A Second Look: It’s Like This, Cat

neville_it's like this catIn late January 1964, a committee of twenty-three librarians from around the country met in a small room in a Chicago hotel to select the Newbery and Caldecott winners from a group of eligible books that had been published in 1963. In those years, the executive board members of ALA’s Children’s Services Division (now ALSC) were on the committee, with the president-elect serving as chair. In addition to the 1964 Newbery-Caldecott committee chair, Helen R. Sattley, the roster reads like a who’s-who of twentieth-century children’s library services leaders, including Augusta Baker, head of children’s services at New York Public Library; Sara I. Fenwick, professor at the University of Chicago’s library school; Rosemary Livsey, children’s services coordinator at Los Angeles Public Library; Marilyn Miller, school library consultant for the state of Kansas; and Spencer Shaw, children’s consultant for the Nassau Library System in New York.

There was also an enthusiastic elementary school librarian, Sarah Dickinson, from Washington State, who didn’t seem to have heard the admonition to keep all committee proceedings confidential. She went home after the January meetings and wrote up a chatty, detailed account called “I Was There on the 1964 Newbery-Caldecott Awards Committee,” which was published in her school library association newsletter. In it, she listed the titles of the twenty-seven Newbery and twelve Caldecott contenders that were still on the table after the first round of eliminations. (This is a no-no now, and it was then, too. Even the number of finalists is to be kept secret.)

Then she spilled the beans about how many ballots it took before they had the winners. (Also verboten.) “The Caldecott was decided on 5 ballots — an unusually large number, I was told by those who had served in previous years.” Well, that is a tasty morsel of Caldecott gossip right there, especially as the Caldecott Medal in 1964 went to Where the Wild Things Are, a book widely considered today to be the best picture book of the twentieth century, and definitely the best Caldecott Medal book ever. (Even other Caldecott medalists would likely agree.) How on earth could they have argued about that choice through five ballots, especially given that its rivals (thanks for the list) were such eminently forgettable books as Adrienne Adams’s Bring a Torch, Jeannette, Isabella and Helga Sandburg and Thomas Daly’s
Joel and the Wild Goose?

“The Newbery winner was still more difficult to select,” Dickinson continues. Ah, do tell!
In the second round of discussions every book again received thoughtful, earnest consideration.  Eliminations in this round were quite painful! Books like The Little Riders [by Margaretha Shemin] and Dietrich of Berne [by Ruth Sawyer and Emmy Mollès] went down…Quite early the titles under consideration dwindled to ten. Between every few ballots members would speak [o]n behalf of their favorite. When I went to Chicago I had no sure favorite, but by the last session I had settled on Rascal and felt quite strongly about it. As ballots were taken those getting no first choices were dropped and so it went until long after midnight and on the ninth ballot the winner came out. I didn’t forsake Rascal until the last ballot, but knowing it couldn’t win — (it had stayed 2nd or 3rd for several ballots) — and because we had to make a decision, I voted for It’s Like This, Cat.

I do like it, but not as well as I do Rascal.

For the record, Sterling North’s nostalgic Rascal went on to be an honor book, as did Ester Wier’s exceptionally fine novel The Loner, all but forgotten fifty years later. The book that won the Newbery that year, It’s Like This, Cat, was a first novel by a middle-aged housewife, Emily Cheney Neville, who had only just started writing when the youngest of her five children entered kindergarten. When her short story “Cat and I” was published in the New York Mirror, she gained enough confidence in her writing to submit it to editor Ursula Nordstrom at Harper & Row. Given its length, she thought it might be the text of a picture book. But the story was written in the voice of a fourteen-year-old boy who was arguing with his father about getting a cat. Not the typical fare for a picture-book story, but Nordstrom obviously saw the potential in Neville and invited her to come in for a meeting.

Nordstrom suggested Neville use the cat story as the basis for a full-length contemporary novel about a boy living in the city. According to Neville, the editor told her, “I’m so sick of manuscripts starting ‘Gold! the cry went up.’” Under Nordstrom’s direction, she went home and teased it out into the book that became It’s Like This, Cat. The opening lines were quite a departure from the usual manuscripts Nordstrom was seeing (and dreading):
My father is always talking about how a dog can be very educational for a boy.
This is one reason I got a cat.

The story, told in Dave Mitchell’s comical first-person present-tense voice, takes place over the course of one year: the end of a school year, the long summer vacation, and the beginning of his first year in high school. There’s not much of a plot; instead, it offers vignettes of his life in New York City, where he lives in a Gramercy Park apartment with his lawyer father, who’s “a small guy with very little grey curly hair, so maybe he thinks he’s got to roar to make up for not being a big hairy tough guy,” and his mother, who is quiet and prone to asthma attacks whenever Dave and his dad get into one of their frequent arguments. He prefers to hang out with easygoing Kate, the crazy cat lady a few doors down, who offers Dave a tiger kitten to care for, whom he names Cat.

