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Battle of the Books

Round 1, Match 3: The Cheshire Cheese Cat vs. Chime


The Cheshire Cheese Cat
by Carmen Agra Deedy and Randall Wright
by Franny Billingsley
Dial Books

Judged by
Sy Montgomery


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


  1. Sam Bloom says

    I should have known Sy Montgomery wouldn’t let us down. The coin flip; why didn’t anyone else think of that?! Great analysis of both books, too. And RGN, I think, is already as good a reviewer as I’ve seen. That analysis of Chime’s ending is sound and actually echoes my own thinking, but RGN stated it in a much more concise and understandable way than I could have.

  2. Cheers to Sy for my favorite book debate thus far in the battle! I didn’t particularly care for Chime, but she is making me re-consider to the extent that I’d actually like to read it again. And while I found The Cheshire Cheese Cat to be utterly charming, she has given me new reasons to be a fan. And… now I’m 3 for 3 🙂

  3. If I had to judge this one I would have needed to flip a coin too. Chime is more my usual kind of book. I normally run far in the other direction from talking animal books but The Cheshire Cheese Cat is just so perfectly executed I fell in love with it. I am happy to see Chime go though as it is my favorite. (And I would like to see a Chime/Daughter of Smoke and Bone match-up.)

  4. I was pulling for The Cheshire Cheese Cat, but not surprised to see Chime triumph. We really were spoilt for choice this year.

  5. I do not envy Sy having to choose between two wonderful books, but I’m quite pleased that Chime has made it through to the next round! It was one of my favorite books that I read last year and I’ve lost track the number of times I’ve re-read it.

  6. Sara Ralph says

    Three for three! Although, this is one of those matches where I had a feeling one book would win, all the while rooting for its opponent. I tried to read Chime last year and gave up. We tell our students it is okay to abandon books and I’m trying to get over the compulsion to finish books no matter dreadful I find them to be. Chime was successfully abandoned and then lo and behold, it was chosen for Battle of the Kids Books, where I could not avoid it (well if I did avoid it, I couldn’t claim 100% participation in reading and commenting now could I?). While Briony was certainly relatable, I began to be annoyed with her and hated her as I did Twilight’s Bella (although my hatred of her didn’t prevent me from reading all the books and seeing all the movies). At one time I thought to myself, “Just hang her already.” The best thing I can say about the book is that I’m done reading it.

    The Chesire Cheese Cat is a English major/librarian’s dream. This ranks right up there with the best of mouse fantasy in my opinion. It made me wish I were staying in the Chesire Inn, eating cheese and rubbing elbows with Charles Dickens. I’m so sad this book is most likely out of the running (really do not see it coming back in the undead poll).

  7. I think Sy Montgomery’s analysis of Chime is actually more readable and lively than the book itself. Briony’s inability to suss out the truth behind her family tragedies was so prolonged that it began to feel stagey and false. But that’s not why I called this one for Cheshire Cheese Cat – although it is not my particular wedge of cheddar, I have found that it has a broader appeal than Chime.

    Interesting that you point out the first line, Jonathan, because it encapsulates what irritated me about Cheshire Cheese Cat: you either have to know the Dickens reference, or you have to know that male cats are sometimes called toms – and ideally you’d know both – but if a young reader doesn’t know either, it’s like the book signaling, “You can keep going, but there’s a lot you’re not going to get in here.” Some kids respond well to that challenge, but a lot of kids do not.

  8. My, Chime certainly seems to be a love-it-or-hate-it kind of book! I, for one, LOVED it. In fact, it was my favorite book I read in 2011, so I am thrilled to see it chosen here. I thought The Cheshire Cheese Cat was a lovely novel, but I fell absolutely in love with Briony and her story.

  9. Jennifer H says

    Both were fantastic books and difficult to compare, but I admit to loving Chime deeply. Actually, I’d say that I love Briony. She holds a special place in my heart due to her feelings. I can look back upon my teenage years and relate so strongly to that feeling of despising oneself, yet loving life. As Sy said, can’t every teenage girl relate to how she feels? I can’t help but care about her so deeply. It made my heart ache to read her pain. This is a book I will read again and again. Three for three!

  10. I wonder if I would have made it through Chime if I was willing to be seen reading it in public? That teenager on the cover? No self-loathing in HER. I admired the book, loved the first few chapters, and I’m glad that I tried to read it. If only Briony had overcome even some of the angst earlier on. But, even as a teenager, I didn’t have patience for angst!
    Add Cheshire Cheese Cat to the books I’d never have read if not for this contest. A charming story, with more umph to it than I expected. Thank you!

  11. Chime is one of my two favorites in the Battle. Both Briony and her sister were perfectly portrayed and voiced. While I enjoyed the Cheshire Cheese Cat, I kept thinking how much my students, who have not yet read volumes of Dickens, would miss. I probably missed a lot, too.

  12. I don’t really like the cover of Chime, but I do think that the cover girl has something of the dramatic in her that Briony also has–I hate myself, but, you know, only when I know you’re reading about it. The coin flip is perfect, an acknowledgement of how BoB reflects the nature of readers’ entanglements and agonies much better than big awards. Here, it’s okay not to have to stake a claim.

