Quote of the Month

When love and skill work together, expect a miracle. John Ruskin

Saturday, March 25, 2017

To Life...Well Lived

During this school year, I have come to feel affection for a particular third grade classroom and their teacher.  From meeting with them each week we have reached a level of mutual trust.  We understand each other.

Earlier this week a recently acquired title left a lasting impression on me.  I read it aloud to this class of guys and gals and their mentor yesterday.  The reading was precipitated with a single sentence.  At the conclusion of the book a hush settled over the room.  A few of the listeners sighed.  The magic of this story left the pages of the book and wrapped itself around all of us.  BIG CAT, little cat (Roaring Brook Press, March 14, 2017) written and illustrated by Elisha Cooper is the book.

There was a cat

who lived alone.

One day this oneness changed.  Another cat came into the home; a small cat.  It was a little black kitten.

The white cat took charge of this new resident.  The kitten learned about eating, drinking, using the litter box, resting and the art of being a cat.  They curled around one another to sleep.  They were entwined in mutual respect and admiration.

The kitten grew and grew until there was a big white cat and a larger black cat.  Their days were filled with cat tasks like snooping in the refrigerator when the door was open, exploring the furniture, watching the birds at the feeder, and thinking cat thoughts. You could watch them go crazy romping around the rooms for a frenzied few minutes.  Life was wonderful.

Years passed.  The two cats were inseparable.  More years passed.  The white cat grew so old, he drew his last breath.  A deep sorrow descended on everyone in the home but especially on the black cat.  But...

Simple, straightforward text gently (like cat paws walking across the floor) tells the tale of these two cats.  Elisha Cooper focuses our attention on essential cat activities.  During the first of these portions of the story when the big cat is showing the little cat how to be a cat in this home, each phrase in the explanatory sentence, separated by commas, is three words long.  In another section of the story again a single sentence is supported by a group of words separated by commas, in a second sentence.

The pacing throughout is slow and measured leading us into the lives of these two cats.  We understand how their days are spent.  We understand their togetherness.  We are connected to their bond.  Here are two sentences.  They also show how Elisha Cooper expands on the title text.

Days went by---and months, too---and the little cat grew

and grew

and grew.

Big cat, bigger cat.

When you open the dust jacket for this book, you are immediately entranced by the sheer power of the simplicity of the design.  On the far left flap at the bottom we see a black tail waving from part of the cat's back.  On the back of the jacket we are looking at two cats, a foreshadowing of the conclusion, side by side, facing away from us.  On the bottom of the right flap, all we see is a portion of a white cat's face, ears and eyes, looking right at us.  The tail on the white cat on the front of the jacket curls around the logo for the publisher.

The golden yellow wash on the jacket and book case is the only color in the book except for the title text, the endpapers and four important significant images. Etched in white on the case are a bigger cat on the front and a smaller cat on the back.  They are looking at each other across the spine. The endpapers are a blue wash patterned with little and big white and black dots which are washed in the blue.

Across the title page Elisha Cooper has placed important places and items in the home; the kitchen with cat bowls, a living room chair with a cozy blanket (dotted), the bird feeder outside the window and a ball of yarn.  These places are revisited during the story like a comfortable recurring theme.  White space is a strong element in every illustration.  As mentioned above, the use of another wash instead of the white creates a vivid emotion.

With a stroke of his brush, a few lines and dots Elisha Cooper depicts the true spirit of cats.  His simple outlines of other elements allow us to be full participants in his story.  Everything about this book invites and welcomes.

One of my many favorite illustrations is when the little black kitten arrives.  It's at the end of the first day or many days.  The big white cat is sleeping with one front paw extended facing to the left.  The little black cat is facing to the right, body wrapped inside the curve of the larger cat.  This extends across two pages.  In fact a portion of the larger cat's tail and back bleeds off the pages.

With this book, BIG CAT, little cat, Elisha Cooper uses the less is more concept with masterful excellence.  No matter how many times you read this book, the feeling you hold in your heart is the same.  This title leads you through life with all the joys and sadness that come but also leaves you with hope.  I highly recommend you read and acquire a copy of BIG CAT, little cat.

To learn more about Elisha Cooper and his other work please visit his website by following the links attached to his name.  He includes pages from this book at his website.  At the publisher's website you can view other interior images.  At author, reviewer and blogger Julie Danielson's website, Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, we are given the opportunity to see process art from this book and read a few comments from Elisha.

UPDATE:  Elisha Cooper writes a guest post, The Life Cycle of a Book, for Publishers Weekly about this title, October 17, 2017.

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