The Dragon with a Chocolate Heart, by Stephanie Burgis, was published in 2017 by Bloomsbury.
All Aventurine wants to do is explore the world outside her family’s mountain cave. But as a young dragon, her tough scales haven’t fully developed yet, and the outside is too perilous—or so her family says. Aventurine is determined to fly on her own and prove them wrong by capturing the most dangerous prey of all: a human. But when that human tricks her into drinking enchanted hot chocolate, Aventurine is transformed into a puny human girl—no sharp teeth, no fire breath, no claws. Still, she’s the fiercest creature in these mountains, and she’s found her true passion: chocolate. All she has to do is get to the human city to find herself an apprenticeship (whatever that is) in a chocolate house (which sounds delicious), and she’ll be conquering new territory in no time…won’t she?
The Dragon with a Chocolate Heart is a charming story for both dragon-lovers and chocolate-lovers. I’m not a huge fan of the title, but the cover art is amazing and this book revived my interest in Burgis’s works (if you recall, I strongly disliked her Kat, Incorrigible series). Fierce girl (who is actually a dragon; hence, why she is fierce) works much better in a made-up fantasy world than in Regency England.
The plot is fairly formulaic, but Aventurine’s bumbles (and successes) as she struggles to make sense of human life rapidly endear her to the reader. Plus, there’s lots and lots of chocolate involved, which is a bonus. Perhaps some things were overdone—Aventurine wallows a little too long in self-inflicted misery, there’s one too many appearances from cruel-woman-who-sets-protagonist’s-teeth-on-edge, and it’s a little eyebrow-raising that so much drama could revolve around one little chocolate house—but the likeable protagonist, the interesting setting and the engaging plot help offset those.
I could have done without the constant reminders of Silke’s clothing, though. I really don’t understand why a girl wearing men’s clothes is supposed to be so empowering or different. I get it, in this fantasy world, women wear dresses, men wear pants, etc., so a girl wearing pants is supposed to scream forthrightness and strength and standing-up-against-the-man-ness. But all I could think about was how boring and formulaic a character Silke was, whose characterization was built on “she wears pants” and nothing else. I would much rather have a well-written female character in a dress than a boring, cliché female character in pants, but I guess the public wants the latter so that’s what authors are giving them.
The Dragon with a Chocolate Heart has some flaws, but overall it’s a charming story with an interesting protagonist, a good plot, and a well-built world. I enjoyed reading it, despite my dislike of Silke, and the book has lifted my opinion of Burgis overall. I hope she writes more books like this one, and less like Kat, Incorrigible.
Recommended Age Range: 12+
Genre: Fantasy, Middle Grade
Chocolate houses were nothing like I’d expected.
When the scent of chocolate, growing stronger and stronger, led me to the open doorway of yet another yellow-and-white building, I stopped just outside it in disbelief.
Two humans nearly bumped into me from behind….I gave them both a narrow-eyed, accusing glance. “This building isn’t made of chocolate!”
I Walk in Dread: The Diary of Deliverance Trembly, Witness to the Salem Witch Trials, by Lisa Rowe Fraustino, was published in 2004 by Scholastic.
Deliverance Trembley lives in Salem Village, where she must take care of her sickly sister, Mem, and where she does her daily chores in fear of her cruel uncle’s angry temper. But when four young girls from the village accuse some of the local women of being witches, Deliverance finds herself caught up in the ensuing drama of the trials. And life in Salem is never the same
One of the last Dear America books (before the reboot), I Walk in Dread is a fair, historical coverage of the Salem Witch Trials, a period in history that is still fraught with controversy today. Fraustino certainly did her homework while writing this story; most of the people in the book are historical figures and Fraustino lays out what she researched and read at the end of the novel.
