The Cat Who Went to Heaven

The_Cat_Who_Went_to_Heaven

NEWBERY MEDAL WINNER – 1931

The Cat Who Went to Heaven

by Elizabeth Coatsworth

illustrated by Lynd Ward

Age: 8+

Interests: cats, artists, animals, Japan, Buddhism, religion

MacMillan Co.: 1930

57 pp – 8 chapters

Also by this author: The Cat and the Captain, All-of-a-Sudden Susan, Song of the Camels, Here I Stay, The Wanderers, Door to the North, Away Goes Sally (Sally series)

Next: Zen Shorts, Shen of the Sea, Mei Li, A Single Shard, The Kite Fighters, The House of Sixty Fathers, Young Fu of the Upper Yangtze

A very poor artist is distraught when his housekeeper spends their meagre few coins on a cat instead of food, but he soon grows to love the animal. She has uncommon poise, grace and wisdom for a cat, and the artist names her Good Fortune. When the artist receives an important commission to paint the death of Buddha for the local temple, he takes the job very seriously. In the traditional scene Buddha is visited by all the animals, and the artist meditates carefully before he paints each one, remembering various Buddhist tales and sayings. Good Fortune watches him as he works. The artist is saddened, for he knows that the scene does not include a cat: the cat was the only animal who refused homage to Buddha, and thus had “the doors of Paradise closed in her face.” As he completes the painting Good Fortune’s despair at being left out moves him deeply, and he decides to add a small cat to the corner of the scene, even though the priests may refuse the painting as a result. Good Fortune dies from happiness at the addition, but the priests are indeed angry, and plan to burn the painting. All that is changed, however, as the next morning a miracle has occurred… in the painting the figure of the cat now appears right beside Buddha, whose hand now rests on the cat’s head in benediction.

This simple and thoughtful story gently introduces children to a few stories about Buddha’s life. The only problem has to be the sudden and (to modern eyes) weird death of the cat:

“Then she gazed at the artist with all her gratitude in her eyes. And then Good Fortune fell dead, too happy to live another minute.”

It’s an old-fashioned conceit, that one can expire simply from experiencing strong emotions. (Evident in many, many operas!) Unfortunately this trope no longer holds much credence with modern readers, and may leave a younger audience mystified and dubious.

The dedication of the artist to his work, plus his method – of long and careful meditation before putting brush to canvas – is an interesting lesson, and the Housekeeper’s poetic songs commenting on the events of each chapter are amusing and heartfelt.

An interesting read for anyone interested in Buddhism, but quite dated. (A more modern presentation of Buddhism for children can be found in Jon J. Muth’s beautiful picture book Zen Shorts.)

(this title available at amazon.com)

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All writings posted here are © Kim Thompson, unless otherwise indicated. For all artwork on this site, copyright is retained by the artist.