The Cats of Tanglewood Forest by Charles de Lint is many things, but first and foremost you should know that its entire plot does not revolve solely around cats. Cats are a catalyst, you might say, the first step on a road that leads a young girl on a long, difficult journey. It is less of a neat package that many stories of a similar ilk; unlike Dorothy and Lucy and Little Red, the culmination of young Lillian’s tale seems more of a footnote than each trial she faces in getting there. Her story has tiers, levels, steep grades that require scaling before any reward is in sight.
And if that doesn’t have you interested, the lovely illustrations by Charles Vess should do it.
(Minor spoilers for the plot of the book to follow.)
To start, The Cats of Tanglewood Forest is an expansion upon a picture book called A Circle of Cats, also done in collaboration between Charles de Lint and Charles Vess. That book itself was a prequel to the novella “Seven Wild Sisters,” and it is set to the north of de Lint’s Newford. That said, you do not have to be familiar with any of these things to enjoy the book whatsoever.
Lillian finds herself in a bit of a bind when she wakes after being bitten by a snake and discovers that she has been transformed into a cat. What might seem like a simple turn-it-back problem is anything but, however: Lillian’s reverse road to her former life is not an easy one, and she encounters heartbreak, fear, and loss of a very real kind. Through it all she encounters all sorts of people and creatures, animals who talk and bears who are people, and she learns much from each of them in turn.
What is delightful about Lillian’s story is that what she learns (and what we learn from her in turn) is not rooted only in the “girl growing up” story that we all recognize. There are many moments in the book where the reader can gain perspective from Lillian, but the lessons are universal—Lillian is respectful of life in all forms, a good friend, someone who takes her time weighing options about who to trust. Her woes fill in the gray areas rather than the usual black and white of morality plays. As a result, what can be gleaned from her adventure is more valuable.
There’s an American mythology aspect to the book at is at once timeless and engaging, from Aunt Nancy, a Native American woman with a mysterious past (amusing when one notes that the name was also an alias used by Mr. Nancy in American Gods) to the spirit who resides in the apple tree near Lillian’s home. Lillian herself is a tomboy with a bit of that Huck Finn knack for getting herself into trouble, and the land described and pictured is a panorama of American wilderness at its most romantic.
The book is an excellent read for children who are enjoying chapter books but still yearn for a lush sort of illustration that contributes to the story. Vess’ work is laid out beautifully on the page, blending seamlessly into the narrative so that there is very little stop and go when looking at the artwork. The eye is naturally drawn to the visual elements as you are reading. Some parents might want to read the book aloud to very young kids—the pictures make for great interaction tools, and it’s the perfect sort of length for a week-or-more’s worth of bedtime stories.
So for those who enjoy magical coming-of-age tales, The Cats of Tanglewood Forest has a lot to offer. It will teach you how to make friends worth having, how to protect your home, how to be self-sufficient and take risks when they are required. And it will teach you about magic and how to spot fairies, which is probably more important.
Emmet Asher-Perrin had a tree for a friend as a child. You can bug her on Twitter and read more of her work here and elsewhere.