May 5 2010 3:53pm

Cat tales

I am proud to announce that I’m a Crazy Cat Lady in Training (and no, we won’t refer to that as a CCLiT, really). It is possible that I was put on Earth pretty much solely to provide an audience for all those books about cats. Not the “how to talk to your cat” or “cat solves a mystery but then cannot communicate with dumb humans!” kind, but the cats in space! or cats with magic! or cats with 6 limbs who are telepathic! books. I’m a total sucker for those. Prominently displayed on my bookshelves are Diane Duane’s Book of Night With Moon and To Visit The Queen. I recently started reading the Honor Harrington series and want a treecat so badly it hurts. I got Anne McCaffrey’s Catalyst as a gift this past winter, and let’s not even talk about how much Sabrina’s Salem and the cats in Tanya Huff’s Summon the Keeper series made me happy throughout high school.

For all that I love books about cats (and don’t get me wrong, also foxes and ponies and dogs and polar bears), when I start a new one, I’m always a little worried. When I was relatively young, my stepmother warned me away from all animal books because animals basically eat and die. She put it much less bluntly, I’m sure, but it’s pretty much always held true. Unfortunately she didn’t get to me in time to warn me off Black Beauty, but otherwise her advice has generally stood me in good stead. So, much as I hate when they’re too cutesy and kitsch-y, I actually prefer books that over-personify animals because then you know they have a chance of doing something other than dying. Of course, sometimes it’s just worth it anyway, like in Janni Lee Simner’s Bones of Faerie when [SPOILER ALERT: highlight to read] she kills the cat (actually, or in her new book Thief Eyes when she, kinda, kills the fox). Sometimes it’s the only realistic, sensible thing to do and if you don’t, you run the risk of being overly “precious” with them. I may not like it, but I get it. What I hate though, is when authors Cedric Diggory an animal (you know it’s true).

Recently a very good friend (she may have been only a good friend before; she’s been promoted) gave me Carbonel, The King of Cats by Barbara Sleigh. Carbonel, WHERE HAVE YOU BEEN ALL MY LIFE? I have vague recollections of maybe reading this as a child; the scene with the china shop and the rainbow magic sounded remarkably familiar, but apparently there are two more whole books? I may explode from joy.

Carbonel was first published in 1955 and feels like it, with a children’s book sensibility that I really like. There’s a nice, grounded feeling from the characters and the family; it’s occasionally a little Horatio Alger-y, but the characters are honestly likable, and it delves into fairy-tale quickly and amusingly enough to make me happy. It feels remarkably like an E. Nesbitt or Edward Eager book. I also really admire kids’ books that go on unbelievable, magical adventures while navigating the grown-ups in their lives successfully and realistically; not to mention having the children sometimes successfully help the grownups instead of the other way round. (In Carbonel, they also try to tell a couple adults of about the magic, who then make—not particularly funny—jokes about it throughout the rest of the book. It felt very realistic.) All of this plus broom rides, badly made magic spells, a (moderately) evil witch who makes bad sweets and helping a King regain his throne. I’m certainly going to try to get my 10-year old sister to read it. Although with her current insistence on only reading things that “aren’t babyish” and are “old enough” for her, I’m going to have to try and find one with the newest, and in my opinion, ugliest of the covers.

There is cat-on-cat violence towards the end of the book and the children have to figure out how to help their friend mid-battle, but there is no death. (Possibly because there are two more books?) Because the cat can talk, you have a huge investment in his character, goals, and storyline and particularly when he is grumpy and snarky, it is hard to think of him as a precious pussums. In fact the only characters who treat the animals as adorable and not-human are the same adults who tend to look down on the children in the book too.

Carbonel—and others like it—prove that there is a way to walk that fine line between being too cutesy or overpersonifying and killing animals off constantly, but I think it’s not done well nearly often enough. I tend to judge books to be the former if they have entire cat-languages (with, again, the exception of Diane Duane who I thought pulled it off) whereas more realistic books about animals, like perhaps Marguerite Henry’s Chincoteague series of books or certainly a lot of animal movies, are often heartbreaking and definitely often fall into the latter category. Especially to the delicate little flower I was as a child. Homeward Bound scarred me for life. Who just forgets their pets? I definitely thought that if they could just forget their pets like that, obviously they could just as easily forget their children. The children in the books are often lonely and look to their pets for companionship and love, which makes it all the more horrifying when they just die or are abandoned or forgotten. I never read much of the Redwall series, but am interested in how they do it because, as far as I know, it’s very personified. I do vaguely remember reading The Animals of Farthing Wood (I think that was actually the one my step-mother commented on) and some creatureperson died horribly, which is doing it wrong in my opinion.

