Petit fours: dainty little iced cakes, delicately layered with fruit or buttercream, an adorable bite-size treat. Eating one of these pastel pretties can make you feel quite special, maybe even a little giddy with delight.
That was just how I felt reading The Adventures of Miss Petitfour by award winning author and poet Anne Michaels. Meeting the inimitable, eccentric Miss Petitfour was a singular pleasure since she’s an expert at baking and eating little cakes. A very good talent to have, I must say.
Miss P also likes to read, chat, and dance. She thrives on small pleasures. Fond of “pockets, paisley, playful patterns and anything hand-knitted,” she travels by tablecloth with her 16 cats trailing aloft, a fanciful kind of Mary Poppins sans umbrella with her own brand of magic.
Laced with just the right amounts of whimsy and fun, this charming book features five everyday adventures of precisely the right size:
Some adventures are so small, you hardly know they’ve happened. Like the adventure of sharpening your pencil to a perfect point, just before it breaks and that little bit gets stuck in the sharpener. That, I think we will all agree, is a very small adventure.
Other adventures are so big and last so long, you might forget they are adventures at all — like growing up.
And some adventures are just the right size — fitting into a single, magical day. And these are the sort of adventures Miss Petitfour had.
And guess what else?
Miss Petitfour believed firmly that every adventure past her doorstep — even just a jaunt to the grocery shop — must end with a tea party . . .
Each adventure — fetching marmalade, attending a Spring jumble sale, chasing a rare runaway postage stamp, planning a cheddar cheese themed birthday party, creating a special display for the Festival of Festooning — introduces us to some of the quirky characters from the village.
Miss Petitfour is special friends with Mrs. Collarwaller, who owns a bookshop with two sides: “one side for adventure books and the other for books in which nothing ever happens,” (hum and ho-hum). Also notable are confetti factory owner/would-be suitor Mr. Coneybeare, who owns a little red sports car and is too shy to tell Miss Petitfour he fancies her, and grocery shop owner Mrs. Carruther, who thinks nothing of climbing onto the roof of the clock tower to hand a jar of Thick Cut Orange Marmalade to Sizzles, a little but long clever ginger cat with an acrobatic tail.
It’s good to keep in mind that when traveling by tablecloth, much depends on the meteorological circumstances, i.e., which direction the wind is blowing. It is easy to get thrown off course, get blown in the wrong direction and end up with quite a different adventure than the one you’d been anticipating. But Miss Petitfour never loses her cool. Very often, it’s precisely those twists, turns and surprises that allow the best things to happen.
Just as the most desirable petit fours are decorated with swirls, bows, and colorful flowers, the narrative of this book with its easy conversational style is embellished with long chewy words (perambulator, gesticulating), fetching digressions, and lists, lists, lists (different kinds of cheeses, alphabetized jumble sale items, types of stamps, dances to learn, things to eat, the cats’ names). Some of the villagers have deliciously long names (Mrs. Bois-Brioche des Fontana Harridale Quesloe-Brisbane, Mrs. Gustavo-Wentworth Worthington Donquist Torresdale Blindon Perstancion-Withers).
BY THE WAY, the cheeky narrator loves to periodically hit the pause button and address the reader directly, explaining literary devices, ways with words, and choice storytelling techniques:
Sometimes stories will have three special words right in the middle of them, like three shiny buttons down a shirtfront or a dress, or three shiny screws in a shiny hinge. These three little words, “THEN ONE DAY,” opens a story like a tiny key.
These intimate asides allow the reader to slow down with ample time to truly feast on words and appreciate the story from a different perspective. Very good practice for learning how to live in and savor each small moment, extending and expanding one’s capacity for delight – qualities too often lacking in our rushed world. (Did I mention how much the cats loved the ticklish feel of snowflakes on their fur?) MEANWHILE, this is an author who loves to celebrate words, names and language, and her prose is a trip to read aloud. She certainly has her priorities in order:
As always after an airborne adventure, Miss Petitfour set out a magnificent feast. There was currant toast squishy with butter, caramel-marshmallow squares, strawberry boats oozing custard, chocolate eclairs that exploded with cream when the cats bit into them with their little white teeth and — a special treat for Pleasant — a pie made from thick slices of Bramley apple, with just the right amount of tangy in the tangy-sweet.
Emma Block, who also illustrated Tea and Cake (Hardie Grant, 2011), perfectly captures Miss Petitfour’s essence: tall, spindly, bird-like, ethereal, pretty and feminine. Her enchanting watercolors adorn this confection of a book inside and out (pink paisley endpapers with teacups and cakes, ribbon-tagged title pages, wonderful full page spreads (LOVE the picnic) + lots of spot illos of tasty treats. Emma herself is an avid baker and cake lover, and her trademark style, a unique blend of retro + contemporary, gives the book a fresh yet timeless feel. The soft muted colors create a cozy atmosphere, inviting us to settle into the story and stay awhile.
IT IS INTERESTING TO NOTE that in addition to liking all the cats’ wonderful names (reminded me of T.S. Eliot’s “The Naming of Cats”) — Hemdela (who likes soup!), Misty (the color of rain on a window), Earring (a Siamese who loves shiny things) — I have a little list of other bits I especially like about this book:
- when the jumble sale items get scrambled out of order: “A tuba had smashed into the Frisbees, a camera had plunked into the tray of fake mustaches — everything had become alphabet soup.” 🙂
- “bubbling flubdub hubbub”
- the pictures on Minky the cheese lover’s calendar: “blue cheese cavorting with pears, cheddar laughing with apples, Gruyère lounging with grapes, Edam joking with parsley.”
- three “Captain” cats curl up under a pile of crisp autumn leaves to “listen to the whole whispery weight of leaves stirring above them.”
- The-Cream-and-Cream-Bun Cafe (cats’ favorite)
- Miss P drinking tea with Mrs. Collarwaller and making up titles for books too silly ever to be written.
- delicious digressions in ho-hum books: “knitting by the fire with a plate of biscuits and a mug of steaming cocoa . . . buttery shortbread that greases your fingers, jelly doughnuts oozing fruit, eclairs dipped in chocolate and full of air.”
- Did I mention the fake mustaches?
- And the chocolate eclairs?
BY THE WAY AGAIN, The Adventures of Miss Petitfour is probably not for the impatient reader who prefers fast moving, scream-in-your-face action on every page, who cringes at any modicum of twee, or who might have no use for long words “your tongue could get tangled up and lost in” (though “Mrs. Collarwaller found this never to be the case”). ON THE OTHER HAND, this book is definitely for readers who love cats making their own costumes and decorating themselves, confetti explosions, careening wire balls, the hula and fandango, homemade leaf biscuits, detailed lists of edible treats, and going wherever the wind blows.
With that digression, I shall leave you to embark on my own adventure. As it is a clear sunny day, my plain white tablecloth will be all I need. Instead of cats, I will air out 16 teddies. But before I go, another petit four. Why not?
THE ADVENTURES OF MISS PETITFOUR
written by Anne Michaels
illustrated by Emma Block
published by Tundra Books, November 2015
Chapter Book for ages 6-9, 144 pp.
**Starred Reviews from School Library Journal and Quill and Quire**
♥ Read my Indie Artist Spotlight interview with illustrator Emma Block
*Illustrations from The Adventures of Miss Petitfour posted by permission of the publisher, copyright © 2015 Emma Block, published by Tundra Books/Penguin Random House Canada. All rights reserved.
Copyright © 2016 Jama Rattigan of Jama’s Alphabet Soup. All rights reserved.