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The Big Picture, a regular Bulletin feature both on-line and off, is an in-depth look at selected new titles and trends. See the archive for selections from previous months.


Farish, Terry. The Cat Who Liked Potato Soup; illus. by Barry Root.
Candlewick, 2003 [32p]
ISBN 0-7636-0834-3 $15.99
5-8 yrs

Picture-book artists tend to get most of the glory in the picture-book partnership, but a truly fine picture-book text is a thing of beauty in its own right, achieving things that pictures can't (even as the art achieves things that the text can't) rather than functioning merely as punctuation or captioning. Though it's a demanding format, with its need for compactness and for partnership, there are those that excel at it: Margaret Wise Brown, Arthur Yorinks, Jacqueline Briggs Martin, to name a few. Now Terry Farish demonstrates herself an exciting new talent in the genre with this casually told yet tender tale about the prickly friendship between an old man and his cat.

The old man used to have lots of cats, leaving him largely indifferent to any particular individual, but now he lives with just the one, "who he liked, but not so's you'd notice." She's no hunter, instead warmly appreciating the old man's potato soup and enjoying riding along in the boat on his fishing trips ("The cat sat on the bow of the boat, her face into the wind, like she was a hood ornament"). One day, the two squabble: when the cat refuses to desert the warm bed in the morning (the old man had finally installed an electric blanket), the sulking codger goes fishing without her; when he returns home, he finds a catless house. Eventually, though, the insulted kitty returns, bearing a considerably larger fish than the old man's usual catches, and the properly humbled old man treats her with the appreciation he'd hitherto hidden: "And he loved the sight of her, oh, and this time you'd notice."

Farish's deliberately easygoing text takes an engaging story and turns it into a finely fashioned saga of wry humor and delicate emotion. Her understated colloquialisms allow the story to shine through the rustic flavor (seeking the errant cat, the old man "looked in all his rooms. He had three"), and her carefully crafted structure strengthens the impact ("She did not come home for lunch. She did not come home for supper"). These days picture-book prose finds it difficult to resist artistically ragged right margins (perhaps hoping that it will lighten some leaden prose), but here that arrangement packs a subtle but effective punch, the deliberate placement giving the succinct phraseology a silent shaping rhythm that will add atmosphere to readalouds as well. At the center of all this is the relationship of the undemonstrative old man and his longtime pet. Their regular conversations have an air of homely bickering about them, and since the cat's portion of these exchanges depends strongly on the old man's interpretation and understanding (the returned cat "opened her mouth and howled for a long time. The old man had trouble making out the details of her story"), the narrative dexterously dabbles its toes in the water of fantasy while never quite leaving reality's shores; most pet owners will relate to the notion of extensive communication that may not quite translate to outsiders. Underneath all this squabbling is the sense of a domestic partnership ("He drove up his and the cat's dirt driveway") that's long privately understood, even if public acknowledgment was awhile in coming.

Fortunately, the visuals are well worthy of the text, with Root's watercolor and gouache pictures evincing the same effective naturalness as the prose. The cat is wisely underplayed (making the sudden opening of her eyes after the old man's solitary departure a noticeable response), so she doesn't overbalance the bewhiskered old man. The setting is far from elegant but it's full of unforced and restrained character, from the recycled bathroom appliances (an old bathtub next to the porch houses a few struggling plants, and a toilet inviting "junk mail" crouches next to the mailbox) to the water boom in the field behind the house to the single pinwheel that stands bravely in the front yard. The palette leans on warm ochres (nicely setting off the orange cat) until the cat's departure, whereupon blues shadow the landscape and grays thin it, but the soft moonlight shines through the bedroom's tidy yellow curtains and warms up the little house's interior upon her return. The quietly artistic layout (brown rather than black print boxed in restrained sage, full-page illustrations balanced with spot art and text on the facing page) adds a nicely rubbed glow that makes this a comfortably attractive book indeed.

There are certainly plenty of youngsters who will be drawn to the notion of living with just a beloved pet for company. There are also likely quite a few kids in similar human relationships, where they're grumped at by somebody undemonstrative who's genuinely fond of them nonetheless, and this story may help explain that cranky commentary can hide unspoken affection. Even kids who don't fall into those categories will appreciate the rhythmic storytelling, the lively individuality, and the irascible yet endearing relationship between these memorable characters.

Deborah Stevenson, Editor

Big Picture Image

Cover illustration by Barry Root from The Cat Who Liked Potato Soup 2003. Used by permission of Candlewick Press.


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