Cat-ness – “Jenny and the Cat Club” by Esther Averill – New York Review Books Children’s Collection

jenny and the cat club 2In the last few years New York Review Books, with a stroke of brilliance,  have been unearthing and reissuing classics for children (and their big people).

These range from picture books for preschoolers to early chapter books and novels for older children.  Beauties like The Backward Day by Ruth Krauss, Palmer Brown’s Hickory, The Thirteen Clocks by James Thurber and The Magic Pudding by Norman Lindsay.  Check out the NYRB pages – they group these treasures by reading age.

Objects to admire, beautiful to hold – these hard-cover editions have red cloth spines and many include original endpapers, line art, and full-colour illustrations.  The covers in the collection feature a unified series design and materials are carefully selected to reflect the period of original publication.

One of our favourites is Esther Averill’s Jenny and the Cat Club: A Collection of Favourite Stories about Jenny Linksy.

First published in the 1940s and 50s, these simple stories are about an orphaned black cat who lives happily with her human, Captain Tinker, in New York’s Greenwich Village.

photo 4Jenny is sensitive and shy yet has social designs – she longs to be part of the cool Cat Club.   The members of the Cat Club meet regularly to party in Captain Tinker’s garden.  All the cats in the club have distinct personalities: – the elegant Persian Butterfly (who plays the nose flute), the lively twins Romulus and Remus, sweethearts Arabella and Antonio, clever Solomon who can read and generally sits atop a pile of books, naughty Macaroni, club-fighters Sinbad and The Duke. The club is presided over by a well-fed feline by the name of, unsurprisingly, Mr President.  Every cat knows its place in the club and the only way to get membership is to prove a special cat-talent.  It’s a club that demands excellence of it’s members.  Daunting?  Meow.

photo 2“They are too clever.  All of them can do things.  What can I do?  Nothing.” Jenny

As she gains acceptance to the Cat Club and throughout her later adventures with them,  Jenny struggles with emotions common to all children.  Dealing with bullies, feelings of being an outsider, jealousy, insecurity, loneliness and embarrassment.

” Before long Alice Featherlegs caught sight of the three new arrivals.  She ran over to them, and her soft fur made a rustling sound as she drew near. How elegant and full of grace she seemed!  Jenny could not take her eyes away from her.   But Alice did not even glance at Jenny.  Alice looked only at Florio and Pickles.  She acted just as if she never spoke to little cats.  Alice’s behaviour made Jenny feel extremely small and plain.”

photo 1The stories are a helpful and reassuring exploration of feelings that a 5-8 year old might feel if they were new to school or moved to a new neighbourhood.  Or within any given school day.  And our gallant protagonist Jenny overcomes these feelings with support (yay Cap’n Tinker), persistence and a very quiet courage.

“Jenny’s neck felt cold and bare without her red wool scarf tied snugly around it. And all those pairs of cat eyes staring at her through the moonlight frightened her. But she knew she had to speak.  She must make the Cat Club understand how important was the scarf she had lost.”

Some might find the slight formality and occasional didactic tendencies a bit cringey.  But Averill writes with almost a nonchalance that anchors the whimsy of the cat-club world.  And any kid who has a cat or loves cats will be entranced by the simple, sketched drawings that perfectly capture, well, the cat-ness of these characters.

photo 3Despite their weakness for accessorising (Jenny is lost without her scarf, Pickles wears a fireman’s helmet and Florio borrows an Indian feathered head-dress from a doorman) these cats are not just humans with fur.  Jenny pokes her paw in a crack in the sidewalk “as if she hoped to find a penny.”  Her new brother Edward makes his “office” in a corner of the closet behind Captain Tinker’s rubber boots.  When Jenny is afraid she spends the day sleeping in a soapbox in the cellar.  In another incident she hides under the sofa after scratching Captain Tinker.  This affectionate attention to cat quirks are everywhere – the characters stretch their necks to peek, curl up, flee in terror, lick their fur and groom their whiskers.

Seventy years young, these charming, graceful stories are perennially modern, as all great books should be.  Jenny and The Cat Club should appeal to both boys and girls as a read-aloud 4-8 years and for independent readers 7+.

The entire collection of Jenny Linksy books available from the NY collection includes: –

1. Jenny and the Cat Club

2. Captains of the City Streets

3. The Hotel Cat

4. Jenny’s Moonlight Adventure

5. Jenny’s Birthday Book

6. Jenny Goes to Sea

7. The School for Cats

and the all-important prequel….

8. The Fire Cat.