Thunder Cake


Thunder Cake by Patricia Polacco, 1990.

A girl talks about how her grandmother, who she likes to call “Babushka” because she originally came from Russia, cured her of her fear of storms by teaching her to make a special kind of cake, Thunder Cake.

The girl is staying with her grandmother on her farm in Michigan during the summer, and the sound of thunder terrifies the girl so much that she just wants to hide under the bed.  However, her grandmother insists that the girl come out and help her gather the ingredients for her Thunder Cake.


The grandmother explains to the girl how to tell how far away a storm is by counting the seconds between when she sees a flash of lightning and when she hears the sound of thunder.  She also says that they need to get the cake ready by the time the storm actually arrives, so they’d better hurry.


Keeping track of how close the storm is and getting all the ingredients together to make the cake helps to keep the girl busy, and by the time the storm actually arrives, she is no longer afraid.


The pictures are an interesting combination of pencil drawings and bright colors.  The faces and hands of the girl and her grandmother are completely in pencil, but their clothes and everything around them are painted.

I didn’t include the recipe for Thunder Cake here because the book is still in print, but I was surprised the first time I read it that one of the ingredients in the chocolate cake was tomatoes.

Miss Rumphius


Miss Rumphius by Barbara Cooney, 1982.

From the time she was young, Alice Rumphius wanted to travel and see the world.  She planned to return home to live by the sea when her travels were over.  However, her grandfather, an artist, gives her one more mission in life: to make the world more beautiful.  Although Alice isn’t quite sure how she will accomplish that, she agrees.


When she grows up, she lives out her dream of traveling, seeing all the places that she read about while she working in a library.  However, she ends up hurting her back while getting off of a camel she was riding, so she decides that it’s time to retire and find a home by the sea, as she planned.


As she recovers from her injury, she thinks about her mission to make the world more beautiful.  At first, she still doesn’t know how to accomplish that, but some flower seeds she planted and her particular love of lupines give her the inspiration for her final legacy of beauty.


Her gift of spreading seeds of beautiful flowers gives her a reputation as an eccentric, the Lupine Lady, but it also inspires a new generation to undertake their own missions to see the world and to create beauty in their own way.


One of the things that fascinates me about Miss Rumphius and her story is that she leads a very non-traditional life.  She has very definite goals from childhood and sticks to them throughout her life, but they are not quite the common goals of most people, like marriage and career.  She remains unmarried throughout her life (the book never says anything about whether she had any romances in her life because that wasn’t one of her main life goals and therefore not really important to the story), and her only listed career was that of working in a library, which allowed her to have some money and to read about the places where she wanted to travel.  In the end, she is not wealthy and has no husband or children of her own, but she is happy because she has achieved the things that always meant the most to her.  She has had rich life experiences, she has made the world a little better for her presence, and she encourages her nieces and nephews to see the world, to enjoy their experiences, and to leave their own mark of beauty.

Kat and the Missing Notebooks


Kat and the Missing Notebooks by Emma Bradford, 1999.

KatMissingNotebooksDaVinciThis book is part of the Stardust Classics series.

This time, Kat and her aunt, Jessie, find themselves in Florence during the Renaissance. They appear shortly before someone attempts to steal some very important papers belonging to the Florentine City Council from Signor Millori. Kat and Pietro, Signor Millori’s son, both run after the thief, and Kat helps to get the papers back. To thank Kat for her help, Signor Millori invites her and Jessie to stay with him and his family in their palazzo during their stay in Florence.

Signor Millori is a wealthy banker, and the palazzo is a grand place. Kat and Pietro become friends, and he confides in her how much he loves art. Pietro’s father wants him to become a banker, but Pietro’s dream is to study painting with Leonardo da Vinci. In fact, he takes Kat and her aunt to see Leonardo painting a mural at the Palazzo del Vecchio.

Leonardo notices Kat’s aunt and thinks that she has an interesting face. When he asks her to come to his studio to pose for some sketches, she eagerly accepts. Kat hopes that she can use the opportunity to show Leonardo Pietro’s artistic talent and convince him to take Pietro on as a student. However, although Leonardo likes the sketch of Pietro’s that he sees, he says that he has enough apprentices at the moment. Pietro cannot resist the opportunity to study Leonardo’s work, however, and borrows a couple of his notebooks to study.

KatMissingNotebooksFlightBesides being a great artist, Leonardo da Vinci is also a scientist, and along with his notes on art, there are sketches and plans for possible inventions in the notebooks. Kat and Pietro go to return the notebooks the next day, but before they can get to Leonardo’s studio, the same thief who tried to steal Signor Millori’s papers steals the notebooks.

Florence has been at war with Pisa for some time, and the Florentine City Council has consulted with Leonardo da Vinci to see if he can come up with some inventions that would give them the upper hand. They know that the thief must be a spy for Pisa who is trying to see what Leonardo has been working on. However, Kat knows that if they do not retrieve the notebooks, history may be changed. Soon, it becomes obvious that the spy has an accomplice who is living in the Millori’s palazzo. Can Kat and Pietro find the notebooks and stop the spies before it is too late?

Although this is a fantasy story that involves time travel, it is based on historical events, and there is a section in the back that explains more about the Italian Renaissance and Leonardo da Vinci.  At the time of the story, Italy was not a united country.  The Italian peninsula was covered with many small city-states which frequently fought each other.  In 1494, Pisa broke away from Florence, and Florence fought for several years to bring it back under their control, until they eventually succeeded in 1509.  This conflict was the basis for the story, and the artist and inventor Leonardo da Vinci was consulted by the Florentine Council during the struggle.

Also in the back of the book is an explanation of mirror writing, which Leonardo da Vinci used in his notebooks.  There are also instructions for making fresco ornaments and a recipe for Nutty Biscotti.

Kat the Time Explorer


Kat the Time Explorer by Emma Bradford, 1998.

KatTimeExplorerTrain.jpgTen-year-old Kat is going to be living with her Aunt Jessie for the next year.  Her parents are botanists, and they are spending a year in South America, studying rain forest plants.  Aunt Jessie lives in a house in the same town as Kat and her parents so, by staying with her, Kat can continue going to the same school and see her friends.

Like Kat’s parents, Aunt Jessie is also a scientist and teaches physics at the same college where her parents teach when they’re not doing research abroad.  She inherited her house from their Great-Uncle Malcolm, who was an inventor.  Malcolm never invented anything that made much money or got much attention, but Jessie has been going through his things and discovered something interesting among his unfinished projects: a time machine.  The time machine seems to be nearly complete, although Jessie isn’t quite sure how to operate it or what should power it.  There is a drawing of a strange medallion in Malcolm’s notes, and Jessie found one with the same markings among Malcolm’s belongings, but it’s unclear whether this medallion is supposed to play any role in the time machine’s function or if it’s completely unrelated.

Then, Kat discovers another medallion in Malcolm’s old room, one with identical markings but made out of a different type of metal.  There is a space on the time machine for each of the medallions to fit.  When Kat experiments with how the medallions can fit into the machine, she activates it, transporting herself and Jessie back in time to England in 1851.

They find themselves on a train with other travelers heading to The Great Exhibition in London where people from around the world will be displaying new developments in industry and technology.  No one notices Jessie and Kat’s sudden arrival because the train is packed with people and the time machine has somehow altered their clothing and other small objects in their possession to ones that are appropriate to the period.  They also seem to be able to understand people speaking other languages neither of them knew before.  The time machine itself is packed into an ordinary-looking bag.  The two of them decide that they can’t use the time machine on the train where everyone will see them, and besides, they are both curious about the time they find themselves in.  After a temporary mix-up where they are separated at the train station, they find each other again and manage to locate a woman who will rent a room to them for a couple of days.

