08 October 2009
It's always tough for me to resist a picture book with a cute kitten on the cover. And when said kitten is wearing a pink frilly dress and doing handstands and is written by Caldecott winning author-illustrator Mordicai Gerstein ...well of course I'm going to read it! There is a proud tradition of mischievous cats in picture books, with Rotten Ralph as the standard bearer, and Minifred slots in nicely. But is it really fair to call her mischievous? The evidence:
Minifred is found hidden in the seat cushion of the Portley's settee, a circumstance which is established on the credits page. The Portleys, who would like a baby, are more than happy to accept the kitten as a substitute, and they name her 'Minifred' after Mr. Portley's aunt (whom she evidently resembles.) They raise Minifred as their daughter. And where her naughty behavior might not be an issue while she is a "toddler," as she gets older it becomes less acceptable. She is told she must follow rules, which she proudly refuses to do. When she decides to go to school, she quite likes it, except for the rules. However, an odd loophole in the rule book allows Minifred to continue doing as she pleases and still follow the rules.
The key to enjoying this book, which comes across as rather odd after an initial reading, is to remember that Minifred is not little girl but a cat. Although she can dance and walk on her hind legs and wear dresses, for the purposes of the story she is not anthropomorphized. While the Portleys, who are always referred to as her parents, treat her like a little girl, she is a cat. And what do cats do? Whatever they please! Which brings me back to my original question: is she really naughty if she is simply being herself?
What I liked about this book is that there is no moral, no lesson (except perhaps the message that children need to be allowed to be children.) Minifred does not bend to the will of the human authority that dressed her in frilly clothes. Talk about trying to domesticate! Minifred's classmates think it's unfair that she does not follow the same rules they do, but young listeners and readers may very well cheer Minifred's success at bucking the system. She is what she is (a cat,) and while she will wear the clothes, and do her schoolwork, and be a child for a lonely couple, she will also chase bugs up walls, jump wherever she pleases and leap out of windows. As soon as everyone accepts that Minifred does what she likes, all will be well. That is an "inmate-ruling-the asylum" argument that might not sit well with adults of a.....shall we say....controlling nature. But I'm with Minifred on this one.