Sometimes a picture book is so perfect, it begs to be shared and discussed and read over and over again. "The Cat with Seven Names" is just such a picture book. Tony Johnston is the talented author who writes about community and urban settings with aplomb. Her "Any Small Goodness" is also a wonderful book for 4th and 5th graders.
In "The Cat with Seven Names," the reader is hooked from the first page. "A cat came to my back door one day. Gray, with white paws. Nobody visits me much. I put down the book I was reading (I am a librarian), and I let him in."
Immediately, Johnston sets the story. Here is someone who is lonely ("Nobody visits me much") who opens the door for the cat. This pattern is repeated with different people -- all of whom share a bit of loneliness; all of whom benefit from the company of a slightly fat cat; all of whom feed the cat; and all of whom are very different in terms of nationality, age, and situation.
First comes the librarian. Next the cat visits an older gentleman whose family is "grown and gone." The next house is that of un señor who talks partly en español, in Spanish. He also lives alone and loves the idea of a cat to keep him and his dog company. The list goes on, including a war veteran who is homeless. Johnston tactfully tackles this subject, opening the door for discussion of PTSD and homelessness for those readers of appropriate age.
There are so many wonderful aspects of this book in terms of teaching that they will not all fit into this review. A few highlights would be to use this book to teach point of view (POV). Each of the characters, all of whom tell their story in first person, has his/her own style of narration, even a particular language style. What a great way to teach students about character and personal voice.
The book is also a great tool for discussing social issues like growing old, immigrants, homelessness, and the lasting effects of war on veterans.
This review would not be complete without a mention of the stunning watercolor artwork throughout the book. Davenier's illustrations are simple but incredibly effective. The bright colors bring happiness to the pages while the illustrations showing the homeless veteran are of a cooler, bluer palette. His face is in shadow for two of the pictures, but in the final illustration of him with the cat, he is holding the cat in his arms, and the picture is lighter with warmer colors. Throughout, there is wonderful use of white space to focus the eye on what is important.
This picture book is one that could be used for a wide range of ages and purposes. It's great for students of all ages. Younger students will just enjoy the stories and the happy ending. Older students can study the author's craft and analyze why it works. They can also try their hand at creating their own books about different characters finding a stray dog or cat and what happens to each.
Please note: This review is based on the final hardcover book provided by the publisher, Charlesbridge Publishing, for review purposes.
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