The Cheshire Cheese Cat, Carmen Agra Deedy and Randall Wright put a couple of twists on the old "what if a cat and a mouse became friends?" trope (a favorite of mine ever since I first came across The Cricket in Times Square).
The first is that their cat protagonist, Skilley enters into a relationship with Pip, the mouse, initially as a business proposition: To get off the streets of Victorian London, he has become a mouser in a particularly infested pub. There's one problem, though: He doesn't eat mice—he prefers cheese. So he and the mice, represented by Pip, form a pact: He will catch them when in view of humans, then let them go when not. In return, the mice will give him ample portions of the pub's own delectable and proprietary cheese (which is stored in a place the mice can get to but cats cannot).
All is going swimmingly until another alley cat who does have the usual taste for mouse flesh enters the mix, and Skilley must find a way to protect his new friends. Complicating matters further is the presence of a grumpy, marooned raven in the pub's attic, whose absence from his Tower of London home, through a series of misunderstandings, risks becoming a reason for a full-scale war between England and France.
The second twist is that the pub in question happens to be the haunt of several of London's best writers, including Wilkie Collins, William Thackeray, and Charles Dickens, to the last of which this entire book is an homage. Dickens is having a bit of writer's block over the opening of his new novel about the French Revolution, and the goings-on at the pub prove to be a welcome distraction for him. In the end, the famous writer, the cat, and the mouse are able to do one another good turns, one of which has a monumental impact on literary history.
The Cheshire Cheese Cat, which also features illustrations by the formidable Barry Moser, is perfect in tone and spirit for young chapter-book readers, with enough adventure and plot twists to keep interest levels high without ever veering into anything truly upsetting or scary. It also may serve as an introduction to the work of Dickens himself, whose books are among the most accesible of adult classics to literary-minded kids. (If you're heading in that direction, by the way, I'd recommend starting with audiobooks, in which Dickens's intoxicating use of language comes across well—or, for the approaching season, A Christmas Carol. Or both!)
[Cover image courtesy of Peachtree Publishers]