When we are old and gray and the stars gleam a little less brightly in the wide firmament above our heads, I have no doubt that there will STILL be children’s librarians out there debating the merits (or lack thereof) of picture books designed with older child readers in mind. To bring this subject up is akin to throwing a lit match on diesel soaked tinder, but what the heck. You see, walk into any decent library and you’ll find a picture book section teaming with fantastic 32-48 page titles that simply do not circulate. And why? Because of the standard belief, sometimes by children, sometimes by adults, that when you reach a certain age you “outgrow” picture books. As if they were a pair of shoes liable to give you blisters if you kept them around too long. This is, naturally, bupkis. Picture books are appropriate for all ages, really (and if you don’t believe me why don’t I just introduce you to a little number I know called The Woolvs in the Sitee). So the fact that a book like Michael Hall’s Cat Tale exists pleases on both the 6-year-old level as well as the 10-year-old level should surprise few. Wielding homonyms like weapons, Hall brings his artistic sensibilities (to say nothing of his love of controlled chaos) to the wordplay realm and the end result is that everyone’s a winner for it.
Meet Lillian, Tilly and William J. Three little cats that are out for a day. In rhyming verse we watch as at first their adventures are small. “They pack some books and kitty chews. They chose a spot. They spot some ewes.” As the book continues they cats become more adventuresome. “They train a duck to duck a shoe. They shoo a truly naughty gnu.” Yet the words begin to get tangled and the cats are in a state. Should they use a rock to squash a berry or use a squash to bury a rock or (after a pause) use their paws to rock a squashberry? Finally everything gets too crazy and the cats find their way out thanks to their tails/tales.
Like many people, when I think of homonyms in works of children’s literature my mind instantly leaps to good old Amelia Bedelia. She continues to reign as the homonym queen to this day. After all, without them she wouldn’t get confused in the slightest. Hall could have done a storyline very much like Amelia’s. The cats could have just wandered about and gotten confused about the difference between boarding a plane and getting to plane a board. Ho and also hum. Instead, Hall takes a risk. He actually connects the sentences and uses his illustrations to make seemingly disparate phrases relate to one another. Now the text reads, “They flee a steer. They steer a plane. They plane a board. They board a train.” All this makes sense in the book since we see the progression from place to place. Note too that just to ratchet up the challenge a little, Hall is making this book rhyme on top of everything else. That’s sort of explained on the title page (Hall wastes no time) where it reads, “From word to word they find their way, Lillian, Tilly, and William J.” Interesting that Hall went with “Lillian” rather than “Lily” since “Lily and Tilly and William J.” has its own nice rhythm. There’s no denying how satisfying it is to begin with a Lillian and end with a William, though. Even if they don’t rhyme precisely.
When Hall wrote his previous book The Perfect Square there was wit on display but it seemed to be mostly of the visual variety. Cat Tale doles out the wit a little more on the verbal end of the spectrum, but there’s no denying that the art is also just great. As with the aforementioned Perfect Square Hall’s art consists of acrylic painted textures and paper cutouts that were combined digitally. Not that you can tell where the computer came in or how it was used. The colors in this book don’t have that faux clip-art coloring so often found in slapdash computer art. Instead it looks like Hall took out his sponge and his brightest hues and created something truly lovely. From the vibrant orange of the train to the deep and satisfying blue of the steer, there’s a method to Hall’s madness. A beautiful sumptuous method.
There is admittedly one moment in the book where I got seriously confused, so I wonder how it’ll fly with the pre-adolescent set. To be fair, that’s sort of the whole point of the spread. As the cats go along the homonyms gets crazier and crazier until there’s a virtual explosion of cats, steer, gnus, ducks, cars, shoes, ewes, you name it. The trouble is that I couldn’t make the mental leap from that image to the next one involving the cats’ tails. I know it makes sense on a practical level, but I felt like the transition was a bit too rough. Something a bit slower, a bit more staid, could have suited the storyline a little better.
I know a librarian who uses older picture books for her 2-3rd grade parent/child bookclub. It’s as good a solution as any I know to get those book circulating, that’s for sure. Of course, my dearest hope is that teachers discover this book as well. With the rise of interest in the Core Curriculum, folks need to remember that teaching homonyms doesn’t have to be rote and dull as dishwater. It can involve naughty gnus and rocked squashberries! A visual feast and too clever by half, Hall’s latest begs to be read aloud and pored over. A little book that deserves all the attention it can receive. Teachers, parents, librarians, and booksellers, take note.
On shelves August 28th.
Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.
Like This? Then Try:
- Amelia Bedelia by Peggy Parish
- Dear Deer by Gene Barretta
- Aunt Ant Leaves Through the Leaves by Nancy Coffelt
- Did You Say Pears? by Arlene Alda
Other Blog Reviews:
- Browse inside the book here.