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The Lighthouse Keeper’s Lunch

This is an old book but a real classic that has been used in classrooms for many years.  First published in 1977, it is one of those books in which all the elements of a good children’s story come together to form something special.

Mr Grinling is the lighthousekeeper.  He lives in a cottage on the side of a hill directly opposite the lighthouse.

Every day, Mrs Grinling packs him a (quite frankly delicious) lunch and hangs it on the wire that connects the house and the lighthouse, so it travels across to him.  But one day, a pack of voracious seagulls discover their system and help themselves to the lunch.  By the time it gets to Mr Grinling, there is nothing left.  The next day, Mrs Grinling ties the napkin on to the basket to protect it, but this is no match for the scavenging birds.  Next she tries sending the cat over in an identical basket to defend the lunch, but he is so terrified that he cowers pathetically in the bottom and pays no attention to the seagulls.  Then, finally, she has an ingenious idea that puts the seagulls off for good.

The illustrations are beautiful. Scruffy pen and ink and watercolour drawings, the stalwart Mr Grinling and his pipe, the homely Mrs Grinling and their reluctantly put-upon cat are brought to life by David Armitage with expression and humour.  The text too is of high quality; a funny, pacey story with words you can relish.  Mr Grinline is ‘a most industrious lighthousekeeper’ and the moment at which the seagulls descend is also nicely put: “Three scavenging seagulls set upon it and devoured it with great gusto.”  There are also comic touches from the seagulls, who discuss their stolen fare in speech bubbles with some enthusiasm and address each other by name: Fred, Tom, and Bert.  One of the best moments however is the deadpan delivery of the attempt to get Hamish the cat to guard the lunch basket. ” ‘A most ingenious plan,’ agreed Mr Grinling.  Hamish did not think this was ingenious at all.”

A classic story, original and funny with lots to talk about.

 

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A Kitten Called Moonlight

“I’d like my story again,” Charlotte said.

“Which story?” asked Mummy.

“The one I like best, about Moonlight and me,” Charlotte said.

“I thought that’s the one it might be,” Mummy said.

A Kitten Called Moonlight tells the story of how Charlotte and her Mummy found their kitten.  Charlotte sees the kitten’s eyes shining in the dark one night as she comes home from a party, and asks her mother to help her find it.  But her Mummy doesn’t believe her and hurries her indoors to bed.  Later she finds Charlotte sitting and gazing out at the shore, still insisting that something is out there.  To help put her mind at rest, Charlotte’s Mummy suggests they go out and look on the beach, and see if they can see anything.  Of course there is something there – a tiny white kitten, shivering on the rocks.  Charlotte and her Mummy rescue him, and the little girl carries him all the way home.

This is a very sweet book, told in an unusual way.  The story is their own, and so it is partly narrated by Charlotte and her mother, although still in the third person.  In addition the omniscient narrator describes their talk and how they interact with each other in the telling of the story.   This gives the written story the flavour of an oral one, which is surprisingly effective.

“Something like that,” Mummy said.  “Her Mummy searched all over the house.”

“I like this bit,” Charlotte said.

The style is simple and clear, and well-pitched.  Including Charlotte’s voice gives it the language of a young child and makes this a very accessible story.  However, reading this one as an adult improves with practice, as the complex narrative structure means that it can be easy to misunderstand who is talking sometimes.  It needs clearly distinct voices for Mummy, Charlotte and the narration.

Christian Birmingham’s pastel drawings are detailed and realistic, and the delicate white kitten glows brightly on the page.  The scale, too, of the tiny animal and the boats and rocks that surround it, complements the text well.  His pictures of Charlotte are full of character; there is a particularly wonderful page where she catches sight of the kitten from the car window and her eyes are wide with surprise and wonder.

The book shows the intimacy of the relationship between mother and daughter.  Although she doesn’t really believe her, Charlotte’s mother is willing to take her down to the shore to make sure that there really is nothing there.  Small children will love seeing that Charlotte was right after all.  There is a selflessness in going out at night to rescue the kitten which is also a valuable lesson. It is probably a book that will appeal more to girls than boys, but all cat-lovers may be interested.  The calm, measured tone makes it an ideal bedtime story.

A little sentimental, perhaps, but a heartwarming and carefully told story made visually striking by quality of the illustrations.  Worth a look, particularly for girls of around three to five years old who like animals.

