The Quill & Quire Starred Review (June 2000) – Bridget Donald
“Picture books about the reassurance of parental love have become standard over the last 50 years, with some, like Robert Munsch’s Love You Forever , proving lucrative beyond anyone’s wildest imaginings. It is gratifying, then, to find a clever and pleasant book for young children featuring dubious mothers.
“The Chicken Cat is the story of Merlin, a kitten born on a winter’s night and promptly abandoned. There are two choices of adoptive mother on the farm: the most “natural” choice is Allison, a malevolent and emaciated six-toed cat; the other candidate is Guinevere, an old hen who is abundantly maternal but largely incompetent. Merlin lasts a season under Guinevere’s wing, nearly starving to death but keeping warm and learning of his foster mother’s desire to fly. When a little girl adopts him, Merlin gains strength in her family home and has time to gaze out the window. After some months carefully observing birds, Merlin pays a return visit to the farm and helps his old guardian realize her lifelong ambition.
“This quirky and energetic book is a triumph for its author and illustrator, both newcomers to the field of children’s books. McLellan is a fine storyteller, combining a matter-of-fact narrative style – life’s imperfections are fixed with a clear-eyed gaze – with elegant flourishes in turns of phrase and twists of plot. Cassidy’s coloured-pencil illustrations offer an excellent complement to the text, heightening both its pathos and humour. Softly shaded colours play up the story’s gentle aspects, while the judicious use of accent colour heightens its exuberance. The animals’ facial expressions and postures are humorously vivid throughout, particularly at the great moment of liberation when kitten, then chicken, take to the open skies.”
The Globe & Mail (July 29, 2000) – Susan Perren
“A chicken cat? Well, yes. Merlin, a small, bundle of ginger fluff in his first appearance in this picture book, is a cat born in a barn and raised by a chicken. He was named Merlin by the denizens of the barn because he appeared in their midst as if by magic. By rights, it should have been Allison, the six-toed cat, who took him on, but it was Guinevere, the oldest hen, who took the kitten under her wing. In time, Merlin and Guinevere come to feel that each was born for the other, and by this delightful book’s end, Merlin’s magic has wrought miracles for them both.”
The Toronto Star (July 11, 2000) – Jim Coyle
“She lives in Newmarket, not Edinburgh, has three children, not one, and the hero of her tale is an abandoned kitten, not a young wizard. Other than that — and maybe a couple of hundred million dollars in sales — Stephanie Simpson McLellan and J.K. Rowling have much in common: Each has seen her dream come true recently writing stories for children.
“In fact, you’d probably have to go some to find anyone in Greater Toronto — even in these Potter-crazed times — for whom children’s literature has been more a labour of love than it has for Stephanie McLellan.
“Her company is called Neverending Stories, which in its latest catalogue lists hundreds of children’s books that she’s read, reviewed and rated according to reading level.
“And this year, it includes something special — a synopsis of The Chicken Cat, McLellan’s first published story.
“‘I guess I had decided at the age of 7 that I wanted to write,'” McLellan says.
“By then, she’d turned her bedroom into a library, categorizing her books with alphanumeric codes, even due dates. But everyone what the poet said about best-laid plans.
“After studying English at university, McLellan detoured into account management in advertising. When her first child was born 11 years ago, she went out on her own to do marketing work for local companies.
“But when she found it hard to find good writers for projects, she began doingit herself, honing her skills and boosting her confidence.
“All the while, she was spending a lot of time in bookstores, checking out stories for her own growing family.
“‘It was through reading so much good stuff that I think it helped me to develop my voice,'” she says.
“Not only that, it helped her to develop the idea for Neverending Stories, the business she now runs from home.
“She figured there were others like her who wished they knew more about what was available, knew what was good and what was junk in the rapidly expanding world of children’s books, knew what was most suitable for their child at a particular age.
“‘I have grandparents and aunts and uncles who don’t necessarily have kids themselves, who will call me up and say, ‘Hey, I have so-and-so’s birthday, I want to spend $20, what can you recommend?””
“With those recommendations, McLellan says, she hopes to pass on to other families what the love of reading has done for hers.
