This story is from HarperCollins’s new graphic imprint for young readers, HarperAlley, and their new imprint for “authors with a strong point of view, as well as those who are often underrepresented,” Quill Tree Books. It will be released in October 2020 as part of the first set of books from Quill Tree. It was reviewed from a galley, so the art was presumably not final and the paper quality was also not the finished product.
The story opens with an illustrated note from the author, explaining how she was inspired to make this book after a trip to Malta with her family, and reassuring readers that it has a happy ending.
The sun rises on the ancient harbor of Malta, and a sleepy black and white cat emerges from under an old boat, leaving her sleeping companion behind. Shortly afterwards, the tan cat awakes and snags a luridly green fish for his breakfast, fleeing for safety from thrown stones.
While the tan cat devours his breakfast, the black and white cat seeks out a home, only to be tossed out when the mother of the boy who took her in returns home. We discover her name is Cilla as she talks to a big brown cat named Alaya in the flower market and Alaya tells her the story of the Quiet Garden and the power of stories and art. Cilla hurries back to the docks to rejoin her friend, the tan cat named Betto, and tells him of her determination to find the Quiet Garden. This “kitten tale” place is supposed to be the perfect place for cats, where all are welcome, there is plentiful food and clean water, and a beautiful garden to explore. Betto tries to convince her that it’s just a story, but Cilla sticks to her determination, meeting different cats and braving a dangerous ferry ride to a nearby island to follow her dream. Eventually, Betto catches up and, although he doesn’t believe the Quiet Garden exists, joins her to keep her safe, and because of their friendship.
Along the way, they meet other cats, humans, and even a dog. They hear stories and become stories, as their journey leads them in and out of art, and finally, they tell stories to make sense of their journey. As they return to the docks together in the moonlight, they decide to search for the garden another day—as long as they eat lunch first!
Husted’s art is predominantly in earth tones, with squiggly lines showing the movement of the cats and the play of wind and water around the island. The few humans shown are distinctive, from the boy with light brown skin and glasses to the gray-haired sailor who picks them up, with her wedge-like nose and large eyes. The cats themselves have more personality than just their size and coloration. Cilla’s slightly smaller size is not the only thing that delineates her kitten-like innocence and hope. She has a more curved, rounded face than the other cats, and expressive green eyes that show her longing and determination to find the place where she belongs. Each cat she meets is distinctive, from the peaceful Old Paolo, enjoying his quiet old age in a monastery, to the mystical Dolce, painfully thin as she sheds her earthly body and meditates on her next phase of being.
The author has an extended background note, explaining a little about Malta and the artists involved in the book, and then giving careful details identifying the art on the pages from old masters like Caravaggio and Matisse, to contemporary artists, photography from the author’s family, and much more. The creator has gently adapted the art to her own style, adding or replacing elements with cats and seamlessly weaving it into the narrative of the story. There is a wide range of artists included and, although mostly Western, they do include a large number of female artists.
Husted’s reimagining of the art retains the original flavor, while adding her own loose lines and air of movement to the pictures. Some of the faces in the art do not, however, have the fine detail of the characters in the book. There are also some panels with hazy printing, but that is most likely to be fixed in the final version of the book.
It’s tempting to immediately slap a “Warriors read-alike” on this, since it’s about cats seeking a new home, but this is far from being similar to the popular fantasy series. It is more similar to the equally thoughtful Miss Annie duology (Freedom! and Rooftop Cat) by Frank Le Gall published a few years ago, or the new Brina the Cat by Giorgio Salati. The addition of art brings an increased depth to the story as well.
This is not likely to have a wide, popular appeal to middle grade readers. The complex art references especially are likely to confuse and bore the majority. The philosophic musings also seem aimed at a more mature (and patient) audience. However, if you have readers who like slower-paced graphic novels, more thoughtful animal stories, and are interested in art enough to chase all the references through to the end, this should satisfy those niche audiences.
A Cat Story
By Ursula Murray Husted
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NFNT Age Recommendation: Middle Grade (7-11), Tween (10-13)