Reviews /

Cress Watercress

Authored by Gregory Maguire
Illustrated by David Litchfield
Published by Walker Books

Tagged , , , , , , ,

Cressida (Cress) Watercress, a young rabbit, lives with her mother, father, and young brother Kip in a comfortable burrow until one day, after he had been gathering honey during the night, her father does not come home. Devastated by her loss and aware that she can’t continue to pay the rent, Cress’s Mother moves the family to a one-room home in a dilapidated tree called The Broken Arms. This is the place where Cress angrily, and hopefully, mourns her father, makes new friends, faces danger, and gradually comes to terms with her new life.

She meets all sorts of animals, some of whom become friends: Titus, the bad-tempered owl who owns the tree and demands moths every day for rent; Manfred, the mouse caretaker and rent-collector and his wife; the boisterous squirrel family whose father is Doctor Oakleaf and one of the sons Finian who becomes her friend; the well-meaning honey bear, Tunk; Lady Cabbage, a vain and pretentious skunk, Fricassée Sunday the blundering hen and Nasty Nasturtium, a streetwise (woodwise?) young rabbit who wants to be friends with Cress.

Young UK readers of this book will have their cultural and linguistic boundaries widened by the language. Some of the everyday cultural references may be unfamiliar, for example, the opening sentence tells readers that as she is packing to leave ‘Mama yanked down her homemade drapes and stuffed them into her carryall‘. Much of the dialogue is in pacy American vernacular: Manfred the mouse, who used to be in vaudeville, after amusing the young Kip with shadow puppets on the wall, says: ‘Now maybe the rest of us can get some shuteye, too. I’ll catch you in the morning, kiddos, and show you around’. Cress gets ‘cranky‘ and Manfred tells Mama that as she’s taken in the hen to give her a home, she’ll have to pay extra rent because ‘the flat is only zoned for three‘.

This story is a fable – about coping with adversity, making do and working hard, and about the value of community. Most of all it is a book about the meaning of real friendship and about Cress’s desire to communicate her feelings and experiences, which eventually she learns to do. The tone is wry and whimsical, and the illustrations capture the spirit of the woods and their inhabitants. Because of the language, it may at times be challenging for independent readers who are of an age to enjoy the adventures of the animals (probably 6-8 years) but is a gift for reading aloud by adults who relish taking on an accent or two!