I have been packing around a paperback copy of Charlie the Lonesome Cougar for almost 50 years now. The title is from a Disney movie that came out in 1967. I may have watched the movie on a Sunday evening “Wonderful World of Disney.” Perhaps at a drive-in theater! In 1968, Scholastic Books published a book based on the screenplay. I loved getting those Scholastic book orders every month or so, and I loved books about animals. The book is only 78 pages long. I probably paid a precious quarter for it.
When the book came to mind recently, I wondered if I should risk ruining it for myself by reading it again. My desire to know whether it is good stuff or junk was stronger than my wish to let the book and movie remain pleasant memories. My conclusion about the book is that it’s sweet and wholesome. The story is light with plenty of humor. Animal-loving children can enjoy imagining having a cougar for a pet. Adults will be aware that that can come to no good, but will fall in love with Charlie anyway.
Jess is a young man who works for a lumber company in the Pacific Northwest. One day, while out marking trees in the woods, he discovers a tiny cougar kitten that has somehow been abandoned outside the den. The baby’s eyes aren’t even open yet. Who could leave the helpless kitty there to starve?
Mark Van Cleefe, the author who converted the screenplay to book form, writes some endearing descriptions of the kitten learning about his world. Everything is new to Charlie, the cougar. A blowing leaf crumbles under his paw, a fuzzy dandelion makes him sneeze. If he hadn’t tumbled down the hill when coming face-to-face with a growling badger, that encounter could have ended badly. When he starts a game of tag with a squirrel, he gets himself stuck in a tree and Jess has to rescue him. Van Cleefe also periodically reports on Charlie’s age and growth so we get a picture of how quickly he grows into a huge cat. At two years old he is 7 feet long and weighs over 160 pounds. Charlie is no longer a housecat.
The best parts of the story are when Charlie roams in the wild. Charlie’s interactions with the lumber men have more of a feel of set-ups for short, funny, or heart-racing scenes that build toward the inevitable parting of the man and the wild animal. When Charlie accidentally wanders off into the wilderness, we see him face the challenge of surviving on his own. He has to become a wild cougar rather than a pet that takes his daily food for granted. We see how much of the life of a wild animal is taken up with self-defense and finding food. For children who may not yet be interested in studying animals, I think his encounters with other creatures could open a door of investigation. With great interest, Charlie watches as a bear catches fish. He doesn’t learn how to fish for himself, but he becomes adept at stealing fish from the bear. Then the bear moves on and Charlie is on his own again.
The lumber company Jess works for floats logs down the river to the mill. A floating bunkhouse and kitchen raft follow. Charlie accidentally sets the kitchen raft free of its mooring with Jess asleep inside. The raft drifts into a log jam where the men have just lit a fuse for the dynamite set to break up the jam. Charlie rides a log down the river, disembarks onto the log jam, and picks up the dynamite, attracted to it by the long “string” attached. Will he respond in time to Jess’s hollering for him to drop it? Of course he will. It’s Disney. Everything is going to be fine. But chaos and much damage will ensue.
It is the company manager who finally tells Jess that he will have to stop bringing Charlie to work. So, Jess has to cage his cat. One night Charlie scents another cat, a female. He escapes, goes for a romp, can’t find his way home, and spends the winter learning to fend for himself in the wild. When he finds his way back to the lumber camp the next spring, there is more chaos in the camp and everyone thinks Charlie has gone bad. Jess shows up just as the manager is about to shoot the cornered cat. I remember this scene being very intense when I was a child, but it isn’t drawn out too long, and it is very satisfying when Charlie remembers Jess and lets himself be led out of danger.
The next day, Jess takes Charlie to a wildlife refuge where he sets the cat free to live happily ever after. Charlie meets up with his girlfriend and they amble off into the sunset. The scenario will sound familiar to lovers of such stories as Gentle Ben and Rascal. Though the pet will be missed for a long time, the wild animal really will be happier in the wild.
I was concerned that the movie I loved as a child would seem silly now; a string of slapstick situations with a giant cat living out of his natural element. It was not. The scenes of confrontation between cat and man’s world might seem a bit contrived to movie-savvy adults, but it turns out that most of the time is spent showing Charlie in the wild. The thin plot almost seems more of an excuse to follow a cougar around with a camera than a real attempt to show what life would be like with a gigantic housecat. Animal experts may find plenty of diversions from the realm of possibility, but I find the nature scenes wholesome and lovely.
