Subscribe to The Horn Book

The Little Red Cat Who Ran Away and Learned His ABC’s (the Hard Way)

The other day in the grocery store I overheard one woman explaining to another why she thought calculus was ridiculous: “You can’t add letters.” True enough, and it led me to pondering one of my favorite time-twiddling questions: why is the alphabet in the order it is?

There is no real reason b should follow a beyond the fact that our general agreement to an alphabetical order allows things like libraries to flourish, and because it allows for the existence of today’s Calling Caldecott candidate, Patrick McDonnell’s — take a deep breath now — The Little Red Cat Who Ran Away and Learned His ABC’s (the Hard Way).

Our titular hero, awakening from a nap to notice a door left wide open, runs outside and immediately finds himself headed straight toward the gaping jaws of an alligator. But is that a threat or a greeting? The book is essentially wordless, so we don’t know, but off they go, soon joined in the race/chase by a bear and a chicken, who, surprised by a dragon, drops an egg. That the egg becomes an active member of the team is just one of the flourishes McDonnell bestows offhandledly; another is when a single page-turn takes the five from slipping on a wintry pond of ice to vine-swinging, Tarzan-style, in a great green jungle (except the egg, being armless, runs along on the ground below. Well of course it has legs).

The slenderest of plots emerges around the h page, when the cat starts getting homesick, but the real story here is the left-to-right race across each page or spread, and the funny surprises provided by the page-turns. McDonnell keeps everything pared down, with light washes and pertinent bits of landscape there just to foreground the zippy and expert pen-and-ink that provides character, action, and emotion. It’s all about the line work here, as the little red cat, his tail sometimes doing double duty as an exclamation point, roars from page to page displaying excitement, trepidation, determination, and affection for his new-found friends. And friends they are — on the n and o double-page spread the dragon appears to shout  “Nnnnnnnn Oooooooo!” when the other five accidentally run off a cliff (offering one of those witty page-turns, as the orientation of the next spread becomes vertical and the characters sprout parachutes).

I love a book that offers readers so much to do. Beyond figuring out what, for instance, the s is standing for, kids, unguided by text, will have to work out what’s going on in the story, and the narrative trajectory is just Dada enough (a unicorn?) to make it not too simple. The book is not for children learning their ABCs; it’s for those who are now ready, like the little red cat, to run with them.

Read the Horn Book Magazine review of The Little Red Cat Who Ran Away and Learned His ABC’s (The Hard Way).

Roger Sutton About Roger Sutton

Roger Sutton has been the editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc, since 1996. He was previously editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books and a children's and young adult librarian. He received his M.A. in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a B.A. from Pitzer College in 1978. Follow him on Twitter: @RogerReads.



  1. “The book is not for children learning their ABCs; it’s for those who are now ready, like the little red cat, to run with them.”

    This is precisely what I got from this magnificent book by a favorite illustrator I had the great fortune of meeting and chatting with this past September at the Princeton Book Festival. He was quite pleased when I told him how much I adored his collaboration with Mac Barnett (“The Skunk”) and how I remain ravished by his Caldecott Honor winner “Me….Jane.” His style is unique and runs through all his books including this remarkably u=imaginative work, which brings a whole new meaning and slant to an ABC book. This in an inticate and fascinating techical appraisal of this worthy Caldecott Contender, and while me telling you Roger it is a fabulous read is the equivolent of an undergraduate college students praising a lecture by a world famous professor, but I’ll say it anyway!!!

    This book is a treasure and Patrick McDonnell is one of our great masters. Love the wit, sardonic humor, the back letter explanation page, and the “V” and “J” most of all. But what a ride, one the kids do really LOVE.

  2. Oh boy. My comment has been deleted. Not sure why though my guess is that my attempt at paying homage to Roger’s position has backfired in my face. I was NOT being sarcastic, but honest. Obviously it was taken the WRONG way!!! I would have thought with my regular attendance at Calling Caldecott during the entire run that my sincerity and enthusiasm for the project and my private promotion of the series would have been obvious. So now I have to be on my guard for praising someone too excessively. Pretty bizarre I must say, and unfair.

  3. Now my first comment is there and I am slinking back in total and complete embarrassment with egg on face and all else associated with jumping the gun in the lamentable fashion I did. I am so sorry, and hope comment #2 can be admitted into the trash bin where it deserves to be.

  4. Susan Dailey says:

    I have yet to see this book. Hope our copy comes in soon because the review and Sam’s first comment (I’ll gladly ignore the other two) make me anxious to experience it for myself.

