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Book Review: The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley

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When is a book a child’s book? When is it adult fiction? And when does it fall into that nebulous in-between category of teen/young adult? In times long past, the age of the character hinted at the story’s audience. But this book, written for adults, has an 11 year old protagonist. Hmm…

One way to determine the reader’s age is to look at the problems or issues dealt with in the story, and how these are portrayed. The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie is exquisitely detailed in its description, whether it be Flavia’s ongoing dialogue narrating the story (and she is certainly quite a talkative character!) or the description of surroundings and experiences. The deep level of detail paints a realistic picture of the murderous death of one antagonist which is a bit much for elementary and middle school readers. We also have Flavia’s reaction to the death, which is an academic curiosity and intriguant rather than a reaction of humane concern. The reader should already have developed a solid concern for humanity in order to distinguish this character flaw, or uniqueness, about the protagonist. Similarly, other descriptions such as that of the dead bird are intense.

Another way to determine reader age is, of course, to look at the difficulty level of the composition; its vocabulary and sentence structure. The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie certainly has a doozy of a vocabulary. Flavia has a library available to her with centuries-old texts including dictionaries! So you can expect not just a complex but a very colourful, intriguing dialogue.

And don’t forget the choice of vocabulary for slang! Once it elevates to mild cussing, it elevates to teen level reading. The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie does engage occasional profanity common to British slang but which may be totally unknown to American readers: damn (ok, we know that one!), bloody and sod. Even bugger can be considered a “bad” word depending upon its use (but it is used affectionately here so no worries).

And finally, the behaviour of the characters…The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie entails rich descriptions of Flavia’s every move, sensation and vision. It is due to this rich description that the book is better set for older readers. Usually providing a more mature view of the situation, we also see Flavia’s strengths of ingenuity and innovation used in ways that child/tween reader’s mind is not yet developed to properly take in. An example would be Flavia’s poisoning of her older sister’s lipstick via chemical experimentation (which is described as curiously similar to a 45 caliber bullet), and then waiting endlessly for the effects to take root. Humourous to its intended adult market and to teens; not an idea to put into the head of those younger as their stories should maintain context from a child’s innocent perspective.

While teens and adults have sufficient cognition to pick up on the nuances in the story’s dialogue that demonstrate Flavia’s real nature vs. the ‘bratty” attitude exhibited early in the story (and which occasionally flairs up throughout), younger readers may not pick up on these elements. If your younger advanced readers are interested in the book, it would be recommended families read it together, creating opportunity to show kids how to identify these cues (improving their discernment skills, which are important to their own maturation of wisdom). Remember, there are other books for younger advanced readers intended to be for kids, full of fantasy and stimulating their imagination. Let them read kids books while they are still a kid :>)

Now, having expressed in the past that cozy mysteries are my favorite genre, I thoroughly loved this story! The intelligent, precocious Flavia is delightful and by her nature keeps the story moving quickly along yet still rich in detail. An excellent example of story telling, we are fed bits and pieces of the people until we finally have a picture of who these characters really are, and the time in history (1950). As in the best of mystery writing, the clues are covertly hidden in descriptions, waiting for us to put it all together. And mixed throughout is the humour, like when describing the age and demeanor of Miss Mountjoy, the retired librarian, as the palace of malice who is so old Noah was still a sailor in her youth.

The import of religion in this character’s life is realistic of the time period and multifaceted. We see the humour, such as the explanation of why, as having been Roman Catholics for hundreds of years, Flavia’s family is attending an Anglican church! It is also used to demonstrate that, in spite of her precociousness, Flavia is well-meaning in intent, continuously judges right vs. wrong, and shows contrition for bad choices. It is a story with clear demarcation of good and bad, while being aesthetically rich in beauty, history, humour and adventure. Great for book clubs, classroom lit analysis, the publisher does have a reader’s guide available . An excellent, uplifting read and highly recommended!

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