the cats of tanglewood forest

Charles de Lint is a name that I’ve associated with fantasy since before I knew that genres were separate, distinct things.  His books were shelved in the Teen section at my local library right alongside historical fiction and the classics.  I’ve been perusing the YA shelves since… oh, age ten?  So that’s quite a while ago now.  I haven’t gotten anywhere near finishing his backlist, but I know that de Lint can always be counted on for a twisty, magical stories, heavy on mythology.  The Cats of Tanglewood Forest is his latest – an illustrated (by the marvelous Charles Vess) chapter book for younger readers.

the cats of tanglewood forest by charles de lint and charles vess book cover
The magic is all around you, if only you open your eyes....

Lillian Kindred spends her days exploring the Tanglewood Forest, a magical, rolling wilderness that she imagines to be full of fairies. The trouble is, Lillian has never seen a wisp of magic in her hills--until the day the cats of the forest save her life by transforming her into a kitten. Now Lillian must set out on a perilous adventure that will lead her through untamed lands of fabled creatures--from Old Mother Possum to the fearsome Bear People--to find a way to make things right.

n this whimsical, original folktale written and illustrated throughout in vibrant full color by two celebrated masters of modern fantasy, a young girl's journey becomes an enchanting coming-of-age story about magic, friendship, and the courage to shape one's own destiny.

The Cats of Tanglewood Forest is Lillian’s story more than it is any group of cats’, although the title may suggest otherwise.  Lillian is a half-wild girl who lives on a hillside farm with her Aunt Fran.  They have neighbors, but are far enough from town that Lillian is more familiar with the Creek families from the reservation than the townspeople.  One day while exploring the wild forest, Lillian is bitten by a snake.  To save her life, the cats of the forest transform her into a kitten.  Lillian’s mission thereafter is to return to herself, as she should be – and her journey will take her in many different directions before the threads of fate and story set her free.

Lillian has always been the sort of girl who believes in (and hunts for!) fairies.  She leaves food out at the base of the old apple tree and pours cream for the feral forest cats.  It is that cultivated kindness that prompts the mysterious cats to save her when danger strikes, but it is her own wit and determination to turn back into a girl that drives her on.  Lillian’s journey takes her to parts unknown and introduces her to characters straight from fable-land.

While I appreciated the variety of animals and the centrality of Native American legend to this tale, I found that the narrative split into too many directions to be truly cohesive.  To put it in hunting terms, the trail doubles back on itself too many times.  The poignant bits are smoothed down into the whole (thus losing some of their emotional weight), and mounting tension dissipates before the reader feels anxious that all will end as it should.  That said, the character interactions are magical on their own, and those fond of wise, talking animals will find much to love.

The Cats of Tanglewood Forest is a story that brings myth to life, and the beautiful illustrations accompanying the text and focus on folklore make it an excellent choice for reading aloud with a loved one.

Recommended for: fans of Bill Willingham’s Down the Mysterly River, those who have enjoyed Charles de Lint’s or Charles Vess’ work in the past, readers who like talking animal fantasies, and anyone with an interest in non-Western myths and legends.

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