Wonderful children's books are published each year, yet it's rare to find a story as original and endearing as Alan Armstrong's new novel, Whittington. Part fantasy (like Charlotte's Web, the setting is a barn), and part historical fiction, the story is all charm. S.D. Schindler's delightful illustrations round out a book sure to please readers young and old.

The story begins when a stray, battered cat, formerly known as Bent Ear but now called Whittington, meets Lady the duck, the reigning monarch of Bernie's barn. In Bernie's barn they call me the Lady because I'm in charge, she announces.

Whittington soon finds a home there, along with an assortment of cast-off and retired chickens, horses, a goat, rats and other creatures. It's a well-functioning democratic community, whose inhabitants take special interest in befriending Bernie's two grandchildren, Abbie and Ben, who have recently lost their mother.

Interwoven with the story of the animals and Ben's struggles with reading is Whittington's tale of how he came to be named after the legendary Dick Whittington, a 14th-century British merchant and philanthropist. As the author explains in an excellent note, the historical Richard Whittington was born in the late 1350s and became the richest merchant of his day as well as the lord mayor of London. After the death of his wife and daughter, he donated much of his fortune to charity. Somewhat later, the name of Dick Whittington became attached to a 13th-century Persian folktale abut an orphan who obtained a fortune thanks to his amazing cat.

As the seasons pass in Bernie's barn, Whittington entertains both animals and children with the tale of Dick Whittington and his cat, whose skills as a ratter were truly legendary. The story is full of interesting details about medieval times, as listeners (and readers) follow Dick's apprenticeship to a London merchant and his trading voyages at sea. At the same time, the group in the barn comes together to help young Ben tackle his problems with reading. Whittington is full of homey wisdom and quirky characters, both human and animal. If your family loves Charlotte's Web and is looking for a wonderful read-aloud, search no further. Deborah Hopkinson also writes about a famous voyage in her new book for children, Who Was Charles Darwin?

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