Book Review: ‘At the Drop of a Cat,’ written by Élise Fontenaille and illustrated by Violeta Lópiz, and ‘My Baba’s Garden,’ written by Jordan Scott and illustrated by Sydney Smith

Book Review: ‘At the Drop of a Cat,’ written by Élise Fontenaille and illustrated by Violeta Lópiz, and ‘My Baba’s Garden,’ written by Jordan Scott and illustrated by Sydney Smith

Every picture book has three stories. The first is how the book came to be, which is interesting in its own right but may be unknown to us. The second is the one told in the book. The third is what lingers in the reader’s mind after it ends.

Two new picture books — each a young boy’s portrait of his nature-loving immigrant grandparent and their precious time together — powerfully interweave these three stories.

The French novelist Élise Fontenaille’s debut picture book, AT THE DROP OF A CAT (Enchanted Lion, 36 pp., $18.95, ages 4 to 8), translated by Karin Snelson and Emilie Robert Wong, and illustrated by the Spanish artist Violeta Lópiz, features a grandfather named Luis. Cat lovers, don’t worry, Luis does not drop cats. He loves cats. In fact, he has a cat. What Luis meant to say was “at the drop of a hat.”

When he was only 11 years old, Luis crossed mountains on foot, fleeing war-torn Spain for France. From a very young age, he had to work instead of going to school. So he never learned how to read or write. As a result he has his own charming way of saying things, like “at the drop of a cat,” which his grandson happily repeats. When the boy’s teacher corrects him at school, he balks: “I wanted to explain why I liked cat better, but I didn’t end up saying anything.”

Luis speaks “bird language,” as his grandson puts it: “When he talks to the chickadees, they talk back.” He talks with his cat, too: “They don’t always agree.” And he is a master gardener. “The minute he plants a seed in the ground, it springs right up. His green beans climb all the way to the sky, his artichokes grow as big as heads, and his leeks line up like a row of soldiers.” Plus he cooks: “There’s always something baking or simmering, so his house smells good. He says I am ‘the apple of his pie,’ which means he really likes me.” 

MY BABA’S GARDEN (Neal Porter/Holiday House, 32 pp., $18.99, ages 4 to 8), written by the poet Jordan Scott and illustrated by the award-winning artist Sydney Smith (the Canadian team behind the acclaimed “I Talk Like a River”), is about Scott’s beloved Baba, or grandmother. As he tells us in a brief author’s note at the start of the book, she came to Canada from Poland, where she and her family “suffered greatly during World War II.” One of the things she suffered from, the boy narrator learns from his mother, was hunger.

Her house, a renovated chicken coop, is “crammed with food from her garden,” Scott’s younger self observes while he sits at her kitchen table waiting to eat breakfast (as he does every morning after his father drops him off on his way to work): “jars of pickles in the bathroom, garlic hanging in the shower, beets on the shoe rack,” and so on. Because she doesn’t speak English, he explains, they have a language all their own: “She points and I nod; she squeezes my cheeks and I laugh.”

If he spills some of the oatmeal she’s made him, she quickly picks it up, kisses it and puts it back in his bowl. If it’s raining on their way to school, she “walks slow because she is looking for worms” to put into her small glass jar filled with dirt. Later she will lovingly pour them into the soil of her lush garden, where there is “so much to see, so much to smell, too much to eat.” When he asks her why she does this, “she wets her finger with rain and traces all the lines” in the palm of his hand.

As “My Baba’s Garden” winds down, Baba has moved into her grandson’s house and no longer rescues worms. She looks out a rain-streaked window and sees him following in her footsteps: “I walk slow,” he tells us. “I pick up every worm I can.”

As “At the Drop of a Cat” draws to a close, Luis politely declines his grandson’s offer to teach him to write: “It’s a little late for me to learn now. … My head is tired.” Yet the book ends joyfully with Luis teaching him to play the guitar.

Both books are beautifully illustrated.

Since the story of “My Baba’s Garden” is told in spare poetic language, the pictures play a major role. Smith’s watercolor and gouache paintings exquisitely capture the light in Baba’s kitchen, and cars’ headlights in the rain.

For “At the Drop of a Cat,” Lópiz painted the boy, Luis and his rainforest of a garden on separate transparencies, then variously layered them to create surreal images that delight in the interconnectedness of child, grandparent and nature.

By the time we’ve finished these books, one boy’s Baba is our Baba; one boy’s Luis is our Luis. And so they go on living in our minds, and that is the third story.

Uri Shulevitz, a Caldecott Medalist, is the author and illustrator, most recently, of “Chance: Escape From the Holocaust,” a memoir of his Polish refugee childhood.

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