  13. I so love our Kid Commentator and his depiction of Cheshire Cheese Cat as lovable. It is! Totally and, sigh, Chime is not. Still, I picked Chime as the winner but not because I can foretell the results of coin tosses.

  14. Since Chime was pretty much my favorite book of last year, I thoroughly approve of the winner (though Sy’s method of choosing the ultimate winner filled me with anxiety!)

  15. I can’t truthfully judge this battle (since I haven’t read the Cheshire Cheese Cat yet), but I love Chime so much! It really was one of my top 5 books last year. I know it’s a love it or hate it, but since I love it, I don’t really get the hate.

  16. Well, I was rooting for the Cheshire Cheese Cat. Sigh. I’m not really a Dickens fan, but my favorite college professor was and after his Vctorian Britain class I read more than my fair share of that author’s work. I completely enjoyed CCC. I haven’t quite convinced my kiddos to read the book yet (My 9 yo won’t read anything I recommend – took him a year to finally pick up The Invention of Hugo Cabret. He wouldn’t even read it with me. He just finished it and looooved it. Ha! Mom might actually know what she’s talking about. My 12 yo isn’t keen on taking books about talking cats and mice to middle school.) Chime was a hard read for me. Maybe I’ll like it a bit more on a second go around.

  17. A coin toss? Really? Come on . . . What a way to lose out on a pick. My first one.

  18. Anne M. Duncan says

    This is the match I’ve been very interested in. They really are such different books; I’ve been eagerly anticipating the analysis. But I made myself complete a batch of grading before I allowed myself to look. I am not disappointed and completely understand resorting to chance to pick the winner. I loved The Cheshire Cheese Cat for all the reasons that have been mentioned. Chime grew on me. I loved the setting and the language. And I didn’t see the ending as a surprise. Billingsley, for me, made the ending inevitable.
    Does anyone see Rose as being somewhere on the autism spectrum? I didn’t see her as brain damaged. Just a thought.

    And maybe the Cat will come back.

  19. Steffaney Smith says

    Sy…hmmm….full of surprises. I think she is hiding behind the coin: she didn’t want to come off as the bad-a*** and “dis” one of the books….these author-judges are unpredictable and so intriguing in their comments. I think the Cheshire Cheese Cat would make a great read-aloud for a parent to share with his kids — just enjoy it and don’t get bogged down by the Dickens, which would make it feel like “school”! I couldn’t get into Chime myself, and have decided to take Sy up on it and at least read CCC. Onward through the brackets…

  20. Was I the only one who was NOT a fan of Cheshire Cheese Cat? I admit it’s good, but seemed a little cheesy to me. (Sorry, couldn’t resist.) Seriously, I felt like I knew what was coming. The Dickens references were painted with a broad brush, but what kid would know the references? And honestly, that he’d have that much trouble starting A Tale of Two Cities? Hard to buy for me. Though it is a good solid kids’ book, for kids who like animal stories.

    And I’m 3 for 3! And excited for Chime! Now there’s a book where I didn’t know what to expect at all. (Actually, I expected the Printz, and got that wrong.) I love it when someone writes a really good fantasy that feels like something entirely new.

  21. Hooray! I enjoyed The Cheshire Cheese Cat very much, but Chime both grabbed me and impressed me thanks to the storytelling, the amazing language, and the characterization. Plus it just felt fresh compared to so many books out there. Still puzzled over those who dislike it, but to each his own, of course.

  22. I’ve been sure for some time that I have the world best job. That certainty was shaken when I read Sy Montgomery’s Kakapo Rescue. Suddenly, I wanted to abandon my shelves and students and wander small islands in New Zealand spying on cute birds with Nic Bishop. I found I didn’t care which book she chose, I mostly enjoyed spying on the intrepid writers thought process and thoroughly enjoyed her concise decision making ability. And what she found in the dog hair confirmed by prediction.

  23. I agree with DaNae! I’m in the group of people who couldn’t get through Chime on first read. I liked it more the second time around, but I was still pulling for Cheshire Cheese Cat in this match because I read it aloud to my third graders this year and they LOVED it. To the point of shouting the character’s names during the climatic final battle.

  24. I really did like the Chesire Cheese Cat because I like animal stories, but I have to say that comparing books alphabetically isn’t a good idea… The Chesire Cheese Cat is obviously a children’s book, and Chime, a YA one.
    Maybe I will vote for the Chesire Cheese for the undead poll.

  25. Going with the kid on this one – I LOVED The Cheshire Cheese Cat! I don’t consider myself a fan of talking animal books and went into Cheshire with a chip. I went into Chime totally expecting love and not finding it. The cheese should have taken this one home!


  1. […] from Battle of the Books Review. Read the whole post here.) Share this:TwitterFacebookLike this:LikeBe the first to like this […]

  2. […] the disappointing–no, distressing–news that Chime had beaten The Cheshire Cheese Cat in match 3 of Battle of the Kids’ Books. The outcome itself wasn’t that surprising. While I had trouble finishing Chime (the writing […]

  3. […] Jen: Daughter of Smoke and Bone must win. Don’t ask for a rational explanation. I’m still fuming over the fact that Cheshire Cheese lost because of a coin toss. […]

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