Review of the Day: Sugar Would Not Eat It by Emily Jenkins
Let’s use a cake analogy. It seems appropriate for this title. Friends, nothing in this world is certain. When you make a cake you may use the choicest of ingredients and still end up with a soggy middle or burnt edge. The fact is, there’s always something you may find yourself failing to take into account. Now turn your attention to Sugar Would Not Eat It. Pedigree-wise, this book had everything going for it. Author Emily Jenkins has created a series of bedtime tales (Toys Go Out), picture books (What Happens on Wednesdays), and YA novels (The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks) that will blow you away with their brilliance. Giselle Potter, likewise, has illustrated a multitude of magnificent books (The Boy Who Loved Words) to take one’s breath away. On top of all that, you’ve the Schwartz and Wade Books imprint, churning out quality children’s fare year after year. So how all these elements combined to make a picture book that is the literary equivalent of an inedible cake baffles me. Sometimes even the best of intentions fall flat.
One day young Leo finds an adorable kitten on his stoop. The two adopt one another and when they come in he decides to offer the cat, now named Sugar, the last slice of cake from his birthday. Sugar, no fool she, does not eat it. What follows is a series of methods by which Leo tries to cajole, convince, threaten, and near force Sugar to eat the single remaining slice of chocolate cake. Neighbors offer advice on how their own parents would get them to eat foods they did not like when they were growing up. None of it works. In the end Leo gives up, pours himself some milk alongside a chicken sandwich, and the now starving Sugar drinks the milk and eats the chicken. Appeased, Leo eats the cake himself. The final shot is of Leo mere moments away from dropping sugar into a rapidly filling bathtub for a bath.
I’ve heard some reviews say that kids will identify with Sugar not wanting to eat something she doesn’t like. Which is all well and good, but we do all remember that chocolate can kill cats, right? I mean, flat out kill them. In fact, I can even refer you to another 2009 cat-related title, Happy Birthday, Bad Kitty by Nick Bruel, which takes time out to explain exactly what it is that chocolate does to cats. Quote, “If you offer a cat some chocolate cake, she’ll probably eat it. But chocolate is like POISON to cats! So never offer it to them. Chocolate contains a chemical compound called THEOBROMINE that is harmless to human beings but very dangerous to cats. If a cat eats chocolate, she can become very sick and, yes, maybe even die. So it’s very important that you never leave chocolate lying around that a cat might eat by accident.” So. Unlike Sugar, there is many a cat in this world that might be willing to try chocolate cake if a kid offered it to them. And since this book doesn’t show any consequences to that offering, you have the potential here for many a dead or very sick kitty. No Afterword says, “By the way, don’t offer chocolate cake to cats.” Not so much as a whiff of the potential deadly consequences. The crazy thing is, it didn’t HAVE to be chocolate cake anyway! It could have been vanilla, and you wouldn’t have had to change the plot even a jot. So what’s up with that? Why would you deliberately have a boy offering a kitten something that could kill it?
The only thing that I can figure is that the book is going for a kind of Little Pea / Little Hoot / Little Oink vibe. And failing. In those books, the humor comes from the fact that a character (a little owl, for example) is told to do something that normal children would love to do (he has to stay up late and he wants to go to bed early). So maybe the fact that a cat will not eat cake is supposed to be the same as that of a kid who will not eat their vegetables. But, of course, kids are actually supposed to eat their vegetables and cats are not supposed to eat cake. Then I thought that maybe this is a case where the child reader is supposed to feel superior to the adults since we all know cats don’t eat cake . . . but do we? I mean, I do, but I’m thirty-one. Is a four-year-old going to know cats don’t eat cake? You’re working on an assumption there. I tried to equate this with Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus where the kids are told right from the get-go that the pigeon is not supposed to drive the bus. Only in Sugar we’re never told that cats aren’t supposed to eat cake. Also, in real life, pigeons are not supposed to drive buses, so the adult human character is encouraging you to do the right thing. In this book, cats really aren’t supposed to eat cake, but the adult humans are saying the opposite. Who to believe?
Now Giselle Potter, credit where credit is due, does a pretty cute kitten. Somehow I’ve never seen her do a cat before. Sugar, for all intents and purposes, is adorable. Adorable and oddly unfazed at the treatment she’s going through. The colors in this book are the real draw. From the red of the table where the cake sits, uneaten (and, we can assume, rapidly going stale) to the blue of Sugar’s fur. I like to think of her as a Russian Blue in kitten form. She matches the blue of the frosting roses on the slice. It’s lovely in its way. But there’s only so much Potter can do.
I’m probably being a little harsh, but since this is a book where a boy tries to force an adorable kitten to eat a potentially poisonous substance, SCREAMS at her when she refuses (“ ‘Eat it! Eat it! EAT IT!’ Leo screamed at her. But Sugar would not eat it.”), and then the book finishes with him about to dump her in a bath . . . well, I’m just not seeing the cat-lover aspects of the story. I think it’s trying to be cute. I assume it’s trying to be cute. But instead it is pretty darn disturbing. You’ll find plenty of other great picky eater titles out there (Rabbit Food and the aforementioned Little Pea come to mind) and even more books worth reading by these creators. Like I say, sometimes a picture book comes together brilliantly. Other times, there’s a hitch in the logic somewhere that allows it to trip and fall. And Sugar Would Not Eat It falls flat.
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About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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