Thursday, October 23, 2008

Halloween Cats

Halloween is probably my family's favorite holiday. I love having an excuse to share Halloween picture books with the kids (although sometimes we read them at other times of the year, just because). For the rest of the month, I'm going to feature some of the books we've read as we prepare for trick-or-treating. Today I'm focusing on four picture books that involve cats. We have two cats of our own, and my kids adore cats whether they're real, stuffed, animated or drawn. So these books pressed a couple of different buttons with my little ones.

Pumpkin Cat by Ann Turner, illustrated by Amy June Bates, really is a Halloween story only because events take place during that time of year. This sweet, non-scary picture book follows a stray cat that takes refuge in a library's outdoor book return box. Two kindly librarians find the cat and decide to give her a home in the library, naming her "Pumpkin Cat" because Halloween is approaching. Pumpkin Cat enjoys the library, especially the chance to interact with the children present during the day, but finds the evenings a bit lonely as she explores the empty building. Eventually someone leaves another stray kitten in a basket on the library steps (the librarians have publicly sealed their reputations as suckers for such strays, after all), and Pumpkin Cat has a young companion to show around the library and look out for. The story ends as Pumpkin Cat curls up beside the new arrival at night and realizes that the library finally feels like a real home. Having a companion to share her affection and knowledge with was the piece that had been missing. This is a sweet story of friendship brought to life by Bates's warm watercolors, complete with round cuddly cats. (I've written a more complete review of this on Epinions, if you're interested.)

Excuse Me... Are You a Witch? by Emily Horn tells the story of another stray cat who finds companionship at the local library. Herbert is a little black cat who lives alone on the streets. On cold days, he spends time inside the warm library, reading books. When he discovers a book about witches, he learns that witches love black cats. He reasons that if he can find a witch, maybe he wouldn't have to be cold and lonely anymore. However, he mistakes non-witches for witches repeatedly based on some of the other characteristics listed in the book about witches, such as wearing striped socks, stirring cauldrons, and carrying brooms. Disheartened, he returns to the library, and happens to run into a group of young witches visiting the library with their teacher. The girls all love Herbert, so the teacher offers for Herbert to become their witch-school cat, and Herbert flies away with his new friends. Pawel Pawlak's cartoon-like drawings add charm to this cute story about finding your place in the world. This isn't a very exciting story, but my own very young children found it interesting and thought Herbert's search was amusing.

The ABC's of Halloween is written and illustrated by Patricia Reeder Eubank. I enjoy reading alphabet books with my beginning readers, and when I picked this up at the bookstore last October, it seemed like something they would enjoy. Both of my kids do enjoy this book a lot, particularly because of Eubank's richly detailed, colorful drawings. Be forewarned, however, that in some places the rhyming text gets a little goofy and may grate on your nerves as you read the book multiple times with your little ones. For example, the rhyme for "U" is "U is for umpteen, unseen unicorns undulating far across centuries of time." Honestly. I promise you that most of the book is better than that, but there are a few of those moments where the writing can only be described as quirky. What's the cat connection, you're wondering? The story begins by showing two cats reading an ABC book. "When Halloween comes near/Two black cats read and peer/At the ABCs of treats and fun/That make Halloween loved/by everyone." The cats are featured in all the illustrations, and fall asleep at the end of the book. Besides a few odd choices for wording, there is a recipe inserted in the middle of the text which interrupts the flow when you're reading aloud (under "X" for "X is for noodle x's floating in soup tasting just right."). Even so, my kids love this book because the pictures are so much fun to explore. Be on the look out for a little mouse dressed like a witch that appears in many of the illustrations and the endpapers. (Again, I have a more complete review of this book posted on Epinions.)

Finally, my kids and I recently discovered Hoodwinked, written and illustrated by Arthur Howard (not to be confused with the animated twist on the story of Little Red Riding Hood released a few years ago). This is a really cute story of a little witch named Mitzi who wants a pet, but is determined to have a really creepy pet--anything else just wouldn't be very witch-like, would it? She visits Cackle & Co., the local pet store for witches, and at first takes home a toad, but he is boring. He only eats flies all the time and doesn't participate in her favorite pastimes. So she returns the toad and gets a pair of bats (my daughter loved their names--Toothache and Earwax). The bats only hang out with themselves (literally), however, and don't give her any attention. A third trip to the pet store has the blue-toothed witch proprietor offering her a warthog, but this doesn't appeal to Mitzi. Back at home, a kitten appears at the door one evening. It's revoltingly cute, but feeling sorry for it, Mitzi allows it to come in out of the cold for just one night. The cat goes along with Mitzi when she hunts for ghosts, watches the creature feature with her, and listens to her secrets (she's afraid of the dark). Cute or not, the kitten seems like a great companion, just like a good pet should be. Mitzi keeps the cat and names it Hoodwink. This is a funny story and the illustrations have cute little details to watch for (like the name on Mitzi's cereal box). Mitzi is a recognizable child, with set ideas about exactly what she wants that turn out to be a bit misguided. Also, the lesson of learning not to judge a book by its cover is presented in a non-preachy way (though ironically, I picked up this book at the library completely based on the charm of its cover). This story has become a real favorite at my house.

If you know of other Halloween picture books focusing on cats, I'd love to hear about them in the "comments" section.

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