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Big Cat, Little Cat

Julie’s post this week about Egg by Kevin Henkes took me back to my own Caldecott experience when Henkes won for Kitten’s First Full Moon.

Here is another book that, like Kitten’s First Full Moon, is mostly black-and-white and has minimal text. Like Henkes, Cooper’s no-frills drawing style uses deceptively simple thick black outlines. And — of course — there are cats. First a big white cat, then a young black kitten who learns from the older cat and grows up to be even bigger. We see their individual personalities and their closeness as they play, eat, and nap. When the older white cat dies, it is hard for the black cat and for the human family, seen only in silhouette. When a new white kitten arrives, we have come full circle.

Black-and-white illustrations stand out these days because full-color books are so much more common. I get annoyed when the only reason a picture book is black and white is to get attention and appear artsy. That’s not the case here. This is a story about pairs, told as simply as possible. What is simpler than black and white? I’m guessing some people will look for hidden racial meaning or allegory in this book, but in my opinion, they are barking up the wrong tree. (Remember Garth Williams’s Rabbits’ Wedding?) The best reason for the color choice becomes clear when Cooper highlights the yin and yang theme. Much of the book contains small vignettes of the cats scattered across a spread. We see that they are different from each other, but also complementary. To underscore the theme, Cooper stops the action three times with full-bleed spreads and a surprising yellow background. On each of these spreads we see two cats curled up together in a clear homage to the yin and yang symbol.

We’ve established that the real committee can’t discuss an illustrator’s previous books, but one thing I like about this blog is that we are not the real committee. One of the benefits of gaining a certain (ahem) age is that you get to see how an illustrator changes and matures.

I’ve been a fan of Elijah Cooper’s illustrations since his first children’s book in 1997 (Country Fair). His tiny gestural pencil sketches revealed close observation and an astonishing ability to depict motion. Every figure he drew had a specific individuality that brought it to life. His books didn’t have much plot, but they were perfect for those rare children who are quiet observers. When he started making larger books with bolder illustrations (Magic Thinks Big, 2004), I had the feeling he was leaving his comfort zone in search of a more mainstream audience. In 2010, Beaver Is Lost seemed like a turning point: Cooper went back to his original sketchy specificity but added a clearer plot.

I think Big Cat, Little Cat is another turning point. Instead of light pencil line drawings that indicate figures and movement, bold black ink lines achieve the same goals. Each variation in line thickness adds to our understanding of what a character is feeling or thinking. The angle of an ear or curve of a whisker gives us information about each cat’s state of mind.

Going beyond the flawless characterizations of the cats, Cooper’s pacing here is a thing of beauty. He varies the rhythm with multiple small vignettes on one spread, solitary figures surrounded by white space on another, and — perhaps my favorite spread of all — frenetic playing when “For five minutes each day they went wild.”

I could go on and on. I haven’t even mentioned the emotional roller coaster when the big cat dies, everyone grieves, and then — get out the hankies! — a new kitten is introduced. Oh, and the satisfying repetition in the text when the life cycle starts over, punctuated by almost the same illustrations, but with slight differences.

Oh, my goodness. Someone pass me a tissue. It’s time for you to talk while I compose myself.

Read the starred Horn Book Magazine review of Big Cat, Little Cat.

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Lolly Robinson About Lolly Robinson

Lolly Robinson is the creative director for The Horn Book, Inc. She has degrees in studio art and children's literature and teaches children's literature at Harvard University's Graduate School of Education. She has served on the Caldecott and Boston Globe-Horn Book Award committees and blogs for Calling Caldecott and Lolly's Classroom on this site.

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  1. I love this book! When it first came up online as a possible contender I read it quickly and was not blown away. But then I brought it in as part of my elementary school’s Mock Caldecott and reading it 10 times in a row really made me appreciate it more deeply. I know that former committee members have said it before, but reading a book over and over and over really does make a difference. You notice things that are suddenly hugely annoying or you sink deeper and deeper into the book.

    We did a pre-read walkthrough of the book cover/jacket/endpapers, and the kids really responded to the fact that the front cover shows a big white cat and little black cat, while the back cover shows the opposite. When we got to the end of the book hands were shooting up to talk about how that connected to the cover. When I talk to the kids about endpapers, we talk about whether they make sense, with the example of having a very sad book with bright yellow endpapers or a happy book with gray endpapers and why that wouldn’t fit the tone of the story. I asked one of the classes (and wish I’d asked them all) what they thought of these endpapers, and the consensus was that they were perfect because the blue and gray color scheme was “kind of sad” but the bubbles made it “more fun” and “mostly happy because the book is mostly happy but still kind of sad.”

