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Cats Ahoy!

Books about cats are good.  Books about pirates are good.  A book about cats being pirates – well, where can it go wrong?

Alfonso the cat overhears some old fisherman talking about a huge haul of haddock due to pull into harbour at first light.  He dashes off to round up an unlikely crew of moggies with the promise of all the fish they can eat.

“There’s a ship standing empty,

A three masted clipper.

Meet there at midnight.

Her name is The Kipper.”

In the dead of night the cats cast off from the shore and The Kipper makes its way to the ocean.  The skipper of the trawler, Trelawney P. Craddock, is smugly sailing home with his pile of fish when, out of the mist, a horrendous howling is heard and an apparently empty ship sails out of the haze.  In a panic, the humans abandon their ship, to the delight of the piratical cats.

“In a small sheltered cove out of sight of the land

The sea-mogs scoffed haddock and danced on the sand.

As the bright rays of dawn were beginning to gleam

They sang “Yo-ho-ho and a carton of cream!” “

This excellent book by Peter Bently won the Roald Dahl Funny Prize in 2011.  It surfs along nicely in rollicking verse and with a delightfully anarchic sense of triumph when the cats get their prize.  The vocabulary is slightly more sophisticated than your average picture book (probably on a par with the longer Julia Donaldson books)  and so this should appeal to a fairly large age-range including the first couple of years of primary school.   The illustrations, by Jim Field, are lively and full of character.

What I particularly like is the fact that the story does not end with the cats purloining the fish but with their return home some weeks later, and with a clever (if probably not original) pun.

This is a great book that both adults and children will enjoy reading.

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The Pirates Next Door

Here is the well-observed opening double page to Jonny Duddle’s prizewinning picture book:

Matilda’s boring life is enlivened only by the prospect of – perhaps – another young girl moving in to the empty house next door.  But one day new occupants do turn up, and they are not quite what the reserved, middle-class inhabitants of Dull-on-Sea (twinned, naturally with Ennui-sur-Mer) were expecting.

Matilda is rather taken with young Jim Lad and his sea-faring family, but the other landlubbers of the town are less than enthusiastic.  There follows a superb commentary on middle-class snobbery and narrow-mindedness, with the various residents demanding the removal of this blot on the moral landscape.

” ‘Miss Pinky called the council, to see what they could do.  She didn’t live through two world wars to have pirates spoil her view!’  ‘It really is DISGRACEFUL, on such a lovely street.  You’d think that they would TRY to keep their garden looking neat!’ ”

The whole town (except Matilda) unites against the pirates and demands they leave.  “Before you know it, there’ll be more – we’ll ALL have pirates lodged next door!”  However, before the aptly-named Jolley-Rogers leave they have a surprise for the townspeople that may change their opinion of pirates.

Adults will love the satirical humour and children the nefarious antics of the pirate family, who board rowing boats in the park and dig up the local roundabouts.  The text is clever and the rhyme works well, despite the occasionally jarring piece of scansion.

Jonny Duddle’s illustrations (sketched initially in pencil and then drawn onto computer via a tablet) have all the detail and skill of someone who worked on the character design for the latest Aardman film (“Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists”)  There is an astonishing amount to spot and to talk about in the pictures and lots of extra little jokes that are worth looking for.

The Pirates Next Door won this year’s Waterstones Children’s Book Prize and it’s a worthy champion.  It is clear how much work and thought went into creating it and a wide-range of ages will enjoy it on different levels.  With five and six year olds this could lead to quite complex moral discussions about the presence of the pirates and the attitude of the landlubbers, but younger children will like the rhymes and the comic pictures.

Highly enjoyable, original and very very pretty.