Quote of the Month

When love and skill work together, expect a miracle. John Ruskin

Friday, January 13, 2012

A Cheesy Cat, A Literate Mouse, Oh, My, What A House!

Every since reading the blog post, Of Mice... ,  by Jonathan Hunt at Heavy Medal:  A Mock Newbery, reading those books listed became a personal goal.  To date, of the five mentioned, three have been read and reviewed on this blog (well, after this post anyway).  I am quite fond of  Richard Peck's Secrets at Sea and Cynthia Voight's Young Fredle but The Cheshire Cheese Cat:  A Dickens Of A Tale written by Carmen Agra Deedy and Randall Wright with drawings by Barry Moser is in a distinctive class all its own.

At Publishers Weekly on September 22, 2011 a Q & A with Carmen Agra Deedy and Randall Wright was posted explaining how the collaboration between the two transpired.  While this title is completely engaging, without a doubt, as I was devouring the pages I kept thinking how, despite the years of work, these two authors must have had so many moments of sheer fun; the wordplay within this title is so precisely and perfectly witty beginning with the first two lines:

HE WAS THE BEST OF TOMS.  He was the worst of toms. 

Skilley, a streetwise cat with several closely guarded secrets and without a home to call his own, a vagrant lurking about hoping to steal what nourishment he can, longingly gazes at Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese, a pub of quite some renown, on Fleet Street in Victorian London.  When the fierce, demented ginger cat, Pinch slinks up gazing with the same sense of need at Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese an idea is planted in Skilley's mind; an idea so outlandish that it might work.  Out of desire, even the most basic, changes are apt to come; changes that will in the end determine the very balance of the British Empire.

To the dismay of the mouse population at Ye Old Cheshire Cheese, numbering in the thousands, the word cat is heard mentioned in conversation. Pip with secrets of his own is, while not the oldest mouse in residence, an esteemed member of the council and a dear friend of the innkeeper's daughter, Nell.  A whiff of the famous Cheshire Cheese lands Pip in Skilley's mouth.

Skilley had found a way into Ye Old Cheshire Cheese when a door was opened by Charles Dickens and his writer friend.  Assured now with a place as the new mouser, he takes Pip downstairs where the two upon closer examination see that each is no typical cat or mouse.  A bargain is struck; a bargain that may be the undoing of both as some secrets are revealed but others are still concealed.

All seems to be going well for the duo regardless of dodging the cranky cook, Croomes, maker of the famous cheese and the shifty, shrill, barmaid Adele who loathes mice.  But one day Adele determines that two cats might be better than one and the malevolent Pinch becomes party to the comings and goings at the tavern.  The odds for Skilley, Pip, a multitude of mice and yes, Croomes have shifted.

Many elements, Pip's gift of words that would put many a crossword maker to shame, Skilley's shame battling against the loyalty for his friends, the ghost haunting the attic which is really wise Maldwyn, property of the Queen Victoria Herself, Dickens's notes peppered throughout the story as well as his observations within the tale, the thievery and secrets abounding are artfully blended using words so well that readers will be amazed and delighted.  Language of the times, allusions to the books, words, and characters of Dickens and pure craftsmanship have created a classic.  What follows is the brief musing of Maldwyn.

Even the word was distasteful to him.  It was a small mean word, one that began harshly and ended crossly.

When Skilley first enters the inn's kitchen this is his impression.

On the other side, the smells melded into an enticing confusion of the savory and the sweet.  And oh, the clanking and clanging!  To Skilley's ears they were like bells that hammered out a song to gaiety and ...food, food, food!

This description of the cook's mouth after an exclamation had me laughing out loud.

Even the fires shrank back from the horrific voice that boomed from a mouth---no, a gaping maw---that could have swallowed Admiral Nelson's fleet in a single gulp.

That Barry Moser is the illustrator collaborator with Deedy and Wright is, as they say, the cherry on top of an otherwise delectable supreme dessert.  His graphite drawings on translucent vellum bring to life the flavor of this era, the natural characteristics of the animals and the distinct personalities of the humans.  Readers will laugh when they see Croomes the cook, shudder at pictures of Pinch and Adele, nod knowingly at the Henry the innkeeper in his night clothes, sigh at the sight of Nell and smile at all the portrayals of Pip and Skilley.  Masterpieces by the hand of a master.

The Cheshire Cheese Cat:  A Dickens Of A Tale is a historical fantasy not to be missed.  Authors Carmen Agra Deedy and Randall have given readers a rare gem that begs to be shared as a read aloud or among friends in a reading group. References to historical characters, most notably Dickens, do not deter but enhance the tale; even inviting an exploration into the writer and his works.  I give this my highest recommendation for upper elementary on up; there is something for everyone in this book.

Carmen Agra Deedy has a delightful web site which is linked above with her name.  A charming, informative web site on this individual title can be found by following the additional link above.

If you are thinking of using this title as a lead-in to a study of Dickens you might want to consider using the resources at The Learning Network, Teaching Dickens With The New York Times.  Dickens 200th birthday anniversary is February 7, 2012.

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