Book Review: Simon's Cat In Kitten Chaos by Simon Tofield
If you've ever owned a kitten or a puppy you'll understand how these small bundles of fur can completely dominate a household. Kittens look so helpless, spindly legs and covered in fuzz, yet somehow they manage to be far more destructive than most animals ten times their size. In the latest instalment of his ongoing series of cartoons about the "joys" of living with a cat, Simon Tofield has added one of those little bundles of energetic mayhem into his mix of characters. The results, Simon's Cat In Kitten Chaos, published by Canongate Books and distributed by Penguin Canada, are hysterical - in all senses of the word.
Simon's Cat began life as a hand drawn animated cartoon posted to YouTube by Tofield. Something about the first one struck a chord with cat owners because it and the videos that followed attracted millions of hits from all over the world. I think part of their appeal is how low tech they are. Black and white pencil drawings brought to life and sound effects made by Tofield are not what anyone would call sophisticated. However what they lack in special effects is more than compensated for by their ability to capture and bring to life those aspects of a cat's behaviour which most endear/enrage anyone who has ever lived with one. From the vocal mannerisms to the physical reactions you can't help but recognize something of your own cat in Simon's Cat. The popularity of the videos led Tofield to publish two collections of still cartoons, Simon's Cat: In His Very Own Book and Simon's Cat: Beyond The Fence which were as funny as the videos.
In this latest instalment, as the title implies, he introduces a new member of the family in the form of a kitten rescued from the rain. While there are some funny scenes of the established adult cat working to teach the interloper her/his place (not only do neither of the cats have a name they are both gender neutral - although there is a scene in this book where the kitten is going off to the vet and makes the universal sign for scissors to the older cat who looks suitably repulsed) the best images are of the kitten on its own discovering its new world. Tofield gives us both a series of small sketches ranging from kitten with toilet paper to kitten sleeping on stairs laid out across the page and full page drawings of the little one in its new surroundings. What's really quite wonderful is how we see everything from the kitten's perspective. Everything is drawn proportionate to the small cat's size and as if being seen from a place far closer to the floor than you or I normally view the world.
Anyone knowing the original cat won't be surprised that a lot of the early tensions between the two cats revolve around food. One of the only anthropomorphic traits it possesses is to open its mouth and point out how empty it happens to be whenever it manages to catch its owner's attention. Naturally there are endless battles over food and food bowls. These are handled with ease and good humour by Tofield, but he doesn't ignore the very real problem faced when introducing a kitten into an established cat's territory. How do you ensure the new kitten is receiving its fair share of the food? Do you stand guard, or do you trust the little one to figure out ways of eating enough.
When a couple is expecting the birth of a new child they are told to "baby proof" their home to reduce the risk of it injuring itself. The reality is that there's really no need for that until the infant is able to move around on its own so you can count on having a year after the child's born in which to make your preparations. Not so with a kitten. From the moment it enters into your house you have to start kitten proofing. Otherwise you'll find CDs on the floor, items safely stored on counter tops scattered and shattered, and various valuable items shredded, disced, dissected, digested and then regurgitated around the house. It's amazing the damage a kitten can inflict once it puts its mind to it. Of course if they have an adult cat blundering along in their wake the damage becomes even more extensive as places kittens can squeeze through without disturbing anything don't seem to handle the wider girth of the adult.
What made the earlier books so appealing to cat owners was Tofield's ability to recreate cat behaviour with just the right amount of exaggeration to make it funny without making it unbelievable. Unlike other cartoon cats who are given human attributes in an attempt to make them appealing, Tofield understands that the animal's behaviour is enough to create a bond between the reader and the characters. Not only does he continue to adhere to that principle in this book, he adds an additional layer by capturing a kitten's behaviour patterns, and an adult's reactions to them, beautifully.
One thing readers will notice is how the art work in this book is much more elaborate then in the earlier volumes. Everything is still rendered in black and white, but the drawings are much more detailed. From the interior shots showing the variety of things that a kitten can become entangled in to the later drawings when we see it discovering the world of the backyard, there is a lot more going on in this world then in previous books. Of course no matter how detailed the drawings are, the cats are still the centre of the universe and we still see everything either in relation to them or from their point of view.
While the emphasis is of course on the humorous escapades the cats get up to at the expense of their human, Tofield finishes the book by reminding us the relationship between cat and person is not a one way street. For when their human is taken to bed with a miserable cold both cats are seen first looking up at the bed from the floor, then curled up on the bed with him. As anybody who has ever been taken ill and felt especially unhappy knows, having one's four legged companion keeping you company makes a world of difference. They might be holy terrors much of the time, but the pay back makes it more than worth while.
Simon's Cat In Kitten Chaos is a welcome addition to the Simon's Cat family of books. What makes these books so special is Tofield's ability to capture moments that are instantly recognizable to anybody who has ever owned a cat. He doesn't stoop to making the animals overly cute or giving them human characteristics, making them both more realistic, and funnier, than almost any other cartoon cat. If you own a cat you'll want to own these books. If you're thinking of purchasing a kitten, reading the latest will remind you, or if you've never owned one before, warn you, of what you're letting yourself in for.
(Article first published as Book Review: Simon's Cat In Kitten Chaos by Simon Tolfield on Blogcritics.)