When Cat gets lost, Dave eventually finds him in the basement of a neighboring apartment building, trapped in a stranger’s storage locker. Luckily, there is also a thief in the basement who picks the padlock on the locker in order to free Cat, and then helps himself to some of the locker’s contents. The thief is a nineteen-year-old NYU dropout named Tom, and he and Dave become friends. There are other friends, too: schoolmates Nick and Ben, and Mary, a girl Dave meets at Coney Island, who shares his love of Harry Belafonte records and whose mother is a free-spirited beatnik, so different from Dave’s own parents. His interactions with this cast of characters take him all over New York City, to the Bronx, to Brooklyn, to the Fulton Fish Market, and all points in between. Dave travels freely on foot, on his bike, and on the subway when he has enough pocket money for a token. Throughout his journeys, he makes wry observations about the people and places he sees. In a very real sense, New York City is like a character, and whatever the book may lack in plot is more than made up for in setting.

And then that voice! The narrative voice in It’s Like This, Cat was mentioned in nearly every review in 1963. Today we are used to first-person present-tense in fiction for children and teens, but in its time it was called a “new-style story” and a “rare reading experience” [Kirkus]. The use of slang and vernacular English was also striking (and it’s actually one of the things that really dates the book today). In fact, one reviewer felt it necessary to clarify that the “Cat” in the title referred to an actual four-legged animal lest someone think it a slang word for “person.”

Professor David C. Davis parodied that voice the following year in a Horn Book Magazine essay called “It’s This Way, Kid,” in which he imagines Dave talking to Frederic Melcher (father of the Newbery and Caldecott awards) about a conversation he had had with his librarian about what makes a good book. It’s evident from the following passage that Davis did not think It’s Like This, Cat was one of them:
Well, you see, it’s this way, there are some writers who make you see everyday things. You know, family squabbles, first dates, subway rides, hunting for fish heads for pets, odd kinds of characters, and real nice guys—but after you get through, you’ve just seen them! Nothing sticks to show new angles. You don’t see them in a different way. That’s all, you’ve just seen them—not inside them!

The way in which Professor Davis used Dave’s own voice to critique Neville’s book was clever, if a bit mean-spirited, but he clearly missed the subtleties of the story. Dave does indeed come to see his father from a “new angle” when he begins to see him through Tom’s eyes. But Neville doesn’t hit you over the head with it. It comes out most clearly in a conversation Dave has with Tom near the end of the book.
“He just likes to boss everything I do.”
“So—he cares.”
“Huh.” I am not ready to buy this, but then I remember Tom’s father, who doesn’t care. It makes me think.
“Besides,” says Tom, “half the reason you and your father are always bickering is that you’re so much alike.”
“Me? Like him?”

More significantly, Davis failed to see what so many others did when they looked at It’s Like This, Cat: the birth of modern young adult literature in the form of contemporary realism, now so common in YA literature that we forget it was ever new. But in 1963, it was. The story was fresh and honest. And because it was recognized as realistic, it was considered okay for a character to disrespect his father and question authority, a departure for a Newbery character. In her Newbery acceptance speech, “Out Where the Real People Are,” Emily Neville defended this new genre for teens: “The real world, with its shadings of light and dark, its many-toned colors, is so much more beautiful than the rigid world of good and bad. It is also more confusing. I think the teen-age reader is ready for both.”

One thing everyone agreed on at the time was that It’s Like This, Cat was a book for teenagers. There was none of the hand-wringing we see today about the Newbery choice being “too old.” Instead, there was a tacit understanding that the Newbery audience included teens. There were quite a few articles published in the professional library journals of the time about books for young adults, or “junior novels” as they were often called then. Many, including Ursula Nordstrom, advocated for less romance and more realism in books for teens, using It’s Like This, Cat as a model work. Writing for the Children’s Services Division’s Top of the News in November 1964, Nordstrom recalled a conversation she had with a librarian who told her she hadn’t liked the book because Dave didn’t respect his father. Nordstrom wrote:
A teenager, as he lives his own life, is not protected from reality. If books try to protect him from harm, they will supply him only with escape literature, and so deny him a true outlook on the world. And critically speaking, we believe manuscripts from which everything ugly, wicked, and disturbing has been expurgated are usually dull, because they are so unlifelike.

