Wednesday, 27 May 2015
The Quayside Cat by Toby Forward and Ruth Brown reviewed by Julia Jones
The Quayside Cat tells the story of a younger cat Jim who loves to hear the stories of the retired ship's cat, Old Tregarn. One day Jim is so enraptured by Tregarn's tales that he persuades the old cat to take them both to sea. The crew is kind but the weather is rough and though Jim puts on a brave face, he is glad to return home to the quayside. Old Tregarn, however, truly loves the seafaring life – Ruth Brown's drawing of him feeling the wind in his fur is possibly the finest thing in the book, though all her cat illustrations are delightful. He chooses to remain aboard. We guess that neither his life or the ship's will last much longer and the final page shows Old Jim on the quayside telling his seafaring tales to two entranced younger cats. It's a muted ending because the reader knows that Jim is spinning yarns whereas Tregarn had been a true sea cat.
I took The Quayside Cat to tea with three of my grandchildren: boy and girl twins aged 5 and their older sister aged 7. I pulled it out of the granny bag together with an utterly different, much more obviously child-focused book also featuring the mythological sea full of square-rigged ships, pirates and sea-monsters which is all that young children are usually offered. “Which would you like?” I asked the children. The boy twin, who loves nature and growing things but is finding reading, writing, arithmetic hard, reached for The Quayside Cat without a moment's hesitation and took it to the table to scribe his name in the front.
I'll admit that this was quite unexpected and very pleasing. The four of us then had a happy time reading and talking about the book and it proved, once again, how responsive young children are to beauty and how keen their eyes are to spot detail. The painting, textures and colour choices pleased us all. I wish I could say the same for the text.
Toby Forward's words begin in poetic mode which I was happy to read aloud as we were sucked back into the land of cobbled streets and cheery cabin boys and feasting on deck in the light of oil lamps. Some of the dialogue between the cats demanded stringent attention to speech marks to know who was talking and would I think have been unnecessarily difficult for a child reader. My grandchildren and I are sailors and while we are perfectly happy to suspend disbelief and enjoy the nautical never-never land, there were moments when this text came dangerously close to tosh.
The ship is in a storm and the ship is riding the waves As high as steeples. Higher. That's okay, it's emotive, it's how one might feel. But then the narrator claims: The sails become so threadbare that when the crew hoists them, they catch just enough wind to move her through the water as a father takes a child and leads it to safety. Whatever is this trying to say? Threadbare sails do NOT selectively catch less wind than sails which are in good condition. They split. The ship will then drive uncontrollably through the water under bare poles – NOT AT ALL the same as being led to safety by some reassuring adult hand.
Now that I've got this gripe out of my system I shall return the book to to my grandson knowing that Ruth Brown's illustrations will nourish his artistic sensibility and feeling secretly glad that he will follow the story without reading any of the words.