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Tuesday, April 10, 2012

The Cheshire Cheese Cat, written by Carmen Agra Deedy and Randall Wright with drawings by Barry Moser. Peachtree, 2011. $19.95 ages 8 and up

"Maldwyn had told the story before, most often to young ravens in need of their history lessons. He had never expected to be called upon to tell it to a cat. His eyes fell first on Pip, then washed over Skilley in a perfunctory fashion."

A skittish alley cat with a secret, an educated mouse with a penchant for language, a pub being overrun by 'ten thousand mice', a wise and royal raven, various and sundry pub staff, visiting writers and the Queen (Victoria, that is) herself bring this Victorian adventure to remarkable life.

While dodging a fishmonger's broom and trying to avoid Pinch, an alley cat with a bad reputation, Skilley learns that Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese pub is in need of a mouser. The home of Britain's 'grandest cheese' is being overrun by the vermin and Skilley envisions a perfect plan for his future:

"He was already engrossed in the audacity of a scheme so bold, so cunning, it would surely set him up for the rest of his nine lives."

There is a slight problem...his bothersome secret. Skilley doesn't like the taste of mice and since 10.000 of the vermin are said to live in the pub, his first problem is obvious. How will he convince the innkeeper to give him a home? As luck would have it, he quickly meets up with Pip, an educated and articulate mouse who also lives in the pub. That first meeting is terrifying for both. When Skilley nabs Pip in an attempt to prove himself worthy of the title 'mouser', the mouse accepts his fate. He is astounded at the end result:

"His tormentor carried him - where? Down the stairs? And then, just as suddenly as he had been captured, he was rudely spat out onto the stone floor."

Pip is quick to discover Skilley's secret...he is a cat who loves cheese. Pip can smell it on his breath! They make a deal that Skilley will pretend to be skilled at his new job, Pip will make sure that he gets the cheese he so desires. It's a great plan. You know, of course, it will not always be work as it should. When Pinch also finds a home in the inn, mayhem is sure to follow.

The writing is so captivating, the characters have such presence, the plot is so tight and entertaining; readers will find themselves intrigued by an animal tale that insists on being historical, too.  Charles Dickens plays a role and there are many references to his work. These make it a most intriguing story for adults while these asides do not need to be known or understood by a young reader to keep them interested and reading.

Skilley and Pip are strong allies and meet all obstacles together, with some slight bumps along the way as would be expected when a cat and a mouse try to share the same sensibilities. There is place where Skilley treats Pip with great disdain and Pip calls him on it, teaching a lesson in common courtesy and friendship at the same time:

 “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.” 

A right fine lesson to be taught by the educated and thoughtful mouse. Secrets are divulged, action is taken and the audience totally engaged in this book filled with beautiful language, memorable characters and unquestionable loyalty.

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