For children, or indeed adults, who enjoy deciphering a puzzle, The Birthday Cake Mystery will be a fun challenge. There are multiple, well-delineated, animal characters to follow and numerous stories to unravel, with every page requiring close scrutiny from the reader – or ‘detective’ – to solve the mysteries.
Thé Tjong-Khing, a Java-born artist who has been based in The Netherlands since 1956, began his hugely successful career in comics. In the late 1970s he moved into children’s book illustration and he has now illustrated over 300 titles for children, many of which have won awards. The Birthday Cake Mystery is the third in his series of wordless ‘cake’ picturebooks, which includes Waar is de Taart? (2004) and Picknick met Taart (2005). (The English titles for these books are Where is the Cake? and Where is the Cake Now? respectively.)
At the beginning of The Birthday Cake Mystery the stage is set for a sunny outdoor birthday celebration. But whose birthday is it, and why can’t Dog ever finish making the birthday cake? Mrs Pig is clearly outraged that her necklace has gone missing, but who is the thief, and what gives him away? Where will the naughty children’s hole in the ground emerge, and what will be the consequence? What exactly is being painted on Mr Pig’s house, and who has painted it? And why are the footprints of Ring-tailed Lemur so important?
The more you look at the images in this book, the more you discover. No space is wasted. For instance along the base of each spread runs a faint trail of Little Squirrel’s push-along toy – follow it carefully, watching where it breaks, weaves backwards and forwards, or goes through the trees, and the reason for the animosity between the Rats and the Squirrels will become clear. Other entertaining plot lines to investigate include the two transparent Chameleons and the washing, the three Monkeys and the birthday bunting, and the Badgers and their sail boat.
This type of ‘look and deduce’ reading can be surprisingly difficult for children, as it takes a fair bit of visual acuity, mental dexterity and sheer persistence to decode the pictures. But when young readers become adept at this sort of challenge, it often becomes a highly satisfying activity and something they enjoy repeating – especially if there is a younger child to share it with and impress! First time round, though, a supportive adult may be necessary to work out the solutions.
For other wordless picturebooks with multiple story lines, see Ali Mitgutsch’s Rudherum in meiner Stadt (1968), Mitsumasa Anno’s Anno’s Journey (1977), Alastair Graham’s Full Moon Soup (1991) and Aleksandra Mizielinska and Daniel Mizielinski’s Welcome to Mamoko (2013).