Saturday, January 5, 2008

Alan Armstrong

by Alan Armstrong
Recommended Age: 10+

In this Newbery Honor Book, Alan Armstrong draws on his research into the life and letters of an 18th century textile merchant to craft a heartwarming work of juvenile fiction. He published the non-fiction side of his work under the title Forget Not Mee & My Garden (sic). And perhaps you will be interested in reading it after this story, or rather the story within the story, draws you into its intriguing world.

The story of Whittington is familiar to fairy-tale readers, tellers, and listeners throughout the English-speaking world. Dick Whittington, in case you've forgotten, was an English boy with few career prospects, who ran away from home, got to London, and fell starving on a wool merchant's doorstep. The merchant took an interest in the boy and made him his apprentice. As Dick grew in his master's favor, he traveled foreign lands and became very wealthy, served three terms as Lord Mayor of London, and spent much of his fortune improving the conditions of poor people -- who repaid him by making him a folk hero!

The most interesting part of the legend (which is to say, the least likely to be true) holds that Dick owed his fortune to his cat. This version of the story focuses on the relationship between Dick Whittington and his cat, or rather, cats. This is unsurprising, since the narrator is himself a cat, descended from Whittington's legendary pet and known by the name Whittington himself.

Whittington the cat tells this story-within-a-story to a barnyardful of misfit animals who have been adopted by a kindly man named Bernie. The framing story concerns Whittington's barn mates: the retired racehorses; the crippled hen; the rooster who has lost his voice; the lady duck who is in charge of everybody; and Bernie's grandchildren, who come to the barn to listen. The granddaughter, Abby, is trying to help her brother Ben learn to read. It isn't easy, because some of the letters look backward to Ben. Whittington is concerned about this, because he once loved a boy who was sent away by his parents because of the same problem: dyslexia.

So Whittington the cat tells the story of Whittington the man, by way of calming Ben down when his reading lessons upset him. Meanwhile, the residents of Bernie's barn observe their own arrivals, departures, and life events. There are even some scary moments. Though the future of the world is never at stake, and the story has no gigantic conflict between good and evil, it does open an interesting window on a historical era, exotic plants, the lives and loves of domestic animals, and a family you quickly come to care about - and all this in trim, economical style that comes in at under 200 pages.

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