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.


Lolly Robinson

Lolly Robinson is the former 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 blogged for Calling Caldecott and Lolly's Classroom on this site.

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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

Posted : Oct 07, 2017 01:07

Jennifer Schultz

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).

Posted : Sep 25, 2017 07:37


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.

Posted : Sep 25, 2017 03:05

Rosanne Parry

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.

Posted : Sep 23, 2017 09:51

Susan Dailey

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.

Posted : Sep 23, 2017 05:48

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