Kit Lit: Cat-Themed Picture Books

I, Mercury, as one of the many fine felines who work with children's book authors (Cynthia Leitich Smith and Greg Leitich Smith), keep a cat's eye on what I like to call Kit Lit, or literature for human kittens.

MercuryI would hope that you're all sufficiently sophisticated to understand that I am, after all, proudly a cat. Therefore, when I talk to you about the following cat-related books I do so from a cat-centric point of view. Humans might have an entirely different interpretation of what makes these books special, and frankly, I couldn't care less. Go talk to my assistant if you have a problem.

Before going any further, allow me to cautiously recommend PURR . . . CHILDREN'S BOOK ILLUSTRATORS BRAG ABOUT THEIR CATS, which is edited by Michael J. Rosen. On one paw, this is a celebration of fabulous artists and the illustrator cats who made them great. What's more, money from this book goes to some pro-cat people at The Company of Animals Fund. On the other paw, illustrator cats are media hounds. I know it's harsh to call a cat a dog, but I ask you: how many times has a writer cat slaved away to inspire and perfect a cat story only to find that the finished book features a cat that looks shockingly like the one who owns the illustrator?

The Alley Cat's MeowTHE ALLEY CAT'S MEOW by Kathi Appelt, illustrated by Jon Goodell (Harcourt, 2002). This jazzy tale (or is that tails?) features the love story of Red and Ginger. The text sings and the illustrations dance. Unfortunately, a scanned and reduced image can't do Goodell's work justice. Find a copy of this book. Study the illustrations. Really, jazzy. Read The Story Behind The Story from Kathi Appelt.

ALLISON by Allen Say (Houghton Mifflin, 1997). When she tries on her kimono, Allison realizes that she looks more like Mei Mei, the doll she's always had, than she looks like either of her parents. A heroic and loving cat adopts Allison, who then understands there are many ways to create a family.

A BEAUTIFUL FEAST FOR A BIG KING CAT by John Archambault, Bill Martin Jr. with illustrations by Bruce Degen (HarperCollins, 1994). I hesitate to recommend this book because it depicts a quite rare event -- a cat being outsmarted by a mouse. However, I've decided to be the bigger feline and admit that human kittens may find this tale entertaining whether they should or not.

Black Cat BLACK CAT by Christopher Myers (Scholastic, 1999). Black is cool and hot, grand and bad, a city dweller with attitude in a slick urban terrain. Bold, magnificient graphics. A 2000 Coretta Scott King Honor Book for Illustration. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.

BOOKSTORE CAT by Cindy Wheeler (Random House, 1994). This is a Random House Step Into Reading Book for children in preschool through grade one. Mulligan, a perfectly competent bookstore cat, has his premises well under control until facing adversity of a fashion most fowl. Young readers will enjoy the humor, even though it may be a bit at Mulligan's expense.

CAT HEAVEN by Cynthia Rylant (Blue Sky, 1997). This book comforts me.

CAT PARADE by Bethany Roberts, illustrated by Diane Greenseid (Clarion, 1996). This story shows how one nefarious mouse can utterly disrupt a fine, feline cultural event.

CAT UP A TREE by John and Ann Hassett (Houghton Mifflin, 1998). A hilarious book about forty cats and their good friend, Nana Quimby, who tries to find help to get them out of a tree. I cannot say enough good about this book, which helps me learn to count by fives (without using my claws), and has a utterly sublime ending.

Cat, What Is That?CAT, WHAT IS THAT? by Tony Johnston, paintings by Wendell Minor (HarperCollins, 2001). A lyrical, poetic celebrations of all things cat. A great read-aloud for very young children, an excellent study example for writing a successful rhyming picture book.

CAT, YOU BETTER COME HOME by Garrison Keillor with paintings by Steve Johnson and Lou Fancher (Viking, 1995). Puff runs away to find fame and fortune only to realize the joys of his everyday life. Rocking good fun.

THE DOG WHO HAD KITTENS by Polly M. Robertus, illustrated by Janet Stevens (Holiday House, 1991). Basset hound Baxter cares for Eloise's kittens and then wins her friendship.

Dona Flor: A Tall Tale About A Giant Woman with a Great Big Heart by Pat MoraDONA FLOR: A TALL TALE ABOUT A GIANT WOMAN WITH A GREAT BIG HEART by Pat Mora, illustrated by Raul Colon (Knopf, 2005). In this heartwarming and humorous original tall tale, Doña Flor is a giant woman living in a tiny southwestern village. She shows great kindness to her neighbors, especially children, and loves to read. One day, an enormous roar echoes, frightening all those Doña Flor loves. Whatever will she do? And who’s doing all that roaring? Ages 4-up. More on this title from Cynsations.

