Fifteen years ago on the twenty-first day of August a sweet girl puppy was born; the runt in a litter of Chocolate Labrador Retrievers. Knowing she would need to make up for her size in spirit, I named her Xena, the Warrior Princess. Anyone who meets her agrees the name fits her perfectly. Her zest for life is contagious.
As a youngster she was so small she needed three meals a day. For the first six months of her life with me, she came to the elementary school library, safely tucked away in my office. She was frequently seen on my lap during story times. Over the years when I worked evenings, weekends and summers at school, she was a constant companion. We have rarely been apart.
This form of devotion, a love that's completely unconditional, is a rare gift we humans receive from our animal friends. People from all walks of life will readily concur with their own stories about these daily moments. One of the more notable examples of this faithfulness can be found in one of this year's newer titles, Mummy Cat (Clarion Books, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, July 21, 2015) written by Marcus Ewert with illustrations by Lisa Brown.
The winds hiss over desert sand.
The moon shines down on empty land.
And long ago...
Traveling back in time to ancient Egypt, within the walls of a pyramid built to house a queen, a being stirs after one hundred years of stillness. It's a cat, wrapped in cloth, which awakes from death. Each century this cat seeks to see if his friend, Hat-Shup-set, no longer sleeps. During her reign the two were inseparable.
Paintings in the tomb chronicle their lives and shared experiences. Days resting during game challenges, playing along and on the River Nile, dreaming and lounging beside the pool and posing for an artistic pal are some of the pastimes they relish. Treachery ends their joy.
Each is prepared, carefully bound, for their journey into the afterlife. This the cat sees while searching for his queen as sadness descends like a shroud. Ahead a doorway leads to a room, a storehouse for lifetime treasures.
At the center a coffin bears a likeness of the beloved young woman. All the cat desires is to see her again after three thousand years. Waiting. Wanting. Wishing. Wonderful!
As quietly as the tomb in which the story begins Marcus Ewert writes words in gentle rhyme flowing flawlessly. We are wrapped, like the mummies, in history woven into the narrative. We learn of a culture past and of a rare friendship standing the test of time. Here is a sample passage.
Or this mural of a noontime nap:
dreams of mice, on the queen's own lap.
Their couch was set beside the pool.
The shade from date trees kept them cool.
Unfolding the dust jacket readers see a happy mummy cat arising from a long sleep; hieroglyphs on the coffin spelling out the title. Like the cat the text is wrapped in cloth. Two yellow butterflies appear here and on interior images throughout the book. Perhaps they are representative of transformation, souls living after death or acting as guides. A single mouse watches. On the back, to the left, two other mice, friends with the first, gaze at a painting on the wall of the tomb, the queen happily holding the cat on her lap.
A stylish book case, different from the jacket, uses a darker gray as the background, appearing like stone. (This is used again in the body of the book.) An Egyptian pattern adorns either side of the spine. On the front the queen and her cat are walking together in life. On the back they are walking away from us as they appear in death. The opening and closing endpapers are rows of two different lotus shapes; highly symbolic in ancient Egypt.
Lisa Brown starts her visual story on the double-page spread for the title page with a panoramic view of the Egyptian desert with pyramids and a setting sun. A closer view is presented to readers under a full moon on the next two-page image. Each set of two pages brings us closer to the door of the tomb and finally inside. The textured floors and walls supply a realistic but important background helping to make the fine details in the artwork, cat, mice and butterflies, the queen and her sister visually stunning.
A series of smaller images are placed on a white background to serve as an introduction to the relationship between the cat and queen. The portrayals of the animals are beautifully rendered as if they are ancient Egyptian art. From the entrance to the tomb until the next to last two pages hieroglyphics have been incorporated into the design of the pictures. Brown also extends the text to provide readers with an additional illustrative story as to the events leading to the death of the queen and her cat. A true sense of stepping back in time is generated.
One of my many favorite illustrations spans two pages. The background in the stone gray showcases the highly decorated queen's coffin extending nearly edge to edge from left to right. The three mice are placed along the coffin's upper sides. The mummy cat wearing the queen's favorite ring on his paw meows a message. Will this be magical enough?
Although Mummy Cat written by Marcus Ewert with illustrations rendered in ink, gouache, and watercolor on paper with digital collage by Lisa Brown is a work of fiction, we learn much about the culture in which the story is placed. It's a story of eternal love and friendship. This is guaranteed to be a much requested story time title. At the close of the book there are several pages dedicated to Mummies, Cats, Queens and Hieroglyphs.
To learn more about Lisa Brown please follow the link attached to her name to access her website. The publisher has provided a fun page on Tumblr. Lisa Brown is a guest at author, reviewer and blogger Julie Danielson's Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast. Both Marcus Ewert and Lisa Brown talk with teacher librarian Matthew Winner on the Let's Get Busy Podcast #170 about this book. An earlier title Lisa Brown illustrated, Emily's Blue Period, is featured as a trifecta at the Scholastic's new Ambassador of School Libraries for Scholastic Book Fairs John Schumacher's Watch. Connect. Read. Links to other posts by the author are found there. Enjoy this video about the making of Mummy Cat.
Mummy Cat by Marcus Ewert and Lisa Brown from HMH Kids on Vimeo.