Sam the Cat: Detective

When I moved to Sweden I brought a handful of my favorite children’s, middle grade, and young adult books with me. My motivation was largely nostalgic, but they ended up being useful resources when tutoring.

Sam the Cat: Detective is one that never made an appearance at a lesson. I didn’t have any really cat-obsessed students and I’m not entirely sure all of the detective and noir style elements would have been a productive challenge. In fact, I didn’t re-read it until just a couple weeks ago, when I read it out loud to my sambo over a weekend. (His new-found appreciation for audiobooks means that he also enjoys me reading out loud to him; this is hardly the first book we’ve enjoyed together like this.)

Scholastic edition of Sam the Cat: Detective

I distinctly remember loving the hell out of this book as a kid, to the point where I read it multiple times. I generally don’t get much out of re-reading books until I’ve all but forgotten them, and the same was true for me as a kid, so reading any book more than once was a rarity. What stuck in my memory was the noir-style tone, a couple essential vocabulary words (“fence,” as in a buyer of stolen goods; “cat burglar” (because of course) and very likely “dumbwaiter”) and a very chaotic showdown at the end where a cat burglar is foiled and apprehended by a dozen neighborhood cats.

It turns out adult me also loved the hell out of this book, though maybe not for all of the same reasons.

The writing is definitely a very self-aware hard-boiled detective…homage? parody?…that’s suitable for kids but in no way condescending or dumbed down. At 8 years old I wouldn’t have been conversant with Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett, of course, but kids can tell when there’s very Smart Grown-Up Stuff at work (except when they can’t; at the same age I didn’t realize Get Smart was supposed to be funny) and the sense that there was Smart Grown-Up Stuff was without a doubt what a large part of the appeal was for me. There are also jokes for the grown-ups in there, for the parents who would have inevitably been reading this to their kids at bedtime, including an acrobat troupe of cats called Wang, Chang, Sturm, and Drang. And while yes, it’s definitely a play on the old Chinese circus acrobats trope, the cats don’t speak in broken English or cringe-y dialect.

The mystery isn’t bad either. An adult reading it, especially an adult who’s read at least one detective novel in their life, will probably figure out the bulk of the mystery by the time it’s done being set up, but what you lose in the obvious nature of the mystery qua mystery, you gain in appreciation for Stewart’s technical accomplishment in the whole package. The cats are able to solve the mystery faster than the cops because of their different perspective; the story logic doesn’t rely on the target demographic being children. They also have an imaginative and genuinely adorable parallel cat world, with cat celebrities (in this case, cat food commercial animal actors) and cats running businesses like detective agencies and salons, paying each other in cat food and information about humans that feed strays but also very casually making use of telephones, computers, and microwaves. Stewart and her editor also do an excellent job of succinctly explaining the more advanced or specialized vocabulary in a way that fits in smoothly with the rest of the narration, usually with a joke when possible (“Personally, I always thought a dumbwaiter was a server at the restaurant who spilled the wrong kind of soup in your lap…”) Plus, semi-colons. Hallelujah! Just because your book is for children doesn’t mean your prose needs to be dull and repetitive.

Adults who never read it in childhood might not love it the way that I did if they read it now, but that’s okay. I still love it, and that’s all that matters.

The Boggart

I originally read The Boggart in elementary school, and then re-read it back in December, so no matter how you slice it I’m cheating a bit (or have fallen quite far behind) to bring it up for a book post in February. To which I say: come at me, bro.

Scholastic Books edition of The Boggart by Susan Cooper
Image courtesy Scholastic

Author: Susan Cooper

My GoodReads rating: 4 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 3.75 stars

Language scaling: B1+

Summary: The Vonik family inherits a castle in Scotland and brings a boggart with them back to Canada

Recommended audience: Fantasy fans; people who enjoyed Cooper’s The Dark is Rising series; Scottish mythology fans

In-depth thoughts: My occasion for re-reading this one was actually for work. One of my younger (former) students is very much into ghost stories and the like, and while I was trying to figure out the next thing I wanted to read, my eyes lighted on my battered Scholastic book fair edition of The Boggart. Mischievous ghosts and drafty Scottish castles? On brand!

I was right — it was a bigger hit than the other books I’d brought in — but my point here isn’t how I’m awesome at picking out books for students but about how much I haven’t grown out of this book.

I didn’t remember that much about it, except that it had a ghost and that ten-year-old me loved it. (How else would it survive countless book purges and a trip across the ocean?) The perfect time to re-read a book!

