First of all, a few notes: a) Remember the contest! Click right here for the rules, please, and share them, and get your entries in. You cannot see me bouncing excitedly, but I assure you that embarrassing excited dancing is happening. b) I am going to be away this weekend for the Jewish holiday of Shavuot, and while I normally plan ahead for holidays so you won’t go without the wonder I add to your days, this time I, well, I was working on my dissertation. I know, I know, sometimes I cheat on you with my day job. It happens to the best relationships. That’s why I’m posting late, too. I’m sorry, I really am, but the good news is that, while I’m late posting this book ramble, and won’t post at all on Friday or Monday, I was inspired to write about this story, a gift from my supervisor, who loves the Changeling. (Please note my beautiful transition from introductory notes to substantive post; I’m proud of how that happened to work out.)
That shouldn’t really be a parenthetical note, except that it should. The story we’re about to look at is, itself, apparently a parenthetical note, or based on one… except that it’s not. It’s a comment, except that it’s more of a commentary than a comment… it’s… it’s time for me to tell you what the hell I’m talking about. Excuse me: please remember that I’ve been being an academic. I’m talking about The White Cat and the Monk, text by Jo Ellen Bogart, illustrations by Sydney Smith.
People, let’s go over a few basics here. This is a visually stunning and spiritually uplifting book. I do not care which religion you practice, or whether you don’t practice any religion: you’ll find this a reassuring, inspirational, and somehow exalting book to read. But let’s talk a bit about what this book is. (It’s Canadian.)
It’s based on an Old Irish poem called Pangur Bán, written in the 9th C. The book is not a translation of the poem, but a simplified adaptation of it. Let me put it this way: I can be awfully pedantic, and my supervisor has very strong and definite tastes in translations of poetry. (Seriously, her views on translation are beyond excellent.) We each separately picked up this book with skepticism, loving the original poem as we do. And we each were surprised by how much we loved this adaptation.
I’m not going to go into the original poem here. This isn’t a place for academic navel-gazing or for worrying about being sufficiently precise or presenting the correct analysis. This is my place for talking about good kids’ books. I do recommend reading Pangur Bán (look for Paul Muldoon’s translation, although there are also nice ones by Seamus Heaney and Auden), but I’m not going to go into the years and years of academic analysis which surround it. Let’s just say that it’s a poem a monk wrote about how he and his white cat live together, each pursuing their own tasks, and each achieving all he can within the bounds of his own nature. It’s a lovely poem, but not one I’d have arrived at on my own as a poem for children.
Well, that proves me for a fool. It’s perfect for children– and adults. Here’s the thing: it’s a smart book, but it’s not an intellectual book. The poem is, or has become, intellectual. It asks you to think with it, to think about it, to take it very seriously… or academics do, anyway. The book, though, asks you to read and enjoy it, and, if you like, to think a little farther, a little deeper. Let’s talk about how the Changeling enjoys it, for example.
The Changeling follows the cat. The cat first appears outside the cloisters, and then jumps in through a window and trots down a long hallway, down stairs and through passageways until he finds the cell with the light glowing under the doorway… the monk’s cell. All of this is wordless and almost monochromatic, dark shades of grey and occasional browns, illuminated only by the white cat until the yellow light glows under that door. Then, after that light appears, colour gradually floods the book.
First you see the cat’s pink nose (the Changeling loves that) and the monk’s warm face, and the first words, all at once: “I, monk and scholar, share my room” and the page turns… “with my white cat, Pangur.” Then the story, as it were, begins. Again, seeing it from the Changeling’s perspective, we follow the cat: the monk reads and writes books, but the cat is chasing a mouse. Now, the monk tells us that each of them does their job– the monk chases understanding, the cat chases the mouse. And each has, as it were, job satisfaction. But I don’t think this is what appeals to the Changeling.
Yes, the monk chases meaning, the cat chases the mouse… the Changeling chases the cat. And I, mother and book-prattler, chase the Changeling. What does she think? What does she love? And the answer I come up with is that in this book, pace the anonymous scribe and poet of the 9th C., she loves Sydney Smith’s imaginative illustrations, weaving the white cat, Pangur, in with his imaginative take on medieval manuscripts.
Do you see the white cat anywhere? Keep looking… he’s around there. (Tell me in the comments how many you see and I’ll enter you for that book giveaway!)
That’s the glory of this book. Nothing is reduced, nothing is toned “down,” nothing is “made accessible for younger readers!” (You have to read that in a bright, chirpy voice.) It just is accessible, it just is a bit simpler. The art is quite as deep and quite as intelligent as the words are: both owe a lot to that poet over a millennium ago. And yet this genius duo of author and illustrator manage to make it talk to children as well as to adults. I am frankly in awe of them.
6 thoughts on “The White Cat and the Monk”
[…] The White Cat and the Monk: Based on the Old Irish poem Pangur Bán, a monk lives with his white cat, each pursuing his own craft: scholarship or hunting. This is a particularly inspirational and uplifting book. The illustrations reflect the contents, moving from darkness to light as the monk’s thoughts likewise become enlightened. Children will love hunting for the hidden animals in the manuscript pages, and parents will be awestruck by the glorious illustrations. This is wonderful for toddlers and up, and when I say “up” I mean all the way up to parents, who will find themselves saying with me, “How about this cat book again?” […]
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