Many people today believe that the accusers were actually suffering from ergot poisoning (although that has been contested, as theories generally are), but, of course, Deliverance would have no idea what that was. Instead, a combination of mob hysteria, “sport,” and family feuds are the possibilities explored by Deliverance and her family as a cause for the witchcraft accusations. And, indeed, the Puritans themselves were later so embarrassed by their actions that they destroyed documents pertaining to the trials—showing that, despite their beliefs in witchcraft and the Devil, they realized that the extent to which it went was unacceptable.
Fraustino might have instilled perhaps a bit too much “modern thinking” into the story, but she does present the Trials as nothing more than a tragedy, a group of people caught up in mob hysteria and/or trying to avenge past wrongs by getting rid of people assumed to be responsible. It is, in fact, an excellent example of the way mob hysteria can work in a small town, the paranoia that ensues and the disasters that follow. Fraustino deals very fairly with the subject, which I found refreshing.
I Walk in Dread is perhaps much better to be assigned to read than a book such as The Crucible, which is a common book assigned to read in American Literature, which only perpetuates stereotypes and historical inaccuracies. Some of the Dear America books tend to drift a bit from accuracy themselves, but I’m glad to see that I Walk in Dread deals with the Trials according to the evidence as we know it, and that Fraustino did not push any particular ideological or political idea through the book (except for, maybe, the idea that modern people are more intelligent and progressive than their ancestors).
Recommended Age Range: 8+
Genre: Historical Fiction, Children’s
The four afflicted girls…were brought in to the front of the room, screeching and crying out as they laid their eyes on the prisoner. Their fear flooded the room….When it was quiet again, Mr. Hawthorne asked them to look upon Sarah Goode, and see if she were the person that hurt them. They all said yes, yes!….Sarah Goode looked shocked and confused. She denied that she had…even been near the children. At that, Abigail Williams and Ann Putnam twisted and cried out that the witch was pinching and biting them….It was terrifying to witness, and I felt a hot passion against Sarah Goode. Someone behind me muttered, “The woman should hang for this.”
The Evil Wizard Smallbone, by Delia Sherman, was published in 2016 by Candlewick.
All Nick wants is a place to shelter from the blizzard that hits after he runs away from his uncle’s. What he gets is someplace warm to live, plenty of hot food, and the company of two dogs, two cats, four goats, one pig, a flock of chickens, and a grumpy old man who won’t let him leave. Evil Wizard Books may be cozy and Smallbone Cove idyllic, but the wolf is at the door—literally. The Evil Wizard Fidelou and his pack of biker coyotes are howling at the village border, and its magical Sentries are slowly failing. For a three-hundred-year-old self-proclaimed evil wizard, Zachariah Smallbone seems strangely at a loss. It’s a good thing Nick was lying about not being able to read. Smallbone may not be willing to teach him magic, but the bookstore is. And Nick is more than willing to learn. Even if the bookstore is awfully bossy.
The Evil Wizard Smallbone is the story of two wizards, who are pretty much destined to fight each other, and the events that lead to their confrontation, prominently featuring a boy apprentice who (of course) significantly assists in the defeat of the villain. It features an interesting take on magic that I really enjoyed; elemental magic is certainly not anything new but the way Nick learns it was entertaining and were my favorite parts of the book.
The world was tightly crafted, though a little confusing at times. Sherman is a good storyteller, which helped to smooth out some of the more awkward bits of world building, though I still raised my eyebrows a few times. For example, there’s really no explanation as to why Nick already believes magic is real even before he goes to Smallbone’s—and if he doesn’t think it’s real, he’s awfully calm when things get strange. Furthermore, Nick’s cousin seems to take it in stride that there’s a magical shape-shifter who can change him into a coyote with a pelt; in fact, he doesn’t even seem surprised by the fact that he can change into a coyote at all. There’s a few other things that are rough around the edges that Sherman hand waves away, but the latter are the most prominent examples that I can think of. Let’s just say that I found the characters’ reactions to things suspect.
