There are about 12 million domestic cats in the UK. About the same number of dogs. Even though more households have a dog, the number with at least one cat is a whopping 27%. Domesticated for nearly 10,000 years, you’d have thought we would have more control of them than we do. But no, they are their own selves. Fully aware that cat ownership (though I’m sure this is not the term they would use) is mutually beneficial. However, they can be full of contradictions too. Aloof but affectionate; nimble but clumsy; active, but always ready for a snooze. It is no wonder they are a rich source for book characters.
As June 4th is Hug Your Cat Day, or hug someone else’s cat day (with the appropriate permission from the cat and owner, of course), here is a selection of some very huggable cats from children’s literature with some possible talking points along the way.
A book from my childhood, The Lighthouse Keeper’s Lunch, does not have a cat as a central character. Although Hamish made it a highlight for me when I was young. Poor Hamish, who is a bit of a wuss, just wants a quiet life. And shouldn’t he just. The image of Mrs Grinling putting Hamish in the basket is a great example of text and illustration working together. Mrs Grinling “places” Hamish in the basket, but from the picture, we can see it is no easy task – anyone who has tried to put a cat in a carry case will relate. Smiling, Mrs Grinling seems oblivious (I hope) to Hamish’s reluctance and fear. Our sympathy for Hamish increases when he is in the basket. The seagulls tease him relentlessly, and he is maybe a hundred feet above a treacherous coast. He definitely needs a hug!
Next up is perhaps everyone’s favourite. What’s not to like about Judith Kerr’s Mog? She never seems to do the right thing, much to the annoyance of Mr and Mrs Thomas. Until she saves the day, albeit by chance. Mog is adorable, and the reader is on Mog’s side right from the front cover. The reader is level with Mog, and she is looking straight into the reader’s eyes as if seeking their approval. A sad face and the word ‘forgetful’ above it appeal to our emotions.
On nearly every page we are at Mog’s level, and for most of the book, the human characters are above us. Kerr really wanted us on the cat’s side. The children are also Team Mog. Debbie and Nicky are the only members of the family to give her positive attention and make excuses for her. They are the only ones that truly understand her, like the reader. And although Mog doesn’t seem to have the foggiest about what she did, she’s proud of her medal and her egg. Hug that cat!
Children and cats have a special bond in many books. Pet ownership in children helps children’s social development, improves self-esteem, reduces stress and loneliness, and improves behaviour (Forbes, Jan 2021). Carbonel, Squishy McFluff, Kiki’s Delivery Service, Mr Pusskins are a few child/cat partnerships out of many. Coincidently, these have female leads, and makes me wonder whether broader society sees cats as a “girl’s pet”. Society does tend to associate cats with stereotypically feminine traits like grace, poise and elegance.
By the way, all of those cats are very huggable. Squishy McFluff by Pip Jones, although imaginary, is perfect. Squishy AND fluffy! There is something in the names of all these cats too and would lead to an interesting discussion in the classroom. It could be an interesting path into writing and character development.
On the other end of the spectrum is a very ‘real’ fictional cat: Mr Wuffles. Realistically drawn, in looks and actions, contrasts with the very unreal plot. His name is exactly the kind chosen by small children. Although there are none in the story, or even hinted at. The ‘wordless’ text is full of discussion possibilities, writing prompts and activities. The cover has Mr Wuffles staring straight into our souls the way that cats do. And the reader has a completely different response from looking into Mog’s eyes.
Cat companions are important for adults too. Sometimes pets can be the only company, and lifeline, in times of loneliness. Lockdown made many people realise how dependent they were on their pets for company. Two books in particular that feature adults with cat companions are classroom favourites Tabby McTat and The Mousehole Cat. In both stories, these happen to be middle-aged men, presumably without partners. Both Tom and Fred get great joy, and companionship, from their cats. In the illustrations, Tom is interacting and touching Mowzer. Mowzer is motherly and caring both to Tom and to the other Mousehole cat, the Great Storm, who she calmly tames. Something these books have in common is the range of representations of human/cat partnerships.
The cover also features the cat looking at the reader, whereas Tom, also on the cover, is looking at the cat. Again, this is eliciting yet another different response from the reader than Mog or Mr Wuffles. Comparing all three covers would be a great task for any age group. Such different personalities in each look. I wonder how much the meaning would change if Tom was looking at the reader as well, or instead of Mowzer. If you covered the title, it would still be obvious who the book’s central character is. You get the impression she’s the one looking after Tom and not the other way round. She refers to him as her pet, after all.
So, is this the part where I say which cat is the most huggable? Before writing, I knew which one I would choose. But I think they all deserve attention, as do all the other literary cats that I left out.
Cats will always feature in children’s literature, delighting and fascinating readers with complex personalities and relationships. And in the words of Busker Fred, “How Purrrr-fectly happy we are.”