Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese, an actual London pub which was frequented by some of the most distinguished writers of the Victorian era. Skilley is a Fleet Street alley cat trying to survive on fish heads and smarts. He manages to install himself as mouser at the Cheese, where he quickly strikes up an unorthodox bargain with the resident mice. The mice, led by the wordsmith Pip, will bring Skilley cheese, and he will pretend to catch them, for the benefit of the humans who are unhappy about sharing the inn with the rodents. This works for a while, until the appearance of rival cat Pinch, a truly Dickensian ruffian, who has always despised Skilley. As Skilley tries to maintain his bargain with the mice, shield them from the ruthless Pinch, protect the secret of his cheese obsession, and uncover the mysteries of the inn itself, the action culminates in several revelations, a finale involving a chaotic visit from a royal--who is not amused--and, at long last, the perfect opener.
There is precedence in childrens literature for the successful partnership of cats and mice: Samson and Arthur the church mouse; Harry Cat and Tucker Mouse in Times Square. But I think this is the first instance of a triumvirate of cat, mouse, and monumental literary figure. No prior knowledge of Dickens is required to enjoy this book, but familiarity adds to the pleasure. Pip and Skilley talk about "our mutual friend;" Dickens mentions that he has "great expectations" for the resolution of events at the Cheese; the innkeeper's daughter, Nell, bears more than a passing resemblance to the saintly heroine from The Olde Curiosity Shop. And how about this passage? Pinch, renamed 'Oliver' by the barmaid, is deposited before a skeptical Skilley, who thinks:
Well, this was an unwelcome twist."
And for self-referential meta fans (surely there are some in the 8-12 demographic?) there is this literary trivia: Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese is alluded to in the text of A Tale of Two Cities, the book over which Dickens is laboring in The Cheshire Cheese Cat. Dickens' inability to write the perfect opening line for his new project is mentioned repeatedly, and some of his rejected attempts are deliciously, and humorously close.
While having plenty of fun with Dickens (not to mention Wilkie Collins and William Thackery,) collaborative authors Carmen Agra Deedy and Randall Wright (great name for an author!) make some observations about writing as a craft. As Pip tells Skilley, "There is more to writing than tossing down a few haphazard words; words must have context." In this case, the development of the story at the Cheese is within the context of the friendship between Skilley and Pip. The success of the entire operation depends upon their camaraderie and willingness to stand by the other. There is also the observational friendship between Dickens and the animals; his journal reveals that he has taken an interest in their ways and manners, which seem unlike any he has ever witnessed before. As a fellow known for his philanthropy towards the most vulnerable members of Victorian society, it seems completely plausible that Dickens would have cared about animal welfare as well--even the welfare of one so humble as a mouse or a stray cat with a crooked tail.
While Deedy and Wright have fun with language, composing short chapters which keep the action moving along, artist Barry Moser has graced the book with portraits of the cast of characters, humans and animals alike. They complement the text with grace, humor and sometimes pathos. The Cheshire Cheese Cat is that most wonderful of packages--a clever and entertaining book which respects its audience while at the same time challenging its readers to stretch beyond a given genre (animal story, historical fiction, mystery) to discover the context of a universal story. Or, to be more precise, it is a Dickens of a tale.
The folks at Peachtree Publishing, who kindly sent me a copy of the book to preview, are clearly proud of The Cheshire Cheese Cat and have created a sublime interactive website with teacher resources, games, and further information about Ye Old Cheshire Cheese as well as Victorian London. There is also a blog which collates the stops on this blog tour. You can read all about it here. The book is available now, but I can provide a copy for one lucky reader (huzzah!) All you have to do is leave a comment and some way that I can contact you (email address, blogger id, twitter handle.) Entrants must be US residents.
Be sure to check out the other stops on The Cheshire Cheese Blog Tour:
A Word's Worth
Maestra Amanda's Bookshelf
There's a Book
Through the Looking Glass
Satisfaction for Insatiable Readers
It is a far, far better thing to do (with apologies to Dickens!)