|The Cheshire Cheese Cat
by Carmen Agra Deedy and Randall Wright
by Franny Billingsley
The Cheshire Cheese Cat: A Dickens of a Tale
by Carmen Agra Deedy and Randall Wright.
Drawings by Barry Moser
Aficionados of Dickens will be delighted. But not all children are fans (yet) of the great novelist. And frankly, Dickens wasn’t what drew me to the book, either. I loved this book for the same reason kids will: I’m a big fan of cats and of mice.
There are plenty of tales out there told by talking animals, some of them our greatest classics. But unfortunately (like too many films about animals), these days, too often the critters are little more than just furry people–and therefore no more interesting than a book about mere humans. Not so this book. Pip, a tiny mouse who repeatedly cheats death, grooms himself exactly like a real mouse. Skilley, the tomcat hero of the book, really behaves, most of the time, just like a cat. And if you think the book’s premise is impossible—that no cat in his right mind can resist hunting and eating a mouse—think again. Not all cats hunt rodents. Some (unfortunately for our feathered wildlife) specialize in birds. Skilley just happens to specialize in…cheese.
Which is what brings him to Ye Old Cheshire Cheese, a popular London inn frequented by, among other characters, Charles Dickens. (who, we learn from excerpts from his diary, is having a dickens of a time writing the first lines of A Tale of Two Cities.) Skilled parodies of his writing, scenes taken right out of Dickensian London, and even names taken from characters from his novels make The Cheshire Cheese Cat even more fun to read.
The book works on several levels. The literary allusions are hilarious for those in the know. The fast-paced plot has as many twists as London’s alleys. The authors (one of whom, Randall Wright, is a bit of a Dickens scholar) let loose with some fabulous words here (Ready for some hookem-snivey? There’s plenty to be had in these pages.) And along the way, readers will find that enemies can become friends, learn how to make a good apology, and discover the power of the pen—even if the actual writing implement is really….well, you’ll see.
I’m also a big fan of the absolutely winning illustrations, which I must confess up front were drawn by a friend of mine, Barry Moser. He’s illustrated the Bible, Alice in Wonderland (with its own Cheshire cat) and my husband’s first book for children, Hogwood Steps Out, starring our pig, who Barry drew from photos I provided him over the months he was creating the artwork. He draws a perfect pig–and a fabulous mouse.
by Franny Billingsley
Judging by the cover—a pretty young blonde woman who looks like a model wearing too much mascara–Chime looked like a teen romance novel, unlikely to be to my taste. (The books on my night-table right now include a scholarly report on keeping octopuses in captivity and a natural history of hedgehogs) But you can’t judge a book by its cover. Chime is not your average teen romance. It’s an extremely inventive and original novel, full of strangeness and beauty and surprise–and some of the most vivid and arresting language I have read in a long time.
Chime is part fantasy and part mystery, set in a time when most of the developed world was still lamp-lit and motorcars were rare innovations. Much of it takes place in a swamp peopled by fabulous beings who make mischief among the muck and the ooze and the star-spangled dark. And the 17-year-old heroine, Briony, mercifully, never applies any eye make-up. She has better things to do: racing like a wolf through the black labyrinth of the wetland, recounting stories to spirits, saving her brain-damaged twin sister–and staying one step ahead of the hangman’s noose in an era when anyone suspected of witchcraft (as anyone with powers like Briony’s certainly would be) risked the death sentence.
But when we meet Briony, she is suffering a fate worse than death. She’s drowning in guilt and self-loathing. She thinks she caused the flood that nearly destroyed her minister father’s house. She believes she set fire to her family’s library. She’s sure she killed her beloved step-mother. Her self-imposed sentence for all these sins? A lifetime of caring for her screaming, damaged sister while remembering, always, to hate herself.
Everyone who’s ever been a teenage girl knows what self-loathing feels like. At this age, all you have to do to hate yourself is get one pimple. That’s what makes us identify with Briony, even if we never caused a fire, flood or murder–even if we can’t converse with tidal waves or wake the dead like she does. Briony thinks she’s a witch. But is she really? Are any of us as bad as think?
In this fast-paced novel, author Franny Billingsley casts a spell more powerful than any witch. Her fictional swamp, with its talking water, flickering lights and invisible hands, feels absolutely real. Mysteries fold in upon secrets enveloping surprises, page after page. In this book, the swamp spirits often beg Briony for a story; Billingsley’s should satisfy even a supernatural reader. Chime is pure magic.
And the winner?
As I was engrossed in Chime, I was fuming at my fate. Lucky me, I got two great books to read. But woe! How could I decide between these two great but completely dissimilar novels? Cheshire was written for a younger readership; Chime is for teens. Cheshire runs only 228 pages; Chime, with smaller type, runs 361. One book stars cats and mice, and the other features people and spirits. One is funny; the other, scary. Cheshire is graced with drawings by one of our era’s most talented illustrators—but how could I penalize Chime because it wasn’t? At least apples and oranges are both fruits; comparing these books was like comparing salty to sweet. Both are beautiful and perfect—neither is better than the other.
I was so frustrated and at sea about this that I actually flipped a coin. I used an Australian 20 cent piece. Heads (the portrait of young Queen Elizabeth II) for Chime and its pretty heroine, and tails (a platypus) for Cheshire its characters with….tails. I heard the coin land, but—I’m not kidding–I couldn’t find it! I searched among the dog hair on the living room floor and finally found it, Queen up.
But congratulations to both authors—both are truly outstanding books that I won’t forget.
– Judge Sy Montgomery
And the Winner of this match is……
Ah, finally, we have a judge with a flawless rationalization, one that everybody can understand and nobody can question: the proverbial coin flip! Actually, Sy may be the first to employ such a sensible strategy (or at least the first to publicly acknowledge it), but I’m sure she’s not the first one to think of it. This match is also the Battle of the Best First Lines. THE CHESHIRE CHEESE CAT: He was the best of toms. He was the worst of toms. CHIME: I’ve confessed to everything and I’d like to be hanged. Now, if you please. Having read those, how can you turn away from either story? You can’t! With a couple of awards already in tow (Boston Globe-Horn Book Honor, National Book Award finalist), it’s not terribly surprising that CHIME is walking away with the win (and dare we hope that it will meet DAUGHTER OF SMOKE & BONE in the next round?), but give THE CHESHIRE CHEESE CAT some love and respect, too!
– Commentator Jonathan Hunt
I would have chosen The Chesire Cheese Cat for all the reasons Ms. Montgomery admires it, and one more: It was lovable. And however you can describe Chime, it is definitely not lovable. Although I might have picked Chime for its wonderful darkness, uniqueness, and beautiful writing, it disappointed me. I didn’t like the volatility of the plot towards the end of the book, especially the surprise ending; along with this, the lyrical and mysterious writing seemed to lose its aura. Altogether, it sort of undermined the message of the book.
– Kid Commentator RGN