1964 Newbery: It’s Like This, Cat

 

I was a little worried when I chose another Newbery with “cat” in the title that cats dying would be the main theme. After all, there are a lot of dead pets in Newberyland. But thankfully, the worst thing that happens to Cat is that he gets “altered” in a scene full of unintentional hilarity. (“You mean get him fixed so he’s not a real tomcat anymore? The heck with that! I don’t want him turned into a fat old cushion cat!”) (Not all cats get off so easy in this novel, however. There is a fairly gruesome but short scene late in the story where a kitten gets squashed.)

The Cat Who Went to Heaven could have been written in 1930 or 2012. But It’s Like This, Cat by Emily Neville is not a timeless book: it is very much a product of the early 1960s, filled with groovy dialogue like “Don’t get fresh with me!” and “O.k., be sore!” and “Don’t be a dope!”

Also, adults keep offering fourteen-year-old Davey cigarettes.

Now I’m starting to understand one reason why Newbery committees may favor historical fiction: maybe historical fiction doesn’t age in quite the way a contemporary story can.

It’s Like This, Cat is about Davey, who is doesn’t get along with his parents, even though they seem perfectly nice. Davey adopts a stray cat from Kate, his crazy cat lady neighbor, mostly because his dad thinks he should get a dog. The book isn’t really about Cat at all, though. It’s more about Davey’s adventures in Manhattan, where he and his family live. It’s very episodic, and not much really happens, but something kept me turning the pages. I liked this one. Partly it was Davey’s voice, which does feel fresh even with the dated 60s references.

There’s a telling scene close to the end of the book where Davey and his family invite a couple of stray people to Thanksgiving dinner: “Looking at Kate and Tom sitting there on the sofa, both looking a little ill at ease, I get a funny idea. My family is starting to collect people the way Kate collects homeless cats. Of course, Kate and Tom aren’t homeless. They’re people-less—not part of any family. I think Mom always wanted more people to take care of, so she’s glad to have them.”

And this, for me, is what gives the book its charm: it’s all about Davey collecting different people, expanding his circle, making new friends and having new experiences, and also learning to recognize how blessed he is to have parents who care about him. Cat is really at the center of facilitating those connections.

In 1964, there were two Honor Books: Sterling North’s memoir, Rascal, which apparently is still read in schools since I found a lot of lesson plans online, and Ester Wier’s The Loner, which is so unread that it doesn’t even have its own Wikipedia page. Even Ood-Le-Uk the Wanderer has its own Wikipedia page! Rascal is about a pet raccoon, and I like books about animals, so I’ll probably read it, but I will say this first: Rascal better not die!

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