Tuesday, 12 September 2017

CHOCOLATE CAKE by Michael Rosen, illustrated by Kevin Waldron. Review by Penny Dolan.

Michael Rosen’s new picture book, which was sent to me, is a picture book based on one of his most popular YouTube spoken poems.

The subject of chocolate cake is one which most children will have strong feelings about and my limited viewing of social media suggests that it is probably a favourite daydream of many adults too, especially teachers in need of comfort in the classroom. The book is already on the way to being a winning idea.

The lively page spreads amplify the narrative structure of the poem. Told in his well-known first person “child” voice, Rosen retells a half-familiar family anecdote: the story of a young boy sneaking downstairs at night while his parents are asleep in bed. The boy knows there is a chocolate cake waiting in the fridge and just wants to look at it. Inevitably, bit by bit, the young narrator nibbles, eats and then gobbles up the entire delicious cake. 

I recall a Naughty Little Sister story where the greedy dish was a birthday tea-party trifle, and this half-familiarity of the incident Rosen uses that gives the story universal appeal. 
Of course, as he goes back to bed, the boy suddenly realises he will be in big trouble. . He decides that the only way to stop his Mum finding out is to remove all the evidence so he spends the rest of the night cleaning away every crumb and clue. Except, of course, he doesn't quite succeed, but you’ll have to read the book or view the poem to find out quite what he's forgotten.

Kevin Waldron, who has been named one of BookTrust’s best new illustrators, brings a welcome child’s-eye view to the pages. His spreads and page-turns dramatise the action, adding to the suspense of the slightly naughty deed done at night in a dark house. 

Waldron uses interesting text layouts and speech bubbles to accentuate the poem’s lively use of sounds - Heh- heh! Gobble-Gulp! -  and all the muttered worries and "instructions to self" – Good thinking! All right, yeah! – so that it’s easy to imagine any young reader being encouraged to join in with the friendly telling. Waldron’s artwork isn’t of the “beautiful” kind but I really liked the way he has captured the young child’s world and viewpoint. 

The picture book format makes the reader – young or old -  both an observer and a sympathetic third party, feeling the tension between the child’s longing, the delicious naughtiness of the greedy theft and the knowledge that he is bound to be found out.

I did not see Rosen’s CHOCOLATE CAKE video beforehand as I wanted this picture book to be a fresh experience. Would it have been different if I’d seen it? I can’t tell. However, as an ex-teacher, I’m sure that the younger readers may well appreciate having both versions of the poem, and that one can help the other along.

Besides, CHOCOLATE CAKE might make a useful book for Key Stage Two classes to borrow. The format, demonstrating the steps of the "plot", could encourage children and teachers to explore their own anecdotal storytelling s, and I’ve also found, on school visits, that Rosen's poems, based on everyday family life, make very good immediate ways in to creative personal writing for KS2 children.

Unfortunately, I suspect that reading CHOCOLATE CAKE might make the whole class and teaching staff long for break time treats!

Penny Dolan.



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