Also, in case I talked too much, have all the cute in the universe:

So what books do it right? (Extra points if they have cats in them, or cat-shaped creatures.)

Nina Lourie is entirely mesmerised by tiny baby leopard cubs with their tiny pointy tails. Tybalt (see furry mass at top of post) is a 10 month old ginger part-Maine Coon kitten currently staying with Nina and looking for a forever home.

Bret Scott
1. BlacksmithButNotEmo
Nina, if you haven't read Tailchaser's Song by Tad Williams, you're in for a treat.

My favorite cat story to date...
James Hogan
2. Sonofthunder
Ooh, Black Beauty...I read it relatively young(10 or so?), but I wasn't too terribly scarred. Also loved Margaurite Henry's books on horses...they inspired many many hours of playing with my little plastic horses back in the day. I must confess my woeful ignorance of cat-books...but gosh. That tiger video is pretty much the best thing ever.
Kate Keith-Fitzgerald
3. ceitfianna
Diana Wynne Jones has a couple of stories that incorporate cats wonderfully. "What the Cat Told Me" from her collection Unexpected Magic and I don't recall the name of the other one, but the story is about a boy who's held captive by a wizard and a cat helps him escape.

Also "Castle in the Air" makes very good use of being shapeshifted into a cat.

Charles de Lint and Charles Vess' "A Circle of Cats" is a beautiful book where the cats are key and its wonderfully illustrated.
Andrew Belmont
4. rosetintdworld
I would offer a recommendation or two, but I am too busy squealing about your cute kitty. I love ginger cats and they always reduce me to an incoherent bubbly mess.
5. JustJo
"The Moon in the Cloud" and the sequels are set in Ancient Egypt. Noah and his sons need to find more animals for the ark - they are just missing a cat and a lion, but apparently in Kemi there are temple cats ...
Melissa Ann Singer
6. masinger
The leopard cub link leads nowhere at the moment.

I offer the Bronx Zoo's new lion triplets (two girls and a boy):
Alex Brown
7. AlexBrown
I think the cat from Gaiman's "Coraline" and the hunting cat (whose name betrays me at the moment) from McKinley's "The Blue Sword" are my favorite fictional cats that I wouldn't mind owning. Oh, and the temple cats from Diana Wynne Jones' Chrestomanci series. They're pretty cool as well. And, of course, the cats mentioned by ceitfianna, though for reasons that I won't mention because of spoilerage :)

Cats are cool and all, but rats are just so awesome. They're as loyal as dogs and clever as cats but shrunk down into rat size. They'd be perfect as a heroine's familiar.

Side note: I am known amongst my nearest and dearest as the Rat Queen. It saddens me that there just aren't enough pop culture stuff out there that treat rats as good things and not bad things (except Amy from "Buffy"). So I content myself with my rat earrings, rat stuffed animals, rat statuettes, and real rat babies.

By the bye, my current boys are named Hywel (after Howell Jenkins) and Odd (after "Odd and the Frost Giants"):
8. Freelancer
I wonder if you have a response to the very charming 1964 Disney film, The Three Lives of Thomasina. Certainly a tough movie for a 3-year old cat lover to understand, much less enjoy, but by age 11 I was able to appreciate the depth of the story. Maybe it was just Patrick McGoohan that disturbed me the first time through.
9. Carbonel
Three books to look for and one "maybe"

Andre Norton is simply excellent on cats, whenever they make an appearence: Breed to Come is the most cat-centric.

Nicholas Stuart Grey's Grimbold, of Grimbold's Other World is my third favorite cat of all time. He made one of my "five favorite evil genius" list (I'm stretching it on the "evil" bit) There are also some really excellent goats.

My all time favorite cat is Paul Gallico's Jenny, but ah! That's a sad, sad, wonderful book.

My daughter's favorite cat is Jenny Linsky, of course. She even knows how to dance the Hornpipe, cat-style. Cooler still, authoress Esther Averill assures young readers that Jenny and the Cat Club are really real.
Alex Brown
10. AlexBrown
Freelancer @ 8: Thomasina! I forgot all about that movie! Man, I used to love that movie when I was a kid, watched it every time it came on Disney...I think I have an old VHS tapped off TV somewhere in a box...might have to track that down tonight :)

But the best cat movie ever, of all time and space, and I'll fight anyone who challenges me, is, obviously, Milo and Otis.
12. zenspinner
Ooh, Jenny Linsky! I love her to pieces, and all of the rest of the Cat Club as well. Jenny is just right, a good cat who nonetheless has her less-than-perfect moments (such as when she gets jealous of her new brothers and scratches the Captain). She's the spiritual sister of my Serafina, who also has her interesting quirks and sweet nature.

