Generally cats in children's fantasy are the good guys--magical friends and helpers. Sometimes, however, even cats can go bad...here are two books with black cats no one could love!
Behind the Bookcase, by Mark Steensland.
When Sally's grandmother dies, the family heads to Pennsylvania to back up her house, and perhaps fix it up. Her mother is not at all happy about revisiting her childhood home--her own mother was more than a little odd. Turns out, Grandma Winnie had good reason for her peculiarities--her house holds passages to other realities.
When Sally finds one of these portals behind the bookcase in her room, she sets out to explore the land beyond. Befriended by a black cat, who seems to be her protector, she see no harm in acquiescing to the cat's desire to come home with her....But it's clear to the reader that this is a bad idea, not just because the illustrations of the cat make him look demonic, a suggestion re-enforced by his name, Balthazat.
And indeed, Balthazat has a sinister scheme in mind, and no scruples whatsoever about cruelly transforming anyone who stands in his way--including Sally's little brother, Billy. Sally must figure out how to stop Balthazat, journeying through a magical realm with rivers of moonlight, strange creatures, like a half bat/half boy who befriends her, and great dangers.
Although portal fantasies for older readers might be in short shrift, they are still a dime a dozen in kids books. This is a perfectly fine example--the reason for portal travel is fairly original, the denizens of the fantasy realm are suitably creepy and magical, and the heroine has a clear sense of purpose (partly because of her destiny as her grandmother's heir, though she's not a Child of Prophecy, thank goodness), and acts believably. If you enjoyed another recent portal fantasy, The Spindlers, by Lauren Oliver, you'll like this one too.
Escape From Hat, by Adam Kline and Brian Taylor, was nominated for the Cybils in middle grade sci-fi/fantasy by my own 12-year old. It was a book that both he and his 9-year old brother pounced on when it arrived; the 9-year old has read it twice. When I asked why they liked it, they opined that it was "fun and cute," and "I liked the turnip trap lots."
It's the story of a would-be magician who gets his hands on a hat that really is magic--any rabbit put into it is forced into the magical realm of Hat, a place run by bad-luck bringing black cats. Many of these unfortunate rabbits were once luck-bringers to human children, caught up in an age old struggle of good bunnies vs bad cats. One such rabbit is our hero Leck, who had worked hard to make sure that young Cecil Bean was protected from the malevolence of the black cat Millikin before finding himself a prisoner of Hat.
Millikin, driven by a desire to impress the girls with all his skills at bad luck, is determined to bring Cecil the worst luck possible, destroying Leck once and for all. Leck, now trapped in the world of Hat, is equally determined to escape, and save Cecil from his fate....
Hat is full of dangers and strange creatures, but with the help of a brave girl rabbit, Morel, and a musical mouse, Leck might make it through to the fortress of the black cats, and escape the prison of bad luck....and in the meantime, Cecil, above ground, is searching for the actual hat, hoping free the rabbits imprisoned inside it.
It's a book that enjoys fantasy tropes and cliches very much; the language is very highfaluting:
"Morel strode slow and soft to her companion and knelt by his tiny side.
"Leck, dear Leck," she whispered, "who art the luck-giver. Oft have I watched, with spear in paw, as you have given luck to others and sought nothing in return. And as I have borne witness to your small brand of courage, I have done naught but roll my eyes" (page 152).
I think it's one that has a lot more kid appeal than grown-up appeal--although I was engaged enough to read it straight through, I just could not thrill to the rabbits' adventures with the same enthusiasm of my boys. And I could not help but be troubled by the inclusion of the Pigmies, a society of pigs embodying African tribal stereotypes in much the same "fun with cliche" way that the authors' bring to the quest narrative. And I was also a bit bothered by the motivation of the villainous cat Millikin--he is all about getting the girls through showing-off, and ends up with a harem. Yes, he's a villain, but still, not exactly the sort of thing I want my boys to accept unquestioningly.
(disclaimer: review copy received from the publisher)
So that's it for cats for now....tune in next Saturday for "Fantasy Moths."