Toronto: Tundra, c2015.
Before I start in on some spooky RIP Challenge reads, I have to share this utterly charming illustrated chapter book that I just discovered via my public library. Somehow I missed this one last fall when it was released, but one of my coworkers was returning it to the library and told me to read it, that she thought it might be something I'd enjoy.
And it certainly was! Charming illustrations, quirky frocks, 16 cats, tea, books, stamps, cake, jumble sales... why yes, it does have everything I love in it.
This is Anne Michaels' first book for children -- she's much better known for her serious adult novels and poetry -- but despite any trepidation I may have had, she gets children, and how to write for clever young ones. I would have loved this book when I was young; the wordplay and silliness is at just the right level, and the charm oozes from it. It makes me wish I had a few preteens to give this one to. I'll just have to buy a copy for myself.
The book is made up of a quick introduction to Miss Petitfour and her sixteen cats (by name) just so you'll be able to recognize them in the rest of the book. Following this are 5 brief tales about their adventures. Miss Petitfour likes to travel by air, using one of her many patterned tablecloths like a sail, with her 16 cats in a chain behind her. She goes where the wind leads, so errands get done in a somewhat random fashion. One of the many places she goes in town is to Mrs. Collarwaller's bookstore, arranged in two sections, the Hum and the Ho Hum. Mrs. Collarwaller knows that some people love adventure, but:
Mrs. Collarwaller herself mostly liked books where people sat knitting by the fire with a plate of biscuits and a mug of steaming cocoa beside them, dreaming about the day Lord Somersault or Lady Hopscotch would come to tea, with detailed descriptions of all they would eat... Mrs. Collarwaller loved books in which people talked a lot and thought aloud, had dreams, discussed recipes and looked at each other with affection. She liked books full of interesting facts that would never come in useful and were therefore always the most fascinating sort of facts to know... Mrs. Collarwaller had many good ideas, such as printing an entire story on one's pillowcase, so that there would always be something to read if one woke in the middle of the night...I am essentially Mrs. Collarwaller.
The level of whimsy in this book is high, but there is also a warmth to it. Miss Petitfour encounters Mr. Coneybeare, of Coneybeare's Confetti Factory, to add a touch of romance to the proceedings. But the quirkiness never heads off into twee, at least not for my tastes.
Michaels also takes time to explain what she's doing narratively -- explaining long words, or how the story is constructed, all in a perfectly fitting way. The wordplay never talks down to a child reader, and it is a lovely, and funny, touch. Anyone who is equally in love with words and cake will adore this book.
This is a sweet story, full of tea and cakes, but never got too sweet for consumption. Still, like petitfours themselves, I'd recommend taking this collection in small bites, the better to savour it. One story a night would be a gentle treat for the reader needing a palate cleanser between heavy, dense books, or even just the news.
Read an interview with illustrator Emma Block, from before she worked on this book, and then check out her website for more images from this tale! Be sure to keep clicking to see all six in the gallery.
Janet Hill's Miss Moon:Wise Words from a Dog Governess is the obvious match for this book. While there is much less text in Miss Moon, the dog lovers will find it counterbalances the 16 cats that cat lovers will adore in Miss Petitfour!
And if you're looking for other tales of Misses for young readers, equally charming but perhaps with a soupcon more realism to it, try Miss Happiness & Miss Flower by Rumer Godden, a story of two dolls who help a young girl adjust to a new life with English relatives.