This review first ran 8/5/09. I discovered Catwings in a bookstore in Portland, OR when I was in college and was immediately enchanted - both by Le Guin's straightforward story about these amazing creatures and by Schindler's realistically detailed illustrations. These were the first chapter books my daughter and niece read, but they make for fantastic read-out-louds as well. Also, it's really easy to sew a pair of wings onto a toy cat, making for a very special book & toy combo!
Catwings by Ursula Le Guin begins with one of the best opening sentences for a book ever, "Mrs Jane Tabby could not explain why all four of her children had wings." Cats with wings, how cool is that? Better than a unicorn any day, I'd say. Whether you are a cat lover or not, you and your kids will love these books and the catwings that Le Guin and Schindler give life to. They are no-nonsense creatures, animals trying to survive. Over the course of four short books, perfect for the emerging reader who is ready to move beyond primers but not quite ready for something as long as a Magic Tree House book, Le Guin tells the story of the four catwings, Thelma, Harriet, Roger and James, and the dilemma of their existence.
Le Guin's writing is both gentle and and quietly suspenseful. The catwings face danger at almost every turn, be it from the Shoes and Hands (Thelma reminds her siblings, "Mother always said that if you found the right kind of Hands, you'd never have to hunt again. But if you found the wrong kind of hands it could be worse than dogs.") or owls, coyotes and raccoons. But, they also find companionship, care and love in the form of Susan and Hank, children who see the catwings flying and set out food for them. After gobbling up their feast, one by one the catwings fly over to Susan and Hank and allow themselves to be petted. The final lines of the book come from Susan, who says, "Oh Hank, their wings are furry," then Harriet, who says, "Oh James, their hands are kind."
SD Schindler's illustrations are magnificent and I cannot imagine these books without his artwork. He obviously observed cats while composing these illustrations, which are both realistically detailed and genial, a perfect match for LeGuin's writing. Schindler's illustrations remind me very much of the incomparable works of the amazing Garth Williams (illustrator of Charlotte's Web and Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House series, to name a few), but with an edge. This series is available in a paperback boxed set for $15.99 and I highly recommend purchasing it right off the bat and saving yourself $4.00 in the process. Readers will want to know the WHOLE story of the catwings family, which sadly, consists of only four books.
With James' wing almost completely healed after the owl attack and the catwings feeling fit since Susan and Hank have been looking after them, the siblings decide to return to the city to visit their mother. Once there, they find their mother, who lost her home behind the dumpster. She has a new home with a kind old woman and the catwings have a new sister who is in great danger!
Alexander Furby was born into comfort and wealth, believed that the world ended at the garden fence. He discovers that this is not the case and finds himself chased into the same woods where the catwings live. Jane, who doesn't speak, finds him and helps him make his way back to the rest of the catwings at Overhill Farm. It is Alexander who sits with Jane and urges her to speak, finally telling the story of her last days in the city before her siblings rescued her from a building about to be demolished.
Talking and flying up a storm and a bit tired of the quiet life at Overhill Farm, Jane decides to return to the city to visit her mother. Looking for a friend, Jane flies through an open window and into Hands that seem friendly at first. Soon she finds herself trapped, with a bow around her neck and cameras filming her every move. But nothing can keep Jane from flying for long.