I just want to put it out there right here, right now: the world needs more books like this one. “What’s this one, and what’s it like?” asks the world. “If you want us to make more like it, you need to be more precise.” Fair enough, that’s why I’m here, after all. The book is Ketzel, the Cat Who Composed, written by Lesléa Newman and illustrated by Amy June Bates, and it’s adorable.
Look at that kitty! She looks so much like my Penelope (named after Odysseus’ wife, yes, of course). Aren’t they incredibly similar? (And, no, of course this isn’t an excuse just to post a picture of my adorable, sweet, darling kitty.)
So, perhaps the reason I feel very attracted to Ketzel is that Ketzel and Penny look rather alike, but there’s a lot more to love about this book than that. First of all, it’s a good story. Yes, it’s based on a true story, so it’s a cross between biography and music history with a heavy dash of imagination thrown in for colour and narrative structure. That said, it’s also simply an excellent tale (about a cat with an excellent tail, I’m sure) (look, it was sitting right there and I’m only human). It’s a good story, and a good story is kind of fundamental to a picture book, don’t you think?
Second, it’s a good story which also happens to tell something about the way compositions happen. If you were like me as a child, you were a horrible pest who nagged your poor, beleaguered parents with questions like, “How were operas composed? Did someone write the words first and then the music or did they talk a lot or did the composer send a plan for the music to the writer or…” (Yes, this all happened before I knew the word “librettist.” I was always a pest.) This isn’t a book about an opera, but it probably would still have helped to shut me up. Or not. It’s hard to say.
So, I hear you ask, what is this book about? I’m so glad you asked. It’s about a composer, Moshe Cotel, who gets his inspiration from the noises of the city around him. Then one day he hears a little kitten crying in a city street. He rescues her, earning my undying love. They live together happily: Moshe composes and Ketzel listens. But then one day Moshe receives notice that the Paris New Music Review is holding a contest, but each composition must be under a minute long. “Impossible!” cries Moshe. But he can’t help mulling it over, stressing out over it, day after day, until Ketzel decides that the only thing to do is to destroy the letter, the cause of his grief. Ketzel pounces, treading on the piano as she goes. Moshe pounces on paper and pencil and jots down the notes: “Ketzel, that was magnificent!” He submits her piece to the contest, and it receives a certificate of special mention. Moshe and Ketzel together attend the concert hall where it will be played, and Ketzel meows when her name is announced, drawing attention from the audience. At the end of the performance of her piece, Moshe brings her to the stage to take a bow. They go home, and, one day, another letter arrives in the mail: a royalty check for Ketzel!
Even if your cat isn’t the body-double of the cat in the book, you see you can love this story. For one thing, it’s incredibly sweet. The bond between the cat and Moshe is lovely to watch: he rescues her, she cares for him, and, in so doing, gives him the inspiration he needs to get out of his funk. He, in turn, sees her as her own little person and firmly gives credit where it is due. He submits the composition in her name, brings her to hear the concert, and gets her her very own bank account to deposit her royalty check. That money is designated only for her cat food, in the end. Love is really at the heart of the story, and I think that’s what makes this story so beautiful.
The other thing that comes through is the story of composition. Moshe is a composer, and he takes inspiration from everything around him, the story tells us. He tells Ketzel: “You must listen outside yourself and inside yourself.” Ketzel wonders, as she watches him struggling to compose whether he’s listening outside himself or inside himself… or perhaps he wasn’t listening at all. But she, we can tell, is the one who is doing the listening. She listens outside herself: Moshe is unhappy and sad. She listens inside herself: That makes her sad and she wants to do something about it. She pounces on the letter. The sound she makes penetrates through Moshe’s sadness and he wakes up from his funk… he listens outside himself and inside himself and writes down what he hears.
When Moshe first brings Ketzel home with him, he plays her some music and she reacts, meowing.
“Ah, Ketzel, I see that music stirs your soul,” he said. “And that is a wonderful thing.”
This story, without ever telling you that music should stir your soul, gives a portrait of a composer at work. It gives a quirky little story: not every composer has a cat to provide musical inspiration, more’s the pity. But it’s a wonderful little lesson in listening, in accepting what is available from your environment. Moshe, from the very beginning, is shown receiving his inspiration from ambient noise. Ketzel reminds him that this is how he works, and he thanks her for it charmingly. We, the audience of his story, know that she was only reminding him of what he knew already, although the story never, ever says so. We are never told that this is a story about how to compose music. We are never told that this is about musical inspiration. We are told that this is the story of Ketzel, and, indeed, it is: Moshe and Ketzel are our cast of characters, and we love them.
But along the way we learn a little something about music, and I’m so glad we do– the story wakes up our musical souls a little, and that is a wonderful thing.