“‘One of the most positive things it’s done is knit our family together because we’re all sharing the same thing, sharing the same stories.
“‘I know it’s making a difference in how my kids do at school, the way they’re able to articulate and get across their ideas. If you can’t get across your ideas, where are you going to go in the word?
“‘It doesn’t matter what you do in your life. You have to be able to express what your thoughts and feelings are.'”
“Meanwhile, between raising a family and making a living, McLellan was still writing.
“In the spring of 1998, she sent off her first story. The response, though a rejection, was favourable. The second publisher she tried, Fitzhenry and Whiteside, accepted the book. It was published this month.
“The trade publication Quill and Quire called it “a quirky and energetic book” — a triumph for an author and another newcomer, illustrator Sean Cassidy of Orangeville.
“But McLellan says best herself what having the story published meant.
“‘Did you ever have a dream for yourself — one that makes you restless, knowing that you’re not quite ‘all of you’ until you can make this vision of yourself happen?
“‘Well, for me, that was writing.'”
“And now she has.”
The National Post (November 18, 2000) – Elizabeth MacCallum
“Posture is everything as any crabby, old school teacher will tell you. Posture is also important in picture books: not as in “sit up straight at your desk,” not as in posturing politicians, but as in body language, which speaks volumes in a single pose. Illustrator Sean Cassidy uses posture and physical expression to a maximum in The Chicken Cat . Stephanie Simpson McLellan’s imaginative story about Guinevere – a hen who raises a pathetic stray kitten named Merlin – soars with Cassidy’s illustrations. He pictures Guinevere as worried motherhood personified, from her emotive comb to her gentle enveloping wing feathers, especially compared to Allison, the heartless six-toed barn cat with shoulders and ears so sharp with attitude I winced just looking at them. When a girl adopts Merlin and takes him home with her, Merlin “knew then that he had been born for Guinevere and she had been born for him.” He also shares Guinevere’s curious unfulfilled urge to fly. Bravely he jumps from the open third floor window after studying birds soaring by. It is not tragedy but the triumph of will over matter. Having flown back to the barnyard, Merlin takes Guinevere up for a lesson. They appear threefold across the page in a sequence of learning positions that concludes with Guinevere’s perfected style: neck arched, wings as elegant as Swan Lake (well, sort of) beak and closed eyes uplifted in blissful victory. That which can’t be drawn, McLellan’s text says: “As she slowly settled into the rhythm and wonder of Merlin’s flight, Guinevere found that her very heart seemed to grow wings.” You can’t ask much more than that. Where does Merlin settle finally? On the last page of the text, the two of them sit in the tree looking at Merlin’s mistress in her window. The end piece shows Merlin relaxed in his mistress’s hands. A barrette in her hair looks just like Guinevere. So, maybe in the end, posture only tells half the tale.”
The Hamilton Spectator, Hamilton, Ontario
“This is a touching story of love and devotion told in unadorned prose. Cassidy’s colourful illustrations will fascinate children and make the magic of the story come alive.”
The Ottawa Citizen, Ottawa, Ontario (July 30, 2000)
“Tenderly illustrated, a lesson in love and selflessness.”
The Langley Times,
Langley, B.C. (June 21, 2000) – Andrea Deakin
“The Chicken Cat is a most delightful, light-hearted fantasy. Guinevere, the oldest hen in the barn, determines to take Merlin literally under her wing. The problem is that the kitten barely survives on a diet of seeds and grain. In a determined effort to save Merlin, the hen drops him at the feet of a little girl who is looking for a kitten. The kitten thrives, but he still aches to see Guinevere again. He misses his chicken mother, and longs to give her something back for all her love. How he repays the old chicken for her kindness has to be read and enjoyed. This is a perfect collaboration between author and illustrator.”
Children’s Bookwatch, The Midwest Book Review (September 2000)
“The Chicken Cat is a delightful fantasy picture book tale about an old hen adopting a lost kitten. Stephanie McLellan’s charming, entertaining story is wonderfully showcased by Sean Cassidy’s lively and realistic artwork. The Chicken Cat will prove a welcome and popular addition to any school or community library picture book collection for young readers!”
