The Cats of Tanglewood ForestFeatured
When Lillian is bitten by a poisonous snake while napping under the branches of a beech tree, the magical cats of the forest reveal themselves and save her by turning her into a kitten. Now she must set out on a journey that will lead her through an untamed wilderness full of fabled creatures--from Old Mother Possum to the fearsome Bear People--to find a way to make things right and become human again. In this whimsical, original folktale created by two masters of modern fantasy, a young girl's journey becomes an enchanting coming-of-age story about friendship, bravery, and shaping one's destiny.
Set in the countryside north of de Lint's fictional town of Newford--the setting of many of his most beloved novels--this book is a new novel-length story for middle graders based on the author and illustrator's picture book A Circle of Cats.
Usually, I don't talk much about the physical book itself in my reviews, but I have to spend some time on just how incredibly breathtaking The Cats of Tanglewood Forest is. As you can see from the cover, the illustrations are beautiful. My only quibble with Vess' artwork would be that his people look a bit creepy at times, but he excels at other animals and nature. All throughout the book, his illustrations appear in full color and it's worth taking time to really look at them. As an added bonus, if you remove the dust jacket, there's a different illustration underneath, and it's beautiful as well. Everything about the packaging of this book is beautiful.
The movie The Aristocats includes a song called "Everybody Wants to Be a Cat." Turns out that's not true. Young Lillian is out wandering the forest near her home one day when she gets tired and settles down to a nap. While she's sleeping, a poisonous snake bites her. As she's laying there dying, the wild cats of the forest come upon her and decide, at the risk of angering the Father of Cats, to save this girl who leaves milk out for them. The cats have magic, as much in the forest does. They turn her into a kitten, which sets her on a journey to recover her girl body and to do so with her life just as she left it (minus the snakebite).
Unsurprisingly, the non-human animals really steal the show. My personal favorite is the fox, T. H. Reynolds, a very fine and upstanding gent. Though naturally a predator to kittens, he becomes Lillian's ally in her quest. He's funny, sly, and completely adorable. I love that the animals all work together, but retain their individual natures, not really coming across as particularly anthopomorphized, but more like the reader can now understand their way of communication.
One of the main themes woven neatly throughout The Cats of Tanglewood Forest is that of being kind to those in the world around you. Lillian leaves extra chicken feed out for the undomesticated birds, milk out for the wild cats, and biscuits out for the Apple Tree Man. She doesn't do this in expectation of help, but, in the end, her generosity earns her help when she needs it. Lillian's trusting nature and kindness are what make her capable of achieving her happy ending. De Lint gets this message across without any sort of preaching at all.
The Final Verdict:
Whether the story itself interests you or not, it's worth picking up a copy for the gorgeous illustrations, and you just might find yourself sucked into the story as well. This is an excellent story to read with younger children or for middle grade independent readers.