Saturday, October 5, 2013

A review of 'The Christmas Cat' by Maryann Macdonald

Just on time for the season of Advent comes a new picture book that Christian parents will not want to miss.  The Christmas Cat by Maryann Macdonald is an original story, beautifully illustrated by Amy Jane Bates, that the entire family will enjoy and want to pass on to the next generation.

The author was inspired by one of a series of drawings by Leonardo da Vinci, who drew many illustrations of a young child Jesus holding and playing with a cat.  Dated between 1480 and 1481, this series is known as Madonna del Gatto, or the Madonna of the Cat.  There is also a legend about a cat who purred Jesus to sleep in the stable in Bethlehem the night he was born.  Macdonald wondered if this cat could have become Jesus’ special pet and, if so, what their relationship might have been like.

The book cover shows a kitten licking the hand of a contently smiling Baby Jesus, the evening light coming through the stable window and casting a golden glow on the hay.  On the first page is a panorama of shepherds on a twilight hill, overlooking the city of Bethlehem, which is bathed in a heavenly light.  The title page depicts the Holy Family holding Baby Jesus, with stable animals looking on.  Then we are introduced to a crying Baby Jesus.  His family and the animals are unable to soothe him.  Then a kitten enters the stable, nuzzles Baby Jesus, and gently purrs him to sleep.

Baby Jesus grows into a young child, and he and his Mother Mary are portrayed playing with the cat, who has now become his pet.  When the Holy Family flees from Herod, they fear they have left the cat behind.  Just as the Child Jesus becomes upset, the cat comes out from hiding and comforts him.  The book closes with a painting of Mary, an older Child Jesus, and the cat, cuddling contentedly.  Next to the author’s endnote is a print of da Vinci’s drawing, which is similarly composed.

The story is told in a beautiful narrative style, which adults will enjoy reading aloud.  It is clear, descriptive, and does not ‘talk down’ to children.  I read this book with my seven-year-old daughter, who was delighted by the pictures and story.  I asked my sixteen-year-old daughter, a fine arts student, to critique the artwork; she admired the “loose” style of the paintings.  The artwork is soft, playful, and appealing to children.  The skillful use of light illuminates the focus of each painting.   

I loved the story and have found myself thinking about its thesis.  Although the Bible does not mention “pets” per se, it does speak of dogs being under tables in houses, eating the scraps that fall.  We know that domesticated cats were around from the time of the Egyptians – so it is possible that a stray cat could have befriended the Child Jesus.  The book comes at a perfect time, with Pope Francis bringing worldwide attention to the humble Saint Francis of Assisi, who had such a special relationship with animals.  Pope John Paul II once said, "Also the animals possess a soul, and men must love and feel solidarity with our smaller brethren." 

We think of pets as being there to comfort us, and any family with children and a dog or cat knows how animals instinctively cuddle up to them whenever they are upset.  The simple but intriguing idea that Jesus could have had a pet makes him seem more human, and thus more relatable to children.  As his humanity was God the Father’s gift to us that we celebrate on Christmas, this book presents the perfect opportunity for children and their parents to think about what Jesus could have been like when he was a child.  He cried, he got hungry, and he played – just like them – thus he can understand them and be their special friend.

Maryanna Macdonald, who grew up with seven brothers and sisters, shows that she really understands children, and is able to write at a level appropriate for their stage.  I also reviewed her young adult novel Odette’s Secret, which presents a child’s view of the holocaust.  I believe I have discovered a great writer and look forward to seeing more from her.

Published by Dial Books for Young Readers October 2013 U.S. $16.99/Canada $18.00

For publishing information see the author’s website at

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