Books on the Blog: The Cheshire Cheese Cat
Searching for a Multi-Purpose Mentor Text
by Linda Walker
During the summer I co-teach a specialty course for young writers. I am always searching for texts I can use to show writing craft. Katie Wood Ray’s Wondrous Words gives two tenets about craft; story structure and ways with words. So I keep that forefront when I visit a book store or a library; discover an interesting book which will appeal to young readers showing an author’s craft structure and word use. But I also want a book urging readers to move beyond the story in search of answers to questions about the places, events and people within the pages of the book. Could the characters be based on real life people? Could I visit the places cited in the book online or in person? Did the events and daily living of the time period really happen? I want to show young writers how an author can weave snippets of fact into a satisfying fiction tale. In short I want to multi-purpose the book. I found this unique package in The Cheshire Cheese Cat :A Dickens of a Tale by Carmen Agra Deedy and Randall Wright.
So begins the tale of Skilley. HE WAS THE BEST OF TOMS. He was the worst of toms. Tired of London’s seedy back alleys and fighting off Pinch, an evil tomcat, Skilley prowls the streets for a safe place to call home. As luck would have it, the innkeeper of the renown Cheshire Cheese tavern is looking for an expert mouser to eradicate cheese stealing rodents overrunning his establishment. Now mice are not Skilley’s preferred delicacy but he’ll do anything to secure a place at The Cheshire. And so he forms an unheard of alliance with Pip, a resident mouse at the esteemed inn which attracts the famous writer and word lover, Charles Dickens (an onlooker and commentator throughout the story). There is much intrigue between Skilley and Pip as they try to hide private secrets and fears from one another and attempt to return Maldwyn, one of Queen Victoria’s prized ravens, to The Tower.
For young writers character introduction can be a challenge. Does this sound familiar? One day I went to the zoo with my grandad. We saw lots of animals. It was hot. I liked the monkeys best. The End. Pronouns with no personalities. Characters that are real are defined by how they act and what they say. Charles Dickens biographer John Forster said Dickens made “characters real existences not by describing them but by letting them describe themselves”.
Dropping a reader into the opening scene is another stumbling block for young writers. An opening which raises the questions who, why and what happens next needs showing.
Chapter one, page one of The Cheshire Cheese Cat is a good example of a mentor paragraph for character personality and an intriguing opening to a story. Examples of varied sentence structure, voice, descriptive adjectives, and active verbs are an added discussion bonus.
HE WAS THE BEST OF TOMS. He was the worst of toms. Fleet of foot, sleek and solitary, Skilley was a cat among cats. Or so he would have been, but for a secret he had carried since his early youth. A secret that caused him to live in hidden shame, avoiding, even casual friendship lest anyone discover- “Scat, cat!” A broom came down hard out of London’s cold and fog. Startled, Skilley leapt sideways and the broom whiffed empty air. The cat, however, refused to scat. He eyed the dead fish, then the broom, calculating the distance between the two. *
So much material on just one page.
There are numerous examples one can use to show writers how to enliven their pieces with interesting text fonts as well as word wizardry. The author cleverly introduced ways with words. In chapter ten the reader follows Skilley exploration of the Cheshire Cheese tavern in word imagery.
The introduction of real places, people and activities of the time encourages a young reader/writer to broaden their writing repertoire by researching ideas for topics. When I turned to the front matter of The Cheshire Cheese Cat and saw the black and white sketch of Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese I wondered, is this place real? I googled it and discovered that it was and still is a pub buried within Fleet Street, London. A destination such famous writers as Mark Twain, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and P.G. Wodehouse frequented. Charles Dickens, an observer throughout the book, also alluded to The Cheese in A Tale of Two Cities. When I discovered the colored print of the Cheshire Cheese I knew from where inspiration sprung. Imagine the discussion and the fun a young writer could have with this depiction.
Lynne Dorfman and Rose Cappelli (Mentor Texts, 2007) believe that “young writers need to hear and appreciate the story and characters as well as the rhythms, words, and message”. Using The Cheshire Cheese Cat as a mentor text just might encourage young writers to think, I could write like that .Interesting characters enliven a story. One of those in the book is Maldwyn (a wonderful name, so Shakespearean). Maldwyn is a raven hidden away in the attic of Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese upon whom rests the future of England. Legend says that the kingdom and the Tower will fall if any of the ravens ever leave the fortress. Unfortunately, Maldwyn gets into a nasty scrape with Pinch and was rescued by the mice at The Cheese. The real story for young writers is that ravens were and are protected at The Tower in London. Animals are of interest to young writers. Discovering historical background stories of living and mythical creatures may do much to encourage writers to embed interesting details about them into their pieces.
Linda Walker was a teacher for 33 years with experience in several grade levels including teaching children with diverse learning abilities. She is a 2005 Fellow of the National Writing Project. For many summers Linda has facilitated writing specialty courses for the PAWLP Young Writers and Readers Program.