There is an extended scene near the beginning where Charlie has wandered off to survey his neighborhood. He encounters a raccoon cub, a fox kit, and a young pine marten. Then he plays with a bear cub until the sow has to rescue Charlie and her cub from a male bear. Mama wins the fight with the male when Charlie and the cub break the tree branch from which they’ve been watching the battle and land on the male bear’s head. It’s a bit silly, but mostly fun, and the scene with Charlie and the cub napping together in a hollow log is darling.
Charlie’s foray into the wild after becoming lost in the wilderness is a large chunk of the movie. It is more like one of Disney’s nature films than a regular movie. Charlie and the female cougar romp and slide in the snow. Charlie roams through some stunning scenery. As Charlie has never had to hunt for food, he has to learn by watching other animals. When the female cougar catches a rabbit, he expects her to share. She does not. The rabbit killing is done off scene, as is the killing of a deer later, once Charlie becomes an accomplished hunter.
My dad and his dad were loggers in Oregon, so I enjoyed watching the lumber company prepare for the spring log drive down the river. They are shown breaking up log jams, the narrator explains how the cookhouse raft and bunkhouse raft (wanigans) follow the lumberjacks, and there is a short birling competition which Charlie joins. When Charlie is chased by a bounty hunter with his dogs, Charlie escapes by doing a log-riding trick from his kittenhood, this time down a flume.
I am quite pleased that I can recommend this book and the movie for children of any age.
“He looked at his armor, then back at the door. This was a morning that needed a knight.”
I love this book. Really, truly, and sincerely love Henry and the Chalk Dragon. In fact, I am practically jumping out of my skin with excitement as I try to gather my thoughts and explain why Jennifer Trafton’s books is one of the absolute best read-aloud stories we have ever read.
Let’s dispense with any illusion that I’m going to be “professional” in this review. I can’t be. Like Henry’s chalk dragon, my passion is taking on a life of its own and wants to be let loose in the world.
I love this book because it is delightful. It is funny. It is tender. It is oh so wholesome. It is really real. It is wildly imaginative. It is deeply empowering. It is tragically necessary for our times.
Lest you think that any of those expressions are clichés, let me respond by saying that maybe that is totally appropriate to this book. You see, this book has a very old soul. This story is telling truths that are old and considered cliché by our culture, but those which are still absolutely true. Tragically, these truths are stuffed down deep inside of us and we have been trained to scorn them.
“But it was like squishing the white fluffy explosion of popcorn back into the kernel again. The Art was out, and it would not go back in.”
Henry and his classmates are elementary school students in a modern progressive common core type school. Sadly, they are all being trained to value tests, tests, tests, and more tests. Henry, however, is an artistic soul who struggles to keep his imagination “on a leash.” His best friend Oscar is a brainiac scientist and Henry believes that the “new girl” in their class is either a government spy or an alien. Actually, Jade is “anything (she) wants to be except a cliche.” Their classmates are just like the classmates you had as an elementary school student, each character is unique and full of potential. Their teacher, Miss Pimpernel, is a superhero – she just doesn’t remember it. Their principal is an archvillain, except that he isn’t. And all of these characters are coming together to celebrate National Vegetable Week with an Art Show. Except that their “Art” is just a bunch of tidy, uniform, government approved, vegetable displays. La Muncha Elementary School is just an ordinary school with ordinary modern problems… that is until the Chalk Dragon gets loose.
“A children’s story that can only be enjoyed by children is not a good children’s story in the slightest.” – CS Lewis
This story speaks beautifully to all of us. Adults, children, science geeks, poets, chefs, teachers, and painters alike. Henry’s chalk dragon helps all of the characters in the book, and the readers as well, realize that whatever unique passion and gifting God has given to them, it matters. Every soul has an artistic dimension and, with our cooperation, that art becomes a gift that God gives to the world. If we, through our free will, allow our art to break free and run wild in the world, we too can become knights and heroes. And this is a truth we rarely hear today.
“TELL THE TRUTH. Henry was so tired of those orange words. His chivalry was wearing thin.”
