Cats that go out to dance at night. I know I’ve seen this trope done before, but it’s hard to remember where. I suppose The Alley Cat’s Meow by Kathi Appelt is the best example. Still, considering how graceful and lithe cats tend to be, you’d think it would be a more common occurrence in your average picture book fare. As it stands I think that Cats’ Night Out by Caroline Stutson is a rare and wonderful little book, and not just because it involves fancy dance felines. This book has moves. It pops and snaps and works in not just a couple of kitties tripping the light fantastic but also a storyline that counts by twos. Add in an illustrator that, hands down, has created my favorite cat-related images of 2010, and you’ve got yourself one of heckuva fancy feast.
“From the alley, music drifts. / Shadows sway to a trumpet riff.” Light dims as a sun sinks low between two buildings. Into this twilight “Two cats samba, dressed in white, / on the rooftop Saturday night.” Then it’s four cats doing the boogie, six cats tango, and eight cats look simply marvelous tapping in their pink tuxedos and canvas spats. These terpsichorean tabbies continue to multiply by twos until finally, when “Twenty conga left and right / in splashy florals, plaids, and stripes,” the neighbors canst stands it no more! Trying to get some sleep they tell the cats to shut down the dancing, which they do… until the sun sets the next night. Then, “Two cats waltz by neon light / in black half-masks on Sunday night.”
I know that if you’re a children’s librarian like myself then your children’s room has counting books galore. Oh, the counting books! Can’t take a sharp stick and hit a shelf without stabbing a counting book in the process (which I don’t recommend). Now how about picture books that count by twos? Not exactly common, wouldn’t you agree? Maybe it’s a stretch to say that this book could teach kids their multiplication tables, but at the very least it fills a gap in our collections.
All that aside, Caroline Stutson’s rhymes and wordplay alone are delightful. First off, she had to come up with a list of dances that would look good on a page. She went with samba, boogie, tango, tap, line dance, twist, fox-trot, rumba, polka, conga, and waltz. Excellent choices one and all. Next, she had to make them rhyme, scan, and read in an amusing fashion. So the repeated line, “In the city, / windows light. / How many cats / will dance tonight?” sets the pace. On the fun side, we get to hear about how the rumba cats are “twitching silk bottoms through the park” while the tap cats, “tip bowler hats in pink tuxedos, canvas spats.” It all begs for some kinda illustrator…
… enter Jon Klassen. Sporting clientele as varied as the Coraline movie to U2 to the 2010 Winter Olympics, Klassen’s an animator by trade. A lot of animators try to cross over into picture books, with varied results. If I’m gonna be frank with you, not many of them fully commit to it. They figure a picture book can’t be that different from a storyboard whipped off for an animated sequence, so they’ll do the minimum amount of work and leave it at that. I don’t get that feeling from Klassen here. First off, the man draws a mean cat. Not “mean” as in “nasty” but “mean” as in “slick”. These little digitless guys are all rounded limbs and triangular ears and mouths. Only once in this book are they ever seen walking on all fours. For the most part they’re sashaying to the beat of their own particular drums. These cats are totally in the zone. Their eyes only open when the sleep-deprived humans give them how to and what for. The artistic style is evocative as well. These cats dance in a kind of city of the past. All clothes lines strung between apartments and sky-high diner signs. Klassen even works in little hidden number in each dance spread. Kids will then have a chance to try and spot the numbers that lurks over, under, and near the capering cats. I found eighteen to be particularly difficult.
Klassen renders this book digitally, giving the city a gritty feel that I haven’t really noticed in a picture book to this extent since the days of Ezra Jack Keats. Keats wasn’t afraid to really glorify a city’s graffiti and rust. There is no graffiti in this mod little number, but there is a kind of layer of sweet city smog that covers everything. Buildings get lost in a haze of a dying day. Klassen’s use of light is also particularly nice. I love the way the sky moves from lighter to darker shades of gray as the night progresses. I adore that shock of greenish light that comes from fox-trotting beneath a plethora of electric bulbs. And then there are the cats themselves. They’ve such energy and personality for critters so small and simple. I love how one will thrust out its hips while dancing the twist while another might wear kitty-sized lederhosen. And cats doing the Elvis guitar strum arm move? Nothing but awwww.
I suppose that you could probably raise some concerns about the depiction of the individual dances. Can you really dance a polka holding hands in a line? Do tangos actually include some of the moves we’re seeing here? Sometimes you find yourself wishing the cats weren’t so rigidly tied to the shape of their little bodies, but I don’t think anyone can argue that any dance is actually all that wrong. Cats will be cats, after all.
So let’s count `em down here. You’ve got yourself a book that has an artistry to it, both in terms of the wordplay and the pictures themselves. The book has hidden elements that will keep a lot of kids engaged. It rhymes beautifully, it scans like a dream, and it counts by twos, which is rare. All in all, I think you’ve got yourself a pretty good book. Hand it on over to fans of dance, fans of cats, fans of dancing cats, and fans of cattish dancing. Nobody puts these kitties in a corner.
On shelves now.
Source: Final copy sent from publisher for review.
Other Blog Reviews: Jean Little Library
- Browse inside the book here, if you like.
- And you can visit Mr. Klassen at his website here. It appears that he has been signed by Candlewick Press for a picture book called The House Held Up By Trees to be published in Feb 2012. Well played, Jon.