April 20


Finding My Happy Ending for Negative Cat by Sophie Blackall

We all want kids to read. To read widely, and happily, and voraciously. But for lots of kids, reading can be a challenge, and even a chore.

For some kids, it might be about finding the right book. For others, it might be about finding the right cat.

An extraordinary thing has been happening in animal rescue shelters across the country. Children are being encouraged to read to cats awaiting adoption. It helps socialize the cats, and it helps new readers practice and gain confidence. Kids can read aloud at their own pace, from any book they choose, and the cats, soothed by readers’ voices, roll around on the floor, purring, or they sidle up to the kids and lean against them in ridiculously endearing ways.

I have mostly found cats to be judgmental creatures. Our own adopted cat, Claudia (named after a character in From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, and because she had claws) was the Queen of Snide. She glared at us and rolled her eyes. She ate the tulips, threw up on the carpet and stared at the wall. She would ask to be stroked, then would bite our hands. My son, Eggy, described her as a Negative Cat. But despite it all, we loved her, especially Eggy, for whom she reserved particular disdain. Witnessing his unflagging devotion, I had an idea for a picture book about a Negative Cat and the boy who loved her. I wrote the first draft in 2010, when our cat was six and our boy was eleven. I wrote another nine drafts after that, each with a different ending, none of them good. And just when I was about to relegate the last to the Drawer of Doomed Drafts and admit defeat to my ever-so-patient editor, Nancy Paulsen, I came across an article online about the Book Buddies program at The Animal Rescue League of Berks County, PA. Started in 2013 by a staff member whose own son wanted to improve his reading skills, the program became hugely successful. Similar programs have been implemented in animal shelters far and wide, some of which accept book donations and have developed their own libraries. Often strong bonds form between cats and readers, many resulting in permanent homes for rescue pets. I had found my happy ending.

During the pandemic, book buddy programs were suspended, but, happily, cat adoption and fostering increased dramatically. And now, from what I understand, many programs are starting up again, by appointment, with limited numbers and masked readers.

Negative Cat will be published in 2021, when Eggy is 21 and Claudia is no longer with us. Funnily enough, she became a sweet old cat and even allowed us to pet her in her final years. She continued to eat the flowers and throw up.

As for me, after the past year, I may be in need of socializing, myself. I wouldn’t mind being let out of the cage, stretching out on a sunny patch of the floor, and being read to.

Sophie Blackall is the two-time Caldecott Medal-winning illustrator of numerous picture books, including The Baby Tree, Hello Lighthouse, Finding Winnie (by Lindsay Mattick), A Voyage in the Clouds (by Matthew Olshan), Pecan Pie Baby (by Jacqueline Woodson), Big Red Lollipop (by Rukhsana Khan), and the Ivy and Bean series (by Annie Barrows). Her many honors include a BCCB Blue Ribbon, Ezra Jack Keats New Illustrator Award, Society of Illustrators Founders Award, and Charlotte Zolotow Honor. Her art has also been part of the NYC MTA’s “Arts for Transit” program. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.

About the book:

When a boy is FINALLY allowed to get a cat, he has no doubts about which one to bring home from the shelter. But Max the cat isn’t quite what the family expected. He shuns the toy mouse, couldn’t care less about the hand-knitted sweater, and spends most of his time facing the wall. One by one, the family gives up on Max, but the boy loves his negative cat so much, he’ll do anything to keep him. Even the thing he dreads most: practicing his reading. Which, as it turns out, makes everything positive!