Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Perfect Blendship: Two Houndsley and Catina Stories by James Howe

Children's literature can't have too many friendships like those of Pooh and Piglet, George and Martha, Frog and Toad, and Mr. Putter and his cat Tabby. James Howe's 2007 Notable Book Houndsley and Catina introduces a dog and cat who enjoy a novel friendship portrayed with droll wit and sweet simplicity.

The story begins when Catina finally delivers her 74-chapter memoir to friend Houndsley, extravagantly announcing that it's going to make her rich and famous.

"Here is my book," she said proudly. She gave him all seventy-four chapters, a cup of ginger tea, and a plate of cookies.

"I will need more cookies," said Houndsley.

Catina's writing is so bad that Houndsley has to phrase his comments carefully to avoid hurting his friend's feelings.

"I am at a loss for words," Houndsley told Catina. "I am speechless."

Of course, Catina hears the comments as reinforcement for her overblown ambitions. Feeling beneficent, she encourages her friend to take his wonderful cooking skills into a televised contest, where Houndsley chokes in the clutch, turning out his signature three-bean chili with raw rice and no beans, and gets harshly panned by the judges.

In the final chapter the two friends reflect on their grab for glory and conclude it's not for them. As Houndsley and Catina share a firefly-lit evening, they philosophize together.

"I just enjoy cooking. Trying to be the best made me nervous, and I did not have fun," said Houndsley.

"I do not have fun writing," said Catina. "My mind wanders and I get bored."

When Catina adds that she will find something she loves to do and do it until she is good at it, the two friends agree that they are good at enjoying being together and that, at least for this lovely summer evening, is enough.

In a worthy sequel, Houndsley and Catina and the Birthday Surprise,Howe begins with a sad Houndsley. After a bit of probing by his good friend Catina, he admits that he's feeling down because he doesn't know when his birthday comes.

"Oh," said Catina. She wanted to say something to cheer Houndsley up.

But all she could think of to say was "I do not know when my birthday is either."

When Catina becomes reclusive and seems to be avoiding him, Houndsley concludes that he is guilty of making Catina sad, too, and decides to atone by baking her a special cake. Suspense rises as their mutual friend Bert becomes a clandestine go-between to reunite the friends for a special event, an event which turns out to be Catina's surprise birthday party for Houndsley and Houndsley's surprise birthday cake for Catina.

"We did not know we had the same birthday before this," said Houndsley.

"But we do now," Catina said.

Mary-Louise Gay's pencil and watercolor illustrations are lively and expressive, interacting with and amplifying the text wonderfully. Howe's two titles are a wonderful addition to the canon of beginning-to-read books.

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