Monday, January 19, 2009

Book Review: Hate That Cat by Sharon Creech

It has been difficult to keep up with the posting over here at AJ's Clubhouse. There has been entirely too much snow and cold and not nearly enough school, which both reduces my choices of subject matter and also leave me with not enough time to write. But one thing snow and cold are good for are trips to the library. A lot of books we have picked up have been about magnets in preparation for AJ's science fair project. But he's also been trolling the new book shelves. This week, one of the books he came home with was Hate That Cat by Sharon Creech. I've never heard of the book or Creech before, but the cover informs me that she won a Newbery Medal for Walk Two Moons, so perhaps I should be more familiar.

AJ was attracted to the bright red cover with its surly line drawing of a cat by William Steig. But I'm the one who picked it up first. I read the whole thing in the car on the way home from the library (don't worry: I wasn't driving.)

Hate that Cat takes the form of a poetry journal written by a boy of indeterminate age (although I read fast and may have missed it) named Jack for Miss Stretchberry's class. There are a number of things I enjoyed about the book. The first is the way the story reveals itself, elliptically and with lots of holes that force the reader to read between the lines. This is fairly rare in the world of children's books, and I always like to see it.

Second, it is about poetry, both the reading and the writing of it. Miss Stretchberry's assignments are not belabored, only demonstrated. Mostly she seems to have had the class read famous poems and then try to write something in a similar veing. Readers of my other blog will be pleased to know that one of the poems used is William Carlos Williams' "This is Just to Say." Jack's engagement with the poetry he reads is lively and thoughtful and very realistically drawn. Hate That Cat could almost be used as a textbook for a poetry class, or, better yet, a class on the teaching of poetry. But it never feels excessively didactic or at all textbook-like, although it does include a collection of 12 poems mentioned in the book including four poems by Williams as well as works by Edgar Allan Poe, T. S. Eliot, Walter Dean Myers, Christopher Myers, Valerie Worth, Alfred Lord Tennyson as well as two by the fictional Jack. I was somewhat puzzled, however, by the fact that Eliot's poem "The Naming of Cats," from Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats, prints the cat's name "Jellylorum" as "Jellyrum" in two different places. Jellyrum does not scan properly, nor does either of my two editions of Eliot make any mention of it as an alternate (it is also "Jellylorum" in the poem's adaptation as lyrics in the Andrew Lloyd Weber musical Cats, so I can only assume it is a mistake, which is a shame in a book that is likely to introduce many of these poems to children for the first time. In addition to the poems, there is a several page bibliography of poetry books labeled "Books on the Class Poetry Shelf," which will hopefully encourage further poetic explorations on the part of the reader.

Jack's journal includes not only his poetic efforts, but his philosophical wrestling with the assignments, something I identified with greatly (and I'm sure AJ will too), as well as his conflicted feelings about his writing, his parents, his feelings about the death of his dog, and, of course, cats. I won't give away the story, but its culmination in Jack's description of Parents' Night and the poem he wrote about going there with his mother brought tears to my eyes and is an excellent example of how children can make poetry their own. I give two big thumbs up for this book, which is probably suitable for a fairly wide range of ages, although its publisher recommends it for grades 3-7.

Sharon Creech, Hate That Cat (New York: HarperCollins, 2008)


Jeanne said...

Ooh, I might have to check this out for next year's Christmas present to the now-six-year-old child of one of my grad school poetry workshop buddies! Pre-read for her enjoyment, of course. For the past few years we've read all the Sharon Creech books we could find, because Eleanor and I liked Walk Two Moons so much when she discovered it in fifth grade.

Libby said...

*Love that Dog*, which is I think the predecessor to *Hate that Cat* is told the same way, through poems written in a class, modeled on well-known ones. It works really well, too; I didn't know there was a sequel, so I'll have to check it out.

Harriet said...

Libby, it is most definitely a sequel, although I hadn't realized it until you mentioned it. Jack talks about his teacher following him to the next grade and the dog is discussed in some detail, especially towards the beginning (I won't say more lest I give away the story of one of the books). I'll have to check that one out too.