Carbonel, The King of the Cats, is a middle grade fantasy written in 1955 by Barbara Sleigh.
I read the first couple of pages, channeling my eight-year-old self, and asking, “Why do I want to check this book out of the library?”
• On the cover, a black cat sits at the top of a clock tower, gazing up at two children--a girl and a boy--who are soaring over a city on a flying broomstick, by the light of a full moon.
Covers are important--we may not want to choose a book by its cover, but how can we not be influenced? This cover, along with the title, promises magic, adventure--and a cool animal character!
• Reading the opening, I find a name and an emotion word in the very first sentence--“Rosemary’s satchel bounced cheerfully up and down as she hopped on and off the pavement of Tottenham Grove.”
Yes! I like knowing who I’m reading about and how they’re feeling right up front.
• Specific details in the second sentence add interest: “She enjoyed school, except for arithmetic and boiled fish on Fridays.”
Hey, she’s just like me--I liked school, too, except for math. And, eww! Boiled fish sounds even more disgusting than the icky sloppy joes my school used to serve.
• Despite some unfamiliar British terms (breaking-up, Tottenham Grove, pillar box) , I gather that school’s out for the summer, and Rosemary is excited--she’s “fizzing” with a “delightful party feeling”, to be exact. She’s also bouncing up and down on the “kerb”.
• By the second paragraph, other children have come along, and conversation follows.
I love dialogue--it pulls me right into the story. From this exchange I learn that Rosemary’s mother is poor, and they can’t afford to go away for the holidays, and the girls in her class are snotty about it. This creates more interest, and adds a hint of potential conflict.
• There’s an emotional shift. The exchange with the schoolmates took the wind out of Rosemary’s sails. At first she goes on “doggedly hopping”, but “the party feeling was only fizzing at half-cock now”. As she nears home, she stops hopping (“her satchel was beginning to hurt when it bounced”). Her neighborhood has seen better days, and her landlady (whom she bumps into) is critical and unpleasant.
It’s only page two, and I’m feeling sympathetic toward Rosemary--she’s a cheerful sort of girl even though her classmates put her down for being poor, and she’s got a mean landlady to contend with. We haven’t met the promised cat yet, and so far there’s been nothing about flying broomsticks. And who’s the boy on the cover?--he looks much nicer than those bratty girls from Rosemary’s class. So many things to look forward to! I’ll keep reading.
Next, I take a quick look at the rest of the book, asking, “Why do I want to keep reading?"
• By the end of the first chapter, Rosemary has a goal: She wants to surprise her hard-working mom by earning some money. She decides to get a cleaning job, and, though she’s only got a little money, she’s going to the market all by herself to buy a broom.
There hasn’t been a big inciting event to force the character into action--getting a job is really just a whim of Rosemary’s--but her goal is clear, and the character and her mother are so sympathetic, we’re rooting for her. We’re willing to go along with it.
• In chapter two, Rosemary meets the cat. It can talk! She buys it from a witch, along with a rough twig broom (which wasn’t really the sort of broom she wanted). Turns out you can only hear the cat talk if you’re holding the broom. But she’s spent all her money, and has nothing left for bus fare. How to get home? Oh--fly on the broom, of course!
I’m thoroughly hooked.
• Turns out the cat is Carbonel, a Royal Cat, stolen and enslaved by a witch. Now he’s doomed to be Rosemary’s slave--even if she doesn’t want one! To break the spell, they need to find the items used to make it: the broom (which they’ve already got), a hat, a cauldron, and the spellbook.
Ah … now we know the objective of our quest.
• Rosemary becomes friends with John, the young nephew of the lady her mom works for. He helps her as they roam the city, looking for the hat, cauldron, and spellbook. Adventures ensue. Carbonel, the lordly cat, bristles when they misuse magic or treat him like an ordinary pet (though he is not averse to a little petting now and then). There’s also the need to hide what they’re doing from the grownups, who wouldn’t understand.
Good complications and tension--characters influence the plot, and plot events impact the characters.
• The children find the necessary objects, do the spell to free Carbonel, and help him reinstate himself as King of the Cats. They return his enemy, the fiendish ginger cat, to John’s rich aunt--he was her pet before he ran off to usurp Carbonel’s kingdom. She is thrilled to have her “Popsy Dinkums” back.
Oh, good--the kids didn’t become irrelevant once Carbonel returned to his life among the cats. They still had an important role to play.
• Happily, John’s family has invited Rosemary to go with them on a holiday to the seaside. And even more happily, Rosemary and her mom are moving, because her mom’s starting a new job--wardrobe mistress for a theatre company--which she got through someone Rosemary met while searching for the magical objects. The spellbook and broom have both been destroyed (which means they can’t understand Carbonel any more, but maybe that’s for the best).
All loose ends tied up neatly . Rosemary didn’t achieve her initial goal of getting a job, but she indirectly helped improve her family’s financial situation.
• In the last three paragraphs, Sleigh suddenly addresses the reader directly and tells what happened to some of the minor characters, implying that she--the narrator--knows them personally.
Disconcerting, but then this was written in 1955, so maybe we can forgive a bit of uncharacteristic authorial intrusion. Overall I think Carbonel stands the test of time very well.
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