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I first heard of this book on a site for children's books that were not suitable for children. That in itself is often enough for me to buy a book. I love books that are different - and unique books are more likely to annoy some people. But in addition to being considered too violent by some adults, this book is also highly recommended on sites for gifted children, it is recommended as a teaching resource for primary school teachers and I could easily see this book taking centre stage in philosophy class as well. I put off buying this as I am very much a dog person rather than a cat person, but I finally decided to take the plunge after a fellow dooyoo member a friend (Koshka) mentioned that this book had "Broxi" written all over it. She was right, this book should have had my name all over it - it has everything I look for in a book and more.
On the surface, Varjak Paw is about a young cat who lives a life of comfort and ease, but is not satisfied with this constrained overly domesticated life. Varjak has all the fire and passion of youth, which is not well spent cooped up in a fancy house, where even the safely enclosed garden is considered unacceptable by his aristocratic family. But when their life of leisure is threatened, only Varjak and the Elder Paw have the courage to consider action. The rest of the family rely only on their status as "purebred Mesopotamian Blues" and desperately hope for the status quo to be maintained.
Varjak sets of on an adventure, leaving the sheltered world he has known for the brutal life of a street cat. Life for strays has never been easy, with the constant struggle for food and shelter, but with the added fear of "the vanishings" things have grown much worse at cats turn to street gangs for the dubious protection offered by them. But do the gangs really provide any protection - or do they only make a bad situation worse? Meanwhile can Varjak's family look beyond their own self interests - and while they think only of maintaining their own comforts -are they in danger as well?
For a child this is just a fun and exciting adventure with a cat who learns martial arts, finds new and unexpected friends and learns to believe in himself. There is a clear moral to the story, but it is the action and suspense, along with a few lashings of humour that will keep younger readers hooked. True there is some violence, but really nothing worse than timeless children's classics like Black Beauty, and I believe many children's books have become too sanitised in recent years - to the point of being very boring as well. This book will be a breathe of fresh air for many reluctant readers or children who have grown bored with reading too much of the same.
This is technically a child's book but it has quite a lot to offer an adult as well - even if cats are not quite your thing. There are many parallels to human situations. This makes a very strong point about the desire to maintain comfort, privilege and safety at the expense of others as well as themes of racism, class and caste. It is easy to see where many humans have reacted very much like the Mesopotamian Blues, ignoring injustice and even great evil as long as they can stay safe and comfortable. I could also point out many cases where less privileged humans have behaved in the same manner as the street cats. The strong exploit the weak, who nonetheless turn to them for protection, surrendering any free will of their own in the hope of safety. Gangs and paramilitaries take power in areas where fear is strong and people have no other place to turn. There are some veiled references to Eastern religion and thought, and a clear message of the need for self discovery. The book encourages kindness, courage, loyalty and most of all open mindedness all virtues we could do with more of in this day and age.
As this is an illustrated book, I feel some mention of the artwork is required. I'm afraid I could not write anything from memory on the pictures and had to go up and get the book to have another look. I hardly noticed the illustrations at all when reading this, but looking through now, some are very good, where others are quite crude. They are simple black and white or grey and white prints, but sadly text is printed over the designs in a few cases. This is quite strongly recommended against for children with dyslexia, however it is only a few pages and the story is so good, I would recommend giving this book a try even if the child does have some difficulty in reading. If nothing else, this could be used for shared reading with an adult reading the pages with print underneath, and it is only a small portion of the book.
I do collect and read a vast number of children's books. I wouldn't care to count them all, but my collection is most likely into 4 digit numbers by now, and I only keep the better books. Even so, this book stands out as one of the best. This book is something I will be building an entire unit study around for home education. I can't recommend this strongly enough for teaching opportunities, but beyond all the morals, philosophy and educational aspects, this book is simply a joy to read, for children as well as adults - and there is even something for die hard dog lovers like myself. I won't give away too much, but I will say, Cludge is definitely a creature after my own heart. Even if you normally wouldn't be caught dead reading a children's book - this is worth trying. Amazon has used copies from only £1.49 including delivery, so you haven't much to lose. As for me - I think I may as well order the sequel.
** Note to parents - while I find this book perfectly acceptable for the recommended age group which is age 8+ there are some aspects they may frighten or upset very young children. Please be aware that this book does have violence, death and cruelty. The overall tone is of hope and redemption, but there are still some sections that might upset a sensitive younger reader.
~Young Kitty Hero Learns The Ways of Cat-hood ~
Varjak Paw is the eponymous hero of S F Said's children's book about a young cat with heavy responsibilities on his little furry shoulders. Varjak Paw and his family are Mesopotamian Blues who live a privileged life, sharing the home of a wealthy Countess who has kept them in style since their ancestor, Jalal Paw, made his way to her home from far off Mesopotamia. Grandfather Elder Paw is the family patriarch but his influence is declining. When young Varjak Paw discovers that all is not well in the Countess's house and finds that a 'Gentleman' with two big black cats has moved in, Elder Paw takes his grandson's reports seriously. Elder Paw understands that the Countess has gone and that nothing can be the same again and he urges the family to fight back against this danger but the family are spoiled and complacent. Their china dishes are filled with delicious foods, their litter trays are emptied, they have no reason to rebel. Ridiculed and deposed by a younger family member, Elder Paw tells his grandson Varjak Paw that the only thing which can save the family is a dog because humans are scared of dogs. He tells Varjak Paw that he must go 'Outside' and find a dog to help the Paw family to overcome the danger.
