Deedy, Carmen Agra and Randall Wright. The Cheshire Cheese Cat: A Dickens of a Tale. Illustrated by Barry Moser. Peachtree, 2011.
“Fleet of foot, sleek and solitary, Skilley was a cat among cats. Or so he would have been, but for a secret he had carried since his early youth. A secret that caused him to live in hidden shame, avoiding even casual friendship lest anyone discover — “
A whack of the dreaded broom interrupts the authors’ fine opening description of a cat that deserves to find a spot in many a reader’s home. Skilley is a common alley cat with an uncommon problem: he has a taste for cheese instead of mice. This leads Skilley to embark upon a bold plan: to escape the streets for the comfort of nothing less than … Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese. There on Fleet Street, amidst the tantalizing scent of London’s best cheese, the famous writers flock — William Makepeace Thackeray, Wilkie Collins, and, especially, Charles Dickens, who takes a fancy to our feline protagonist, a “handsome blue with a most comical tail.”
Life at the tavern, however, brings with it plenty of complications. Most notably, a clever, word-loving mouse named Pip discovers Skilley’s secret. Can a cat and a mouse learn to trust each other? The two decide to make a deal, that Skilley will guard the mice in return for them giving him bits of the luscious Cheshire cheese for which the inn is known.
The unfolding of the friendship between this improbable pair makes for delicious reading. Any adult who reads this aloud to children will encounter myriad opportunities to discuss the nature of trust and the precious yet precarious role it plays in the quality of one’s life. In the course of the characters’ growing appreciation of each other’s differences, the plot honors the motley nature of our world.
Providing another prism on the complexities of trust is the wounded raven Maldwyn, one of Queen Victoria’s Tower guards. The dour but wise old bird saw his life turn topsy-turvy after he encountered a vicious tomcat. Skilley realizes with horror that the bully who maimed Maldwyn is also his own nemesis: Pinch, a rascal always ready to rumble.
Of course, Pinch is the very cat who arrives at the pub to bring misery to all his potential prey. Skilley’s peaceful new life vanishes, as he not only fears for his own security but also for his dear friend, Pip; as well as the multitude of mice under his protection.
Dire circumstances require audacious planning and action. The broken-winged raven must return to the Tower, and it is up to the literate mouse Pip to mastermind the bird’s escape. In a charming touch, the authors show how a famous writer unwittingly assists in the grand scheme.
Readers will feast not only on the novel’s well-paced plot, the vivid characters, and Moser’s arresting, expressive drawings, but also on the authors’ themes of the power of words and the worth of each creature on earth. Dickens, whose thoughts weave in and out of the animal tale, is having a heck of a time coming up with the opening for his latest novel. We discover how the writer’s most famous line comes from an unlikely and lovable source. We should all be so lucky.
Here, readers, is a tale worth savoring.
You can discover more about how this fantasy came to be in this interview at James Preller’s blog.
More Great Read-Alouds with Cats or Mice: