Have you ever noticed a stray cat in your neighborhood? Of course you have! Chances are, though, that it was nothing like the stray cats in these new picture books.
“The Beckoning Cat,” based on a Japanese folktale, relates the background behind the popular little good-luck cat figurines found in Japanese shops. Once upon a time, it seems, the hard-working son of a poor fisherman shared his meager supper with a wet, shivering, muddy white cat. When his father became ill, the boy was unable to take their fish to market, but the white cat found a way to save the family from destitution.
The theme of kindness rewarded is familiar in the folklore of many cultures, but this retelling is particularly pleasing. The text, simple and smooth, incorporates authentic details of traditional Japanese culture: for example, a young woman laughs “lightly, covering her mouth with her kimono sleeve.” Stylized illustrations combine transparent and opaque watercolors with colored pencil for a quietly sophisticated effect. The blending of text and art is ideal.
“That Cat Can’t Stay” is the reaction of many an adult when a child brings home a stray kitty. In the picture book by this title, it’s an adult who brings the stray home: Mom is a cat lover and Dad is not. The children are passive observers in the family drama, as Mom deftly manipulates Dad into accepting not just one but a series of homeless felines. Although the amusing cumulative tale is told in the first person by one of the children, the narrative “I” is not identified until roughly 20 pages into the book — and then only by the artwork, not the text.
The illustrations add to the playful, rhymed text. The cartoon-style characters show real personality and emotion. Dad’s tantrums upon the arrival of each new cat are particularly effective, as he repeatedly acts out “I don’t like cats. They scratch my knees. They carry fleas. They make me sneeze. They’re always getting stuck in trees. They eat my cheese. They hairball-wheeze. Their licking makes my stomach quease. I’m sure that everyone agrees: We can’t have any more of these!” Cat-haters and cat-lovers alike will enjoy the goofy humor of both text and art.
Like snowflakes, cats are individually unique, possessing the ability to claim cozy spots on sofas — and in people’s hearts. These two distinctive books are certain to charm their way into “favorite” status as bedtime or story time tales, each in its own fashion.
Children’s literature specialist Paula Morrow lives and writes in Princeton. She welcomes comments and book suggestions at: Reviews@PaulaMorrow.com.