    My favorite part is that when the big cat dies “it was hard” and the other cat is in a small circle of gray on an otherwise white double spread. We talked a lot in the classes about how being very sad can make you feel like you’re in gray bubble that nothing else touches. Then on the next page, the cat has turned and is looking at the family, and the entire page is gray – he is realizing that he’s not alone in his sadness. The gray is still there. Finding others has not made the sadness go away, but it is a shared sadness now.

    The one thing I did not like about the book is not an artistic choice. It’s that things were “hard. For everyone. UNTIL a new cat came” (emphasis mine). That frustrated me, because it almost seemed like they were replacing the old cat with no hesitation and that fixed all the sadness, which is not how grief works. But since that is textual, rather than art, is that something the committee would even talk about?

  2. Lolly, thanks for your post today. Big Cat, little cat is a title that I have encountered in various contexts over the past few weeks, but yours is the first review I’ve read. As a cat lover and longtime owner of two I’m looking forward to enjoying this book. Your remarks will definitely help me to appreciate the writing and art more when I do.

    I enjoyed your mention of the Egg post, Kitten’s First Full Moon, and The Rabbit’s Wedding. As a 71 year old, references to “the olden days” are in my comfort zone. I seem to need to ask more and more questions today in order to comprehend what others are saying. Once they told me age equaled wisdom, but now I’m not so sure!

    I also appreciate your paragraph “We’ve established that the real committee . . .” If I understand you correctly, you are saying that Calling Caldecott is a place where it is OK to talk beyond the confinements of the award criteria and this makes me feel comfortable about expressing my appreciation of Kevin Henkes’ work over a span of many years as I did in my Egg post.

    Henkes . . . Cooper . . . and dozens and dozens or others. How I love them all, and how I love this time of the year when I can read and learn what the experts have to say. You all enrich my understanding and appreciation so very much. THANK YOU!

  3. So well-articulated, Lolly. Three things I like in addition to what you said:

    I like the openness and looseness that the white space gives us. At least I want books about death and loss to breathe a bit.

    It’s remarkable how well Cooper captures the essence of a cat with something like five wriggly thick black lines.

    The death is handled delicately but not in a way patronizing to children. And that next spread is a moment of elegant economy – all that white space with the black cat on the far right of the spread. The fact that we see his back is somehow even sadder. And he’s encased, as Alys’s students noticed, in a sort of pale-brown watercolor bubble, the only one that appears in the book (though the endpapers mirror this with circles), as if he’s literally encased in his own grief — or, as Alys’s students said, you certainly feel as if you’re in your own bubble. Such tenderness that never manages to be cloying.

    And now I want to hang out with Alys’s students. I like their dustjacket and endpaper observations.

    I’ve never been on the Caldecott committee. I do wonder how much text/literary merit comes into play. (Maybe Lolly can answer.) I think it’s important. The criteria do state: “The committee is to make its decision primarily on the illustration, but other components of a book are to be considered especially when they make a book less effective as a children’s picture book. Such other components might include the written text, the overall design of the book, etc.”

    That said, that moment in the book didn’t happen to bother me as much. It does say “Until the day a new cat came.” …. “The day” could have been years later for all we know, right?

    Meow.

  4. Ayls, your comments give me suggestions on how to use this book with students and I appreciate them. t Thank you for raising concern about how the replacement cat was handled in Big Cat, little cat. My hunch is each committee member will have a personal and unique response to this whether it is discussed or not.

    Several experiences of grieving the death of pets have taught me to anticipate what I will probably feel each time this happens. For me, the awareness of that pain is often in my thoughts and motivates me to stay in the moment and value my present dog and cats every day. I have also been known to choose the name and what I would like the “next” dog or cat to look like years in advance of the actual need. I replace members of my “fur family” quickly . . . not to eliminate the present sorrow, but to maximize the joy I have in loving another dog or cat in my life. My pain is not eliminated, but new joy is felt along side of that pain. I know others who say they would never have another animal because the pain of loss is too great. Every person reacts differently. I hope others will share their thoughts on this aspect of Big Cat, little cat.

  5. Jules, your last paragraph says how the time element between the two pets was handled. Absolutely brilliant, I think. “Until the day” surely could mean years later.

  6. Again, Jules’s post appeared before I finished mine and I did not have Jules contribution when I posted.

  7. “I get annoyed when the only reason a picture book is black and white is to get attention and appear artsy. That’s not the case here.”

