I was very sad that I had reached the end of another parcel of reviewing joy from my favourite, dyslexia friendly publisher Barrington Stoke. You can imagine my delight then, when on our last family trip to the local library, I discovered they had stocked the shelves with some Little Gems. Not only that, but quite a few of them were new to me. I scooped them up and bore them home.
The first one of the library haul that I’m reviewing is called Snug by Michael Morpurgo.
I have two confessions to make. Firstly I am not a huge fan of Michael Morpurgo. It is not that he can’t write beautifully, because he absolutely can, and does. I think Private Peaceful is one of the most amazing books I’ve ever read. My first confession is linked to my second confession, which is that I am not particularly delighted by books about animals, and Morpurgo writes a lot about animals. I realise that, just as I am not excited much by Julia Donaldson or Jacqueline Wilson, this puts me in a minority, so I will tell you what I think, and try to temper it with positive criticism based on what I know everyone else will think.
Snug is about a cat called Snug who lives with a family who live in the country. Snug was rescued when he was just a kitten by the father of the family, who discovers him mewling about one of the farm buildings after a cat shoot in which Snug’s mother was obviously a casualty.
Snug attaches himself to Lisa, the baby of the family, and Snug and Lisa grow up together. The story, by the way, is narrated by Lisa’s older brother. Each chapter tells us about another milestone in Snug and Lisa’s relationship, until one day, Snug gets involved in a cat fight, and runs away from home.
Lisa’s father finds what he thinks is Snug’s body, and Lisa has to deal with the harsh reality of life with animals, and the fact that animals die, often sooner than their owners.
My problem with the book is that I found it too upsetting despite the fact that I will throw you a bone here and say that it does have a reasonably happy ending. I was a sensitive child, despite growing up next door to a farm myself, in a rural community and seeing animals being born and dying on a reasonably regular basis. It did not harden me to the rich cycle of life. It just used to make me sad when animals died, sometimes distraught. I was banned from reading Black Beauty, banned from watching Lassie and banned from seeing Watership Down. I once cried myself sick watching an illicit Lassie film. You can see why I would have a problem with Snug.
I appreciate that children need to know about the circle of life (breaks into Elton John style crooning), but there are ways and ways. I’m more comfortable with something like Goodbye Mog by Judith Kerr, than this, more prosaic and much less gentle tale which is much too pragmatic for me. I realise that other people, and I include plenty of children here, absolutely rave about books to do with animals and love nothing more than a heart rending tale of redemption and bravery and near tragedy, enacted by furry creatures. I suspect that this book will be hugely popular with almost everyone who isn’t me.
I particularly struggled with the idea of a cat shoot. I still do. As I say, I grew up in the country, and I never, ever came across a cat shoot, and indeed this is the first time the term has ever crossed my path. I really wish Snug had been discovered in other, slightly less distressing circumstances. I would hate to read this to small children and have to talk about it with them, and it is exactly this kind of morbid thing that small children like to dwell on in my experience.
The writing is top quality, as you would expect from Morpurgo. He is very good at writing realistically for children and this book is no exception. The illustration by Faye Hanson are really beautiful, and help to soften the harshness of the story for me. The rest of the book is top notch, as you would expect from Barrington Stoke. The production quality is high, with a cat quiz on the inside cover and a maze to do on the back. The illustrated end papers are lovely too.
The chapters are short, succinct and manageable for children so that they can easily achieve reading milestones, and build a sense of achievement as they read. The font is sans serif, of a good size for newly independent readers to grasp without merging words, and well spaced so they don’t mix up lines they might already have read. The vocabulary is well chosen for the reading age of six plus that Barrington Stoke recommend. Their interest age range recommends it for five to eight year olds. Given the subject matter, unless you’re very sure of your audience reaction, I’d stick to the slightly higher age range. There will inevitably be discussion provoked by what happens in the book, and it would be easier to talk these things through with older children in my opinion. You wouldn’t catch me going near a group of five year olds with it frankly.
On a positive note, if you’re much less sentimental than me, and you love animals, this is a book that will work for you in all sorts of rewarding ways.
You can read the first chapter as a sample, here.
You can see more of the gorgeous illustrations by Faye Hanson on her blog, here.