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Uplifting Picture Books That Don't Preach
by Linda Smith, illustrated by David Roberts
HarperCollins Children,(May 2006)
One rainy day Mrs. Crump opened her front door to fetch the paper and discovered an exquisite golden cat shivering on her porch step.
"Shoo!" she cried. "Shoo! Go away!"
But the cat did not go away.
"I'll have you know," Mrs. Crump said, "I have no use for a cat."
Mrs. Crump turned away, but somehow the door did not quite shut . . . and the cat slipped in.
"I should have known," Mrs. Crump said. "Cats are sneaky by nature."
--Mrs. Crump's Cat, by Linda Smith, illustrated by David Roberts, p. 2-3.
Can a cat make someone happier? In this book, as often is true in life, it can. Mrs. Crump, a grumpy older woman, doesn't like cats—but when a wet golden cat slips into her house on a rainy night, she doesn't immediately put it out. Instead, she puts a log on the fire, and thinks she'll send the cat away when it's dry. But when the cat is dry, it winds itself around her legs and mews hungrily, and when it rejects the bread she puts out, she goes to town and gets some cream for the cat, thinking she'll feed it and then send it on its way. This continues, with Mrs. Crump continually putting off making the cat leave, until finally she discovers that she really does like and need the cat. This is a humourous, touching book about loneliness and isolation, friendship and companionship, and the way that animals and friendly beings can break through even the greatest defenses.
Mrs. Crump's Cat is a well-written story that propels the reader forward, wanting to know what happens to both the cat and Mrs. Crump. Even Mrs. Crump's name is aptly chosen—every time I read it, I think of "grump," which it rhymes with, and which Mrs. Crump is at first. Smith uses irony, depth of character, and hidden kindness to bring the story alive. She also uses a nice sprinkling of well-chosen details to make setting and characters feel real, and bring greater compassion for the characters, such as the hungry cat shivering in the rain, and Mrs. Crump's isolation and loneliness, which becomes even more clear as the story progresses.
Mrs. Crump's curt dialogue feels believable and real. We learn more about her through what she says (and how she says it), as well as through what she thinks. Much of her speech has a proper, stand-offish flavor "I'll have you know I have no use for a cat," and "A lot of trouble you are." Both her dialogue, and the discrepancy between her speech and her actions help deepen her character. The reader comes to see that Mrs. Crump's gruffness hides kindness, and that although her words say she doesn't want or like the cat, her actions say just the opposite. Smith uses many well-chosen verbs to underscore Mrs. Crump's gruffness—she throws on her coat, slams the door against the night.
Irony is created through the difference between the grumpy things Mrs. Crump tells herself and others, and her actions, which allow the cat into her house and slowly her heart. It creates an enjoyable humor and knowledge that the reader is "in" on, such as when Mrs. Crump puts down a slice of bread for the cat, which of course it rejects, and she calls the cat finicky—but then she immediately goes out to the store to buy it some cream.
The "found" sign Mrs. Crump creates is both a greatly humorous part of the book, and a clear sign of how much she likes the cat. She uses words like "sneaky wet finicky cat with fleas" clearly trying to dissuade anyone from taking it; readers will see right through Mrs. Crump and know she wants to keep the cat. The sign is also particularly satisfying because it uses the same words that Mrs. Crump first used to insult the cat and try to distance from it—only now she's using those words to try to keep the cat close.
There is an enjoyable repetition and rhythm of both Mrs. Crump's criticisms of the cat, which she then caters to, and Mrs. Crump insisting that the cat has to go, but then allowing the cat to stay a bit longer, and then a bit longer still, for one reason or another. The insistence that the cat must go may also add tension and suspense for some readers, wondering if the cat will get to remain with Mrs. Crump. Mrs. Crump's repetition of the phrase "I have no use for a cat," at the beginning and the end of the book brings the story around in a circle, and also brings some satisfaction. Sophisticated readers may also pick up on hints at a budding romance between the shopkeeper and Mrs. Crump.
Mrs. Crump changes over the course of the book, moving from being curt and standoffish with the storekeeper and the cat, to being more friendly and conversational with both. Small actions show the reader Mrs. Crump's increasing attachment to the cat, and allow the reader to figure it out for themselves—such as Mrs. Crump going into town to buy cream for the cat; Mrs. Crump realizing that the walk back home (to where the cat is) feels shorter than usual; Mrs. Crump giving the cat a bath to get rid of the fleas; and Mrs. Crump hiding the found notice in a dusty corner of the shop and making the cat sound so unattractive. Although this is an adult character in a children's book, it works exceptionally well; Smith has created a character that will appeal to children through Mrs. Crump's grumpiness, irony, humor, and hidden affection.
The ending is satisfying, with the shopkeeper telling Mrs. Crump that before she knows it, she'll be sitting with the cat on her lap, wondering how she ever got along without it—and that's exactly what she does.
Roberts' illustrations work well with the text. Roberts adds unique details to Mrs. Crump's character that increase her believability, such as the corner of her slip showing, her wearing a head kerchief, and having her glasses hang over her chest.
Many of the illustrations bleed to the edge of the page or full spread, while others are smaller images with a lot of white space around them that show a sequence of events or are paired with text. An occasional grouping of three narrow rectangular panels also show action and movement of a scene. The illustrations really begin on the copyright and acknowledgment page, in a full spread pulled-back view of the yellow cat climbing up Mrs. Crump's porch stairs.
The illustrations build on the text, showing changes in Mrs. Crump in small ways. Mrs. Crump moves from having a deep frown on her face when she first opens the door and finds the cat, to less of a frown when the cat winds around her legs, to no frown at all when she goes out to buy the cream, and a wistful smile on her face as she goes home, knowing the cat will be there. The color palette also reflects that change, moving from dull blues and greys when Mrs. Crump first finds the cat, to brighter and more colors (lavender on the walls, orange on the floors, an orange coat and red kerchief and gloves), to more and more color, matching the growing sense of companionship and caring. Mrs. Crump's growing affection for the cat is also hinted at when, two thirds of the way through the book, her shadow is yellow like the cat (though a bit deeper), and close to the end of the book, her formerly red head kerchief changes to a yellow one, again the color of the cat.
Roberts uses a tall, narrow view in the illustrations, emphasizing the long vertical lines of doors, buildings, and rain, while the characters are smaller and stubbier, but bright focal points. The yellow cat, especially, stands out in a burst of color in contrast to the darker background or white space. The cat is consistently portrayed as a friendly, amiable cat, frequently smiling (it hardly even fights being given a bath), with large, appealing yellow eyes. The cat has strong body language and expressions that show many emotions and attitudes (big sad eyes before it gets indoors, happiness when it gets offered food and then rejection and disdain when it discovers the food is just a piece of bread, and so on).
Roberts adds visual interest through the intriguing and varied objects found inside the old-fashioned shop—a shop from another time—wind up robot toys, candies in glass jars, sewing and knitting supplies, sunglasses, a bell on the counter, and more. Details inside Mrs. Crump's house also add to her character, and show us a stately, stand-offish personality, through the choice of wallpaper and decorations (a framed cross stitch on the walls, a Chinese vase, figurines above the fireplace, long drapes, etc.).
The closing illustration is heartwarming and satisfying, with a close-up of the yellow cat sitting on Mrs. Crump's lap, Mrs. Crump resting her hand on its back, and both of them smiling contentedly, happy in each other's company.
This is a funny, tender book that is sure to touch readers. It can remind readers that we're not meant to be alone, that companionship is important, that animals can offer affection and happiness, and that even the most shielded person can respond to unwavering attention and affection. Or it can just be a fun, entertaining read.
-Added February 2007
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