Animal stories. Done well and you get something like Charlotte’s Web or The Incredible Journey. Done poorly and you cannot name for me a more annoying genre. Some days it seems to me that every great children’s author eventually tries their hand at the style to varying degrees of success. Burned one time too many I’ve taken to just avoiding books with animals in them altogether unless there’s something that seems to be extraordinary about them. So when The Cheshire Cheese Cat came into my possession, I was inclined to put it aside. Then a friend and an editor both assured me it was lovely. And then there was the fact that Carman Agra Deedy, author of such great picture books as 14 Cows for America had co-authored it. Finally, it’s not every day that the great Barry Moser illustrates a new work of middle grade fiction. Add in the fact that there’s a Charles Dickens connection and I cracked. I read it. And reader, it was worth the reading. Not that it convinced me to rethink my animals-in-books opinions, but at least I may be a hair more open minded in the future . . . maybe.
The Cheshire Cheese Inn is a place of secrets. It seems that anyone who works or lives there has one. For Skilley the alleycat, his is a shame that has caused him to strike up a deal with the local mouse population that haunt the inn’s famous cheese production room. For Pip, his mouse friend, it has to do with the mysterious creature that lives amongst the mice, insisting on its own freedom. For the cook it’s a secret about the cheese, and for the barmaid the same. Only the famous writer Charles Dickens, a man that patronizes the inn, seems secret free. And yet, he too harbors a difficulty and a shame. It’ll take Skilley’s deal with Pip to set the spark that causes all these secrets to come to light, and it may possibly save the very monarchy of England as well!
As with any book starring the furry, it all comes down to personality. If you don’t believe in the characters then you haven’t anything to connect to. Here, the critters are infinitely interesting. Pip’s oversized vocabulary makes for a nice side element in the tale. If Skilley comes off as a kind of hired muscle, Pip is the brains behind the operation. From his first utterance of words like “sepulcher” and “perpetual internment” you can see that he is a cut above the general mouse population. Interestingly, once Pip start throwing out one hundred dollar words, the book follows suit. I caught words and phrases like “stygian darkness” bandied about without comment. It doesn’t grate, though, and such words and phrases are understandable within context. By the way, I just referred to Skilley as a kind of thug, but in fact there are depths to him. I was particularly fond of a moment when Pip mentions that his family died in a cleaver-related accident. Thinks the cat, “Cleavers, in his experience, rarely acted alone.”
For the writing, you see, is quite good here. There are passages that lift it above the usual children’s literary pack. At one point Skilley has treated Pip abominably and he is told to own up to it. “It is not enough to say you are sorry. You must utterly own the terrible thing you have done. You must cast no blame on the one you’ve injured. Rather, accept every molecule of the responsibility, even if reason and self-preservation scream against it. Then, and only then, will the words ‘I am sorry’ have meaning.” That’s just a great passage (and not bad advice either).
And then we run into the inevitable question as to whether or not kids will get the Dickens references in this book. Will they understand that the great author himself is attempting to write the first sentence in A Tale of Two Cities? Will they appreciate that a cat with the personality of Bill Sykes is given the adorable name of Oliver by a deluded barmaid? Or that a delightful girl of questionable mortality goes by the name of Nell? Yeah, probably not. And you know what? Who cares? If the book’s storyline hinged on the reader getting these little elements then it might matter. It would also, in such a case, be a useless book for children. Far better to slide the little references in here and there. If a parent or a teacher reading this book with a kid wants to tell them what book they come from, that’s fantastic. But it’s hardly required knowledge.
I don’t know how to draw a mouse with an overbite. Do you? I don’t. Seems to me that a character like Pip would take a delicate hand. So Barry Moser’s work on this book is fantastic (as you would expect). It is also careful. He gives his animals a full range of personality and emotions without turning them into anthropomorphized cartoon characters. The mice look like mice, the cats cats, etc. His humans, for their part, are a perfect array of Dickensian character studies. They’re a little more caricature-ish, but then so are the people who populate Dickens’ books. Of these people, Moser’s Nell is the most impressive. You look at her image and you instantly like her. You simply do. Somehow, the artist has managed to tap into something very real in this girl. You feel as though she’s based on a real person. One that lives and breathes. There’s just something about her.
I’m not sure how two authors go about collaborating on a book like this one. Deedy and Wright’s co-authorship has to be shared with Barry Moser’s fantastic images, though. Without these three working in tandem together the book would not be half as interesting as it is. This is a true collaboration. One that mixes history, animals, mystery, and literary references in abundance. Kids of all ages, genders, and stripes will take to the book. It also happens to make for a handsome readaloud. Recommend it to any child looking for just a good read. It is, precisely, that.
On shelves October 1st.
Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.
Professional Reviews: A star from Kirkus
Misc: Find out where Ms. Deedy got the idea for the book as well as a play-by-play by someone at Peachtree (the publisher) reading the book for the first time. Interesting how they chose to change the raven’s name . . .