Flying Females and Clusters of Cats

Mary Poppins blew in with her umbrella on a very strong wind, and these two new books for children breezed through the letterbox earlier this year.

miss petitfour

The Adventures of Miss Petitfour by Anne Michaels, with illustrations by Emma Block

This is Anne Michael’s first foray into children’s books, although she won accolades galore for Fugitive Pieces, amongst other writing. And what a book! The Adventures of Miss Petitfour is split into five separate stories about the main character, an eccentric lady who lives alone, except for her 16 cats, to which there is an illustrated guide at the beginning so that the reader can distinguish between them. Miss Petitfour also has the ability to fly when the wind takes her – merely by shaping a tablecloth into a type of hot air balloon and going where the breeze dictates.

Anne Michaels has created a world of jumble sales, grand village picnics, stamp collections and the Festival of Festooning.

But it’s the use of language that is so unique and exciting. From her orange and italicized highlighted vocabulary, explaining long and difficult but thrilling new words, such as ‘debonair’ and ‘gesticulating’; to encouraging the reader to count Michael’s authorly ‘digressions’ from the main story – the word digression also highlighted in orange – to the careful construction of each story, the use of the words ‘the end’ at the end of every story in a different context:

“…she placed especially lengthy chocolate eclairs crammed with whipping cream, which they gobbled up with great cat smiles from the beginning to THE END.”

and the simple poetic lyricism of each phrase, from “sixteen cat acrobats on a thrilling coat hanger trapeze” to the stories Miss Petitfour tells her cats:

“…stories full of rolling waves and motorcades, damp caves and last-minute saves, musketeers and mountaineers.”

It seems effortless, although of course it isn’t – it is highly thought out, and of the highest quality – and poetic in its lyricism. As a reader, you savour the words in your mouth the way you would savour the delectable treats she describes:

“currant toast squishy with butter, caramel-marshmallow squares, strawberry boats oozing custard, chocolate eclairs that exploded with cream when the cats bit into them with their little white teeth…”

She explains the construction of her stories as she writes – from ‘then one day’s’ to ‘meanwhiles’ without any condescension, as well as including the most luscious descriptions from clothes and fabrics “bolts of rustling stiff crepe paper and spools of silent velvet ribbon; there was the swish of tinsel and the jittering of plastic beads”, to the line of cats dangling in the wind, to the colour of marmalade. And Michaels does all this as well as writing interesting plots with drive, so there is never a dull moment.

The accompanying full-colour illustrations by Emma Block are sophisticated, humorous and almost as eccentric as Miss Petitfour herself – with massively differentiated cats, ear muffs, dancing, piano playing, and also simple tea. They are sharp and well matched to the text.

This is a meticulously crafted book – refined and delightful. For 7-12 years, and beyond. Buy a copy here.

harper scarlet

Harper and the Scarlet Umbrella by Cerrie Burnell, illustrated by Laura Ellen Anderson

With its irresistibly shiny cover, this tale does indeed sparkle from beginning to end. For newly independent readers, (the text is much larger, and the story shorter, than the title above) it tells the tale of Harper, a small girl who lives in the City of Clouds in a tall apartment block. Her friends come from the different flats within the building, each child having a defined personality from the start. But Harper’s best friend is her cat Midnight. When Midnight goes missing, along with all the other cats from the City of Clouds, Harper must harness her scarlet umbrella (which enables her to fly) and track down the lost cats.

Laura Ellen Anderson’s illustrations made this book for me. From the endearing portrayal of Harper on the cover with the cat perching on her head to the most incredible full page illustration of the cat orchestra inside, the artworks, despite being all in black and white, made me want to savour the book for longer. Small details abound in each illustration, from the smattering of freckles across Harper’s face to the cat licking its paws in the middle of an orchestral warm-up, to the view from the rooftops down to the trail of cats below. Each chapter starts with an illustration of Midnight in a different pose, and the book ends with her curled up comfortably asleep on the last page.

The writing is intensely lyrical, mirroring the themes of the story, which are music, adventure, care for others, all set in an imaginary world where there are different types of rain, “Summer Dew” and “Sea Mist” being just two, so that everyone owns an umbrella. The world also contains a plethora of musical instruments. Time and attention is lavished on children by grownups who really care, and the story is populated by overly exaggerated characters brimming with arty skills – they can dance, or write, or play music with incredible aptitude. It makes for magical reading, each sentence carefully honed with an abundance of adjectives and similes.

It is short and reads as sweetly as the story within, although for older children the language may seem a little cloying. For first readers, the magic of language will spring off the page, and I can happily see children revisiting the story for comfort, and definitely for those stunning illustrations. For 6+ years. You can buy a copy here.