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Splat the Cat

It is Splat’s first day at cat school, and he is not feeling particularly happy about it.  Despite his excuses his Mum helps him onto his bike and off he goes.  At school he meets his teacher, Mrs Wimpydimple, and all the other cats, and begins his lessons.  One of the things he learns is that cats chase mice.  Which would be fine, were it not for the fact that, in need of a friend, Splat popped his rodent friend Seymour into his lunchbox before he went to school.  However, once Mrs Wimpydimple has calmed everything down again it is Splat and Seymour who are able to save the day when the door to the milk cupboard is stuck, and Splat goes home a much happier cat than he arrived.

This book is obviously aimed at children starting school who may be apprehensive.  In the sense that Splat goes to school unhappy and returns full of excitement about his day, the message is a positive one.  However, the difficulties that Splat encounters are too far removed from reality to be of any real use to nervous children.  It is inspiring that Mrs Wimpydimple changes her blackboard notes in the light of what Splat and Seymour demonstate but if intended as a support book for young children there is too little of the actual problems they face on their first day, like talking to people, or finding where to eat lunch.

Rob Scotton’s illustrations are distinctive and really appeal to children; they look like they were painted with a spraycan and have a modern, edgy feel.  There are some lovely details, like the window of the fish shop as they go by, and Splat’s body language expresses his mood really well.  His nervousness is conveyed by the constant problems he creates and excuses he gives as he gets ready for school and the opening of the book works extremely well in that respect.  In general however the book reads in a stilted, awkward fashion.  The text does not flow adequately well and it is hard to read it aloud, as the pace and mood of the story are not always reflected in the language.  At some points it skips too quickly through the narrative, and reading it you do feel that this is a book penned by an artist, rather than a writer.

Children will enjoy this for the pictures and for the absurdity of a cat taking his pet mouse to school, but it is a strange book with a slightly muddled story arc and disappointingly awkward writing.

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I Wish I Were A Dog

Kitty is fed up.  Dogs have all the fun.  They can play in the park, howl, chase robbers, and even be film stars.  Cats don’t do much that’s very exciting.  But Kitty’s owner thinks she’s forgotten all about being a cat and lists all the best things they do, along with some of the more stupid habits of the average dog.

Cat-owners will like this as feline independence definitely comes off best.  It’s a ‘grass is always greener’ story about appreciating what you have. Lydia Monks has a bright, witty style and the double page of the dogs in the park has plenty to point out and discuss.  The dog looks particularly miserable in the scenes showing the downside of being canine and his appearance in ‘disguise’ as a cat on the final page is quite funny.

This is a decent-enough book.  There is a positive if slightly simplistic moral and older children could benefit from a discussion about their own likes and dislikes about being themselves – would they actually want to be someone else?  In general however the story lacks any real narrative and suffers from double-standards: the poor dog looks utterly depressed when told how stupid he is and at the end he wishes to be a cat himself, somewhat undermining the book’s apparent message of self-acceptance.  The text too is printed in a bold font which is intrusive and uncomfortable to read.

Satisfactory but not satisfying.

 

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Mog the Forgetful Cat

Mog is not very clever.  She tends to forget things, like washing the rest of her leg when halfway through it, or that she has already eaten supper.   Most of all she forgets that she has a catflap.  Instead of popping back in by herself, she hops up onto the windowsill and miaows loudly to be let back into the house.  Nobody in her family is very impressed by this behaviour.

Mog lives with Mr and Mrs Thomas, Debbie and Nicky.  They are often saying ‘Bother that cat!’ as Mog manages to eat Nicky’s boiled egg, squash Mrs Thomas’ hat, prevent Mr Thomas from watching the boxing on television and make Mrs Thomas drop an entire colander of peas.  The last straw is when she crawls onto Debbie’s bed and, forgetting that she is not a kitten, licks Debbie’s hair.  The poor girl is scared into dreaming that she is being eaten by a tiger, whereupon she wakes up and cries, causing Mr and Mrs Thomas to call out in exasperation (and to the delight of small children everywhere) ‘Bother bother BOTHER that cat!’

Poor Mog runs outside and sits miserably in the garden for a bit, thinking dark thoughts.  She also thinks she hasn’t been fed (which she has been, of course).  Then she spots a small light moving about in the kitchen, and wonders if the strange man with a torch might be planning to feed her.

Judith Kerr’s book does show its age (if nothing else in the pelmet-like length of Debbie’s skirt!) but it is still a classic book.  The clipped, rather repetitive sentences may seem old-fashioned but are ideal for children learning to speak and to read as they model simple, grammatically accurate structures.  “The garden always made Mog very excited.  She smelled all the smells. She chased the birds.  She climbed the trees.  She ran round and round with a big fluffed up tail.”  There are some great humorous moments (usually at Mog’s expense) such as when she sees it’s raining in the back garden and wonders if it might be dry out at the front! The other good thing about this book is the extent to which the pictures form part of the story.  Visual literacy is an important part of child development and it also allows opportunities to talk about what is going on in each picture.  Explore and discuss them with your own little bookworm.

