A substitute teacher came up to my reference desk seeking, “Fun haiku books” to turn into lesson plans with their kids. That’s the sort of open-ended question that can render your brain blank for a moment or two. Suddenly every haiku book for kids you’ve ever encountered flees from your brain. You’re left gaping like a fish, desperately scanning your poetry shelves for one, just ONE, haiku book that will help. Then, if you’re really in trouble, you start thinking of books that are so new to your library system that it’s no good to remember them anyway. For instance, the last time this happened I found myself thinking of Won Ton: A Cat Tale Told in Haiku. A spirited little story that couldn’t be simpler, the first person narrative of a feline in a new home is told entirely in haikus. With plenty of things to love for poetry and cat lovers alike, Won Ton takes an old form and renders it furry.
Split into little unnumbered chapters (“The Shelter”, “The Choosing”, etc.) we hear the tale of a cat named Won Ton (though that’s not his “real” name, mind). A shelter kitty, Won Ton is adopted by a nice boy and goes off to start a new life. For a cat there are plenty of things to explore and figure out. There’s the couch that makes for an excellent scratching post and the moths that make for “a dusty snack”. In the end, Won Ton makes it clear that he’s not his boy’s cat. The boy is his boy. And finally, “ ‘Good night, Won Ton,’ you / whisper. Boy it’s time you knew: / My name is Haiku.”
It’s interesting that right off the bat the Author’s Note makes it clear that the book isn’t told in haiku at all but rather senryu. Actually, I’m being facetious. Senryu, which focuses on “the foibles of human nature – or in this case, cat nature” appears to have been developed from haiku itself. This would make it an ideal book for classroom study, then. We hear about kids that have to write their own haikus all the time. How many have to write senryus, eh?
I liked that in the Dedication we learn that the author has cats named Mai Tai, Papaya, and Koloa. Won Ton isn’t all that kooky a name in comparison. As for the haikus themselves, they’re definitely less evocative and more driven by a deep and abiding knowledge of cat personalities. The repeated joke throughout the book are the haikus that go, “Letmeoutletme / outletmeoutletmeout. / Wait – let me back in!” These occur periodically throughout the book. Of course, I wondered how well this kind of poetry would read aloud. Often Wardlaw has to break apart a line mid-sentence with varying degrees of success. Some poems don’t require the continuous flow of a sentence from one line to another. Others get a bit confusing when the lines aren’t next to one another. In one long line, “Naptime! Begone, oh / fancy pad. I prefer these / socks. They smell of you” looks fine. Broken up it’s a little hard to read. For the most part, though, everything is fairly smooth.
Eugene Yelchin is the illustrator paired with Ms. Wardlaw for this book and he’s an artist I’ve not seen much of before. Yelchin for this book has taken graphite and gouache to watercolor paper to create these images. His style is an elongated series of stretched lines, something akin to an artist like Jules Feiffer, though Yelchin reigns himself in a bit more. I particularly enjoyed his backgrounds. When Won Ton is in the shelter the background switches from plain white to gray or gray-blue or gray-pink. Then when the family returns home with their new cat, the artist takes a moment to render a landscape heavily influenced by older Japanese prints of mountainous backgrounds. Inside the home the colors brighten. Yellows and oranges and maybe a light blue. Patterned carpets and backyard scenes allow for more tips of the hat to Japanese prints, but not so much you’re taken out of the reading. Yelchin’s humans pretty much stay out of the picture, seen only in body parts until the boy’s face appears at the end as a kind of reward. As for Won Ton himself, the artist has clearly studied cats, and how much you take to it may depend on how much of a cat person you are. Yelchin’s hero is almost all outline. The shading is done well enough, but when you think back on the art, it’s the black outlines that remain in your mind. That seems to be the style that’s primarily at work here.
When we think of famous poetical kitties the first thing that tends to come to mind is Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats by T.S. Eliot. Actually, this book pairs pretty well with Old Possum, particularly when it comes to the naming of cats. Won Ton isn’t particularly fond of his human-bestowed name, and little wonder since he has a name of his own already. Much like the Jellicle Cats of Eliot’s world, this cat is the master of his moniker. The book also brought to mind one of my favorite feline poetry titles A Curious Collection of Cats by Betsy Franco. Some of Won Ton’s habits here are replicated perfectly in Ms. Franco’s book. The two would read well together, I should think. As it stands, of course, Won Ton has no difficulty standing on its own. A cheery ode to a boy and his cat, this is one of the books to grab the next time someone asks you for “fun haiku”. Or really, any poetry in general.
On shelves February 15th.
Source: Final copy sent from publisher for review.
Professional Reviews: A star from Kirkus.
Interviews: Wild Geese Guides
- Check out Lee Wardlaw’s site for cool cat links as well as a list of her favorite feline-related books for kids.