Unfortunately, when they start unpacking in their room, they discover that their bag was accidentally switched at the station for an identical one.  They no longer have the time machine and can’t get home!  Inside the bag they have, they find articles of men’s clothing, a small spring of some kind, an incomplete sketch of some kind of invention, a ticket to the Exhibition, and a letter written to someone named Edward from his brother Sidney about the Exhibition and the invention they plan to demonstrate there.  The brothers are very concerned about the success of their demonstration and are depending on results to make some money and save their family’s estate.  With those clues, Jessie and Kat must track down these inventors and find their time machine, saving not only themselves from being stuck in the past but the future of the two brothers!

There is an educational section in the back that explains about the Victorian Era and the Great Exposition.  It also discusses Victorian manners and tea parties.  There are tips for making little sandwiches of the kind people would eat at tea parties.

This book is part of the Stardust Classics series.

Alissa, Princess of Arcadia

AlissaAlissa, Princess of Arcadia by Jillian Ross, 1997.

Alissa, the only child of King Edmund of Arcadia, feels like her life has taken a turn for the worse since she turned ten years old.  Before, she lived a basically care-free life, but now, her family has become more serious about her education and training as the future Queen of Arcadia.  Her great-aunts are mainly in charge of her education now, and they find Alissa to be ill-mannered, impatient, and stubborn.  In some ways, she is.  Alissa is bored with her lessons in the standard school subjects and hates her “deportment” lessons, where she learns etiquette suited to the royal court.  More than anything, she wants adventure and excitement.

To Alissa’s surprise, she meets a strange old man one evening while walking in the garden who promises her the adventure that she’s looking for.  At first, Alissa doesn’t know what to think about this strange old man, Balin, who seems to know everything about her, even what she’s been thinking.  He sets Alissa a “quest”, to solve a riddle to determine where to find him.  After pondering it for awhile, Alissa realizes that the riddle says that Balin lives in the oldest tower of the castle, where no one ever goes anymore.

AlissaBalinIt turns out that Balin is a wizard.  He’s lived in the tower for centuries and hardly ever leaves, so most people have forgotten that he’s there.  He offers Alissa lessons in magic and the kind of quests that she’s been craving.  He once taught Alissa’s father similar lessons, although he thinks that King Edmund has also forgotten that he exists.  Alissa eager accepts the offer of magic lessons.

At first, the only other person who knows about Alissa’s lessons with Balin is Lia, a servant of one of Alissa’s great-aunts.  Lia had been about to run away from her position as servant because she didn’t think that she was very good at her job, but Alissa caught her the night when she was going to find Balin in his tower.  The two of them became friends, and Alissa makes Lia her lady-in-waiting. Alissa enjoys having someone her age to share her secrets and adventures.  Her great-aunts disapprove of her choice of lady-in-waiting, but Alissa’s father appreciates Lia because she sees the better side of Alissa, her bravery and kindness, and somewhat helps Alissa’s impatience because Lia is a more patient, cautious person.

AlissaKingWhen Alissa first begins her lessons with Balin, she thinks that studying magic is turning out to be as boring as her other lessons.  Balin makes her do little chores, like dusting things in his tower, and he has her read books and memorize words.  Alissa is impatient to get on with the exciting magic, but Balin impresses on her that she needs to start out slowly and to recognize that magic is not the solution to all things.

Meanwhile, Alissa’s father is preparing to hold a banquet to celebrate a new alliance with a neighboring kingdom.  Now that Alissa is old enough to participate in such banquets, she learns that she must not only attend the banquet but be the dinner partner of the invited king, who she has heard is a stern man who is a stickler for proper manners.  Alissa is terrified that she will make a mistake during the banquet, anger the king, and ruin everything.

