October 21, 2013

A feline approach to mortality

By John Bemelmans Marciano
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If you enjoy black humor, then you will adore the opening lines of The Nine Lives of Alexander Baddenfield:

"A grave should be a sad thing, and the grave of a child the saddest thing of all.
The tombstone reads:
Here Lies Alexander Baddenfield,
Who Departed This Mortal Coil after a Dozen Years.
He was the Last of the Baddenfields?Thank God!"

Imagine, if you will, an Edward Gorey-like tale written for middle schoolers. This darkly hilarious novel is about a nasty boy from an unimaginably horrible family. Alexander is the last of his line, and because his family members tend to die young, he visits a mad scientist who implants him with the "novavium" of a cat, an organ that is said to give cats nine lives. Alexander's first life ends on the operating table, because successful implantation of the organ requires the death of the patient?but his second life immediately kicks in.

At this point, the book warns readers to stop, because "You are about to embark on a tale that recounts the sometimes gruesome deaths of a young boy, and his not always pleasant rebirths."

A story like this, of course, will not strike everyone's funnybone, but for many young readers, it offers an exciting, refreshing take on mortality. Imagine what risks a boy with nine lives might take: Alexander tries to fly like Icarus off the observation deck of the Empire State Building; he travels to Spain to fight bulls; he kayaks down a river, forgetting that he can't swim.

Alexander's daredevil antics come to an abrupt end, however, when he reaches his eighth life and suddenly begins to face mortality. At one point, a happy ending seems to be looming. Never fear: As readers are reminded early on, this is by no means "a Hollywood movie, or a fairy tale, or a run-of-the-mill chapter book."

Author John Bemelmans Marciano Bemelmans, the grandson of Madeline creator Ludwig Bemelmans, teams with illustrator Sophie Blackall for this delightfully dark romp—a wickedly good choice for Halloween reading.

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The Nine Lives of Alexander Baddenfield

The Nine Lives of Alexander Baddenfield

By John Bemelmans Marciano
ISBN 9780670014064

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