It does seem that the Cybils’ Elementary and Middle Grade Speculative Fiction shortlist always has an animal fantasy on it. I’m not usually a big fan of this subgenre, so I was hugely surprised that, not only did I love The Cheshire Cheese Cat, my fellow judges did too, and it ended up being our 2012 winner. Strictly, it’s an elementary grade read, so doesn’t belong on this blog, but it’s my blog so I’m going to include it.
Set in Victorian London and featuring guest appearances from Charles Dickens, this intelligently written, humorous and charmingly literary animal fantasy is as sharp and tasty as a piece of the eponymous Cheshire cheese.
Skilley, an alley cat, wants to make his home in Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese inn and he contrives to get taken on a mouser. The only problem is, he has a secret – he doesn’t want to eat mice, he wants to eat cheese and this inn is where the finest cheese in London is made. So Skilley forms an alliance with the mice, led by Pip, an uncommonly well-educated mouse, and all seems to be going well – until another cat tries to muscle his way into the tavern and a hidden creature in the attic leads to a possible national crisis.
What really blew me away about this book, was the fabulous writing. The theme of being true to yourself is by no means unique, but Deedy effortlessly illuminates it, without talking above a young reader’s head. And the friendship between this cat and this mouse rings true: When Skilley’s fear cause him to turn against Pip, his genuine regret and the way it is not glibly resolved is masterful:
“Making a mess of things is an occupation at which even the most unskilled can excel at. But mending is an art that requires years of practice. In short, breaking a thing is easy (even a child can do it); fixing that selfsame thing may be harder (sometimes even adult persons cannot manage it)”.
Additionally, Moser’s pencils drawings, scattered throughout the text, give humor and life to the characters, both animal and human alike.
Younger readers may not notice the literary allusions – “He was the best of toms. He was the worst of toms.” – but they will warm to this story of an unusual friendship and the message of acceptance.