THE GOOD LUCK CAT by Joy Harjo, illustrated by Paul Lee (Harcourt, 2000). Aunt Shelly says that Woogie is a good luck cat. As he survives one scrape after another, her analysis seems to be right on target. But one day when he doesn't come home, we wonder if this good luck cat's ninth life has run out. This is a delightful look at the friendship between a cat and a young girl. And it's -- yahoo! -- a children's picture book with Indian characters wherein Native culture isn't the main focus. Of course, it's wonderful to have children read accurate, respectful books that touch on Indian themes; however, they should be balanced with charming stories like this one that depict daily life.

Grandma's CatGRANDMA'S CAT by Helen Ketteman, illustrated by Marsha Winborn (Houghton Mifflin, 1996). A story for pre-schoolers about how a deserving girl befriends a cat. I WALK AT NIGHT by Lois Duncan with paintings by Steve Johnson and Lou Fancher (Viking, 2000). A housecat slinks into the night in this lyrical picture book with exquisite illustrations. A marvellous study on the nature of cats, both cuddly and fierce.

I am TamaI AM TAMA, LUCKY CAT: A JAPANESE LEGEND by Wendy Henrichs, illustrated by Yoshiko Jaeggi (Peachtree, 2011). Long ago, in Japan [Did I mention that my Greg person's ancestors originated in Japan?] or so the story goes, there lived a poor but devout holy man who was barely keeping his temple together.  Tama appeared, raising his paw in the traditional Japanese come-to-me greeting.  [Some cats are known to do this. I do not]. The cat adopted the holy man and stayed at the temple.  One day, during a thunderstorm, Tama greeted a rich samurai feudal lord who was taking refuge under a tree outside the temple grounds.  [I make no comment on whether it was a good idea for Tama to have been outdoors during a thunderstorm.] The samurai approached the cat an instant before the tree was struck by lightning. [See?] In gratitude, the samurai lord bestowed lavish gifts, became a friend to the monk, and restored the temple to prosperity. [Is it true?  I don't know, but you can buy Maneki Neko figurines just about anywhere these days.]  In any case, I AM TAMA is a lovely story, freshly told, with very nice lush illustrations. 

A KITTEN'S YEAR by Nancy Raines Day, illustrated by Anne Mortimer (HarperCollins, 2000). Gorgeous gray tabby kitten discovers pouncing, napping, hiding, and every month of that first year. For all you readers, who like to look at beautifully realistic art and say, "Awwww . . . ."

THE LOYAL CAT by Lensey Namioka and illustrated by Aki Sogabe (Browndeer, 1995). Recognized with a Golden Kite Award by the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators. As owner of a children's writer, trust me that this is a significant award. It should go to more cat books.

MOUSE PAINT by Ellen Stoll Walsh (Harcourt, 1989). Some kittens may think it's about three mice who experiment with colors using paint. Really, it is the story of a cat who is lulling his rodent adversaries into overconfidence by pretending to sleep.

MRS. MERRIWETHER'S MUSICAL CAT by Carol Purdy, illustrated by Petra Mathers (Putnam, 1994). A cat named Beethoven helps Mrs. Merriwether and her students with their piano playing.

ONE DARK NIGHT by Hazel Hutchins, illustrated by Susan Kathleen Hartung (Viking, 2001). A warm and suspenseful tale about a Mama Cat and her kittens on the night of a big storm. The text is simple and poetic. A purrrfect story for bedtime whether you're furry or not.

PADDIWAK AND COZY by Berlie Doherty, illustrated by Alison Bartlett (Dial, 1989). Paddiwak is a very proper tuxedo cat whose life is turned upside down by the arrival of crazy cat Cozy. Will these two different personalities ever learn to get along?

PARIS CAT by Leslie Baker (Little Brown, 1999). Alice chases a mouse into the streets of Paris and suddenly finds herself far from her human Annie. At first the lovely city captivates Alice as she explores various places, including the Louvre and is confronted with pesky dogs. But after a near tumble into the Seine, it's time to find Annie again. Where could she be? The book is a good choice for French kittens (whose humans won't be lured abroad) and has pretty watercolor paintings. Ages 4-up. (This Baker human also has an out-of-print book called THE ANTIQUE STORE CAT that you may want to check out of your library or special order).

