Bernie keeps a barn full of animals the rest of the world has no use for–two retired trotters, a rooster, some banty hens, and a Muscovy duck with clipped wings who calls herself The Lady. When the cat called Whittington shows up one day, it is to the Lady that he makes an appeal to secure a place in the barn. The Lady’s a little hesitant at first, but when the cat claims to be a master ratter, that clinches it.
Bernie’s orphaned grandkids, Abby and Ben, come to the barn every day to help feed the animals. Abby shares her worry that Ben can’t really read yet and that he refuses to go to Special Ed. Whittington and the Lady decide that Abby should give Ben reading lessons in the barn. It is a balm for Ben when, having toughed out the daily lesson, Whittington comes to tell, in tantalizing installments, the story handed down to him from his nameless forebearer, Dick Whittington’s cat–the legend of the lad born into poverty in rural England during the Black Death, who runs away to London to seek his fortune. This is an unforgettable tale about how learning to read saves one little boy. It is about the healing, transcendent power of storytelling and how, if you have loved ones surrounding you and good stories to tell, to listen to, and to read, you have just about everything of value in this world.
In this mingling of animal fantasy and an old English folktale, a stray cat named Whittington arrives at a barn and asks Lady, the duck in charge, if he can have a place in the barn to live along with the various other stray animals that live there. The barn is owned by Bernie, who does not have the heart to turn animals away, and he cares for the animals along with his orphaned grandchildren Abby, who is ten, and Ben, who is eight. When winter snows force the animals to stay in the barn, Whittington begins to tell the tale of English merchant, Dick Whittington and his famous cat, from which Whittington is descended. Born into plague and poverty during the Middle Ages, Dick Whittington runs away to London where he finds adventure and the cat that eventually will make him a rich tradesman. The author skillfully intertwines the modern barnyard world, a subplot involving Ben's reading troubles, and the rags-to-riches folktale. The illustrator's pen and ink drawings convey both the warmth of modern barnyard life and the timelessness of the folktale. 2005, Random House, Ages 9 to 12.