Some things have been part of our lives in some form or other for so long that we begin to take them for granted. T.S. Eliot's masterpiece Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats is just such a work. Lots of people only know these poems, and indeed these cats from the musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber, but the originals are terrific and it behoves every parent to make sure that the next generation gets to know these delightful felines in the best way possible: through the texts themselves.
Children used to meet these animals at about age ten or so, but here is a brilliant initiative from Faber to put them in front of much younger boys and girls and it's an inspired idea. They've taken four of the cat poems (Mr. Mistoffelees and Macavity are also in the same series) and allowed Arther Robins to illustrate each so that it becomes a full-colour picture book. The pictures are glorious: funny, colourful, witty, and also packed with delightful details of the kind that young readers adore. I can't think of anyone who wouldn't like to meet Skimbleshanks, the Railway Cat who is even topical these days:
Nothing goes wrong with the Northern Mail
When Skimbleshanks is aboard.
ASLEF and the RMT could do with his services!
The Northern Mail is a Sleeper Express and I'm not sure these still exist but Robins makes it look like a perfect way to travel. The great advantage of these picture books is that you won't get bored reading them aloud night after night. They are, after all, the work of a great poet and they are still fresh after nearly 80 years.
The Jellicle Cats are almost my favourites because they are basically pleasure loving. They have in this version, bubble baths scented with French perfume. You can tell the perfume is French from the sketch of the Eiffel Tower on the bottle. It's details like this that make Robins's pictures so much fun. Every spread is full of movement and jollity and I bet there are lots of children all over the country who will know these books by heart in very short order.
For all older readers, the edition below is the one to have. It contains all the Old Possum poems illustrated by that master of the spooky/funny/Gothic who was a master of illustration in his own particular style, Edward Gorey. The black and white illustrations are darker than Robins's vision but very beautiful in their way and just the thing for anyone older than 7 or so.
I'm going to end this review by urging everyone to welcome a Practical Cat into their life. And by reproducing the drawing of all Edward Gorey's that I've loved best from this book for more years than I care to count: Cat Morgan, door keeper at Faber. Here he is and I wish everyone lots of happy reading in 2017.
SKIMBLESHANKS T.S. Eliot ill Arthur Robins
Faber pbks £6.99
JELLICLE CATS T.S.Eliot ill Arthur Robins
Faber pbxs £6.99
OLD POSSUM'S BOOK OF PRACTICAL CATS T. S.Eliot ill. Edward Gorey
Faber pbks £9.99
Return to REVIEWS HOMEPAGE