Monday 12 April 2010

Cats In Books (or boxes)

As I honoured Polly the puppy, a few weeks ago, with her ‘own’ post about dogs in books, I thought I should extend the same honour to my long-suffering cats, currently and none-too-patiently ‘training’ Polly that YOU DO NOT CHASE CATS.

Cats appear much more frequently than dogs in modern children’s literature.  I don’t know why this should be, but it is so.  I’ll be discussing some of the more recent offerings later on in this piece, but let’s start with some oldies.

While Beatrix Potter wrote no books in which the main character is a dog, she wrote two entirely dedicated to the adventures of Tom Kitten – in the first, he is uncomfortably dressed up in that frilly blue suit and bursts all his buttons.  In the second, ‘The Tale of Samuel Whiskers’, we memorably learn ‘how very unwise it is to go up a chimney in a very old house, where a person does not know his way, and where there are enormous rats.’   
It’s a dark and exciting story which I loved as a child – and later lived in a similar house, in Yorkshire, where one of our cats did exactly the same thing.  She went up the chimney and got lost in the flues.  She emerged on the roof at one point (we heard her wailing) but it wasn’t till twenty-four hours later than she landed with a thump and a cloud of soot in my brother’s bedroom fireplace (no fire lit) at two o’clock in the morning.  She was a black and white cat, the white parts normally snowy clean, but at that moment she was solidly black.

Anyway, cats in books.  Does anyone else remember Barbara Sleigh’s ‘The Kingdom of Carbonel’?  I just lapped up this series as a child.  I don’t remember too much about them now, except that the roofs of the houses became, at night, a magical kingdom where Rosemary’s black cat Carbonel ruled and roamed.  And then there was Ursula Moray Williams’ ‘Gobbolino the Witch’s Cat’: the story of a magical kitten who just wants to be an ordinary kitchen  cat – despite the blue sparks that crackle from his fur.  And – a writer now unaccountably neglected – Nicholas Stuart Gray’s magnificent cat narrator Tomlyn – outwardly cynical yet soft-hearted – in his retelling of the Rapunzel story, ‘The Stone Cage’.

Another series I adored had no magic in it at all.  I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who has read them, and they are long out of print, but Freda Hurt wrote a series of several excellent novels for seven to ten year olds about the effortlessly calm, collected and frighteningly brainy Mr Twink – a black cat with Siamese ancestry, who is the Sherlock Holmes of his little village, while his best friend the bluff retriever Sergeant Boffer takes on the role of Dr Watson.   
(The author had a good understanding of the sort of friendship that can develop between and cat and a dog!) Between them, Twink and Boffer cope with any number of crises, from stolen bones (of the doggy variety), to kidnapped kittens, hysterical hens, and Red Tooth the (ratty) pirate.  These were detailed, well observed, lovingly written and often very funny books – with a great cast of other village and farmyard animals too, including another memorable cat, the one-eyed Irish rascal Cap’n Jake. 

But the classic cat book of the 20th century has to be Paul Gallico’s tear-jerking, tender, beautifully observed ‘Jennie’ – the story of a little boy called Peter who runs into the road, is hit by a car, and somehow is transformed into a cat.  Terrified and lonely, he’s adopted by gallant little Jennie, a small and immensely lovable waif of a tabby cat, who teaches him how to behave like a real cat.  (I love the description of the ‘leg-of mutton’ position where she’s trying to teach him how to wash!) As gradually Peter grows and learns, he becomes Jennie’s much needed protector – which makes it all the more of a wrench when he turns back into a boy…

Unlike dogs, there still seem to be plenty of cats prowling the pages of children’s fiction.  Is it that the child-and-dog combination is less observable in contemporary life, and therefore isn't reflected in books, while cats have always been independent, operating in fiction without the need for a human side-kick?  The modern tendency is to celebrate this independence by imagining a rich, even epic existence for fictional cats.  No cosy village settings and domestic interiors; not even many witch’s cats – am I wrong? – but rainy cityscapes with adventurous felines slinking along wall-tops on desperate errands.  Cats as mystics, cats as outlaws, cats as heroes, like SF Said’s ‘Varjak Paw’, Erin Hunter’s ‘Warrior Cats’ – and Inbali Iserles’ splendid ‘The Tygrine Cat’, published by Walker, which  I read recently and thoroughly enjoyed.  Like Paul Gallico, Iserles has a sharp and loving eye for the body language of cats:

Pressed down low to the ground, the soft fur of his belly almost stroking the tarmac, Mati slunk under people’s legs to investigate the market place. 

