Don was a man who loved to bake. 
Oh, what desserts he would make. 
The best in the land,
So good you’d kiss his hand 
Just for a slice of his chocolate cake.

And so begins the audaciously delicious The Best Baker in the World, a comic book that turns Francis Ford Coppola’s widely adored film The Godfather into a violence-free read for young children. It’s the first book in the series “My First Matinee” by film critic Raja Sen and illustrator Vishal K Bharadwaj. The central idea, says Sen, is to tell the stories of films that are complicated, mature and iconic, and, most importantly, “films you would never imagine showing to a child”.

The Best Baker in the World recently won Comic Con India’s Best Children’s Illustrated Book Award 2018. Written entirely in rhyme, the book is clever, snappy, and entertaining, with layers of visual detail that throw up surprise references, making it excellent bedtime reading for both children and their parents. Colourful animal characters populate the pages in a whimsical narrative that turns iconic scenes from the film – such as the severed horse head moment – into child’s play. Vito Corleone is cast as an owl (while Michael is a raven and Sonny is a bear), who is a much-loved baker known for handing out lovingly made pastries free in the neighbourhood. When he refuses to buckle under pressure from the villain to sell cheap, mass-produced hard candy which could make the children sick – the games begin, culminating in the ultimate Cake Off.

Sen and Bharadwaj spoke to about deconstructing a complex story to make it palatable to young readers, how the book is intricately designed to speak differently to adults and children, why it was important to them to cast each character as a different animal, and the film they are adapting next. Also on the menu: a peek into what went into creating a cake recipe specially for the book.

What a quirky idea – turning a decidedly adult film full of violence into something sugary for children. How did this idea strike you and what age group did you have in mind?
Raja Sen (RS): I revere movies. To me the drama and the characters of the movies we consider masterpieces are no less transcendent than the great works of theatre. And if we can adapt Shakespeare into any context – including one friendly to children, without all the bawdy bits – I thought it was worth trying to see if, when looking at a mature and adult film, it would still pack a punch without the blood and the sex and the violent themes. Are the characters still fascinating? Is the drama still compelling? The idea behind this series, “My First Matinee”, was to share stories with kids of films we adore but that they should not watch just yet.

Vishal K Bharadwaj (VB): When I got involved it was an intriguing pitch over the phone from him, namely: “I want to do The Godfather for 8-year-olds. Would you like to draw it?” Eight and up was the early target audience, since that age was formative in both our cases; bringing about a love of cinema, comic books, MAD magazine, etc. But we also came to love those things a little earlier, six and younger, with the help of encouraging adults who wanted to share their enthusiasm for those mediums. So that became a part of who it was going to be for too, kids whose parents read the book out to them who may be too young to read on their own.

Tell us about the process of compressing the essence of a long film and a complex story into a snappy rhyming book. Did the weight of the original story feel overwhelming to work with?
RS: The Godfather is, quite simply, the Bible. It’s the most influential American film of all time. The idea of adapting something adult and setting it in a world for children was risky to begin with, so I thought why not take aim at the biggest, most worshipped film out there? Biting off more than is advisedly chewable has been a longstanding habit, but I also felt that if we could pull this off for something as grand and as iconic as The Godfather, it’d prove that the concept has legs.

Raja Sen

The overwhelming part was how to pay the right tributes, which can get complicated: it was particularly hard to figure out, for example, how to pay homage to Gordon Willis’s incredible orange-and-shadows cinematography. It took us a while to get there, and I feel my relationship with Vishal was very intricate, like a director and a cinematographer, working on each frame like a storyboard before I’d go off and write and he’d go off and draw.

VB: There were several ideation sessions on how we’d tackle necessary but lengthy portions, such as Michael’s long exile in Italy. Should we cut it out entirely? In the end we compressed that, but delivered the lessons. In the film, Michael comes back from Italy wiser and determined to take on the mantle of the family’s leader. Similarly, our Michael’s exile is to his room, where he learns to appreciate books and also cooking and baking.

I love how you tackled the famously gory scenes in the film – the horse’s severed head in the producer’s bed or Sonny being killed. Was turning moments like these into child-friendly verse and visuals the most challenging, or rather, the most fun part of working on the book?
RS: Thank you, I’m overjoyed that those bits spoke to you. As you said, those were indeed big challenges – we couldn’t possibly do a Godfather adaptation without the horse’s head – and took some time to come together, but they were also incredibly thrilling to concoct and execute. Some of the references are simple, while some become more apparent on multiple readings, and indeed, might come across stronger the next time you watch the film. My favourite is a bit in the film where Kay asks Michael, coming out of a movie, if he would like her better if she were Ingrid Bergman. It’s a playful, flirty exchange in the movie, charmingly dealt with by Diane Keaton and an amused Al Pacino, but in our book, they are kids and her question, as she comes out of a theatre playing Pixar’s Cars, is much more innocent, playful in a whole other sense: “Would you like me better if I were a car?” Given how iconic The Godfather is, this is a relatively obscure line, but I was proud of coming up with that reference.

