Tag Archives: S D Schindler

Ruby Reads 25: Ursula K Le Guin

Ursula K Le Guin, Illustrated S D Schindler, Catwings (Orchard Books 1988)
–––––, Catwings Return (Orchard Books 1989)

Yesterday, Ruby decided that she’d had enough of the pile of books in our living room, and raided the child-height shelf in the second bedroom. She pulled out a boxed set of Roald Dahl, but before she could get too committed to it I reached for the Catwings books. I thought they’d be ‘too old’ for a three-and-a-half-year-old, but I was delighted to be found wrong.

Mrs Jane Tabby was surprised when she gave birth to four kittens with wings, but she didn’t feel the need to find an explanation. Having dismissed the issue of ‘How come?’, the book moves on to the much more interesting question of ‘What then?’

The kittens were born under a dumpster (which I read as ‘skip’ to Ruby) in an alley, and their mother rightly fears for their safety. In addition to the dangers faced by ordinary kittens, they run the extra risk of being abducted by curious or exploitative humans and subjected to at best humiliation and at worst vivisection, though the book tactfully avoids being explicit about the latter. So their mother sends the kittens off into the world by themselves to find a safe place. After a number of adventures, involving injuries and close shaves, and hostility, especially from birds who don’t want cats invading their airspace, they are eventually coaxed into contact with two human children. The last two lines, which I won’t quote here, echoing Leontes’ wonderful line in The Winter’s Tale, ‘O, she’s warm,’ and have almost the same emotional force.

Catwings Return takes up the story just a little later. Two of the kittens – Harriet and James – decide to go back to the city to visit their mother, and there, in a row of buildings that are being demolished, they discover a tiny black kitten, who also has wings but is too young to fly. Alone, filthy, starving and terrified, it can say only two words, a desolate ‘Me’ and a spitting ‘Hate!’ Of course, the older kittens befriend the little one and all three are reunited with their mother before rejoining their siblings. But there is genius in the scenes where Harriet and James calmly, purringly surround the terrified defensive little one with love and reassurance.

The Emerging Artist and I read one book each – no mean feat for the EA, given that she had cataract surgery two days earlier. Occasionally Ruby would want to turn the page before the EA or I had finished reading it, but she never insisted when we said she needed to wait. S D Schindler’s brilliant illustrations held her attention, especially by setting the mostly impossible task of figuring out which kitten was which. But she also remained rapt for the pages without illustration. In the second book, Thelma and Roger are the two kittens who stay behind. Ruby, who had barely met Thelma in its opening pages, kept asking after her all through Harriet and James’s adventures, and was very pleased when she was found safe and happy at the end. Roger didn’t provoke similar concerns – I suspect gender bias.

We only read the books once each, but we had Catwings themed play for some time afterwards: ‘You be the black kitten and say “Hate!” and I’ll purr at you.’

And so the late great Ursula K Le Guin enters the world of another new person. How good is that?

There are three more books in the series, which I will now go in search of.

[I went searching for my other blog posts about UKLG, and found that they hadn’t been transferred from my old, pre-Wordpress blog. So I’m fixing that.]

Notes from a Tidy Town

The Art Student and I have just spent a couple of days in Singapore en route to Turkey. Apart from the fabulously welcome heat and the pleasure of walking about in an unfamiliar place, I’ve noticed:

  • the absence of graffiti, to the extent that an installation in the Singapore Art Museum was accompanied by a note saying that even though graffiti was awfully antisocial it could sometimes inspire artworks (though we did see a couple of lonely tags under a bridge near some equally rare skateboarders).
  • excellent, cheap underground rail, with a ticketing system that’s cumbersome for blow-ins like us who just want single-trip tickets, who have to pay a refundable deposit of a dollar on each ticket (the tickets are plastic – an anti-littering strategy?), reclaim able only from a machine at the other end
  • ‘Do Not’ signs that indicate customary practices: I only saw one ‘pedestrians must use crossing’, and it was in one of the few places where they mostly didn’t; ‘Do not lean on door’ was on the wall above two young men engrossed in their phones and leaning as if there was no other way to ride the subway; and my favourite, ‘$1000 fine for riding here’, failed to deter the gentleman who came zooming past us, who looked as if he wouldn’t have managed a fine of a tenth that size.
  • a definite child-friendly feel to the art galleries: Sakarin Krue-on’s installation ‘Cloud Nine’ in the Contemporary Asian Art exhibition at the Singapore Art Gallery featured stray dogs with beautiful wings that reminded me of S. D. Schindler’s magical illustrations for Ursula Le Guin’s Catwings; more substantially, we caught the tail end of a city-wide Children’s Season in museums – a whole building of the SAG was given over to interactive works that invited children’s participation, real works that made me want to join in, and a video art room that showed excellent children’s cartoons.
  • a system of pricing in which things aren’t always what they seem: if for instance you bought Dr Dre earphones for your iPad for $430 ( very cheap, it turns out, probably because they’re fake) you might find yourself paying more than $500 because of the 7 per cent GST, and if you challenged the maths of that, you might discover there was a government levy on credit card transactions. Not all of this is swift talking by clever salespeople – I saw a price tag on a Tiger beer tower (don’t ask) that read ‘$68 + +’.
  • It’s a terrific city. We walked a lot above ground and a lot below ground. We ate Indian, Japanese, Chinese, and ice cream. We discovered deep fried cereal prawns, which we ate but didn’t understand. Today as we swam upstream in Bugis Street against a current consisting almost entirely of cheerful young people, I thought to myself, ‘This is no country for old men.’ in a couple of hours we’ll be flying to Byzantium, those dolphin-torn, those gong-tormented seas.