Whittington – Alan Armstrong (2005)


This Newberry Honor winning YA novel was one of the best reads this year – honestly, and as an adult reader, I loved it. As a younger reader, I think I’d love it even more.

It’s narrated (on and off) by a stray cat called Whittington who wanders into the barn of a small farm in New England. (Whittington is also perfectly imperfect as he has a bent and broken ear…) After a few days, Whittington becomes accepted and close friends with the Lady, the hen who’s in charge, and when he meets the two young human siblings who visit the farm, he flourishes. It is through Whittington’s narration that the reader learns about the long-ago English folk tale of Dick Whittington and his cat…

This is an extremely well written book which frequently (but not overwhelmingly) introduces large vocabulary which would challenge most young readers (“Obsidian” any one?) However, the writing is done in such a way that these more complicated words are just part of the story narrative. It’s very naturally written so that it shows respect for the reader, young or old, without being intimidating to the less confident folk. There is also a strong female lead and an ongoing message about the importance of reading.

Not only does this book have all those positive points, there are also talking birds and animals who have friendships and who have issues just as humans do: how do the hens teach the rats to not hog all the food and not see the birds as food at the same time? What about an unexpected love that happens and then what happens when that love leaves unexpectedly? How do we all stay safe from the ravens? And, as a good extra detail, one of the characters struggles to learn how to read with a learning disorder…

At the same time as introducing these more complex issues, Whittington tells his life story as a reward to the young brother for completing his reading homework during vacation, and in this way, readers are introduced to life in England in the sixteenth century and the history of seafaring exploration. It’s a very smooth way to teach “accidentally” through storytelling.

This was a super read, and I would love any kid to pick this up. It underscores Big Life Lessons such as the importance of being a good friend and doing the right thing, and at the same time, the writing is so well done that readers will learn about topics along the way pretty painlessly. I just really liked how the author seems to respect young readers without talking down to them or over-simplifying things. This was an excellent read about how reading can change your life, and I highly recommend it.

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