The Adventures of Miss Petitfour does pretty much what I like a book to do, it makes me hungry for cake and tea and cheese and adventures with a tablecloth; for another cat or two. (She has sixteen and no complaints at her end.) In fact the cats play a huge role in this gorgeous collection of sweet but not in any way saccharine stories. On the contrary, there’s much authorly humour, of the kind that allow two levels of reading: adult and child. Both will be amused but at different things.
We begin with an introduction to the lovely Miss Petitfour by way of an illustration “…just to be sure you recognize her”. (And is it just me or does she look a little like the also-clever-but-in-a-very-different-line-of-work, Tabatha Southey?) By the way, Emma Block’s colour illustrations throughout are a pleasure to contemplate all on their own and, in fact, the whole book feels a little like a kind of petitfour… beautifully made with tea and pastry endpapers, a fixed ribbon marker, the kind of smooth semi-gloss pages your hands happily glide over and over and the whole thing just the right size for holding comfortably with one hand, leaving the other available for tea drinking, cake noshing or petting of resident kitty. Because after reading this you may have to get at least one.
The opening story takes Miss P. and her sixteen cats on an outing to find marmalade. This naturally includes a visit to a bookshop, which is cleverly divided, as all book shops should be, into two sides, marked ‘ho-hum’, and ‘hum’… that is, one side for people who prefer “books where nothing ever happens” and the other for people who feel the need to “visit another planet, or to run away to sea to meet pirates, or to fall down holes, or to be blasted by a volcano, and that sort of thing.”
Wind plays a role, as wind ought. (Miss P. has a good command of air currents generally, a characteristic missing in most protagonists.)“It is often the case that the wind is not blowing in the right direction. This is just another tiresome fact of life, like the fact that your feet grow too big for your favorite shoes, or that your favorite crayon gets shorter and shorter the more you use it.”
In the story ‘Birthday Cheddar’, my personal favourite, we go in search of Minky’s gift (she’s a “snow-pawed cat,” who fancies cheese). Correction, not merely fancies… “… she adored cheese, flirted with it, danced with it and brought it lovely presents, like pebbles from the garden, before devouring it with her little Minky teeth.” There follows a description of how Parmesan affects the leaves of a salad and how, on cheese toast, the “cheddar melted into every little crevice and crater…” And that’s just for starters. The whole passage is delicious. And then, because we aren’t happy/hungry enough, Michaels lists ten or so varieties of cheese. Minky of course has a cheese calendar that she sleeps with on which “Each month there was a big picture of a different kind of cheese in a mouthwatering pose: blue cheese cavorting with pears, cheddar laughing with apples, Gruyere lounging with grapes, Edam joking with parsley.” (Oh how I covet this calendar!)
Lessons on the art of storytelling are a brilliant thread throughout in highlighted, upper-case or bold type. Michaels points to words and phrases such as ‘unbelievably’, ‘by great good fortune’ and ‘by chance’, etc., revealing them as the devices they are to change the course of the story. And then she uses them to do just that. And then she might digress, telling us (in parenthesis) that this is a digression. It’s all so beautifully, tongue-in-cheekily done, like the ways of a favourite eccentric teacher.
So, yes, this is one seriously charming, creative and really quite perfect kid book (recently and somewhat reluctantly passed on to my niece) that any adult will easily love. Impossible to meet Miss Petifour, to travel with her in this tablecloth riding, tea drinking, food-filled land where you are encouraged (by Miss Petitfour herself) to hear only the parts of sentences you like the sound of… and not come away feeling just a bit lighter for it.
“Some adventures are so small, you hardly know they’ve happened. Like the adventure of sharpening your pencil to a perfect point, just before it breaks and that little bit gets stuck in the sharpener.”
One flaw, and that’s the unfortunate and (always) annoying use of U.S. spelling. Flavor. Color. Etc. Boo to that.
Three thumbs up to everything else.