________________ CM . . . . Volume XXII Number 28 . . . . March 25, 2016


Happy Birthday, Alice Babette.

Monica Kulling. Illustrated by Qin Leng.
Toronto, ON: Groundwood Books/House of Anansi Press, 2016.
32 pp., hardcover & pdf, $16.95 (hc.).
ISBN 978-1-55498-820-4 (hc.), ISBN 978-1-55498-821-1 (pdf).

Preschool-Grade 2 / Ages 4-7.

Review by Meredith Cleversey.

*½ /4



Alice's first surprise was that there was NO surprise. Her friend Gertrude didn't even say happy birthday.
The pair ate breakfast in silence.
Then Alice announced, "I am spending the day walking through Paris."
Gertrude smiled as she waved goodbye. She had something up her sleeve.

It's Alice's birthday, but Gertrude doesn't seem to care. Little does Alice know, Gertrude is planning to cook a special meal and write a birthday poem for her friend. However, when Gertrude becomes preoccupied with the poem and forgets about the special meal, Alice's birthday surprise might turn into a birthday disaster.

      Happy Birthday, Alice Babette, written by Monica Kulling and illustrated by Qin Leng, is a fictional story based on the lives of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas. Set in Parisian spring, this story relates how Gertrude tries to surprise Alice with a special birthday dinner, only to have the meal ruined when she becomes obsessed with writing Alice the perfect birthday poem. In the end, Alice saves the day by baking brownies for Gertrude and their friends, treats which everyone enjoys while they listen to Gertrude read the completed poem.

      The plot of Happy Birthday, Alice Babette is disjointed and leaves little to entertain young audiences. Alice goes out to explore Paris and enjoy her birthday, first riding a carousal, and then watching a puppet show. After these normal (albeit childlike) adventures, Alice then quite suddenly stops a jewellery thief, an event which has no follow up and is never even mentioned again. This moment is startling when contrasted with the slow, simple pace of the story's previous events, a notion furthered when Alice then returns home without uttering a word of her brave deed. Because Gertrude's forgotten about the meal she started to cook in favour of writing the perfect poem, Alice then has to spend the rest of her birthday cleaning up after Gertrude and baking brownies for their friends. Alice's adventures are random, and the tone of the story is unclear. Her trip out starts as something sweet and charming, turns briefly into an unexpected adventure, and then sinks into a disappointing climax where Gertrude doesn't even have a surprise waiting for her at home. The message of the story is muddled, and the jumbled plot only serves to further this confusion.

      Although Happy Birthday, Alice Babette draws inspiration from real people, the characters of Gertrude and Alice impress little of their true life personality on the readers of this story. In this tale, the two women are depicted as lifelong friends and roommates who lead a charming, though seemingly ordinary, life in Paris. The true Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas were actually a couple who lived a rather more tumultuous life as part of what Stein, herself, coined "The Lost Generation" of the early 1900s. The decision to write this story as a lighthearted and fully fictionalized tale seems odd and out of spirit with the personalities of the lead characters, especially given the fact that a story based on true events could have offered much more in the way of charm, honesty, and wit. And of course, in a story designed to showcase their relationship, the treatment of Alice and Gertrude as friends instead of life partners is simply unforgivable.

      But perhaps the most disturbing element of all in Happy Birthday, Alice Babette is the inclusion of Alice's famous brownies. Alice makes brownies after cleaning up after Gertrude, and when her friends arrive, a point is made to say how much the guests enjoyed her baking. In the author's note at the end of the story, readers are told the name of the real cookbook in which the original brownie recipe exists. But the recipe for which Alice B. Toklas is so famous is a recipe for brownies made with marijuana. This inclusion seems perhaps intended as a joke for adults familiar with the recipe, but the mere fact readers are directed to the actual cookbook where these drug infused brownies are found is inappropriate for the target audience.

      The ink and digital illustrations by Qin Leng are actually quite lovely, the soft colours and sunny, Parisian settings full of the whimsy and charm this story was meant to convey. However, the quality of the illustrations simply cannot make up for the story's lack of cohesive plot, inability to correctly depict the personalities and relationships of the main characters, or its inclusion of multiple references to Alice's marijuana brownies. These serious issues keep Happy Birthday, Alice Babette from realizing its potential as a charismatic and interesting introduction to a literary genius and the woman she shared her life with.

Not Recommended.

Meredith Cleversey, a librarian in Cambridge, ON, loves to read, write, and live in a world of pure imagination.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

Copyright © the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.
Published by
The Manitoba Library Association
ISSN 1201-9364
Hosted by the University of Manitoba.

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