A complex, wordless picture book from the Netherlands

posted in: Thé Tjong-Khing | 8

Ever had a day where if things can go wrong, then they do go wrong? If so, The Birthday Cake Mystery by Thé Tjong-Khing is for you 🙂

It’s rabbit’s birthday and dog is making her a cake. The party is about to get underway but… life is complicated and all sorts of things get in the way before dog can deliver rabbit’s cake. It’s definitely one of those days, where if things can go wrong, they will go wrong. A flying football crashes into the cake mixture, a naughty raccoon steals a mum’s purse, a ladder is knocked and sends pig flying, toys are pinched, monkeys get up to mischief and the poor birthday bunny is left in tears. Will things ever get put to right? Will rabbit’s day finally come together and be a cause of celebration, rather than stress?

This wordless picture book is packed with cameo dramas. Its narrative is not straight-forward and linear; so much is going on and changing from page to page that you can sit and read it together many times, picking up new stories and observing unexpected adventures with each reading. There is much to ask about, look for and piece together, making this is a book for conversation rather than a bedtime story. The accidents, chaos, humour, naughtiness and silliness will speak to all young readers/listeners, and also to their grown ups who will ruefully recognise such days and hope that they won’t be having one like this any time soon.

As a Dutch bilingual family, we were delighted to see one of our favourite illustrators from the Netherlands published for an English-speaking audience. Thé Tjong-Khing was born in Indonesia (at the time, a Dutch colony) in 1933 but has lived most of his life in the Netherlands. He’s a multi-award winning illustrator (with more than 300 books to his name) and there is currently an exhibition of his work in the Children’s Book Museum in The Hague. Some of our favourite books illustrated by him are the Fox and Hare stories (Vos en Haas), written by Sylvia vanden Heede, which, unfortunately, have not been translated into English. The prequel to The Birthday Cake Mystery, Where is the Cake? has been published in the US, and it too is worth looking out for.

In The Birthday Cake Mystery the raccoon thief is tracked down because he inadvertently walks through some spilt paint and leaves a trail of footprints. Taking this as our cue, we enjoyed an afternoon of painting the patio with our feet. Baking trays were filled with paint…

…and then we danced across the paving slabs.

It was a surprisingly liberating activity! I’d also recommend it if you are looking for a sensory activity – the feeling of the paint squishing between our toes was right on the border of pleasant/revolting for all of us!

We didn’t listen to music whilst painting our patio, but if we had wanted some music to dance too, I’d have put on:

  • Footloose by Kenny Loggins
  • The Flat Foot Floogie by Benny Goodman His Orchestra
  • Paint It Black by The Rolling Stones

  • Other activities which you could try alongside reading The Birthday Cake Mystery include:

  • Making bunting. Here are some tutorials I love: Paper doily bunting from MondoCherry, Easter bunting from Creations by Kara (this could be adapted to have presents or other shapes instead of eggs), heart bunting from offbeat bride and stained glass bunting from the Artful Parent.
  • Creating a push along toy (similar to that which the squirrel has in the story). You could try this tutorial on YouTube from SimpleKidsCrafts.com.
  • Baking a (birthday) cake – here’s our favourite birthday cake recipe.

  • Have you got any tales to tell from birthday parties you’ve held? Or favourite books about parties you think my girls and I might enjoy?

    Disclosure: I received both this book from the publishers. This review, nevertheless, reflect my own and honest opinion.

    8 Responses

    1. choxbox

      Wow Zoe! Thats sounds like a lovely book!

      And the footprints reminds of this Indian ritual – the first time a new bride comes to her husband’s house, she has to put her feet in a plate of water coloured red with vermillion, and then step in.

    2. Zoe

      Stacey – we’ve had so much rain here recently I knew it would be ok to paint the patio – it would all be gone in a couple of days!

      Choxbox – thanks for the info on the ritual – what’s the metaphor/meaning? Is the ritual widespread?

    3. choxbox

      Well the new bride is considered a form of Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth. She is a harbinger of happiness and prosperity and so her footsteps signify the entry of the goddess.

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