Her fears grow worse when Balin tells her that he has seen impending disaster in his crystal ball and a threat to the alliance.  Alissa begs him to tell her more, but he says that something is preventing his magic from seeing more.  All he has to offer Alissa are a few vague hints which take the form of another riddle.

Balin believes that Alissa is the only one who can solve the riddle, stop the danger, and save the alliance, but Alissa doubts herself.  She’s still afraid that she isn’t up to the task and will ruin everything, and she wishes that Balin would give her some magic spell to prevent her from doing anything wrong.  However, the best weapons Alissa has are the ones she already possesses: her wits, her desire to work hard for what she wants to achieve, and the new patience that she is just starting to learn.

One of the things that I liked about the story was that the visiting king, for all of his sternness and demanding nature with others, is surprisingly understanding with Alissa.  Some adults still remember what it was like to be young and awkward and impatient to grow up.

This book does not have extra information or activities in the back, as other books in the Stardust Classics series do.

Basil in the Wild West

BasilWestBasil in the Wild West by Eve Titus, 1990.

This book picks up right after the previous book in the Basil of Baker Street Series, Basil in Mexico.

After leaving Mexico, Basil and his best friend Dr. Dawson journey north into the western territories of the United States.  There, some friends of their ask them to investigate a smuggling operation.  Mice have been illegally bringing Mexican antiquities across the border.

Basil realizes that the smugglers have been smuggling the antiquities in the open, pretending that they are ordinary replicas, the kind that tourists often buy.  Because the border guards aren’t experts in antiquities, they haven’t been able to tell the difference between harmless souvenir replicas and the real thing.

When they catch one of these smugglers, they learn that the mastermind behind the scheme is a mouse call J.J. in a town called Moriarty in New Mexico (the name of the town irritates Basil).  They go to the town with the help of some friendly horses and confront J.J..  At first, they think it won’t be too difficult because, although J.J.’s house is well-guarded, he is confined to a wheel chair because of an accident.  However, the wheel chair is an act, and J.J. is no ordinary mouse.

BasilWestPic2Although J.J. escapes, Basil and Dr. Dawson decide that the smuggling ring has been defeated and it’s alright to continue their sight-seeing.  However, their adventures are not over!

Basil and Dawson want to see the Grand Canyon, but it turns out that the hotel where they are staying is being terrorized by a weird, glowing Thing.  Nobody knows what it is, but guests think it could be some kind of ghost or monster, and many of them are too afraid to stay.  The owners of the hotel ask Basil to discover what the Thing is and stop whoever may be behind it before their hotel is ruined!

This book is really two stories in one, and neither has any direct bearing on the other.  In that way, it’s kind of disjointed.

Basil and the Pygmy Cats

BasilPygmyCatsBasil and the Pygmy Cats by Eve Titus, 1971.

Mouse detective Basil’s arch enemy, Professor Ratigan, has taken over the Asian country of Bengistan, near India.  Basil discovers that he is holding the real ruler of the country captive so that he and his gang can loot the country for everything they can get, keeping the populace in subjugation.  Basil is determined to go there and free the rightful ruler so they can vanquish Professor Ratigan!

When Dr. Edward Hagerup of the British Mousmopolitan Museum hears that Basil is heading to Asia, he asks him to investigate an historical mystery for him.  There have been tales of a race of pygmy cats, no bigger than mice, but new evidence has been found that suggests there is more truth behind the stories than anyone has realized.  Basil has an interest in archaeology and eagerly accepts this extra task as part of their mission.  Along the way, other mice who have heard of the expedition join up to help Basil.

At first, Basil’s original mission, stopping Ratigan, seems easy.  Basil and his friend Dawson allow themselves to be captured so that they can get into the palace and find the real Maharaja of Bengistan.  After solving a secret code in the dungeon, they find the Maharaja, who tells them that another acquaintance of theirs, the opera singer, Relda, is also a prisoner in the palace.  She was giving a performance there when Ratigan and his thugs took over, and Ratigan has forced her to stay, giving private performances for him.  During one of these performances, Basil and his friends manage to take Ratigan by surprise and capture him.