This book is the story of what happens when a brave and inquisitive little cat with a big heart and an eagerness to know the ways of his forefathers leaves the safety of his comfortable home to take on the dangers of the outside world.
~A very grown up children's book~
I wouldn't normally read children's books. I do occasionally make an exception and dabble in the 'Young Adult' genre, but usually more by accident than design. I certainly don't go looking for illustrated children's books. When my husband returned from a visit to my sister with a copy of 'Varjak Paw' I was baffled as to why I'd been sent such a book to read. I knew I couldn't just say 'Thank you' and hide it on the shelf since the book came with instructions to send it back because she hadn't read it yet. I took the bull by the horns, ran a hot bath and started reading. My expectations were not very high.
Much to my surprise I loved this book and despite the illustrations, I didn't feel at all as if I were reading a children's story. In fact, Dave McKean's illustrations were beautiful and added enormously to the enjoyment of the book. In no way did I feel patronised or talked down to by the writer.
The book follows a structure in which the young cat learns step by step to understand and implement the seven secrets of 'The Way' from his long dead ancestor, Jalal, via a series of dreams in which the older cat explains to him how to be a proper cat. Varjak Paw's family have been indoor cats for so many generations that they have lost their feline knowledge of how to hunt, how to fight and - in effect - how to be proper cats. If Varjak Paw is to help his family, he has to learn the old ways and he has to learn them quickly since he's a kitty with no street smarts and no experience of how to look after himself. He's also a lonely little chap, ostracised by his litter mates and his cousins for having the 'wrong' colour eyes, taunted for not being a real Mesopotamian Blue.
With the help of two street cats, Molly and Tam, and with the dream advice of Jalal, Varjak Paw learns the old ways and puts them into practice, learning to fight and to hunt for food, taking on the power of the gangs and discovering the secret of the frightening 'Vanishings' that the street cats all fear. He also learns about the power of friendship and the empowerment of being self-reliant. As the readers realise what's really going on, why the street cats are vanishing, I couldn't help thinking that this was a pretty upsetting story for young readers.
~A Morality 'tail'~
When our hero eventually returns to his family home with the help of his new friends, he's shocked to find that the Mesopotamian Blues want nothing to do with Holly because she's not a pure bred cat of their own breed. Readers will quickly realise that this kitty racism and classism is not acceptable. Varjak Paw's family know that evil is happening in their house but its happening to 'other' cats and so it's not their concern. Bad things happen to the common cats, not to the pure pedigree cats like them. I was reminded of the multiple times throughout history when people have turned a blind eye to the abuse of others who belong to groups that are not their own. How many people decided not to concern themselves with history's episodes of 'ethnic cleansing' just because it was safer to keep their heads down and not make a fuss about something that was happening to another group? I have no idea, of course, whether this is what SF Said intended to convey through his story, but it was the message that I took away. It was the great Douglas Adams in 'Life, the Universe and Everything' who wrote about the principle of 'Somebody Else's Problem' theory as a way for enormous things to go unnoticed because the observers decided they were somebody else's problem and so could be ignored.
I had never heard of S F Said but I checked out his background on Wikipedia learned that he was born in Beirut, spent time in Jordan and then grew up in a community of Iraqis in exile in London. Perhaps my assumptions about the persecution of outsiders and the acceptance of turning a blind eye to evil are rooted in his family history.
~A multi-level story~
Younger readers can take this story at face value, whilst older can be prompted to think of more heavy issues around responsibility, turning a blind eye and respecting the ways of the past. I don't have children so I can only review this from an adult point of view although I know this would have been a book I would have loved when I was a child. For most of the time I was reading, I was thinking that if my little cat Bagheera could read (which rather obviously he can't), then this is exactly the sort of kitty adventure story he'd want to read. Not that he needs ANY training in how to kill or fight or how to be a cat but every little kitty needs a hero.
Written by S.F. Said and illustrated by Dave McKean
ISBN 978 0552 54818 2
Amazon.co.uk has new copies for £4.50 and second hand copies slightly cheaper.
Winner of the Smarties Prize Gold Award.
I'll be the first to admit I brought this book purely for the illustrations. I'm a bit Dave McKean fan and I simply wanted to add to my collection. I then felt bad for owning a book and not reading it; so I did.
Varjack paw is the youngest in a family of Mesopotamian Blues , a seemingly snobby breed of pampered cats. When their owner disappears and the mysterious Gentleman moves into the house, its up to Varjack to go against old traditions and find help.
Varjack isn't alone; via dreams he learns about 'The Way' from his ancestor Jalal, the wisest of all Mesopotamian Blues. Making his way into the big city outside the sheltered walls of the family home, Varjack finds himself up against new challenges, amongst them a strange machine known as a car, and vast gangs of tough alley cats, as well as the chilling 'Vanishings'. Varjack learns that in order to save his family from the Gentleman he must not only learn the way of Jalal, but also the way of a true alley cat.
I must admit I liked this book. I got through it in a day simply because I scarcely put it down. It is fast paced, gripping and above all there's lots of tough kitty action. These aren't Aristocats!
Plenty of scraps, humour and friendship, I think there is a lot for kid to relate to, especially one who likes a bit of grit in their literary diet!
S.F Said's style is perfectly complemented by Dave McKeans black and while illustrations. Their macabre style is a perfect accompaniment to this little gem, not to mention I have see few illustrators who capture cats in such a beautifully abstract way, with every ounce of personality left in, and not a whisker out of place!