Reviews /

Cats: Understanding Your Whiskered Friend

Authored by Dr John Bradshaw
Illustrated by Clare Elsom
Published by Andersen Press

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‘Cats: Understanding Your Whiskered Friend’ is a lively and rich guide to our feline companions. Dr John Bradshaw weaves the wealth of his expert knowledge of domestic animals into a readable narrative about a cat called Libby. It is a deft touch to lean on fiction in this way, contextualising the abundance of facts he shares. Despite a great deal of complexity, Bradshaw writes with clarity and humour.

It is very consciously a book about ‘understanding’ your pet, rather than a practical guide to pet care. Any suggestions for how humans should interact are explained with reference to the cats’ biology and psychology. Dr Bradshaw is an anthrozoologist who has written best-selling science books about cats and dogs for adults. Here he has created a book that is skilfully pitched for young readers. It will please any child who takes their role as a pet-parent seriously, and they are sure to learn many new things.

The main thing I enjoyed was the subtle way that Bradshaw shares his knowledge, without it ever feeling didactic. Beyond knowing that cats can have different colours of coat, the book explains how cats inherit their colour and pattern from their parents. Who knew that tortoiseshell cats are almost always female, and that the orange parts are often come from the father, and the brown patches from the mother? Not I! This depth of factual information is present throughout.

It is highly accessible. Clare Elsom’s highly characterful cartoonish illustrations give life to the narrative of Libby the cat. In its text-organisation, it looks and feels like a  chapter fiction book for 6-8 year old readers. The cat’s owner is a teacher, Miss Lewis, who is also an adoptive parent to a girl named Mae. Miss Lewis adopted Mae from an Indian orphanage. This element sensitively supports us to recognise the parallels between the human and feline experience of being in a new place – the vulnerability, and our shared need for patience, love and stability.

He does a great job to demystify the behaviours and temperaments of cats. He explains that cats are not haughty, indifferent bird-killers, with a love of furniture destruction. Instead, he explains how cats seek connection and familiarity, and that their actions are guided by their instincts.

As is to be expected, the children who will get the most from this book are those who have cats of their own. Bradshaw invites his young readers to notice the cat behaviours he teaches to them.

I think it has versatile classroom potential. It exemplifies how non-fiction writing is about more than just the use of fact files, diagrams and textboxes. Bradshaw tells a story that shares the catness of cats; the shape of fiction can be a way to impart the knowledge of non-fiction.

Whilst narrative non-fiction – “faction” – is thriving in the world of publishing, it is rarely explored in the primary writing classroom. I cannot think of a better book for this age group to introduce it to them.