Children who love their cats will be delighted by the premise of Johanna Hurwitz’s new novel. Chaya Ann Tober not only has initials that spell out her favorite animal, but she also empathizes with them to the point of complete identification. When she accidentally experiences a strange metamorphosis, she confirms her suspicion that her feline friends are underappreciated by humans. The adventure proves that people and cats both need compassion.
Hurwitz encourages readers to reconsider the assumption of Chaya’s friend that it’s “better to be a fourth grader than a cat.” Less centered on character development and more on improbable events with unexpected consequences, the narrative uses humor in its comparisons of species. One clever and refreshing element of the story is its wordplay. Not only do “cat’s cradle” and “catnip” make appearances, but so do the less obvious “catastrophe,” “catalyst,” and “catalog.” Chaya also works her obsession with cats into her other interests, as when she plays the clarinet solo associated with Ivan the cat in Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf.
Chaya is Jewish, and her family is observant. This part of her identity is nicely integrated into the story and presented in a natural and unassuming way. Chaya describes how to play Scrabble on Shabbat without keeping a written score sheet and offers appealing details about Friday night’s traditional meal. She also relates how food from different cultures can be prepared according to the rules of kashrut. But religious observance is not the only indicator of Jewish culture: her family attends a concert by an Israeli musician, which paints a more complete picture of who they are. This dimension of the story is perfect for readers who share Chaya’s background, as well as those who are less familiar with it.
Sam Loman’s lively pictures accompany the text, complementing Hurwitz’s first-person narration. Chaya’s unwavering loyalty to cats opens the door to an unusual confluence of worlds, with cats, people, and Jewish identity all intersecting.
The Unexpected Adventures of C.A.T. includes a glossary of cat vocabulary and a brief biography of the author.
Emily Schneider writes about literature, feminism, and culture for Tablet, The Forward, The Horn Book, and other publications, and writes about children’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Languages and Literatures.