All things literacy — Authors, Books, Connections . . .

Sunday, March 09, 2014

Max Visits Our Blog and Makes a Cake

Max Makes a Cake by Michelle Edwards, with illustrations by Charles Santosa.  

Max's family is preparing for the Passover Seder.  He knows the four questions in both English and Hebrew -- but first he has to make his mother a birthday cake.  His father is supposed to help but he is busy taking care of Max's little sister.  Max's patience is wearing thin, as he waits and waits.  But then his ingenuity kicks in.  He has the solution — a solution that he can handle all on his own.  

The shining star of this book is the spot on text that describes Max Osher's gentle impatience with the delays in his making the planned cake, and the seamless manner that the author is able to put in bits and pieces of Jewish culture into her books.  I featured one of her earlier books Room for Baby in two blog posts on Author, Author, and an Illustrator or Two (Post 1) (Post 2).  In Room for Baby Edwards was able to walk readers through the highlights of the Jewish calendar all the while giving us a great story about a mother who recycles and reuses anything she can.  A delightful story that just happens to include a Jewish family.  So to is this new book, Max Makes a Cake.  In this title Edwards is able to give readers a bit of information about more traditions in the life of a Jewish child.  While surely young readers will pick up on the theme of the Passover Seder the story itself is universal and will resonant with children of all faiths.  Max Makes a Cake is a must have in any library (public or school) that serves young readers ages 2-8.

Good books always promote curiosity about ideas in the book  -- and since much of the culture related information was new to me, I was curious about some things. Michelle agreed to answer some questions for me (and for you who might have some of the same curiosity).
I wondered how the story began—what seeds brought about the telling?  What were the four questions of Passover?  And was there really a Passover cake mix available?  Here are Michelle Edwards's responses.
Max Makes a Cake: The Four Questions and the Passover Cake Mix
by Michelle J. Edwards

After many years of toying with a story I called "A Cake for Mama,"  I found myself writing a Passover story. I had started "A Cake for Mama" when my children were very young and I was close to their day-to-day triumphs and frustrations. The story was a part of an illustrated collection of stories and poems called Now We are Three. The book starred a little girl, who happened to be Jewish. I named her Meera, after my oldest daughter.

Now We Are Three was ready for production at a large publishing house when my editor found out her imprint was being folded into another one. The editor who inherited the project decided to pass on it. Slowly, over decades, I have picked at the individual pieces of the book and reworked them into independent stories.

Rethinking and exploring the spunky main character of "A Cake for Mama" brought me to Max.  As I wrote the opening anchoring paragraph for Max Makes a Cake, it occurred to me that, in addition to Max being an expert at getting dressed and almost a master at tying his shoes, he also “knew the Four Questions for Passover in Hebrew and English.”  With that discovery, Max and the Passover version of my cake story, evolved.

So, in writing Max Makes a Cake with Passover references, I had to make sure that the story still triumphed. I didn’t want the reader to be bogged down by the unfamiliar. Max offers simple explanations for The Four Questions for Passover, the Passover story, and matzo, the unleavened cracker-like bread eaten at Passover. Nevertheless, a curious young reader might take note of Max’s explanations and have more questions. Opening up one’s world to new cultures will do that.

To give you and your readers a jump start in your Max-inspired research, I offer the following information about The Four Questions for Passover and the special Passover cake mix Max and his dad bought at the supermarket.

1) The Four Questions For Passover:

The Four Questions are the same question asked four times:
Why is this night different than all other nights?

Each answer is different, but they all relate to the Passover story, the Exodus of the Jews from slavery in Egypt. Jews are commanded to tell this story every year at Passover.

Why is this night different than all other nights?

The First Answer: Because on all other nights we eat bread or matzah, but on this night, we eat only unleavened bread, matza. (Matzo is the bread of affliction, slavery.)

The Second Answer: On all other nights, we eat any type of herb, but on this night we eat maror. (Maror is bitter, like slavery.)