    I fully concur on both points. BIG CAT, LITTLE CAT is handsome, silhouette-laden monochrome minimalism applied to surprisingly powerful emotional effect. Mo Willems and Jon J. Muth collaborated back in 2010 on an equally resonant work about death and the cycle of life, “City Dog Country Frog” which that year was being seriously posed for Caldecott consideration at numerous sites. I dearly loved the earlier book, and I loved Elisha Cooper’s work just as much. My wife and I are long time cat owners, and we’ve gone through this sadness more times than I’d like to remember. That full page with the black outlines of the family quartet is quite moving, but the resurrection is close enough at hand. I’ve seen Cooper’s other books, and this one in its direct simplicity and stirring buoyancy is his finest yet, and so well deserving of inclusion here. I certainly do agree with Jules on the matter of space to best visually convey the theme, and with Lolly’s superlative discussion of bold line use, and of course uncanny pacing that will repeatedly hold children enraptured. The sublime cover with the peachy background and the polka-dot end papers and splendid as well. Great review on an extraordinary book.

    If there is a better and more potent example of less is more I’d like to hear about it.

  8. Lolly Robinson Lolly Robinson says:

    I’m so happy to see these comments mention even more noteworthy aspects of this book. The funny thing is, I liked it a lot when I first saw it, but as I read it over and over preparing to write this post, I truly fell in love. At one point the post was 3x longer than the final, which just seemed WRONG considering how economically this story is told!

    Alys, I’m glad to hear your positive response to the endpapers. I wasn’t sure if I liked them since they introduce a new gray-blue color. Your students are great observers and amazingly good at processing visual elements and connecting them to the meaning of the story. Wow!

    No one has mentioned the jacket yet — comparing the front to the back and looking at what’s hidden under it on the boards. Another treat.

  9. Allison Grover Khoury says:

    Always enjoy your posts, Lolly. I aways assume your design and art expertise brings extra weight in your vision and writing about picture books here. I’m looking forward to reading it to our younger classes in our library and seeing where this goes. And I love reading books many times aloud to get all the humor and nuance. Books that I’ve liked become adored by the time I read them to 12+ classes!

  10. Susan Dailey says:

    I agree that the double-spread of the black cat alone was extremely powerful, but I’m not sure how I feel about the insertion of the people in the next spread. I could be convinced it was brilliant, but I found it a little jarring on my first examination when I wasn’t reading the words. And it stuck with me on the next read through.

    I found it interesting that the first 2 books reviewed this year were square. In the many years I’ve conducted Mock Caldecott Workshops, I’ve found that square books aren’t very common–not sure why or what the choice of a square format means. I’ve also discovered that “small” books haven’t fared well with Caldecott recognition. (Unlikely to be a deliberate thing, but…) However, back to “Egg”, Henkes achieves a small feel with the large borders he used.

  11. Big Cat LIttle Cat was a favorite at Annie Blooms from the start in part because we have a black shop cat Molly Bloom who is beloved of the whole neighborhood. I like it for all the reasons stated above. It’s the sort of book we will probably always keep in the shop because it elegantly meets an ongoing need.

    A grandma was in the shop last month looking for a book to help her grandchildren understand that even though their grandpa died a year ago she was planning to marry again in the coming year. And we settled on this book, not because it mirrored her situation, but because it honored grief even as life moves on from it.

  12. Another cat book I love this year is Counting With Tiny Cat. Unfortunately it’s a CaldeNOT as the author/illustrator Viviane Schwarz was born in Germany and lives in England.

  13. Love this book for many reasons–the artistic merits have already been well-noted, so I won’t belabor the point.

    –It’s a “nice cat” story. There are many stories about sneaky cats, clever cats–but this is obviously created by a cat lover.

    –It’s a great “circle of life” story and one that I will definitely recommend for patrons looking for books about the death of a pet. However, it’s not overly sad and tragic, as are some “death of a pet” books.

    Regarding Alys’s comment:

    “The one thing I did not like about the book is not an artistic choice. It’s that things were “hard. For everyone. UNTIL a new cat came” (emphasis mine). That frustrated me, because it almost seemed like they were replacing the old cat with no hesitation and that fixed all the sadness, which is not how grief works.”

    I can definitely respect that comment. That did not catch my attention, but as someone who has only had one pet in her life (in childhood), it’s probably not something to which I am sensitive. However, I got the impression that Cooper based this on his family’s experience, so that might have been true for them.

    I’m rooting for this one. I was sorry that Homer wasn’t recognized when it was published, and think Cooper is due (I realize that this shouldn’t be a consideration for the committee).

  14. Lolly, your post touches several aspects of the book that I didn’t even notice in my first couple of readings. I agree that this book’s minimal color scheme is not merely an attempt to be an artistic statement, but rather this story MUST be told in spare colors. I loved Jules comment on Cooper’s masterful use of white space and how it lets the story breathe. Death is usually associated with black or gray and the whiteness of this story is poignant and a reminder that death is not the end. Full confession, I am not a cat fan and went into this book prepared to be underwhelmed. Five minutes later I was thinking how glad I was that it was (my self proclaimed) no-mascara Friday as I scrawled the title on my 2018 Mock Caldecott list. #humbled

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