Review of the Day: Two Bobbies by Kirby Larson and Mary Nethery
Two Bobbies: A True Story of Hurricane Katrina, Friendship, and Survival
By Kirby Larson and Mary Nethery
Illustrated by Jean Cassels
Walker and Company
On shelves now
Children’s authors have commonly found that the only way to really write about a huge recent disaster for small tykes without irreparably scarring them for life is to find some kind of human-interest story to focus on. When 9/11 happened it was The Man Who Walked Between the Towers that ended up being the best picture book to make reference to the tragedy, and it didn’t even talk about it all that much! Similar books like Fireboat and September Roses made their focus a boat and a delivery of flowers but somehow neither really twanged the heartstrings effectively. What’s particularly interesting about these three books is that none of them involved animals in any way. Critters were few and far between around the Twin Towers that day. As a result, authors had to scramble especially hard to find something, ANYTHING, to that kids could relate to. Newbery Honor winning author Kirby Larson and her partner in crime Mary Nethery have it a little easier. Focusing on an animal interest story from the time of Hurricane Katrina, Larson and Nethery could have easily phoned in the tale of Bob Cat and Bobbi, but the story that emerges here is one of grace and delicacy. Steady hands present us with the story of this cat and dog team. It is an actually touching story, with none of the faux emotions or cloying techniques sometimes employed with lesser true-life dog/cat tales.
They were abandoned like many pets when their human owners evacuated New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. A dog with a bobbed tail and a cat, also with a bobbed tail, the two stayed close together in the time that followed. Fighting starvation and thirst, they walked the streets trying to find sustenance. A kind construction worker fed them, and in time the two were taken to a nearby shelter where they were named Bob Cat and Bobbi. To the surprise of the workers there the two did not want to be parted. Stranger still, it was determined that Bob Cat was completely blind. When no one adopted them their story was told on Anderson Cooper’s 360 and they found a new owner with a ranch and other dogs. There the two have stayed every since. A note at the back of the book includes a photograph of the real Bobbi and Bob Cat.
There have been quite a few inter-species friendship stories that have fared well as children’s books. Koko’s Kitten, the tale of a gorilla and her pet cats, was one of the earliest. More recently there was Owen & Mzee, in which a baby hippo was "adopted", in a sense, by an old tortoise. These stories inevitably involve tragedy (dead kittens, dead mothers, etc.), making them ideal subject matter for the author’s pen. So I admit to being a little surprised that only Larson and Nethery had the wherewithal, after seeing the Anderson Cooper 360 piece, to realize that this was picture book heaven. Jeanette Winter must’ve been napping that day.
Newbery Honor winning co-author or not, human interest stories done as picture books can still fall flat if their accompanying illustrator is less than great. I can just imagine the discussions surrounding what kind of illustrator would work on Two Bobbies. Would they go with someone with a cartoony style? Someone who would, in a way, make the material younger and more small-child-appropriate? Or what if they found enough actual photographs of the real Bobbies and told the story that way? Grounding it in truth, if you will. Of course, the problem with that style is that Larson and Nethery begin their story long before any photographer thought to take a picture of the two pets. You’d have to make up for it in creative, questionable ways instead. The solution appeared to be somewhere between the two of these styles. Realistic illustrations would fill in many of the gaps in the Bobbies’ past. Enter Jean Cassels, an illustrator prone to drawing more than sixty nonfiction nature titles. Best of all, Cassels is a New Orleans native, one who took her husband and her three dogs out of the city a mere day before Katrina hit. Cassels’ style fits the story nicely. Once you hit the big reveal that Bob Cat has been blind all along, you can go back to the images and see that this makes a certain amount of sense. Pictures of Bob Cat show him placing one paw carefully in front of himself at all times, testing the ground in front of him. Other images of him show that he never looks at Bobbi. Not directly.
Now there were times when I wondered about the factual leaps taken by the story. I suppose Cassels, Larson and Nethery felt inclined to draw some conclusions from this tale. For instance, they seem to believe that Bob Cat and Bobbi were together from the start. We don’t actually know that they were owned by the same people at the beginning, but it’s something that seems natural to assume, given how close the two were. A story of a dog befriending a blind cat in the midst of a hurricane is a whole different kettle of fish anyway. Cassels then draws the kind of house they might have lived in, which is sketchy territory. Other stretches of the imagination don’t bother me as much. The pair being snapped at by other abandoned animals or their wait on the porch of their home while the water recedes, both leaps in logic sound about right. You have to make some basic assumptions if you want to render this a fully fleshed out tale. I just think great care must be taken when we render supposition to be fact, particularly when we’re dealing with four-year-old audiences.
Hurricane Katrina has lent itself to few changes in my library’s children’s collection. We’ve upped the number of hurricane books (and I suspect that the coming years guarantee that to be a sound investment) but those that actually discuss the hurricane itself are few and far between. How do you inform small children about government failure, loss of homes and lives, and general chaos? Cute animals can help, but only if their stories are real and (harder still) interesting. Two Bobbies hits all the right notes without falling too far into the realm of assumption and speculation. A great tale in general for cat people, dog people, and we-want-our-kids-to-read-great-books people.
On shelves now.
Other Blog Reviews:
Other Online Reviews:
Some sad news about Bob Cat.
Read the Publishers Weekly, Booklist, and Kirkus reviews of the book here.
A recap of Kirby Larson’s trip to Village Books.
You can watch the book trailer here, if you like.
An interview with Kirby about the title at Bloggin’ ’bout Books as well as here.
And here’s an interview with Mary Nethery about the book as well (sadly, I was unable to locate the original Anderson Cooper 360 piece):
Filed under: Reviews
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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