  5. Thank you so much Susan, I’ve had a stressful night over lamentable mishap. In any case I’ll wager you will be in love with the book. I’m in gleeful agreement with all Roger says there. 🙂

  6. Allison Grover Khoury says:

    I love this review, thank you. I enjoyed the book so much when I looked at it months ago. I was glad to remember that it isn’t really for children learning ABCs, so won’t choose it for my 4-year old this year, but had meant to buy it for next year. I will also be sure to include it in books for our Kinder and 1st grades who, I think, will enjoy it – if for no other reason, than because Roger says so here (who to trust more than Roger?). I think Mr. McDonnell’s work is always filled with the unexpected and humor. I hope the Caldecott Committee is giving this book serious consideration.

  7. I love this book, but I was actually impressed with one other attention to detail. As an alphabet book this is excellent for doing two things. It uses a very clear type face. No letters are obscured or hard to read. The other is that both upper and lower case appear. This to me is important in an alphabet book. These make me think that it could be used to teach the alphabet even if it is not using completely traditional items for the letters.

  8. 2017 has been unfair.

    Every picture book that I’ve read and championed as my favorite as swiftly been overtaken by another, and I now have at least twenty books that I’d love to see win the Caldecott.

    The Little Red Cat… is one of those. I adored this book. I love how expressive the characters are – particularly because the strokes seem so effortless. The washes of watercolor are particularly wonderful, but the humor (so needed these days) is what really coalesces this book for me. I’d love to see McDonnell nab an honor or medal for this little gem.

  9. Sam Juliano says:

    “Every picture book that I’ve read and championed as my favorite as swiftly been overtaken by another, and I now have at least twenty books that I’d love to see win the Caldecott.”

    Hahahahahahaha!!! Something about this conviction sounds familiar!! I have three or four absolute, irrevocable favorites, but for now I am so enjoying the ride. I dare say Joe there will be several others moving in to hijack the status quo!!! 🙂

  10. Martha Parravano says:

    Cherylynn, I completely agree! And that Nn Oo spread is probably one of the cleverest things I’ve ever seen in an alphabet book. I also am in awe of its sheer propulsiveness as an ABC book — it can’t be easy to turn the alphabet into a headlong rush of an adventure :). The circularity is so satisfying — I love the very faint nod to The Wizard of Oz (with the king and princess – the character with agency, you note! — bestowing the way for the little red cat to get home) — and that plus the amount of emotion and drama this book packs in makes it stand apart. I really do hope the Caldecott committee takes a Ccareful Llook!

  11. Martha V. Parravano Martha V. Parravano says:

    Also check out the two Ls in McDonnell’s name and how they look very similar to the little red cat’s tail!

  12. Joe’s words resonate with me, but this one is my tippy-top favorite. So much is going on, as everyone has already pointed out, yet it’s never too busy and never clever just for clever’s sake. Flawless.

  13. “Joe’s words resonate with me, but this one is my tippy-top favorite.”

    Thanks for sharing that Julie. I admire your bravery greatly. I am torn and I am cowardly to number my top 10, but this book without any shadow of a doubt belongs near the top. What I didn’t say in my other comments above I will now add here. First off, I DO consider this as my favorite alphabet book ever, and we’ve had some masterpieces like “Ashanti to Zulu,” “On Market Street, ” “Alphabet City” and “A Graphic Alphabet.” Before Mr. McDonnell changed the alphabet landscape with this witty and imaginative foray into 26 letter immersion, I held the Lobel as my favorite with the Dillon’s collaboration as runner-up. Looking back through the years, it is clear that the Caldecott committees are generally warm to alphabet books of high artisty and creativity. Hence I would think this book will get serious scrutiny, though the results of course are anyone’s guess. I also love McDonnell’s mastery of minutiae. He is in that rarified company of Peter Spier, Peter Sis and Anno, in this delicate propensity. This is some master craftsman, and as much as I really love “Me….Jane” and support its Caldecott Honor, I think this is his piece de resistance.

  14. Ditto for all the accolades for this title, so remarkably clever in such a spare way. I don’t know if the Committee is allowed to consider this, but I’ve always been struck by McDonnell’s clear homage to the wonderful comic Krazy Kat and just did some poking around. I learned that its creator Herriman was mixed race and brought that into his work (strip ran from 1913 to 1944) and also about the gender fluidity going on in it as well. Pretty darn cool, I’d say. My post about it is here:

Comment Policy:
  1. Be respectful, and do not attack the author, people mentioned in the article, or other commenters. Take on the idea, not the messenger.
  2. Don't use obscene, profane, or vulgar language.
  3. Stay on point. Comments that stray from the topic at hand may be deleted.

We are not able to monitor every comment that comes through (though some comments with links to multiple URLs are held for spam-check moderation by the system). If you see something objectionable, please let us know. Once a comment has been flagged, a staff member will investigate.

We accept clean XHTML in comments, but don't overdo it and please limit the number of links submitted in your comment. For more info, see the full Terms of Use.

Speak Your Mind