Macmillan Children’s Books. First published 2011
Peter Bently and Jim Field
At first glance “Cats Ahoy!” appears rather unprepossessing on bookshop shelves compared to hundreds of other competing picture books, many of them much brighter, bolder and eye catching.
Its size doesn’t help, being narrower and smaller than the likes of those by rhyme writers Donaldson, Corderoy, Hart and Emmett, so it’s easy for this book to get lost amongst larger, brighter offerings.
The fact the plot is predominantly set at night means the book, while wonderfully atmospheric, has a dark front cover which doesn’t instantly leap out at children yelling: “Look at me!”
The internal text can, again, make the book more inaccessible than it needs to be with dark writing on dark pages, which doesn’t make reading as easy as it could be – but these are design issues and not criticisms of the author and illustrator.
Nitpicking aside, this picture book, about a cunning cat named Alfonso and his mob of haddock-stealing pirate plunderers, is an absolute treasure.
It won the The Roald Dahl Funny Prize back in 2011 and richly deserves the recognition bestowed.
Told in rhyme, in 609 words, author Bently spins a good swashbuckling yarn involving a crew of pirate moggies who steal an aptly named three-masted clipper “The Kipper.”
Intent on thieving the biggest haul of fish ever from smug trawler-boat skipper Trelawney P. Craddock, the cats set sail from a town which looks remarkably Devonian or Cornish in style with cobbled stones, narrow alleys and harbour cottages.
Their flag is a cat skull and crossed fish bones and, of course, once the thieving felines have taken to sea, they hoodwink Craddock into abandoning ship, believing he is under attack by a ghost pirate ship.
Alfonso and his crew are left to seize the booty and party in a nearby cove.
One by one, furry faces popped up with great glee,
“Hey, checkout that Haddock!”
“And now,” said Alfonso,
“To Smgglers’ Bay
For a great fishy feast!”
And the cats cried,
In a small sheltered cove out of sight of the land
The sea-mogs scoffed haddock and danced on the sand.
As the bright rays of dawn were beginning to gleam
“Yo-Ho-Ho and a Carton of Cream!”
As with the verses above, the book is humour-filled, not only in the written telling, but the illustrations too.
Little touches like a sign on a fishing boat warning opportunistic cats: “No scallops left on this boat overnight” and an image of Craddock’s trouser-less cook rowing for his life in giant cooking pot, ladle in hand, add to the fun.
To my mind, some of the humour in “Cats Ahoy!” is a little sophisticated for very young children which is why I think it sits more happily in the Key Stage One bracket for 5-7 year-olds.
I don’t doubt many older 4-year-olds will enjoy the pictures and tale but, like an episode of The Simpsons, they will only half appreciate the humour.
The story ends with a wonderful pun as the town’s innocent looking moggies return home a week later, looking innocent but much, MUCH fatter.
Alfonso is depicted struggling to climb through his cat flap due to his significant weight gain.
They were gone for a week – a whole week without dinner,
But when they came back they were fatter, not thinner.
Some townsfolk began to add up two and two.
And questioned their cats, “Were you there?” “Was it you?”
But the cats had all taken a most solemn vow
Jus to look up all sweetly and answer,
And whatever their crimes, the folk find to this day
When they question their moggies, that’s all they will say.
My six-year-old son adores this charming book with its lovable rogue characters, great story, moody illustrations and appealing endpapers. The front endpapers are filled with fish. The rear endpapers are filled with fish bones.
For a clever, fun read which adults and children alike will enjoy, “Cats Ahoy!” is PURR-fect.