Puss in Books

In recent days at home I have been much absorbed in settling in a cat who has newly arrived in my house from the local pet rescue centre. As a result, I have been thinking a great deal about cats in books. They seem very plentiful in children’s books, but despite cats and readers being very complementary, there are not so many for adults.

My childhood cat books

One of the earliest books I remember is The Tale of Tom Kitten by Beatrix Potter, created in 1907. Tom Kitten was forever losing buttons off his trousers. One year a tin featuring his mother sewing on a button appeared in my Christmas stocking. The toffees in it soon disappeared, but it has found a place in my sewing basket ever since, to store all those loose buttons that we seamstresses collect.

The other feline companion of my childhood was Orlando the Marmalade Cat by Kathleen Hale. He first appeared in 1938, and the only copy that I have from that series is An Evening Out. Orlando is a caring father and husband. Grace is a rather retiring cat, but their kittens are splendid, and like Tom Kitten, easy to identify with: Pansy, Blanche and Tinkle. Especially Tinkle, who was the smallest, naughtiest and blackest kitten you ever saw. The family go to the circus, and Orlando, by mistake, gets caught up in the acts: Performing Dogs, the Human Horse, Mr Plunkett the elephant, Signora Celia and her celebrated seals and Mr Meek the lion-tamer. The audience think Orlando is part of the show, but when he saves the life of Mr Meek the Circus Manager presents him with a gold medal.

My daughter’s childhood books

Mog the forgetful cat appeared in 1970, the creation of Judith Kerr. Mog was recognisable to any family who had lived with a cat, especially as she was not very bright. But she too earned a medal when she accidentally saved the family from some burglars (pronounced burg-gew-lars in our family).

The other series that featured in reading to my daughter was The Church Mouse by Graham Oakley. Sampson the Cat was befriended by the Church Mice and saved them from threats of extermination.

The Tiger who came to Tea by Judith Kerr was another favourite, mostly for the illustrations that showed the absurd situation with plenty of delightful detail.

My grandson’s childhood book

When I asked my grandson, now 15, what cat book he remembered from earlier reading, he promptly replied The Patchwork Cat. William Mayne wrote the story and it was charmingly illustrated by Nicola Bayley. Tabby was very attached to her old patchwork quilt and when it was thrown out she went to the dump to rescue it, despite all kinds of terrors on the way.

And two for the adults

The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov 

I read this classic Russian novel in 2006 and noted that it was hard to get into – it’s connections with our world are so strange. No doubt the citizens of Moscow who were familiar with Stalin did not find it so. I lived in London at the time and several people commented on this book when I read it on the bus.

The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov (1966) Penguin Classic. Translation by Larissa Volokhonsky and Richard Levear. 432pp 

The Guest Cat by Takashi Hiraide 

Enjoyable story about a man and his wife who are adopted by a cat, and then she dies. They must leave the house and this disrupts their grieving. Every cat lover will recognise the obsession and madness.

The Guest Cat by Takashi Hiraide (2014) Picador. Translated from the Japanese by Eric Selland. 140pp

And for the poets and poetry lovers …

You thought that TS Eliot was a rather dry modernist poet with a high squeaky voice. But his triumph was his collection of cat poems: The Rum Tum Tugger, Mungojerrie and Rumpelteazer, Mr Mistoffelees, Skimbleshanks the Railway Cat amongst other. He also had an irrefutable theory about what cats are doing when they are sitting quietly looking at nothing.

When you notice a cat in profound meditation,
the reason I tell you, is always the same:
His mind is engaged in rapt concentration of the thought, of the thought, of the thought of his name
His ineffable, effable,
Deep and inscrutable singular Name.
[From The Naming of Cats, Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats by TS Eliot]

Have I left any important cats out?

And my little cat is called Bindi and she is already capable of upsetting a pile of books or dislodging some less favoured tomes from the bookshelf. She is making herself quite at home.

Bindi, making herself at home on the dog’s bed.


Filed under Books, Books for children, illustrations, poetry, Reading

12 Responses to Puss in Books

  1. Bindi looks gorgeous – what a sweetie! And some lovely cat-book choices. My children loved Mog, and also the Beatrix Potters. As for me, I enjoyed by the Bulgakov and the Guest Cat!

    • Caroline

      Thank you for your endorsements. The Bulgakov attracted many comments, unlike any other book, when I travelled by LT buses. I had several erudite conversations about it!

  2. New cat, snap!
    Welcome to Bindi, who looks very sweet (and resembles my beloved old Zoe, no longer with us). I can never resist a cat book, so thank you for the list.
    My new recruit is called Kasper and is adorable.

  3. Jerri C

    One book about a cat that made a big impression on me when I read it as a child, probably in my early teens, but perhaps just pre-teen, was Jennie (The Abandoned) by Paul Gallico. At the time I wasn’t paying much attention to authors and it took me years to re-discover it, and reading it as an adult was just as powerful as when I was young.

    And, does The Incredible Journey count as a “cat book”? There are two dogs and only one cat, but Tao is a VERY important part of the book. I can’t tell you how many times I have read that one.

    • Caroline

      Thank you for reminding us of these two books. I thought of The Incredible journey as I was compiling the post, and remember my feeling of awe at the animals’ friendship and persistence, and loved its happy ending.
      Paul Gallico didn’t appeal so much to me, it seemed a bit too moral for my taste. But he too was a great writer and could have been included in this post.

  4. Lynda Haddock

    Lots of memories of happy reading with my daughters here. I must introduce my granddaughters to cat books…!

    • Caroline

      Looking back I can see it was a great pleasure to do all that reading with daughter and grandsons. The post was in part prompted by the remains of my mother’s books, which came to me when she died and included many of our childhood favourites. Orlando has lost its cover, and like The Tiger who Came to Tea is very grubby.
      Thanks for responding, see you soon! x

  5. Marianne Coleman

    An adult book which I loved, possibly because cats play a big role, is Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami.

    My grandsons loved Six Dinner Sid, about a cat who has six owners, all ignorant of each other. In each house he has a different name and a different favourite dish.

    • Caroline

      I’ve not been able to get on with Murakami. You must tell me what you liked about him and this novel in particular. I loved Six Dinner Sid, but didn’t know that it was a book. I thought it was a true story! It is easy to see how it would happen (although my cat is not allowed out just now).
      Caroline xx

  6. Carole Jones

    My father kept racing pigeons when I was young and to him cats were everything evil… so no chance of one as a pet. Decades later my husband and I were adopted by Mog: a rather large maine coon… except it turned out he belonged to a nearby family. When we apologised (having just paid a hefty vet’s bill) they were delighted for us to keep him.
    Then, years later, post-Mog – plus now a widow – I adopted 2 cats. George and Tilly were my life savers, and years later they moved to Devon with me and my new partner. Sadly, they are both now gone, and we finally bought a sensible door.
    I also echo Marianne, above, about the joy of finding cats in Murakami’s work – in fact the cat in ‘K on the Shore’ led to me on to reading all his work. I think Murakami is an author you just have to trust… and once you relax into what he is doing, even when it is ‘beyond belief’ (talking cats?!) – you soon realise that you are in safe hands. I’ve read 5 in the last year or so, and – after a short break – I intend to search out any other works … with or without cats!

    • Caroline

      So pleased you came to cats in the end. Perhaps I will follow your example with Murakami, but Ive got plenty in my tbr pile at the moment.

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