Artist formerly known as cat

26th January 2007 at 00:00
Probably because I had too few pets as a child, I now have too many as an adult.

Two dogs and five cats fill our house leaving little room for my two children and me. The fact that four of the cats are ginger, and three walk the Pembrokeshire coast path with the dogs, adds to the comedy of our menagerie.

More animals play in my imagination. Tigers and snow leopards, elephants and walrus, zebras and crocodiles, dancing bears and white mice jostle for space along with dragons in my books.

As a child, I loved books about animals. I blame Orlando by Kathleen Hale for my plethora of ginger cats. Whenever I could borrow this huge, well-thumbed book from the silent high-shelved library in Evesham, I did.

The story is gone from my memory - not sure if I even read it - but I loved the pictures of the smiling marmalade cat filling the thick pages.

As an illustrator, and occasional author, I am expected to visit schools to talk about my books. Always it is the animals in the books that the children want to hear about. And at every school, someone will ask about pets. If at first they are wary, all the barriers tend to break down as I spin them tales of Max, my cat who plays the violin, and show them pictures to prove it. A dark tabby, Max, finds his way into more books than all the other cats put together.

In Can You See a Little Bear? he plays a lullaby for foolish white mice who like to live dangerously. For children, the pictures prove that he can really play.

Cats are not always good things to have around. I also take into schools a painting that was used in the The Flower Fed Buffalos, a book of classic poems. The painting has been "improved" by Pixie, another one of our cats, using blue paw-prints.

"Too much white space," she must have thought, as she danced in the French ultramarine that she knows to be one of my favourite colours and paints lapis blue paw-print patterns across my painting.

The trouble with cats is that they do like to get everywhere, and they do so like to be helpful. (I re-worked the painting the next day and it came out much stronger, leading my daughter to suggest that I let the cats dance on all my paintings and do them all twice.) In my books, I hope to lead children to look at animals in a different way, to love them, and to go on to learn more about them.

Most children love animals. Martha, our oldest cat, sings Hannah to sleep each night with a purring cat lullaby. In the evenings, I sit with a cat, Stoll, wrapped around my neck and a blanket of ginger cats over my lap. Max plays his violin, creating stories and paintings in my imagination that I will use in my next book - on cats, of course.

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