A Newbery Honor book in 2006, this is several stories in one package. A barnyard full of animals comes together to teach a young boy how to read, while at the same time recounting the famous story of Dick Whittington and his cat as a reward to the boy when he is finished with his work.
This title was enjoyable, but not without its flaws. The structure overall was very well done, moving from one time period to another with easy transitions and keeping the pace with both stories. But at the same time, I was not terribly interested in Ben’s work with his reading, so those parts of the book always seemed to drag for me, less because the pacing was bad than because of my boredom with the subject matter. A child who’s struggling to read? I can’t imagine how that’s going to turn out!
It bothers me, perhaps overmuch, to have a few factual errors in the book as well. Whittington talks about rats getting into FitzWarren’s potatoes, when potatoes were not available in fourteenth century Europe. Granted, this is the cat’s story and so it could be considered a character error, rather than a factual one. But there was also the fact that The Lady did not lay any eggs until the appearance of Gent. Ducks lay eggs regardless of whether there is a male around (the male is only needed to fertilize them). While it wasn’t actually said that Gent caused her to lay eggs, it was strongly implied.
The emphasis on rhubarb, which Dick was unable to obtain, and the side note about tofu, also seemed sort of tangential to the main story. What was the purpose of having it there if it just sort of petered out?
I enjoyed the book more than I am making it seem. I can see why it was not the overall winner in that year. The prose, while solidly good, is not particularly polished or exceptional. The characters are well drawn, however, particularly the animal characters. Abby and Ben never seemed like anything other than Generic Kid and Generic Kid With Dyslexia.