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Whittington Paperback – December 26, 2006
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From School Library Journal
Starred Review. Grade 4-6–This superior novel interweaves animal fantasy and family story with a retelling of the English folktale Dick Whittington and His Cat. A battered tomcat named Whittington arrives one late-fall day at a New England barn, where he gradually befriends the equally ragtag group of animals already adopted by the barn's taciturn but soft-hearted owner, Bernie. When the year's first big snowstorm traps the bored animals in the barn, Whittington begins telling the story of his namesake, Dick Whittington, to an audience that grows to include Bernie's parentless grandchildren. The feline continues the story as winter grinds on, and the children and animals together absorb Dick's tale of good fortune, which he earned through trust in the advice of his dear friend, a remarkable cat, and his own hard work and struggles. The tale parallels that of Ben, Bernie's grandson, who learns to read once he trusts the advice of his friends and takes extra classes to help him overcome his dyslexia. Graceful prose, engaging human and animal characters, and a deft interweaving of three story lines make this book worthy of comparison to the work of Dick King-Smith and E. B. White. Teachers and librarians looking for a classroom choice to follow Kate DiCamillo's The Tale of Despereaux (Candlewick, 2003) take note: Whittington reads aloud beautifully, and the extended happy ending will leave everyone smiling in delight.–Beth Wright, Fletcher Free Library, Burlington, VT
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
Gr. 5-8. "So what do you want, Mr. Whittington?" "A place to live," the cat replies to Lady, the take-charge duck asking the questions, as Whittington attempts to sell his skills as a ratter and all-around useful fellow. Once he does and becomes part of the community of outcast animals who look after one another in softhearted Bernie's old barn, readers will settle in with him for a tale of charming animal bravura. Whittington entertains the group daily with the tale of his ancestor, Dick Whittington's cat, and relates the story of Whittington's fourteenth-century escapades as a rags-to-riches British merchant and far-traveling adventurer. The story works beautifully, both as historical fiction about medieval street life and commerce and as a witty, engaging tale of barnyard camaraderie and survival. A third strand, about Bernie's grandchildren, particularly Ben and his troubles and eventual success with learning to read, seems forced and didactic in what is otherwise a very strong story. Final illustrations not available. Anne O'Malley
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
Top customer reviews
Don't let the fact that the story takes place in a barn amongst talking animals disuade the more mature reader. Categorized for 9-12, older kids will be surprised to find it worthwhile as a captivating quick read. This is not the simple child fantasy of Charlotte's Web. The story within the story is adventureous enough to interest not just girls but also BOYS of all ages. (No disrespect intended. Charlottes web is a classic - and I love it as much as anyone. I would put this book mid-way between Charlotte's Web and All Creatures Great and Small for maturity level.) Highly recommend this as a short 'feel good' novel for a rainy afternoon.
A story within a story - the contemporary fiction involves a sister and brother who have lost their mother, live with their grandparents and are dealing with loss and difficulties at school. (Again, don't mistake this to be yet another 'poor orphan', 'troubled child' or 'mean kids' book - it's not about any of that.) However, it is the- somewhat historic - fictional tale told within the story that quickly captures the interest of the reader and requires one to turn the next page and go on to read the next chapter as it joins the life of a historic figure, Richard Wittington with the legend a merchant who makes his fortune through a 'remarkable mouser'. Periodic returns to the contemporary story do not interrupt but rather enhance the legendary tale. Interestingly, the grandfather, is really the main protagonist in the contemporary tory - yet he is experienced apart from the children. The reader grows very fond of him in his love and kindness for all creatures. Likewise, the children become known through their relationship with the animals.
Armstrong weaves together two fables of two very different periods without a missed stitch. With great subtlety, his parallel stories demonstrate the values of - and in - honesty, loyalty, hard work, integrity in general and particularly in business, friendship, teamwork (different abilities work together for common good) and notably - peace making and perseverance. Of course, there is through it all the value of learning, particularly reading - the enjoyment of a good story, the knowledge of a good book.
