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  • Children's book reviews by Jennifer Sykes

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The School for Cats

jennyThe School for Cats
by Esther Averill

A few years ago, a friend recommended the Jenny’s Cat Club books for my cat-obsessed daughter.  I expected to find another cute, fluffy kitty book.  I was mistaken and delighted to be mistaken.  This was no series of stories featuring cats with twee names and sparkle powers; this was a retro series of wonderful stories that just happened to have a cat as a main character.  Esther Averill wrote and illustrated the books from the 1940s-1970s, and they are treasured tales of a sensitive cat adventurer named Jenny Linsky, who always sports a charming red scarf knitted by her sea captain owner.  Every one of the Jenny books has found a home on our bookshelves, so it’s hard to choose just one for review.  Since many kids have just gone off to school for the first time and might still be feeling uneasy, it seems especially appropriate to feature The School for Cats.

Jenny’s master, Captain Tinker, decides to send Jenny to the countryside to attend the School for Cats while he is out to sea.  The school’s two main learning objectives for its pupils are manners and cooperation.  Jenny is very nervous and very homesick.  Her first encounter at the school is a traumatic one.  Pickles, a much larger cat, is either “spirited” or a bully, and he nearly runs Jenny down while driving his cat-sized fire engine.  Jenny first hides in the chimney, refusing to come down, and she later gets double-spooked by Pickles and runs away.

Waiting at the train station while sneaking back to New York City, Jenny sees two cats in their travel baskets headed for the same School for Cats.   She is intrigued by them, so she lingers and listens to them talk about the fun they will have at school, and how they hope to see their old friends there.  She observes the teacher’s kind interactions with the train conductor and the handsome cats, Florio and Tiger James, when she comes to pick them up.  Jenny starts to have second thoughts about going home.  When she considers how disappointed Captain Tinker will be to hear that she’s run away and hasn’t learned at school, she decides that she must return to the School for Cats.  She is a sensitive and virtuous cat, you see.

It’s easy to see where the story is heading.  Jenny returns after another short adventure in the woods (the first time she’s ever seen a forest), she makes new friends, and she is very successful in school — final marks of 100% for Manners and 98% for Cooperation.   This, of course, makes The School for Cats a perfect read for kids struggling with the adjustment of a new school or new classmates.  It takes a little time for Jenny to feel comfortable, and it is definitely not easy at first, but by the end of the book, she’s so glad she stayed.

Esther Averill’s storytelling has a timeless appeal and is perfectly current in theme.  There are only a few instances of dated phrases kids today won’t use, but they make sense in context and just add to the classic charm of the story.  Jenny meets many colorful characters with realistic personality traits, and she is not a simplistic character, herself.  Every scene in the story has just the right amounts of complexity and action for the early elementary audience.  The illustrations are so very perfect and so very mid-century in three colors (black, red, yellow) — I would love to have them framed!  The book itself is bound in a very lovely way with a red fabric spine and quality paper, thanks to the publication by The New York Review Children’s Collection.  It makes a perfect gift for any young child.

It should also be noted that the Jenny’s Cat Club series is a wonderful read aloud for families with younger children, and the longer books are ideal for those advanced young readers who are capable of reading chapter books but aren’t mature enough for the content featured in many of them.

Other titles in the series include:

Jenny and the Cat Club
The Hotel Cat
Jenny’s Birthday Book
Jenny’s Moonlight Adventure
Jenny Goes to Sea
Captains of the City Streets

 

Cowgirl Kate and Cocoa by Erica Silverman

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As a mother of two girls, I look for books with female protagonists who aren’t limited by our culture’s definition of “feminine.”  Pink and glitter are part of my daily life, and there’s nothing wrong with that; but I feel it’s important to share books with them that feature girls doing things, not girls doing circumscribed girly things.  It can be a struggle to find books featuring girls in this light and to find books that appeal to both boys and girls, especially in the early independent reading category dominated by fairies and unicorns.  Erica Silverman’s Cowgirl Kate and Cocoa is a winner in this regard.

Kate is an energetic, responsible, and caring young cowgirl.  Her relationship with her horse, Cocoa, is one that reminds me of siblings — they are similar in personality and rely on one another, but they slightly annoy one another from time to time.  The dynamic between people and animals in children’s books is often one-sided, but Kate and Cocoa interact as if peers.  It’s fun to laugh at Cocoa pestering Kate for a snack when she’s all cozy and tucked in to bed, and the arguing over counting cows sounds vaguely like it’s coming from an old married couple.  It’s clear that Kate and Cocoa love one another and work best as a team.

The book is both imaginative and rooted in reality.  There is not a lot of fluff or whimsy, aside from the talking horse thing.  Cowgirl Kate and “cowhorse” Cocoa have very practical work to do, and the story lines of the four very short chapters are also very practical.  There is comfortable dialogue, humor, and accessible emotion.  Early readers need repetition and a clear sequence of events.  Silverman hits all those objectives without the story becoming awkward or stilted.

Cowgirl Kate and Cocoa is illustrated by Betsy Lewin.  The look is very comfortable, neutral, and warm, with strong black outlines to balance the soft colors.  Lewin’s illustrations are descriptive and are closely tied to the text on each page.  This makes the book pretty and makes the story easier for young readers to follow.  It also offers adults the option of using the stories for a read along/aloud.

Children from preschool through second grade will enjoy the story, the illustrations, and the adventures of a spunky cowgirl and her ornery, beloved horse.  There are several later books in the series, including Cowgirl Kate and Cocoa: Partners; Cowgirl Kate and Cocoa: School Days; Cowgirl Kate and Cocoa: Rain or Shine; Cowgirl Kate and Cocoa: Horse in the House; and Cowgirl Kate and Cocoa: Spring Babies.

 

Pippi Fixes Everything, Pippi Longstocking Comics, by Astrid Lindgren & Ingrid Vang Nyman

 

pippiWhat’s old is new again, and this “reboot” of the classic Pippi Longstocking stories is sure to catch the interest of young readers.  Pippi Fixes Everything is one of a series of books that originally existed as comics from the 1950s and were recently translated to English for the first time.   Other titles include Pippi Moves In and Pippi Won’t Grow Up.

Pippi Longstocking is a spunky girl who has a lot of adventure in her life, and her stories are full of kid-appropriate drama and suspense.  Boys and girls alike will enjoy Pippi’s crazy ideas, heroics, and quips.  Pippi tricks burglars!  She rescues children from a burning building!  She has a tug of war contest with her father… using her teeth!  Who can resist this quirky protagonist and her many tales?  All the charm of the original stories and illustrations remains intact.

Graphic novels and comic books are wonderful for struggling or reluctant readers.  They offer illustrations for every brief snippet of text, allowing the child to make connections and improve comprehension.  These particular illustrations are very bold and colorful and directly related to the speaking character’s dialogue.  Each story within the book is only a few pages long, making it comfortable and not overwhelming.  Pippi Fixes Everything is also great for precocious early readers who are able to easily decode words but are still not ready for dense chapter books, or the more mature themes that are frequently found in chapter books.

Whether you are looking for a way to introduce a beloved classic character or are seeking a fun, appealing read for children in preschool through early elementary school, Pippi Fixes Everything is a solid choice.  The timeless themes and vintage charm are the same as they ever were — they are merely presented in a different and appealing way to make them readable and exciting to a new generation.

 

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