The secret to author popularity lies in building a faithful fan base. If you’ve written/illustrated something particularly good in the past then odds are that if you continue to create high-quality books you will garner a lot of fans in the process. Now John Himmelman is an interesting case. At first he does all these nature-based books with titles like Pill Bug’s Life and Discovering Moths. That’s nice and all, but then one year he suddenly breaks out of the nature-based mold and creates something wholly new and original. If you have not read Chickens to the Rescue then you are missing out. A madcap free-for-all involving chickens, football helmets, and renegade ducks, it was with this particular book that I fell head over heels in love with Himmelman’s style. Now he has a new picture book out that combines the sheer frenzy of Chickens with a truly believable and touching storyline. Katie Loves the Kittens is a very interesting look at how unrestrained passion can turn out to be more harmful than helpful, particularly when it comes to kittens.
When Katie the dog sees that her mistress Sara Ann has brought home three kittens it is without a doubt, “the most exciting day in Katie’s whole life!” The problem with Katie is that she’s a bit of a howler. She just takes one gander at the little kittens and she can’t help but howl and chase them in her glee. Funny thing about kittens though. They’re not much for the whole howling/chasing bit. Sara Ann reprimands Katie for her behavior but really it’s not entirely her fault. All she wants is to make the kittens happy, yet every time she gets excited kittens go flying and Katie goes to her dog pillow, deeply sad. The final straw comes when Katie discovers that she has accidentally eaten the kittens’ food. In misery she climbs into her bed with the intent of staying there all day. Yet when she wakes up, who should be on top of her asleep but the kittens themselves! Exhibiting restraint she has never known before, Katie prevents herself from howling and chasing and, at last, she and the kittens are friends.
No twist ending here. The book is a seemingly simple story, and yet when I wrack my brain I can’t think of any picture book that has done this story (with dogs and cats) before. It’s kind of a play on tales like Duncan and Dolores by Barbara Samuels or Come Here, Cat by Joan Nodset where a child loves a feline too much and has to learn restraint in order to gain its love and trust. Using a dog as a kind of kid surrogate is even better, though. Dogs are notorious for needing constant supervision and training for behavior. The fact that Katie’s chaos is caused out of love just gives the book the extra added kick it needs.
Maybe it’s the three-year-old in me, but there is nothing finer in this world that watching characters explode off a page over, under, around, and through. Tumbling, tossing, flying, it’s all wonderful. One of the things I loved about Chickens to the Rescue was how well Himmelman was able to convey flying-chicken pandemonium, with some of the fowls upside down and backwards in the midst of their feathered helpfulness. Though the art in this book seems less precise than that found in something like Chickens, Katie’s appearance implies that she is based on a real-life counterpart. There’s something particularly familiar about her movements, attitude, and full-fledged love. She’s even better when she’s depressed. As she becomes sadder and sadder, about the point she’s hiding under her doggie pillow with only her nose poking out, you know that resolution cannot be far off. And I love how she wags so quickly that it looks more like a tail under a strobe light than an actual wagging appendage at times. In the earlier moments of the book when she simply cannot get it under control, the shaking of the tale extends through Katie’s whole body, causing her to shiver and shake with barely restrained excitement. Anyone who has ever seen a dog on the verge of running and pouncing will recognize the look.
It’s a pretty simple book, but I get a lot of young kids in my library who just want “doggy” or “kitty” books. This story fulfills both needs and happens to be cute as a bug’s ear to boot. Cat lovers and dog lovers unite. It looks as if we’ve finally found a title to meet your mutual needs. Controlled chaos has never been so cute.
- Mr. Himmelman has a rather nice blog of his own worth seeing.
- And an interview with John Himmelman is available on Cheryl Rainfield’s blog.