A Dickens of a Tale
by Carmen Agra Deedy & Randall Wright
illustrated by Barry Moser
Take the best cheese in England, a literate and resourceful mouse, a well-meaning solitary cat with a potentially shameful secret and his nemesis of a savage feline beast, a raving Tower raven, and add in some colorful human characters including our very own Mr.C. Dickens, the writer, and put them in an absurdly intricate yet easy-to-unravel situation, and you have the makings of a riotous story for pages to come.
Add to it the brilliance of English language and compound story-telling, and there is a sure winner.
Although this hilarious romp is marketed for the young adult around middle grade or thereabouts, I had such a fantastic laugh that I am convinced it is for all ages. Well, ages 8+ perhaps as the Dickensian tale with its wry humor and sophisticated patter would be lost on the beginner readers.
Better yet, I think it is best enjoyed by the discerning adult who can get the subtle references and chuckle heartily. But then, that's just a perk, an incidental frolic. The book stands on its own thanks to some exceptional writing and shrewd characterization, even if the references are obscure for the young reader.
Ye Olde Cheshire Inn makes the best cheese in all of England. Pip, the talking, reading, writing mouse manages to herd his motley pack lodging in this Inn, while ensuring plenty of the best cheese for their consumption.
Into this harmonious dwellings is introduced Skilley, fleet of foot, a cat among cats. Or so he would have been, but for a secret: his love for cheese. Skilley, even though he is ashamed to admit it, is a cheese-loving cat who cannot bring himself to catch, let alone eat a mouse. But dares to present himself as a mouser at Ye Olde Cheshire Inn.
Pinch is the impending danger lurking around the corner: a perfectly foul villain who kills mice just for fun, and is Skilley's nemesis.
Maldwyn, a misunderstood raven kidnapped from the Tower of London, or so he believes.
There is no way I will be able to do justice to the style of language and characters and narration. It is not to be taken seriously, the book, I mean. How can I when one of the pages in the book is an entry from Dickens' journal that reads:
The times were
It was the worst of all the days the world has seen-
Oh, why can't I write an opening for my new novel that stands out from all the rest?
I'm at Ye Olde Cheshire today with my friend Wilkie. I was looking forward to a marvelous afternoon of cheese and chummery, but with my well of words tapped dry, I can only despair.
I think I'll just jump in the Thames.
Or become a lamplighter or a chimney sweep.
Anything but a writer.
Of course, little ones may not get the reference to the Tale of Two Cities, but it doesn't take away from the story.
Chapter Ten has some creative type-setting like the ones I've seen in books with concrete poetry - the font style and arrangement makes it an enhanced reading experience.
The black-and-white illustrations capture the characters and moods perfectly, adding a bit of humor to it that is subtle yet forceful.
I can only imagine the kind of fun the authors must've had while writing this book.
All's well that ends well. There are a few knots in the proceedings which get straightened out to everyone's advantage in the end, with a surprise last minute entrance from a mysterious visitor who sorts things out as is expected of her.
This is a book I'd love to have in my bookshelf to reach for at will and read a few pages at random and know that I will be entertained and amused each time. I am adding it to the as-yet-non-existent Reading List for the kids when they are ready.
[image source: schoollibraryjournal.com]