Back in February it was in all the news. Publishers Weekly proclaimed loud and long, Children’s Imprint from McSweeney’s to Launch in May. For some this didn’t seem a huge surprise. McSweeney’s had unofficially been publishing books like The Clock Without a Face, The Latke Who Couldn’t Stop Screaming, and Noisy Outlaws, Unfriendly Blobs, and Some Other Things for years. They’d just never gone so far as to make an imprint out of it all. Add on their commitment to 826 National and their decision feels like a foregone conclusion more than anything else. The result: McMullens.
For the initial release McMullens is putting out three new picture books and one reprint. And for me, it’s the reprint I find the most interesting. Here Comes the Cat was published by Scholastic in 1989. Read the publication page and you’ll see that it calls itself ‘the first-ever Soviet/American picture-book collaboration”. Oh so? A quickie search on Worldcat and I see that at least 902 libraries have that old edition, so this may not be an obscure reprinting.
In this book the words are printed both in English and in Russian. A single mouse travels through the countryside with a message: “Here comes the cat!” He moves along by balloon, by foot, and even by fish. When he reaches a city the mouse residents pick up the cry and start repeating it on their own. When at last the shadow of the cat falls upon them, however, they see that rather than bring death and destruction he is instead towing a great wheel of cheese. Our parting shot is of the mouse that spread the news, traveling away on the back of the cat he preceded.
In the back of the book both Vladimir Vagin and Frank Asch offer comments on the book, and McMullens has cleverly included their comments from both 1989 and 2011. In the 1989 section Asch explains how they met at a Soviet/American children’s book symposium in 1986. Vagin then mentions how this collaboration “is the first book in the world designed by an American and painted by a Russian.” I wonder at that, and must assume that he means a Russian who was living in Russia at the time. Of course since the publication of this book Vagin moved to America and ended up illustrating books by authors like Katherine Paterson (The King’s Equal, The Wide-Awake Princess), Jane Yolen (The Firebird, The Flying Witch), and such. Asch who began his career with the world’s weirdest children’s title (seriously, if you haven’t read 1971’s The Blue Balloon then you are missing out) has been making picture books steadily ever since. Titles like Happy Birthday, Moon are probably his best known, though I harbor a great deal of affection for his more peculiar books like Mrs. Marlowe’s Mice.
The book has been described as a “parable about the Cold War”. Generally speaking, Cold War picture book parables aren’t quite this vague. The Butter Battle Book by Dr. Seuss, for example, was many things but subtle it was not. Perhaps the most light to be shed upon the story comes from Vagin himself when he says to, “Turn the pages of our book and read about the big cat that came to a mouse settlement, and how it turned out that there was absolutely nothing to be frightened about.” This is said in the context of Asch and Vagin’s friendship and collaboration. It is also a reflection of how fear of the unknown other can lead to misunderstandings. Of course, one might point out that mice generally speaking have a pretty legitimate reason to fear cats. But then, the name of the book and the cry isn’t “Beware of the cat” but rather “Here comes the cat”.
The art is all Vagin, and it’s an interesting style. I noticed with some interest the cover change. Here’s the original jacket which, as you can see, appears to begin the story earlier than in this new reprinted version:
Vagin’s characters seem distinctly Russian, once you know that the book was created by an illustrator trained overseas. I was fond of the colors and the style, but found some of the editorial choices a bit odd. For example, for most of this book we stick close to the red-shirted mouse in the balloon. Yet for one peculiar two-page spread that focus suddenly shifts. After the balloon mouse has shouted down to a bicycle mouse we get an image of the bicycle mouse warning some of the countryfolk. I wondered at the point of this. For those not paying proper attention, it appears that the balloon mouse has suddenly switched shirts and is now on a different mode of transport. But then the story cuts back to the balloon mouse and all is forgotten. I suppose Asch and Vagin are trying to show that word of mouth is spreading, even before the mouse gets to the city and tells the people there. There may be a deeper meaning to the fact that both country and city mice get the same message. Hmm.
Out of curiosity I wanted to see what the professional reviewers said about the book back in the day. Fortunately for us, Kirkus has opened up all their back reviews. Back in 1989 they were not opposed to it by any means, though calling it a “laudable venture” can be taken any number of ways. Overall I liked the book, though it did end the review by saying, “A pleasant way to reiterate an important message, even though the literal-minded reader may point out that wise mice are cautious about even the most harmless-seeming cats.” That thought had occurred to myself as well.
PW said of the book at the time, “Vagin’s colorful, humorous illustrations include delightful details, but also several misspellings that should have been taken care of in the editing process. Nevertheless, this book turns the universal ‘cat vs. mouse’ theme pleasantly upside down.” We’ll assume that those misspellings were corrected this time around (though I would certainly be the last to know).
It’s a unique book, and I suspect that though our relations with Russia are entirely different at this moment in time, the tale may have something to say to kids even now. They will, however, need an adult on hand to help them parse the message.
Back on shelves June 7th.