Valley Cats – a Great U.P. Children’s Book
I’ve asked U.P. children’s author Gretchen Preston to be a guest on my blog. An interview with her will be upcoming in the next few days. For those not familiar with Gretchen’s work, I have gotten permission from the Marquette Monthly to reprint the following book review I wrote that first appeared in its December 2010 issue:
Gretchen Preston’s Valley Cats: The Adventures of Boonie and River is the fun and adventurous story of two cats who first meet during a pet parade and quickly become best friends. Boonie is a bit more daring than River, who is not allowed to leave his yard, but soon Boonie convinces River he can get the trust of his mistress so they can have adventures together.
Those adventures happen in the Valley where Boonie and River live, as well as the surrounding areas of their Upper Michigan home. Preston based the story upon people and cats she knows, and the Valley is inspired by her Chocolay Township home in the woods just outside Marquette. Boonie and River are characters children will love—especially cat lovers. They are reminiscent of characters in earlier children’s books about friendship such as Arnold Lobel’s Frog and Toad series although Valley Cats has more in-depth stories with full length chapters, each one telling the story of a Valley Cats adventure.
The adventures include exploring the outdoors during the winter, visiting a bear cave at Broken Indian Rock along Lake Superior, a rainy day picnic, playing “Rodeo Cats” which includes jumping on dogs who act like bucking broncos, stowing away on a fishing boat so they can pretend to be pirates, and playing in the bathroom sink on a snowy day. Although the Valley Cats occasionally get in trouble on their adventures, they also strengthen their friendship and make new friends with other animals and humans along the way.
The stories are visual, so while the reader can follow the action without any trouble, the gorgeous full-color illustrations by Karin Neumann provide an added dimension to the stories. These watercolor pencil drawings are brightly colored to attract children, but adults will be stunned by how perfectly Neumann captures not just the charm of the cats and the story, but the shadows of trees on the snow, the evening sunset and the humor and sadness—all the emotions and tone—of the story.
The book instantly lulls the reader into a special atmosphere with the opening paragraph: “Far away from the hustle and bustle of the big cities, in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, there is a magical place. It lies in the foothills, which rise gently from the southern shore of Lake Superior. There, you will find a little valley where the woods are thick with pines and sugar maples. The lakes are filled with crystal-clear water, and the air is clean.”
Besides simply being a fun read, Valley Cats is an educational experience for children. One story encompasses the death of a family pet which may help children relate to and understand death. Other stories highlight the outdoors and read almost like educational field trips. Preston includes a glossary of terms at the book’s end for young readers as well as those less familiar with Upper Michigan culture. Words included in the glossary include “fire circle,” “Ojibwa” and “zucchini.” Children from third to fifth grade will most enjoy this book, but it also works well as a read-aloud book for younger children, and adult readers will appreciate the humor and the stories’ gentle tone.
Preston, a native of Portland, Oregon, fell in love with children’s stories while her parents read to her at bedtime. Although her career aspirations led her to obtaining a master of social work degree, she credits her writing prowess to learning to write in graduate school. Trained as a medical social worker, Preston frequently wrote newsletters, professional journals and composed educational handbooks. After retiring and moving to the Upper Peninsula, she had the opportunity to begin writing children’s books. Valley Cats is the first book in a series about Boonie and River that she has planned. Because the characters were largely inspired by her Valley neighbors, Preston dedicated this book to them.
Illustrator Karin Neumann was raised in Traverse City and received a Bachelor of Fine Arts from Northern Michigan University. While living in Marquette, Neumann met Preston and was commissioned to illustrate Valley Cats. Inspiration for each illustration came from the interaction of the characters of Boonie and River, as well as Neumann’s observation of her own cat and the barn cats she had growing up. She took photographs of the various locations in the book, from the woods to the Lake Superior shoreline. She then used the photographs as inspiration to draw the illustrations. Full-color prints of the illustrations are available for purchase at the book’s Web site.
Preston, who has fallen in love with her new Upper Michigan home, believes in supporting the local economy so she wanted the book produced within the state. Besides hiring a Michigan resident as her illustrator, she also has had the book printed in Michigan and has hired Michigan people to help promote it. She is proud to say that Valley Cats is a “Pure Michigan” product.
As an adult without children, I still found Valley Cats to be a true pleasure to read. It not only made me laugh and smile, but I marveled over the stunning illustrations, and many fond childhood memories came back to me of my own favorite illustrated children’s books such as Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are and James Marshall’s George and Martha books—the books that first made me fall in love with reading. I have no doubt that Valley Cats will have a similar magical effect upon many children.
For more information about Preston, Neumann and Valley Cats: The Adventures of Boonie and River or to purchase a copy of the book, visit www.prestonhillpress.com