One thing I liked in particular is that it is a happy book! While there is loss - the reader does not feel the loss directly. (None of the main characters die - but some of their loved ones do and the reader understands how the loss feels to them.) Happy endings. No terrible 'darkness' - such as is often detailed in the treatment and experiences of orphans in medievil times. Realsitic of the conditions - but not direct.
Again - I have to give it 5 stars for five measures:
Writing: Excellent. See above. Ability to put together stories within stories seamlessly. Notably, the ability to write dialogue that is entirely not 'dialogue' but understanding, comunication, relating between characters and with the reader. The anthropomorphism is so subtle as to allow it to be experienced without interruptions of logic and disbelief.
Story: Well told! Difficult to put it down - because the story within the story leaves one hungering for the next installment. The author describes characters and settings naturally and the picture develops over time. Likewise, the reader develops an affection for characters through experience over time as the author reveals. He is exceptional in the personification of the animals is readily absorbed through the natural dialogue. The glaring fact that the main "characters" are talking animals quickly dims. I'm not sure how he does it but one's mind stops interrupting with the message: "Register disbelief - this is an animal talking."
I think it is in this way that the book can be enjoyed by readers older than 9-12. Of course, the text is more complex and written for an older audience than Charlotte's Web - but it is the believability of the animals communication - amongst themselves and with the children - that takes the book out of children's fantasy and into tween/teen fiction.
Genre: Lightly historic fiction, current real-life-challenge fiction - it is two stories in one. The historic details are minimal - just as a setting of one of the stories. The current-life topics are: 1) loss (animals dies, people die - but not major characters - so the reader does not experience grief, rather the reader experiences how the loss is felt by others. Included is a bit about overcoming the death of a parent(s) - both stories feature children being raised by their grandparent(s). 2) learning disabilities - specifically dyslexia.
Beyond Labels: Subtle but exceptional - two main themes: Peace Building and Learning Differences. Additionally, subcontexts of being kind to strangers not for reward but because it is the right thing to do, kids' differences and teasing. 1) Boy overcomes dyslexia through persistance and a great deal of hard work. Author does not gloss over the difficulty, the stigma of 'special help' or of being held back. It is not about 'mean kids' at all. Simply notes the true-to-life atmosphere of a classroom. 2) Peacebuilding and the value that can be found even in one's enemies. You don't have to like them and you don't have to BE like them. You don't have to agree with them to agree to peace with them.
Thought Provoking: No so much as many of the Newberry Medal winners - but certainly enough to think about for the age group. On the other hand, the story is more accessable (some might say appropriate) for the younger reader than some of the similarly categorized 9-12 age group. Yet, this book can hold the interest of older readers. Primarily because, once begun - the 'tale' told within the story has the reader hooked on the next installment. (A bit like Sheherezad.) Also - while the main story is a 'Charlotte's Web' like theme - it is more mature in it's telling. Perhaps middle-ground between James Herriot's stories and E.B. Whites.
Parental Note: There is absolutely nothing to be cautioned - unless one objects to the grandfather's affinity for cigars. Entirely without bad language. No romance. (Main character marries in the end when he is 'grown'.) Values of honesty, integrity etc. themeatic. Can be thoroughly enjoyed by ages 5 and up!
Armstrong weaves his version of the Whittington legend with the events surrounding a barn full of animals and their human companions. Whittington, a newcomer, regales everyone with the tale of his ancestor (Dick Whittingston's cat) while animals have their drama and a boy named Ben struggles to overcome his reading difficulties.
The talking animal quality to the story is wonderfully reminiscent of old-time classics such as Charlotte's web and makes me wish I could talk to my own cat. Armstrong's writing is simple and of quality. Whittington and the other characters are charming and understated in their design.
"Whittington" is a wonderful story that brings back memories of children's literature before its time. It's smart, funny, and tender and a great rendition of a classic story.