The first or second lesson I read along with my student, we got to a section about the titular boggart mourning the death of their very first human friend, and it choked me up. If your middle grade fantasy novel brings grown-ups to tears, then you’re a competent and accomplished writer. Also, points for using semicolons (happy semikolonets dag!) and having the characters’ mother apologize to another adult for being “bitchy.” We don’t have to banish semantic complexity or linguistic realism from children’s literature!

While charming, The Boggart still isn’t as effortless as The Dark is Rising; Cooper has to do a lot of heavy lifting to get her modern Canadian family to clue in to the ancient Scottish spirit turning their lives upside down, and it gets clumsy in places. A couple of moments are clearly meant to be whimsical or wonderful but feel a bit much, and a third act bad guy appears out of nowhere, to no end except to be a vague menace. What is considered the latest technology is also a key plot point, but this was the latest technology back in 1993, so there are also portions that are incredibly dated when you’re reading in 2019.

Book Review: Otto and the Flying Twins

I picked up Otto and the Flying Twins at a library sale some months ago, and in an odd coincidence (given the book’s subject matter) I had it in my bag while I was stranded in town on Friday.

Author: Charlotte Haptie

My GoodReads rating: 4 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 3.62 stars

Language scaling: B2+

Recommended audience: Fantasy aficionados

In-depth thoughts: Teachers wishing to address prejudice and The Holocaust could do worse than to include Otto and the Flying Twins in the curriculum.

On the surface, it’s a whimsical fantasy story about an evil queen (though in an updated form of an evil councilwoman) trying to eradicate magic from the city, and the young boy and his magical friends who stop her. But dig a little deeper and it’s hard to deny the parallels with pre-World War II Germany: the “magicos” are declared inferior and a threat to the city’s well-being, relegated to ghettos or sent to work in moonstone mines.

It’s hard to strike a balance between light whimsy and serious hardship, and my only complaint with the book is that Haptie never finds a good balance; despite some serious moments, the mood tilts very heavily towards “fun fantasy.” Rather than address the very real problem that hatred and prejudice is built up over lifetimes and generations, Haptie compresses what was probably two or three centuries of anti-Semitic sentiment that contributed to the Holocaust into just a couple of years and the flimsiest of pretenses—essentially, one individual’s personal grudge. (And greed, but arguably it’s something like greed that drives people to blame The Other for economic woes, so that’s not so unrealistic after all.)

But it’s a fantasy book for middle grade readers, not Holocaust scholarship. I realize this is a very high-level nitpick, and I’m willing to overlook it because everything else about the book was delightful.

Anyone familiar with YA and middle grade tropes will see some of them refreshingly subverted or avoided. The titular Otto isn’t The Chosen One; that’s actually his dad, Albert who does much of the heroics (if off-screen). Otto is, of course, gifted with what everyone considers The Best Power Ever, but it’s well-balanced: neither over-powerful enough to render his friends useless, nor so under-powered that we wonder why anyone values such a power in the first place.

When his mom finds out that Albert hid his Karmidee heritage from her, she lashes out at him and spends most of the rest of the book angry at him, for ugly reasons (internalized prejudice) as well as respectable ones (building a life with someone only to find out they’ve lied about a very important part of themselves is bound to be a shocker). It’s a response that feels very human, especially because she balances it with protecting her family. There’s nothing worse than conflict driven by one or more parties being willfully stupid. Instead, Dolores does what she can to protect her undeniably magical family and keeps her frustration with Albert separate.

Otto’s obligatory female sidekick, Mab, isn’t presented as a love interest, which is refreshing—but this might be due to the target audience (the story feels and reads much more middle grade than YA). She’s not entirely useful, it feels like, except to explain things to Otto (and by extension, the reader).

The language in this book is something to behold. There is an air of genuine whimsy in this that I found lacking in Harry Potter. (Well, either lacking or totally oppressive.) Normal Police, widges, dammerung, an Impossible List . . . Haptie takes well-worn fantasy tropes and adds her own unique spin to them.

Otto and the Flying Twins is the first in a trilogy of books. I get the impression that they were meant to be a longer series, but seeing as the last one was published in 2006, I think it’s safe to say that the series stops at three books. If you can find it, get it. Otto and the Flying Twins is a great example of middle grade fantasy at its finest. More than that, it’s a great jumping-off point to discuss prejudice and resistance—topics that are going to be quite relevant for the next few years.