Wednesday, April 8, 2020

Book Review: The Cat Who Went to Heaven by Elizabeth Coatsworth (1930)

When his housekeeper brings home a cat, a long-ago Japanese artist is unimpressed. To his mind, cats are goblins and devils who may kill human beings in their sleep! When he realizes she is a three-color cat, however, he sees that Good Fortune, as she is named, may bring him good luck. As the housekeeper observes the cat's influence on the household, the artist works on a commissioned painting of Buddha for the local temple, adding one at a time each animal that paid homage to Buddha during his life. Only the cat is missing from the piece, as the cat was too proud to worship Buddha - but perhaps the artist might be able to redeem this stubborn animal and help her get to heaven after all.

This novella-length Newbery-medal-winning tale is an engaging way to introduce young readers to the work of an artist, to the life of Buddha, and to the legends associated with Buddha and various animals.  Though I typically have reservations about books suggesting that animals go to heaven, it didn't bother me as much in this context, since the idea is presented within the belief system of Buddhism, and in a format that reads very much like a folktale.

My favorite aspects of the book are the housekeeper's "songs" at the start of each chapter, which are short poems sharing her insights into the artist's relationship with Good Fortune and his progress on his painting, and the artwork itself, created by Lynd Ward. I love the contrast between the orange ink drawings depicting the artist himself and the colorful paintings depicting each animal the artist adds to his canvas. Both the "songs" and the art add dimensions to the main text that give the book a lot more weight than its slim 63 pages might appear to carry.

I imagine this book is a big hit with cat lovers, but even I, a non-animal person, was able to see the value in it. The writing is very precise and engaging, with no extra words or superfluous descriptions, and the structure of the story feels very satisfying all the way to the end. I haven't read this book with my kids just yet, but I look forward to experiencing it again with them to see how they react to it.

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