“This whimsical story deals with caring, love and living out one’s dreams no matter how impossible. The full-page colour illustrations catch the mood of the farmyard and the fantasy of flight. Young readers will love the idea of the unlikely possibility of a chicken rearing a cat with the duo in flight. A good imaginative read-aloud.”
Owl Canadian Family – Steve Pitt
“Once upon a time, a kindly old hen named Guinevere discovered a hungry kitten in her barn and tried to raise it herself. Although she did her best, Guinevere soon realized that her tiny charge would die if she did not find it a human owner. But don’t worry, this wonderful story about two animals that form a unique bond has a happy ending. Whether you’re young or old, Stephanie Simpson McLellan’s The Chicken Cat will get you, right here. The eye-popping illustrations are by Sean Cassidy.”
The Era-Banner, Newmarket, Ontario (May 24, 2001) – Roy Green
“Merlin the cat smelled like a chicken when the McLellan family brought him home a few years ago.
“And only a few months later, he broke his leg, resulting in a $1,000 Veterinarian’s bill.
“But Stephanie McLellan thinks Merlin has earned his keep – especially since her book, The Chicken Cat , won a national book award and a $3,000 prize.
“’He smelled like a chicken when we brought him home from a farm a few years ago. We had to de-chickenize him and we were always joking that his mother was a chicken. I guess that’s where the idea for the book came from,’” said McLellan from her Newmarket home.
“McLellan and Orangeville illustrator Sean Cassidy shared the first prize in the picture book category in the Ruth Schwartz Children’s Book Awards, announced recently in Ottawa.
“McLellan said the award is particularly gratifying because the winners are chosen by children. Each year, the Ontario Arts Council selects an Ontario school to provide the juries for the prizes. This year’s jury – students from a Grade 4 class at an Ottawa school – chose The Chicken Cat , published by Fitzhenry & Whiteside.
“’That’s what makes it so neat, that it was juried by kids. I think that’s really important, that’s the audience I’m trying to reach,’” she said.
“The award was established in 1976 to honour the late Ruth Schwartz, a well-regarded Toronto bookseller. The administration of the award is shared by the arts council and the Canadian Booksellers Association.
“McLellan said she was already toying with the idea of writing about a cat raised by chickens when Merlin broke his leg. “’The vet said he must have fallen from a really high place.’”
“That suggestion was all McLellan needed to add another twist to The Chicken Cat – that Merlin learns to fly and returns to the farm to take Guinevere, the chicken who raised him, on a flight.
“’The story struck a chord with a lot of people,’” said McLellan. “’And it’s had a very positive effect on my family – my 12-year-old is writing her own novel.’”
“When she isn’t writing award-winning books, McLellan keeps busy running her mail order children’s book company, Neverending Stories, in Newmarket.”
The Kingston Whig-Standard, Kingston, Ontario
“A barnyard fantasy about the selfless love of a motherly chicken for a sickly cat. The tale has an enchanting outcome.”
City Parent (June 2001 ) – Barbara Greenwood
“What do you hope a book will give your child? A reflection of the real world to help her learn life skills? That’s one valuable role a book can play.
“But stories can do more than just reflect reality: they can open inquiring minds to new ways of thinking. When Alice peered into the looking glass, she found herself looking aslant, seeing a world out of focus, a world that presented possibilities she’d never before considered.
“Stories that take a whimsical, absurdist, “what if. . . ?” approach start the mind-expanding process that may lead your child to surprising creative endeavours. . .
“The Chicken Cat by Stephanie Simpson McLellan, this year’s winner of the Ruth Schwartz Award (picture book category) presents just such a whimsical look at possibilities. When an old hen named Guinevere finds a tiny kitten abandoned in her barn she names him Merlin “because he appeared to come to them through magic” and sits on him to warm him up.
“Despite her devoted mothering, Merlin stays fragile and birdlike until a little girl adopts him. Warm and well fed in his new home, Merlin longs to find some special way to say thank you to Guinevere. He remembers Guinevere’s wish that she could fly and, through determination fuelled by love, Merlin overcomes gravity itself to grant her wish.
