The Great Cake Mystery: Precious Ramotswe's Very First Case: A Number 1 Ladies' Detective Agency Book for Young Readers

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Fans around the world adore the bestselling No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series, the basis of the HBO TV show, and its proprietor Precious Ramotswe, Botswana’s premier lady detective.  In this charming series, Mma  Ramotswe navigates her cases ...
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The Great Cake Mystery: Precious Ramotswe's Very First Case: A Number 1 Ladies' Detective Agency Book for Young Readers

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Fans around the world adore the bestselling No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series, the basis of the HBO TV show, and its proprietor Precious Ramotswe, Botswana’s premier lady detective.  In this charming series, Mma  Ramotswe navigates her cases and her personal life with wisdom, and good humor—not to mention help from her loyal assistant, Grace Makutsi, and the occasional cup of tea.
Have you ever said to yourself, Wouldn’t it be nice to be a detective?
This is the story of an African girl who says just that. Her name is Precious.
When a piece of cake goes missing from her classroom, a traditionally built young boy is tagged as the culprit. Precious, however, is not convinced. She sets out to find the real thief. Along the way she learns that your first guess isn’t always right. She also learns how to be a detective.
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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
This lovely, warmhearted novel reveals how Precious Ramotswe, the star of Smith’s the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series for adults, launched her sleuthing career. Curious and observant, Precious, “one of the nicest girls in Botswana,” is a natural detective. She finds her first case at school, when a piece of cake, a slice of jam-slathered bread, and some iced buns disappear. Smith laces his narrative with drily contemplative musings (“You can lose a plain piece of bread and not think twice about it, but when you lose one spread thickly with strawberry jam it’s an altogether more serious matter”) as well as direct addresses to readers that tap into childhood dreams of being a detective. When classmates accuse a “rather round” student of the thefts and he denies it, Precious believes him and hunts for the real culprit. Throughout, Smith shares wise insights on human nature through his compassionate and fair-minded protagonist. Bold and striking, McIntosh’s chunky, two-color woodcutlike pictures present evocative images of the African setting. This is a story, and a heroine, with impressive dimension. Ages 7–10. Agent: Robin Straus, Robin Straus Agency. (Apr.)
From the Publisher

“A detective is born! What a delightful, breezy read!"
     —Mary Pope Osborne, bestselling author of The Magic Tree House series

“Told with an innocence that will captivate young readers, The Great Cake Mystery is a kind-hearted, feel-good story for all. Loved it!”
     —Graham Salisbury, author of Under the Blood-Red Sun and the Calvin Coconut series
“Kids will love this kind and clever new detective. They’ll love the mystery, and they might even love the thieves. I look forward to more!”
     —Patricia Reilly Giff, award-winning author of Wild Girl and other books

“Good for kids who like mysteries and stories about other cultures and friendship all packed into one.” —TIME for Kids magazine

“Stunning artwork. . . . A compelling plot and interesting secondary characters, especially classmates who are quick to make unfounded accusations and their teacher, who provides wisdom just when it is needed, will leave readers wanting more. One case where an adaptation from an adult book is as much fun to read as the original.”
     —Kirkus Reviews, starred review
“This mini mystery and its jaw-dropping illustrations will please proto-detectives, both large and small. . . . What [McCall Smith]’s done with The Great Cake Mystery is unique. . . . His fans will pluck it up like so many of his other books. . . . A really fun read.”
     —School Library Journal

"Bold and striking, McIntosh’s chunky, two-color woodcutlike pictures present evocative images of the African setting. This is a story, and a heroine, with impressive dimension." 
      - Publishers Weekly, starred review

School Library Journal
Gr 1–3—Young readers are introduced to Precious Ramotswe, a young sleuth in Botswana, in this prequel to the adult series "The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency" (Pantheon). Trouble occurs when tasty treats disappear in her school. When word gets out, Precious is on the case. Observant readers will find the biggest clue to solving the mystery on the front cover. Primitive in nature and using only red, brown, and black on cream paper, the illustrations are minimal and the characters appear to be adults rather than children. The story is predictable and unlikely to have beginning chapter book readers awaiting Precious's next case.—Janene Corbin, Rosebank Elementary School, Nashville, TN
Kirkus Reviews
How did Precious Ramotswe, the detective in the bestselling The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series, get her start? McCall Smith has penned the story of Precious' very first case, taken on when she was just a schoolgirl. Someone has been stealing bread and sweets from the children's lunches and one round boy, Poloko, is accused of the crime. Precious has a knack for people, and she trusts Poloko's story, even when his sticky fingers point to guilt. Filling his story with fully realized secondary characters and a sumptuous Botswanan setting, McCall Smith creates the same warm community in this series that his adult readers appreciate. Readers see Precious' understanding of human nature and powers of observation. The stunning artwork in this chapter book has the look of woodcuts and old-time three-color separation illustration. It extends the story, immersing readers in the village life of Botswana. When a new character is introduced, McIntosh explores either the actual name or its pronunciation in bold red capital letters. A compelling plot and interesting secondary characters, especially classmates who are quick to make unfounded accusations and their teacher, who provides wisdom just when it is needed, will leave readers wanting more. One case where an adaptation from an adult book is as much fun to read as the original. (Mystery. 7-12)
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780307743893
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 4/3/2012
  • Series: Precious Ramotswe Series , #1
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 96
  • Sales rank: 76,746
  • Age range: 7 - 10 Years
  • Lexile: 720L (what's this?)
  • Product dimensions: 5.26 (w) x 7.48 (h) x 0.34 (d)

