There are few things nicer than catching a glimpse of an upcoming children’s book title and bursting into laughter at the cover. A nice laugh, of course. I don’t suppose that many people thought that Sharon Creech’s Love That Dog had a particular need for a sequel. It was a perfectly nice book but a succinct and, in many ways, self-contained verse novel. A slim little book, ideal for those reluctant readers who need to read a book for class but don’t want anything “too long” (oh, insidious phrase). It also happens to be one of the few verse novels out there that justifies the format, rather than just appearing as a series of randomly broken up sentences. Now Creech has followed up that acclaimed bit of verse with Hate That Cat, a logical extension to the previous title. In the first book Jack dealt with the death of his dog with the help of poetry. In the second, we learn more about his family and about some felines that challenge his resolve.
When last we saw Jack he had learned to love the poet Walter Dean Myers and to accept that his dead dog was gone. Now it’s an entirely new school year and Surprise! Miss Stretchberry is unexpectedly his teacher again. Of course, she’s not too pleased with the series of anti-cat poems he’s been writing lately. Lately a fat black cat has been terrorizing Jack at his bus stop and he is in a full-on anti-feline mode as a result. But there may be some surprises for Jack coming up. Miss Stretchberry is introducing him to concepts like onomatopoeia and synonyms. Though his Uncle Bill (a college prof) is pooh-poohing what constitutes a "real" poem, Jack is able to use his poetry to discuss everything from his mother’s deafness to an unexpected Christmas present and an even more unexpected friend.
The novel works, in large part, because it resolves unresolved issues from the first title. By the end of Love That Dog, Jack sort of came to terms with his deceased friend. What’s more, he became a fan of poetry. But he never really got to the point where he’d want another pet. His fear is palpable, particularly when he writes "even if you had a nice cat / that you loved / it might run outside / and into the street / and get / squished / by a car / going fast / with many miles to go / before it sleeps." Now his teacher and his parents conspire to get him another pet and, what’s more, one that’s as unlike his old one as possible. That would normally be a recipe for ootsy cutesy-ness, but Creech is cleverer than that. For one thing, the evil black cat that enjoys scratching and hissing at Jack whenever it has a chance to do so, is mildly redeemed by the story’s end, but in a grudging kind of way. I liked that. It was easier than ending the book with everything sunshine and roses.
The poetry selection in this book is just as lovely as it was in its predecessor. There’s a nice bit of Poe, some William Carlos Williams, T.S. Eliot, Valerie Worth, Christopher Myers, and others. And this time I remembered to keep flipping back and forth between the story and the poems in the back of the book as I read. Not everyone’s going to know to do that, you know. Footnotes that mention that you can find the poems Jack’s discussing at the title’s end would have been distracting, certainly, but I still think they could have been interwoven into the text. When a class reads this book together, the teacher is able to tell them to read the back of the book. But when a kid is reading it on his or her own, they won’t know until it’s almost too late. Fortunately Jack’s just a great kid to read about. You can’t help but love his ever hopeful “Is he alive?” or “Is she alive?” queries to the long long dead poets he regularly encounters (little wonder he’s such a Walter Dean Myers fan).
My co-worker started to read this book and then eventually had to stop. “I think I need to reread the first book,” she admitted, which sounds pretty ridiculous when you consider how slim these stories are. But after a while I could see why she’d say that. When I read the part of the book that said that Jack’s mother was deaf, I couldn’t remember if that had been mentioned in Love That Dog and if it was important or not. The initial introduction is almost a throwaway line ("My mother likes my short lines. She runs her fingers down them and then taps her lips once, twice."). After a while, though, Creech works this new story into the whole kerschmozzle and it pans out very well.
It is admittedly a bit convenient that Miss Stretchberry would just happen to be teaching a new grade and that that grade would just happen to have Jack in it again. But then it’s not as if that sort of thing doesn’t happen from time to time. And though I do not think that there is any way Ms. Creech can continue Jack’s story any further (sequel ideas: Mind That Turtle? Tolerate That Budgie?) she has done a very good job at justifying his further adventures. For fans of the original book, Hate That Cat is going to simply provide more of what they want. And for those who’ve never read "Love That Dog" it will still resonate as a great book of sounds, inflections, images, and just plain n’ simple fun words. A great little book.
On shelves September 23rd.
FYI, today is Poetry Friday! Rumor has it that Sarah Reinhard has the round-up.
Notes on the Cover: You know, the cover of the ARC is orange, which I thought was fine. But it wasn’t until I saw the final red cover that I really enjoyed it. I worry a little that William Steig’s magnificently pissed-off puss is going to get lost in all that red. Particularly since it was that very cat that made me chortle when I took the book out of its envelope.
Other Blog Reviews: Sarah Miller, Reading, Writing, Musing