However, I did really enjoy the plot aspect even if I found Fidelou to be an annoying villain. I liked that the focus was mainly on Nick and learning magic, rather than on Smallbone and his confrontation with Fidelou, and even though the lead-up to the confrontation was a little abrupt, it came to a satisfying, if not wholly unexpected conclusion.
The Evil Wizard Smallbone has a few problems in worldbuilding, but overall it’s satisfying, entertaining, and interesting in a lot of its magical elements. Nick is a good protagonist; Smallbone is the quintessential grumpy old wizard but it’s a trope I love so I liked his character. The other characters were memorable as well, though I could have done without the mundane biker gang. Sherman is a solid writer, though some of her skills need a little work.
Recommended Age Range: 10+
Genre: Fantasy, Middle Grade
“Very good indeed. You’re an inspired liar, Foxkin. You don’t embroider unnecessarily, you give just the right details, and you know when to stop.”
Nick put on his best innocent look. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Fox by name, fox by nature.” Smallbone stared at him through curls of foul-smelling smoke. “You can’t fool me, you know. So you’d better not try. Now,” he went on, “it just so happens that I could use an apprentice.”
Strawberry Girl, by Lois Lenski, was published in 1945 by Lippincott.
Strawberries—big, ripe, and juicy. Ten-year-old Birdie Boyer can hardly wait to start picking them. But her family has just moved to the Florida backwoods, and they haven’t even begun their planting. “Don’t count your biddies ‘fore they’re hatched, gal young un!” her father tells her. Making the new farm prosper is not easy. There is heat to suffer through, and droughts, and cold snaps. And, perhaps most worrisome of all for the Boyers, there are rowdy neighbors just itching to start a feud.
If it were not for Lois Lenski’s foreword, you would think Strawberry Girl took place during the Western expansion—the Laura Ingalls Wilder vibes are strong. However, Lenski’s information about the late settling of Florida making it a frontier half a century after the “frontier age” makes it clear that, though the book reads as if it takes place in the nineteenth century, it actually takes place in the twentieth.
Strawberry Girl describes a series of events in the life of the Boyer family, with the tension between the Boyers and the Slaters as the underlying plot thread running throughout and bringing the events together. Along with Birdie, the reader experiences sympathy as well as anger as the Slaters are at times friendly, at times stand-offish, and at times downright hostile.
The idea of the “feuding families” is one that I’m not sure a lot of people think is based in reality. There’s always that one story of families who have fought for years over an event that has either been forgotten or one that has been grossly distorted—and the families are usually people from “the backwoods” as opposed to the prim and proper families of a more urban setting. Those stories always seem more of a critique or a ridicule of country living rather than anything based in reality. However, in the days when surviving meant living off the land and the actions of your neighbor (such as letting his cows eat your crops, which were both money and food) affected that survival, I can see that feuds may not be all that unlikely. And they more than likely took the form of something similar to what Lenski described in Strawberry Girl—a kind of “cold war” that escalates to killing livestock or even, in some cases, setting fires. In other words, Lenski does a great job of describing the tension between the Boyers and the Slaters so that the escalating feud makes sense—as does the eventual peace made between them.
Strawberry Girl reads very similarly to a Little House book, which isn’t surprising since even though the settings and the era are quite different, the circumstances are the same. Perhaps that’s why I enjoyed the book as I did. I also appreciated how Lenski made her characters memorable and thought that the escalation and resolution of the feud were well done. Strawberry Girl would appeal to any fan of Laura Ingalls Wilder.
Recommended Age Range: 8+
Genre: Historical Fiction, Children’s
“Right here we’re fixin’ to set strawberries.”
“I mean! Strawberries!” Shoestring’s eyes opened wide.
“Yes, strawberries!” said Birdie. “Heaps o’ folks over round Galloway are growin’ ‘em to ship north. Pa heard a man called Galloway started it. So we’re studyin’ to raise us some nad sell ‘em.”
“You purely can’t!” said the boy. “Can’t raise nothin’ on this sorry ole piece o’ land but a fuss!” He spat and frowned. “Sorriest you can find—either too wet or too dry. Not fitten for nothin’ but palmetto roots. Your strawberries won’t never make.”
