Welcome to more of my children’s book reviews. I hope you enjoy my choice of books and the reviews of them. Please don’t forget to scroll down the page and read all of them!
Children’s Book of the Week – Alex the Cat by Dina Porell
Alex the Cat is the story of one kitten’s struggle for survival on the open streets in a town somewhere in Korea. Alex is born to two loving, doting parents who are continuously trying to stave off the pangs of hunger and stay alive by scavenging for scraps from the city’s waste bins. In Korea, as we all know, there are multitudes of abandoned and homeless cats and the competition for food is fierce.
Finding himself unexpectedly alone, Alex soon realises there is no-one out there he can trust, save one other small kitten. And even that relationship is short-lived. Life is punishing. Food is hard to come by; the other feral cats are vicious and highly territorial, and the humans are callous and brutal.
Seen through Alex’s eyes, the story runs full circle from a family life of unconditional love coupled with feelings of complete safety, to sadness, cruelty, rivalry, fear, disappointment, and finally back to another form of kindness and security again. Then, just as Alex has finally learned to trust humans, another sort of competition arises prompting Alex to make a life-changing decision. And, he’s only nine months old.
The thing that struck me first about Alex the Cat, as is so often the case, was the fabulous, evocative art work on the cover. Great use of colours and textures! The story itself is well-written, and the scenes, like the characters, are well-described. Though this is not a book to read if you are overly-sensitive about the fate of stray cats. The scenes depicted are sometimes distressing and a little too realistic. For those reasons, I do not feel it is suitable for very young children.
At the same time, this book is enjoyable. Although highly emotive, it puts across the point well that cats, like us, are sentient beings which suffer from pain, are capable of experiencing emotions (including the ability to mourn for a lost parent), and can build relationships. It also highlights the plight of unwanted cats in Korea.
I was moved by this book and felt the author, Dina Porell, must have experienced a lot of this sort of unmitigated cruelty to animals first hand. Spreading awareness of this amongst young people, by way of a story, does Ms Porell credit. It is not your average feel-good ending, but it is good, and Alex’s altruistic thoughts (though I doubt any cat, in reality, would think this way) would put most humans to shame. A great story! 5 stars
Alex the Cat would be best suited to ages 12 years and upwards.
Other books I have reviewed
Getting Back to Normal by Marilyn Levinson
Eleven-year-old Vanessa (Vannie) has lost her mother and is left with her inattentive father and younger brother, Robby, for company. Anxious to move away, Vannie’s father rents out the house they have been so happy living in as a family, and they move to a cottage on the estate where he works as the Director. He is so busy planning events and running the estate, Vannie and Robby are more-or-less left to their own resources. Despite the lack of food, Dad, who needs as much looking after as the children do, has forgotten to go shopping, and failed to turn up with the promised take-away. Vannie is at a loss and Robby keeps crying hunger. Unable to deal with what little food is available, Vannie takes a walk in the grounds.
““I want to cook dinner tonight,” she says out loud. “But what can I make? Number one, I don’t know how to cook.””
Without warning, a formally-dressed young man appears from nowhere and helpfully answers her question. He offers Vannie a quick and easy recipe to try. The mysterious stranger introduces himself and they talk for a while. Seeing him sitting on a nearby bench, Vannie notes, to her alarm, she can see right through him. She later thanks him and he disappears without trace. At this point she realises she has been talking to a ghost.
Thereafter, ‘Archie’, the ghost, continues to manifest himself to Vannie, always with helpful tips and recipes, until he finally puts in a request for some help in return. Still grieving for her mother, Vannie is flabbergasted by Archie’s cri de cœur, and battles with her inner self about the rights and wrongs of it all. All she really wants to do is live a normal life. Vannie shares the secret of Archie with her best friend, Tammy, who is thrilled at the prospect of meeting a real ghost, and off they go to the library to find out who Archie really is.
Meanwhile, the family have begun to enjoy Vannie’s cooking. Needless to say, no-one has any idea her mentor is a ghost, nor that certain romantic plans may be afoot.
Though vastly different, this book put me in mind of Oscar Wilde’s ‘The Canterville Ghost’. The spectres in both stories have a certain rakish vitality and pizzazz, neither are scary, and both need the help of a child to leave this earth in peace.
Getting Back to Normal also offers a great line-up of characters, all of which are well-developed and extremely likeable; ranging from Aunt Mayda to Robby’s feral cat, Theodore. There is a sweet little sub-plot about the sensitive Robby rescuing Theodore. He had been feeding him at their old house. Left behind, he does not believe the new tenants will look after Theodore properly, and sets out to rescue him and bring him back to the cottage; very much against his father’s wishes. But, Robby perseveres and the outcome is worth all the tension.
This well-written story, told from Vannie’s perspective, makes for a fast, easy and very enjoyable read. It is also fun. I hadn’t planned to read this book when I did. I opened it to glance at the first paragraph and I kept reading through to the end. It is that sort of book. It draws the reader straight in and there’s no escape. With lots of secrets to unfold and plenty of surprises along the way, it’s hard not to stay focused.