Puss in BootsPUSS IN BOOTS by Charles Perrault, translated by Malcolm Arthur, and illustrated by Fred Marcellino (Square Fish). The story concerns the third son of a recently-deceased miller who is at first disappointed that his share of the inheritance is the eponymous cat. Indeed, the miller's son at first wants to eat the cat and make a muff out of his fur. Hiss. The son, however, is wise enough to listen to Puss and buys him a pair of boots. Through the ingenuity of Puss, the miller's son eventually comes to marry a princess and inherit a vast estate. There are also ogres and much feasting and other hijinks. Enjoy.  And, remember, cats are not to be trifled with.

TABBY: A STORY IN PICTURES by Aliki (HarperCollins, 1995). I must confess a certain bias here. This book does feature a tabby, and I am, after all, a tiger cat (often misnamed "tabby").

WHAT DO AUTHORS DO? by Eileen Christelow (Clarion, 1995). Max, the hero, works with a children's book author-illustrator. Of course, the book also happens to be the story of an author and Max’s author-illustrator and their paths to finished books. I seem to recall that a dog named Rufus is involved. But be sure to pay extra close attention to Max. The cat is the thing.

WHEN CATS DREAM by Dav Pilky (Orchard, 1992). This book lets readers peak into the crazy and amazing world of dreaming cats.

WHERE IS THAT CAT? by Carol Greene, illustrated by Loretta Krupinski (Hyperion, 1999). Miss Perkins invites Fitz in from the cold and then puts an ad in the newspaper so someone will adopt him. Each time an interested party arrives though, Fitz seems to disappear (or does he? young readers will love hunting for Fitz in the illustrations). Not to worry though. Fitz knows where to find his home.

Windows with BirdsWINDOWS WITH BIRDS by Karen Ritz (Boyds Mills, 2010). The poignant tale of a cat who is uprooted from his charming home and moved by his people to a high-rise apartment. Understandably overcome by the trauma, the cat hides in the closet and in the box springs, causing inadvertent distress to his small human. Eventually, though, the cat comes to realize that things are not as bad as he initially thought. An altogether exquisite and sweet picture book experience.

Won TonWON TON: A CAT TALE TOLD IN HAIKU by Lee Wardlaw, illustrated by Eugene Yelchin (Henry Holt, 2011). WON TON is the story of the eponymous cat -- a Burmese, I believe -- who meets his boy in a shelter. He goes to his new home and, at first and understandably, investigates the underneath of the bed and is unwilling to partake of the victuals. Nevertheless, in the end, he decides that, perhaps, the boy is worth keeping, although he is not a fan of the name the boy insists on bestowing upon him. Note: I will confess that I, myself, discovered my people at a shelter in Chicago. WON TON elegantly captures the experience, with just the right amount of feline insouciance (and I congratulate Won Ton for his mastery of haiku -- human rhyming metrical schemes are somewhat difficult for both Felis and Panthera, although the latter would never admit it.). The drawings are handsome and expressive and nicely evoke Won Ton's stoic appraisals of, and reactions to, his circumstances.

YES, VIRGINIA THERE IS A SANTA CLAUS by Cyndy Szekeres (Scholastic, 1997). As you probably already know this is a retelling of that true life moment when a lovely young kitty named Virginia O'Hanlon asked a major New York newspaper about St. Nick. It's cute, it's sweet, and it's Christmas-y.

These books are reviewed from Sebastain's point of view. Another cat or a human might have a different take on them.

THE CAT WHO LOVED MOZART by Patricia Austin, illustrated by Henri Sorenson (Holiday House, 2001). This picture book illustrates in words and oil paint the slow growing affection between a prickly one-time stray named Amadeus and a young girl named Jennifer as well as the a prickly relationship between Jennifer and her playing the works of Mozart. I like this book because, like me, Amadeus was named after a great composor. Also, I was a prickly one-time stray once myself. Ages 4-up.

GINGER by Charlotte Voake (Candlewick, 1997). Ginger has been deprived of the company of a kitten! She's a poor only cat. But, alas, when her human brings in a bouncy, bouncy, bouncy kitten, Ginger feels pushed out of her regular haunts and actually *leaves the house* (never leave your house, kittens!) Luckily, her human brings Ginger back. But now it looks like Ginger and the kitten will never get along. So the kitten sets in with a solution. The moral is: little kittens are the smartest. Ages 3-up.

TOP CAT by Lois Ehlert (Harcourt, 1998). Top Cat can spout quite a rhyme but doesn't appreciate the company of the new kitten. Eventually, Top Cat wears of starting up his attacks and teaches the kitten the feline ropes. The moral is: don't mess with your alpha cat. Ages 4-up.

THE GRANNYMAN by Judith Byron Schachner (Dutton, 1999). Poor old Simon's family has taken good care of him, but he's beginning to feel less useful these days. He wonders if his ninth life is up, and then here comes a... kitten! Ages 4-up.