Thursday, September 29, 2011

Cats and No Cats

I first came across There Are Cats in This Book in a review from a three year old copy of Family Fun magazine (November 2008).  The review called the book “mischievious” and a “real crowd-pleaser”.  I put it on hold, primarily because it didn’t seem familiar to me, and after many years in a library setting, most titles or authors do.  Then, before I’d even had the first book delivered to me, I saw an announcement in my Children’s Book of the Month Club catalog for a related title, There Are No Cats in this Book.  Talk about serendipity!  I waited until the second book was ordered at my library and then put that on hold too.
In There Are Cats in This Book, as soon as you open the book, you are informed by the narrator/author “The cats aren’t on this page.”  They aren’t on the second page either, but you learn the cats’ names – Moonpie, Tiny and Andre.  It’s on the third page where you really begin interacting with the three cats.  Readers see a fuzzy die-cut blanket, which they can peel back to see the three cats, sleepily blinking up at them.  Schwarz has embued these cats with the most humorous of cat personality traits.  The cats wax on about yarn, cardboard boxes, pillows and fish.  And through it all, they rely on the reader’s help.  The cats instruct the readers (“Can you dry us too?  Just blow on the page…”), harangue the readers (“Turn the page! Turn the page!”) and love the readers, with lots of purring.  And the narrator/author closes the book out in the same manner in which she began – “Did you like the cats?  I think they really liked you.”.
In There Are No Cats in This Book, readers familiar with the first title will recognize the cats on the front cover, peeping through cut-out eyeholes.  In this title, the three cats are on their way to see the world.  So they are leaving the book (and the readers) behind.  But their attempts to leave the book on their own (including a fold-out of the cats leaping fruitlessly towards the reader) are futile.  It’s only when the cats again ask for the reader’s help that they are successful.  Schwarz uses the same affectionate humor in this plot – these cats are lovable, but not especially bright – but some new techniques.  This keeps the story fresh and enjoyable,  but still connected to the first title.  In fact, when you pick up the second book, you feel like these cats are your old friends.
Schwarz uses a combination of brush and ink illustration with collage in both titles, along with the die-cut and fold-out elements.  The collaged items are things that are real, like the fish in the first book.  The cats dive into an ocean full of fish, and revel in these brightly colored, realistic fish.  This adds an exotic touch to the cats’ world.  I think it helps draw readers’ eyes to other things on the page besides the cats.  The use of die-cut pages and dimensional cut-outs in both of the titles is well-used.  Even though the first book is three years old, the die-cuts still look fresh and sturdy.  These elements help readers move through the story.
One of the most remarkable things about these book is how Schwarz uses the cats to encourage interactivity.  Their beguiling tones, their friendly faces, and their direct questions to the reader got my girls to interact with these stories in a way I have never seen previously.  Frances and Gloria were fighting each time we read to do what the cats asked.  They wanted to be the first one to peel off the blanket or turn the page when the cats instructed them to do so.  Frances and Gloria are ordinarily passive listeners – if a question is asked in a book, I have to prompt them to answer.  But these books were different – from the first reading, their magic got the girls to answer, loudly and immediately.  Schwarz’s book satisfied and engaged them.  I think these would be terrific read-alouds at storytimes, and I am only sorry I didn’t know about these while I was doing storytimes for crowds.

There Are Cats in This Book.  Viviane Schwarz.  Candlewick, 2008.
There Are No Cats in This Book.  Viviane Schwarz.  Candlewick, 2010.

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