Jul 14, 11
Read from July 13 to 14, 2011
I don't think the influence of S.D. Schindler's artwork on the overall quality of this book can be overemphasized. His spare pencil drawings of the quiet barn and its animal residents as they carry on their own dramatic existence apart from the world at large lends a sober credibility to those goings-on, and gives the importance of their lives together a deeper, more immediate sense of significance to us, the readers. The writing of author Alan Armstrong doesn't fail to enhance this sincere sense of importance, either, but I would say that the two story elements work together almost equally in the creation of Whittington. Sometimes a book's illustrations don't matter all that much, but I think that S.D. Schindler's artwork for this story is undeniably crucial to the book's success.
Banished from his home by parents who no longer wanted to take care of a cat now that the animal's owner, their son, had been sent away to remedial reading school, the highly intelligent and graceful Whittington walks alone in the world, trying to live by way of his own smarts. Nonetheless, it's a fortuitous day for him when he comes upon a loud, assertive duck named Lady and the barn she inhabits with a myriad of other creatures, all getting along together as best they can despite the problems they face. The biggest problem of all may be that of the predator rats who also dwell in the barn, waiting patiently to attack the fowl and carry them off for an occasional good meal. Lady, herself, knows it's not too long before her number comes up and she's a goner, so when Whittington offers to become the barn's new live-in rat eradicator, she has little choice but to welcome him in as the newest member of the family.
After the bad experience with his last family, Whittington is in no hurry to become part of another, but living in this particular barn doesn't leave much room for an animal to go his or her own way. Before long, Whittington is swept up into the bigger drama and communal life of the barn—though always staying comfortably above the general fray—and he begins to relate to the other animals the long and winding true tale of the man for whom he was named, historic merchant and philanthropist Dick Whittington. This historical story of adventure and life-changing love keeps the feline Whittington's audience mesmerized on and off over the course of many days, as he reaches natural stopping points along the way and then later picks up the narrative again right from where he left off, when it's the proper time to continue.
It's not as if the barn exists apart from the influence of humans, though. A quiet man named Bernie and his wife, Marion, are the proprietors of the place, and they live with their grandchildren (Abby, age ten, and Ben, age eight) in a house on the same piece of land. Abby and Ben are the only humans fully integrated with the barn's real life; they can understand the speech of the animals and even listen to the storytelling of Whittington as he paints a picture for them of the life of his original namesake. Humans and animals alike learn much from listening to the story as their own daily dramas unfold around them, effectively juxtaposing the power of a story well told with the stories that we're all in the midst of living even as we've stopped for a moment to take time and listen to someone else's compelling tale about the dramatic happenings that have enlivened the existence of real and fictional characters down through the centuries.
Whittington is a book of strong character that I recommend for the flawless marriage of its text and illustrations, and how that perfect partnership so movingly affects the story as a whole. There is a lot to be learned by living this drama through the eyes and ears of a barnful of animals concerned not only with what's going on around them at the present moment, but also the larger history that somehow conspired to lead them to where they now stand, and the importance of holding onto those who are gone even as time proceeds on its neverending journey.
I would definitely consider giving the full three stars to this book.