I don’t often read middle grade fiction, but when I heard about The Cheshire Cheese Cat by Carmen Agra Deedy and Randall Wright (published by Peachtree Publishers, October 2011) at BEA in May, I was excited to read it. After all, the subtitle is “A Dickens of the Tale” and I knew that Charles Dickens and his friends were characters in the tale about animals, friendship, and finding a place. Anyone who reads this blog knows that I love Victorian literature. What could be better?
Further, since BEA, I’ve seen dozens of reviews in the blogosphere and at Goodreads, etc. talking about how fun it was to join Charles Dickens in a small inn in Victorian England. I was excited to read it, although it did take me a while to get to it.
Unfortunately, I was disappointed. It was mediocre writing, the historical aspects did not feel grandly Dickensian or Victorian (the story simply had Dickens as a character), and overall, it was just a okay story. While the tie between Dickens’s novel and Pip and Skilley’s story was creative at the end and it may give kids a positive perspective on Victorian literature (simply because Dickens is a friend), there was nothing spectacular that made me excited about the book throughout my reading of it.
Skilley is a street cat who has a secret: he doesn’t eat mice, and he loves cheese. Because he’s drawn to the cheese, he becomes the mouse-catcher for Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese, a small London inn with the best cheese in all of England and an inn that Charles Dickens enjoys frequenting with his literary friends. While putting on the act of ridding the inn of mice, he befriends a young mouse named Pip, who happens to have a few secrets of his own. Interwoven into the story of the two friends is Dickens’ struggle to find an opening line for his historical novel about the French Revolution (A Tale of Two Cities). As the novel progresses, Skilley and Pip’s friendship is tested. Charles Dickens and his friends Wilkie Collins and William Thackeray and other Victorian figures make cameos. And in the end, all is well.
A few notes on content. The book used difficult and possible unfamiliar words for a young reader, and I liked the ease at which challenging vocabulary was introduced to the reader. I heard the authors mention at BEA that the final copy would have a glossary at the end, which is a wonderful addition. On the other hand, I found The Cheshire Cheese Cat to be incredibly violent for the age level, mostly from the mice been eaten (and guts all over the floor). Although I’m sure kids could take it, it didn’t sit well with me.
I only have a four-year-old so I struggle to place a middle grade fiction novel in context. For me, though, I suspect I’d rather have my older child reading a better written and deliciously rich novel, rather than this somewhat superficial attempt at an historical fiction talking animal adventure. It just didn’t do much for me.
I received a complimentary Advanced Reading Copy of The Cheshire Cheese Cat for review from the publisher at BEA in May 2011.