Mati is the Tygrine Cat, a young ‘catling’ and exiled prince of a cat kingdom in far away Egypt, and Iserles constructs a convincing mythology for him.  I love also the touches of cat ‘language’: cats call dogs ‘oolfs’, for instance, and humans are ‘hinds’ – an ever-so-slightly derogatory word for creatures wholly owned by cats, of course.  And the cats have a dream or spirit world called Fiåney, through which messages and forces of good and evil may travel.  But with all this, the actual world of the cats is a carefully imagined city marketplace, Cressida Lock – with its stalls, warehouses, trees and buildings.  Here it is from unhappy Mati’s cat’s eye view:

Although scarcely aware of the cold, Mati shivered.  Blinded by the rain, he lurched over the tarmac, ran into a puddle, backed up, stumbled, kept going.   For an instant, the market-place was illuminated by lightning. In that moment everything was white: market stalls, the boarded-up church, the rising pools of rainwater.

It’s a lovely, imaginative book with a sequel on the way.   

Another children's writer with an affinity for cats is Nick Green, whose book ‘The Cat Kin’ (and its sequel ‘Cats Paw’) takes the reader's identification with a cat hero to another level, and asks: What if a child could have a cat’s powers?   How cool would it be, to be able to jump ten times your own height, see in the dark, tread silently, be almost invisible?  What if you had a very unusual martial arts teacher who could show you how, via a forgotten ancient Egyptian skill called ‘pashki’?  What a wonderful advantage your new powers would give you, if you had to combat a bunch of evil vivisectionists experimenting on animals in a nearby factory!

Here is Tiffany, chasing Ben through the treetops:

A tree bearing bobbly green fruits fanned its branches like the spokes of an umbrella.  She bounded from spoke to spoke, catapulting herself off the last branch.  In a blink she was inside a cathedral of a horse-chestnut, emerald light glimmering through leafy windows… Up she dashed through the rafters as if ascending a spiral staircase, leaping out through a portal in the leaves.

These are two brilliantly exciting books, the first originally published by Faber, but about to be reissued by Strident.

Unlike dogs, who appear in books to support humans, cats are lone heroes.  A child will identify with the fictional child who owns a dog – and long for that companionship herself.   But a child who reads a book about a cat will identify with the cat, and be out there stalking the rooftops, fighting the fights.  Cats are adventurous yet cuddly, epic yet domestic.  They seem so cool, so aloof, yet they purr so contentedly when sitting on your lap.  Maybe Rudyard Kipling summed it up best in his story of 'The Cat WhoWalked By Himself' - the cat who manages to negotiate his place at the fire, attention from the Woman, and scraps from the meal, without ever having to compromise his treasured independence:

I am the cat who walks by himself, and all places are alike to me.


  1. I'm also a huge fan of esther averill's Jenny Linsky cat club books (the school for cats, pickles the fire cat, etc). And Diana Wynne Jones writes cats better than anyone I know (though I don't know many of the authors you've mentioned here - I will have to check them out). Jones has a couple of wonderful cat-narrated short stories in her collection Unexpected Magic.

  2. Lovely post, Kath! I remember Carbonel, so well, and adored The Cat Who Walked By Himself. As for Nick Green's The Cat Kin, I thought it was terrific - so exciting and original, and I'm looking forward to seeing it published again by Strident. You're right, I think we identify with a cat, but with a dog's owner (mostly). Horses? Maybe more half and half? The Black Stallion or Black Beauty?

  3. Just the word Gobbolino makes me tingle, that book was so much a part of my childhood! My favourite cat and dog in contemporary children's fiction are Mogget and the Disreputable Dog in the Sabriel/Lireal/Abhorsen books by Garth Nix. I'll definitely look out for the other contemporary books you've mentioned, they look great!

