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Picture Book Review – The Artist Who Loved Cats

THE ARTIST WHO LOVED CATS:
The Inspiring Tale of Théophile-Alexandre Steinlen

Written by Susan S. Bernardo

Illustrated by Courtenay Fletcher

(Inner Flower Child Books; $17.95, Ages 4-8)

 

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I’ve had this book on my TBR shelf for way too long and should have reviewed it sooner, but I’m so happy to finally be able to share it with you now.  The Artist Who Loved Cats grabbed my attention when it arrived via mail because its cover was gorgeous and full of cats. In fact, I recognized one cat in particular, le Chat Noir.

If you’ve ever traveled to France or are a francophile like me, you too may recognize artist Théophile-Alexandre Steinlen’s famed black feline.  It’s impossible to miss reproductions of Le Chat Noir images sold at almost every bookseller’s stand either in postcard, purse, keychain, or print form when strolling along the banks of the Seine in Paris. His advertising posters from the late 1800s and early 1900s featuring bicycles, cocoa, and chocolat are also well-known.

Author Susan Bernardo was inspired to write this picture book “during a trip to Paris in 2014” when she stayed in Montmartre “and found a lovely little bronze cat sculpture in an antiques store,” near her AirBnB. As a student in Paris, I lived close to Montmartre and yet never considered the backstory of the prolific artist whose beautiful art decorated our dorm room walls and still remains so popular. I’m delighted Bernardo has created a book to introduce Steinlen’s story to children. 

 

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Interior spread from The Artist Who Loved Cats written by Susan S. Bernardo and illustrated by Courtenay Fletcher, Inner Flower Child Books ©2019.

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Steinlen seemed destined to draw cats. As a child growing up in Switzerland he sketched them in “every which way.” But, following advice from his father, he began a career in textiles and fabric design. Eventually, the artist felt eager “to embrace the creative life.” Paris in the 1880s was a vibrant hub for artists, musicians, writers, and dancers. That’s why Steinlen moved there in 1881. Through a fellow Swiss ex-pat pal and Le Chat Noir cabaret owner, the artist was hired to do illustrations for the Montmartre cabaret’s newsletter. His cats became the talk of the town and things took off from there. While the story is charmingly narrated in rhyme by the antique shop cat, and can at times be uneven, the reason to read this book with children is to spark curiosity not only about the artist Steinlen, but about other countries, and the arts too. Bernardo’s biography conveys the essence of what made Steinlen tick. He clearly was able to capture in his art just what the public wanted.

Steinlen’s artwork celebrated the ordinary everyday things in life which he encountered and though we may know him for his posters, he also made sculptures, storybooks, and songbook covers. And kids who love kitties will not be disappointed with how frequently Steinlen’s feline friends appeared in his art. His love of cats is evident throughout this book.

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Interior spread from The Artist Who Loved Cats written by Susan S. Bernardo and illustrated by Courtenay Fletcher, Inner Flower Child Books ©2019.

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Fletcher’s fabulous illustrations fill every page with the kind of exuberance that probably emanated from Steinlen’s presence. Her Parisian scenes will take you back in time as will her cabaret and studio spreads. Each illustration provides a chance for children to count cats and check out their antics.

Bernardo’s used the cat bronze sculpture as a clever jumping-off point to discuss the artist’s life but she also takes the opportunity to point out how old items like those found in an antique shop can unlock myriad mysteries and feed children’s imagination. She’s even included a fun search and find activity at the end of the book. In addition to locating antiques, children are told to look out for certain famous people of Steinlen’s era including artist Toulouse-Lautrec and musician Maurice Ravel. Readers will learn from the detailed backmatter that “Steinlen used his art to protest social injustice and war and to celebrate the lives of working people.” His work influenced many other artists but ultimately his passion was for his art to make the world a better place.

Author Susan S. Bernardo

Illustrator Courtenay Fletcher

 

•Reviewed by Ronna Mandel

 

 

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Penguin in Peril by Helen Hancocks

PENGUIN IN PERIL, written and illustrated by Helen Hancocks, is reviewed by MaryAnne Locher.

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Penguin in Peril written and illustrated by Helen Hancocks, Templar/Candlewick Press, 2014.

What’s black and white and read all over? The front page of the Daily News when a penguin is stolen from the city zoo!

Author-illustrator Helen Hancocks makes a big splash with her first children’s picture book, Penguin in Peril, (Templar/Candlewick Press, $15.99, Ages 3-7).

Three hungry cats sit around their kitchen table and devise a plan for the greatest fish caper ever!
All they needed was … a penguin.

Hancocks could have used the stereotypical raccoon for her three masked thieves sneaking into the zoo and kidnapping the unsuspecting penguin, but she likes to draw cats, and cats in striped sweaters and masks are laugh-out-loud funny.

Everything was going along swimmingly, except the cats didn’t speak penguin, the penguin felt he was in peril, and the cats discovered that a penguin is surprisingly good at hiding in plain sight as they chase him throughout the city. Habit-clad nuns and waiters in coats and tails make convenient camouflage for a penguin. Our little tuxedo-clad friend finds his way back to the zoo just in time for a fishy supper.  The cats however don’t fare quite as well though they do manage to make the front page of the paper when they’re put behind bars!

I loved the illustrations done in mixed media, the bright pops of red, green, and yellow, and the artful use of black and white, so necessary to the story. Hancocks’ use of background characters who are seen throughout the book is brilliant. She’s truly tapped into a child’s imagination with this story. What a wonderful debut!

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Here Comes The Easter Cat by Deborah Underwood

HERE COMES THE EASTER CAT
BY DEBORAH UNDERWOOD WITH ILLUSTRATIONS BY CLAUDIA RUEDA

& REVIEWED BY MARYANNE LOCHER.

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Here Comes The Easter Cat by Deborah Underwood with illustrations by Claudia Rueda, Dial Books for Young Readers, 2014.

Just in time for Easter, a sweet picture book with a salty twist. Here comes Peter Cottontail, hopping down the bunny trail … Oh! Wait! That’s not a bunny, it’s a cat, and he’s not hopping, he’s … riding a motorcycle?

In Here Comes the Easter Cat by Deborah Underwood with artwork by Claudia Rueda, (Dial Books for Young Readers, $16.99, Ages 3-5), a clever cat plots to take over Easter. Cat decides he’ll give out chocolate bunnies, gets a sparkly outfit, and a fast motorcycle. Now all he wants, more than anything, is a nap. When he finds out that the Easter Bunny doesn’t get a nap, he’s questioning if he can handle the job. But when a tired Easter Bunny delivers a chocolate egg to Cat himself, Cat has his most brilliant idea of all.

From page one, Claudia Rueda easily pulled me in with her delightful drawings of the fat cat who communicates (using picket signs and his ever-changing facial expressions) with Underwood’s unseen narrator. Cat owners will love this book whether they have a child or not. Parents will appreciate this book if they have a child who is dealing with jealousy issues. Most of all, though, children will simply adore the humorous ideas and antics of the cat. I won’t spoil the book for you, but Underwood’s fantastic ending left me thinking there might be another book on the way.  Well, at least I can hope to see more of Cat.

 

 

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