Meet the Author

Alexander McCall Smith is the author of the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series, the Isabel Dalhousie series, the Portuguese Irregular Verbs series, the 44 Scotland Street series, and the Corduroy Mansions series. He was born in what is now known as Zimbabwe and lives in Scotland, where in his spare time he is a bassoonist in the RTO (Really Terrible Orchestra).


Alexander McCall Smith was born in Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia) and went to school in Bulawayo, near the Botswana border. Although he moved to Scotland to attend college and eventually settled in Edinburgh, he always felt drawn to southern Africa and taught law for a while at the University of Botswana. He has written a book on the criminal law of Botswana, and among his successful children's books is a collection of African folk tales, Children of Wax.

Eventually, Smith had an urge to write a novel about a woman who would embody the qualities he admired in the people of Botswana, and the result, The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency, was a surprise hit, receiving two special Booker citations and a place on the Times Literary Supplement's International Books of the Year and the Millennium list. "The author's prose has the merits of simplicity, euphony and precision," Anthony Daniels wrote in the Sunday Telegraph. "His descriptions leave one as if standing in the Botswanan landscape. This is art that conceals art. I haven't read anything with such unalloyed pleasure for a long time."

Despite the book's success in the U.K., American publishers were slow to take an interest, and by the time The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency was picked up by Pantheon Books, Smith had already written two sequels. The books went from underground hits to national phenomena in the United States, spawning fan clubs and inspiring celebratory reviews. Smith is also the author of a detective series featuring the insatiably curious philosopher Isabel Dalhousie and the 44 Scotland Street novels, which present a witty portrait of Edinburgh society

In an interview on the publisher's web site, Smith says he thinks the country of Botswana "particularly chimes with many of the values which Americans feel very strongly about -- respect for the rule of law and for individual freedom. I hope that readers will also see in these portrayals of Botswana some of the great traditional virtues in Africa -- in particular, courtesy and a striking natural dignity."

Good To Know

As a professor at Edinburgh Law School, Smith specializes in criminal law and medical law, and has written about the legal and ethical aspects of euthanasia, medical research, and medical practice.

When he isn't writing books or teaching, Smith finds time to play the bassoon in the candidly named amateur ensemble he co-founded, The Really Terrible Orchestra.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Have you ever said to yourself, Wouldn't it be nice to be a detective? Most of us will never have the chance to make that dream come true. Detectives, you see, are born that way. Right from the beginning they just know that this is what they want to be. And right from the beginning they show that solving mysteries is something they can do rather well.

This is the story about a girl who becomes a detective. Her name is Precious.

Precious smiled a lot. She often smiled even when she was not thinking about anything in particular. Nice people smile a lot, and Precious Ramotswe was one of the nicest girls in Botswana. Everyone said so.

Botswana was the country she lived in. It was down toward the bottom of Africa. She lived in a wide dry land, which had a lot of amazing things to see.

There was the Kalahari Desert, a great stretch of dry grass and thorn trees that went on and on into the distance, farther than any eye can see. Then there was the great river in the north, which flowed the wrong way. It did not flow into the ocean, as rivers usually do, but back into the heart of Africa. When it reached the sands of the Kalahari, it drained away, just like water disappears down the drain of a bath.

But most interesting, of course, were the wild animals. There were many of these in Botswana: lions, elephants, leopards, monkeys—the list goes on. Precious had not seen all of these animals, but she had heard about most of them. Her father, a kind man whose name was Obed, often spoke about them, and she loved the tales he told.

"Tell me about the time you were nearly eaten by a lion," she would ask. And Obed, who had told her that story perhaps a hundred times before, would tell her again. And it was every bit as exciting each time he told it.

"I was a young man then," he began.

"How young?" asked Precious.

"About eighteen, I think," he said. "I went up north to see my uncle, who lived way out in the country, or the bush as we call it in Africa, very far from everywhere."

"Did anybody else live there?" asked Precious. She was always asking questions, which was a sign that she might become a good detective. Do you like to ask questions? Many people who ask lots of questions become detectives, because that is what detectives do. They ask a lot of questions.

"It was a very small village," Obed said. "It was just a few huts, really, and a fenced place where they kept the cattle. They had this fence, you see, which protected the cattle from the lions at night."

This fence had to be quite strong. A few strands of wire cannot keep lions out. That is hopeless when it comes to lions—they would just knock down such a fence with a single blow of their paw. A proper lion fence has to be made of strong poles, from the trunks of trees.