BasilPygmyCatsPic1Now, Basil thinks that he and his associates are free to continue their other mission, finding the lost civilization of pygmy cats.  However, that mission is fraught with danger and surprises, and they haven’t quite heard the last of Ratigan.

The story isn’t really much of a mystery.  It’s really more an adventure story.

Basil and his friends manage to locate the island of pygmy cats with the help of Jeannie (a sea serpent related to the Loch Ness Monster who lost her way back to Scotland after a family trip — I kid you not) and the Sacred Catfish (which they bribe with catnip — I also kid you not, and his nip trip is a little disturbing).

This is my least favorite of the Basil series, partly because of the lack of mystery and also because of “primitive” nature of the pygmy cats when they find them.  Basil makes it clear that the pygmy cats are inherently less intelligent than mice and that their greatest achievements were because of the influence of royal mice who washed up on the shores of their island years ago, only to be wiped out by a volcano.  (Really?  Really.  Basil, if these mice were so superior and the pygmy cats so inferior, why were the cats able to get away from the volcano when the mice didn’t, hmm?  Why didn’t the mice just go to the part of the island where the cats were until the volcano stopped erupting?  Just what kind of bill of goods are you trying to sell us, Basil?)  Basil comes off sounding like a 19th century imperialist, and the fawning adoration he gets for his discovery is really annoying.

In general, I don’t like the Basil stories that turn out to be more adventure than mystery, and Basil’s smug superiority at various points in the story are off-putting.  It’s true that that Sherlock Holmes (which this series parodies) had an ego as well, but these sort of imperialist attitudes in a children’s story are distasteful.  Although I like recommending nostalgic books for future generations, this is one that I really can’t recommend.  The brightest spot in this book was the secret code in the dungeon, which is more in keeping with the mystery theme.  If the book had made the plot to capture Ratigan and end his reign of terror in another country without all this stuff about an “inferior” species of small cats, it would have been a much better story.

Like other books in this series, this book contains a number of jokes on the original Sherlock Holmes stories.  Read a number of the names backwards, and you’ll see some familiar names from Sherlock Holmes as well as a reference to another series by Eve Titus.

Basil and the Lost Colony

BasilLostColonyBasil and the Lost Colony by Eve Titus, 1964.

A Norwegian scholar from the British Mousmopolitan Museum approaches Basil about a letter that he has recently received along with an arrow.  The letter mentions a recent sighting of the mysterious Adorable Snowmouse (no, that’s not a typo, he’s big for a mouse, but really adorable and saves people lost in the mountains), and the arrow is evidence that points to the whereabouts of a lost colony of mice who fled Switzerland during the time of William Tell, about 600 years previously.  These particular mice lived in William Tell’s basement, and like Tell himself, the Tellmice (as they are called) left their home because they opposed the rule of a tyrant.  However, even after the tyrant’s reign ended, the Tellmice did not return home and no one knows for sure what became of them.

Basil is eager to join the expedition to search for the lost colony, but he is also concerned about opposition from his nemesis, Professor Ratigan.  Professor Ratigan has recently made attempts on his life, and he now knows about the expedition to find the lost colony, even stealing the evidence from Basil’s home.  Basil is sure that Professor Ratigan will do everything he can to prevent them from reaching the lost colony.

In Switzerland, the expedition is joined by a pretty and adventurous opera singer, Relda (a take-off on Irene Adler, from the original Sherlock Holmes stories, read her name backwards), who comes in disguise after Basil tells her that the mission is too dangerous for her.  That’s just one of the jokes on original Sherlock Holmes stories that appear in this book.  These jokes would go over the heads of kids who aren’t familiar with the original stories, but make the story more entertaining for adults.

Basil and his friends do meet up with the Adorable Snowmouse, find the lost colony, and defeat Ratigan (well, temporarily, at least).

