This Story Is Not About a Kitten

[Many Calling Caldecott posts this season will begin with the Horn Book Magazine review of the featured book, followed by the post's author's critique.]


This Story Is Not About a Kitten
by Randall de Séve ; illus. by Carson Ellis
Primary     Random House Studio/Random    40 pp.     g
10/22     978-0-593-37453-5     $18.99
Library ed.  978-0-593-37454-2    $21.99
e-book ed.  978-0-593-37455-9    $10.99

This heart-tugging story centers on “a kitten, hungry and dirty, / scared and alone, / meowing sadly, / needing a home.” On a walk in the neighborhood with their dog, a child and adult (“the dog’s people”) spot the kitten under a car. The dog barks at the kitten; a woman jogging nearby calms the dog; adult twins carrying boxes to or from a moving truck donate an empty box for the kitten; a man drinking tea on his front porch offers it milk; and everyone carefully coaxes it into the box. The child gains a new pet, and the kitten ends up “now full-bellied and clean, / no longer alone, / purring happily. / Home.” De Séve (Zola’s Elephant) constructs the story cumulatively; as the tale unfolds, she regularly negates the notion that its beating heart is about one character alone — the kitten or the child or the neighbors. Ultimately, instead, it’s about “stopping / and listening / and…offering / and asking / and working together .” The final pages are immensely rewarding: Ellis (In the Half Room , rev. 9/20), who paints a diverse and idiosyncratic community of caring and concerned neighbors — strangers no more — gathers everyone together in the kitten’s (and her people’s) home. Dialogue on the concluding spread reads: “I can’t believe you two lived next door this whole time and we never met.” That is precisely what the story is about. JULIE DANIELSON

From the September/October 2022 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.


Since the Horn Book’s review of This Story Is Not About a Kitten offers such a terrific summary, especially of culminating spreads, this post focuses on how Ellis’s “excellence of pictorial interpretation of story, theme, or concept” is grounded in visually interpreting the text before it even begins, with careful pacing of character depictions and omissions. Jacket art immediately offers compelling ironic counterpoint with the title, as a black-and-white kitten stares out at readers from underneath a car. The kitten’s wide, amber eyes evoke the name she will later acquire, Amber, and match the color of the title’s display type. This visual connection underscores the tension between paratextual image and words, and the effect is arresting.

Noticing an absence is harder than noticing a presence. “You taught me to notice who is not in the room,” I once heard a woman say in tribute to her wife. I was moved by the profundity of this appreciation, and what a gift this lesson is. As I reread this picture book, I realized that Ellis gives young readers this same gift in many ways, starting with that juxtaposition of title and jacket art. “Is this the worst cover ever?” a child asked me in jest. What he was really asking was, “If this story isn’t about a kitten, then who is it about? And why aren’t they in the jacket art?”

Upon looking at the back of the jacket, possible answers arise: “Maybe the story is about that girl holding the kitten!” — and then underneath at the case cover — “No, it’s about cars.” And then — “Wait! There’s the kitten under that gray car!”

Front matter then guides readers into the neighborhood first depicted on the case cover, where the child from the back of the jacket now skips down a walkway, her mother leashing a dog behind her.

“But where’s the kitten?”

Yes, even as we seek to fill the absence in the jacket art, we can’t forget the kitten. Ellis’s omission of her from these early front-matter pages is as attention-grabbing as her wide-eyed presence on the jacket was.

Then, a title-page vignette of scattered shoes holds a clue to tie everything together — if one stops to ask, “Whose shoes are those?” It’s a crucial absence to notice because the varied shoes sizes and styles suggest the shoes belong to many people, not just those few included in exterior design and early front-matter pages. As de Sève’s eminently readable, cumulative text pulls readers along through the book proper, perhaps they’ll notice the footwear of the people who help the kitten. If so, they’ll see that the title-page vignette offers visual foreshadowing that this story is about a “diverse and idiosyncratic community of caring and concerned neighbors.” This conclusion is confirmed in one of the last spreads when those people (now barefoot or in socks) gather at the kitten’s new home with the girl. Readers can surmise that the shoes on the title page belong to them, filling the absence first noticed in the front jacket art.

Now it’s your turn: kick off your shoes and curl up with this “heart-tugging,” heartwarming picture book and Ellis’s artistic achievement. What else do you notice that makes the art distinguished? Can you make the case for why the absence of a Caldecott Medal sitting right next to the little kitten on the jacket should be rectified in January? I’m all ears.

Megan Dowd Lambert
Megan Dowd Lambert

Megan Dowd Lambert created the Whole Book Approach storytime model in association with The Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art and is a former lecturer in children’s literature at Simmons University, where she also earned her MA. In addition to ongoing work as a children’s book author, reviewer, and consultant, Megan is president of Modern Memoirs, Inc., a private publishing company specializing in personal and family histories. 

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Molly Sloan

Hello Friends at Calling Caldecott! I wanted to thank you for your many thoughtful essays on the great books of the year. I am a bit behind on organizing my Caldecott Club this year but I wanted you to know that I have read all of your reflections on the books and I look forward to posing your observations to and critiques to my students. Thank you for taking the time to post them and I promise to come back and comment further when I have had the chance to share the books with my students.

Posted : Nov 11, 2022 09:10

Chris Gustafson

Those of us who live in Ellis’s hometown of Portland will enjoy all the Portland references. I watched my daughter read this book aloud to her third grade class and they were entranced by all they could see in the art and all the inferences they could make about the story and the meaning of the title.

Posted : Nov 11, 2022 05:52



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