VB: It was challenging at first because we had to make a hard, irrevocable decision on how to tackle violence. We looked at examples like the film Bugsy Malone which substitutes bullets with cream pies, but while enjoyable on film it didn’t fit our story (despite the bakery theme!). Raja identified the fact that what seems violent to you as a child can be much more innocuous than what affects you as an adult, so a toy breaking or a balloon popping became major dramatic turning points. Once he had that insight it became fun to play with twisting each violent scene. We knew we weren’t encouraging violence this way, because all the dramatic acts in the film have consequences or are the result of characters’ actions.

It’s hard to find children’s books that feel inventive to both kids and their parents. I know I selfishly tend to look for books for my son that I would love to read as well. Were you thinking about parents while writing this for children? Is it a difficult balance to strike?
RS: I absolutely was. The thing is that if a child likes a book – fingers crossed, we say – then they would want it read out to them over and over again, and many are the friends who have toiled over nightly readings of Goodnight Moon. The idea was indeed to write something we’d have fun reading, and so we’ve slipped in enough layers of meaning for the adults to unravel. The child might like a purple parakeet for his vivid style, while the parents might recognise how a Sinatra reference in the film has become a Prince reference in our book. The idea was very much to try and be like, say, Asterix, which has so many little details we only notice a few readings down. This is particularly why it mattered to have an illustrator like Vishal who would dive into the detailing in graphic novel fashion and enable us to hide enough references, visual gags and – as befits a book about baking – easter eggs for the grown ups and for the fans of the film.

VB: Parents were always kept in mind, both in the storytelling and the illustrations. That’s why, visually speaking, the book is replete with easter eggs and references that kids won’t get, but that adults, film fans, pop culture fans, will hopefully relish. Pay attention to the backgrounds! We’ve hidden quite a few cheeky things in there.

Vishal K Bharadwaj | Photo credit: Samir Bharadwaj

Who are your favourite children’s authors? Were there any inspirations for this book?
RS: Salman Rushdie’s Haroun And The Sea Of Stories, which I read when I was 13, was the book that showed me it was possible for a book to be many wondrous things: whimsical and grown-up, it was political satire with a genie in it. I didn’t quite understand everything that made it special, but I did know that this – unlike many children’s books I had read – was literature, and that there was something deliciously complex under the surface. Favourite children’s authors include Terry Pratchett, Tove Jannson, Roald Dahl, Sukumar Ray, Enid Blyton and, because he should be essential reading for anyone of any age prone to fall in love with a sentence, PG Wodehouse.

Also, while not a children’s book, Vikram Seth’s The Golden Gate is a long-adored favourite and, when stuck writing this book entirely in limericks, I would often read a few pages to marvel at (and learn from) Seth’s exquisite lightness of touch.

VB: I’m a huge fan of comics so while growing up I tended towards them rather than picture books. So Goscinny & Uderzo who did Asterix, Herge’s Tintin, and of course Mort Drucker who did the Mad Magazine movie spoofs. I didn’t read as much specifically children’s fiction, more things that appeal to a wide range of kids and adults, so that’s why our book is that way too.

So in the book, Michael is a raven, Don is an owl, Sonny is a bear...why are they all different animals if they are from the same family?
RS: Vishal came up with the idea to make the characters into animals, which then dictated our visual aesthetic. We’re both enormously smitten by the noir graphic novels Blacksad – about a cat who is a private detective – and that became a huge reference for us, even though it is dark and moody. One of the things that struck us early, while developing the first figures, is that we should have an eclectic bunch of creatures, chosen by personality instead of parentage. The idea was to tell the children that they are who they are – and who they are seen as – based on how they behave in life, not the family they are born into. This is one of those concepts that children seem to be embracing pretty quickly, and we count that as a big win

VB: Each animal is chosen based on their spirit and character, rather than any biological lineage. This simple explanation, we find, raises questions in adults, but every child we have told it to understands it perfectly!

From a modern adult perspective, though, I did want to introduce as much diversity and variety into the characters as possible. Raja had already expanded roles for the female characters, but I didn’t want to introduce perceived biases such as, “all snakes are evil,” or, “all lions are virtuous,” that can plague even the beloved classics of children’s fiction. Plus the benefit of using animals is that, should this book ever be translated, a child in China or Chile can read it and see themselves in the characters, beyond race or other stifling definitions. Finally, it gives us the maximum room to play, as creators. We even have, if you pay attention, one character who appears to be a nudist! You can only get away with that sort of thing with animals!

Tell us about how the book came together between the writer and illustrator: did the verse come first and then Vishal cast the animal characters? Did you have disagreements over which character should be which animal?
RS: I met Vishal over a decade ago, online, when Twitter was a nice little place where you could meet people with similar tastes in comics and sarcasm. Puffin was enticed by the idea of The Godfather for kids, but the artists lacked specificity. Then some squiggle on Vishal’s Instagram reminded me how good he is and how much I admire his work. That, plus he cooks and photographs food with much affection, so I thought he’d really pour himself into the pastry on our pages. And this he has.

