While keenly aware that if I run this right after my Little Red Riding Hood post I run the risk of being “one of those cat blogs” (so sorry, Daddy), this Sunday I went to my favourite store in the entire universe again: The Children’s Book Shop. What that means is that I came back with new material for you all. And yet here I am writing about a book I got last time I went there. It goes like this: when I go into a shop like that and casually pick up another copy of that book I got last time because I need to give it to someone for a gift, honestly, I do, no, it’s not just because I want to hold it in my hands at all times… well, isn’t that a sign it’s a book I need to talk about here?
Those who know me may say that any book called A Castle Full of Cats, written and illustrated by Ruth Sanderson gets its own post here on the basis of the title alone, but those people are wrong for the following reasons: a) If it didn’t work for me and fell flat I’d be too angry to write about it, and, anyway, I intend only to write about books I like (what’s the point of writing about books you hate?); b) Did you know there are cat books I don’t like? Oh, there are plenty; c) Shut up, Daddy, I do so like books that aren’t about cats– I wrote about Madlenka’s Dog once. I run my selection process here by a complex and most stringent algorithm written up in Python using processes too technical to share with you, but, to simplify it for the plebes, it can roughly be translated as such: Do I love this book oh so very much that I have got to write about it right now so help me God? And with this book, well, when I went right into that store, ran over to the appropriate spot on the shelf and yanked it off? “It’s… for a present,” I muttered, hugging it. (“Maybe I should get two,” I thought. But I resisted. Because there was only one on the shelf and I was embarrassed to ask for a second.) Well, when that happened I knew there was more to it than “contains cats.” “Contains cats” will get a look from me. It won’t get love.
What got love? I’ll admit one thing up front: this is still a bit too old for the Changeling. It’s not that she doesn’t sit through it or like it. On the contrary, she really loves the pictures, poking through and naming the cats and finding the ones that look most like the ones she knows. She enjoys it. But there are elements of the story and illustrations which are just over her head and make this more of a book for me than for her for the moment, whereas a book like The Tea Party in the Wood spoke to both of us differently and more-or-less equally. This one is here for both of us to enjoy, but is waiting patiently for the Changeling to grow and find certain jokes and plot points click as the months go by. I can tell that’s going to happen. So, we both do enjoy it, but this is largely my perspective right now.
The basic story goes as follows: A king and queen live together in a charming castle. The year appears to be, perhaps, 1779. I think we can assume we’re living in a parallel universe France where the tiers état is happy and satisfied and we needn’t worry about what would happen to aristocratic cats come the Revolution. This is a calm, lovely, happy, watercolour Baroque world, one where you just want to fall in through the pages of the book, stroke the cats, and run loving fingers across the soft damasked upholstery.
But I digress: the king and queen are living happily, and the king presents the queen with a pair of charming kittens. She is delighted, and, when you turn the page, you see the whole castle swarming with cats. The cats know the queen adores them, and she provides them with fish for every meal, right at the table with her and the king (who would maybe appreciate a filet mignon from time to time). She paints portraits of them, she cuddles them, and they’re happy, except… except they’re concerned that the king might not love them. They leave him gifts, play games and frolic, but somehow they don’t seem to be able to win him over– until one day the king loses patience: “That’s it! I’ve had enough! / He dropped his spoon. / He grabbed his cane. / He marched off in a huff!” Allow me to relieve you of your terror: He does return, but what can he do to make all well and resolve the problem in the castle so that he, the queen, and the cats can all live happily together? Dare I tell you?
Oh, I’m awful at keeping secrets! He brings them all presents: flowers for the queen and a big, beautiful, cuddly dog for the cats. They’re all thrilled, and the cats are so busy playing with their new friend that the king and queen are even seen to be dining (on chicken– he must be thrilled!) by themselves. And they all live happily ever after.
The story itself is, in a word, charming. The cats’ behaviour is generally catlike: it’s not falsely sweet (as in every silly boardbook), and it’s not falsely evil (as in every adult book). It’s true, and real, and translated for human readers so that we can chuckle along and sympathize as kittens investigate instruments, knock over books, and leave mice in the king’s shoes. It’s not so ploddingly realistic as to be boring, I hasten to add, anticipating cat-lovers’ corrections: has anyone seen dozens of cats gathered at a table eating out of bowls? Right. But it’s realistic enough to give you that chuckle of recognition: two of the kittens hop right up on the table to help themselves from a platter or nibble from another cat’s bowl.
All of this is rendered in gorgeous watercolour, with sufficient authentic Baroque detail to make the adult reader’s heart go pitter-pat, but with enough kittenish antics to make pet-lovers of all ages smile and laugh. As I said, the Changeling can excitedly pore over the pictures with for ages, pointing out who “looks like Remy” and who “looks like Penny” and declaring “let’s find Guinness!” She also enjoys the gentle, rhyming rhythm of the text. I, for my part, secretly analyze the furniture and clothes and admire the lush textures Ruth Sanderson manages to get across with her glorious watercolours (I didn’t see any prints from this book for sale on her website, but that doesn’t mean there won’t be later– this book is pretty new). And, of course, I love the cats’ antics and the gentle, joyous surprise of the dog’s arrival.
And for everyone, cat-lover or not, adult or child, I think the story is valuable: without didactic baggage or getting too heavy, here’s a gentle story of love, friendship, and how compromise can lead to greater happiness for all, not lesser happiness for some. As the Changeling grows to click with more and more of the little jokes in the book, I hope that’s another note that will click.
OK, husband of mine: Now can I have another cat, and also a dog? It works so well in the book…