I think it is safe to say that there aren’t too many kids (and, by extension, parents) in North America who haven’t read something by (and, by extension, thoroughly wearied of) Mo Willems.
You think you’ve escaped? Well, I doubt it. I doubt it, because Mo Willems is the creator of the award-winning Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus! series. A series that has its own webpage (separate from the author’s webpage), a YouTube video, and even an organic cotton fabric series. This kind of marketing bonanza is, apparently, what you can expect when you write and illustrate a Caldecott Honor winning book. It probably also doesn’t hurt to have your book published by Disney (and, lest you think I am being overly cynical, the other Caldecott Honor books that year were What Do You Do With a Tail Like This? and Ella Sarah Gets Dressed, and the Medal winner was The Man Who Walked Between the Towers…and I am willing to bet that you have never seen a pajama set dedicated to any of those books).
Add the popular Knuffle Bunny series (one of which also is a Caldecott Honor book), and you can see that Mo Willems is running a small kidlit empire. But, I digress.
When I picked up Who is That, CAT the CAT?, I didn’t know about Mo Willems. Don’t get me wrong. I knew about the Pigeon in the bus, I had a vague recollection of Knuffle Bunny, and I knew that Pigeon paraphernalia was available everywhere. It’s just that the author’s name didn’t ring a bell and (truly) the only reason I brought the book home was because the baby was going through a phase where he would say “cAAAAAt” in a super cute way. I was hoping that a book with cats on every page would both entertain the baby and make my day, well, cuter.
Fail one: baby didn’t care for the book. And I can’t blame him, because I think the book is inane.
The characters have what you could only generously call “names” (Cat the Cat, Mouse the Mouse, Duck the Duck, Fish the Fish…). The story, such as it is, is very, very thin (Cat the Cat meets her friends, one at a time, and then meets an alien at the end who becomes a new friend). It makes me cringe to hear my voice reading it out loud (“Who is that, Cat the Cat? It’s Mouse the Mouse! Who is that, Cat the Cat?” and so on). The illustrations are fine, evocative in that very basic thick-black-lines-two-dimensions-bright-colours way. There is product placement (Duck the Duck is playing with a Pigeon toy…I guess calling that “product placement” is uncharitable).
Fail two: baby did not say “cAAAAt”, not even once. I read the book multiple times, with high hopes, only to have them dashed. My day was not cuter, but was inaner (if that’s even a word).
Puzzling bonus: baby’s dad, for some completely mysterious reason, really enjoys the book. He thinks it’s clever. It makes him laugh. He likes to read it to baby. He has, on several occasions, pointed out multiple things he likes about the book: the animals have “speech bubbles” with extra things that they say which is kind of fun, they all look so animated even though the illustrations are so basic, there is a funny alien at the end and he and Cat the Cat go around saying “blarggie blarggie”, which is just really fun to say…and so on.
I haven’t told him how much I dislike the book, because I don’t want to start a Disagreement.
Result of bonus: baby now loves the book. Why the sudden interest in a book that he found uninteresting? Because – his dad loves it, and anything his dad touches is golden.
Baby and dad read this book a lot. They love to point at the animals and make animal sounds (or, in baby’s case, to attempt to make animal sounds). They love the “blarrgie blarrgie” pages. Just yesterday, I surprised them in the middle of an especially enthusiastic (and loud) blarrgie-blarggie-laugh-in. And, I admit it, I laughed, too. So that I could feel like I belonged. But secretly, inside, I was preparing to write this ungenerous review. Luckily, neither of them read this blog so they will never know what I truly think of CAT the CAT.
Note on the Illustrations: Mo Willems knows how to make a two-dimensional-black-outlined-brightly-coloured cat move. In this very short book, she walks, marches, hops, dances, cartwheels, gets frightened, ponders, and plays. Nice!
Reading Ages: Very young. At an average of six words per page (most of which are repeats of each other), this is not a book that is going to age well. The back of the book says “Newborn-4”, but I suspect that it won’t last that long.
Rating: B-. I wouldn’t buy this book. In all likelihood you can get it at the library for free. But I can’t, in good conscience, give the book a “C” rating, because both baby and dad enjoy it.
Something Annoying: The cover says CAT the CAT. Why is it shouting? In the book itself, she’s just Cat the Cat. And why is the second “Cat” capitalized? It’s not like Jabba the Hutt, where “H” indicates that the Hutts are either a race or a family (or both). It’s not like Alexander the Great, where “G” indicates a nickname bordering on titular, rather than a simply descriptive word. She’s just a cat, not a Cat, and certainly not a CAT.
Just in Case you Think I am a Complete Grump: I like some of the other CAT the CAT books. Just not this one.