The Third Answer: On all other nights, we do not dip our    herbs once, but tonight we dip them twice.(The dip is salty water, like the tears shed during slavery.)

The Fourth Answer:
On all other nights, we sit straight in our chairs to eat our meals, on this we recline.(Reclining is a luxury of a free people.)

The Four Questions for Passover are traditionally chanted by the youngest able child at the Passover Seder.  The Four Questions for Passover are sung in Hebrew by Leah onYouTube at
Leah Singing Passover 4 Questions.

2. The Passover Cake Mix

Max and Daddy buy a special cake mix because on Passover Jews are forbidden to use leavening agents, like baking powder or yeast. Although there are ways to bake a cake without them, it’s more complicated. Passover Cake mixes are handy and easy.   

Max’s inventive cake, built by layering matzo with a jam and cream cheese frosting, resembles the matzo layer cakes I first ate when I lived in Israel. They are quite yummy and simple enough for a child to make. To add a little sweetness to your Max reading, try The Shiksa in the Kitchen’s EasyNo-Bake Chocolate Matzo Cake at


 As I finished thinking about Max Makes a Cake I couldn't help but think about some thoughts running through my head.  How clever of the author, she manages to integrate information about the Jewish culture into a very fun book to read with young readers.  In that respect Edwards is similar to Tomie DePaola who broke a barrier by including bits and pieces of Catholicism in his books, including, Merry Christmas Strega Nona.  Jane Kurtz is another pioneer in this area in her recent title Anna Was Here.  In that title the chief protagonist deals with all the trauma of a ten-year-old moving to a new home, but Anna has to do it while in a family with a very public person in the community—the new minister in town is her father.

And another thought - I can't wait to try making the Chocolate Matzo Cake -- I wonder if  I am able to buy Matzo at the store?  Well I am about to find out.  Isn't it fun what even a picture book can teach you while entertaining you too? Well-written picture books know no age limits.   Thanks Michelle - you've given us a great book to share with readers of all faiths.  Knowledge about one another's beliefs and traditions promotes acceptance and respect of one another and helps us know how much we are alike.


Michelle Edwards is a popular speaker in schools and libraries and brings much inspiration for reading and writing.  She is also a master knitter and has written a superb book The Knitter's Home Companion  (see an earlier blog post about this book)— All this in addition to being the author and illustrator of many books for children, one book for adults, and nearly one hundred essays and cards for knitters. In addition to the titles mentioned early in this blog post, Edwards's picture book titles include Chicken Man, winner of the National Jewish Book Award. Michelle lives in Iowa City, Iowa, with her husband, a house full of books, yarn, and the artifacts of their three daughter's childhoods. Her next picture book, A Hat for Mrs. Goldman will be published in 2016 by Schwartz and Wade and illustrated by Brian Karas. I can't wait for that one.

Join Michelle Edward on these stopping spots:   Facebook   Twitter   Pinterest

Next stop on Max's (and author Michelle Edwards's) tour is tomorrow -- stop by at The Brown Girl with Long Hair/ Interview -  March 10, 2014. 


  1. This is so interesting, Sharron! I was caught by the title because my oldest grandson is a Max - named for the Max in "Where the Wild Things Are" by his librarian mother. Reading the further information provided by the author really adds to the review. Thank you!

    1. One of my favorite things to do is to find books with the names of my children/grandchildren in them. Each has quite a few... an interesting collection. Thanks for your comment.

  2. Anonymous8:12 AM

    This book appeals to me as I have a daughter who is in an interfaith marriage. Her husband is Jewish, and she was raised Presbyterian. They share each other's traditions. Although I have no grandchildren, perhaps when and if I do, this would be a perfect book for them to share with them.

    1. A great story such as this helps us make children aware of other traditions that might be honored by their friends or acquaintances. Makes us all a little more knowledgeable. I love when the story is solid and provides another dimension to our reading as well. Thanks for your comment.