Monday, September 5

Bake Sale

by Sara Varon  
First Second 2011  

The long-awaited (by me at least) new graphic novel by the author of Robot Dreams, proprietor of unusual parallel worlds. Recipes included.   

Cupcake is a cupcake who is the owner of a bakery that makes, among other things, cupcakes. It may take a moment of adjustment, but if you can get past that – and vegetables that eat carrot cake, and eggs that drink coffee, etc. – you'll be fine.  

Cupcake has his routine down. He gets up, bakes some fresh pastries, makes fresh coffee, sells his goods to his regulars, then in the evenings plays drums with his band. It's a god life, but it is a routine, and Cupcake actively tries to learn new things to prevent the routine from becoming mundane. When it comes out that his friend Eggplant has an aunt is friends with Turkish Delight, the greatest pastry chef in the world, Cupcake's dormant crush takes over his thoughts. Determined to meet Turkish Delight where he knows they will instantly become close friends, Cupcake quits the band and spends his extra time selling baked goods outside of his store in order to earn enough extra money for the trip to Turkey with Eggplant.

But just as Cupcake has earned enough money Eggplant loses his job and Cupcake is not willing to take the trip without his friend. In a gesture of friendship Cupcake gives his travel money to Eggplant so that he can visit his aunt, but this puts Cupcake in a funk. Without a band, without his best friend, and with no chance of meeting Turkish Delight, Cupcake loses interest in baking and attempts to sell day-old coffee and stale pastries. Eggplant returns and inspires Cupcake to enter a baking contest using fresh spices he brought back from Turkey with talk about what they will do with the prize: a pair of round-trip tickets to anyplace in the world. While Eggplant suggest they can return to Turkey and meet Turkish Delight, but Cupcake notes that it doesn't have to be Turkey, suggesting he has gotten over the folly of his crush and recognizes the value of the friendships he has at hand.  In the back of the book there are eight recipes from "Cupcake's Repertoire," items featured in the story. 

While I freely admit that it's stupid to have any expectation about any author's work, I was not expecting this story at all. Defying expectations, that's a good thing, but I think what I first had to get over was the imposition of logic my brain kept trying to force onto the story. Why I was so easily willing to accept a robot-building dog without issue but had to struggle with a cupcake-baking cupcake might say something about how easily we accept anthropomorphism with things traditionally given brains as opposed to inanimate objects like produce and bake goods. But then, what to make of the Gingerbread Man?

It wasn't an insurmountable obstacle, and soon enough I was firmly in Varonland and wondering, truly, where the story was headed. Would Cupcake find the love of his dreams in Turkish Delight, or would he find her personality at odds with his imagined version of his idol? Would the band take him back after he sends his friend to Turkey alone, or would they keep that Potato as his permanent replacement? Will Cupcake happily return to his routines and make fresh coffee ever again? There's a lot of visual and sight gags (I want to know who Mr. Peanut was buying a valentine for!) in addition to the occasional dissonance of wondering about an enormous turkey leg walking a dog and wonder where the rest of the turkey was. The New York of Varonland is indeed an unusual place but perfectly fine if you're willing to roll with it.

And while I was happily going along with where Varon was taking me, in the end I was a little surprised that the story didn't have a more pronounced conclusion. It stopped more than it ended, totally underselling the idea that Cupcake is happier to have a friend like Eggplant than to harbor hopes of a new friendship with a stranger. I'm not saying the conclusion needs to be more obvious or spelled out, but with a younger audience (the book is geared for ages 8+) the point could be easily lost. 

Comparing Bake Sale to Robot Dreams is like comparing dogs to eggplants, though there are similarities. Between the books I mean. Both stories deal with the idea of friendship with main characters that deal with the shifting emotions surrounding those friendships. While guilt is less of a factor in Bake Sale than in Robot Dreams there is still a dream sequence where Cupcake finally meets Turkish Delight only to see her literally sit on and crush Eggplant. This becomes the incident that causes Cupcake to give his friend his money, and while not exactly done out of guilt it does seem as if Cupcake recognizes the selfishness of wanting to go on a trip with his friend. So while Robot Dreams looked at moving beyond old friendships Bake Sale finds its strength in maintaining and valuing those friendships at hand.

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