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Mr Zooty, a magical cat, loves helping others. When he meets the down-on-their-luck Taylor family (Lucy, Sam and their mum) he returns their kindness towards him by inviting them each to make a wish, which he grants in rather interesting ways, adding a few ideas of his own. But what has little Lucy wished for? A hot air balloon appears at the window, but Lucy hasn't wished for that. The hot air balloon is the first stage in the granting of Lucy's very special wish as the family embark on a life-changing adventure with their new feline friend. It's a warm-hearted tale which highlights the pleasure to be gained from helping others. In my view, it is suited for reading aloud to children from around age 4, with older children being able to read it for themselves. The repetition of certain phrases and the use of pictures as cues provides assistance to young readers.
On one level this is a rather charming story. Mr Zooty's philanthropic nature is rather endearing and the book sends out the message that it is important to be aware of those who are not as well off as you and to help them if you can. As Mr Zooty himself puts it, "You don't need to thank me. Everybody needs a little help sometimes!" However, although this makes for a nice modern fairytale, I find the moral message slightly dubious. Mr Zooty rewards the Taylor family for being good, caring people by granting their wishes. It is a little simplistic. Even very young children know that real life doesn't work like that. What about all those good, kind people who work tirelessly and selflessly for others but don't receive any rewards? Most children recognise that real life doesn't always give people what they deserve. We all know of unpleasant, self-centred people who live in nice houses and think of nobody but themselves. Yet in Mr Zooty's world, a little sprinkling of magic is sufficient to end a family's poverty. Another criticism I have is that the story seems to define happiness and security in purely material terms. Mr Zooty gives Mrs Taylor a ruby red purse which will never run out of money. He says to her, "It means no more worrying!" In my opinion, it is a little naive to suggest that money alone could stop people worrying.
What of Mr Zooty himself? I find his behaviour a little bit odd. He effectively deceives the Taylor family, albeit with good intentions. Disguising himself in a tatty old coat and hobbling up to the family to ask if they can, "spare a penny for a poor old cat" he then pretends to faint so they end up lugging him back to their flat in a pushchair, including a trudge up an incredibly steep flight of steps! Whilst I appreciate that Mr Zooty goes through this charade in order to reveal the family's charitable nature, the dishonesty made me feel a little uneasy. In my opinion, there is something a little bit creepy about Mr Zooty and the way he loiters in the park with his little red case, silently observing people. We spend a lot of time telling children to be wary of strangers, particularly any that might approach them in a park, so it seems a little bizarre that the family are so quick to take him back to their home. The bit where Mr Zooty leaps from the pushchair, hurls off his coat and reveals his true purpose is a bit alarming. I can quite understand some children having nightmares about this particular scene, although it didn't seem to faze my two at all.
For all my reservations about this book, my own children did enjoy it. They loved the quirkiness of the story and thought Mr Zooty was agreeably wacky. (Mad characters always seem to go down very well with my kids.) They loved the whole idea of a cat coming up to a family in the park dressed in an overcoat and ending up being transported to their home in a pushchair. They thought it was an absolute hoot, especially as the cat was way too big for the pushchair and looked quite ridiculous. Children do seem to love stories where animals take on human characteristics and there is something amusing about the way the Taylor family don't bat an eyelid when a down and out cat approaches them, as if it is the most normal thing in the world to see. As a cat owner who appreciates that cats are perhaps one of the more self-centred creatures on the planet (much as I love them) I appreciate the irony of a cat with such benevolent tendencies.
The pace of the story really picks up when Mr Zooty sets about granting Lucy's wish, which takes longer than all the other wishes. It begins with a balloon ride, followed by a picnic breakfast, then a boat trip, until they arrive at a picturesque garden. This book is fun to read aloud and children can enjoy trying to guess what Lucy's wish might be. Each time you think you have discovered it, something else happens which shows that Mr Zooty is not quite finished yet. Each time Mr Zooty takes something out of his little red case, children can be asked what they think will happen next? For example, what is he going to do with that compass? Why has he got a golden key? Predicting the events of the story is a great pre-reading skill as it encourages children to pay attention and develop their listening comprehension abilities. The book also encourages children to imagine what they would wish for if they had a visit from Mr Zooty. Although this is a story that could easily invite envy, my children just felt happy for the characters when their wishes were granted.
In my opinion, despite my criticisms about the weirder aspects of this book, I would still recommend it based on my children's reaction to it. Even the youngest children can appreciate that things that happen in storybooks don't always happen in reality. Understanding the differences between fantasy and reality (and also seeing how the two sometimes merge) is a big part of the literary experience and a way of enhancing one's love of books. Just because a story does not bear any relation to normal life does not mean that it has nothing to offer a child. On the contrary, books that provide escapism and a chance to retreat into warm, magical worlds can be wonderfully reassuring for children as well as helping to stimulate their imaginations. Reading this book did not make my children think for one minute that there really was a fast-track route out of poverty. They know that charitable, magical cats don't really hold the solution to the world's problems. However the focus on good deeds and happy endings is uplifting and, just as adults need their 'feel good' movies, children need feel good stories to remind them of the many positive things in the world. The book can lead to lots of discussions about making a small contribution to helping other people in need, such as doing a good turn or getting involved in charity events, etc.
Emma Chichester Clark is also famous for the Blue Kangaroo series of books. As with the Blue Kangaroo books, the illustrations in this book are a delight. Young children who have had the story read to them, will enjoy re-telling the story for themselves through the pictures, even if they haven't learned to read words yet. I love the way the watercolour pictures start out quite grey and sombre, reflecting the drab surroundings of the impoverished Taylor family but become brighter and more colourful as the adventure unfolds, taking us to some lush, dream-like surroundings. The expressions of the characters are captured perfectly. The initial bewilderment of the characters and in particular the mother's quiet, dignified anxiety shows in their faces but they all become increasingly animated as Mr Zooty works his magic. The pictures really convey the contrasting moods at the beginning and end of the story. Amazing Mr Zooty is available from Amazon for £5.39.