Reviews /

Owl or Pussycat?

Authored by Michael Morpurgo
Illustrated by Polly Dunbar
Published by David Fickling Books

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In the special mince pie-eating, tinsel-strewing and nativity-watching time of year, there are many Christmas classics that children adore during the festive period (The Snowman, The Jolly Christmas Postman, The Polar Express to name a handful) but there is always space for another.

Owl or Pussycat? written by Michael Morpurgo and illustrated by Polly Dunbar was shortlisted as one of the Sunday Times best books of 2020, and this year an anniversary edition has been published in time for Christmas. It has the fuzzy, comforting feeling of an instant classic. Young Michael, the autobiographical hero of the story, suffers from an attack of first-night nerves in his school Christmas play but overcomes these with the help of his friend Belinda. It is a story that charts the gamut of emotions children face in such school rites-of-passage: the pride of being cast as an integral part, the envy felt as other children shine in their own roles, the anxiety of the performance and the elation when the show is a success. Dunbar’s cheery and detailed illustrations perfectly capture the highs and lows of Michael’s experience.

Nostalgia is a key ingredient in many Christmas classics and this story has bags of it. First there is the play itself, a performance of Lear’s ‘The Owl and the Pussycat’ which automatically evokes a sense of the past. The autobiographical nature of the story means it is set some seventy years ago and, as well as this, Dunbar’s illustrations provide a Shirley Hughes-esque timeless aesthetic.

Since its arrival in our house, it has been requested repeatedly and the magical fold out scene of the play excites a young audience perfectly. This story would be a lovely addition to any primary school library or classroom. It would make a delightful Christmas ‘read aloud’ and would be a great text for KS1 or LKS2 children to engage with when they were also performing in their own school play (although be sympathetic to those many children with a supporting role as they are somewhat forgotten in this tale). Something that pleasantly surprised me was how much my own children were keen to hear Lear’s poem which is included at the end of the book. If you have the poem included in your curriculum already then this picture book is a must for enriching the children’s understanding and sparking joy in the timeless rhyme.