Prequels are trending, especially those that take readers back to the childhoods of established characters: Alice McKinley, the Baby-Sitters Club girls, Bartimaeus, even James Bond and Carrie Bradshaw. Now Alexander McCall Smith has jumped on the bandwagon (or should I say tiny white van?) with an early chapter book featuring a young and pre–traditionally built Precious Ramotswe, star of the bestselling No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency mystery series for adults.
Now, I doubt there are many second graders out there clamoring for a book of their own about the estimable Mma Ramotswe: The Great Cake Mystery (Anchor Books, April) is being released at the same time as the latest No. 1 Detective Agency novel, and it will likely be purchased by series fans with young readers in their lives quicker’n you can say “mother-daughter book group.”
Fortunately, The Great Cake Mystery transcends such cynicism. The mystery Precious solves—who is behind the spate of thefts on the school playground?—is audience-appropriate; the prose style is welcoming and intimate (“What would you do if you found yourself face to face with a great lion?”); the Botswana village setting is evoked clearly but simply; the page design is generous and inviting, with wide margins and plentiful spot illustrations. The book’s provenance is unusual (it was originally published in a Scots-language edition), and the plot borrows liberally from “Brer Rabbit and the Tar Baby” (with a bit of Caps for Sale thrown in), but the qualities that make the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series so popular and beloved are much in evidence here. Readers should take great pleasure in joining Precious as she solves her Very First Case.