Having recently become aware of the gross misrepresentation, stereotyping and objectifying of Native people in children’s literature, I’ve been on a search to learn more and find books that properly portray Native culture. Thanks to Debbie Reese at American Indians in Children’s Literature, I have several lists to start with! Here is one of the first that caught my eye with its eventful story combined with beautiful acrylic images. This is The Good Luck Cat by Joy Harjo, illustrated by Paul Lee, 2000.
The story begins with the narrator introducing us to her stripedy cat, named Woogie.
Apparently there are certain cats that are good luck cats and Woogie seems to be one.
She not only has brought good luck to a few people in the family once they petted her; but she has also used up eight of her nine lives in various dreadful circumstances and has come out mostly unscathed.
Unfortunately, with only her “ninth life” left, Woogie disappears. The family is distraught and searches everywhere for their beloved family cat, hoping that her luck hasn’t finally run out.
This is a very interesting book to me; one that has stuck in my mind since I first picked it up. Being a fairly critical book lover, I refuse to admire a book just because it is culturally accurate. I really do want books to be culturally accurate, but I also want them to be wonderful. I don’t think we should sacrifice either aspect! There have been some that while I appreciate the proper portrayal of culture, they just didn’t grab me with either the story, the art, or both. This book however is intriguing on many levels.
I searched for this book because of its renowned portrayal of Native people and I must say I really do love how well it does this task. Author Joy Harjo is an acclaimed poet and musician, and she is a tribally enrolled member of the Muscogee-Creek tribe. This is her first children’s book and I honestly think what attracted me is that it does portray Native life; but that isn’t its main purpose. This is a lovely story about the affection between a girl and her cat and the things that can occur while owning a pet. The only Native references are mentions of attending a powwow and the casually placed details that hint of the culture in a respectful way. It is a very well-written, captivating story which is most likely true as the book is dedicated “in memory of my aunt Lois Harjo, who told me about the good luck of cats.”
The illustrations are lovely. Not being a cat person myself, Paul Lee has done a wonderful job at making me really like this mischievous cat. His illustrations are realistic and yet intriguing. They are not flat and boring like so many realistic images tend to become. Painting fur is not an easy task, and Lee has done it masterfully. You really get the sense that this cat is just as soft and agile as felines tend to be. The details are there in a striking painterly way. He also does an excellent job at portraying these perilous situations with just enough humor to hopefully not scare.
I do feel it necessary to note that I have read several concerned reviews about the dreadful things that happen to Woogie and questioning about whether this is truly child-appropriate. I don’t think that should be an issue. Sure, this isn’t a silly, laugh at every page book; but on some level there are some comedic moments — just like real life. I mean, really, who didn’t laugh at that picture of Woogie in the dryer and then catch it and realize “Oh no! That’s terrible!”? It’s one of those things that really could happen and weeks later you’d recount it with humor, as well as thankfulness that it wasn’t worse. And what kid wouldn’t want to tell that story! There is no blood and gore pictured, just a snapshot of the event. Personally I think it is all ok for kids. Perhaps this would be a great book to use in discussion about getting a pet; things to be careful about with your pet; ways to just love your animal; giggling over the nature of crazy cats; or even just wondering where the idea of cats having nine lives came from anyway and what does that phrase mean? Of course, use your own discretion knowing that there are pictures of this cat in peril; but (spoiler!), it all turns out just fine. After all, she is the “Good Luck Cat.”