Like knights of old, Henry’s experience beautifully illustrates that our passion can be used for good or for ill. It is up to us to use our gifts for that which is just, right, beautiful, merciful, true, and chivalrous. Henry wears a tinfoil rain coat “suit of armor” to school on the day this story takes place. Inside that raincoat Henry has scrawled every knightly principle he has ever heard or read. And, like Henry, we need to regularly consult the code of chivalry. Like Henry, we must have a clearly defined set of principles. Like Henry, we must put on the armor of God and reflect on that which is true every time we have to make a challenging decision.
I said that this is one of the best read alouds we have ever read. I am not exaggerating.
“The dragon stared back at him – up and down, from his sneakers to his shiny helmet. It did not look afraid of Henry. It spread its wings proudly. It stretched its scaly neck as high as it would go. Its mouth widened slowly into a dragonish grin.
How long had Henry been waiting for this moment? Here he was, in his shiny suit of armor, with a sword in his hand. And here was a real live dragon – a dragon who could knock the house down with a few clicks of its tail, who could eat his mother for breakfast, who could send a ball of fire bouncing down the street. He knew exactly what he needed to do. He jabbed his sword into the dragon’s scaly stomach. ‘Take that, you beast! I am Sir Henry Penwhistle, and I will slay you!’”
I follow Jennifer Trafton on Instagram and I have purchased a number of prints from her Etsy shop. She has a very gifted hand, and her art is so vibrant that it fills me hope and joy. But I think that her true genius is in her ability to turn a phrase. Not only does Trafton have beautiful things to say, but she writes them in such a way that they roll off the tongue with maximum impact. A bit like the opera singer who can hit all of the high notes without fail, Trafton’s writing has the listening audience laughing, crying, gasping, and shuddering all in the same chapter. Her stories are meant to be read aloud. They delight and entertain while they teach and nurture the reader.
“Trumpets. Golden trumpets. There they were again, thrilling him to the fingertips. The day was still a story. The knight was still a hero.”
I said that this book has a very old soul. It does. Trafton is unashamed of her love for good and great old books. Her characters are her own, but they are modeled after some of the best characters in some of the best children’s books ever written. And just in case you don’t catch all of the literary references, Trafton has included a page at the back of the book that inventories “Henry’s Book Chest.”
What speaks of her old soul (and that of the book) is that Trafton did not steal these characters from other books and insert them into her story. No. It is obvious that she loved these characters – major and minor ones alike. Literary heroes like Eustace Scrubb, Ralph and his motorcycle, Sir Percy Blakeney, Harold and his purple crayon, and many others must have become part of her own story. And these brilliant characters take on a new and noble life in Henry’s story. What is particularly impressive is how insightful Trafton is about her audience and the characters that she created who would speak to every kind of reader. With seeming effortlessness, even the video game kid is given a literary hero worthy of the story. It would seem that Trafton is capable of seeing the genius in any child, because she has seen it in so many inspired characters throughout literature.
I said that this book is for all of us. It is. I am convinced that every reader will find himself in this story somewhere. And, because of Trafton’s loving touch, none of us will be ashamed to see our literary alter ego grapple with our real insecurities, hopes, and dreams.
“He and the world had a deal: he would keep away from its silly chatter and its honking horns, its math equations and its shopping malls, its confusing rules and its laughing faces. And in return, the world would keep out of his bedroom. For in this room, behind this door, lay a deeper magic and a wilder story than the world had ever seen. Or ever would see – as long as the door stayed shut.”
Henry is an artist. He doesn’t think he has any great gift, but he does. He loves to draw, paint, and color. Henry struggles to keep all of the wildly imaginative shapes inside of him from coming out. We all know that kid. The kid whose math test has few correct answers but margins full of doodles. The kid who thinks that 4 + 2 = orange. That kid is Henry. And Henry is the hero of the story. Well, one of many heroes anyway.
“That’s why Oscar was Henry’s friend. He asked the right questions. Not ‘Are you crazy?’ Not ‘How can a dragon fit in your lunchbox, stupid?’ But ‘How many teeth does it have?’”
Oscar, Henry’s best friend, is a science-loving brainiac with a pet octagon. Oscar’s math tests are always correct. “A pet octagon.” I know, it sounds silly. And it is. But it isn’t. This creative choice is just one of many which speaks to the harmony that must exist between the the Arts, the Sciences, and Language. Even a science kid has to have a wild imagination.