I've been working on needle felting some of the key scenes from the Cat Club books, and someday I hope to do a 3D one of Jenny dancing the hornpipe.
Alex Brown
14. AlexBrown
Freelancer @ 11: My brain is obvs not working today. Totally forgot about Ratatouille. But it's still a rarity...
Leigh Butler
15. leighdb
Off the top of my head:

Mercedes Lackey's Valdemar books are mostly about companion horses, but cats show up later, starting in, I think, Storm Rising.

Richard Adams' Watership Down is about rabbits, not cats, but you should read it anyway, because EVERYONE should read it, because it is awesome pie with awesome filling with a scoop of awesome on the side.

I seem to recall that Anne McCaffrey's "Talent" series often featured suspiciously intelligent catlike companions, but they were not the focus of the story by any means, and additionally I'm not sure I would recommend the books regardless; they start out well but go swiftly downhill in quality.

For children's books, I remember reading a looong time ago the Bunnicula books, by Deborah and James Howe, which are hilarious and absolutely delightful. They're told from the point of view of the dog, Harold, but Chester the cat is unquestionably the best character in the books. Great fun. (Also, The Celery Stalks at Midnight is one of my favorite pun titles ever.)
a a-p
16. lostinshadow
I second the vote on Tailchaser's Song by Tad Williams, it's a great treat.
James Jones
17. jamesedjones
Let's not forget Edgewood Dirk in Terry Brooks' The Black Unicorn. That cat was cool, and he never said a non-sarcastic word (to paraphrase Hoyt Axton).
Jacy Clark
18. Amalisa
When I was a very little girl, we lived in Mountain Brook, just outside of Birmingham, AL. There was a zoo close by. My father would come home from work (he was a full time minister,then. This was before his time in the Navy.) and we would sit on the stoop outside and listen to the lions roar. He told me they were talking to me, and would then tell me what they were saying. Because, of course, he spoke fluent lion.

It wasn't until years later that some party-pooping, fantasy dashing grown-up told me that they were roaring because it was feeding time.

So, yes, I completely buy into books with personified animals. ("Watership Down" is one of my all time favorite books!) And if the animals are cats (big or small), all the better! :D

From T. S. Eliot's "Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats":

I have Gumbie Cat in mind, her name is Jennyanydots;
Her coat is of the tabby kind, with tiger stripes and leopard spots.
All day she sits upon the stair or on the steps or on the mat:
She sits and sits and sits and sits - and that's what makes a Gumbie Cat!

But when the day's hustle and bustle is done,
Then the Gumbie Cat's work is but hardly begun.
And when all the family's in bed and asleep,
She slips down the stairs to the basement to creep.
She is deeply concerned with the ways of the mice -
Their behaviour's not good and their manners not nice;
So when she has got them lined up on the matting,
She teaches them music, crocheting and tatting.

*is watching Tiger and Buffy idly chase the patch of sunlight across the office floor*
19. Pam Adams
For a classic children's dog story, try Beautiful Joe, by Marshall Saunders. It has sad moments, but I tend to think of it as Black Beauty in reverse- showing the development of humane education in the 19th century. (Plus Joe gets to bite a burglar!)
20. GeraniumCat
Oh, Carbonel! My childhood favourite, I loved it so much, I desperately wanted to be Rosemary. The Kingdom of Carbonel is wonderful too, and the other is Carbonel's Children, I think, but I haven't seen a copy of that for years. Nicholas Stuart Gray's Grimbold is great too, he's stroppy like Carbonel, and like a real cat would be.
Alex L
21. Quercus
One of the many incidental pleasures of To Say Nothing of the Dog is the cat-related happy ending, which made me smile like an idiot when I read it.

