The mixture of traditional storytelling and newfangled whimsy in this book delights all ages. Jack’s plucky optimism lends a humorous air to disastrous circumstances, very much in the spirit of Remy Charlip’s Fortunately, Unfortunately.
The set-up is classic: a poor boy gets an invitation to the princess’ tenth birthday party, but has nothing to give her. Neither his poverty nor his mother’s objection deters him, of course. Jack trades the few household items he has for the ingredients to make a cake. He shows his resourcefulness by foraging for walnuts in the forest (for the inscription on the cake) and hand-dipping ten birthday candles. After harvesting a sumptuous strawberry for a cake topper, Jack sets off on his journey to the castle to present his birthday cake to the princess. Along the way, he encounters obstacles in the forms of crows, a troll, enveloping darkness, and a gypsy’s dancing bear. One by one, they strip the cake. To each split-second robbery of a detail Jack has spent hours on, he utters the cheerful refrain, “At least I still have…” Finally, when all he has left is the sumptuous berry, he discovers that the princess is allergic to strawberries. So Jack approaches the princess’ receiving line empty-handed. When it’s his turn, he tells the saga of the birthday cake to the princess (who has thrown her newly acquired riches in a heap behind her.) She chortles, “A story! And an adventure story at that! What a fine gift.”
The ingredients in this storyline are ones kids love. The predictable pattern that underlies Jack’s calamities results in shenanigans that are not unforeseen. It is immensely satisfying to anticipate the way the story will go while at the same time being surprised by the roles of familiar folktale characters in this tale. Jack has all the characteristics of a classic quest hero, and his grit is leavened by a big dose of good cheer. It seems only right that his tenacity and resilience would be recognized by a new friend, and that she’s a princess who’s got good values heightens the pleasure of the story’s ending.