"So there I was," Obed said. "I had gone to spend a few days with my uncle and his family. They were good to me and I liked my cousins. There were six of them—four boys and two girls. We had many adventures together.

"I slept in one of the huts with three of the boys. We did not have beds in those days—we had sleeping mats made out of reeds, which we laid out on the floor of the hut. They were nice to sleep on. They were much cooler than a bed and blankets in the hot weather, and easier to store too."

Precious was quiet now. This was the part of the story that she liked the best.

"And then," her father said, "and then one night I woke up to a strange sound. It was like the sound a large pig will make when it's sniffing about for food, only a little bit quieter."

"Did you know what it was?" she asked, holding her breath as she waited for her father to reply. She knew what the answer would be, of course. She had heard the story so many times. But it was always exciting, always enough to keep you sitting on the very edge of your seat.

He shook his head. "No, I didn't. And that was why I thought I should go outside and find out."

Precious closed her eyes tight. She could hardly bear to hear what was coming.

"It was a lion," her father said. "And he was right outside the hut, standing there, looking at me from underneath his great dark mane."

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Reading Group Guide

The questions, discussion topics, and reading list that follow are intended to enhance your reading group’s discussion of The Great Cake Mystery, by Alexander McCall Smith.


1. Do you agree with the author’s statement that detectives are “born that way”?

2. Why does the author stress that Precious is a “nice” person? What personality traits do you think a nice person should possess?

3. Discuss the significance of Obed’s story about the lion. What does it tell Precious about her father? Why does she like to hear the story over and over?

4. How does Precious know which parts of the lion story are true and which parts are stretching the truth? Why is this important?

5. Why does Tapiwa tell Precious about the cake thief? Why does she assume that the thief is someone in the school?

6. Precious wonders if people who grow up to steal were thieves when they were children or if they became thieves later on. This question is not answered in the book. What do you think?

7. Why does everyone like Sepo? What qualities does he have that make him popular with the other students?

8. Why do Sepo and Tapiwa believe that Poloko is the thief? What evidence do they have? Why are the other children so quick to believe that Poloko is the thief?

9. How does Poloko feel when the others accuse him of stealing the food? How would you feel if you were accused of something that you didn’t do? Why is it so hard for Poloko to defend himself?

10. Why does Precious believe Poloko is innocent? Why does she tell him she will be his friend when everyone else believes the worst about him?

11. How do Precious and Poloko discover the real thieves? If they had not walked home from school together, taking their time, would they have solved the mystery?

12. Solving the mystery is one thing, but the real challenge is proving it to the others. How does Precious convince the other children and the teacher of the truth? How does her dream help her trap the real thieves?


1. Discuss the theme of honesty in this story. What does honesty mean to you? Can you think of other ways that Precious might have proven to the class that Poloko was innocent?

2. Discuss the theme of friendship in this story. Who acted as a true friend? What qualities do you look for in a friend? How can you tell when someone is a true friend?

3. Discuss the theme of stereotypes and what it means to judge people based on preconceived notions rather than evidence. Discuss the need to hear all sides of a story before you accuse a person of wrongdoing.


1. Geography:
Draw a map of Africa and highlight the country of Botswana on the map. Locate the countries that are near Botswana on the map. What more do you want to know about Botswana after reading The Great Cake Mystery?

2. Science/Biology—The Animal Kingdom:
Find information about the indigenous monkeys in Botswana. How does this information help you understand the story better?

3. Language Arts:
Write a character sketch of your favorite character in the story. What do you think that character does in his or her spare time? What is your character’s family like? Write a story of your own that includes the character you have chosen. Look up information about the author of The Great Cake Mystery:

4. Social Studies:
In the American judicial system, an accused person is “innocent until proven guilty.” Discuss the meaning of this phrase. Research the history of the American Bill of Rights and how it came to be adopted by our Congress:
How do the laws of Botswana compare to the American system?

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3.5
( 6 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 6 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted January 3, 2014

    Great book!

    I got this book's sample on my nook but, the samle is not even long enough th read any of the book! I was not happy about this. I then got this book on my iPad. It is a good book. I do agree it is a little short though.

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  • Posted November 25, 2012

    lovely story and nice cultural touches through out -- well writt

    lovely story and nice cultural touches through out -- well written and great questions in the back to help with discussion after.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 18, 2012

    Cute but not a mystery

    The answer to mystery was shown too early. I wanted to use it for a second grade book club. However, it was too short.

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  • Posted April 26, 2012

    Cute story & fantastic illustrations

    As a huge fan of Alexander McCall Smith I had to read this...and it did not disappoint. The story was cute and will be great to read with my daughter when she is old enough and I really LOVED the illustrations throughout the book.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 14, 2012

    Too Short

    Needs to be longer for 7$. I am a fast reader and it took me 1 hour to finsh it. But it was O.K. and Iliked the main character.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 30, 2012

    No text was provided for this review.

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