by Sam Juliano
Less is More – Robert Browning, “Andrea del Sarto”, 1855
Of all the picture books being reviewed this year for the Caldecott Medal Contender series, there are none that aim lower than Toni Yuly’s Cat Nap. Of course my contention isn’t remotely to disparage this third release in a wildly-popular series launched in January of 2015, but to state at the outset the age of the audience the book was written for. It is no easy challenge to ensnare the attention of the youngest toddlers, and then to hold it for the duration, which in this case is thirty-four pages from the copyright panel to charming finale. Even as seemingly an innocuous decision as to what color should adorn the end papers plays a vital role in this calculated effort to secure and maintain the most impressionable gathering of all. Yuly opts for a solid fluorescent orange, a color for young children that denotes pumpkins, Halloween, their favorite fizzy drinks and ice, and generally a warm color that demands immediate attention. From that opening splash we move into the basic conceit which is basically the psychological tug of war between an older cat and the kitten that is presumed to be her offspring. The ink sketch of the kitten devilishly following the tail of the cat states the book’s recurring conflict in the sparest term possible, though Yuly illustratively expands the premise with her bold and minimalist digital lines and figures, which speak to the young ones without confusion or ostentation.
The background color for the first few pages is an appealing pastel turquoise, but Yuly employs it as a color of peaceful slumber, though the clock confirms it is noontime, when most are active and preparing for a meal. But as the book’s title also implies a “cat nap” is the term one uses when people close their eyes and manage a few winks, either because they need to be rejuvenated at mid day, or they were might have been cheated the previous night. The clock is a masterful simplification of the time complexity that toddlers grapple with when eyeing the real thing. But here, with or without the proper aid of a read-aloud the the twelve numbers are bright red circles extended from a brown central mechanism and hands. The mouse – a simple face circle with closed eyes as upward curves and a string tail wonderfully invokes the simplicity if not the textures of Leo Liani’s Frederick, and three wide black lines are meant to suggest a wall shelf where this house creature is part of the sleep equation. Even the gold fish – also red – is catching a few in the bowl. The juxtaposition of the cat and fish in one panel in sleep mode is contrasted by the “curious” kitten standing abreast of the wide awake fish, rearing and ready to go with the game. Kitten creeps up behind the napping cat and the color goes gray, in this scenario a call to action. Cat is none too delighted when his eyes turn upward to see kitten in devilish demeanor. Pressing forward the kitty urges the cat to play hide and seek, and most toddlers will see something meaningful in the mouse looking on from her hole. The cat finally acquiesces and smugly heads off to hide while a now emboldened kitty peaking out from an opening of a red painted enclosure gets serious, as mouse eyes him from above. But he orders his younger subordinate to refrain from bending the rules.
Cat climbs to the top of a marvelously minimalist wall unit with a staircase design outlined with silhouette figures of a coffee mug, a vase, flowers, a CD player, books and other items, with the figure of the mouse white on black at the bottom. We see a partial outline of kitten on a red chair looking up that fondly recalls the illustrative style of Molly Bang’s Caldecott Honor winning The Grey Lady and the Strawberry Snatcher. Soon enough Cat’s ineffective hideout is uncovered while mouse witnesses the event. Cat then figures if a lofty perch is persona non gratta with this precocious young feline, the only solution is the other extreme. So under the bed it will be, though Cat Nap’s spy in residence, the mouse isn’t far away. The color is back to turquoise-blue, though a darker shade as Cat is under the mistaken impression he will win some shut eye, but the prowling kitty will have none of it in the following spread all eyed by mouse. The bare bones design of the room is one of the author-illustrator’s finest canvasses in the book – the black outline of the bed with a curve to denote a pillow, a simply black and white cross pattern for a blanket, an oval overhead lamp and a light beige rug. The color changes to the shades of brown and yellow in a cellar spread that evokes the work of Jon Klassen in his collaboration with Lemony Snicket titled The Dark. The light bulb hangs with pull down string with a circular grab holder, and under the stairs the ubiquitous mouse eyes a spider descend from a perfectly constructed web. Of course Cat is effectively concealed until kitten turns on the light!
The game heats up and some of the most charming vignettes, etched in square and rectangular designs and wonderfully multi-colored showcase cat trying to find the right hising place in and around the house. Kids will love the three level block formation spelling “I Am Cat”, the mouse hanging on the hammock clasp and the foolhardy attempt of Cat to hide in a flower pot. One is reminded of Northwest Hounded Police, a 1946 Tex Avery cartoon classic where Officer Droopy always finds the wolf, though we find out there at the end that the cards are stacked in a much different way. An especially exquisite spread shows the hapless Cat hiding behind flowers, though kitten and anyone reading the books sees the camouflage is especially inept. Mouse in burrowing mode has also figured it out. The spare design of the flowers on both sides of the fold are lovely, and well-balanced. Finally cat is really pooped and heads off to really take a nap and he finds an equally spent kitten in his box bed., while mouse is seen snoozing in the entrance to her wall hole. The look on Cat’s face? Pure exasperation. The kitty summons up the image of the cat who swallowed the canary.
The irresistible Cat Nap follows the red and blue dominated Early Bird and the purple and yellow Night Owl, and like those two marvelous predecessors the digital art will enthrall pre-K and lower grade students every time it is chosen. Yuly knows her audience, yet her work is a delight too for adult readers who will revel in artistic balance and spare uses of the components that speak to the young ones. Cat Nap is fully deserving of Caldecott scrutiny.
Note: This is the twenty-third entry in the ongoing 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.