The Cat who went to Heaven
Elizabeth Coatsworth (1931)
Read to: Kinder - 2nd grade
Read independently: 3rd - 5th grade
Many people might expect this to be a great book to help kids deal with the death of a pet. The title is deceiving. It's really a sort of folk-tale about how cats were redeemed after originally rejecting Buddah.
The book claims 63 pages but with lots of full page mono-color illustrations and many other pages taken up with only a verse from a song, it is a short book. However, it still took us about a week - maybe longer. Maybe my 6y3m son was just in a tired phase but we didn't seem to make much progress before he fell asleep each night. On an engaging level I felt it was average. He fell asleep much less quickly with Daniel Boone or The White Stag and those were VERY boring. Caddie Woodlawn and Roller Skates kept him awake because he was so interested. A cat is his favorite potential pet so I would think he'd be interested in this story - maybe he just doesn't have a reliable ratio of speed to sleep:level of interest in a book.
This book is the story of a Japanese artist befriended by a cat when he is at perhaps the most challenging point of his career. sales have been slow and he is hungry. To say he is less than pleased when the housekeeper brings home a cat instead of food from the market is an understatement. Specifically the exchange goes like this:
"Have you gone mad? here we are starving and you must bring home a goblin, a goblin to share the little we have, and perhaps to suck our blood at night! Yes! It will be fine to wake up in the dark and feel teeth at our throats and look into eyes as big as lanterns! But perhaps you are right! Perhaps we are so miserable it would be a good thing to have us die at once, and be carried over the ridgepoles in the jaws of a devil!"
"But master, master, there are many good cats, too!" cried the poor old woman. "Have you forgotten the little boy who drew all the pictures of cats on the screens of the deserted temple and then went to sleep in a closet and heard such a racket in the middle of the night? And in the morning when he awoke again, he found the giant rat lying dead, master - the rat who had come to kill him! Who destroyed the rat, sir, tell me that? It was his own cats, there they sat on the screen as he had drawn them, but there was blood on their claws! ..."
Then the old woman began to cry. ... Why should he be angry? He had gone hungry before.
"Well, well," he said, "sometimes it is good fortune to have even a devil in the household. It keeps other devils away. (p. 2-3)
The chapters are not numbered but in between each chapter is a poem such as: The First song of the Housekeeper I'm poor and I'm old, / My hair has gone gray, / My robe is all patches, / My sash is not gay. // The fat God of Luck / Never enters our door, / And no visitors come / To drink tea anymore. // Yet I hold my head high / As I walk through the town. / While I serve such a master / My heart's not bowed down! (p. 5)
They name the cat Good Fortune and the cat proves to be rather intuitive and know when he is no longer welcome in a room. In fact the cat soon "redeems" itself when it catches a bird but then lets it go. The artist, watching through the window, says, " 'What mercy!' cried the artist, and the tears came into his eyes. Well, he knew his cat must be hungry and well he knew what hunger felt like. 'I am ashamed when I think that I called such a cat a goblin," he thought. "Why, she is more virtuous than a priest.' " (p. 8)
And speaking of priests, soon a priest comes and asks the artist to make, "a painting of the death of our Lord Buddha for the temple." (p. 9-10) The priest encourages the artist by saying, "If the work is successful, as we hope, your fortune is made, for what the temple approves becomes the fashion in town." (p. 10) Being a Christian I have yet to study very much about Buddha but obviously, the artist knows the subject well. The timeline of his painting the great masterpiece is as follows:
Day 1 - spends entire day imagining Buddha as Prince Siddhartha, surrounded by riches and finery
Day 2 - spends entire day contemplating the renunciation of Siddhartha
Day 3 - sleeps the entire day
Day 4 - spends three hours painting Buddha on the canvass
"In the following days the artist painted the various gods of the earth and sky and the disciples who came to say farewell to the Buddha" (p. 20)
As he paints each animal he recalls stories about the Buddha, including times when, "the spirit of Buddha himself had been born in the form of" (p. 26) an animal. Each animal also has its full page illustration in the book, originally done on rice paper before being reproduced in the book, giving it a very unique and somewhat authentic look. He paints a:
other miscellaneous animals
With these above named animals he spent time in meditation and then painted. "In each of them the spirit of the Buddha had at one time lived, or it had rendered service to him when he was a prince on earth." (p. 46) In between the painting of each animal the housekeeper would try and tend to the artist's nourishment or have some other exchange with him and the cat would always come by and give some sign of approval or exchange some sort of unspoken message. By the end of the process, the artist felt so grateful to the previously unwanted cat that he included a cat in the painting, even though Buddha had never been associated with a cat. " 'I cannot be so hard-hearted,' he said. 'If the priests wish to refuse the picture as inaccurate, let them do so. I can starve.' " (p. 54)
Towards the end of the book is a two page illustration of the completed painting, including the dead Buddha laid out on a firm bed and covered as if sleeping. It takes up approximately 1/6 the width and 1/7 the height - so relatively small and not at all gruesome.
Initially the priests are critical of his decision to include the cat but there is a miraculous and happy ending after all.
I think this book is a healthy way to expose children to the concept of other religions. In today's diverse society it is important to grow tolerance and respect for individuals in our children. In the same way they accept that some people have red hair, some blonde, and some black it doesn't mean they have to go out and change their own hair color or look down upon those with different colored hair.