I remember Carbonel and Calidor from way too many years ago... I wonder where my copy is :-)
Judith S. Anderson
22. jskanderson
Fool on the Hill by Matt Ruff has a terrific cat and dog who travel together in a subplot of the novel.
23. Angiportus
I liked the Carbonel books way back in '67 or '68.
Thomasina, the novel by Gallico, impressed me a lot more than the Disney remake.
The Story of Serapina, and The Mysterious Cat of Cobbie Bean are 2 more I enjoyed, but can't recall the authors. I liked both except for one thing--the copouts at the end, when the magic goes away. It was bad enough that Mowgli went back to the humans and got married At least Dorothy got back to Oz if I recall right...
Some interesting artwork is found in one called "The Cat Thief".
Less fantasy-ish but worth digging up even if the factual background is dated--The White Panther, by T.J. Waldeck, and Black Lightning, by I forgot who.
Harimau, Simba of the White Mane, Jangwa, Yellow Eyes, Utah Lion, Bichu the Jaguar, and the Wahoo Bobcat are similar titles that might be worth pursuing. Start googling...
In Seton's "Animal Heroes" there is the biography of an alley cat.
Rats? Well, Carl Sandburg's Rootabaga stories include one featuring "5 rusty rats" that saved some people by guiding them thru a blizzard.
Steer clear of "Rab and his friends"--nasty in several ways. I mean, you want to bypass it if your stomach isn't that strong.
Concerning animal stories in general, check out Le Guin's recent book on the subject which I just forgot the name of but it's from Aqueduct Press. She has some cogent and thought-chewy things to say.
25. Angiportus
The Le Guin book is titled "Cheek by Jowl". Therein, she points out that some works, like Watership Down, impose human gender-roles/politics on animals and these are neither true/realistic nor edifying even when the books are otherwise a fun read. A few of the "realistic" titles are rather grim at the end, like "Harimau"; be advised.
I identified with Carbonel himself, not his human friend.
"The Celery Stalks at Midnight" is to me the greatest title ever, approached only by "Manifold Destiny ".
Nancy Lebovitz
26. NancyLebovitz
I had a lot of fun with Cats in Cyberspace by Beth Hilgartner. Two housecats are concerned that the service level will drop if their humans have to get day jobs.

It turns out that the psychopathic one is very good at playing the stock market on an unattended Mac, but then they have to slip the money to the humans without it being known that they can do that sort of thing, so they set up a foundation to give grants to worthy artists, which gets unwanted publicity....

There's also a bit about how you get a pizza delivered if you're a cat.
Beth Friedman
27. carbonel
I have always been here. :-)

No, seriously, that's my handle on Delphi, LJ, and here. I tried to get it as a domain, too, but some French manufacturer seems to have it locked up.

(I am not the same person as the Carbonel at #9.)
Joshua Starr
28. JStarr
Oooh, you named the cat Tybalt! What a nice tip-of-the-hat to the most leather-pantsed King of Cats ever.

I've not read this one (Outworld Cats), but I sure am amused by the cover.
29. clrossman
How do you feel about intelligent, evolved felines? Try out a story on The Future Fire called "Daughters of Hralln," and one coming up on Hazard Cat--"Shadow Cat," about a race of humanoid felines called the Hunters or tautschen, who claim they are descended from the great cats of their home world.They follow a credo and Code which they call Hunt Law. It all started with a book called "Renegade the Hunter," 2003
30. Lyn McConchie
I have a couple of cat tales coming up on Hazard Cat too, but when I was nine my mother died, they put down my cat, dumped me on guardians, and I started living in my imagination. I created a whole series of alternate worlds with cats and people - and, I've very very happy to say, TOR liked it, because now, an awfully long time later, THE QUESTING ROAD is going to be out in August with a world filled with intelligent evolved cat-people.
Yes, Andre loved cats, I wrote seven books in her worlds, stayed with her a number of times, and never failed to have a couple of her cats join me for the nights. My own feline friend is an Ocicat named Thunder who is currently asleep on my ankles as I type this.
31. JanniLS
> when authors Cedric Diggory an animal

Love that way of looking at it.

And it only just occurred to me: have you read Kathi Appelt's The Underneath? Because as an animal book lover you must must must read it. Ignore the bits comparing it to Old Yeller and Shiloh on the flap copy. This is animal story meets deep deep Texas Bayou fantasy mythology, with some of the most gorgeous language imaginable.

Now that I've thought of it, I really want to know what you make of this book.
33. GarethNight
I used to have a ginger cat named Tybalt. I introduced him as "This is Tybalt, The Prince of Cats. You may bow to him now." Few people ever got the inside joke to naming a male cat Tybalt.

As for books with cool cats in them, I immediately think of Grimbold, from Grimbold's Other World. And yes, of course I had a black cat named Grimbold once, too.

Now I have a tuxedo cat named Quaxo.

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