Wednesday, August 22, 2007

The Cat Who Went to Heaven (1931)

The most interesting thing about this slender book might be its author. Born in 1893, Elizabeth Coatsworth's family loved to travel, so she had the opportunity to venture through Europe and Egypt extensively before the age of 18. In her early 20s, she went on an 18-month journey through Asia on her own. Her travels inspired much of her writing. Of the 90 children's books that she wrote (between her 30s and her 80s), The Cat Who Went to Heaven, which won the Newbery in 1931, is apparently one of the few that remains in print.

Written in the style of a Japanese folk tale, the only character in the book with a proper name is a cat called Good Fortune. Adopted by the housekeeper of an impoverished artist, the cat's presence in their home begins to, of course, change their fortune. As they sacrifice to feed the cat as a member of the family, the artist wins a commission to paint a group of animals receiving the Buddha's blessing for a temple. The conundrum is that house cats are considered unlucky, even malicious, creatures. So the artist must wrestle with either creating a painting of animals without a cat (when it seems to him that the cat has saved his life), or including a cat in the painting, thus risking being ostracized.

This is an interesting take on Buddhist teaching, but a very Western one, if you know anything about the religion. A quick 74 pages with several illustrations and a few poems, it's possible to read aloud and might be preferable to kids that way because some of the antiquated and high-handed language the characters use. The morals just sound too much like morals, and many contemporary writers are much better at being clever and discreet.

4 comments:

Linda Martin said...

I read this book out loud to my two youngest children when they were 9 and 10, and they both loved the book. They seemed to like it a lot more than I did!

TZT said...

It definitely has that slightly preachy quality that can make you nod off periodically while reading it.

Alicia said...

Our teacher read this to me when I was in fourth grade and I loved it. I think it made me cry (and I'm rarely moved to tears).

It was with this relish that I picked it up to read to my son last year. It was a very different experience, for the reasons you mention: preachy, wooden...

We never finished it.

Anonymous said...

this is a great book! very interesting! i read it for a newberry medal awrad, book project, i could have chosen a different book, but i chose this one! not that it "looked" interesting, but once i got into it, it was really good! just goes to show, u cant "judge a book by its cover" haha