What ingredients would you need to have a wonderful, jubilant, extra-happy, a little bit mysterious winter holiday?
Hmmm, perhaps two furry brown animals (one adorably stout, the other tall and sleek), a perky, yellow-feathered birdie, a warm hollow with a cozy fire, and CAKE!
For added flavor (why not?), add a bustling tea room with chatty critters in the middle of the woods, a basket of dried fruit, and three mistakes (that’s the mysterious part) — and you have the utterly charming new picture book, Wintercake (Greenwillow, 2019), written and illustrated by Newbery winner Lynne Rae Perkins.
You could say this one was written with my name all over it. I will say it’s one of my top three fave picture books of the year, and definitely one of my all-time favorite holiday books. After all, I do love little furry animals (I’m married to one), we do live in the woods (I dream of opening a tea room), and after eating enough cake, I could very well be described as stout. 😀
What’s that? You’re a little concerned about the ‘mysterious mistakes’? I thought as much. Don’t worry, because in this story, we see how mistakes can lead to good things — an adventure, new friends, new traditions — all cause for celebration. Let me explain . . .
Picture this. It’s a snowy day, and Thomas (the aforementioned stout furry animal) has lost a basket of dried fruit he’d collected earlier to make his annual wintercake.
He’s been searching everywhere, inside his house and out, but it’s nowhere to be found. His feathered friend Lucy agrees that it’s quite mysterious. Even though she tries to console him, Thomas is “bereft” and “forlorn” — because what’s a Winter’s Eve celebration without wintercake?
As the storm picks up, Lucy heads home. The snow’s falling heavily, and she can hardly see where she’s going (the “frigid gusts tossed her this way and that”). Suddenly she flies into something and hits the ground, stunned. Amid the “fierce winds” and “pelting snow,” she struggles to her feet, miraculously catching “fragrant whiffs” . . . of “something friendly.”
Could it be? Yes — Tea! Cocoa! Pastries! She follows the heavenly whiffs and discovers a tea room tucked between the “snow-laden boughs of an evergreen.” What better spot to wait out the storm?
The place is packed and everyone is talking about the weather. Rabbits, chipmunks, squirrels, owls — all sipping tea and nibbling on cakes and biscuits. Lucy sits down and soon spies a “tall, sleek animal with small, round ears” talking to a server about a basket of fruit he’d found. Because it’s so noisy, Lucy can’t hear everything he’s saying, but she hears enough. When the “vile beast” heads out, she hurries after him.
By then, the storm has subsided. Now she can clearly see that the nasty scoundrel is carrying Thomas’s basket of fruit! But where’s he going? She’s surprised when he knocks on Thomas’s door.
Thomas is so relieved and grateful to have his fruits back. The stranger agrees that “a holiday without wintercake is a poor one.” He bids Thomas goodbye and walks away, whistling cheerily. He happens to see Lucy on a nearby bush and wishes her well.
Oh, Lucy feels terrible. She tells Thomas how she jumped to conclusions about the stranger, assuming he was a thief. Bad mistake! Thomas sympathizes because he feels foolish too. He remembers that he had set his basket of fruit down to taste the first snowflakes of the season, then forgot all about it. So he also made a mistake. Together, they decide to thank the “noble chap” by baking him a wintercake.
They happily work together to create one that’s “golden brown, with bits of color, like jewels.” After drizzling white icing over it, Thomas places the cake on a pretty plate and ties a ribbon around it.
They then realize they don’t know the stranger’s name or where he lives. But they do see his footprints outside and decide to follow them. No problems at first, but they soon encounter “obstacles” and “difficulties.” Think massive snow drifts, frigid lakes, dense woods, falling from a precarious precipice — which causes Thomas to drop the cake, but much to their relief, it survives intact — though the pretty plate breaks.
Their doubts continue to mount. It’s getting colder and darker; who’d have thought they’d have to travel so far? But at last they see a light and find the stranger sitting by a fire in a hollow. He’s humming, but all alone, a little sad. When Lucy speaks, he jumps to his feet, shrieking. This, in turn, startles both Lucy and Thomas, who drops the wintercake, which this time breaks into pieces.
