A while back I made a list of fantasy cat books for kids, and an anonymous commenter enthusiastically recommended one I'd never heard of -- The Blue Cat of Castle Town, by Catherine Cate Coblentz (1949--a Newbery Honor book the following year). So I requested it from the library forthwith.
The story of the titular blue cat begins when he is just a little blue kitten, born under blue moon long ago in a meadow by a river in Vermont. His anxious mother knows that blue kittens can hear the song of the river, and follow that song to strange fates. But despite her efforts, the kitten hears. The song praises the power of the individual to create beauty--"all that is doing, do well"-- and the river sends blue kitten on a quest to Castle Town, to sing that song to the people there who might have ears to hear. There is one man in Castle Town, though, that the river warns blue kitten against--Arunah Hyde, whose own song is all about moving quickly through the world racking up more and more money and power...
And so the kitten sets off. He finds in Castle Town that the songs of its great artisans have been stifled by Arunah's distorted priorities, but with his purring, encourages a pewter smith, a weaver, and a carpenter to create beauty. Arunah almost gets a hold of him, but the kitten (now a cat) escapes. His hardest task of all, though, is to bring the river's song to a girl who thinks she's ugly and unloved and worthless, encouraging her to create one of the most beautiful works of art in the whole town...a beautiful embroidered carpet.
The Blue Cat of Castle Town is a magical fable, with a beautiful message (and lots of nice descriptions of artisans at work!). I imagine that if idealistic, self-consciously pious (from time to time) little me had picked up this book I would have loved it, and striven to live up to its moral.
Even now that I am Hardened and Cynical, I still can feel its pull...and I want to go out myself and create something of lovely wonderfulness...(well, actually right this minute, I want to go get my last potatoes planted, but gardens count somewhat, even though no one I know has ever looked at some potato plants and been hit over the head by their stunning beauty). That being said, as a grown-up, I felt that the Message trumped the story to such an extent that I don't think I'll be re-reading it, though it will most certainly linger vividly in my mind!
I will offer it to my nine year old, who is reading cat books at the moment. He will love the beginning cute little kitten part, but I am not entirely certain he will appreciate the fable aspect...
The best part of the book, I think, is that the stories of these craftsmen are based on real people, who actually made the things described. The book was inspired by a trip the author took to Castleton, Vermont, where she heard of this rug, now in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art (the blue cat is down at the bottom):
And she visited the Castleton church, and saw the famous pulpit (which I can't find a picture of, which I find hard to believe, and so I am now planning to go there myself (it's 3 hours and 49 minutes away) and take one....). I looked for a nice example of the pewter by the craftsman in the book--Ebenezer Southmayd--and (somewhat ironically, but not surprisingly) found that it is indeed lovey, and really, really expensive!
Here's the full text of the song of the river (page 16)
"Sing your own song, said the river,
"Sing your own song.
"Out of yesterday song comes.
It goes into tomorrow,
Sing your own song.
"With your life fashion beauty,
This too is the song.
Riches will pass and power. Beauty remains.
Sing your own song."
"All that is worth doing, do well, said the river. Sing your own song.
Certain and round be the measure,
Every line be graceful and true.
Time is the mold, time the weaver, the carver,
Time and the workman together,
Sing your own song.
"Sing well, said the river. Sing well."
And if anyone wants to sew their own little bit of this rug, there are kits...