  4. "I am the cat who walks by himself, and all places are alike to me."
    One of the best lines ever and completely captures the cat in cats.
    Another lovely post with lots of books for me to hunt down (and pin between my paws).

  5. Lovely post. We've just enjoyed Gobbolino with our daughter. Cats make such good independent characters. There are some distinguished dogs in Beatrix Potter though: The Tale of Ginger and Pickles has a dog as one of the main characters (Pickels is a terrier), and the Tale of Samuel Whiskers has Tom rescued by another terrier, the delightfully named John Joiner. Dogs, led by farm collie Kep, also rescue silly Jemima Puddleduck. So they are there, though not as well known, I admit.

  6. I had a book called Princess and Minerva that I loved - Princess was a pampered pet who got separated from her family, Minerva was streetwise and looked after her. I have also recently discovered Ursula le Guin's catwing books - I think the first one was published in 89, so a few years too late for me as a child reader, but my daughter likes them. I loved Gobbolino, and Carbonel.

    Another contemporary cat book is Forest, by Sonya Hartnett.

    On the dog topic I remember a collection of books I borrowed from the library about a dog called Emma who was training to be a seeing eye dog. I think they were memoirs of the owner written from the dog's point of view - they were in the non-fiction section, and it was my introduction to the fact that many narrative works were hiding in the non-fiction shelves. And there's that recentish adult book The Art of Racing in the Rain, isn't that from a dog's perspective?

  7. So enjoyed this post! when my children were small they loved 'My cat likes to hide in boxes' by Eve Sutton and I'm sure they could both still recite most of it at the ages of 21 & 19. I have a soft spot for Julia Jarman's Time Travelling Cat personally although I wouldn't let my own moggie Cleo hear me admit to that ;0)

  8. This comment has been removed by the author.

  9. I removed the last comment to edit it a bit, not because it contained anything nasty.I loved the picture of the cat in a box. We have a lovely picture of our dog Bramble, when she was a pup, asleep with her head in one of my pixie boots in the late '80s.

    Mog falls down the chimney too, at Christmas time, a story my small grandson loves. I do have a black cat in the novel I'm currently writing, not sufficiently integrated yet, I fear. More work required. I also have a lovely illustrated book by Gerard Hoffnung, called The Isle of Cats, which is worth it, probably, mostly for the illustrations. But I look forward to reading that to Max when he's older.

  10. Bev, we loved 'My cat likes to hide in boxes', too - that's partly why I posted the picture of 'Dido' at the top here!

    Juxtabook, you're right about the Potter dogs I'd forgotten - not major characters, but I do like 'John Joiner'.

    Penni, I don't know 'the Art of Racing in the Rain' - must look it up!

  11. I'd never thought of it before, but you're right, books about cats are often told from the cat's perspective. There are plenty of books about dogs—my favorites when I was a kid were the Albert Payson Terhune books, and the Jack London books—but they don't get inside the dog's head the way the cat books get inside of the cat's head.

    I wonder if that's because dogs are more like our siblings. Dogs are transparent. We know them too well. But a cat? Who really knows a cat? They're more like a mysterious aunt who lives an exotic and unknowable life; we can only imagine what she's thinking.

  12. Ah, the Jack London books deserve a piece to themselves. Maybe I'll write one in a week or two!

  13. When I was about 10 I remember reading a book called "Catseye" - maybe by Andre Norton? - it was about cats and telepathy and I thought it was brilliant at the time.

    Nick's book sounds great! Will look out for the reprint...

  14. Funny you should mention that book. I've always really loved it - super-creepy, too! Well worth tracking down for a re-read.

  15. I love cats, too, though now only have a dog. I loved the Paul Gallico story - must have read it dozens of times and I'd forgotten it, so thank you. Also really liked Varjak Paw and I have the Tygrine Cat on my pile! Looking forward to it a lot, because I really enjoyed Inbali's later book, The Bloodstone Bird, which is not about cats at all...

  16. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.