“Why do we believe such a fantastical story? The language has the lyrical lilt of a well-told fairy tale in which, as we know, magical things can happen. Adding to our willingness to believe are illustrator Sean Cassidy’s vibrantly-drawn characters.
“As Allison, the six-toed cat, stalks and glares, tail twitching, we know without being told that she would never mother Merlin. Guinevere’s large warm eyes, the sweeping curve of her wings as she cuddles Merlin even the curve of her beak reveal her loving personality. And Merlin, cat though he is, certainly seems to have the light airiness needed to fly. For both author and illustrator this is a first book – an auspicious beginning indeed.”
globeandmail.com (June 12, 2001) – Josipa Petrunic
“Stephanie McLellan’s biggest critic right now is her eight-year-old daughter, Erin, who jokingly argues her mother stole a manuscript she wrote about a cat that was raised by a chicken.
“Ms. McLellan’s not too worried though. Most other critics are offering her praise. That’s because Ms. McLellan’s first book, The Chicken Cat , landed her the Mr. Christie Book Award for children’s literature on Tuesday.
“Literary connoisseurs say the Mr. Christie Book Awards are the most prestigious non-governmental awards for children’s literature in Canada. Three works were honoured Tuesday. They are worth $7,500 each, although in the case of Ms. McLellan, the money will be split between her and the illustrator, Sean Cassidy. The winning books will also sport a Mr. Christie gold seal on their covers.
“Judges awarded 12 other books with silver medals for having made the competition’s shortlist. They said the final winners were authors who had added to the intellectual and emotional development of young readers.
“Ms. McLellan’s book depicts the story of a cat named Merlin, who is brought up by a chicken named Guinevere. The chicken eventually realizes she can’t take care of the sickly kitten, and arranges for it to be adopted by a little girl. Cat and chicken eventually reunite, however, after the cat returns to teach Guinevere how to fly, a life-long dream of the grounded chicken.
“‘It’s a story about hope and the miracles that can happen when we help each other,'” Ms. McLellan said. She said the story idea came from an experience her family had with a cat they bought from a barn. That cat had spent most of its days among chickens, and smelled much like barn animals for weeks after the family bought it.
“Ms. McLellan said she’s a strong believer in the way in which books can help develop the imaginations and creativity of young children. The mother of three makes a living mostly through business writing, which she got into after a career in marketing and business. But her passion is writing for creative minds that love to explore concepts many adults would find absurd, she said.
“‘You have a lot of scope in children’s book because their minds aren’t as closed as ours are when we get older and more serious,'” she said, adding that a successful children’s book needs to have strong characters that “‘children can dream through.'”
“Strong central characters was the theme among all of this year’s award winners, said Arlene Perly Rae, one of the judges. Ms. Rae, who is a former Toronto Star reviewer, said all of the winners had characters that readers could relate too.
“The two other winners include author Jean Little, who won for Willow and Twig, and Janet McNaughton, who won for The Secret Under My Skin. Ms. Rae also said the winners fulfilled various other criteria set out by Mr. Christie Book Award officials. She said the judges toiled for weeks, trying to decide which of the more than 200 entries educated children about the world, spoke to their imagination, recognized the importance of play and inspired their imagination most.
“‘We argue over it,'” Ms. Rae said of the deliberating process. In the end, the team whittled down the number of entries to three winners — one for each age category. The categories include books for children seven years and under, eight to 11, and 12 to 16-years-old.
“The Mr. Christie Book Awards have celebrated the works of many famous Canadian authors in the past, including Mordecai Richler and Dennis Lee. This is the 12th year they have been handed out.
“After receiving her award, Ms. McLellan was already back to work. She said her agent has a number of her manuscripts already in hand. But she says her biggest success as a writer will not be the number of manuscripts she writes, books she publishes, or awards she wins. She said her greatest reward as a writer has been to see her daughters pick up pens and pencils and start writing stories of their own. “‘Ultimately, that’s the greatest reward you can have — to be inspiring.'”
