Children's Literature

16th June 1995 at 01:00
PROWLPUSS. By Gina Wilson. Illustrated by David Parkins. Walker #163;7.99. - 0 7445 3209 4. CATKIN. By Antonia Barber. Illustrated by P J Lynch. Walker #163;9.99. - 0 7445 2573 X. THE CHINESE SIAMESE CAT. By Amy Tan. Illustrated by Gretchen Schields. Hamish Hamilton #163;8.99. - 0 241 00255 9.

CAT AND KIT. By Jenny Koralek. Illustrated by Patricia MacCarthy. Hamish Hamilton #163;8.99. - 0 241 13412 9.

THE CAT THAT SCRATCHED. By Jonathan Long and Korky Paul. Bodley Head #163;8.99. - 0 370 31894 3.

Here they come tumbling, the latest crowder of cats and kindle of kittens; the rough street-walkers, the mischievous mogs, the groomed family favourites, the anthropomorphic whirl of paws and whiskers. Each of these books is distinctively illustrated, and one of them - though admittedly it's still early days - is a contender for my Cat of the Year award.

David Parkins's luminous pictures of a battered one-eyed, one-eared survivor, glowing against a dark background of back alleys, add a wonderfully expressionist dimension to the rhythm-packed text of Gina Wilson's Prowlpuss. In the best tradition of lovable outsiders ("a racer, a chaser, A 'You're a disgrace'-er A 'Don't show your face'-er") yearns for the only bright light in his life, an apparently unattainable "tiny white star-cat" glimpsed high up in the branches of a moonlit tree. In a particularly haunting illustration she is shown reflected in Prowlpuss's one good eye set in the saddest of feline faces.

What makes this delightful book so much more than just another affectionate variation on the theme of the streetwise hardnut with a soft centre is the clever way that the pictures begin to enhance the narrative by running counter to the text: "If she'd only come down . . . But she won't. No, she won't!" But, keeping her distance, she does, though no further mention is made of her.

As Prowlpuss returns at dawn to his owner, an old lady for whom he is everything in the world, the white cat, with an enigmatic grin on her face,follows him, peering round corners, hiding in the shadows, and finally with the broadest of smiles (triumphant? teasing?) gazing at us through the window while Prowlpuss grudgingly accepts the old lady's cuddles. The effect is simultaneously comic, tender and charged with loneliness.

In Catkin, Antonia Barber collaborates with the supremely decorative and painterly illustrator P J Lynch to tell the story of a tiny, resourceful cat whose ingenuity as solver of riddles rescues a child snatched by the Little People while she is guarding her. With a Wise Woman acting as beneficent intermediary, the happy ending allows the sympathetic abductors (the Lord and Lady of the Little People) and the child's natural parents to share both the child and the cat to which they have become understandably attached.

P J Lynch bathes several of his full-page pictures in a dark green light from which the child's red-gold curls and the golden fur of the cat shine out, subtly developing the bond between them. Only the book's last illustration of the homecoming, a rather pietistic set piece, all smiles, hugs and starlit background with the Wise Woman looking on, is less than exemplary.

On every page of The Chinese Siamese Cat, in which five kittens are told by their mother the story of their ancestry, the text is overwhelmed by the bright, primary colours of oriental decor. The villain of the piece, a tyrannical Foolish Magistrate who is converted to benevolence by the combination of an accident - caused by Sagwa the kitten - and his own vanity, looms obese and porcelain-faced over a marginal tapestry of dragons, pagodas, and stylised crowds. There's a frenzied animation about Gretchen Schields' artwork which, in its own right, is certainly striking but seems ill-matched with the economic little fable it illustrates.

Jenny Koralek's Cat and Kit, illustrated by Patricia MacCarthy with colourful wax-based double-page spreads, is a brief, simple tale which raises an interesting question about the domestication of cats. A kind of Call of the Wild for the very young, it insists, repetitively, that "Cat watched the wild and hunted for his food and protected his own" while Kit is temporarily pampered but soon released to walk "with his head and his tail held high". Whether, in fact, he would have survived is another matter.

As for the crazily capering cartoon cat in The Cat that Scratched who eventually succeeds in transferring his unwelcome resident flea to a lion who promptly squashes it before the two of them set up house together, what survives is the spirit of Tom and Jerry with a touch of Searle and Steadman thrown in. The verse is a succession of couplets ("'You nigglesome nit!' said the cat. 'You mischievous mite! I'm really mad now so get set for a fight'") and Korky Paul's illustrations are probably exactly what you would expect to accompany them.

John Mole's Selected Poems was published last month by Sinclair-Stevenson.

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