“She was standing on the counter, her hands clenched at her sides. Her face glistened as she sent poetry flying at the dragon. She was fighting the battle with her words.”
Jade is a poet. And a heroine. Her words resound like trumpets in Henry’s soul and push him forward when his courage fails. Her love of story and song give her unique insight into the problems at hand and, ultimately, show Henry the way forward. (Note: Wingfeather Saga fans will appreciate this everyday Leeli.)
“Yet in spite of all those smiles, looking at her often made him sad, and this was the reason: she had once been a superhero, but she had forgotten. Such things do happen. Henry knew there was a superhero hidden under her skin, because sometimes she could see Louie playing a video game behind his notebook without even looking up from her desk, and she could send a stapler rattling so fast across a bulletin board that her fist became a pale pink blur, and she could recite all of the state capitals in alphabetical order and not stumble once over Des Moines. And of course, most importantly, she could change her face into all sorts of new shapes just by putting on her different smiles. What other glorious things must she be capable of? What had happened to make her forget?”
Henry truly loves his teacher and sees in her an adult who is hiding from her passion. From an early age, the world has told her that her art does not have value. But Henry believes in her with a conviction that belongs to the young and pure of heart. I love that Jennifer Trafton is speaking to the adult readers through the character of Miss Pimpernel. How many of us stopped drawing in middle school because we realized that our art was no good? How many of us realized, through our progressive education, that our passion had to be subjugated to the needs of the real world? How many of us, as adults, wish that someone had encouraged our passion when we were children rather than criticizing or squashing it? How many of us spent Thursday nights studying for spelling and math tests on Friday, wondering why we were wasting our time because we knew that we simply weren’t good enough anyway? Many of today’s adults can relate to the adults in this book. But Trafton has a special gift for us. Henry wants us to remember. He wants us to remember that we were once superheroes too and that it is not too late for us.
I would be terribly remiss if I did not mention the flawless illustration in this enchanting book. Not only is the illustration full of whimsy and child-like imagination, but it very strategically comes *after* the narrative. I love this! I love that we are given the opportunity to imagine the scene before we turn the page and find the delightful art. I also love that the art is begging to be colored in! (Hat Tip: Laure Hittle on Instagram for making that obvious to me.) My children are all getting Henry in their Easter baskets and I know that they will relish the opportunity to customize their books.
“People are like puzzle pieces. Put together, the shapes make a picture. And a friend is one whose shape fits into your shape – fits perfectly because it is different, opposite, like a key in a lock, or a foot in a shoe.”
As I write this, I am listening to Melodies for the Mended Wood (Joel Clarkson’s musical soundtrack for The Green Ember) and The Wishes of the Fish King Musical Score. This beautiful music is helping me to focus on the heroic themes in Henry and the Chalk Dragon and to reflect on the important work that The Rabbit Room is doing. I am a lover of old books and am usually fairly skeptical of new ones. Sometimes, however, new authors with old souls do something really special. They build on the legacy of the truly great children’s authors. They show a respect for the genius that came before them and they add their humble contribution in the hopes that it makes the world a better place.
C.S. Lewis once said that in writing Narnia, he was hoping to write something out of E. Nesbit. I, and many others, would argue that Lewis showed Nesbit, George MacDonald, G.K. Chesterton, and his other predecessors great respect in his borrowing of their ideas. Lewis built on their legacy in his own unique way.
I am convinced that the authors at The Rabbit Room are continuing in Lewis’ and Shakespeare’s tradition. Every book I have read by a Rabbit Room author is covered in the fingerprints of the literary geniuses who defined their genres. But, like Lewis and Shakespeare, they are not mere borrowers. They jolly well pay back. I have yet to read a Rabbit Room book that has not made its genre richer. More Christ centered. More lovely.
This is a chapter book with a target audience of ages 7-11. The book is over 225 pages long.
On her website, Jennifer Trafton has shared a free pdf with a robust and exciting curriculum guide. Teachers, librarians, and parents alike will find all kinds of fantastic resources for using this book to draw out the very best in their young readers. Find the free guide here.
Special Note to Parents of Special Needs Children:
When reading Henry, I could not help but wonder if Henry was on the autism spectrum. I don’t think that Henry’s quirky personality is supposed to be diagnosed. But I do think that families like mine will appreciate seeing a heroic character who has some of the social challenges that often indicate spectrum issues.