by Sam Juliano
You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”
-Atticus Finch, To Kill A Mockingbird
In the end it all comes down to perception. That is both the crux of the matter in Brendan Wenzel’s fabulously inventive They All Saw A Cat and the opportunity for its creator to put himself “in the shoes of the animal, and then make a piece of artwork representing how I imagine they might see a cat.” Wenzel himself in a recent interview responded with that quote when explaining his strategy with a book that has taken the children’s book world by storm, and has endlessly delighted classroom teachers who were gifted a a literature unit complete with drawing enrichment. But taken on its own terms this is a remarkable fusion of text and illustrations that not only is scientifically thought provoking but but an exceedingly sublime work that was created without playing favorites to any particular negotiating process. Indeed as revealed on the book last (copyright) page “the illustrations in this book were rendered in almost everything imaginable, including colored pencil, oil pastels, acrylic paint, watercolor, charcoal, Magic Marker, good old number 2 pencils, and even an iBook.” To bring such a seemingly undisciplined artistic melting pot to such unified heights is perhaps the most incredible achievement in They All Saw A Cat as the readers young and old alike are treated to a new adventure on every turn of the page.
‘The cat’ walked through the world, with its whiskers, ears, and paws provides the book’s entry point. First to see the cat is the child, and the love for a pet is evident from the tail cuddled around the legs, the feline’s big-eyed smile and the cozy rug they stand on. This is immediately contrasted in the next double-page spread where a none too happy dog sees a cat as all limbs – wiry, a face dominated by two rectangular eyes and a huge bell that enhances the noise for the already disgruntled canine. The dog seems poised to pounce. When the fox sees the cat, the equation is all about the prospects for the next meal. Hence in the eyes of this predator the cat is plump and seemingly an easy target. After another refrain reiterating the cat’s modus operandi, we see the cat as a blurry mass under the water where a small fish sixes up the cat in exaggerated terms where the size rivals some of the biggest fish in the lake or ocean. The eyes are prodigious, the oversized whiskers lending some degree of definition to a blurry mass. When a mouse sees a cat the fire truck red image is one of a ferocious monster with big teeth, fiery eyes and imposing claws. This is not a look the mouse wants to partake of for very long as this cat’s temperament matches that of a jungle cougar moving in for the kill.
The remarkable eyesight of bees has long been a source of fascination among zoologists. Like humans they possess trichromatic vision and can decipher color quicker than any creature in the animal world. Wenzel suggests the bee transcribes the cat by way of shape, outline and color, all intricately visible in a pattern of dots. After another walking through the world refrain, another creature with remarkable vision, the bird sees the cat from overhead in much the same way a human would, though for the necessity of safe flight most bird specious eclipse humans for sight distance and preciseness. The yellow bird collage makes for one of the books most arresting tableaus by way of color and perspective. When a flea comes upon the scene in the next tableau, Wenzel makes it clear as have scientific findings that these pesky external parasites are unable to form acute visual images, rather their limited ability is governed by light intensity. Hence the cat is shown as a mass of fur, where the flea resides unable to define anything beyond.
The general belief is that snakes can make out some colors, hence a cat is shaped out in fluorescent yellow with large orange eyes and whiskers in a single panel illustration while to accentuate the other extreme Wenzel offers up the skunk as a purveyor of monochromatic images, where the cat is seen clearly enough without realistic delineation. An earthworm is shown under the dirt sensing the cat’s movement on the surface. Worms do not have eyes but light receptors, and they represent the only creatures in They All Saw A Cat who are incapable of seeing a cat. But they can hear the paws on the ground above, via an arresting illustration that evokes electrical impulses. A bat sees the outline of a cat by way of neon lights, and then Wenzel follows that up with what may be his most remarkable tapestry of all – a two page spread of the cat presented in patchwork terms, an all-encompassing design of the cat that awards representation to all the previous participants in this alluring tale of individual perception. The cat is seen the same blissful pose as the one on the first page when being petted by the child but the melting pot scheme provides young readers with both a review and a reminder that a cat does not make the same impression on all onlookers. Hence when Wenzel explains with exclamatory heft, Yes, They All saw A Cat! readers can have fun playing an identification game. The next turn of the page offers up a wonderful marriage of a captivating read aloud of all the creatures who saw the cat, who are all represented in a marvelous vignette. The cat knew them all, and they all knew the cat.
When the cat reaches the water after walking through the world, with its whiskers, ears and paws, children’s book aficionados are treated to what may be the most transcendent illustration in They All Saw A Cat – the reflection in the water ripples that give the cat a look at himself and in comparative terms it is markedly impressionistic. The end papers bring the matter of the cat’s fur into focus, giving it a skin-on-the-outside impression, with the navy blue actual cover is navy blue with the same dust jacket figure of the cat in silhouette white. What makes They All Saw A Cat so extraordinary – and a surefire Caldecott Contender with deafening buzz – is its audacious manner of alternating points of view and proving to children that the oft-used phrase “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder” has new-found relevance in this universal and inventive tale with avant garde moorings. Mr. Wenzel has been on a roll in 2016, (One Day in the Eucalyptus, Eucalyptus Tree with Daniel Bernstrom and Some Pets with Angela DiTerlizzi are lovely) but it is clear enough that with this remarkable work he’s raised the bar in a big way.
Note: This is the fifth entry in the 2016 Caldecott Medal Contender series. The series does not purport to predict what the committee will choose, rather it attempts to gauge what the writer feels should be in the running. In most instances the books that are featured in the series have been touted as contenders in various online round-ups, but for the ones that are not, the inclusions are a humble plea to the committee for consideration. It is anticipated the series will include at least 30 titles; the order which they are being presented in is arbitrary, as every book in this series is a contender. Some of my top favorites of the lot will be done near the end. The awards will be announced on January 22nd, hence the reviews will continue till two days before that date.