Can you imagine what it would be like to be a kitten? To have a scant few weeks with a mother to teach you the ways of the world, before being adopted by a different family of humans (if you’re lucky), and having to figure everything else out for yourself?
Dougal’s Diary starts at the very beginning of this kitten’s life, before his eyes have even opened, and follows his first year, through discovery, betrayals, disappointments and joys. Dougal learns how to be a ‘Good Cat’ (more or less), how to look out for his sister, and how to make his own place in the pecking order.
Fishpond lists this book as being suitable for 11- to 14-year-olds, but I must beg to differ. Eleven to 14-year-olds may well love it, but I’ve read this book to my five and ten-year-olds over the past couple of weeks, and they both loved it, although certainly quite a bit of it was over my five-year-old’s head. Mr Ten, on the other hand, found many moments laugh out loud funny, and enjoyed figuring out the references to things like a “box with wheels” (car) and “quiet box with wheels, open on top” (pram, we assumed from the context). He could certainly have read it on his own. Probably a fairly competent eight year old reader could too.
It was a good book to read before bed, as most of the longer daily entries could be read as complete in themselves, though certainly there were a few days when the next entry really had to be read before the kids could settle, especially early on. At the same time, both kids looked forward to hearing more of Dougal’s story each night, and thus were keen to clean their teeth and get into bed – which is not always the way!
Dougal’s Diary touches on some sibling rivalry issues, including managing life with a much loved but still annoying little sister and realising that she thinks their humans, dubbed ‘Man’ and ‘Woman’, love him more than her, but we’re certainly not beaten over the head with it. Actually Dougal and his adoptive sister Shadow get along remarkably well, helped by Dougal’s decision to be a Good Cat. If only it were that simple for my kids!
As a feminist I always struggle a bit with books about animals which inevitably play into essentialist gender types, and this one does. Dougal realises early on that it is his job to protect “his girls” (Shadow and an older cat who lives with them, Belladonna), and has to do the tough boy-cat thing on several occasions, though he also quickly becomes a master negotiator. However this is a real part of the cat world, and can potentially spark conversations with children about gender roles. To offset this effect ‘Man’, who is the main human taking care of Dougal and Shadow, comes across as a warm and caring man, and is the one usually noted to be doing housework, when he spends a day a week cleaning house. Not a bad male role model over all.
My main criticism of the book is something that bothered me quite a bit early on, but which neither child even seemed to notice, though it may have been different had they been reading themselves.
It is always going to be somewhat difficult to write a first person narrative that begins at birth – before the person in question even has language – and the diary format doesn’t quite work here. The book doesn’t seem to know if it’s a diary or a memoir. It follows a diary format, with an entry for each day, but the first few entries are, perhaps inevitably, clearly written later.
The first page begins
“Sometime around then I must have been born.”
The next entries continue in this way (“Around that time…” “I do remember the next day…”), however a few entries later the narrative switches to the typical format of a diary written at the end of each day – but with the occasional slip-up, such as December 19 when he writes “Later that day…”, as though the entry were written on a different day. At first I found this off-putting. Is this meant to be a diary, or a memoir? But as neither child noticed, and it certainly it did not affect their enjoyment nor their ability to get lost in the story, I put it behind me and got lost in the story myself.
Another small point, but one that could be a deal breaker for some parents, is the use of the word ‘trollop’. Dougal refers to Shadow as ‘that trollop’ more than once early on, and while it is said without much heat it is clearly intended as an insult. He could as easily have said ‘brat’. Not only does this seem out of place (he doesn’t know simple words like ‘car’ yet), some parents may not want to explain what this word actually means, nor, in the absence of an explanation, to hear their own children using it to refer to their annoying little brother or sister, or worse still a friend at school. As I was reading aloud to my children, I fudged and skipped the word, but— this is a book that my ten year old son might easily read on his own.
Overall I would certainly recommend this book for readers aged about eight and up, and as a good family book that younger children will enjoy listening to. The sequel, When We Were Kittens was released just last month, and both my kids are anxious to get hold of it next!
Edited to add: Dougal now has his very own website – http://www.dougalsdiary.com.au/
Also by David Greagg
It’s True! The Vikings Got Lost (I have a feeling Liam would quite enjoy this too), and