The Cheshire Cheese Cat, by Carmen Agra Deedy and Randall Wright, with drawings by Barry Moser (Peachtree Publishers, Oct 1, 2011), is an utterly lovely, warm and funny and tense story, highly recommended to all who love children's books, but in particular to fans of cheese and Charles Dickens.
It tells of Skilley, an alley cat with an embarrassing fondness for cheese, desperate to escape the mean streets of 19th-century London. In particular, he wants a home at Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese--haunt of famous authors, home of delicious cheddar, and overrun by mice. So Skilley strikes a bargain with Pip, one of the resident mice--he will act the part of a fierce mouser, and in return, the mice will provide him with cheese....
But the path to cheese is not as easy as it might seem. For gathered at Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese are an enemy tomcat, a hostile and unscrupulous barmaid, and an injured raven from the Tower of London, who must somehow be returned to his post before the British Empire falls! Observing the developing crisis is Dickens himself, desperate to find the first line for his new book....
I found it all very appealing. The personalities of the cast of characters come through most beautifully, some speaking in simple English, others exhibiting more erudition. The story is tense, and more intricate than it first appears--I found it hard to put the book down. It made me chuckle (especially the passages from Dickens' journal, and the scattered references to his books, though these will probably go right over the head of the young reader), and yet alongside the rollicking story there were thoughtful moments with real emotional resonance, believable and meaningful because the characters themselves so clearly are thinking, caring, fallible beings.
And, although it is not belabored at all, there is a message to be found here of the best kind--that one does not have to be bound by stereotypes and expectations.
"You eat cheese." The words emerged from Pinch's clenched jaws with a slow hiss.
So, he knows.
Skilly allowed himself an instant of surprise to savor how little he now cared. "Yes, I eat cheese. What's more, my truest friend in this friendless world is a mouse. And I would risk my life for him, and for that bird-" (p 211 of ARC).
And so, somewhat to my surprise, this has become one of my favorite books of 2011. That being said, I'm not sure it's for everyone--it's the sort of book that feels like it is being read aloud in one's head, somewhat portentously in places. And this emphasis on the dramatic (for instance, "The alarm turned to dread as his eyes met those of that pitiless malcontent, Pinch."), while it struck me as in keeping with the Victorian setting, might be a bit much for some.
Here's another review, at Fuse #8.
(review copy received from the publisher at BEA)