Hello. Fats here.
I return today with another book illustrated by Dave McKean as we continue with our theme on Monsters, Beasts, and Chimeras. I discovered SF Said’s Varjak Paw a few years ago while browsing for books written and/or illustrated by Dave McKean. I love Dave McKean’s sinewy illustrations and when I saw a sample page from the book, I wanted to get a copy.
I stumbled upon the book nearly five months ago while book hunting in Book Off San Diego. The store only had the paperback but I wouldn’t mind getting a hardcover edition of the book because both the story and illustrations are good.
Varjak Paw is the name of the feline protagonist in SF Said’s engaging read for middle grade children. Varjak is a Mesopotamian Blue kitten that lives with his family in a Contessa’s house on the hill for as long as he can remember. His grandfather, the Elder Paw, likes to tell stories about their famous ancestor named Jalal the Paw. Only Varjak is interested. His father and mother, Aunt Juni, cousin Jasmine, and brothers Julius, Jay, Jethro, and Jerome have grown tired of these tales.
Elder Paw tells Varjak about the Way, an ancient form of feline martial arts that Jalal the Paw used to hunt prey and fight the fiercest warrior cats. Shunned by his own family and threatened by the evil forces that lurk within the Contessa’s house, Varjak climbs the high stone wall to get help from Outside.
‘Isn’t the world Outside full of monsters?’ said Varjak.
‘A monster’s exactly what we need. A monster called a dog. The tales say they’re huge, and strong enough to kill a man. Dogs fill the heart with fear, with their foul breath and defeaning sound. But the tales also say Jalal could talk to them, so there must be a way to get their help…’
Varjak Paw, which won the gold medal during the 2003 Nestle Smarties Book Prize, had me rooting for Varjak from the start. I felt my blood boil every time his family looks down on him and rejects his opinion. My heart sank when Elder Paw was locked in combat with Varjak’s father. I cheered when Varjak made it Outside in search of the ‘monsters.’
One of my favorite parts in the book is Varjak’s encounter with cars, which he thought were the dogs he was looking for.
Far away but closing in, something shrieked. Something roared. Varjak’s heart thudded in his chest as he turned to face it. The shrieking, roaring noise grew louder. It was a pack of dogs, live ones, and they were coming down the road towards him.
He had forgotten how fast and wild they were… Their yellow eyes were open, so round and bright they seemed to pierce his skull…
Another pair of yellow eyes appeared in the distance. He could smell the foul breath from here. He could hear the deafening roar. The tales were right: these monsters filled his heart with fear. It clawed at his insides as they came towards him.
The cars or the dogs are not the monsters, however. Here is an excellent portrayal of monsters by Ransom Riggs, author of Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children:
“…[T]hese weren’t the kind of monsters that had tentacles and rotting skin, the kind a seven-year-old might be able to wrap his mind around – they were monsters with human faces, in crisp uniforms, marching in lockstep, so banal you don’t recognize them for what they are until it’s too late.”
The monsters in the book are unlike your typically large, ugly, and frightening creatures. There is nothing out of the ordinary about their looks but they are as vile and vicious as ‘real’ monsters. The mysterious Vanishings in the book might remind you of a scene from a horror or suspense movie.
Varjak Paw is equal parts adventure and mystery, with a good mix of Eastern philosophy and the art of fighting. The ‘Karate Kid’ feel of the book, Dave McKean’s gorgeous illustrations, and SF Said’s feline hero would appeal to children and the child-at-heart.
Gold, 2003 Nestlé Smarties Book Award
West Sussex Children’s Book Award
AWB Reading Challenge Update: 46 (35)