A classic book that is still worth reading today.

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Mr Pusskins

Even the front cover of this book is funny: the scowling, scruffy animal on the front in no way looks like a ‘Mr Pusskins’ and you certainly don’t expect ‘a love story’!

“This is the story of a little girl called Emily, and her dear cat, Mr Pusskins…”  Emily loves Mr Pusskins very, very much.  She reads him stories, plays games with him, cuddles him and brushes him.  Mr Pusskins has everything a cat should be grateful for.  However, he is not in the least grateful.   “Blah blah blah – the girl’s constant babbling bored his whiskers off.  He wanted more than this dull life.”  So the discontented feline decides to leave.  He falls in with a bad crowd, the Pesky Cat Gang, and spends his days and nights raiding dustbins, causing havoc, and caterwauling unpleasantly from the top of a wall.  He is having a whale of a time.

Then the rain starts to fall, and the wind starts to blow, and Mr Pusskins realises how nice it would be to have someone to brush his fur, and to love him.  He finds his own ‘Missing’ poster and sees what a bad-tempered cat he looked.  “Emily had given him everything a cat could ever dream of, but he had never been nice to her.  How sorry he felt.” On a wonderful double-page spread we can see just how sorry Mr Pusskins feels.  He finds a phone, and dials a number – but will he and Emily ever be reunited?

Mr Pusskins is a metaphor for the hard-done-by young child who threatens to run away, and as such the story provides a wonderful lesson in appreciating what you have.  It is packed full of opportunities for discussion: why does Mr Pusskins run away? How do you think Emily felt when he had gone?  Do you think the Pesky Cat Gang are a good influence?  Does Emily love Mr Pusskins even after he ran away?  The tension is built up beautifully in preparation for the ending and you will be pleased to hear that of course, Mr Pusskins and Emily live happily ever after together.

The illustrations are hugely expressive and the text is fluent and well-written, with plenty of humour.  No surprise then that Mr Pusskins won the Booktrust Early Years Award, was shortlisted for the V&A Illustration Award and is a New York Times Bestseller.  There are now a couple of sequels (Mr Pusskins and Little Whiskers and Mr Pusskins Best in Show) as well as several educational books including Feelings, Opposites, Numbers and Colours.

Definitely one for the bookshelf.  And watch out for reviews of more of Sam Lloyd’s books!

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Six Dinner Sid

Sid is a black cat and lives at Number 1 Aristotle Street.  He also lives at numbers 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6…

With admirable arrogance, Sid has adopted an entire street as his own. Not content with popping in for food occasionally he has created a sextet of alter-egos, each with its own name, personality and favourite dinner.  “As Sooty he smooched, but as Schwartz he had to act rough and tough.”  Each night he heads off for his six dinners, “rounding at off at number 6 with beef and kidney stew”.  Life is pretty much perfect for Sid, until he comes down with a cough, and is taken six times, in six different ways, to the same local vet.  With his secret exposed, Sid’s owners sternly restrict him to only one dinner a day.  Sid, however, has other ideas.

Sid’s efforts to claim meals from most of the neighbourhood will strike a chord with all cat owners, and children will admire Sid’s cunning and resourcefulness.  The written style is simple, but the lists of Sid’s dinners and names, as well as the constant emphasis of the number six, make for very effective reading.  This is echoed in the illustrations, neatly stacked in squares like a comic book and showing the six different ways Sid travels to the vet, as well as the six spoonfuls of medicine he is forced to endure!

Six Dinner Sid won the Smarties Prize when first published, and is now a staple of Early Years teaching.  Despite the simple story, there is a lot of potential for discussion, particularly around the personalities in Aristotle Street.  The drawings of the various owners show how different they are, and it is the fact that they don’t talk to each other that allows Sid to get away with six dinners for so long.  In his new home at the end of the book everyone talks to everyone else, and they all know and accept Sid’s behaviour.  If you are reading this with a slightly older child, why not chat with them about this? Or perhaps talk about Sid’s antics – is it right that he manipulates everybody in the way that he does? How would you feel if you were Sid and your secret were found out?

This is a highly enjoyable book with enough humour for adults and one easy to read with plenty of expression.  With older children it has the depth for discussion, but the detailed illustrations and fluent text should make it accessible for toddlers as well.