With some notable exceptions (Charlotte's Web, The Cricket in Times Square, Bunnicula, The Mouse and the Motorcycle), I'm usually not that thrilled with chapter books that have animal narrators. I'm not sure just why -- maybe it feels a bit contrived, and maybe the anthropomorphism just goes too far with some books. Hard to say. With picture books, I'm a lot more forgiving, but a chapter book usually has to run at least a little bit on empathy and shared experience, and, well, I've never been a cat or a dog or a mouse, so how should I know what that feels like?
All that goes out the window, though, for a book that marries Dickensian wit with a nice twisty plot, and lines like "Animals carry time in their bones." More, please!
Carmen Agra Deedy and Randall Wright have crafted a pitch-perfect book in The Cheshire Cheese Cat: A Dickens of a Tale. The plot seems straightforward: alley cat Skilley has found the perfect gig at Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese, an inn in the heart of London renowned for its amazing cheese. Since the inn is overrun with mice (see: amazing cheese), Skilley's pretty much got a job for life as far as the humans go. But Skilley is not what he seems, and he'll do anything -- including forming an alliance with a rascally mouse named Pip -- to keep his secret hidden. Enter a villain in the form of skulking, sneaking tomcat Pinch, and an even more mysterious personage in the attic, and you have the makings of a novel that captures the very spirit of Dickens' best.
There's a good bit of authentic dialogue here, which might trip up a less fluent reader. However, this is easily handled with the inclusion of a glossary at the back, which provides a great opportunity to teach a few research skills as well. The illustrations by Barry Moser are moodily evocative and put you right inside the Cheshire Cheese with Skilley and Pip as they flee the domineering cook. I love the addition of illustrations in a book like this, where complex vocabulary and plot combine with plenty of white space and pictures, in a balance that keeps readers from being overwhelmed. The drama builds to an appropriately thrilling climax that is complex enough to satisfy adults but not so hard to grasp that kids will be lost. All in all, a perfect title for reading aloud -- with short enough chapters that "just one more" seems a reasonable request.
Bottom line: if you love Merry Olde England and want to share that with your kids, The Cheshire Cheese Cat is the book for you. But don't be disappointed if they read on ahead -- a book like this is too much fun to hold back!
The Cheshire Cheese Cat by Carmen Agra Deedy & Randall Wright, published by Peachtree Publishers
Sample quote: "He was the best of toms. He was the worst of toms." (Love it!)
Bonus! Read more about how this novel came about on the Peachtree Publishers blog.