Deep within the palace of the Mede emperor, in an alcove off the main room of his master’s apartments, Kamet minds his master’s business and his own. Carefully keeping the accounts, and his own counsel, Kamet has accumulated a few possessions, a little money stored in the household’s cashbox and a significant amount of personal power. As a slave, his fate is tired to his master’s. If Nahuseresh’s fortunes improve, so will Kamet’s, and Nahuseresh has been working diligently to promote his fortunes since the debacle in Attolia. A soldier in the shadows offers escape, but Kamet won’t sacrifice his ambition for an eager and unreliable freedom; not until a whispered warning of poison and murder destroys all of his carefully laid plans. When Kamet flees for his life, he leaves behind everything—his past, his identity, his meticulously crafted defenses—and finds himself woefully unprepared for the journey that lies ahead. Pursued across rivers, wastelands, salt plains, snowcapped mountains, and storm-tossed seas, Kamet is dead set on regaining control of his future and protecting himself at any cost. Friendships—new and long-forgotten—beckon, lethal enemies circle, secrets accumulate, and the fragile hopes of the little kings of Attolia, Eddis and Sounis hang in the balance.
I love Megan Whalen Turner’s Queen’s Thief novels more and more every time I think of them,The King of Attolia being one of the best books I’ve ever read, and certainly the one book that I could read over and over and never get tired of. I’ve been waiting for Thick as Thieves for years—A Conspiracy of Kings was published 7 years ago—and it’s a tribute to Turner’s writing that I actually bought the book (along with the others) rather than getting it from the library (I actually rarely buy books, and when I do, they’re ones I’ve read before and loved).
The timeline of the Queen’s Thief novels is always hazy, but I believe that Thick as Thieves is set directly after A Conspiracy of Kings, if only because of what we learn has happened in Attolia towards the end of the novel (more on that in a moment). I’d like to thank the Goodreads reviews for filling in some things I didn’t know about the novel, such as that Turner considers it the second half of The King of Attolia.
In terms of style, Thick as Thieves is certainly much more like The Thief—there’s less political intrigue than in previous books, Kamet and the Attolian (whose identity is fairly obvious but I will keep hidden as Turner does) are traveling on a quest of sorts, and it’s much more of an adventure subtype than the previous three books. In terms of quality, I would place it perhaps on the same level as A Conspiracy of Kings—not my favorite of the Queen’s Thief books, but it has its moments and I especially loved seeing Eugenides being as cunning as usual, as well as his “great king” aura.
What most disappointed me was that the plot was not as intricate or twisty as previous books. In fact, I felt a lot of the twists were fairly obvious—I knew the identity of the Attolian (which Turner perhaps purposefully made obvious) from the start, I knew who Kamet’s friend from the kitchens was from the start, I knew what Eugenides revealed at the end to Kamet about why Kamet was there from the start. There were only one or two minor things that I didn’t figure out almost as soon as it happened. From an author who has made my mouth drop open on numerous occasions, who has me saying “No way!” out loud, the plot complexity in Thick as Thieves was disappointing.
That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy the book. I liked Kamet and I liked his struggles as he adjusts to not being a slave. I liked the camaraderie built up between Kamet and the Attolian. I liked the jokes and the humor and the adventures. Even though I had already guessed the plot reveals, I enjoyed their revelation unfold in the book because of the character’s reactions. I’m not sure if I like this book better than A Conspiracy of Kings—the latter has far more of Gen in it and Sounis has great moments in that book—but I think I might grow to like it more, as I have Kings, upon rereading it (and Turner’s books beg for rereads).
I hope the next book has more of Gen and Irene in it, and I especially hope so because of the heartbreaking revelation that occurs in the last third of the book. Turner gives some hope afterwards that things will be all right, but that moment was the most shocking in the book for me.