Although the Basil of Baker Street Series is supposed to be about a mouse detective kind of like Sherlock Holmes, some of the entries in the series, like this one, are really more adventure than mystery.

The Mysterious Queen of Magic

KleepQueenMagicThe Mysterious Queen of Magic by Joan Lowery Nixon, 1981.

This is part of the Kleep: Space Detective series.

Kleep and Till meet a strange young man who is looking for Kleep’s grandfather, Arko.  The young man, Mikkel, tells them a wild story, that an evil wizard is after him.  He is controlling Mikkel’s people on the planet Durth, putting them under a spell and forcing them to become his slaves. Mikkel believes that Arko may have the key to getting rid of him because an old wise man told him to ask Arko how to find Queen Stellara.  Queen Stellara was a legendary queen who could do magic, and Arko has some old write-rolls, scrolls of the kind people used to use before people began using computers alone for learning, that talk about her and her kingdom.  However, Arko doesn’t believe in wizards or magic spells or anything of the kind.

Kleep remembers Arko telling her the old stories from the write-rolls when she was little, and unlike her grandfather, she believes that wizards and magic may be real and wants to try to help Mikkel.  When Arko says that he doesn’t believe in magic and can’t help Mikkel, Kleep and her friend Till decide to use the scrolls to try to help Mikkel find Queen Stellara.  Taking Kleep’s robot, Zibbit, with them, they journey to the planet Loctar, where Queen Stellara was supposed to live.

Although this series is mostly sci-fi with a bit of mystery thrown in, this book is more fantasy.  When Kleep and her friends arrive on the planet Loctar, they discover that they must face a series of challenges to reach the legendary queen’s palace, like heros in a fairy tale.  Magic is real, and they must prove themselves worthy in order to meet the queen and ask her for the solution to the problem of the evil wizard.  But, their ordeal doesn’t quite end there because, while Queen Stellara provides them with the means to fight the wizard, they must face him themselves!

A little corny, but fun, although it’s not my favorite book in the series.  The others were more sci-fi, and this is more fantasy.  Also, for a “detective” series, there isn’t much mystery, more adventure.  It sort of reminds me of the original Star Trek episode Catspaw, except that the magical beings in this one are apparently really magical and not just aliens.  Like the other books in this series, I like the pictures, too.



Kidnapped on Astarr

KleepKidnappedAstarrKidnapped on Astarr by Joan Lowery Nixon, 1981.

This is part of the Kleep: Space Detective series.

Till’s mother, Falda, has mysteriously disappeared, and Till is sure that someone has abducted her.  The only clue he has is an unfinished note that his mother left for him with the letters “RU” on it.  He takes it to Kleep and her grandfather Arko, and the three of them puzzle over what it could mean.  Arko and the kids decide that the two most likely things the letters could be part of are a kind of metal that Arko and Falda are using in the project they’re currently working on (“ruthenium”) or a group of people who are enemies of theirs, the Ruzenians.  The people of Ruzena lived on Astarr before Kleep’s people arrived from Ruel (another possible “RU” word that they ruled out) and have resented their intrusion.

Arko decides that he will first visit the mine where they get their metal, hoping that Falda has gone there in connection with their project to create a new way to anchor small space ships at outer space docks.  However, Kleep and Till can’t help but think that the Ruzenians have kidnapped Falda.  Arko wants them to stay at the house with the robot Zibbit until he returns, but they feel like they can’t wait and decide to take Zibbit with them to investigate the Ruzenians.

It’s a harrowing journey through Ruzenian territory, through a dark forest with giant worms and singing trees whose music threatens to overtake their minds, but they do discover that is where Falda is being held prisoner.  Unfortunately, Kleep, Till, and Zibbit are also captured.  With the king of Ruzena suspicious of the projects that Arko and Falda are working on (he thinks they’re designing weapons, but they’re not), what can they do to escape or get help?