Saturday, May 19, 2012

Catwings by Ursula K. Le Guin: A Series Review

The children and I have just finished an enchanting series of chapter books. The books are lovely and I will not be able to do them justice but I had to try.

Books written for children are a mixed bag. Some of them aren't very good, to be honest. Others are entertaining, beautifully illustrated, sweet, fun, or all of those. Almost all of them are written for children though. What I mean by that, is that in addition to the content of the book being directed at children, the prose is modified for children as well. Vocabulary is simplified, sentences are shorter and less complex. Effort is made to make the prose engaging for children. Often the modifications are necessary, appropriate, and well done. Some of my absolute favorite children books use rhythm and rhyme to make the text fun to read and listen to.

These books are different. The prose is exquisite. I feel like I'm reading a classic - or poetry and yet, somehow, the stories are still accessible to even very young children. Here is a short excerpt from the first book to illustrate: "So the children's wings were the least of Mrs. Tabby's worries. She washed those silky wings every day, along with chins and paws and tails, and wondered about them now and then, but she worked too hard finding food and bringing up the family to think much about things she didn't understand. But when the huge dog chased little Harriet and cornered her behind the garbage can, lunging at her with open, white-toothed jaws, and Harriet with one desperate mew flew straight up into the air and over the dog's staring head and lighted on a rooftop - then Mrs. Tabby understood."

Every two or three pages, there are beautiful, delicate, detailed illustrations that bring the story to life and help keep little ones engaged in the story. These books entranced my 3 and 4 year old children - a boy and a girl. They entranced my husband and I. I imagine that a young independent reader (1st-3rd grade) would enjoy them as well. Even a middle or high school reader could become addicted to this series.

The books are fantasies in the sense that they are about four kittens who were born with wings. Other than that fact, though, the books take place in the perfectly ordinary settings of a city and the countryside. While appropriate in content for even very young children, they are not all sweetness and light. The kittens encounter hunger, fatigue, injury, and the danger of discovery by humans. These topics are integrated seamlessly into the stories and are part of what make the stories so engaging for the children.

The first book in the series is Catwings by Ursula K. Le Guin and illustrated by S. D. Schindler. Four winged kittens are born to a perfectly ordinary alley cat under a dumpster in the city. When the kittens are old enough to fly the mother sends them away to find a better place to live in the country. Eventually the kittens find a better home.

The second book in the series is Catwings Return. Two of the catwings decide to return to the city to visit their mother only to find her missing and the old alley being demolished by the humans. They discover a lost black, winged kitten who needs to be rescued.

The third book in the series is Wonderful Alexander and the Catwings. The youngest catwing makes a new friend and although she helps him in the beginning, he is able to help her in the end.

The final book in the series is Jane on Her Own. The youngest kitten goes off on her own in search of adventure. She learns some lessons before finding just the right place to settle.

I cannot recommend this series of books enough. They are a perfect read-aloud introduction to early chapter books for young children. The books are five short chapters each with enough illustrations to keep children used to picture books interested. These books could even be read over the course of a few weeks in 5-10 minutes per therapy session. Use them as a "reward" for good therapy behavior and know that they are perfect for increasing listening comprehension, expanding vocabulary, and exposure to advanced syntax at the same time.

Bottom line: Highly recommended.

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