Thick as Thieves does not really hold a candle to the fantastic The Queen of Attolia, the even better The King of Attolia, or even the first book, The Thief, but it’s engaging, funny, and while the plot reveals were disappointing this time around, they’re still delivered in the classic Turner style and perhaps not everyone found it as obvious as I did.
Recommended Age Range: 12+
Genre: Fantasy, Young Adult
“Immakuk and Ennikar are never seen again, but the floods recede and are never again so sever, so they must still be working the gates of heaven and protecting the city.”
“I’ve never heard of Immakuk, and Ennikar,” he said, and I wasn’t surprised. The Attolians are for the most part uneducated.
“I could tell you more about them if you like. There is a translation of the first tablet into Attolian.”
Invincible Louisa, by Cornelia Meigs, was published in 1933 by Little, Brown.
Biography tracing the fascinating life of Louisa May Alcott from her happy childhood in Pennsylvania and Boston to her success as a writer of such classics as Little Women.
I’m glad that a biography won the Newbery Medal, since I think it’s important for children to read biographies as well as fiction books. And Invincible Louisa is written in such a way that it lacks the stuffiness and dryness (and all the footnotes) of many biographies written for adults, making it perfect for children to learn more about Louisa May Alcott.
I knew that Little Women was heavily inspired by Louisa May Alcott’s real life, but it wasn’t until I read Invincible Louisa that I realized how inspired it was. I knew that Meg, Jo, Amy and Beth were modeled after Louisa and her sisters, though I didn’t realize that almost every other character was also modeled after someone she knew, as well. Little Women is one of my favorite books (I am one of the rare people who agrees with Alcott not putting Jo and Laurie together; I laughed at her tenacious statement, “I won’t put Jo with Laurie to please anybody”) and, having now read this biography, it’s easy to see how many details Alcott included of her own life. It’s certainly not all there—Jo was never a nurse, nor do any of the March girls go near the fighting—but there is definitely more than just a casual influence.
I also didn’t know that Alcott’s family were on such close terms with authors such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Nathaniel Hawthorne. The mention of Transcendentalism got me excited, since one of the things I teach my students is Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience” and the philosophy of Transcendentalism. Now I have some extra material to throw at them!
Invincible Louisa, as a biography, is certainly a different sort of book than has won the Newbery in the past. It’s hard to review biographies, but I enjoyed learning more about Alcott’s life and how it influenced Little Women. I also enjoyed learning more about Alcott than I ever knew before, including all the things her father did and the people that influenced her family along the way.
Ship Breaker, by Paolo Bacigalupi, was published in 2010 by Little, Brown and Company.
In America’s Gulf Coast region, where grounded oil tankers are being broken down for parts, Nailer, a teenage boy, works the light crew, scavenging for copper wiring just to make quota—and hopefully live to see another day. But when, by luck or chance, he discovers an exquisite clipper ship breached during a recent hurricane, Nailer faces the most important decision of his life: Strip the ship for all it’s worth or rescue its lone survivor, a beautiful and wealthy girl who could lead him to a better life.
Paolo Bacigalupi shows off his worldbuilding skills in Ship Breaker, showcasing a rich, detailed world that is sketched out simply with little explanation yet still feels expansive. Rather than describe exactly how his world got the way it is (probably with lots of moralizing and/or political aspects shoved into the reader’s face), Bacigapuli merely states things as they are and leaves the reader to figure out the rest. This way, he still gets his point across but subtly, in a way that’s far more effective than blatantly stating it.
Having read a Bacigalupi book before, I was expecting this book to be good—usually authors who write adult SF/fantasy write well when they transition to young adult. And it was—the plot was tight and tense in all the right moments, the world, as I mentioned, was detailed and imaginative, and the characters were interesting. Some of the aspects were a little hard to buy, but I suppose that’s expected in this genre. I liked that Bacigalupi leaves things open-ended, a little bit, because another common theme in dystopian fiction is for the author to detail exactly how things get better at the end. Bacigalupi doesn’t do that. He’s definitely the more subtle type of author, which I appreciate.
