CM . . . . Volume XXII Number 8 . . . . October 23, 2015
In her first children's book, The Adventures of Miss Petitfour, Anne Michaels introduces a charming young adventuress whose likeable character is reminiscent of Mary Poppins, with a dash of Amelia Bedelia's eccentricity thrown in for extra flair.
So begins this primary-aged chapter book, which is divided into "five magical outings", each involving Miss Petitfour and her cats flying through the sky. Lost boys may rely upon fairy dust, and nannies may employ magical umbrellas, but Miss Petitfour's unique method of transportation uses a collection of tablecloths, each suited to the particular needs of the occasion. With her tablecloth gathered in one hand like a kite and a tail-to-paw string of pet cats dangling from her other hand, Miss Petitfour "would take measure of the meteorological circumstances", and "fly in whatever direction the wind blew her".
Each of the short, easy-to-read adventures is sure to mention a cat or two as well as the friendly acquaintances from about the village. In "Miss Petitfour and the Rattling Spoon", a quest for a jar of marmalade introduces Mrs. Carruther from the grocery shop and Mr. Coneybeare who is the owner of Coneybeare's Confetti Factory and a charming, but really shy, would-be-suitor. And then there is Mrs. Collarwaller, the bookseller, a particular friend of Miss Petitfour's who divides her books into hum and ho-hum categories, "although which was which depended on what sort of book the customer liked best."
But it is Miss Petitfour's 16 quirkily-named cats that are sure to captivate the attention of young readers. Children will have great fun comparing story details to the preface illustrations that introduce each of Miss Petitfour's feline companions - and they may be inspired to draw and create fantastic adventures for their own special kitties.
This enchanting little book encourages a slower pace, allowing the reader to simply breathe and take a quiet introspective journey into the small pleasures sure to delight an imaginative child. It offers cats that love to dress up the opportunity to wriggle in a pile of leaves, to experience flying, or to enjoy the anticipation of eating "eclairs dipped in chocolate and full of air". Scattered throughout the text are delightfully unusual turns of phrase and descriptions just waiting to be discovered: "a slip-through-a-keyhole kind of cat", "the wind made the long grasses swim in the fields", "like a coat-hanger meteorite", "listen to the whole whispery weight of leaves stirring above", and "a lovely mound of cozy and tangled cat-spaghetti". A beginning reader will be enveloped by a host of unusual sounding words, such as "propitious", "quaggy", "sea shanties", "coriander", "capybara", "cat's cradle", and "galoshes". Sometimes the author defines this new vocabulary; sometimes she provides clues in context. Other times, she rattles words off as lists - of exotic places to visit, different kinds of dances, names of cheese, types of clouds and food to be enjoyed- especially food! Tasty indulgences are mentioned throughout, and both endpapers contain coloured drawings featuring delicious tea-time fare. "Miss Petitfour believed firmly that every adventure past her doorstep - even just a jaunt to the grocery shop - must end with a tea party."
Author Anne Michaels is best known internationally and at home in Canada as an award-winning poet: Miners Pond (1991), Skin Divers (1999), Poems (2000), The Weight of Oranges (2007), and Correspondences (2013). She is also an acclaimed novelist with best-seller Fugitive Pieces (1996 and also a film) and The Winter Vault (2009). In an interview for Quill and Quire, Michaels explains that her novels must have "moments built into the text to allow the reader to pause, to think, and to feel". She has also been described as a poet who doesn't waste a single word. Certainly these approaches have been incorporated into this children's book which offers a slow, reflective pace and demonstrates Michael's finesse and talent playing with language. She has created a beginning novel that demands to have every detail savoured - an approach usually reserved for children's picture books.
The story's rambling conversational style is also used as a vehicle to teach a young reader about author craft - from deciphering new vocabulary and recognizing transitional phrases that move the story along, to the word cues that are used to indicate what is likely to happen next in the plot. The narration converses directly with the audience, breaches the imaginary fourth wall, and invites direct participation. At one point, Michaels challenges the reader to begin to count the various digressions in the story - an unusual, but fun way to involve the reader and teach how to recognize this particular literary device.
The book's whimsical cover design will remind adults of children's books from the 1950s and '60s. Emma Block is a young British author whose illustrations recall grandmother's turquoise bathtub, flowered aprons, and Pyrex casserole dishes. Her distinctive and rather primitive illustrative style is currently wildly popular commercially in notepaper, logos, greeting cards, and invitations. Selecting Block as the illustrator is the perfect choice as her work beautifully highlights, at a visual level, this book's vintage flavour. She uses her characteristic style of brush lettering and soft pastel watercolours to fill outlined sketches. Drawings of Miss Petitfour and her cats are scattered amongst the pages. Some story scenes spread across two pages whilst others sprout up as small vignettes tucked in a corner of the text. Children are sure to delight in seeing the story's details so accurately portrayed.
The Adventures of Miss Petitfour may not hold special appeal to a wide audience as an independent reading selection due to the lack of fast-paced action and straightforward humour. It is possible that the highly descriptive language may prove too sophisticated for the beginning reader to appreciate or manage. However, this book would be a wonderful choice as a class read-aloud as it is full of teaching opportunities to be explored under the guidance of an enterprising primary teacher: using maps to locate geographic locales, practicing dances mentioned in the story, alphabetizing classroom objects like the characters at the jumble sale, and then celebrating all the learning with a delicious class tea party afterwards!
But, dear reader, The Adventures of Miss Petitfour would be absolutely and fabulously perfect as a comforting bedtime story ready to fill a small receptive mind with imaginative and extraordinary nighttime dreams. In the end, this reviewer will leave it up to the reader to apply Miss Collarwaller's classification criteria and make the final decision if this book should be considered as a hum or ho-hum book.
Joanie Proske is a teacher-librarian in the Langley School District, Langley, BC.
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