I Don't Know What to Call My Cat by Simon Philip and Ella Bailey
This book was the perfect antidote to the double dose of back-to-school and back-from-holidays blues I experienced this week. The more I read it, the more I love it; the story is incredibly funny and entertaining, and the illustrations are amazing. There is an enormous amount of detail, with more jokes and even a sub-plot (concerning the gorilla’s criminal activities) communicated through the pictures alone.
I Don’t Know What to Call My Cat is about a little girl whose new cat goes missing before she has a chance to name him. While searching for her cat, she meets an opportunist gorilla called Steve. Steve pronounces himself her new pet, with catastrophic results (or should that be gorilla-strophic?) until covert cat operations save the day.
The world depicted is so intricate and the pictures are so dynamic, it reminds me of a Richard Scarry book. At the same time, it is entirely original and has its own distinct style. The illustrations are charmingly retro and even the book’s cover and end-papers are intricately designed, immersing you in the story before it begins.
I bought I Don’t Know What to Call My Cat because I love cats, but the brazen, raspberry-blowing, kleptomaniac gorilla stole my heart. Steve leaves a trail of destruction, banana skins and even toilet paper in his wake. He breaks light fixtures and chairs, tears posters, scribbles everywhere, gets covered in paint and glue, and can’t even close a blind without knocking things down.
That's not to say the cat, whose name is later revealed to be Tricky, isn't a splendid character too. His facial expressions are priceless, especially when fed unpalatable food, dressed up in different outfits and subjected to the girl’s musical efforts. Tricky is himself a talented musician and carries a violin case around with him like a prohibition-era gangster.
Tricky is enigmatic and aloof like almost all the cats I’ve encountered. We never discover where he went, why he put the girl under surveillance, or why he chose to return. He may have come back to get one over on the gorilla, perhaps they were long-standing enemies?
The tradition of fiddle-playing cats can be traced all the way back to the 16th century with the nursery rhyme, “Hey Diddle Diddle.” I was curious about why cats playing instruments were popular in medieval manuscripts and “Cat and Fiddle” was a common name for inns at the time. This book claims the phrase is derived from Caterine la Fidele, which was allegedly Catherine of Aragon’s nickname, but I can’t find concrete evidence to support this.
The cat and the fiddle could simply be a variation on the Latin “cattus fidelis,” meaning faithful cat, according to this blog. A typo while using an online Latin-English dictionary led me to discover that the word for gorilla in Latin is “catus.” I thought this was an interesting and amusing coincidence, but it’s possible that author Simon Philip intentionally made the connection.
Simon Philip has written lots of excellent of picture books including I Have to Start at School Today which I reviewed recently. His first ever picture book You Must Bring a Hat won “Book of the Year” at the Sainsbury Children’s Book Awards in 2016. Philip has his own YouTube channel which features his work; here he is reading the wonderful Be More Bernard which I hope to review soon.
Ella Bailey has illustrated and written several beautiful children’s books. We have Dance with the Animals (also known as At the Animal Ball) and it’s gorgeous; I'm planning to write about it in the coming months. The One Day on Our Blue Planet collection looks amazing and I’ve added these to my wish-list too.
Bailey dedicates the book to her dog Minnie because she doesn't own a cat, which is surprising considering how expertly cats are brought to life on every page. Philip's dedication, “For cat owners who think they’re in charge and the cats who know otherwise,” is hilariously apt and indicative of what's ahead.
How Tricky initially becomes the girl’s pet (just showing up one day and never leaving) is how many people have inadvertently become cat owners. Funnier still is that the girl becomes a gorilla guardian in exactly the same way. And the gorilla seems even more in control than the cat, until Tricky returns and definitively demonstrates who the real boss is!
I Don’t Know What to Call My Cat is an extremely cute and comical story that is guaranteed to put a smile on your face. An added bonus is the impressive and extensive list of highly original potential pet names adorning the front and back covers. Essential reading for anyone wondering whether to adopt a cat or a gorilla, and everyone looking for a brilliant and beautifully illustrated book.
Title: I Don't Know What to Call My Cat
Author: Simon Philip
Illustrator: Ella Bailey Publisher: Simon and Schuster
Publication Date: 16th June, 2016