"Let me tell you about angels."
First the reader must be told about dad, mother, grandmother and her Big Box of Dreadfuls in the attic.When a young girl tries to find out what her mother wants for a birthday present, the reply is a High Rise Glorious Skittle Skat Roarious Sky Pie Angel Food Cake." But there is no recipe, only a remembrance of grandmother, " . . . just like the recipe for ordinary angel food cake except for one secret ingredient."
The child digs into grandmother's trunk (the big box of dreadfuls) and finds 32 leather-bound notebooks full of quotations, stories, news clippings and personal information. The 16th is titled `Recipes' and tucked inside is "angel food cake, ordinary" with a note: "Today I invented the recipe for the High Rise Glorious Skittle Skat Roarious Sky Pie Angel Food Cake. But it's too dangerous. It is irresistible to man and beast, woman and bird. I fear it may fall into the wrong hands. So I've NOTED in a dark place the recipe, which I COMPOSED myself, after PLAYING around in the kitchen."
The secret is discovered on the underside of the grand piano. As a midnight surprise, the girl makes the cake but is visited by three angels who eat the entire thing.
In the morning a cake is in the oven all frosted with sugar roses and sugar hearts. And it has the secret ingredient.
This is a wonderful combination of reality and fantasy. As the child invites the reader in with "let me tell you . . . " the surprise of making a cake for a birthday present is told with tender and strong images. It is totally convincing from the visit of angels to the gold thimble being found in the cake.
The illustrations are breathtaking. Watson's portraits and nature studies are a celebration of dreaming and being awake. There is a grand diversity and balance of the layout; for example, between a page with two rosebuds to a double-page spread of three extraordinary angels in lavish dresses. (I'm crazy about the white-haired angel in patchwork cloak wearing mismatched socks!) The book invites readers to linger over many details, to relish the visual images; feathers, sun rays, gardens and insects.
Watson is the illustrator of "Tom Thumb," winner of the 1989 Golden Kite Award and "Bronwen, the Traw, and the Shape-shifter" both of which have remarkable art work. To the novice trying to appreciate his craft, the small print in the back of the book is startling: "The illustrations in this book were done in egg tempera on Masonite.'
Nancy Willard won the Newbery Award for "A Visit to William Blake's Inn" and her other works have been highly acclaimed. When asked about "The High Rise Glorious Skittle Skat Roarious Sky Pie Angel Food Cake" she admitted that it is partly biographical. "When my mother was a little girl, she and her two sisters decided to bake a cake for their parents and leave a note saying `the fairies did it' ".
So many stories start with the question "what if?" What if a little girl tried to bake a surprise cake for her mother and got help from three unexpected visitors?"
The title came from combining nonsense words and odd names or " . . . maybe an angel suggested it . . . "