CM Magazine (June 22, 2001) – Alison Mews
“Newcomer Stephanie McLellan has included beautiful poetic imagery filled with “fowl” language, eg. Merlin’s “feather-like fur,” and his “fragile, birdlike frame.” She uses a storytelling style that sometimes speaks directly to the readers as if letting them in on a secret. Sean Cassidy has expanded on her heart-warming story in his watercolour, gouache and coloured pencil illustrations. He has pictured Merlin as both piteous and endearing and has portrayed the growing love between the unlikely pair through their facial expressions and body language. The cover picture of Guinevere, with her wings wrapped protectively around the kitten and his eyes closed rapturously as he snuggles into her, is particularly effective. Children will warm to this farmyard fantasy, and, indeed, they picked it as the winner of this year’s children’s choice Ruth Schwartz award.”
Canadian Living (September 2001)
“This year the winner of the annual Mr. Christie’s Book Award in the Best English Books for Young Children (seven years and under) category is The Chicken Cat by Stephanie Simpson McLellan. It is the story of a motherly hen, Guinevere, who takes an abandoned kitten, Merlin, under her wing. But a cat can’t grow up on chicken feed, so she valiantly finds him a new home. The charming illustrations are by Sean Cassidy.”
CD Syndicated, British Columbia radio syndicate
“A totally original imagining – a daydream almost. This children’s book takes a number of literary conventions (fish out of water, the “search”) and cuisinarts them into a lovely, progressive piece of work that entertains children and surpasses adults. The text is lively and accessible; the illustrations warm and rounded.”
Canadian Book Review Annual
“McLellan’s entertaining farmyard fantasy shows the power of love and determination. Cassidy uses watercolors, gouache, and colored pencils to bring this delightful story to life.”
thestar.com (June 12, 2001) – From Canadian Press
“The stories told by the winners of this year’s Mr. Christie Book Awards range from whimsical (a cat raised by a hen) to starkly realistic (two kids on a cross-country trek after their mother takes off) to darkly futuristic (a girl fends for herself in a post-technocaust world of gated cities, concentration camps and limb regeneration.)
“The Chicken Cat, by author Stephanie McLellan and illustrator Sean Cassidy, Williow and Twig, by Jean Little, and The Secret Under My Skin by Janet McNaughton are the best Canadian children’s books of 2000, says the independent panel of experts in children’s literature that judged the competition.
“Judges consider criteria such as howthe book reflects and explores the world of childhood, or how it helps children understand the world, both intellectually and emotionally.
“Authors Mordecai Richler, Dennis Lee and Sheree Fitch are previous winners of the award.”
Queen’s Alumni Review (Fall 2001) – Meagan Fitzpatrick
“Stephanie Simpson McLellan graduated from Queen’s in 1980 with a major in English and a minor in Economics. She then earned an MBA at U of T, and as her “sensible side prevailed,” as she puts it, Stephanie entered the business world. However, marketing and advertising didn’t satisfy her creative urges, so she followed her dreams into the literary world. In the spring of 2000, Stephanie published her first children’s book, The Chicken Cat. A notable accomplishment in itself, what’s even more impressive is the success the rookie writer and her debut book have achieved. The Chicken Cat sold out its first run and Stephanie won the Ruth Schwartz Award for Excellence in Canadian Children’s Literature as well as the Mr. Christie Award, which also recognizes the best in children’s literature. She has also been nominated by the Canadian National Institute for the Blind for the Torgi Award, in the print braille category.
“Stephanie has always loved books. She worked in the library while attending Queen’s, and dreamed of being a writer since the age of seven. Besides writing her own books now, Stephanie, a mother of three who works from home, has also made a living by reviewing other people’s books. She writes reviews for Today’s Parent and for her hometown newspaper in Newmarket, ON. “I have a good reviewer’s sense; I love sharing information with people,” she says.
“In 1995, to further combine her love of books, writing, and reviewing, Stephanie applied her busines background and launched Neverending Stories (www.NeverendingStories.com), a mail-order children’s book company. She publishes newsletters and a yearly catalogue and mails them to a growing clientele across the country. An article about Stephanie’s company in the January issue of Canadian Living magazine, local television coverage, and word of mouth are helping to spread the news about Neverending Stories. E-mail makes it easy for Stephanie to communicate with her customers, who describe their children to her and ask her what books she recommends. “‘They get a very personal touch from me. I can give first-hand advice,'” she says.