by Sam Juliano
Cat lovers will be utterly charmed. Classical music aficionados will be transported. Those who profess an affinity for both will find Leslea Newman’s Ketzel the Cat Who Composed nothing short of a revelation, though few would ever fathom the story’s central conceit was a factual one. Though it is the kind of thing that would sit comfortably as a miraculous one off in the Guinness World Book of Records, it is story steeped in humanism and its conceivable sphere of possibilities. One could easily enough conclude that the book’s central event was just a lucky occurrence, a triumph over the law of probability or a validation of fate. Either way, Ketzel the Cat Who Composed is a life-affirming work with a deeply emotional center. While preparing for this series I came upon it by accident. After securing a planned purchase of another title at Manhattan’s Books of Wonder, I quickly browsed the shelves, and was taken by the cover and the subject. You see I am one who did find the book a lightening bolt of sorts, as a lifelong multiple cat owner and classical music fanatic. Such a story was too irresistible to ignore. Then there were the amazing illustrations. I have since discovered that the book had received fabulous reviews and strong word of mouth by online picture book lovers. And it was even named by some as one of the year’s recommended titles.
Moshe Cotel lives in solitude on the third floor of an apartment building on a cacophonous street in a city that never sleeps. Yet sounds of all variety are music to the ears of a composer, which is in effect what his own teacher had taught him. Moshe began his day sitting at his piano listening the sounds outside and inside himself, and turned them into rapturous music. His routine was always to leave the apartment when his composition session was complete, not only for exercise but to listen to all the sounds for possible inspiration. One day after hearing an unusual, more intimate sound Moshe came upon a black and white kitten nestled in a box around a corner. He named him Ketzel and took him back to his apartment, where he sat the small creature down on the top of the piano to witness his work in progress, sharing the advice that the teacher had given Moshe.
A letter arrives advising Moshe that the Paris New Music Review is having a contest, which is in effect an open for sixty second compositions. Moshe reads the letter aloud to Ketzel, opining incredulously that no measure of beautiful music can be limited to one minute. Exasperated he gave the assignment his all the following morning, but after fumbling keys and glancing again at the letter (as if he hopefully may have read it wrong) but soon realized that every attempt was approaching ten minutes. In essence he was overcome by writer’s block, and blankly stared out the window, crushed by defeat. Enter this unusual kitten, whom Newman asserts too a look at the letter, “put one six-toed paw down on the keyboard, and crept across the keys in a scene that thematically all-too-gleefully recalls the 1947 classic “Tom and Jerry” cartoon The Cat Concerto. Moshe, in sheer ecstasy, wrote down what he just heard, declaring that the twenty-one second musical ditty has a distinct beginning, middle and end, not to mention a soulful essence. Proclaiming Ketzel a genius, Moseh sends off the composition titled “Piece for Piano: Four Paws” off to the judges informing them it is Ketzel’s maiden foray into composing. After a while, a letter arrives -address to Ketzel- informing her that the judges did not choose the piece for any of the top three prices, but still deemed it worthy of a certificate of special mention. With ebullience to match the moment when Grandpa Joe finds out that Charlie has won the final golden ticket in the Roald Dahl classic, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory Moshe lifts Ketzel into the air, as Newman pointedly notes “two composers danced a jig of joy all around the room.”
Next up a few weeks later Moshe grooms Ketzel, dresses up in his finest suit and cabs over to the concert hall (the yellow cab and the circular configuration of the inside would seem to indicate we are in the Big Apple, and specifically at Carnegie Hall) where the piano solo was to debut. After two hours of non-stop music, a young girl emerge to announce she would be performing “Piece for Piano: Four Paws” by Ketzel, but is interrupted by a “meow” when the cat hears her name from inside Moshe’s vest pocket where she is hidden. Unfettered, the girl offers an encore of her intentions, but is greeted by another “Meow!” The audience by then were laughing aloud, and the house manager orders eviction for a forbidden pet. He is overruled by the judges who conclude there is no law against a cat who composes, and Ketzel is urged to stay on while the composition is played. The girl winds up playing the piece twice and Moshe with Ketzel ascends the stage to take the proper bows. The story and Ketzel’s photo make the newspapers worldwide, and the now famous feline is given a check for $19.72, which she “signs” with an inked paw at the bank. Plenty of cat food awaiting this extraordinary composer.
The watercolor, gouache and pencil illustrations by Amy June Bates are exquisite throughout, but perhaps most significantly they tell what is an intimate story in the claws of an indifferent metropolis. The vignettes of Moshe and Ketzel are heartfelt, and there is a real personal and vocational camaraderie between man and cat, master and his apprentice, lonely creator and his muse. Bates wastes no time in setting the mise en scene with four extraordinary double page spreads. First up is front view of the steaming street, rife with overhead construction, hardhats, gridlocked cabs and barking dogs. The structures are sketch outlines, symbolic and impersonal, but there is warmth emanating from the composer’s red bricked abode, and yellow tinged tree blossoms. Then the composer-at-piano close-up with still life sunflower and onlooking bird, is sublimely rendered, even as a stand alone, and finally the striking overhead depicted bird’s nest over street sign, parking meter, trash can, and abandoned cat and litter box, a steaming terrain for Moshe to negotiate. Moshe is then pictured holding Ketzel full front, again with the outlined buildings and the ceaseless activity. After the set of irresistible bonding vignettes rendered in brown and mahogany, there is frustration and disarray in the spread showcasing the many failed attempts, and then the wonderful three-figure succession showcases of Ketzel scampering across the piano keys, surely one of Bates’ illustrative highlights. The upbeat, celebratory panels after the letter is received at the concert hall are affectionately etched, and the one with Moshe and his star composer in a back row is quite an example of diminishing watercolor perspective and abstract application. The two piano tapestries are wonderfully bathed in theatrical glow, and who can resist the newspaper stand with headlines of “Cool Cat,” “Purrfest Pianists,” “Cat Composer” and “Cat Composer”, the check or Ketzel having his paw inked at the bank. The final tapestry showcases famed feline in canned cat food bliss, while on the back wall a framed newspaper headline announces his feat to the world. Again Bates demonstrates depth of composition superbly. The duplicated end papers of Ketzel eyeing the piano keys and the gorgeous cream cover of a proud cat in front of his composition enhance this exquisite package.
There have been a number of human and animal “teams” in the annals of children’s literature. In early 1996 Peggy Rathman’s Officer Buckle and Gloria won the Caldecott Medal for its narrative of a safety officer and his dog Gloria, both of whom performed their safety tips at schools. What makes Ketzel the Cat Who Composed so special is that it is based on a real-life event. The fact that it it is superbly and affectionately written and magnificently illustrated place in in the pantheon of essential children’s books. It should be a cinch for Caldecott committee scrutiny.
Here is the link to a fascinating piece in the New York Times which announced Ketzel’s passing at a ripe old age:
Note: This is the twenty-sixth review in the 2015 Caldecott Contender series that will be published at this site over the coming months, up until the January 11th scheduled awards date. The books that will be examined are not necessarily ones that are bonafide contenders in the eyes of the voting committee, but rather the ones this writer feels should be. The order they will be presented is arbitrary as some of my absolute favorites will be presented near the end.