In history, a lighthouse is important…a lighthouse was needed…They shared the island with the little native wrens. So what was so wrong with the family having some kittens for company on the island?
Title: Cat on the Island
Author: Gary Crew
Illustrator: Gillian Warden
ISBN: 97802072000700 Language: English
Classification: Fiction with historical theme
Themes: history, cause and effect, human impact
What’s it about?
This book is a fictional account based on the events that occurred on Stephens Island, New Zealand, between 1894-1896. It’s about the island that is in need of a lighthouse and so one is built. In the process trees are cut down, habits disturbed,,.and then the lighthouse keeper comes with a pregnant cat – and the kittens go wild – they kill and eat every last one of the Stephens Island wrens (Traversia lyalli). The significance of the birds is only realised when they are all gone – they were the only flightless wren in the world and it took less than 2 years for them to become extinct.
The story itself is told by a grandfather to his grandson about the great-grandfather (of the grandson).
Incorporating a historical event into a book for children is always a good way to start a learning process through discussion early. The fact that it contains a brief account of the history at the end is a bonus.
For such a large book to handle the writing was incredibly small in comparison to the illustrations. Speaking of the illustrations – they were not my taste at all. While illustrations are a personal taste if I need to try and explain to my 3 year old what the picture is – then in my view the book has missed the mark – and it’s even worse when I can’t explain it myself. More below.
The historical side. Yes this was done well. Telling the story in a way that an older relative might recount an experience to a younger generation is a natural way to tell it. The story is accurate without being sensational – it gets to the point with a mixture of dialogue and description. I think it’s also important that the story does answer the grandson’s question of: What happened to the cats? The author could easily of left the story at ‘there are no more wrens’ but it gave the conclusion to teach the moral.
The layout of the book annoyed me a lot. To me, with a story that is clearly aimed for the slightly older child as there is a lot of text, the text itself is incredibly small. The illustrations dominate the page which in many ways minimises the story. I would really have liked to have seen the writing 2 or 3 times larger than it is.
The illustrations. For me illustrations are a big factor in whether I would read a book again and the same appears to be for my two children. I get the use of the red (I’m assuming it is a symbolic nod to the blood of the wrens etc.) but take the second page of the story…is it a cat or a human that is red because it seems to be a weird combination of the two. And then there is the page where it is confirmed there are no birds – a man in a boat with a pink cat and a strange feral or evil cat kind of floating in the background – I couldn’t explain the significance because I didn’t “get it” either.
There are pages that made limited sense – such as the cat with the bird in the mouth – but my kids couldn’t understand why the cat was the pink/red colour (this from a daughter who has a bright green toy cat).
As I wrote to begin with – so much potential but for me the factors mention mean for me this one is going back to the library never to be borrowed again.