If It’s Like This, Cat was so lauded in its own time by critics and librarians as a new type of book for teens, a type that would soon take hold as the mainstay of young adult literature and last until the recent invasion of vampires and angels and other unreal situations, why is it not remembered today? Why is it not considered at least a touchstone of YA literature, if not a classic work? Why does The Outsiders, published four years later, get credited as the book that ushered in a new era of contemporary realism in young adult literature? I think the answer is simple: because few teens embraced Neville’s novel. But why didn’t they? Dave was a likable, sophisticated character who represented a counterculture mindset and spoke directly to teens, kind of a literary Dobie Gillis. Why didn’t he have his own cult following?

I found the answer in a letter to the editor printed in School Library Journal in April 1964. It was written by Elizabeth H. Moger, a librarian from Long Island, and bore the title “Dead Cat?”
Librarians may be crazy about It’s Like This, Cat (I am myself ) but have you tried to get people to touch it with a 10-foot pole? It’s a book about, and presumably for, a 14-year-old boy, but will you look at that fourth-reader print? Why do publishers have to give a book that kind of kiss of death? Not to mention the illustrations which are a great big horrible folksy mess.

She’s absolutely right. And I hadn’t even noticed the book design myself when I reread it recently, other than to be grateful for the large type and all that white space, which made it easier on my aging eyes. But after reading Moger’s perceptive letter, I returned to the book and saw it through new eyes, those of a librarian trying to sell it to a fourteen-year-old. I wouldn’t stand a chance. The line drawings that open each chapter aren’t as bad as Moger claims; illustrator Emil Weiss actually used Neville’s own teenage
son, Glenn Jr., as his model. But the illustrated novel, at least for older kids, was on its way out. Rifles for Watie, the first Newbery winner that didn’t have illustrations, had been published six years earlier.

And then I saw the book as I had almost fifty years ago, when I was a young reader myself. I never read It’s Like This, Cat as a child or young teen. I did read and love two other books by Emily Cheney Neville, Berries Goodman and The Seventeenth Street Gang (in fact, I would count Berries Goodman as one of my top five favorite books of childhood). They have the same hallmarks as It’s Like This, Cat — real kids, flawed adults, humor, a great voice — and I’m sure I would have loved the book back then. I even remember pulling It’s Like This, Cat off the shelf, looking at it, and rejecting it. It must have been the look of it. Librarians know that kids are very sensitive to typography, perhaps even more so than jacket art, and that teens will quickly reject a book where the type is either too big or too small. The usually savvy Ursula Nordstrom had made a fatal error when it came to book design.

We frequently compare the winners of the Newbery and Caldecott medals to their corresponding honor books, or to the medal winners in previous or subsequent years. But rarely do we compare the Newbery book of any given year to its corresponding Caldecott winner, even though, until 1979, both awards were determined by the same committee. With that in mind, it’s especially interesting to look at the winning books of 1964 — Where the Wild Things Are and It’s Like This, Cat — in tandem.

Both are about boys rebelling against their parents. Both speak respectfully and directly to young readers, eschewing the “rigid world of good and bad.” Both were harbingers of change. And both were published by the same formidable editor who was no stranger to breaking with tradition. Although ultimately the two books were very different from each other in their artistic approaches and, today, one is beloved and the other virtually unread, it is easy to see how the same group of people would choose these two books, even if it took much discussion and many ballots to reach a decision. I’m glad they persevered.

Sarah Dickinson concluded her report of the 1964 Newbery-Caldecott proceedings by quoting a fellow committee member who, once the decisions had been made, “laughingly remarked, ‘We’ll go down in history as the cuckoo Newbery-Caldecott Committee!’” I hope this committee member, and the other twenty-two members, all eventually came to see that was not the case. The “wise and prescient Newbery-
Caldecott Committee” would be a more fitting way for history to remember them. They were risk-takers who were able to embrace a changing world, even if they were unsure of what that terrain would be like, out beyond the library shelves of sunny, happy stories published in the golden age of children’s books, out here in the future, where the wild things and the real people are.

From the July/August 2015 Special Awards Issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

Kathleen T. Horning

Kathleen T. Horning

Kathleen T. Horning is the director of the Cooperative Children’s Book Center, a library of the School of Education, University of Wisconsin–Madison. The author of From Cover to Cover: Evaluating and Reviewing Children’s Books, she teaches online courses for ALSC on the history of the Newbery and Caldecott medals.

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Christine URen

I remember that I rejected this book many times as a kid, possibly because of the design, although I don't quite remember. I do remember that when I finally did get around to reading it, as an older teen, I loved it. Thank you for the fascinating history.

Posted : Aug 28, 2016 06:24

Mary Cummings

I was 13 in 1964, and I loved "It's Like This, Cat." It was probably one of the last Newbery books that I read until I became a junior high teacher a decade later. I found "Cat" because I had already learned on my own to look for the Newbery seal. What a wonderful book it was, and what a pity that it is not still revered today.

Posted : Dec 23, 2015 10:13



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