Wednesday, April 25, 2012

The Meerkat Wars by H.S. Toschack

Books with African themes are not easy to come by. For instance, I'm still trying to get hold of "Planting the Trees of Kenya: The Story of Wangari Maathai" and Wangari's Trees of Peace: A True Story from Africa.
Thus, I was happy to be given a review copy of The Meerkat Wars by HS Toschack, which has the following blurb:
"It's all very well helping a young meerkat who's been poisoned by a scorpion... ...but when you've made friends with the whole Duwara tribe of meerkats, and you discover that they're at war with the Utongo (another tribe), you may find yourself involved in that too, even if you're only a little black-and-white cat.
And when you realise that the two tribes are fighting because each one believes it lives under The One True Sun, then you may have to undertake a very dangerous journey to help them see things differently. You may have to go through the Gorge..."

The Plot

"The Meerkat Wars" begins with Sheena, the Allens family's house cat who stowed away in the back of their Land Rover when they went out for camping. Feeling a bit squashed in the back, Sheena crawls out off the four wheel drive and was shocked when it drove off before Dad Allen has picked up enough wood.

Her thoughts are interrupted by a scorpion taunting her with its sting and other qualities but Sheena decides to walk away when a meerkat appears and takes a bite of the scorpion with disastrous results...

I had a good laugh reading the second chapter when another meerkat, Sandstepper, helps the injured meerkat, Pebble, diagnose the scorpion sting. Sheena watches on in amusement as Pebble dramatizes each symptom described by Sandstepper.

That first encounter draws Sheena into the world of the meerkats and her adventures with them and other animals like a family of porcupines, a honey bear and an elephant.

The Characters

While this is categorized as a children's book, I think that readers of all ages will enjoy the book because H.S. Toschack put a lot of thought into the character development. Even though each animal think, talk and even joke like humans, they still retain their animal characteristics.

I am not a cat person (I like dogs) but I've grown to love Sheena because she's such a clever cat! Sheena side steps the MANY sticky situations she finds herself in the minute she meets the meerkats. At the end of the book, I thought that she handled the "meerkat wars" really well.

The Themes

Reading the book, young readers will learn a thing or two about:
i) being diplomatic i.e. how to handle different people in life without having to confront / quarrel with them;

ii) thinking things through. Sheena comes up with creative ideas to solve various problems and also how to influence those around her to see things her way;

iii) the futility of waging wars. At one point, Sheena is as pleased as pie about a clever idea she had in helping the Duwara tribe defend themselves during an attack by the Utongo tribe until she sees the victims. Then, she realizes that nobody wins at war and sets out to enable a peaceful end for both the tribes.

Design and Layout

I like the way the book is organized:

i) the table of contents is accompanied by thumbnails of each illustration, which functions as a sort of graphic outline to help students during the pre-reading process and

ii) each chapter is preceded by a rhymed riddle, which essentially sums up the character / animal that is the focus of that particular chapter.

Since "The Meerkat Wars" would be a great title to be included in book lists for English literature studies, may I suggest that:

i) Sheena's thumbnail that appears before each chapter be replaced by the matching thumbnail that appears in the table of contents?
- this would make it easier for young readers to flip to the chapter that they need, help them remember the various characters in the book and also add to the visual variety of the book 

ii) Replace the two-dimensional map with a three-dimensional one?
Personally, I couldn't make head or tail of the map and my preschool son, who enjoys poring over maps, gave this a miss because he thought that all the tunnels look the same.

If the map was re-drawn with the same depth and detail as the illustrations in the book, I'm sure the readers of "The Meerkat Wars" would refer to it as fans of J.R.R. Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings" do when they read about Middle Earth.

By the way, teachers who are following the curriculum set according to the UK National Literacy Strategies, US Common Core State Standards and the IB Primary Years Programme will find a set of resources here, which include:
a) a teaching copy (in Word and PDF),
b) a student's copy (in Word and PDF),
c) themes and topics and
d) the illustrations - for educational purposes only (within schools which have purchased copies of the book), or for private purposes.

If you'd like to buy the book on Amazon, click on this link: The Meerkat Wars by HS Toschack.

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