soprano, and, of course, Cake. This spread alone is worth the price of admission.
I know I’m missing some important cakes in books. What am I forgetting??? Please tell me in the comments!