Review of the Day: Cat and Chicken
Let's get a couple things straight right from the get-go. I like illustrator Sara Varon. I think she's neat. Don't believe me? Check out her website sometime. She's done loads of cool pics and prints for clients as widely diverse as The New York Times and the Walker Museum in Minneapolis. Her form of illustration is a misleadingly simple series of clean-lined almost cartoonish prints. Now she has turned, as so many comic artists and printmakers are wont to do, to the relatively lucrative world of children's books with her first effort, "Chicken and Cat". I will repeat something here now, to clear up future confusion. I LIKE Varon's work. Unfortunately, I wasn't head over heels crazy in love with, "Chicken and Cat". A fun book with a simple storyline, this wordless picture book ends up a bit more confusing than it really needs to be. A nice first effort and a laudable work, but I would advise waiting for Varon's future titles before running out and purchasing this one.
A cat comes to the big city to stay with a chicken. The cat is not entirely used to citylife, finding it a bit industrial. Just the same, chicken has lots of good ideas for hanging out. The two go to Central Park and have some ice cream. They take a day trip to Coney Island and traverse the boardwalk. They even take a boatride when the mood hits. Still, Cat is troubled. Going back to their apartment is such a drab affair. Fortunately, Chicken has an idea. Some packets of seeds and a lot of gardening later, the two have turned the empty lot across the street into a veritable urban paradise. Happy ending for all.
It's probably not the best sign when a person has to read the bookflap of a picture book to figure out what exactly is going on. Wordless picture books, by and large, are worth their weight in gold. Parents who want to introduce books to their kids before the children can read often find books of this nature to be invaluable tools. The kids can follow the storyline, understand it, and start a love of books as a result. And I think that, "Chicken and Cat" could certainly be used in this fashion. Still, let's examine some of the narrative problems. Right from the start a cat arrives on a bus and is picked up by a chicken. Is the cat staying with the chicken permanently or is it just a visit? Where is the cat coming from? We can assume from the fact that the cat is spotting the grittier elements of citylife (cockroaches, noisy cars, trash, etc.) that the feline originally hails from a part of the country that's a little more countrified than NYC (or Brooklyn). After a couple readings your average reader will pick up on the fact that the cat doesn't like going back to Chicken's house because there isn't any greenery about. Later, the two plant seeds in the abandoned lot across the street. The plants come up and everyone's happy, but that must mean that the cat's been living with Chicken for a very long time. So did the cat move in after all? I know that this might sound like some major nit-picking here. But children, in my experience, like things to make sense. If you can explain away something to them by saying "it's magic", that's fine because magic (within a certain frame of mind) makes sense. All the more reason that a wordless picture book should go out of its way to make everything clear. When I read the bookflap of this book, by the way, I learned that cat lives in the country. One has to wonder if the writer of that flap was the artist or someone somewhere making assumptions.
Now the art, by and large, is fab. I'm a sucker for graphic novels and comic strips. Varon uses nice clean lines and I couldn't help but love the fact that both Cat and Chicken have pockets, if not any pants (check out the cover). There was one small problem with Varon's rendering of Cat, by the way. When I showed the book to a co-worker of mine her first question was, "Is that an alien?". Alas, the kitty here does have some rather otherworldly ears going on. Still, you would think the collar and tail would be enough to clue in those people who somehow missed the title of the book. I liked how Varon, a Brooklyn native, set this story in New York too. Central Park (having acquired some pink flamingos, interestingly enough) is portrayed here with great love. Coney Island is even more fun with a shot of the F train and a tribute to its boardwalk. So illustration-wise, the book does quite well for itself. It's just the narrative that could use some tinkering.
Varon has another picture book coming out called "Robot Dreams", that involves the friendship between a robot and a dog. A natural progression, one might point out, if her cats resemble aliens. I'm looking forward to that book. As much as I really did enjoy, "Chicken and Cat", I feel as if it's an unfinished work. The storyline is fun but leaps from place to place without much continuity and the story is a touch unclear, if cheery. The illustrations remain top notch. A nice purchase, but not a necessary one. I recommend flipping through it yourself when you get a chance.