Hello, old friend! Long time, no see. Well, here’s the thing: I did too much travelling (as you saw in my last post), so I had to make up the work time somehow. But does that mean I’m no longer reading new children’s books? I’ll give you a hint: the Changeling is still four and a half years old, and my personality hasn’t changed– I’m still attracted to anything shiny and new with words and pages involved.
Case in point: yesterday I had a doctor’s appointment in Brookline, and my little cousin will be celebrating his third birthday very soon, so I took the occasion to visit my favourite purveyor of fine children’s literature to get him a present. And a few other things, while I was at it. And since I’ve met the day’s word count, I feel free to tell you about it.
This book, I Am a Cat by Galia Bernstein (her debut– and congratulations are due for such a strong first book!), is among the “few other things,” and I’m now slightly regretting that I didn’t get a copy of it for my little cousin as well as the one I got for the Changeling; he has a cat and I’m sure would enjoy it as much as he would the other two books I got him (an Alfie book and a book by the power duo Jon Klassen and Mac Barnett), so, well, I may be finding him a copy, too. (Don’t give me that look– my husband’s already tried it out on me and it doesn’t work. I am who I am, and I like to think that I am a Curator of Books.)
In any case, right now I’m sitting at my favourite working café, staring off vaguely into space and trying to figure out who wouldn’t enjoy this book. Well, there’s my father, I suppose: he’s allergic to cats both physically and spiritually. He can just barely endure mine, because they’re quiet and, frankly, afraid of people; they know he’s not a friend and never try to engage with him. But if it’s a cat, or has to do with cats, my father is generally opposed.
But I wonder if even he would smile over the cuteness that is I Am a Cat.
Look at Simon on the cover there (Simon is the little grey kitty)! Isn’t he a sweetheart? Who could resist that face? Not even my father could deny his cuteness, this I believe.
But that’s not the question this book asks: it doesn’t care whether or not we find Simon cute, but whether or not he’s accepted into the cat clan with all of the other cats around him: Lion, Cheetah, Tiger, Puma, and Panther.
The story is simple: Simon is a cat, and declares himself to be so. The surrounding big felines respond with laughter, and then explain: Lion has a mane and is king of the beasts– that’s why he’s a cat. Panther is jet black and sleeps in trees– that’s why he’s a cat. And so on for all of the wildcats. But Simon is confused: each characteristic described is highly individual, he points out. What do they have in common that renders them cats? The animals respond: flat noses and long tails, sharp claws and eyes that can see in the dark. If that’s the case, Simon posits delicately, then, as he shares in those commonalities, he should be one of the family, too. The wildcats are briefly surprised, but then welcome him with open paws and they play and fall asleep together in a heap.
It really is a simple, straightforward book: the topic of belonging, a subject which is so frequently heartrending in MG, YA, and, frankly, in adult fiction, is tackled in a strong, direct, and self-confident tone here which keeps it fresh and original. After all, isn’t Tess of the D’Urbervilles about belonging to a clan (as I think I mentioned in my post about Quackers)? This book is just as effective an appeal to inclusiveness as Tess is, and by extension, and by its own lights, a strong indictment of gate-keeping. And yet, direct as the story is, its argument comes across without fanfare.
And, in fact, message aside, what I love in it– apart from Galia Bernstein’s lovely art, which is adorable without being cartoonish– is Simon’s personality. Partly this really is down to the art, which conveys the animals’ expressions with great economy of line, but it’s also in the straightforwardness of the text. Simon asks the obvious question: if each of you can have unique qualities and yet be part of the same family, why can’t I? And he makes this irrefutable argument directly and without any self-consciousness or seeming to feel humiliated by the big cats’ laughter. I cheered internally as he stood up for himself so politely and yet so strongly.
Simon is my new role-model. He doesn’t give a damn about whether others think he’s too short and chubby to be fast as a cheetah. He knows he’s not supposed to be a cheetah, so why should he be like a cheetah? He’s a cat. He doesn’t worry about what any of the others think of his distinctive qualities; he knows he’s a cat, and he will challenge the self-appointed authorities of catness on that point.
And yet, although I’ve teased out this message, I want to emphasize this point: this all comes across without any preaching. The surface story has you so wrapped up in Simon’s encounters from cat to cat that you’re just cheering him on; it’s only after the book was over that I started to think, “Hey, if Simon could face up to the other cats, well, why can’t I…?”
So, I want to encourage all of us to be like Simon: be straightforward, be direct, and state the truth. Who are you, really, and what or who is holding you back?
Also, it’s worth reiterating: this really is simply an adorable book.
And now I’ve got more work to do today. But watch out for a little something on February 14…