The Pancake King: A Lovely Vintage Children’s Book About How Success and Prestige Can Hijack Our Sense of Purpose
A sweet, subversive parable about the tradeoffs between creativity and commerce and the treacherous way in which prestige can hijack our sense of purpose.
By Maria Popova
At a dinner some years ago, I had the good fortune of being seated next to the great graphic designer and illustrator Seymour Chwast (b. August 18, 1931). A warm but reticent conversation companion, he became, like Oliver Sacks, unusually animated when it came to his creative passions. At one point in the evening, I asked Chwast what his favorite project was from the entire span of his illustrious career. Here was a man whose work had influenced generations of designers and had received just about every imaginable accolade in the graphic arts. So I was both surprised and utterly delighted by his answer, which he offered without hesitation but with a certain wistfulness — an obscure vintage children’s book by Phyllis La Farge he had illustrated in 1971, which had since fallen out of print and sunk into oblivion.
The following day, invigorated by curiosity, I set about finding a surviving copy. Victorious at last with a bedraggled book discarded by the Breton Downs Library and found at a thrift bookseller, I instantly knew why Chwast had so fondly and resolutely chosen this forgotten gem as the favorite of a lifetime — it was a sweet, subversive parable about the tradeoffs of creativity and commerce, the messy relationship between success and life-satisfaction, the treacherous way in which prestige can hijack our sense of purpose, and what happens when a personal labor of love becomes a “brand.” A story, in other words, both timeless and immensely timely today, when the integrity of every creative life is bending under the ever-growing pressures of bigger-better-faster.
So imagine my enormous gladness at the news that Princeton Architectural Press is bringing The Pancake King (public library) back to life as part of the same vintage children’s book revival series that also resurrected the marvelous The Brownstone by graphic design legend (and, incidentally, Chwast’s spouse of four decades) Paula Scher.
The story, masterfully illustrated by Chwast in psychedelic colors and expressive lines, begins with little Henry Edgewood, who wakes up hungry one morning and decides that he must have pancakes. But his mother is making poached eggs. In a charming testament to my longtime belief that the best way to complain is to make things, she tells him that if he wants pancakes, he must make them himself — and so he does, artfully.
He cooked himself three little pancakes and five big ones. He ate them with butter and syrup.
At noon, Henry announced, “Pancakes for lunch!”
His mother was making hamburgers.
“Again?” she asked.
Henry nodded. He ate them with blueberries and a little bit of sugar. He made more pancakes for dinner.
From then on, Henry cooked pancakes three times a day: buckwheat pancakes, blueberry pancakes, cornmeal pancakes, onion pancakes, and even blini. He ate them with maple syrup, blueberry syrup, sour cream, whipped cream, and apple butter.
Henry gets so good at making pancakes that the neighborhood kids are soon clamoring to feast on them all hours of the day. (Here, Chwast’s conscientious genius shines once more — even today, only 3% of children’s books feature characters of color, and yet here he is in the early 1970s making a proud point of diversity at the pancake-feasting table.)
So begins Henry’s spiral of success, until one day the doorbell rings and an Arthur J. Jinker of Jinker Enterprises presents himself. He has come with a lucrative offer for the famous pancake boy — if they partner, he would make Henry the Pancake King, rich and famous far and wide. He offers a contract, “nothing too binding,” and promises to return the next day when the family has thought it over.
Henry’s parents have reservations, but ultimately decide to let him sign the contract and have a go at his unusual talent — what a rare and thrilling opportunity, after all, to be a self-made king at such a young age.
Immediately, Mr. Jinker outfits Henry with a uniform, clads his dog Ezra with a collar, and a photographer starts snapping promotional pictures of Henry whipping batter. Soon, he is on a fancy float in the town parade and the mayor is presenting him with a celebratory certificate and three drum majorettes are handing him a bouquet of red roses. (“Henry didn’t know what to do with them, so he gave them to Ezra. Ezra ate them.”)
Before long, Henry is a brand, mercilessly marketed and merchandized:
A day didn’t pass when Henry wasn’t doing a television commercial or at the very least cooking pancakes for a ladies’ club luncheon. There were Henry Edgewood Pancake King fan clubs and Henry Edgewood Pancake King posters and buttons and Henry Edgewood Pancake King dolls. Sometimes when Henry made an appearance, the crowds were so big that Ezra had to go ahead, growling and barking to make a path for him. Disc jockeys across the country played “The Pancake King,” a song written especially for Henry. “I’m going to flip, flip, flip for Henry!”
But, driven between gigs by his private chauffeur, Henry finds himself forlorn despite being rich and famous — he has no time left to see his parents and his friends.
One day, as he’s traveling across the country to visit the forty-three Pancake King chain restaurants, he gets a call from the White House, summoning him to cook for some esteemed foreign ambassador visiting the president. Air Force One whisks him away to Washington.
But then things take a turn — the kind of turn that things often take for those who wear themselves out on their own success until their work begins to suffer and is drained of soul. Henry, to borrow Shonda Rhimes’s wonderful metaphor, loses his hum — some of his pancakes start coming out heavy, others runny, and a TV audience member even hurls a mediocre pancake back at him. Henry’s heart simply isn’t in it anymore.
Both his parents and Mr. Jinker plead with him to reconsider — how can he resign when he is so successful? But, in line with Leonard Cohen’s strategy for knowing when to quit a creative endeavor, Henry knows the time has come to walk away.
Then one morning, Henry woke up hungry.
“Come on, Ezra,” he said.
In the kitchen, Mother and Father were eating boiled eggs.
“I’m having waffles for breakfast!” Henry said.
And just for good measure, here is my brand new copy rubbing spines with my prized vintage find:
Complement the thoroughly wonderful The Pancake King, which ends with a real-life recipe for Henry’s famous pancakes, with grownup counterparts to its philosophical dimensions in Thomas Wolfe on the dark side of ambition and Parker Palmer on defining your own success.
Illustrations courtesy of Seymour Chwast / Princeton Architectural Press
Published March 3, 2016