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14 may 2014

Blurbs and reviews compare Alan Armstrong's 2006 Newbery Honor novel Whittington to an Honor Book from an earlier generation, E.B. White's Charlotte's Web. There are certainly parallels. There's a barnyard community of diverse animal species who can talk with one another, and special children who understand them too. There's an elder stateswoman among the beasts who dispenses wisdom – though in Whittington, she's a goose, not a spider. There's a rat who can't entirely transcend his nature, but isn't such a bad sort in the end. There's some concern with orthography. You can see the favor.

But Whittington is told in intertwining strands that at times take it far from the themes of Charlotte's Web. About half the narrative is a retelling of the Christmas-pantomime story of Dick Whittington and his cat. A contemporary cat named Whittington tells the story. We think at first that Whittington, the cat, will play a larger role in the plot, but he turns out to be more a conveyor of plots than an actor in them. His audience consists of animals and kids. Adults are outside the pale of this peaceable kingdom. The beasts and the children clamor for installments of the Dick Whittington story. More verisimilar than the pantomime versions, Whittington's Whittington turns out to be an instructional narrative that informs us about late medieval geography, labor structures, and international trade practices. Whittington knows an enormous number of historical factoids for an alleycat.

And he's not just a good lecturer; he's a pedagogical psychologist. Whittington (the cat) has been on the move in life because his first master, a young dyslexic boy, had to be shipped across the country "because he read things backwards" (4). Not exactly his new master, but grandson of the man who owns the menagerie Whittington joins, is Ben, an orphan in danger of losing status and perhaps even family because he, too, is dyslexic.

There are parallels between the primordial feistiness of Dick Whittington and the perseverance of young Ben, as his sister Abby and Whittington the cat join forces to get the boy through remedial reading. But Armstrong doesn't make them too programmatic. "Turn again" Dick Whittington is not directly some kind of Horatio-Alger model of luck and pluck. Rather, the novel makes Dick's story so beguiling that any kid would want to put in the hard work it takes to learn to read it.

Whittington is a slightly daffy but original story. It's got eccentric but convincing human characters, and realistically-drawn, if somewhat passionless, anthropomorphic animals. The frame plot never generates much energy, but the internal fiction is well-told by our title cat. The barnyard details ring true: much of the book is concerned with lore, whether about the Middle Ages or about animal husbandry. I liked Whittington, and I can see it being the kind of book that provokes real kids, just like its posited ones, to ask for just one more chapter.

Armstrong, Alan. Whittington. Illustrated by S.D. Schindler. 2005. New York: Yearling [Random House], 2006.