________________ CM . . . . Volume XV Number 11 . . . . January 23, 2009

cover Penguin and the Cupcake.

Ashley Spires.
Vancouver, BC: Simply Read Books, 2008.
40 pp., hardcover, $16.95.
ISBN 978-1-897476-04-8.

Preschool-kindergarten / Ages 3-5.

Review by Anna Swanson.

*** /4


It all started one day when my buddies and I were hanging out at the fishing hole. Now, I'm not one to complain, but for the last one thousand, four hundred and seventy-three days I've eaten fish. Sure I get to toss in some krill, and maybe a squid now and again for flavor, but there are some foods you can't find in the sea. Say, for instance — CUPCAKES!!

So begins the journey of our hero, a feisty little penguin with an appetite for adventure and cupcakes. Penguin tells the story of the day he packs his bags and flies to the northern hemisphere to track down the land of palm trees, desserts and cupcakes he saw once in a vacation photo. Except, as Walrus and Polar Bear interrupt to tell us, penguins can't fly. The flying penguin is promptly replaced by an airliner, and the quest begins anew. But instead of palm trees in the mysterious northern hemisphere, penguin finds another land of snow. In his search for the elusive cupcake, he meets Walrus and Polar Bear and learns more about life at the other pole.

internal art

     The characters, themselves, are based on the author's line of handmade felted finger puppets (available online). Like the felted originals, the characters in the book have a cute but spare aesthetic that is fresh, contemporary and appealing. This combination of simplicity and visual sophistication is part of what marks Ashley Spires as a talented illustrator. (Her previous illustration projects include A Bloom of Friendship and The Red Shoes.)

     Visually, this is an appealing book. The cover alone will have this book flying off the shelf. The layout uses a variety of techniques, ranging from full two-page spreads to comic strip frames. The text is clear and easy to read, with oversized font for emphasis and different colours for each speaker. The characters shine through — the wilful cupcake-craving penguin, and the grumbling duo (walrus and polar bear) who keep interrupting penguin’s story to make sure we know how it really happened. Reminiscent of recent picture book characters like Melanie Watt’s Chester, the characters take a self-conscious approach to narration, correcting facts, negotiating narrative, and vying for centre stage.

     Most of the humour I love in this book is visual. It's hard not to fall for Penguin as he stands with arms folded across his chest, decked out in aviator cap and goggles, pouting as walrus and polar jump in to mention that penguins can't actually fly. And the dialogue supports the strong characterizations of our three main stars. But the book seems to be more about character than about telling a story. Although the cupcake mission is a great starting place for the plot, the resolution of the story doesn't quite feel satisfying.

     As well, the text includes sidebars, pictured on small pieces of foolscap, which provide factual background information about the places and animals in the story. Although the tone is playful, the content is essentially serious: healthy food choices, fish shortages due to over-fishing, body image issues, and global warming. For instance, in response to a line in which Walrus claims to be on a strict kelp diet, the sidebar reads: "Note: Walruses don't eat kelp. They mostly eat bivalve mollusks (a fancy word for clams and mussels). Unfortunately, this walrus has self-esteem issues. She was trying to meet an unrealistic physical ideal. All she really needed to do was love herself."

     It's hard to disagree with the content of any of these sections, but they don't quite work as part of the story. This device takes what is essentially a fanciful story — a jet-setting penguin on a pole-to-pole cupcake quest — and adds an educational layer that undercuts the whimsical tone of the main narrative. These sidebars might work better in a one-on-one reading, but luckily the story also reads smoothly without them if required for a group setting.

     With the strength of the characters, the masterful illustrations, and the eternal popularity of penguins, this book will be enjoyed by many readers.


Anna Swanson works as a children's librarian with the Vancouver Public Library.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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ISSN 1201-9364
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