Review of the Day: See the Cat by David LaRochelle, ill. Mike Wohnoutka
Okay that’s it, that’s it, that is IT! Whose bloody idea was it to break down the fourth wall in the first place? Seriously, show me the person. Was it you? Don’t tell me to calm down either because I have a perfect right to be angry about this! Have you even SEEN the picture books coming out in the last 20 years? It’s like The Monster at the End of this Book went from cute novelty to Biblical text. Naturally most of the fault for this falls on Mo Willems and his irascible pigeon, but there’s plenty of blame to go around. For every book that breaks down the fourth wall with cleverness and aplomb (think: Press Here by Herve Tullet) there are untold hoards of imitators making a mess of things. Easy books aren’t remiss from this either, they just do it better. I suspect that this is because they have so many more limitations put on them than picture books proper. So something like We Are In a Book by Mo Willems (again) will generally work. That said, when was the last time you saw a really good, really well written beginner book? They’re hard to do, and harder still to make amusing. That’s where See the Cat comes in. It does all that stuff that bugs me, like talking directly to the readers, intrusive narrators, etc. However it is also so funny that it literally had me chortling and chuckling and having a magnificent time the whole way through. Okay, I don’t like it when books break down the fourth wall anymore, but we can let one last one squeeze on through. Just one. This one.
“See the cat”. Come again? As the dog in this book is quick to assure you, “I am not a cat. I am a dog.” So begins the first of three tiny stories that show a push-and-pull kind of relationship between a dog and the narration that accompanies him. One minute he’s being mistaken for a cat by the name of Baby Cakes, the next he’s outwitting a snake, and then finally he’s going directly against the book’s direction to establish a kind of doggish independence. Woof.
The beginner book (sometimes called the easy book) is the rare children’s literature format with a specific job in mind. It is created, specifically, to teach children how to read. This job is so important that over the years publishers have taken pains to make these books a specific size and shape. If you see a book that is approximately nine inches tall and six and a half inches wide, that book was written with beginning readers in mind. Now I think we’re all familiar with the story of how the Dick and Jane books conquered this market, allowing Dr. Seuss to came along and blow those boring old books out of the water with his own specific brand of humor and short words. What’s a little less clear is the story after that. People started copying Dr. Seuss (though he was clever enough to rope in fellow artists like P.D. Eastman and the Berenstains to help continue his specific brand of easy reading). Then some genius figured out that if you created a kind of leveling system (a system that ranks each book in terms of text complexity) you could sell schools books that were pre-leveled for different readers. These days, easy books are an amalgamation of old and new, leveled and freewheeling. And into this fray steps See the Cat. A book that deftly incorporates the humor and simplicity of those readers that came post-Seuss
If I’m going to talk about humor then I’m essentially going to dissect it like a frog on a table, killing what makes it funny. With that in mind, lemme creep a bit around the edges of this book and try to define it that way. I think that one way See the Cat succeeds is that if a parent or kid isn’t paying much attention, this looks like all the other bland, leveled books out there. A canny individual might notice the fact that the dog on the cover is at odds with the title. I myself did not pay this detail much mind, which was a good thing. I was in the perfect position to read Story Number One which is the titular See the Cat. As the narrator continually piles on details about some cat, the dog gets increasingly upset. This, for me anyway, culminates in my favorite line in the book, “The cat’s name is Baby Cakes.” I don’t know why that line rendered me a giggly mess after I saw it. Humor is subjective. All I know is that when I see someone getting annoyed and then the person annoying them piles on a detail as brilliantly stupid as “Baby Cakes”, my heart has been won.
I mentioned just now that one reason you’d pick up this book is because of the contrast between the title and the image on the cover, but in my own case I picked it up for a very different reason. After a while, you start to trust certain authors. David LaRochelle is a recipient of the Sid Fleischman Humor Award for a very good reason. Over the years he has honed both his comic timing and the art of writing books for large groups and It’s a Tiger may be his magnum opus. It’s the ultimate interactive picture book, allowing the reader the chance to scream, “IT’S A TIGER!!” in a very loud voice with copious flailing limbs, much to the delight and mild concern of the children watching. In See the Dog he scales the funnies way down but keeps some elements, like the surprise of a page turn, or the fact that if you were to read this book out loud to a child, you could modulate your voice in such a way as to make it even funnier. I like a book that gives me, the parent, options. I like a book that gives kids even more.
Interestingly, there was never a single moment when I was reading this book that I found myself wondering what it would look like with anything other than Mike Wohnoutka’s art. Wohnoutka, like Mr. LaRochelle, is a Minnesotan and the two have collaborated before on books like Moo! and This is NOT a Cat! before. I don’t know why this one struck me as magic and the others as just swell. Maybe it’s the fact that the simple words aren’t being overwhelmed by art that distracts the eye from what it’s supposed to be doing. Easy books generally have pretty simple art. And while Mr. Wohnoutka’s books aren’t usually hyper-detailed, he’s still scaled everything back so that you get the bare minimum described by the text. Plus the man makes a nice hippo. It feels like a descendant of George and Martha, and I mean that sincerely (and no hippo could receive a highly compliment).
See the Cat isn’t going to usher in some new era of beginner books for kids, but there’s something about its combination of 4th wall bursting humor and pared down design that feels fresh. And I haven’t even discussed the fact that LaRochelle plays fair with the language, never putting down a word any longer than “embarrassed”. You can hand this to a kid learning to read, absolutely. Just be warned that their read may be punctuated with interjections of a highly voluble nature. In other words, this is laugh-out-loud funny. A welcome entry into a crowded field full of too few superstars.
On shelves September 8th
Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.
See the author. See the illustrator. See them making cute videos together. See the video too, while you’re at it:
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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