Really, the only thing missing from this book for me is the “wow factor.” It was a good book, but I wasn’t blown away by it. It didn’t grab me and never let me go, making me want to read it over and over again (as with Megan Whalen Turner’s Attolia series). I thought it was a good young adult dystopian novel with a better-than-average setting that was well executed. I liked Nailer, I liked Lucky Girl, I liked Tool, I liked Pima, and I thought the conflict and character development of Nailer were great. I don’t have the desire to read Ship Breaker again, but that’s the only majorly negative thing I can say about it.
Recommended Age Range: 14+
Genre: Young Adult, Dystopian
“You’re lucky,” Pima’s mother said. “You should be dead.”
Nailer was almost too tired to respond, but he mustered a grin for the occasion. “But I’m not. I’m alive.”
Pima’s mother picked up a blade of rusted metal and held it in front of his face. “If this was even another inch into you, you would have washed into shore as body scavenge.” Sadna regarded him seriously. “You’re lucky. The Fates were holding you close today. Should have been another Jackson Boy.” She offered him the rusty shiv. “Keep that for a talisman. It wanted you. It was going for your lung.”
When Professor William Waterman Sherman leaves San Francisco in a hot-air balloon, he intends to fly across the Pacific Ocean. Instead, through a twist of fate, he lands on Krakatoa, a legendary island of unimaginable wealth, eccentric inhabitants, and fantastic balloon inventions. Once Professor Sherman learns the secrets of Krakatoa, he must remain there forever—unless he can find a means of escape.
The Twenty-One Balloons reminds me a great deal of the Dolittle books, or the Oz books, or The Pushcart War or any number of inventive, imaginative novels that describe a lot of things that somehow manage to keep being interesting despite the wealth of information. This book is a fond memory from my childhood and I enjoyed rereading it and remembering all the little bits and moments that stood out to me back then.
I wish the beginning of the novel was quicker-paced; it’s a little tedious and takes a long time to get into the meat of the story, which is William Waterman Sherman’s trip. It’s hard, especially with a book as descriptive as this, to start in media res without being boring. I mean, the beginning is interesting, but not nearly as interesting as Sherman’s journey.
I like that du Bois took a real event (the volcanic eruption on Krakatoa) and expounded a fictional story on that, as far-fetched as it is. I really do like “shipwrecked on an island” stories (aka The Black Stallion, The Swiss Family Robinson, etc.), or survival stories in general, and I feel like this was an especially common trope in the mid-20th century, for some reason (perhaps inspired by Robinson Crusoe or by shows such as Gilligan’s Island). Du Bois’s story, though unrealistic as I said, is fascinating, fun, and quite worthy of a children’s book.
Recommended Age Range: 8+
Genre: Historical Fiction, Children’s
“Wake up, wake up; you’ve got to get in the shade!”
I shook my head and opened my eyes again. There was a man kneeling over me. He wasn’t a native, and didn’t suggest an explorer or a traveler. He was wearing a correctly tailored white morning suit, with pin-stripe pants, white ascot tie, and a white cork bowler.
“Am I dead?” I asked. “Is this Heaven?”
“No, my good man,” he answered, “this isn’t Heaven. This is the Pacific Island of Krakatoa.”
Meet Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle! She’s the kind of grown-up you would like to have for a friend—and all her friends are children. She is a little lady with brown sparkly eyes. She lives in an upside-down house, with a kitchen that is always full of freshly baked cookies. Her husband was a pirate, and she likes to have her friends dig in the back yard for the pirate treasure he buried there. Best of all, she knows everything there is to know about children. When a distraught parent calls her because Mary has turned into an Answer-Backer or Dick has become Selfish or Allen has decided to be as Slow-Eater-Tiny-Bite-Taker, Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle has the answer. And her solutions always work, with plenty of laughs along the way. So join the crowd at Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle’s hose—and enjoy the comical, common-sense cures that have won her so many friends.
Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle is one of the most beloved series of my childhood. I read those books over and over again (my favorite being Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle’s Magic) and, rereading them however many years later, it’s like I never left. I still remember almost every word of the book and reading it brought me back to all the times I would read it growing up.
There’s bound to be a little bit of a culture gap with children who read Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle today. The book was published in 1947 and so, while many aspects are the same or similar, the attitude is certainly different. This was especially apparent to me when reading the Selfish Cure and the Slow-Eater-Tiny-Bite-Taker Cure. While Dick is certainly a menace, Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle’s cure is something that certainly would not fly today, especially considering it was basically encouraging bullying as a way to get kids to share things. I do think shame or embarrassment, which is so often today considered something negative, can do wonders for character development (there have been many times when it has been shame over something I have done that has forced me to seek to better myself), but MacDonald exaggerates it to the point of cringe-worthiness, in my opinion.
In addition, the Slow-Eater cure was basically to let Allen not eat for a couple of days. I know today that certainly wouldn’t fly, considering how many arguments I’ve seen erupt over not giving children food (not in the extreme sense, as in truly neglecting them, but in the sense of “If you don’t eat your dinner, you will go to bed hungry”).
Now, of course Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle is clearly exaggerated, but it still highlights the culture gap from 70 years ago. I enjoyed the book and I think kids today would enjoy it, too, but a lot of interesting questions would probably arise because of reading it—which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
Recommended Age Range: 6+
“That’s what I called about,” said Mrs. Prentiss. “Can you suggest a way to make Hubert want to pick up his toys? His room looks like a toy store after an earthquake.”
“Why don’t you call this Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle? I have heard she is perfectly wonderful. All the children in town adore her and she has a cure for everything.”
This is the story of a little cat who came to the home of a poor Japanese artist and, by humility and devotion, brought him good fortune. Commissioned to paint the death of the lord Buddha for the village temple, the artist lovingly entered on his scroll of silk the animals who came to receive the blessing of the dying Buddha. The little cat sat patiently by, seeming to implore that she too be included. At least, the compassionate artist—knowing well that the cat alone of all the animals had refused to accept the teachings of Buddha—took up his brush and drew a cat, and thus brought about a Buddhist miracle.
The Cat Who Went to Heaven is a very short, but very sweet, book. It’s the story of an artist and his cat, but’s it’s also a story about Buddha and what he did. Basically, before the artist paints each animal, he imagines himself as that animal and how it relates to Buddha, so there’s a lot of information about the story of Buddha. The drawings (by Lynd Ward) are excellent and really capture the spirit of the book.
The book is short, so I can’t really say too much about it. I do think the title is Coatsworth trying to make the book more appealing to a Western audience, since heaven in Buddhism is much different than what an American in the 1930s would think it was, but the concept does get across even if the only thing you know about Buddhism is what you learn from this book.
The Cat Who Went to Heaven is definitely the Newbery book that most fits the traditional “children’s book” vibe so far. A lot of the Newbery’s I’ve read fit more in a Middle Grade spectrum, at least in my opinion (then again, that division of genres didn’t exist back then, so maybe that explains it), but this book has a read-aloud feel to it with the length to match. Of course, reading this book might require a discussion of Buddhism, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. If there’s one thing I’ve liked about all the Newbery Medal winners so far, it’s that they represent a wide-range of cultural and historical areas. The Cat Who Went to Heaven merely touches on a whole concept and culture, but it’s respectful and beautiful while it does so.
Recommended Age Range: 7+
Genre: Historical Fiction, Children’s
“But where is the cat?” thought the artist to himself, for even in his vision he remembered that in none of the paintings he had ever seen of the death of Buddha, was a cat represented among the other animals.
“Ah, the cat refused homage to Buddha,” he remembered, “and so by her own independent act, only the cat has the doors of Paradise closed in her face.”