Thursday, July 15, 2010

An Excellent Read-Aloud

Whittington, by Alan Armstrong, is the story of a stray cat who finds a home in a barn with an assortment of oddball animals, mostly strays and abandoned creatures who had nowhere else to go. There's a chicken who can't walk, a pair of retired horses, a band of vicious rats, and the leader of them all, a Muscovy duck called the Lady. Into this mixture come a pair of similarly abandoned children, whose friendship with the animals paves the way for them to heal and grow past their hurt and confusion.

Whittington fits all my qualifications for a good read-aloud book: it's a nice length, it's got engaging characters, and its use of language is sometimes striking. Bookivore likes kids to hear good writing, to get their ears attuned to spectacular turns of phrase and expose their minds to particularly apt imagery. Consider these two examples from Whittington:

"'Why don't you try for another family?'

'Because I'm not cute anymore,' said Whittington. 'My voice is harsh, I've got the shakes, I have opinions, I like to stay out, I stink, I like to fight. I'm not a house pet.'

The Lady nodded. 'I guess not.'

The wind picked up. The Lady shifted into it like a moored dory."

"When they arrived, it was snug in the barn, pungent with damp dung and hay. The bantams murmured and cackled together like they were telling jokes. Now and then Coraggio crowed. He always startled folks when he crowed because they never knew when he'd do it, and he didn't either."

Blended with the story of the children, Abby and Ben, is the much older traditional tale of Dick Whittington and his cat. His rise from poverty to wealth with the help of his cat is woven throughout Ben's struggle to overcome his learning disability. He draws inspiration from Dick's travels and his triumphs over adversity.

The story is a compelling one, hard to put down even for an adult. The relationships between the animals and between the animals and the children is part of the charm; it touches that part of us that wanted (and still wants) animals to talk. The beautiful language makes the read-aloud even more powerful.

Note that there is a reference to opium and hashish in one part of the book as a bit of historical information about the merchants in Dick Whittington's day. If this bothers you, you could easily skip it as it only appears in a list of commodities brought to England from the East during the Middle Ages.

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