But never mind. The three build up the fire, sit down, tell stories, and munch on those pieces of wintercake. It’s so good! Tobin, the new friend, explains how he happened upon the basket of fruit so far from home. A fortunate mistake — probably the best kind, because it brought these new friends together. They decide to celebrate Winter’s Eve in just the same way from that night on — just the three of them, in front of a merry fire, trading stories, lots of laughs, and eating delicious wintercake.
So you see, “a wonderful holiday, every time.”
This book is sheer delight from cover to cover. Perkins pretty much had me at the title page, which shows Thomas catching snowflakes on his tongue. We’re then introduced to Tobin (who finds the basket of fruit) on the copyright page, and then, Lucy (swirling amidst snowflakes) on the dedication page.
At 48 pages, the text is longer than the current average, yet this is one of the things I like most. It feels good to read such engaging, perfectly paced storytelling with its fetching dialogue, gentle humor, just-right suspense, and overall warmth. Words and art pull equal weight in a fully realized, beautifully orchestrated whole.
Speech bubbles keep the narrative from ever flagging, giving us more insight into the characters’ personalities and inner thoughts. In fact, they provide some of the funniest moments in the story. It’s a brilliant way of letting us hear what everyone in the tea room is saying all at once. 🙂
Munchkins will like Thomas from the get-go — who could resist such a huggable protagonist with his cozy digs at the base of a tree, complete with green door, braided rugs, a patchwork quilt, his own tool bench, and a nicely equipped kitchen with its checkered floor? Though he looks bearish, we soon realize when Lucy appears that he’s much smaller. The two friends inspire us with their good intentions, and we can’t help but root for them as they battle the elements to deliver their cake.
Perkins’s enchanting winterscape is resplendent with rich, jewel-tone blues, chilly greys, and of course, the omnipresent stark white of snow, a character all its own as it dots and blankets many scenes, swirls from spread to spread, or coats branches, rocks, and hills. By contrast, shades of browns and greens evoke the warmth, coziness and comfort of interior spaces, where creatures are gathered to talk, eat, commiserate.
I do love all of Perkins’s woodland animals — appealing, emotive, lovable, and cuddly without being cutesy. Much is conveyed through facial expressions, especially the eyes. Lucy’s face when she overhears the stranger mentioning the dried fruits in the tea room is priceless.
The illustrations also vary between single and double page full-bleed spreads, panels, circular frames, and spot illos, making excellent use of white, or in some cases, blue, space. Each page turn advances the action in precise, satisfying increments, offering surprises or unforetold drama, with welcome chances to chuckle, share the joy, marvel at the scenic beauty, study the interesting details, or feel good about the camaraderie and burgeoning friendship.
My favorite illo? I love all the art, but admit to being particularly enamored of the tea room scene (big surprise). All those marvelous animals tucking into their treats! The rabbits clutching pieces of cake and warming their paws on cups of tea make me want to hug myself. And I adore the picture of Thomas floating on his back with the cake balanced on his tummy.
I like that Wintercake celebrates its own holiday, Winter’s Eve, rather than a specific religious holiday that may feel exclusionary. Here, it’s all about the solstice, friendship, community, and the beauty of nature. How marvelously Perkins captures the childlike giddiness of winter’s first snow, from that first snowflake on the tongue to watching it magically, silently transform the forest landscape. Even as adults, we (hopefully) never outgrow this sense of wonder, making this book a treat for all ages.
It’s important to remind kids that everyone makes mistakes, and that we shouldn’t be too hard on ourselves, because no one is perfect. As this story shows, sometimes mistakes happen for reasons we can’t envision, even leading to positive outcomes.
Another valuable takeaway is the notion of misjudging others before knowing all the facts — an excellent topic for discussion, whether you’re five or fifty, especially in today’s polarizing climate.
But underlying messages aside, Wintercake is first and foremost a heartwarming, inspiring story that captures the generous, giving spirit of the holiday season. Because of its delicious length, we’re allowed to linger in Thomas, Lucy, and Tobin’s world that much longer. With its inimitable narrative and whimsical art, it’ll soon become your favorite book to cozy up with on a chilly winter’s day.
Cake, did someone say cake?!
🍒 ICING ON THE CAKE 🐿
Mr Cornelius and the Alphabet Soup kitchen helpers could hardly contain themselves as we read the story together. I’ve never seen such drooling and page licking!
