Further confession time. I'm a cat person. A deep down to the bone cat person. I have one of my own named Molly, a particularly clingy little thing with a Pavlovian relationship to "Jeopardy!" (The Final Jeopardy ding signals to her that it's dinner time). I wonder all the time what cat thoughts are running around her pretty little cat head, but know that such is the mystery of catdom. I will never know for sure. Two new books on shelves now try to delve into this mystery of mysteries, Won Ton: A Cat Tale Told in Haiku by Lee Wardlaw (ill. Eugene Yelchin) and When Martha's Away by Bruce Ingman.
Won Ton is actually a tale told in senryu, a variation of haiku of deals with human nature, or as the Wardlaw points out, cat nature. Here is the story of a cautious shelter cat who is chosen by a boy who can "rub my chin just right". The cat may act cool, but really wants to be taken home. He is named Won Ton, though he teases "Some day, I'll tell you my real name. Maybe." Won Ton learns about his new home, new food, new playtime and new naptime. Wardlow and Yelchin have cats down pat with this charming book. Clever phrases like "Letmeinletmeinletmeinletmein. Wait - let me back out!" and "I explained it loud and clear. What part of "meow" don't you understand?" are not only funny, but pure cat as well. And Yelchin's beautiful, angular illustrations perfectly express the attitude of Won Ton, captured in all his modes of cat-ness: yawning, stretching, sleeping, hissing, cleaning and the inevitable 'dressed-in-doll-clothes' look that every cat in a home with children must one day endure. This is a book I'm already planning on sharing for storytime, and one I can envision reading over and over again. The haiku structure has a timeless feel to it, and a quaintness, which I mean in the best possible way. It is not a book full of substance, but is light and uncomplicated, and downright lovely.
Bruce Ingman's When Martha's Away is another title that peaks behind the curtain of cat life. Originally published in 1995, this is the story of Lionel who has some secrets to tell to his owner. When she goes off to school, his schedule is packed full, and not just with catnaps. Lionel reads the newspaper, works out, watches television, chats to his cousin Albert on the phone and even gives bravura piano performances. When he hears the gate outside, however, he "dashes" back to the couch and pretends to be sleeping. Ingman's book is presented as a confessional. Lionel is addressing Martha directly ("Sometimes I play with your toys"), and this familiarity makes it a very cozy book, despite the crazy things Lionel does. The illustrations here are not going for realism, but instead a humorous fantasy. Imagine, if you will, a striped ginger cat wearing a blue helmet driving a car around a little girl's bedroom. I think you get the idea. The very grown-up secret life Lionel leads gave me a good chuckle or two, and though some of the jokes might go over a child's head, I can see many children having fun with Lionel's antics as well.
Now I'm really starting to wonder what my Molly gets up to when I'm away. She's a clever one. I may need to start looking more closely at my cable bill.
Won Ton: A Cat Tale Told in Haiku by Lee Wardlaw (ill. Eugene Yelchin)
2011, Henry Holt and Co.
When Martha’s Away by Bruce Ingman
2011, Candlewick Press