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The King’s Taster

by Kenneth Oppel; Steve Johnson and Lou Fancher, illus.

In the English literary canon, cooks get little respect. Think of Shakespeare’s “greasy Joan,” and the pilgrim cook in Chaucer with that unappetizing ulcer on his shin. Long John Silver’s position on The Hispaniola? Cook. Cooks in folk literature, on the other hand, are often cast in the role of hero. The three soldiers who make stone soup, or Wicked John, who earns three wishes by cooking up a plate of vittles for Saint Peter – culinary skill is an effective tool of the powerless. Best of all is the Grimms’ Clever Gretel, who has the sartorial style and cheeky energy of a celebrity chef.

Gretel’s Canadian picture-book descendants include Sassy Gracie by James Sage and Pierre Pratt, spunky Maylin in Paul Yee and Harvey Chan’s Roses Sing on New Snow, and the team of Kate and the boys from Loris Lesynski’s Boy Soup.

Joining this lively crew is a royal cook invented by Kenneth Oppel. Oppel is best known for his two reader-delighting fantasy series for middle-grade readers, the Silverwing trilogy and the alternative Victorian world of Airborn and its sequels. In a pair of picture books featuring heroic world traveller Peg, Oppel revealed himself to have a sure touch with younger readers as well, and in this faux fairy tale he again demonstrates that talent.

Cook’s problem here is that the child king is a picky eater. This seems fair enough when his majesty is offered peacock and syllabub. But this kid is seriously picky. Desperately trying to please his employer, Cook travels the world, searching out recipes. From France he brings home french fries, from Italy, pizza, and from Mexico, tacos.

Even these kid-friendly dishes are rejected, and Cook fears for his head.

The picky-eater theme in picture books has a built-in challenge. A child reader is far more likely to identify with food aversion than with good nutrition and mealtime flexibility. Thus it is as hard to devise a convincing denouement for such a story as it is to persuade some children to venture beyond a diet consisting entirely of macaroni. The child king is a spoiled brat, but his objection that his food is “mushy” is likely to seem reasonable to many young readers.

Oppel solves this problem delightfully by using a secondary character as a first-person narrator. Max the beagle, the cook’s dog and royal taster to the king, is our storyteller here. Dog trumps kid as appealing protagonist, so everyone is free to find the king obnoxious and to side with cook and dog as they struggle with their dilemma.

The narrative has the structural neatness of a fairy tale, with a central problem that gets knottier and knottier until a magical-seeming but logical twist straightens the whole thing out. In this case, some sleuthing by Max gives Cook the upper hand. The tidiness of the tale, with its problem and three unsuccessful strategies followed by a solution, make it a good read-aloud story, as does the text, which is filled with lists and internal repetition. (“He chopped, he topped, and he tailed; he sliced and he stirred and he whisked.”) In the tale’s well-integrated coda, we discover that the focus has shifted, the problem has changed, and we end up caring less about whether the king starts eating and more about the happiness of the cook and his dog – all of which is plausibly assured.

Oppel’s text provides a strong scaffolding for illustrations. Subplots, humour, and atmosphere are all injected into the main narrative by California husband-and-wife illustrator team Steve Johnson and Lou Fancher. Their collage-style compositions reward close attention. Rich brocade fabrics create a sense of oppressive luxury. Cook’s world belowstairs is created from remnants of recipes. (If you look hard enough you can piece together the whole of the Cranberry Horserad­ish Mousse recipe, which sounds delicious.) The Grand Tour scenes are full of lovely jokes – a pile of potatoes in the shape of the Eiffel Tower, a Mexican hot-air balloon  made to look like a giant piñata. Alert readers who notice that the king has candy wrappers tucked into his crown might figure out the true cause of his lack of interest in dinner.

The pictures also enhance our sense of the characters. Max, with his spectacles and satchel, is the efficient, cheerful, energetic government functionary, adept at dealing with difficult people of all sorts. The king has that miserable, lonely, lost look of the child who is given no limits. When we see him crown-less in his pyjamas, we almost like him. And Cook has a sculptural dignity, even when he’s tearing out his hair in the tradition of the frustrated chef. At the moment of comeuppance, the illustrators allow him a slight sneer, and then a smile of deep contentment.

Moral of the story? When faced with injustice, oppression, and just plain bad manners, work on your crab canapés and pumpkin pie. And if you end up in charge, don’t try to live on candy.