You should have heard the cheers when I removed the dust cover and they found the recipe underneath — charmingly illustrated, of course. 🙂
As you probably guessed, wintercake is actually a kind of fruitcake, the good kind. The recipe calls for your choice of chopped dried fruits (not the candied variety that has probably turned you off to conventional fruitcakes).
We opted for dried apricots, cranberries and cherries. Yum! The apricots were especially good in this cake — a little sweetness, but not too much.
Naturally, before we started baking, the entire den carefully inspected the basket of fruit, just to make sure everything passed the taste test.
The recipe was fun to make, pretty straightforward as cakes go. The only unusual part was beating the butter at the very beginning for a full 5 minutes. Just relax and let your mixer do the work. Butter, sour cream, and four eggs ensure a rich, delectable batter. (We left out the nuts because Cornelius is slightly allergic.)
Probably the hardest part of making wintercake is waiting the full hour for it to bake and then cool before icing it. Take this time to reread the book; have fun with all those speech bubbles!
Mr Cornelius invited a few of his woodland friends over for wintercake and hot chocolate. They gathered around his “merry fire” (carefully constructed of dark chocolate twigs and Jordan almonds). Just like the characters in the story, they stayed up late telling stories, sharing laughs, and feasting on wintercake.
We hope you read Lynne Rae’s book, make your own yummy wintercake, and celebrate winter’s eve with good friends!
Lynne Rae's Wintercake
- 3 cups of dried fruits* plus nuts,** chopped and tossed with 1/4 cup all-purpose flour
- 2 sticks unsalted butter at room temperature (soft but not melted)
- 1 cup granulated sugar
- 4 large eggs
- 2 cups all-purpose flour + 1-1/2 tsp baking powder + 1 tsp salt, all whisked together
- 1/2 cup sour cream + 1 tsp vanilla, whisked together
- For icing: 1-2 cups confectioner’s sugar and 1/4 cup milk
- Get your ingredients ready.
- Grease a 9″ x 5″ loaf pan and preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.
- In a large bowl, beat the butter with a mixer for 4-5 minutes. this is a long time, but if the butter is light and fluffy, your cake will be so much better.
- While still beating,add sugar slowly. Then the eggs, one at a time.
- Keep beating with the mixer, and add half the flour/baking powder/salt mix. Now the sour cream/vanilla. Now the rest of the flour mix. As soon as it’s mixed in, stop beating.
- Stir in fruits and nuts with a big spoon.
- Pour the batter into the pan and pop it into the oven. After about an hour stick a toothpick in. If it comes out clean, your cake is done. If there’s batter on the toothpick, put the pan back in for 5 minutes (but not 15 minutes).
- After it comes out of the oven, run a knife around the edge of the cake. Gently tip the pan over so the cake comes out. Let it cool.
- Any white icing is fine. Here is an easy one: Put 1-2 cups confectioner’s sugar in a bowl. Stir in milk, a dribble at a time, just until the icing looks pourable but not drippy. Pour it over your cake “like snow on a lumpy hillside.”
* Your fruits won’t be as brightly colored as Thomas’s. I don’t know how he does it. Use any fruits you like, but these are nice: apricots, cranberries, cherries, or apples. Candied ginger and candied orange peel also add some good flavors.
** For nuts, use walnuts, pecans, hazelnuts, or whatever you like. If you are allergic, leave the nuts out!
~ from Wintercake by Lynne Rae Perkins (Greenwillow Books, 2019), as posted at Jama’s Alphabet Soup.
written and illustrated by Lynne Rae Perkins
published by Greenwillow Books, October 15, 2019
Picture Book for ages 5+, 48 pp.
**Starred Review” from School Library Journal
♥️ Visit Lynne Rae’s blog for these book-related crafts:
HAPPY WINTER SOLSTICE!
This review is being linked to Beth Fish Reads Weekend Cooking, where all are invited to share their food-related posts. Put on your best aprons and bibs, and come join the fun!
* Interior spreads text and illustrations copyright © 2019 Lynne Rae Perkins, published by Greenwillow Books. All rights reserved.
** Copyright © 2019 Jama Rattigan of Jama’s Alphabet Soup. All rights reserved.