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Book Review: The Tiniest Tiger by Joanne L. McGonagle

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Joanne L. McGonagle’s first book, The Tiniest Tiger, is a charming tale of a kitten’s search for a family, with the express purpose of teaching children (and their parents) about the different kinds of wildcats, including their level of endangerment in the wild. The soft cover picture book is chockful of facts, but the narrative really comes to life when the author imbues her feline characters with personality. McGonagle doesn’t quite find the right balance between storytelling and information, but the tale is endearing nonetheless and the cause it supports worthwhile.

A portion of the profits of The Tiniest Tiger will go to the Conservation Fund of the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, specifically to benefit conservation projects for endangered wild cats. The author has a clear interest in the plight of big cats (and a delight in little cats!) and her decision to place her story in a zoo suits her theme well. Calling to mind P.D. Eastman’s classic Are You My Mother?, a feral domestic kitten gets lost and hopes to find a new family as she visits each type of wild cat.

The kitten’s first encounter — with a tiger — sets the tone for the book. The little cat timidly explains her plight to the larger cat and asks if she can join her family. The tiger calmly looks her over, notes the similarities to tigers but then brings up the differences and sends the kitten to another feline group in case she’s a better fit there. Of course, each group finds similarities but also differences and the little cat ends up back at the tiger’s exhibit, tired and discouraged.

Fortunately, a zookeeper’s daughter notices the tiniest tiger and asks her mother if they can keep her, as she looks just like their cat, Hazel. The little kitten finds her home with a cat that looks just like her.

The narrative embeds many facts about cats and the story builds up a bit of suspense as the kitten gets more and more discouraged about finding a family. However, it really grabs the reader when McGonagle gives a cat a bit of attitude, something that suits felines oh so well. The visit to Jaguar is one of the most successful encounters in the story, as Jaguar huffily explains to the little kitten, “We are not chubby. We are big boned and muscular. Stocky is the preferred term.” The joke is continued when the kitten visits the lithe ocelot, whom the kitten feels would not be snickering quite so much about Jaguar in the absence of the big stone wall separating the enclosures.

The humour is a welcome element to the book, as it helps the reader to enter into the kitten’s predicament, rather than focus on facts. Although the book is an enjoyable read as it is, if the author had given each species of cat more of the individuality she gave the jaguar, the kitten’s journey would have been even more engaging.  I also found a few small editorial errors, though nothing that interferes with the enjoyment of the story.

The illustrations do their part in bringing the story to life. Oddly, the illustrator, Rachel MaHaffey, is not noted in the book’s credits, though her full page water colour illustrations of each type of cat are charming. MaHaffey chose to lean more to the realistic side than cartoon side when depicting the cats, though some types have more realistic details than others. Many of the illustrations are really lovely, with Bobcat one of my favourites. Included in each picture is an exhibit information board giving key facts on the animal, including its level of endangerment. The boards fit beautifully into the zoo setting and are a nice way to pack more information in without bogging down the story.

The Tiniest Tiger will appeal to nature-loving children and will also please conservation-minded parents. McGonagle got many elements right in her debut effort and I look forward to her next story.

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