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A Traveling Cat, by George Ella Lyon

A Traveling Cat by George Ella Lyon

George Ella Lyon was approaching 50 when she set down her childhood memories of a cat she’d found in a small mining town in Kentucky. The cat’s name is Boulevard. You see her silhouette on a trestle bridge over a grassy, tree-lined river – with blue mountains in the background. “I found her at the drive-in movie,” writes George Ella Lyon, “on the playground in front of the screen.” The cat on the playground sits attentively, bravely studying a little girl with its ears perked up – but in the background are classic cars from the 1950s. It’s not only a cat’s perspective – it’s a cat’s perspective from the distant past.

Each page in A Traveling Cat shows beautiful, moody illustrations that show the world in colored chalk – the shades of color in the sky, the bright green of a field – and they make the familiar seem special and magic. When autumn comes, the trees turn orange and yellow. And ironically, one of the most beautiful drawings is on the page with the copyright notice. It’s a two-page spread showing dawn’s light over dark and purple hills. The traveling cat’s road is streaks of yellow, orange, purple, and blue. It’s as though the whole world was being seen through the eyes of a cat.

A little girl named Ruth discovers the cat at a drive-in. Relaxing on the wide upholstery of the car is the girl’s father, who seems friendly – and the whole family seems to enjoy the cat. The drawings capture everyone’s personality. The father lifts the cat proudly, Ruth cradles the cat affectionately, and the text also seems to add to the personalities as well. (“‘Ruth’s found a hitcher!’ he said, picking Bouvie up. ‘Now whose little cat could you be?'”) She watches squirrels, dances in the snow, and catches a ride on the family’s beagle, Roscoe. “Bouvie DID swing from the curtains,” Johnson remembers, “but even Mom said she was graceful.”)

But the text reads like poetry. (“Bouvie had a night-colored coat splattered with gold, like stars.”) And it captures the mystery of life with a cat. The cat disappears for a week, then surprises the family with kittens. On a stormy night she walks through the door, and drops the tiny kitten at their feet. Then does it four my times, depositing five kittens.

Two pages later they’re all given away. And when a flood swamps the town, all the neighborhood’s pets disappear. The animals fled to high ground in the hills – but they never came back. There’s an empty drive-in theatre, with two sad people in the foreground.”All summer I’ve looked for my cat, especially at the drive-in.”

The cat’s gone for good. The book imagines her wandering up a shadowy road with the sunlight through the leaves. But the book finds a positive philosophical note to end on. “Dad says Boulevard stayed a long time for such a traveling cat.

“Maybe, but not long enough.”

Charlie Anderson, by Barbara Abercrombie

Charlie Anderson, by Barbara Abercrombie

The illustrations are absolutely gorgeous. Moon glow lights the back of a cat, and turns the backyard a soft green. Though it’s a grey foggy night with a dark blue sky, there’s a warm yellow light coming from the open back door. It’s the house where “Elizabeth and Sarah lived,” and on a cold night, a stray cat walks out of the woods and up their steps.

Charlie Anderson is one of those children’s stories with enough warmth to touch readers of all ages. The cat “curled up next to their fireplace to get warm,” then tasted their dinner and tested their beds. With a perfect watercolor illustration for each action, the book makes the cat seems real. Every morning he disappears into the woods – but at night while he sleeps on her bed, Elizabeth can hear the cat purring in the dark.

Author Barbara Abercrombie found the perfect details to suggest the cat’s life with the two little girls. (“When it snowed, Elizabeth and Sarah’s mother heated Charlie’s milk before he left for the woods.”) And on the next page, Abercrombie shares the most crucial detail of all. “He grew fatter and fatter, and every day he purred louder and louder.”

One drawing shows the girls making a soft bed for the cat in their suitcase. They don’t want to leave him behind when they visit “their father and stepmother.” Abercrombie manages to suggest so much with these single-page moments. One stormy night, Charlie didn’t come to visit, and the girls sat on their steps in raincoats calling the cat’s name.

It’s a classic picture-with-stories, since the children’s faces say just as much as the story’s text. Elizabeth looks sad and distracted, while the rest of drawing shows her bedroom window filled with the dark night outside. “All night long Elizabeth listened to the rain beating on the roof and the wind rattling the windows.” And the next day, when their neighbor offers them cookies to cheer her up, the little girls turn them down.

The book has a twist at the end – and it’s a very funny surprise. The children ask a neighbor if he’s seen their gray cat, while the man says he has a gray cat of his own. Charlie comes strolling down the stairs, and purrs at his owner – and at the two girls. The man assumed that his cat was hunting at night, when he was really just sleeping in the girls’ warm house. On the last page, the author tucks her message – that the cat has “two families who love him,” just like the girls do with their now-divorced parents.

And meanwhile, the cat “sat at their feet, very happy and very fat.”