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Review of the Day: A Cat Story by Ursula Murray Husted

A Cat Story
By Ursula Murray Husted
Quill Tree Books (an imprint of Harper Collins)
$22.99
ISBN: 97800-06-293205-1
Ages 9-12
On shelves October 6th

You ever encounter a comic so pretty that it feels like a dare? Like picture books, comics are an infinite juggling act between the eye and the ear. Or maybe I should say between the eye and the brain. On the one hand you have the art of the book. Some of the best comics I’ve ever read in my life have been drawn with an extremely limited hand. They get away with it because the writing’s so good. Then there is the story. Honestly, you could be holding the most gorgeously rendered art imaginable, but if it’s a book for kids then the pretty pictures just come off as a kind of amusing experiment. No more. No less. Adult comics can afford to be esoteric. Comics for kids… well, we just have the raise the bar a little higher there. There’s no room in the children’s book world for authors and illustrators to indulge only themselves. That isn’t to say a comic creator can’t go ludicrously complex with the art, of course. As long as the story can support the extravagance, I say go wild. And were this an official challenge, I’d say that artist Ursula Murray Husted took me up on it. Her debut middle grade graphic novel A Cat Story is a lush, sprawling, ultimately very sweet story of two cats and their search for a home of their own. It is simultaneously the grandest and quietest storytelling I have witnessed in a very long time.

Cilla may be a very young cat, but that doesn’t mean she doesn’t know exactly what she wants. What could be better than a place with a bed, fresh food, and that’s safe and warm? Betto isn’t much older, but he’s the more world weary of the two. Thus, when Cilla tells him that she would like to find the legendary “quiet garden” from those old kitten stories, he recognizes instantly that he’s along for the ride. Their search for this happy home will take them into cathedrals, onto boats and buses, into storms and oceans, and finally to the place they both belong. Peppering the story are famous works of art, gracing the story as the cats dodge and weave in and out of landscapes, portraits, and sculptures.

Here is the sum total of all the facts I knew about Malta prior to reading this book: Malta is a place. Follow up point: There is a place called Malta. Highly informed world traveler I am not. Malta, for those of you playing at home, is (according to Wikipedia) “an archipelago in the central Mediterranean between Sicily and the North African coast.” Years ago Ursula Husted and her family took a trip to the nation with her family. There, Husted spent hours, “sketching the stray cats that lived on the docks and sunned themselves on the UNESCO World Heritage sites as thought they owned the place.” Of course a part of her stayed with those cats, and followed them into their own private worlds, ultimately producing a whole book about their lives. Considering that the trip took place in 2004, it’s always so interesting to me to watch how long it takes an idea to percolate into a full-blown book. Let us hope that the next book for kids by Ms. Husted cuts that time in half (at least!).

A question: Do you have to be a cat lover to appreciate this book? It is difficult, as the owner of cats myself, to answer this question fairly Am I biased in their favor because I look at their furry little faces every day? We do not lack for cats in graphic novels for kids, but have you every noticed that the bulk of them aren’t… well… very catlike? Binky the Spacecat and CatStronauts on the one hand and Petey from Dogman and Lupin Leaps In on the other, the cats you find in comics seem more comfortable in shirts and ties than mewing for milk. Part of what makes A Cat Story work as well as it does is that Husted manages to deftly adapt the curvy, sinuous lines of a cat’s spine to the comic format. Did you see how the simple flick of a tail can persuade the reader’s eye to travel from one panel to another? Look at how the tails on those speech balloons twist and turn as marvelously as a cat’s. On top of that, these cats may talk amongst themselves, but you never have the sense that Husted is projecting human concerns and ideas onto a feline form. Cilla wants a nice home. Betto is happy with the streets. The end result is that the cats’ form and the cats’ intentions ring true. If you were to hand any comic to an adamantly cat-loving kid, this would be the one you’d give.

Of course, the most intriguing and strange element to the book involves its artistic salutes. In her “Art Notes” at the end of the book, Husted talks about the art that is included in this book. “The art chosen for this book is not connected by a specific time period, geographical location, or style, but instead through the story told by the art in sequence.” She then proceeds to give credit to each homage included on these pages. After I pored through the Notes, trying desperately to find a connecting thread, I had to eventually concede that there is not underlying rhyme or reason to the inclusions. They are simply the artistic works that fit the moment, depending on where the cats may find themselves. The end result is that you’ll find pieces replicated in the book that are as varied as M.C. Escher and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, or 15th century Persian tilework and a scene in the Bayeux Tapestry where a comet makes an appearance. This is a book that keeps its verbal storytelling simple and its visual storytelling resplendent.

I don’t think you can define a single type of kid reader that loves comics. They come at them from a multitude of different angles, each with their own passions and interests. And with all the schlock that’s out there, finding the comics that are the best of the best, the cream of the crop, is a special passion of mine. I want only the best comics for the kids that enter my library. And now, with A Cat Story, I have yet another book worthy of them. If children deserve only “the rarest kind of best” (hat tip to Walter de la Mare) then certainly Ursula Husted’s book applies. Gorgeously wrought and tenderly rendered, this feels like a labor of love that will snuggle itself deep into the hearts and minds of kids everywhere. Regardless of whether or not you even like cats, you will find much to admire and love (not necessarily in that order) in this gutsy little book.

Purrrrrr….

On shelves October 6th.

Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.

Misc: Find the book’s previous iteration as The Lions of Valletta on a Kickstarter here. If you watch the video you’ll be able to see Ms. Husted at work, painting her cats.

UPDATE: Ms. Husted was kind enough to offer a clarification to me about the art and it was just so good I wanted to share it with all of you here. It explains why certain art choices were made throughout the story (and makes me respect the book even more):

“Alaya’s story has art referencing flowers, vanitas, and memory; Paolo has visceral joy and misinterpreted discoveries; Radegunde has water, circular journeys and obscured focal points; and Dolce has unanswerable questions, heuristics, and kindness. C&B have art that interprets what they’ve learned from each teacher through their own viewpoints- breaking apart and combining as they tell their story together.”

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About Elizabeth Bird

Elizabeth Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.