February 26, 2015
(++++) FELINES AND LONG-EARS
Cat & Bunny. By Mary Lundquist. Balzer+Bray/HarperCollins. $17.99.
Bunnies!!! By Kevan Atteberry. Katherine Tegen/HarperCollins. $12.99.
Glamourpuss. By Sarah Weeks. Pictures by David Small. Scholastic. $16.99.
What makes Mary Lundquist’s Cat & Bunny so special is not so much the story, which is a simple one about friendship, but the way Lundquist chooses to illustrate her theme. Cat and Bunny are really children wearing animal costumes – no reason for this is given, and none is necessary. They live amid other children who also wear animal costumes, and each of those other children is also called by the name of the animal he or she is meant to look like: Quail, Giraffe and so on. Lundquist carries this theme not only through the book’s narrative pages but also onto the inside front and back covers, which show absolutely delightful pictures of kids dressed as, for example, a bee and a dragon. And the very opening of the book, the two-page spread that includes the title page, is warmhearted almost beyond words, showing the various animal-clad kids as newborns, all of them swaddled and sleeping peacefully, except that Cat and Bunny are wide-eyed and awake. So maybe they aren’t just in costumes after all? Well, whatever Lundquist intends with these lovely watercolor illustrations, the effect is magical, making the otherwise rather mundane story very wonderful indeed. The tale involves the close friendship of Cat and Bunny and the way it is threatened, or seems to be threatened, when another child asks to play with them in their favorite game, “the Made-Up Game.” Lundquist explains that “they played it every day and only they knew the rules to it,” so when Bunny allows Quail to join in, this seems like a betrayal to Cat, and when still more kids start playing, Cat is so upset that she runs away – and Bunny does not even notice. Then Cat finds a kitten, a real one, and the kitten becomes a new friend, and Cat creates a new Made-Up Game – and then Giraffe asks to join in. Cat has to think about it, but does decide to say yes – and soon other kids are playing this game with Cat and the kitten, and then Bunny comes over and asks to play, and the two friends are back together with a lot of other friends as well. The message about friendship is soft-pedaled and sweet, but it is the utterly charming illustrations that turn Cat & Bunny into a book to cherish.
The bunnies – four of them – are quite different in Kevan Atteberry’s very funny and minimally wordy Bunnies!!! These bunnies are plump, big-nosed, and brightly colored in shades never seen in nature: orange, pink, blue and green. In fact, they look more like stuffed toys than real bunnies – and so does the monster stalking them. But he is not stalking for any nefarious purpose. Yes, he has horns and a huge head that, with no neck, merges into his stocky body; and he has a big mouth stuffed with teeth; but his tail ends in a purple puff, and all he wants to do is walk along saying hello to things. “Hello, tree. Hello, clouds. Hello, butterfly.” And so on. When he sees the bunnies, however, his exclamation of delight fills two pages and his mouth opens so wide that it is almost half the size of his whole body. “Bunnies!! Bunnies!! Bunnies!!” he shouts, chasing the four of them as they, obviously thinking the worst, flee into the woods. The dejected monster searches for them but cannot find them anywhere (they are hiding behind trees). Finally, downcast, he says, “Noooo bunnies,” and goes on his way, still saying hello to things but no longer with the same happy expression he had before. Then he spots the bunnies again, and the whole chase-and-hide scene is repeated, except that the monster is even unhappier when they disappear this time – the butterfly that lands on one of his horns does not cheer him up at all. The bunnies now approach silently, tap him gently, and after another huge “Bunnies!!!” exclamation, everyone dances and leaps and laughs and has a wonderful time. The end – well, almost…because on the very last page, the monster spots “Birdies!” And the whole scenario is obviously set to play itself out again. Atteberry has a wonderful sense of storytelling absurdity that uses very few words, and his silly drawings are so expressively amusing that the tale barely needs any narrative at all.
So now that we have seen Cat & Bunny and Bunnies!!! it seems only appropriate to have a cat-focused book. Enter Glamourpuss. There is much more narrative here than in the other books – but the message, about the importance of friendship, is exactly the same. Glamourpuss lives with “gazillionaires” called Mr. and Mrs. Highhorsen, and is waited on hand and paw by servants named Gustav and Rosalie. The humans’ faces are never shown, since the whole focus of the book is Glamourpuss, whose only job is to be glamorous, “and she was very good at it.” In fact, she is so glamorous that “instead of saying me-ow like an ordinary cat, she shortened it to just ME!” Everything is just perfect for Glamourpuss until, one day, Mr. Highhorsen’s sister shows up from Texas and brings along – Bluebelle. She is, of all things, a dog, a Chihuahua who comes with “tacky wardrobe and wagging tail” and a distinctly unhappy expression. Glamourpuss’ own expression quickly becomes even unhappier than Bluebelle’s, because the dog “did tricks” and is unaccountably charming to the Highhorsens as she stands on a ball, does flips, wears a fruit hat in Carmen Miranda fashion, even parades through the house dressed as a Southern belle (complete with parasol). Glamourpuss becomes so jealous that she even tries on one of Bluebelle’s outfits, but things just get worse and worse as Bluebelle hogs all the attention. Soon Glamourpuss is immersed in her very own “pity party.” But then, one day, Bluebelle tears up all her cute little outfits and makes a gigantic mess of the guest room and gets loudly scolded by Eugenia; and Glamourpuss is set to be the center of everyone’s focus again. Except that she spots Bluebelle practicing being glamorous – and realizes that Bluebelle hated all her forced performances and never really wanted anything but to be like Glamourpuss! So the cat takes the dog under her wing (or paw), and soon there are two haughty, stuck-up, ultra-dignified animals in the house – with Bluebelle even “shortening ‘bow-wow’ to the much more glamorous WOW!” Eugenia is not entirely happy with all this, but the Highhorsens are proud of Glamourpuss, and cat and dog end up best friends – very glamorous ones indeed. Sarah Weeks’ amusingly overdone story is perfectly reflected in David Small’s illustrations, which combine ink and watercolor with pastels and even some collages (the use of a famous picture of Theda Bara as Cleopatra in a scene where the Highhorsens are watching TV is an especially funny touch, at least for film buffs). Immersing a story about unlikely friends in the midst of a tongue-in-cheek look at how the ultra-rich might live, Weeks and Small produce a winning and offbeat story with some touches of surprising subtlety – such as one page on which costumed Bluebelle grimaces toward lounging Glamourpuss as the three super-rich humans toast the dog’s performance using three different drinks, each person holding a glass while elegantly extending his or her pinky. “WOW!” indeed.