Although Archie can be generally considered a friendly ghost, and not at all scary, there is one small scene which is a tad frightening. In it, Archie reveals another aspect of his personality. For this reason I would urge caution when reading with children under eleven. This does not detract in any way from the fact it is an excellent book with a great plot, and I highly recommend it. 5 stars
Getting Back to Normal would be best suited to ages 11 and upwards.
Dr.Heidegger’s Experiment by Nathaniel Hawthorne
Dr. Heidegger, an anomalous old physician, gathers together four of his ancient friends in order to help him with one of his experiments, and to amuse himself. All four have chequered pasts, and all are in some way connected to each other by that past. Expecting something mundane, involving perhaps a mouse and an air pump, as he was known for such experiments, the four guests wait patiently.
They seat themselves, at Dr Heidegger’s behest, around the table in the centre of the room, placed upon which there is a “cut-glass vase of beautiful form and elaborate workmanship”. The vase is filled with a sparkling liquid. Surrounding the vase are four champagne glasses. The Doctor informs his companions that the liquid in the vase is water from the Fountain of Youth.
Doctor Heidegger reaches for a huge leather-bound tome, commonly thought to be his magic book, and takes out a pressed rose which has lain between the pages for fifty-five years. He then proceeds to dip the rose into the water and the rose blooms again.
The cat is out of the bag. Dr. Heidegger’s experiment involves the secret to eternal youth. Their glasses are filled. The four eagerly down the liquid as quickly as is possible. And… come back for more. As the years drift away from them, they become more and more ridiculous. Cavorting around the floor, the once old men vying for the favours of the only female guest with passion abounding, make complete fools of themselves in Dr Heidegger’s eyes. Whereupon he warns them to appreciate the advantages of age, and not to repeat their original mistakes which ended in society’s rejection of them. He has learned this by sitting there watching: they have learned no such lesson.
The effects of the Fountain’s water are not, however, permanent, and they soon start to wear off. The imbibers become tired, but not discouraged. Having finally discovered the elusive elixir of life, despite Dr Heidegger’s warning about the transgressions and follies of youth, all four vow to travel to the source to obtain more of the water.
In Dr Heidegger’s Experiment, Nathaniel Hawthorne seeks to illustrate that the mistakes made by the young are made because they are just that – young. If any if us had a chance to have our time again, would we, in fact, fare any better; or would we simply repeat the same mistakes. It seems, Mr Hawthorne thinks we would, and going back will always be a huge error of judgement. It is part of our individual nature. Perhaps, this is the moral of the story.
This is an adaptation of the original book by Nigel Hawthorne. It has been adapted with children and young adults of today in mind. In it have been added the splendid, marvellously Gothic, comic and vibrant pen and ink drawings of Marc Johnson-Pencook. In my opinion, these are a huge success.
This is an excellent presentation of this classic work, which deserves plenty of recognition. The writing is bold and faultless and the illustrations, as previously mentioned, are exquisite. I can highly recommend this version of Dr Heidegger’s Experiment. 5 stars
Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment would be best suited to eight to twelve years.
Noah’s Petting Zoo by Idan Hadari
Noah, of the title, is a ramshackle old house marked for demolition. Andrew, a young boy who lives in the same well-to-do neighbourhood, is upset when he hears of this, and sets about finding ways to stop the machines moving in. His first approach is to the ‘ready for action’ tractor, who promptly denies all responsibility for whatever actions he is about to take and passes Andrew on to his driver. He, in turn, adopts the same attitude and points Andrew in the direction of the Mayor’s office. The chain of culpability apparently ends here. Andrew confronts the mayor, on Noah’s behalf, to ask for a reprieve. The mayor is sympathetic, but adamant – Noah must go. He does, however, give Andrew a small glimmer of hope by telling him Noah can be saved if a use can be found for him. Andrew, suddenly buzzing with enthusiasm, sets off on his mission to find that use.
This is a great little rhyming book with some really sweet illustrations. I felt the rhythm of the rhyme faltered slightly once or twice, but otherwise was excellent. The marvellous illustrations show animals that might be a tad too exotic for the average town dweller (ostrich, zebra, monkey, etc), but this seems to add to rather than detract from the delight of the book. In all, Idan Hadari has written a story that is both positive and inspiring, showing a sensitive, relatively young boy making a decision to do something considerate and worthwhile, and following it through to the end.
There are several lessons to be learned from Noah’s Petting Zoo. The first shows children how to work together to protect things that, although they may be old, are still worth preserving. Children will also learn about co-operation; Andrew is only able to execute his plan because of the help he is given by his friends and neighbours. Lastly, and this is a wonderful lesson to learn, one small voice can make a difference; and if you want to be that small voice and are thwarted by people who keep passing the buck – find the person who matters most. Don’t give up.
It is also interesting to note that here the animals save Noah from the vast flood of progress, whereas in that other well-documented story of Noah, involving another great flood, they were dependent upon him to be saved. Whether this allusion is intentional, or merely coincidental, I do not know; but it may be something young children, already familiar with the story of Noah’s Ark, could possibly discuss.
Whether your child wants to read Noah’s Petting Zoo alone or have the book read aloud to them, I believe they will enjoy this story. It would be a gainful addition to any child’s bookshelf or e Reader. 5 stars
Noah’s Petting Zoo would be best suited to ages 5 to 8 years
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