Review of the Day: Kat Hats by Daniel Pinkwater, ill. Aaron Renier
The longer you stay in any business, the more powerful the urge to start kvetching about how-things-used-to-be and the-state-of-the-world-today. Nostalgia’s a helluva drug. It can convince you that everything in the past was sunshine and roses and everything happening today is trash. I, alas, am not immune. No one is, but I think that as long as you keep your senses alert, you can notice the things that are happening right now that are heads and tails better than they were in the past. Take picture books, for instance. Now if I were an average joe who walked into a random Barnes & Nobles bookstore and aimed for that wall o’ picture books they have, it might plunge me into a state of despair. You are familiar with the celebrity that writes a book for kids because, they say, “I looked at the books and there was nothing good”? Yeah, that’s just because they were looking at that wall. I’d estimate that roughly 70% of the stuff being published in a given year is fairly innocuous and forgettable. In the past it was expensive for a single publisher to produce so many picture books. These days the publishers have merged and gotten bigger and richer, and there are more small independent presses, cranking out their own titles. In the midst of all this production drops the latest collaboration between author Daniel Pinkwater and illustrator Aaron Renier. There are tangents, superfluous details, asides, and moments of pure random energy. In short, a picture book that will convince you that while the state of the world may go up in flames shortly, at least the state of some contemporary and current picture books is just fine.
Meet Matt Katz, creator and president of Kat Hats Incorporated. Before you make any assumptions about him, let’s clarify a couple things from the start. First off, whatever else you might believe, Matt is a cat trainer. He trains cats, specifically, to be hats. Are you in need of a Tabby Apple Cap, a Persian Kettle Brim, or an Assyrian Fedora? Kat Hats has your ticket. Matt rents the cats out to one and all, and lives behind the shop with his wife Glamorella, kids Pocketmouse and Lambkin, and the pride and joy of Kat Hats, kitty Thermal Herman 6 7/8ths. All is well until the day their friend Old Thirdbeard comes with terrible news. His mommy, Chickarina the witch, is missing! She was last seen eating an “extra-large jumbo frozen fruitsicle, blueberry and avocado flavor” while heading up the pointy mountain known as the Witch’s Spitz. Brain freeze is almost certainly her fate, but have no fear! Thermal Herman 6 7/8ths to the rescue! Will he be able to get there in time? Will his ability to imitate any hat come into play? Stay tuned, gentle readers, to see how our favorite crew gets out of this sticky (and cold) situation.
It was to my infinite shock that I discovered that “Kat Hats” marks the third collaborative project between Pinkwater and Renier. I say “shock” because the last time I read a Pinkwater book it was back in 2012 when he wrote Bushman Lives and the last time I read a Renier was in 2010 ( The Unsinkable Walker Bean). As such, I’d sort of mentally locked them away into their own little separate compartments. Renier I associated with the magnificent nightmares of his graphic novels series. Pinkerwater, meanwhile, I sort of figured was bored with children’s books. Back in 2017 the New York Review reprinted his novel Lizard Music and that convinced me that that was how we’d see him from now on. Reprinted. Rediscovered. Not going so far as to produce wholly new, never seen before, content though.
It’s a bit of a pity that it’s not mentioned in the book anywhere, but in interviews, Pinkwater has made mention of the fact that at least a little of this book (which takes place in Pretzelburg) is an ode to an old George Carlson comic called The Pie-Face Prince of Old Pretzleburg. I took a gander at some selections from it online and it’s a gorgeous piece of 1940s color comics. A surreal storyline provides an almost too perfect origin story for Pinkwater’s own wackadoodle sensibility. Kat Hats, however, has a tone entirely of its own. Repeatedly, I found myself reading lines that just begged to be read out loud (preferably to a kid). Listen to this: “Kat Hats Incorporated does not make little hats for cats to wear. That would be adorable but it is not the business of Matt Katz and his company.” Or the line, “These cats are not sold, but rented to mountain climbers, adventurers, Arctic explorers, and people living in Chicago.” With a hat tip to the designer, the part that says “and people living in Chicago” is separated out and appears slightly lower than the rest of the text on the page. Someday I want to see someone give a talk on Making Jokes Work: How Art Directors and Designers Heighten Humor With Strategic Typography. I mean, I’d go see it. But I digress.
Since I’d not been keeping up with Renier, and really only ever thought of him in terms of his Walker Beans, this art was a consistent delight. By all accounts he’s influenced by “Gustaf Tenggren and the Golden Books sort of vibe”, hence his work with gouache paintings here. Tenggren, meanwhile, is best remembered for his work on The Poky Little Puppy (once the best-selling picture book in America for decades upon decades) though his range extended far beyond those Little Golden Books and even the Disney films he helped to create (my personal favorite of his: The Old Mill). And while I would usually pair Pinkwater with Caleb Brown whenever possible, Renier makes a rather inspired choice.
In this book, Aaron fills his pages with … I was going to write “whimsy” but that’s not really it. “Chaos” sounds too judgmental. “Wild” too tame. Essentially, he’s unafraid of a cacophony of splendor and wild interpretations. His illustration of a neon Kat Hats sign is so realistic that I had to peer in close to make sure he hadn’t gone all Red Nose Studio on us and slipped in a model. In interviews, Pinkwater has praised the way that Renier can take his text and give it a wholly new spin. Under his brush there’s suddenly a small subplot at the beginning involving a little green man who misunderstands what it is Kat Hats does and wants to design hats in the shape of cats for them. Renier has created a whole green goblin-esque variety of supporting characters, actually, that live alongside the humans. It was Renier that decided that Glamorella Katz (think Iman or Grace Jones) would never wear the same outfit from one picture to the next. He gave the kids Pocketmouse (seen in a wheelchair) and Lambkin a fascination with the circus and circus tricks that never impedes the storyline, only supports it. Finally, and I know that this is an odd thing to point out but it really struck me, Renier sets this book in a snowy winter. This is not always the first choice of your average everyday illustrator. Snow, in all its negative spacey glory, can be exceedingly hard to do well. Renier revels in it. Add in the sheer number of side details (like Glamorella’s spare outfits hanging in the laundry room) and you have yourself a book that could be read to a kid 100, 200, 300 times and still provide new visual details on every go through.
Sometimes you just want to read a picture book to a kid where everyone involved in the project loved doing it from start to finish. Pinkwater’s having a blast, tapping into his iconic oddities. Renier’s pulling out all the stops on every single page, cranking up the unconventional to 11. And I have faith that when a book is having this much fun, kids are going to respond to that. I may be slightly influenced by the fact that my own kids (aged 10 and 7) just keep coming back to this book whenever I set it down. My 10-year-old was even keen to correct me on some of the finer details, prior to writing this review, (“No, mom, they just rent the cats. They don’t sell them). Younger kids will love the basic premise in and of itself. From its endpapers to its bookflaps to the cover beneath the jacket, every inch of Kat Hats delights. For those in a mood for adventure and cute cat fashion, none compare.
On shelves February 1st.
Source: Final copy sent from publisher for review.
- See interior spreads from the book over at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast.
- Read Julie Danielson’s review of the book at BookPage.
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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