Mystery City: Ottoline and the Yellow Cat

I recently chose Chris Riddell's chapter book Ottoline and the Yellow Cat off the library shelves because of its whimsical cover (It's true! I judge!) and was delighted to see its setting was "Big City."

Ottoline Brown lives in Apartment 243 of the Pepperpot Building. Her parents are traveling the world and collecting interesting things (though they do keep in touch via postcards and sage tidbits of advice), and so Ottoline spends her days with the unusual Mr. Monroe. Mr. Monroe will probably remind the reader of Cousin It. One day, Ottoline notices a rash of burglaries around the city. Being a very good thinker, she sets out to solve them (with Mr. Monroe's help, of course). Along the way she encounters some shady feline and canine characters, but with a detailed and clever plan she sets a trap to catch the (ahem) cat burglar.

Chris Riddell crafts Ottoline's tale through a clever combination of text and intricate and amusing line drawings. Immediately I was put in mind of Eloise, but the narration of Ottoline's story relies much more on the drawings than Eloise's. The city setting is crucial to the story and adds the requisite air of mystery. There are plenty of intriguing, yet whimsical cityscapes, especially when Ottoline sets out at night, when her long shadow is dwarfed by towering buildings. A thieves' den in and old warehouse presents a quirky take on a hideaway you might see in an old 40s film noir, but a resident chihuahua named Fifi Fiesta Funny Face III, keeps us firmly in the world of children's books.

My sons and I really enjoyed Ottoline and the Yellow Cat as a read aloud, but it could easily be enjoyed by any child on his own, as long as they take plenty of time to examine the drawings.


Big Kid says: "Ottoline! Ottoline! Ottoline!"
Little Kid says: "Ottoline! Ottoline! Ottoline!"
(This was the chant they shouted every night when it was time for our read aloud.

Want More?
Visit the author's website.
Read more reviews at Annie and Aunt, Charlotte's Library, books4yourkids or  Kids Read.
There are more Ottoline books: Ottoline Goes to School and Ottoline at Sea.
Watch this you tube video of Chris Riddell drawing Ottoline:


Book List City: Guest Post

This week Tanya at books4yourkids.com interviewed yours truly about books and traveling. All week long she put together book lists on terrific cities so you can do a little armchair traveling with the kids. Hop on over there and take a look.


Thanks, Tanya! It was fun!


Familial City: Tar Beach

Summer is just around the corner and in cities everywhere, rooftops become outdoor gathering places for those in yard less apartments. Faith Ringgold's Caldecott Honor book Tar Beach is a magical story celebrating family, city life and a special bridge.

Much has already been written about this beautiful book (see Want More? section below) and there is every reason in the world to pick it up this summer and read it with your kids. The free-flowing story of Tar Beach was originally told via a quilt Ringgold crafted around the image of a family gathered around a late summer dinner on their rooftop. The term "tar beach" obviously refers to the blackness of the roof on which the narrator (a stand-in for a young Ringgold) relaxes and remembers her life in Harlem, New York City.

Our young protagonist, Cassie, alternates her narration between her imagined flights over the city and the George Washington Bridge (which she imagines wearing "like a giant diamond necklace") and a more realistic vision of her family's life in the city. There is her dad, who has a hard time finding construction work, her mom, full of laughter and tears, and her younger brother BeBe, who Cassie eventually takes with her on her nighttime flights.

It is hard to describe the beauty of this book. It is truly a love letter to the city and the freedom it offers. I hope you add it to your summer reading list.

Want More?
Visit the author's website.
Flying over the city is a popular motif in urban picture books: see any number of my bird book reviews, but also: Flying Over Brooklyn, Come Fly With Me, WingsThe Little Reindeer, The Tale of Hilda Louise and Abuela.
Enjoy another of my favorite rooftop books: At Night
Gathering Books has a blog post with links to educational resources about the book.
Watch this great Reading Rainbow episode, featuring New York City rooftops and a lovely reading of Tar Beach.  (If you search for Ringgold on You Tube, you will find several videos of her discussing her book and quilt.)


Musical City: Cats' Night Out

I have been wanting to read Cats' Night Out since it was first published in 2010, but it wasn't until the illustrator, Jon Klassen, achieved much deserved fame for I Want My Hat Back that my local library bought a copy of it, despite the fact that it won the Canadian Governor General's Literary Award (Canada's answer to the Caldecott).

Imagine a 1920s urban cat dance party and you will fit right into the world of Caroline Stutson's poetic feline adventure. In fact, I was so taken with the smooth jazz-like rhyme of Stutson's Cats' Night Out that it wasn't until the second reading that I even noticed this was a skip counting book (or maybe I'm just not very observant). Each time we turn the page pairs of cats on nighttime rooftops waltz, tango, foxtrot and samba their way through a impromptu swanky outdoor fĂȘte.

Unlike many urban picture book cats, these cats don't have to sneak around. There is no cautious slinking through alley ways and behind trash cans.  These cats hang out in locations where you might instead be expecting to see birds: on laundry lines hung from fire escapes, on telephone wires and billboards, skeleton-like scaffolding, in trees and even atop traffic lights. In fact, I couldn't even find a single bird. The city comes off as slightly mysterious, draped in fog and muted colored lights which offer the type of partial illumination you might expect in a smoky speak-easy. Klassen's felines are grooving out and you can see the look on their faces. These are some seriously cool cats. 

Sure, this is a great book to introduce counting and music concepts, but what you'll really love is the atmosphere.

Little Kid says: Those cats are dancing! Let's dance, mom!

Want More?
Read all my reviews of Cat-in-the-City books.
Check out the author's website.
Visit the illustrator's website.
Read Betsy Bird's more extensive review (and see some artwork) at Fuse #8.
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