He had not, however, watched The Godfather. I was immediately thrown by this, but the way he studied it afterwards – academically, watching the whole movie and then watching it repeatedly on mute to isolate the images – brought up wholly different insights. Watching with fresh eyes as opposed to mine where every scene was on a pedestal, it was interesting to see what stood out to him, and that informed our storytelling decisions to a great degree.

So I had a summary and a couple of opening limericks, but after Vishal came aboard we really got most of the ideating done together, sitting and discussing each frame. It was very cinematic decision making, deciding what scene to depict and how instead of handing him a book’s worth of verses and telling him to conjure something up. I feel immensely fortunate to have found a visual collaborator I can trust so blindly, and we hope to create many a weird thing together.

VB: From what we have discovered since finishing the book, Raja and I worked quite closely compared to many writer/illustrator teams. When I came onboard maybe a couple of limericks were written to set the tone, but everything else was decided between us over long sessions of going over the scenes from the film, overall themes, minutiae etcetra. I’d go off and crystallise my scribbles into defined sketches, then toil over finished illustrations, and sometimes Raja would change his text to incorporate things that struck him in them, or I’d work in some detail that paid off a turn of phrase.

Casting each animal was different: the Don took many forms, but Michael was almost always going to be a raven in both our hearts, so he became so. If we disagreed it was only on the tenor of some characters: in my head Sonny was older but slightly awkward, almost avuncular, but Raja saw him as dashing and suave, so he went through a few changes, for the better.

One of my favourite pages – forgive my obsession with cakes – gives readers the recipe for a fabulous sounding Chocolate Orange Cake. I can see this appealing to pre-teen bakers as well. And this recipe was developed especially for the book?
RS: Please do not apologise for being obsessed with cakes; you are the perfect audience, plus you’re preaching to the choir. Vishal came up with the recipe along with his cousin, based on what we felt Michael would really like – given his love for dark chocolate – and those afternoons where he’d bring over a prototype cake for me to try and nitpick over whether it was Michael-y enough, may have been the most fun of all. I do like a bit of interactivity in a book, and first I thought we should have a recipe written in rhyme that the kids could follow on their own, but that was turning too restrictive – too restrictive for good cake, anyway. Also this book should ideally be read to really young kids too, and hence the line where it says what you need for cake is eggs, flour “and a grown up who can bake.” Some of my favourite feedback is from children and parents who have made the cake together. Priceless. (Please do try it and let us know.)

VB: Yes, though it follows a few general styles of cake, it is specifically made to be Michael and the Cannoli family’s recipe. I developed it with my cousin Swarupa Amin, who has much more experience baking than I do. We wanted a cake that evoked Michael’s darker character (hence dark chocolate), the recurring theme of oranges signifying change (hence mandarins), olive oil instead of butter because the gangster family in The Godfather’s front business is olive oil import, and put them all together and you have our cake! We have tested it a few times and left not a crumb on the platter, so do bake it for yourselves.

Did the book by Mario Puzo, on which the film is based, play a role at all? Did you refer to it while writing, or illustrating?
RS: Not really. The film is in a whole other league. The book is a fine crime book, engaging and even enthralling, but to match the immortality of the film it would have to be as good as Nabokov. There is one bit, however, that couldn’t be left out. The book has an amazing description of Michael, who, while on exile, falls in love by way of “the thunderbolt.” In our book, Michael’s exile sees him grounded in his room (without dessert) and his only escape is books, and in that spread, among the visuals of Alice In Wonderland and The Little Prince, there is a thunderbolt heading his way. One of inspiration.

VB: I didn’t read the book, but one essential volume was a behind-the-scenes making of the film that included Coppola’s own notes scribbled on pages of the novel and how to adapt them, that informed the energy and pacing of our picture book. Ultimately we favoured film over book because that’s the thing that had the most impact on us.

The Best Baker in the World is the first book in “My First Matinee” series. Which are the other films you are thinking of adapting?
RS: The idea is to tell the stories of films that are complicated and mature and iconic, and, most importantly, films you would never imagine showing to a child. Currently we are working on Book two, an adaptation of Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting. Now that is a smashing, visceral film about youth and addiction to hard drugs, while our tale is about a few young people who spend too much time with screens of phones and tablets and, like the characters in the movie, pay less attention to the real world. It’s a tall order, but we’re excited and hey, it’s a killer soundtrack to have in our heads as we work.

VB: Raja has a hook on how to adapt Trainspotting that I am very excited to explore (but I won’t spoil it!). In all of our ambitious list of films to go after, I think what excites me is the possibility of doing something fresh while capturing the essence of what makes them special to us. If Raja had come to me and said we were doing a slavish tribute, just gangsters and Marlon Brando caricatures with kid-friendly jokes – a straight spoof – I might have said no to being involved. But he wanted to move beyond that, to truly make The Best Baker in the World stand on its own two feet (or paws!), and that is why I continue to wonder what Ewan McGregor would look like with a tail in a corner of my sketchbook.