I say to you, “Cats and poetry.” Now stop! Don’t think! What’s the first thing that just popped into your head? I would bet that a fair amount of you thought of T.S. Eliot and his improbable impossible felines (a certain generation of you could probably sing such poems as songs too). I suppose that this is an unfair reaction when you consider all the other cool cat-related sestinas, haikus, and limericks that exist out there. Surely the time has come for a book of cat-related poems that upsets the status quo in some fashion, yes? I’m talking about a title that would not only create a wide variety of poems and poetic styles, but also one so visually stimulating you could feel more than a mite inclined to rip the pages from the book and frame them on your walls. Which I’m not advocating, obviously, but the instinct is there. Now I like Tricycle Press. It’s a small imprint from the relatively small Ten Speed Press of Berkeley, California. And it is always a supreme pleasure to be able to give a little love and attention to a small publisher. Particularly when they go above and beyond the call of duty by pairing an established poet (Ms. Betsy Franco) with an extraordinary up-and-coming illustrator (Mr. Michael Wertz). I do not normally tout poetry books for children with any regularity, but I do know a good thing when I see it. This book is a good thing.
Thirty-two poems cover every aspect of all things cat. From their tendency to attack feet from within paper bags to their dislike of leashes to their less than brave encounters with the native squirrel population, Franco endeavors to cover this cat related topic by using a variety of different poetic techniques. Complementing her efforts is debut illustrator Michael Wertz who captures perfectly not only the feline physique and manner, but also its attitude, quirks, and personality. Set against a colorful background constructed out of monoprints and Adobe Photoshop, this is one poetry book destined for every library collection.
I appreciate that the poems are more than just your average aw-ain’t-cats-cute selection. I mean, there are some nasty cats in the world, and Ms. Franco has taken care to display some of the species’ less than sterling qualities. The poem “that cat peed on my hat” sort of speaks for itself. Ditto “a tomcat’s yard is his kingdom”. What Franco does so well is to pinpoint the true nature of cat ownership, finding stories and situations to tell that might not otherwise come up in your rote poetry book. There are poems here about the spider webs that collect between a cat’s ears when it crawls beneath the house. There are poems about the animal’s tendency to know exactly when to walk across a keyboard, or the irresistible lure of a pile of folded laundry. One of my favorite poems was about a dainty cat with six toes per foot, much like a cat I used to own when I was a kid. To my mind, Franco really has a keen sense of how to make a poem interesting and like nothing you’ve ever encountered in a children’s poetry book before.
As for the poems themselves, I’m a fan. None of them are particularly long and some, like “cat underneath a blanket”, are only one sentence long. “Whenever strangers or guests are here, Suki isn’t anywhere near.” I was particularly taken with “Rascal’s Tongue”, though. In the picture, Michael Wertz has turned the poem into the cat’s own tongue, reaching down to say, “If you’ve ever attempted to lick your neck clean / I think you’ll understand what I mean / When I say my cat’s tongue is especially long / Go ahead. Lick your neck. Prove me wrong.” Ms. Franco’s poems always have something fresh and new to say about cat ownership and would make for excellent reading aloud. Not that their layout wouldn’t make that last aspect a bit more of a challenge than you might expect, though.
Betsy Franco has, what we call in the business, good illustrator karma. Your average children’s poet does not always have a lot of say over who they get paired with for a given book. They could end up with someone good. They could end up with someone bad. And they could end up, like Ms. Franco, with consistently magnificent illustrators. When she covered the realm of flighted fowl in Birdsongs, Ms. Franco ended up with the infinitely desirable artist Steve Jenkins. And now that her poetic sites have turned a bit more feline, she is paired now with a first-timer. A Mr. Michael Wertz, if you will. The crazy thing about Wertz is the fact that this even is his debut. When I say the word “debut” it usually conjures up images of good-hearted but slightly flawed works of art. Of someone just finding their legs, ready to wow the world with the next book. Wertz sort of skipped that whole aspect of debuting, because when you look at the illustrations here they exude a kind of old-established-fabulous-illustrator feeling. They are an amazing combination of good design, kid-friendly kitties, remarkable colors, and impressive p.o.v.
Let’s talk typography. Let’s talk fonts too, while we’re at it. Words don’t lay on these pages like listless slugs. No, they dance, curve, leap, and twist. If a cat is a creature prone to impossible flexibility then Wertz has taken it upon himself to replicate that with Franco’s words. For example, when you read the poem “princess” you see a cat turning back and forth in just the pattern one might find in a kitty swishing between an owner’s legs. But to read it you must follow the cat. First the words go down, then backwards they proceed up, then down again, then up again. Or look at “a tomcat’s yard is his kingdom” where the page has been split into two sides. To read this poem you are required to make the leap across a distinct line, between two angry, protective cats. And later during the fight of “Lenny vs. Patch” the words circle the fight, broken at times by sharp black exclamation points, giving weight to the mangling going on there. The fact that Franco’s words rhyme, scan, and work as well as they do is such a relief. After all, if I saw a book with pictures this impressive with subpar words, it would probably break my little heard.
You wouldn’t guess Mr. Wertz to be a dog owner from the way he portrays the average feline form. He seems to have at least studied cats, if not owned them outright. Ms. Franco, of course, currently lives with “two cat-muses” and so she has first-hand knowledge of that which she speaks. For the child that desperately wants a cat, the child who already has a cat, and the child who has never even seen a cat, this is a great book. Basically that’s just a long and complicated way of saying that this book is for everyone. As funny and frisky as a kitty itself, this is one book of poetry you are not going to want to miss. An amazing debut and an amazing collection. Everything you need to know, you’ll learn from these cats.
Notes on the Cover: I don’t usually comment on covers when it comes to picture book collections of poetry, but I find this one to be a tad misleading. There’s something rote and stark about this cover. I don’t mean to say that it’s bad. Certainly plenty of folks will be sufficiently intrigued by what they find here to open it up and look inside. But I don’t think this cover really gives you a sense of how impressive the interior illustrations are. Looking at this jacket you’re left with the impression that the pictures in this book will follow suit. Colorful cats on white backgrounds. I declare the era of the white background ala GAP commercials to be almost gone, though. So when you open the book and get hit in the face by the sheer breadth and depth of colors, shades, tones, and hues, it’s a shock. Which, come to think of it, may have been their intent all along. I still worry that someone might pass this book by if they merely looked at the jacket, though.
Other Blog Reviews: Roundtable Reviews for Kids
- Happy Poetry Friday, everybody! You can pop on over to Picture Book of the Day for the round-up.
- How cool is this? Michael Wertz has put all the art in this book on his Flickr page. Check it out to see what I meant about the book’s beauty.
- For that matter you can see some of them in his portfolio as well.
- There’s a piece on Ms. Franco in the Paly Voice that mentions this book.